Nostalgionic

Dear Millicent,

On Mad Men, Don Draper famously defines “nostalgia” as a wound that won’t heal.  Our generation has always been a sucker for nostalgia–remember the round of early emails in the late 90s that went “you are a child of the 80s if…” and then had a precise list of gutswinging generalities that made us all feel so defined and packish.  We were. We had our things that others older and younger could not relate to in the same way we could (and tellingly, most of them are about consumption–apparently, you are a child of the 80s if you were middle class, suburban, and white).  We were 17, and already mourning the golden times.  We very much like the look and feel of that light.

We like it so much that it fills huge swathes of our mainstream comedy. With shows like The Family Guy, Community, and a billion mashups of things we loved layered with signs of how far we’ve come (GI Joe remixes are a good example of this), it is almost an old trick now. Reference a specific beloved moment of generational consciousness, and create a passionate, writerly moment.  I did this in an earlier post, referencing Whitley and Dwayne’s wedding on A Different World. I wrote it because I felt like that scene was specifically mine in some way, and therefore, specifically everybody’s.  I assumed the giddy feeling, the imprint of that moment, would be like blogging glitterdust, an easy sequin, welcome in any post.  And I’m not saying it wasn’t.  I still love watching that clip, and talking to anybody else who has strong feelings about Dwayne and Whitley (just saying her name makes me happy, Whitley….).  I did the same thing in my high school graduation speech, where I think I made 18 references to shared cultural moments, spanning from The Breakfast Club to ending with a bad joke about Saved By the Bell.  It was instant speech gold, an easy in. Relatability, and connection with a hint of that great teenage battle of  us vs. them.

And this kind of nostalgia does a very neat thing: when recognized, it makes the audience feel savvy and included. It creates the sense of privilege, even though the design is based on mass recognition. I would like to know if this particular flavor of nostalgia is generational singularly or eternally.  In the short view, it’s obvious that the baby boomers enjoy a similar bedazzlement with themselves, but I’m guessing their congratulatory reverie started later in life. Not as teenagers, but as ex-hippies landing in suburban houses. I never saw my grandparents in this particular trend, but wonder if that is because, ultimately, television wasn’t ready and aimed at their generation. They got the early programs of the 1950s when they were already fully launched adults. The media wasn’t trying to pluck them in the same soft spot.  They had no The Wonder Years  to make them ache for whatever the equivalent of aluminum cups was in the 1920’s.

The current trend of nostalgia, the one we’ve carried out of the 80s, is less warm and fuzzy, and more a blitz of television references. And it is a ferocious form of self-love, also showing that we’ve been involved in the presentation of personal narratives long before Facebook and Twitter. I also think there is a tinge of sadness in all of the riffs on Mr. Belvedere and She-Ra, a tiny accusation to the baby boomers for all the latchkeys, and all those precious hours in front of the TV.  We are proud of ourselves for all of it, and the it is the difficult part to really accept.  These pounds of generation specific references are so swaddled in middle-class struggles of ennui and wealth, along with premature crowing, that it’s tiring.  It seems communal, but it’s really a grand narcissism.  We could gaze at our pasts forever (not the heavy parts where you fell in love or saw your dad cry, but jam shorts). It’s  TGIF on ABC forever.

And I could do it. I will do it.  I will watch Blossom. I will feel very strongly about the Anne of Green Gables editions that had the good covers, and will tell you stories about selling enough wrapping paper to win the tiny portable TV.  And that is the problem with this kind of nostalgia–it feels so good. But it’s an indulgence.

This isn’t the kind of nostalgia that Willa Cather whips up in My Antonia just by writing about the smell of lilacs on a summer night.  That kind of nostalgia is a wound, and a gift to the reader.  Our nostalgia-lite is more of a massage, a jab and lift, a quick route to that special kind of familiarity the internet lives on.

And I won’t be stopping my own reliance on the crutch. It’s too deep in the language.  I talk in old television the way that kids born in 2000 will perhaps talk in old internet memes.  What it must have been like to talk in words.

Yours,

CF

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Odd Saint: Shannon Plumb

Dear CF,

I’m nominating the weird and hilarious Shannon Plumb, also known as a present-day female Buster Keaton. Or, as I like to think of her, the love-child of Janis Joplin, Amy Sedaris and Charlie Chaplin. She’s probably best known for her series “The Park,” which was shown on four huge screens in Central Park, none of which come close to the (literally) plaintive brilliance of “Rattles and Cherries,” which you can and should watch below at 23:19. (Most of her films are less than five minutes long.)

She focuses (as she puts it) on “the imperfections of people,” and I’d say most of her characters fit into your concept of the “nu woman.”

The video below is from a talk she gave at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I’m embedding it because it includes a collection of several silent Super 8 films she makes—by herself, for the most part. Scary, what this woman can do with a tripod.

I’m indexing them below, with special mentions for Shalmont Field (at 19:20) and THURSDAY, St. Patrick’s Day (at 31:12) which does a terrifyingly hilarious number on the performance of being boy and girl. “Discus” and “Hurdles” show women doing hurdles or throwing the discus in sexy strapless dresses or terrible wigs, with all the inelegance you might imagine that might produce. “Stewardess” is Howard Hughes’ worst nightmare.

Partial Index:

15:10 Stewardess

16:55 Nasal Cleanse

19:20 Shalmont Field

23:10  Rattles and Cherries

27:33 Discus

31:12 THURSDAY: St. Patrick’s Day

35:35 maximus

37:40 Madison and East 24th

41:25 “It’s fine,” she whispered.

An American Ideal Gas Law: Ben Franklin and the Perfumed Fart

Dear CF,

I will compose a more dignified response soon but it is true that Everybody Poops, that no one’s smells more rosy by any other name, and that everyone, no matter how clean their pants crease, will have a silly day thrust upon them.

I’ve had such a day, having just been sexually propositioned by my adolescent cousin on Facebook. His opening salvo was informal and surprising. He riddled the follow-up with eager and expressive emoticons. I thought to myself, “Millicent, tread lightly. This could, if mishandled, turn into a Judy Blume moment (Boy Version).”

Facebook SOP dictate that the older cousin must—with the senseless dedication of a captain on a sinking ship—throw him or herself on the grenade of cool. “Hello Cousin,” I typed. Clunky, capitalized, and unpunctuated, I judged it, a two-word symphony of awkward that would tamp down amorous feelings in the ardentest of aardvarks, the stoatiest of stoats.

It worked. The offer was (as I suspected) a mistake. His message was intended for a tasty other. A strangled inquiry about my health erupted into a dazzling series of squinty-eyed emoticons and I opted to keep the poor boy—here, a hormonal but pitiable trout—dangling on my treble hook just a little longer than was absolutely necessary, asking him about his college classes and which was his favorite and what was he getting for Christmas, before he announced that he was very tired and needed to go to bed.

I call him a fish because I will have much to say about fish in other connections soon, as the subject is in the (farty) air and—I mean this in all seriousness—I can’t imagine a more fitting end to 2009 than with a discussion of fish and academies and eating and poop. And cabbages and kings.

Which brings me (and you!) to Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on farting. Written around 1781 and addressed to The Royal Academy of Farting, here is what Franklin envisioned in an alternate universe where his contribution to society was not electricity, the library, or the five-dollar bill:

A) A pun on Fart-hing.

and

B) This:

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

That so retained contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mixed with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.

Your gasbag,
M

Funny People: In Which Sandler and Apatow Don’t Make It to the Altar and No One Laughs or Cries. Part I.

Dear CF,

Your reaction to the Funny People movie poster was eerily prescient. You have powers. Be my psychic? Also, I’d like to point out that James Thurber wrote his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” at 40. As a joke. Would that Apatow’s self-awareness ran so deep when he decided to mount a Career Retrospective at 42.

Instead we get Funny People, an effort to weave Apatow and Sandler’s comedy styles into one movie that both moves and amuses. It’s a threnody on love and loss, on dicks and disease, on the stand-up comedy circuit and the growth that fails to happen there. It’s the story of Sandler’s juvenilia and bad movies. It’s a chronicle of Apatow’s hardships before he made it big, a novella on how Power and Money isolate and how humor isolates even more.  It’s the beaten horse of Rogen’s weight loss (the movie wants us to know that he’s thinner, and that it knows that Jonah Hill is the fat version of Rogen because Rogen used to be fat and now he’s not as fat. Hilarity ensues). It’s a limerick on the hotness of Judd’s wife (she is hot) and the cuteness of his kids (they are cute), a villanelle on Eric Bana as Richard Gere, a sestina of movie and television cliches and a sonnet on how cliched movie cliches are (they are very cliche).  It tried to solve all this by plotting three semi-interesting movies, mashing them into one and resolving none of them.

I left the theater feeling befuddled and a little cheated by the poster, which seems, in retrospect, like a malicious exercise in deceit. In unrelated news, I am completing an Online Sexual Harassment Training and Survey. So, in the spirit of surveys and procrastination, I declare the birth of an informalish poll* for what the movie poster should actually have said (SPOILER ALERT):

Funny People:

  1. A show about a dying guy. Who gets better!!!!
  2. How he found love—and lost it because he inexplicably becomes an uncaring douche when her kid sings a song from CATS. (Yeah, yeah, you didn’t see that coming because he saved her film reel and her jeans and let her dog eat peanut butter off his face and played with the kids. But he checked his phone. He is a jerk and has learned nothing from his brush with the Kind of Cancer that Makes You Tired After a Game of Basketball Or a Brisk Swim.)
  3. How a nice dull man who recently lost weight meets a slightly older and funnier man. No one changes much—but there are twelve standup scenes in which you see them not change much. Also: penises.
  4. An existential look at life, death and unmeaning—not Sandler’s (he’s just a clever decoy) but the ghosts of sometime comedians, their shows and careers. Andy Dick will depress you. Paul Reiser will make you weep. By the time Norm Macdonald shows up you’ll be shotgunning beers. Watch them be dicks to each other and get upstaged by Eminem.
  5. Friendship Is: writing jokes for the dim dude you hired to write jokes for you, after he ruined your shot at your true love by blabbing inappropriate things to her children.
  6. Friendship Is: having inconclusive fights with your roommates who sell out to work on a bad TV show and sleep with the girl you sorta like. But you were an asshole too, and that’s life or something. Also, a slightly older dude in your line of work tells you these are the best years of your life, and not to lose touch with these guys who you kinda hate. So. You know. The end.
  7. ONE-TIME ROOMMATES, LIFETIME RIVALS: The FINAL SHOWDOWN between deposed comedy king Adam Sandler and bromance czar Judd Apatow (played by Rogen) to determine (here’s your twist) Who Gets to Be the Main Character in the Serious Movie?

*Turns out the options, in an unconscious tribute to the film, got way too long (TWSS). So I can’t create a formal poll. However, my vote, with explanations, sequins, and penises, is here.**
**Or, er, will be shortly.

Fondly,

Millicent

Archived Video of the Day: Bill Cosby as Mr. Tooth Decay, or How to Market a Smile

Dear CF,

In light of your Jay Smooth crush (he is indeed braintastic and marvelous) and my newfound obsession with smiling as a shortcut to building a certain kind of empathic resolution that satisfies an audience, I thought it might be interesting to look at Bill Cosby in his youth. He’s the ultimate smiler and the anti-Jay in some respects, though with just as public an interest in race relations.

I just said he’s the anti-Jay, but actually there’s something about Jay Smooth’s earnestness and perfectionism as a performer—the demons that haunt him in “Beating the Little Hater,” for instance—that reminds me, weirdly, of Cosby, whose quest for the perfect unracialized and unthreatening and unmarked smile is bizarrely represented, I think, by some of his TV commercial choices. I’m including them below. They include (with no apparent contradiction) toothpaste and Coke, both of which are offered as vehicles toward the ultimate smile.

First, though, it’s interesting to see him before he’d quite figured out who he was going to be in front of the camera.

Exhibit A.

Here he is, at age 27. The interviewer asks him whether he feels pressure to base his comedy on the fact that he is “colored.” He says he feels that expectation but refrains from fulfilling it, although he emphasizes that he has racial material and actually focuses on that for the rest of the clip. He tells one of many “warm stories” he has about being black, this one about wanting food at a restaurant and being forced to eat in the kitchen. In a semi-subversive move, he says it all worked out because you get the best sandwiches in the kitchen anyway, then says he boycotted the establishment when they tried to seat him in the restaurant instead.

In talking about his comedy, he characterizes the difference between himself and other black comedians like Dick Gregory (interestingly, I think) in the language of movement: he says wants to move around the stage, not stay still and talk about government. He wants to talk about Superman, about Noah and the ark. (He seems, in other words, to equate stage movement with topical mobility.) Then he turns obliquely back to race and presents a “racial stereotype situation,” an anecdote about how has to eat watermelon in the closet that does a similar kind of subversive work:

Exhibit B.

Here he is a few years later, having perfected his onscreen persona. There’s a determined uptwist to his mouth that keeps his expression jovial, and he’s perfected the trademark Cosby squeal. He talks here about building stardom:

Exhibit C.

And here he is as the ultimate Smile Salesman. These are some TV ads he did for Crest (with Fluoristan! back when anything ending in “istan” didn’t send Americans running for the hills). These are from 1969, the same year as the above. He plays Mr. Tooth Decay, and is dressed (in one) in a black tuxedo while sitting on the very very white oversized teeth he’s trying to foil. In the first ad he watches resignedly—philosophically, almost—as a huge toothbrush with white toothpaste comes to “bathe” him. In another he chats with a karate expert named Bac Teria. In a third he confronts three children—a black boy, a black girl, and a white boy—in a police lineup and talks about the importance of dental care. In another he’s dressed in sweats and boxing gloves, using a tube of Crest as his punching-bag, yelling  “Things are getting BAD—there’s a lot of healthy TEETH around.” When I get STRONG enough,” he says, “this world isn’t going to be BIG enough for the TWO of us!” The tube of Crest swings back and knocks him down.

All of this sounds appallingly racist, and it is. And yet I think Cosby comes close to pulling it off: to effacing—even in a stark black-and-white stage set in which he is black and dressed in black and representing tooth decay that will be whitewashed clean by white toothpaste in a white container—the racial expectations he seems to find so comedically uninteresting. In other words, to inhabiting the part not as a black man or as a black comedian but as a comedian (unhyphenated).

I can’t embed the videos, which are part of Duke’s new archive available at Adview. The Crest commercials can be viewed using Itunes here. See the first four. Procter and Gamble still brag about the commercial’s effectiveness at improving sales and dental health among African-Americans, a demographic that had been overlooked in advertising.

Exhibit D.

And here he is in 1979 advertising Coke, “simple refreshment that makes you smile.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The sober, somewhat diffident man with the downturned mouth in the first video is so different from the man in the last one, whose rhetoric more or less compels you to smile, requires it so strenuously that it breaks the fourth wall and uses a Calvino-esque trick of narrating your reaction to you: You may think you’re watching me, he seems to say, but I’m actually watching you. And you are smiling.

Cosby didn’t write these ads, of course.  Some Don Draperish type did that. But there’s something almost Faulknerian about how Cosby seems to have forged an identity that’s synonymous with Smile As Concept. His eyes smile, his cheeks smile, the squeal in his voice smiles. His association with and specific use of smiling transcends specific expressions and products—it’s elastic enough to range from dental health to its opposite, Coke-consumption.  But the smile, and its claim to transcend racial categories, definitions and fears, is ultimately what’s being sold.

I think Jay Smooth shares with Cosby a slightly evangelical impulse to perform a kind of racial/cultural brokerage. He’s better at it—at any rate he’s more explicit about it. By almost never swearing, by avoiding slang, by championing the out-of-the way artist, he’s consciously trying to liberate some of the constraints on what hip hop is, or of how it’s been traditionally understood. By framing his own performance that way, though, he’s also (and this seems important) compromising on some of the defining characteristics of hip hop—the very characteristics that make it most offensive to outsiders.

Right? Doesn’t this seem like a somewhat Cosbyish move?

In an interview at The Media Drop Jay Smooth has this to say about the hip hop station he started in 1991:

So our job has become to provide an alternative to that.. Not because i think Jay-Z or 50 is wack, but because for us to play them would be redundant. Also, since I am on a station that strives to represent on a different level politically and intellectually, I have always tried to set a different example for what a hip-hop radio show can be… to show that you can have a totally different demeanor than most other hip-hop jocks have, be a nerd who likes to talk about politics and hardly ever uses any slang, and still be just as “down”, just as legitimate as a representative and member of the culture. Which is not to look down on anyone else’s show but when everyone sounds the same its easy for kids to think you have to be that way to be down. When really, anyone can be themselves and be respected if they have the love and knowledge of the music. Lemme stress again I’m not saying my show is better than anyone else’s, just trying to be a different flavor in that sense.

He’s trying, in other words, to expand the convention, to let the geeks play with the freaks. He’s trying to be an inclusive Firecracker!!! What do you think? Is this a gloriously smart liberation of the thing or an over-expansion of hip hop to the point where the definition becomes either too broad or defines something else entirely?

Fondly,

Millicent

Girltalk and Boytalk

I like Roseanne because it gives both genders enough rope to believably hang themselves. The NY Times ran a depressing article yesterday on sexless marriages. Here’s how Roseanne deals with the problems of bad sex and no sex in marriage. Jackie’s Fred “gets in the elevator but won’t go down” post-baby, Roseanne is pregnant and not in the mood, so Dan tries sucking on her toes. Mark won’t put out for Becky. What happens when Roseanne gets involved:

Fondly,

M

Safe Sex

Perhaps the next installment in our “Now We Know” series:

Also, both of their hair reminds me of those pastel decals that are sometimes on strip mall beauty shop windows.  The 80s or early 90s?

The Maudlin and The Musical

Dear pepperpot,

I hope that, whatever you are doing, you are wrapped in something warm and wearing the diamondhand while doing it. I am thinking of you. I stumbled on these bad examples of maudlin and musical things and thought you could add them to your list of bright shiny distractions of the British variety.

Exhibit A: French and Saunders do Mamma Mia! (with Joanna Lumley from AbFab who was actually in MM) for Comic Relief. (I can’t embed this one, but click on the link.)

(The person playing the director is sort of a comic genius—any idea who she is?)

Exhibit B, decades earlier: A super-young Stephen Fry in a moving scene with Emma Thompson.

Hearts,

Millicent

Ultra-Sensitive in Black for Dame Bea

Dear bosom buddy,

This started as a comment on your amazing Bea Arthur clips but it got too long. Hence, a post! The “Bosom Buddies” act nails a kind of friendship much richer than the “frenemy” idea that’s flattened our sense of what girl-girl friendship is. (Much like the “bromance” has flattened the boys’.) And oh, the fantastic dancing. The sketch left me breathless, especially the choreography at the end. What performers! What dresses!

Why did we relegate our fab broads to obscurity and try to convince them they’re “between 40 and dead”?

I’d read about the treatment of abortion on Maude, but man, I couldn’t believe how sensitive and troubled a performance it actually is. I’m interested in the number of times they use the word, gently stripping it of its shock value and guilt-weight.

I’ve been watching hours of Golden Girls lately when I brush my hair, when I get dressed, when I make breakfast, when I take naps. It feels like heavily buttered whole-wheat toast, a saucy balance between the raunchy and prim. It acknowledges that the little old ladies we try to unsex are denizens of disguise. THEY HAVE SEEN IT ALL.

Your thoughts on Dorothy’s dilemma surprised me—to this day it had honestly never occurred to me to think of her as a younger woman. Her reputation as being perennially manless, plus the grayness of her hair, convinced me, in my youth, that she was actually the oldest (barring Sophia). Ashamed of this now, but I like that we skewed her age opposite ways.  Also, it never occurred to me to think that these four women didn’t all belong together as a unit.

It seems like one of the main driving forces of the show, plotwise, was the miracle of that late-in-life found togetherness, and the threat of it fracturing back into particularity. (Especially when a child or romantic prospect intruded in a serious way.) Funny how death–the obvious separator–rarely felt like a serious narrative menace (though when it did, it did). Even in the midst of heart attack, Sophia did a lot to normalize the mysterious horrors of aging and death.

Bea Arthur. I marvelled (still do) at her face, so hawk-like, strong, angular and commanding. And hilarious. As a kid she represented a kind of power I really wanted–is majesty the right word? And that effortless, even acerbic sarcasm that in no way masked real affection; it was a smart writer who decided to have Sophia call her “pussycat.”

Wish we could eat cheesecake and gab.

Fondly,

Millicent

And My New Grandma, Bea Arthur

Dear Millicent,

I just heard that Bea Arthur died today.  She was the archetype of “old woman” to me when I was a kid, and Golden Girls seemed to be relentlessly on TV, along with Empty Nest.  And then, in my teens she seemed younger– –a bawdy actress that wore draped clothes and knew how to make fun of men.  I then assumed that she had been in her forties for Golden Girls, which made sense because her mother lived her with in that show…making her the youngest roommate perhaps stuck living with older ladies.  There was one episode where Estelle Getty walks in on her in bed with her ex.  I think it was the first time I saw traditionally unsexy people (older, unvarnished, no satin skivvies) in bed on television.

When I heard of her death a minute ago, I assumed she was perhaps in her sixties, but it turns out that she was an actual old woman now, 86.

She was in her fifties when she started in television.  I like stories where successful people find other successes at a point when life could seem played out.  Julia Child is another beacon of this kind.  They were both tall women…

I will miss Bea Arthur.  She was soothing for all of the ways she did not fit, and for all the ways that she made it not matter at all.  She is the epitome of a handsome woman: full of confidence, presence, and self ease.

Some awesome Bea Arthur in action: