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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Netflix Deathmatch 1: Interrupted Weddings

Dear Millicent,

You know how you sometimes absorb a novel or movie and let it become an unspoken part of your decision making process? Like, I have had a baggy red sweater for 12 years mostly because I thought a similar one looked so charming and relaxed on Juliette Lewis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

I’m pretty sure I spend most of my time trying to live in a novel or movie, and most probably, a novel or movie that my brain absorbed between the ages of 4 and 19. Maybe all generations experience this cultural nostalgia, where the timepieces that shaped y/our expectation of the future are so special because they are so specifically y/ours. People even 6 years ahead or behind you have an entire different set of references. There must be a very squishy age (9?) where we absorb all that magic, and the cultural timepieces lock in.  My Tribes is another person’s Square Pegs is another person’s Degrassi High . 

Obviously, we don’t live in movies, blahblahblah, but I do think something interesting happens when we get two conflicting cultural imprints.  This would be the equivalent of absolutely wanting the Lewis red sweater, and then seeing something else that confirmed red sweaters were the stuff of bad, un-Depped, lives. But, on a much larger scale, of course.  This whammy happens to me a lot.   For example, tet’s take a favorite topic of mine, weddings!

This might be my all time favorite wedding scene ever:

Conclusion: it is good to follow your heart, and whatever you do (as pounds of movies have told us) is DO NOT MARRY THE SAFE GUY. Meg Ryan is also very good at proving this (Greg Kinnear, the safest man in cinema?).  Also, the promise that TRUE LOVE OUTS, ALWAYS.

And then we have this famous doozie:

Both narratives are in agreement about one thing, ADULTS SUCK. And both make fun of the same system that, by getting married, the youth are signing up for in the first place.  But we get that in The Graduate, the whole situation sucks some balls. Growing up sucks some balls. Plastics suck some balls.  And, well, ending up with Benjamin as your Dwayne sucks some balls.  He’s a stalker. He slept with your mom.  Elaine…it’s not too late for you, but you should probably grow up to be a sexy single lady who owns a bookstore.

The conflict: Both are iconic, closely related scenes in my head, but one promises bliss and certainty, and the other promises that grand gestures can be as empty as what they hope to work against.

I also like to smack Howards End  in the middle of this Netflix deathmatch, because well, it swings its weight both ways. Margaret marries the safe man, the rich Mr. Wilcox, and it’s terrible. But Helen follows her heart and fully abandons herself to passion, and it, too, is kind of terrible. And poor Leonard Bast. All he got was some sex and misery in his life.

So who wins–what will get to be the grand narrative that wins in my brain? Of course neither, because luckily I can handle conflicting narratives and their ambiguities, but what if they had to? What if we had to either join them all together in some mad life lesson, or at least make some peace with their differences?

Then I would say we snuggle up to EM Forster as much as possible, and let the other two float in the ether. Partnering for comfort or lust is probably a bad idea. I think Forster would approve of Elaine’s escape and Whitley’s change of heart.  Interestingly, they all work on class lines too: if you’re a gal, DO NOT MARRY THE RICH GUY unless you really want to sleep with him and he likes your brain, and for guys, DO NOT MARRY THE POOR GIRL OR OLD LADY, you were probably just with her because you were horny. True love = breaking class expectations. If you’re a guy, SAVE YOURSELF FOR THE RICH GIRL. She’ll probably go ahead and break your heart anyway, but it will be morally correct. At least, it will this time in the annals of Carla Fran’s Culture Clash, or what I like to call The Media Closet of Our Lives.

Join us next time where we take on reproduction: Lost in Translation vs. Friday Night Lights!

Yours,

CF

PS. All movies agree, never marry a cop.

The Leaking Conquest

Dear Millicent,

Hi! Welcome to this new day, one wherein Hollywood and comedians insist they always thought women were funny.  A reviewer on my NPR station said, “I don’t understand what the big deal about  Bridesmaids is. Apatow has always made women the smartest characters in his movies. This time, women are gross. So?” A writer acquaintance who once said “I just don’t write comedy for women,” said with great and serious gusto “Bridesmaids is important for comedy.”

The monsieur I went to see the movie  with was wowed. “It’s so much more than a girl’s comedy,” he said, a huge compliment.  And I hunched over.  I thought of Lindy West. I squinted, trying to think if I would have said the same thing after The Hangover, commending it on being more than a boy’s comedy.  You know the answer.

We are all excited about this movie. I was hoping for this great coming of women in comedy when I saw the trailer, and my fingers are still crossed for the continuation of whatever trend Apatow is building as he also produces Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls.  I will admit, I got cautious when I saw all the emails and tweets about it being a social responsibility to see this movie.  I worried it was a great viral PR scheme…that Apatow had approached women’s comedy as an act of ego, to play all us feminists and prove us wrong about our criticisms of him.  I like the happy idea that he had a great veil-lifting, and realized the flatness of his female characters, and instantly went out to correct the imbalance that he was part of, and a bit of a mascot for.  But I doubt that.  It’s too perfect. Instead, it seems like another time to type out the cliche’ that I use in almost every post about Hollywood: how nice it must be to have cake and eat it too.  It just seems weird that it is a social responsibility to pay money to prove that a female audience exists (already known). Or to show that women would like more from their onscreen representations (already known).  It wasn’t women’s social responsibility to carry this movie, it was dudes’.  Hollywood needs proof that men will show up for a movie where a woman shits her wedding dress.

Interestingly, the previews at my theater before the show did not promise a continuation of this trend.  Instead, there was an all guy remake of 9 to 5, and a male Freaky Friday about marriage and bachelorhood.

But I sound sour, and Bridesmaids did not leave me sour.  It left me….relevant.  I felt seen.  I felt existed.  Doesn’t that sound crazy? That one dumb movie could do that?  But, watching Wiig work through jealousy and general life-shittiness was wonderful.  The way she talked to herself in her car, the way she had a private world (the cupcake!), the fact that a woman was called an “asshole” and it fit, were all minor revelations of what real people do, including that half of the population, us.  We had a movie soaking in the truth that women are as fucked up as men! Life According to Jim for everyone!

Speaking of that diarrhea scene, I immediately thought of Subashini‘s fantastic take on Awkward Women, which aligns with the pre-Bridesmaids rules for Apatow’s women:

Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.

Here we have several leaking, unpregnant, unadorable, unrigid,  challenges.  As Subashini goes onto to say, the awkward woman is usually insane, a chaotic threat to world order (hello Nighty Night!).  So, the fact that our women in Bridesmaids shit and puke over every surface they can find in the interestingly pure and patriarchal setting of a bridal shop, is divine.  I said in a recent post that when we see a woman running in a wedding dress, it’s exciting because we see a woman fighting the system.  Here, it changes. When we see a woman shitting in the street in a wedding dress, my fingers are crossed we see a woman shitting on said system.

I will still argue that Bridesmaids is weak sauce compared to the likes of  Pulling and all the other amazing three-dimensional representations of women that have been in no way celebrated the way this Hollywood approved version of things has been.   Nevertheless, Bridesmaids does stand as a great case for more.  The angle of the jokes whispered how much comedy has been lost by not including women’s real perspectives. Examples:

  • The joke of Helen’s full out gown at the engagement party.  I have never seen a visual gown joke in a dude-normative comedy.  It did so much work so fast, and was visually compelling, as well as instantly funny.
  • A mother of 3 boys says “everything is covered in semen. Once, I cracked a blanket in half.” See, it still the same stuff we’re always laughing about, semen, but this time, it’s about the lady’s encounter with it.  It’s a joke that’s hilarious to everybody, and an observation that has been missing because mom’s never get to talk, usually. How have we not heard that before?  It’s a grand, filthy all-inclusive joke. And, it catches men in the self consciousness of their bodily humors in a rare way (I think of it as the male equivalent to the period blood stain in Superbad).   
  • Moms! Wiig’s mother is not a cartoon, but she is unhelpful and wacky like parents are.  I still think the best mother I’ve ever seen is Louie CK’s mom on Louie, but this mom was another beacon of the fact that I was welcome here.  I recognized that woman.  Same with Maya Rudolph’s dad.  It’s always a sign of life when even the minor characters has full plates of dimension, even if it is short work.
Other commendations:
  • Melissa McCarthy stole the show for me.  And while the audience actually squealed “Ewww” when she showed her leg to her love interest, her character was a direct challenge to that “Eww.”  Yes, they have her run first into the restaurant, and she has the hassle of other cheap jokes, but her character is an amazing foil to Wiig’s.  She is successful, and with an unabashed sexual appetite, and an unabashed sense of self.  When she says “I know you couldn’t guess now, but it was hard for me in high school,” she means it.  She in no way considers herself a victim or another person’s joke. She is winning.   She is a model of self-love, and the appropriate agent to point out Wiig’s sadsackery.  And kudos to the costumers for giving her that pearl necklace (and dear lord, why does that feel filthy to type? It really was made of pearls, and a necklace!).  Initially, I thought the necklace was off-base, suggesting a properness that didn’t fit, but as her character gets established, it tidily proves that her success has been there all along.
  • Irish guy from the IT Crowd. Nicely done.
  • Thank you JESUS for a cast of women with bodies.
  • Jealousy, class, money, and the tensions of friendship! Such rich stuff! So immediately connective!
  • That the ultimate “perfect wedding” is still super tacky (lasers! waterfalls! Tim Heidecker!), because weddings are unavoidably so, in one way or another.
My last notes are about nostalgia, which might be our current trend in comedy, and one that I fall for every time.  You bring on Wilson Phillips, and you got me.  And, while I charge Your Highness et al with a great romance for scripts of masculinity from the past, I charge Bridesmaids with enjoying the same, but ladystyle.  Because, when you get right down to it, Bridesmaids is 16 Candles, down to the pink bridesmaids dress, and the love interest (JAKE!), leaning on the car outside of the church.  And, there’s cake.
What did you think, dearest? Is this a moment? A start? An echo that has the power to make a boom?
Yours,
CF

Wherein I Think Too Hard About Your Highness

Your Highness is dazzling in its array of reviews: they swing from ultimate disgust ( Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls it possibly the worst movie ever made) to a gleeful delight, NPR’s David Edelstein refers to it as a pinnacle of low comedy.  I’m not sure it is either of these, but it is a fine example of a wispy trend developing in comedy: the joke of the American male.

I offer it as an offshoot of Apatow’s bromances, burgeoning with the Apatow produced Pineapple Express, and fully embraced by Danny McBride and his usual crew of makers (David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Ben Best), we see it living large in most of McBride’s blustery roles.  The closest kin these movies have might be the genre takedowns of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), or the early work of Kevin Smith, which does the same kind of nostalgia spin and masculinity slam that these movies do.  What I mean by this is that instead of looking at how hard it is to grow up and be a good dude, especially if unequipped in modern times (the Apatow catalogue), this new branch celebrates adolescent nostalgia while reveling in the failed response of masculine ego. Whereas the joke is never on Paul Rudd, the joke is always on Danny McBride (and even Seth Rogen when he shows up in Hill’s Observe and Report).

We see this super clearly in Eastbound and Down, the same happens with McBride’s lead in Foot Fist Way, and most of his roles where he portrays a signature mix of ignorance and enthusiasm (Fireworks dude in Tropic Thunder, Bustass in All the Real Girls, Drug dealer fellow in Pineapple Express).  He is very good at bombast, skewing redneck, and quickly showing the fear and soft bits of an insecure soul.  These guys are fascinated by this trope, and have repeated it in most of their work.  They love portraying the unattractive man who is not winning, who is steeped in laziness and failure, and who tells himself a self-narrative of the gods. They love the comedy of such a known tragedy. And they get away with a lot because of it. The racism, misogyny, and general obscenity is always framed so that they are calling out the same errors that they are gleefully getting to say.  Apatow’s crudeness is an attempt at realism. This new branch uses obscenity as part of the bluster it is unpinning.  At one point in Your Highness, a squire says to Prince Thaddeous (McBride) something like “I know you rely on your vulgarity as a defense for your insecurity.” This is either right before or after both Thaddeous and his page have mimed ejaculating onto the squire’s head.

This look at the narcissist American male (I say American because the accessories are always American, with the joke extending to America, its blind faith in itself, and how comfortable it is letting itself get away with everything), in these movies is also usually partnered with a deep love for markers of boyhood joy, and the genres that sparked this love way back when.  Foot Fist Way is basically a filthy Karate Kid remake filled with props from what meant good living in the eighties according to video games and action movies (red corvettes, big haired blondes, gold necklaces). It is filled with the boy version of what the good life of the future was. If we did the girl version of this from that same time, we would have a movie littered with Kit n’ Kaboodles, fuschia satin camisoles, Virginia Slims, and stretch limos.  The same nostalgia, and it’s failure in an adult life, pops up in Observe and Report, especially with Seth Rogen’s date sweater.  He is wearing on his date what he also probably wore to 7th grade graduation. In 7th grade, it was the flyest.

The same happens in Pineapple Express (and ode to Cheech and Chong movies), and Your Highness (deep homage to Krull and all of its kin).  These are the films that made a generation, and while I do think girls have a different set of cultural texts (Teen Witch, Labyrinth, She’s Out of Control, Crybaby, Troop Beverly Hills, Maid to Order, etc.), both sexes share the imprint of what these movies were, and what they told us the future would be.

Your Highness is a deeply affectionate critique of a generation of fantasy movies. It commends the good stuff (the puzzles, the mysticism, the camp), and calls out the weak and ridiculous (the pat formulas, bad special effects, etc.). It especially notes the sexual undertones that were always present (do you remember Jennifer Connelly eating that peach in the Labyrinth?) by grotesquely calling them out.  In Your Highness, all the characters are questing to keep “The Fuckening” from taking place, where a virgin wizard will rape and impregnate a virgin princess. The fuckening will logically produce a dragon. Which is genius, because Natalie Portman gets to say with a straight face “it is my quest to keep people from fucking dragons into the world.”  Your Highness also calls out the way women are usually reduced to crones, princesses or women in leather thongs in all these movies (Krull has an amazing spider crone, and Red Sonja is the icon of leather sex warrior). At one point in the rescue of the princess, Thaddeous tells the baddie wizard “She’s not your virgin, she’s my brother’s virgin,” and earlier asks his brother if he would still marry the princess if the wizard had indeed deflowered her, or even buttfucked her.  Just as the joke is often on the grotesque male and his inadequacies of self-narrative, the joke here is also on the genre itself.

And the smartest part of it all is that we get to see it back through the adolescent lens, and witness the juxtaposition of those hopes and weird feelings against a real adult backdrop (or, realer adult backdrop).  It is like we get to watch Krull and get hear what McBride and Green and Hill were thinking when they were 13 watching it.  They are going back to their youthful expectations of adulthood, manhood, and showing how those scripts, or at least their earlier innocent readings of them, maneuver in the adult problems of failure, lack, and finding oneself to be an unmythic character in an unmythic world. It’s a look at the busted dreams of our kidselves, with a good dose of follow-up on the adults that we have become. For the fellows here, it is one long dick joke, and that makes sense. It’s a boomerang of a dick-joke, one started 20 years ago, initially about expectation and wonder, and now about insecurity and failure.

This batch of movies takes on the headiness of  those movies we watched a thousand times at sleepovers, where we began deciding what the world really is.  Your Highness is one more of the grown boy version, with tons of dicks and dragons, looking at how those old scripts manage to both fail and delight.

I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it is an interesting one,

So, there’s that,

Yours,

CF