Notes from Joan Didion’s “White Album”

The White AlbumThis is one of the rare books I kept highlighting as I read through it (or would have underlined and dog-eared, if I’d read it on paper). Joan Didion was fascinated with complex systems such as waterworks and dams, highway operations centers, jails and prisons, orchid greenhouses. Joan Didion suffered from migraines. Joan Didion had no patience with a women’s movement concerned with “the litany of trivia” used to politicize “women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves” (The Women’s Movement, 1972):

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did.

A woman who starred in Céline ads in 2015, aged 80, Didion never tries to be anything else than a woman of her time; yet her notes on political sentiment in Hollywood in the 1960s (Good Citizens, 1968-70) sound as if written about today’s Silicon Valley, a place where public life “comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony”, and where she describes the attitude of the screenwriters of the McCarthy era just as if she were writing of today’s tech philanthropists: the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals.

She is also oddly prescient in her encounter with biker movies, a genre started by Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda. She watches nine of these movies over a short period of time, “the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook… I was not even sure why I kept going” (Notes Toward a Dreampolitik, 1968-70). Remember that Didion, a child of the West, loved John Wayne, and that she is believed to have voted Republican through most of her life; Didion’s obvious discomfort with the behaviors and ideology that these movies portray – and that scared her, even back then, as “ideograms of the future” – are a measure of the gaping void between the conservative values of Didion’s screenwriting years, and those of an “alt-right” so shamelessly blandished by an American President today:

I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The NewYork Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future. To watch a bike movie is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a “right.” A biker is goaded on the job about the swastika on his jacket, so he picks up a wrench, threatens the foreman, and later describes the situation as one in which the foreman “got uptight.” A biker runs an old man off the road: the old man was “in the way,” and his subsequent death is construed as further “hassling.” A nurse happens into a hospital room where a biker beats her unconscious and rapes her: that she later talks to the police is made to seem a betrayal, evidence only of some female hysteria, vindictiveness, sexual deprivation. Any girl who “acts dumb” deserves what she gets, and what she gets is beaten and turned out from the group. Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or “hassling”: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.

To imagine the audience for whom these sentiments are tailored, maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up. Bike movies are made for all these children of vague “hill” stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.

Sadly, more than one.

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Gone Girl: if you didn’t get the “Cool Girl” rant, think again

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Why is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn such a powerful novel? Because nothing is black-and-white and everything is ambiguous: how we fall in love, how far we go to please someone else, how we might go about reclaiming ourselves – even if the fiction brings the premise to extreme consequences.

Why is Gone Girl by David Fincher such a weak movie? Because it’s black-and-white. People who have only seen the movie – and not read the book – women who have only seen the movie – easily buy into the typecasting of Amy as the horrendous psycho killer and Nick as the poor, cute, loving husband victimized by his traitorous wife.

But the novel is more subtle than that. Amy, you see, has a point. Amy is right, right in her diagnosis of what happened to her marriage. (Not in the actions she takes – I am not condoning or advocating – spoilers ahead – framing people for crimes they have not committed, absconding in search of a new identity, or extracting revenge by locking husbands into sadistic marriages). Amy is right because she understands what happened to her when she tried to be a Cool Girl for Nick: she gave up her identity. The first crime she committed was against herself.

Here is a good chunk of the “Cool Girl” rant, those three or four pages that expose the moral core of the novel, and the source of Amy’s anger.

That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.


Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

I waited patiently – years – for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.

But it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to want to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick, I knew immediately that was what he wanted, and for him, I guess I was willing to try. I will accept my portion of blame. The thing is, I was crazy about him at first. I found him perversely exotic, a good ole Missouri boy. He was so damn nice to be around. He teased things out in me that I didn’t know existed: a lightness, a humor, an ease. It was as if he hollowed me out and filled me with feathers. He helped me be Cool Girl – I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of it: I ate a MoonPie, I walked barefoot, I stopped worrying. I watched dumb movies and ate chemically laced foods. I didn’t think past the first step of anything, that was the key. I drank a Coke and didn’t worry about how to recycle the can or about the acid puddling in my belly, acid so powerful it could strip clean a penny. We went to a dumb movie and I didn’t worry about the offensive sexism or the lack of minorities in meaningful roles. I didn’t even worry whether the movie made sense. I didn’t worry about anything that came next. Nothing had consequence, I was living in the moment, and I could feel myself getting shallower and dumber. But also happy. […]

I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means.

But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Nick! I thought you knew. I thought it was a bit of a game. I thought we had a wink-wink, don’t ask, don’t tell thing going. I tried so hard to be easy. But it was unsustainable. It turned out he couldn’t sustain his side either: the witty banter, the clever games, the romance, and the wooing. It all started collapsing on itself. I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. […]

So it had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.

If you’ve read this far, also read this meta-rant by Shannon Kelley and this Slate piece by David Haglund about how the rant was mangled into the movie (“the passage is not just a critique of men. Quite a bit of it, in fact, is a critique of women… The Cool Girl speech is fundamentally about wishing all women would think for themselves”).

So, don’t buy the Hollywood version. Read the book and think for yourself.

20,000 Days on Earth. Nick Cave on himself

20000daysonearth-1Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a docu-fiction on the polyhedric Nick Cave shown at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year, is coming to theatres at last.

Cave gets to make music,talk about his creative process, drive people around while having conversations with them, and narrate himself in flashes and bursts such as this one (from the NY Times Magazine):

The first time I saw Susie was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And when she came walking in, all the things that I have obsessed over for all the years, pictures of movie stars, Jenny Agutter in the billabong, Anita Ekberg in the fountain . . . Miss World competitions, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Jones and Bo Derek . . . Bolshoi ballerinas and Russian gymnasts . . . the young girls at the Wangaratta pool lying on the hot concrete, all the stuff I had heard and seen and read . . . all the continuing never-ending drip-feed of erotic data . . . came together at that moment, in one great big crash bang, and I was lost to her. And that was that.

It takes a remarkable woman to inspire this description; it also takes a man with an unusual poetic imagination to put it in words. This is a movie I look forward to.

 

On Snowpiercer, post-apocalyptic tales, and cult movies

SnowpiercerAs a poet and politician named Dante Alighieri descends through the circles of Hell, ascends Purgatory and reaches the highest sphere of Heaven, so a rebel leader named Curtis Everett moves from the tail of the Train hosting the planet’s only human survivors to the Holy Locomotive that drives it in a looping route around a frozen Earth.

Dante starts out lost in his dark wood, hungry for knowledge and salvation, meets a large set of characters placed in the afterlife according to their actions and sins in life, and ends his journey with a vision of “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”. Curtis starts out in the filthy windowless final carriage of the train where he has spent half his life, driven by hatred and revenge, and ends his journey in a luminous perpetual-motion engine meeting Wilford, the creator of the train and the dystopian society it hosts, a microcosm where everybody has their own place based on the price they were able to afford to pay to board the train and escape death.

snowpiercer-poster-chris-evansSnowpiercer is a 2013 South Korean movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, written in the early 1980s by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. Oppression, violence, food and water, addiction, clairvoyance, self-mutilation, class war, revolt: just when you think the story cannot cram one more ingredient into its plot, a new twist takes place – say, child abduction or cannibalism – and glues you to the screen.

You know I am a fan of end-of-civilization tales, but Snowpiercer stunned me. It has the guts to take a few hundred survivors of a man-made climactic catastrophe and to truly, really do away with them in a spectacular final train wreck. (And perhaps that is all good: who would want to live in what looks like Panem from the Hunger Games, sequentially crammed onto a high-speed train?) We are drawn to post-apocalyptic stories because they force our imagination to answer uncomfortable questions. What would I do in such extreme straits? Would I survive, maintain my dignity? Would I be able to defend my family, my friends? Would I rise to be a leader for them?

Cinematically and visually, this movie’s claustrophobic appeal recalls such classics as Brazil (1985), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and Strange Days (1995). It rarely happens anymore, but after two hours in the movie theater, I came out feeling I wanted to watch it all over again. Snowpiercer is scheduled to be released in the United States on June 27, 2014. It will become a cult movie. Don’t miss it.

The Hunger Games, from dystopian novel to Hollywood movie

I have a friend who is seriously into the fantasy book genre, and I usually take her book recommendations with a pinch of salt. But I am seriously into what I call the end-of-civilization genre, and critics refer to as the “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” novel. So, when my friend recommended the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – supposedly, a “young adult” work, no matter how bleak -, I read it and enjoyed it as shamelessly as Harry Potter fans have enjoyed the J. K. Rowling series.

I learned today that the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy is now a movie. And the actress in the lead role, Jennifer Lawrence, comes with serious credentials as teenage heroine from the gritty, dark Winter’s Bone, which led her to an Academy Award nomination for Best leading actress (who won that year? Oh yeah. Natalie Portman won), and which you should watch by all means if you haven’t yet. District 12 is, after all, a fictional version of the Ozarks. Enjoy.

The Illusionists: Help fund it on Kickstarter

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a young filmmaker I had started following on Twitter months ago. Her name is Elena Rossini and she lives in Paris. We talked extensively about her feature-length documentary project, The Illusionists. I’ll let her explain it in her own words:

As you may know, in late June I’ve launched an ambitious fundraising campaign for my feature-length documentary The Illusionists, which I wrote and I am co-producing and directing.

Here is the synopsis of the film:

THE ILLUSIONISTS is a feature-length documentary about the commodification of the body and the marketing of unattainable beauty around the world. The film will explore the influence that corporations have on our perceptions of ourselves, showing how mass media, advertising, and several industries manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies for profit.

The Illusionists’ Kickstarter page has a video teaser and a longer explanation of the project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (its themes, style, and my motivations for making the film).

There are amazing experts already lined up for the interviews, including author & filmmaker Jean Kilbourne (best known for her iconic film series “Killing Us Softly”), psychotherapist Susie Orbach (best known for her books “Fat is a Feminist Issue” and “Bodies”) and Jenn Pozner (author of “Reality Bites Back”; she was recently featured in the New Yorker and on NPR). I’m also hoping to interview Umberto Eco, Gloria Steinem, Oliviero Toscani and Maurice Levy of Publicis, amongst others. 

Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends, friends-of-friends, Twitter and Facebook followers, the fundraising campaign has already achieved some amazing milestones. 12 days in, I’ve reached 43% of the total funding goal, with over 110 backers and more than 1,100 Facebook “likes” of my Kickstarter page. In short, I’m on cloud nine. But the road ahead is still long… if I don’t reach 100% of the funding goal by August 5th, I will lose all the pledges made so far.

On Kickstarter, I am offering “regular people” pre-sales of the film and various other gifts as rewards for donations:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (the column on the right). I’m also developing a special package for sponsors whose mission is aligned with the message of the film that would offer exposure on the site, in all press material, and in the end credits of the film.

If this is something that resonates with you, go to Kickstarter.com and fund it. I just did.