Quantitative Comparisons

I’m about to apply to MFA programs for my degree in fiction writing, so for the past few weeks, I’ve been studying for the GRE, armed with a book called “The Ultimate Math Refresher” and a Kaplan guide to the test. Most of it won’t be a problem: a cursory review of the vocabulary words showed that I knew all of them, and while I haven’t written one in a while, I have a pretty good recollection of how to churn out the five-paragraph essay. Math, however, isn’t a subject that I’ve checked in with for five years or so. I fulfilled the Quantitative Reasoning requirement at college with an introductory demography course, which was more about making generalizations and using Excel. Geometry and I haven’t spent much time together since 9th grade. I never even took calculus– one of the great virtues of the IB program was that we were offered two math tracks, and I was able to take statistics instead.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m even stressing out about math. I’m going to writing school, after all. Here’s why: while GRE scores have virtually no importance for admission to writing programs, they do count for many scholarships. If I want to pay for school, it’s important that I score well on every part of the test. So I spent the morning slaving over a practice exam, with my sainted boyfriend by my side to explain the problems I didn’t understand. This turned out to be most of them, and I didn’t make it halfway through the test before I began to sob with frustration. I’d memorized plenty of formulas and stratagems, but the logical underpinnings of math just elude me, and the book’s glib, “isn’t it obvious” explanations weren’t a help for many of the questions I didn’t understand. I conquered some questions with sheer effort, but the natural aptitude isn’t there, and I still have no clue how I’ll be able to do a problem a minute, sixty times over, come the day of the test. All my old fears and frustrations in math class, every drop of that sea of tears, came flooding back in an instant, as if five years hadn’t meant a thing.

Before our round of test-prep this morning, I had read an article in the New York Times with which I deeply empathized: it was about a pair of twins, Kristy and Katie Barry, who are seventeen months out of college (just like me) and have yet to find permanent, full-time work (same). They were journalism majors at Rutgers, and we’re pursuing similar jobs both in the full-time sphere (assistant positions at magazines, marketing positions at companies) and in the just-getting-by sphere (working as extras, temping, freelance writing, bartending). They’ve been rejected from 150 jobs, about the same amount as I have, most of those rejections being delivered only with silence. We’ve both exhausted every friend, contact and opportunity we have. (One difference: They have five months of unemployment on me; in about a week, it’ll have been a full year since my layoff.)

The comments on this article were absolutely brutal. People went after every aspect of their lives: their $2900 apartment (which, mind you, is a two-bedroom shared between FOUR people), their occasional cup of Starbucks, the fact that one of them went on vacation to Cancun. (These incidents of spending are debatable; I can only deflect criticism on my part by saying that I try to spend as little as possible on everything.) But the thing that made me craziest was how many people attacked them for their choice of major. A few selections from the pool:

“Jounalism [sic] degree, what a waste. Why don’t these colleges advise their students to take more math and science? That is what the country needs. If a student wants a degree in Jounalism, Psychology, Sociology, History or the Humanities, fine but get a degree in something that will provide them with a livelihood. Why don’t the colleges find out where the jobs are and educate their students accordingly?”

“Journalism degrees. Hmmm. How would this story be surprising, even if the economy was in better shape? Unemployment is at a 30-year high, yet the US is still importing scientists and engineers. Figure it out.”

“I am surprised the editors at the Times allowed this piece to be published. With 7.1% unemployment for this demographic (27 year old college graduates), that means that 92.9% are employed. What distinguishes those graduates with and without jobs? Not to be too cruel, but one would bet that these gals did not major in electrical engineering, molecular biology, or cognitive neuroscience, fields with an effective unemployment rate of zero.”

Comment after comment follows, many with the same blunt message: You’re an idiot to study the humanities. If you studied math and science, you’d have a job by now.

Naturally, math and science are good things to study. I’m so grateful that there are people out there who have talent in these fields, who engineer the plumbing for my shower and the computer on which I type. In many ways, I envy them. My patience for learning how things work is incredibly poor. I’d rather put a gun to my head than spend ten hours taking apart and putting back together a radio. The fact that someone can do these things at all, much less derive joy from them, is wonderful.

But that’s not something that all of us can do. While I think everyone should have the chance to be exposed to math and science, to catch the spark if it exists within them, some people don’t have the tinder, and I’m one of them. My spark caught when I learned to read, when I wrote little stories in my battered spiral notebook, when I copied Yeats and Wordsworth admiringly from the board. And that should be okay, too.

I’m not naive enough to think that all sparks are of equal worth in this capitalist society. More people want cars and iPhones than books. I’m never going to get rich, and that doesn’t bother me. But now that the situation has deteriorated so far, now that a meager living has turned into no living at all, must I be ashamed of what I chose to do as well?

Nor am I saying that I’m exactly the same as these girls. They have a Midwestern, blond exuberance that isn’t really my style; I doubt we’d be friends in real life. That said, it seems like they did their best to choose a career that suited their interests and skills: talking to people, engaging with new subjects, being creative and resourceful users of information. Yet the only response that seems to merit is, “Why the hell didn’t you become an electrical engineer?”

Our culture has always played the opposing sides between passion and a pension: love or money is a classic dilemma. But recently, the odds seem to have been stepped up, with every career guide imploring the reader to find what he or she truly loves, and the money will follow, and simultaneously, with money forming shallower pools where there were once lakes, and drying into dust where there were once puddles.

I’m certainly not blindly proud of being mathematically illiterate. I would gladly trade in my skills at writing and creating, whatever they may be, for happiness in finding the circumference of a circle or tinkering with an engine. Finding joy in a place where there is also job security seems like paradise to me. But I am the person I am, and my brain does what it does. I would be no asset to neuroscience or engineering, even if I could manage to pass the necessary classes, even if I could manage to accomplish the basic tasks of the stable, well-paying job.

Instead, I puzzle my way through the GRE’s questions, so simple in the mind of the engineer, and cross my fingers for even the part-time gig, the day of temping, the hours of pretending to be a hospital patient for minimum wage. Where I once felt the mild sting of resignation, I now feel the burning, sinking shame.

The Continental Drift

I’m still not exactly sure how I ended up completely without friends in this city. In the abstract, it reads like a series of tiny losses: my ex-boyfriend moving away and taking his friend group with him, the dissolution of an early friendship that I invested more time and energy into than it was worth, my being laid off…jolts to the index, tiny aftershocks, but not seemingly a cataclysmic event. Yet I look around, and the scene is desolate: my boyfriend stands there, alone, telling me it was San Francisco all along. So where did everyone go? 

The fact is, though, that I don’t live in Planet of the Apes. I live in a vibrant cityscape, shot through with laughter and chat and contemplation. It feels like a beautiful painting: meant only for speculation, observation, critique. Disturbing it would be like ripping a canvas off the walls of the Louvre, and greeted with about as much kindness.

San Francisco isn’t a friendly city. Neither was Boston, but I admit surprise at not having found some shreds of easy hospitality in such a seemingly hospitable place. In the past two weeks, I ate dinner alone at the bar of two different, well-regarded restaurants; both times, the bartender/server regarded me as some sort of invisible half-person. At the first, though there was no crowd to confuse her, the bartender served three couples and groups who came in after me before I was even handed a menu. She served them up special samples and let them try drinks, simultaneously plopping down my own $9 cocktail without a word. At the second, I got up in the middle of dinner to use the bathroom, leaving my bag on the seat. When I returned, a cheery couple had taken my seat and the one next to it. The couple realized, and offered to get up, but of course I couldn’t be a bitch and kick them out; grateful that I’d already finished eating, I quietly downed my drink and paid my bill while standing. The bartender who’d served me didn’t even notice what had happened. 

These are little incidents, petty Yelp-review trivia, but they also seem to have put a point on what I’ve been feeling during my time here: San Francisco is not an open society. Everyone here is content with their friend groups, their rituals, their scene; trying to find a path into one without a specially gilded invitation is downright impossible.

My one means of entry has been the recognition of my status as my boyfriend’s girlfriend. His scene is diverse and smart, full of people who have been friendly and kind; if we broke up tomorrow, though, I know I’d never see them again. And on nights when he’s away, I have no one to call; nowhere to go, ever, that doesn’t require his presence. I love him, and his friends, but that feeling is stifling.

Of course, I’ve gotten all the typical advice. Friends from work? Hard to do when you work from home, and mostly independently. Join clubs? My primary interests are reading, drinking, and watching movies–not exactly the Rotary. Take classes? The only free ones are at City College, and primarily consist of pre-conquered fields like learning how to use a computer and speak English. I even posted an ad in the “strictly platonic” section of Craigslist, describing my interests and looking for a casual friend to share the same. No one ever responded. 

I still have friends–in Boston and Berlin, Gainesville and New York City, Paris and Philadelphia. They write, call, Twitter, and generally inquire after me, but they can’t exactly come over for dinner. They could tell you that I’m funny and tenacious and full of interests and shower regularly, but why would you care? You don’t know them, either.

When I took the risk of moving out here without a guaranteed net of friends to fall into, I had no idea how poorly that gamble would pay off. The cliches of the “lonely city” and the isolation in a sea of faces? How were those possible? Sure, you couldn’t know everyone, but it seemed like you couldn’t help but know someone. Needless to say, these theories all rang back at me painfully when I clicked “Post” on that Craigslist ad. The sea of faces swelled past. From the lighthouse above, my lonely beacon revolved for the last time, and went dark.

While You’re Waiting For Moments That Never Come

Blogs, as anyone who’s ever kept one knows, are a pretty easy thing to give up on. The minutiae of life go by, people get busy, the initial excitement fades. For me, however, this blog wasn’t preempted by other stuff I had to do; if anything, I’ve had a surfeit of time, waterfalls of the stuff, in the three months since I lost my job. 

And while I thought about writing almost every day, I didn’t want to burden anyone with what I really wanted to write about: the endless pain, loneliness, depression, and isolation I was feeling. I had just started my life in San Francisco, and so many tiny tendrils of that adult emergence died along with my job: the nascent friendships with co-workers that were quickly dashed, the financial freedom that flip-flopped into terror of losing my house and terror of leaving it for the spendy outside world, the confidence that the American dream was buoyant and that my place in the meritocracy was buoyant. 

I’ve decided to write a little bit about these things because I feel like I can’t go forward trying to plumb for honest opinions on entertainments without first honestly expressing what I’ve felt for the past few months. And I know that it’s a buzzkill for a lot of people. This passage from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York sums up a lot of my feelings on the subject of sharing, oversharing, and the deaf ears that receive them both: 

Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I’m so angry and the truth is I’m so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen. 

I won’t go so far as to say “fuck everybody,” because people, a few people, have reached out from the world of their equally potent misery to try to sop up a bit of mine. Whenever I’ve been able to reciprocate, I have, but the truth is that most of my social world has stopped calling. They’re biding their time, waiting for the day when I emerge with my shiny new career (as, God willing, I someday will), waiting for the reassurance of discussions that don’t center around pain they can’t understand and problems they can’t solve.

And I really do want to give them that conversation, without grudges. But what I can’t help but feel as I probe the ruins of my adulthood-so-far is that there isn’t going to be any end to that grief, even in a best-case-scenario world where everything is done to a turn and I show up on the cover of Oprah’s magazine shouting with joy about how I’ve turned my life around. The paths we don’t take (or, in my case, the path that was closed off to me) still have their own strange lives, half-children of experience floating sadly in the imagination. New paths emerge, time moves forward, but these wraiths still swim and whisper about what could have been. 

In the empty days of November, I could have had the courage to keep typing away about movies while everything fell out underneath me. I could have the courage now to just say enough, and go back to writing about my cultural theories under the guise of the cheerful person who penned them six months ago. I could suck up my pain. 

But I’m not courageous. I’m just scared. What is unique about this fear is that it finds a rare release in the joys of taking in and taking apart art, and I’m no longer going to be afraid of admitting that it will have an enormous influence on what I see. This doesn’t mean I’m going to go ultra-morose, or turn every analysis into self-analysis, just that it feels better to have a contract (with you, the invisible reader), knowing that from here on in, you know the score. 

In my time away, I’ve read a million books, watched a slew of films, drunk 50,000 beers, and soon, I’ll try to lens in on all of them. But what I see when I look in the mirror isn’t the same, and the things that are a mirror of me have to change with that.

Seven Years of Bad Luck

Most of my friends (and, subsequently, most of my readers) are probably aware that I was laid off from my job with no warning last week. I won’t bother taking the time to rail about the SUPER AWESOME ECONOMY right now, as people with actual mortgages and kids are undoubtedly feeling things even more thoroughly than I am. However, in the immortal words of Martin Lawrence:

It’s hard to know what sort of culture to turn to when you’re feeling sticky and depressed and just generally unhappy as all hell. As I rode the 10 bus home a mere half an hour after disembarking it for my office, the music I kept hearing in my head was the tinny tin-pan clacks of Modest Mouse’s “Wild Packs of Family Dogs”: My father quit his job today / Well, I guess he got fired, but that’s okay. 

At that moment, I think I really did want the dogs to come and take me away. 

I put on the album, to distract me from my sniffling self and from all the people who were staring at me. And I listened to that song, and it was just as hollow and painful as I remembered. I wallowed in the sharp sting of recent memory, fingered my meager severance agreement, wondered what I would do next. The album kept playing. And through the fog between my ears, I could hear Isaac Brock singing: It’s our lives / It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the first time / It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the last time. The album I had put on to wallow in had grown up and gotten perspective without me. And even though I’d heard “Lives” a million times before, it seemed to have come to me in that moment, irrevocably right. 

Music does that to you sometimes. The things you put the favorite song or record on for, hoping to achieve a bit of catharsis, don’t always touch you the way they’re supposed to. And new meanings fall out of things previously parsed, like fruit from the top branches of a barren tree. There’s no doubt that we listen to music in order to complement our emotions: miserable songs and singers for moping, ebullient ones for the best days, loud punk to fuel our workouts and soft jazz to put us to sleep. But I wonder how much of our instincts are also drawn there to unconsciously listen for the part that gets the better of our intentions, whether it’s the sadness and vulnerability behind the screeching guitars or the piercing trumpet that breaks the piano lull. 

So my hope is that my life will be more like my albums: even at the dark moments, the track inevitably changes. Brighter things, or reminders of them, are always lying in wait. And the things you think are stable, for better or for worse, will always possess the power to surprise you. 

Besides, if you could be anything you wanted, I’d bet you’d be disappointed, am I right?

How to Make Secret References and Lure Unsuspecting People

Last Sunday night, Chris and I decided on the spur of the moment to go see a movie; at 10:30 on a Sunday, however, the only thing showing was How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. This blip of a film may remember itself to you from its preview (which ran before Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, and a number of other summer hits), but I doubt it’ll be in theaters at all come this weekend: it opened at a dismal #19, which is shockingly poor for a major-studio film in its first week of release. And I’m not going to insist that How to Lose Friends has much to recommend it, either; it’s a trifling romantic comedy that skirts some interesting moral issues in favor of being likable. Frankly, it’s not that likable. Simon Pegg (one of the impresarios behind the brilliant Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, as well as Spaced, which is on my to-watch list) gives the character his all, but it’s underdeveloped, and Kirsten Dunst’s perpetually-pissed-off love interest (the opposite, really, of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl turn in Elizabethtown) doesn’t really win a lot of affection from the viewer.

The interesting thing about How to Lose Friends, for me, was the handful of sly references that it dropped in the background. A minor plot point in the film is that Dunst’s all-time favorite film is La Dolce Vita, which, like How to Lose Friends, is about the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism. From my perspective, at least, this is weird. If you’re writing a crappy studio comedy about celebrity journalism, why would you drop in constant allusions to a film that is not only one of the greatest of all time– but also does a much better job making comedy out of celebrity journalism? And that’s not the only allusion in the film; Jeff Bridges’ editor character has the French poster for Godard’s peerless Contempt in his office, another film about…the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism.

“Maybe they just want to prove that they’re smart,” Chris noted, and while I do think that’s a relevant point, I think it may be even worse than mere ego. I think these little references are a cry for help– and this isn’t the only place I’ve seen them, either.

Almost every major-studio romantic comedy has some kind of tiny plot point revolving around a beloved piece of high culture. I remember almost nothing about Jennifer Garner’s Big clone 13 Going on 30 (including why I saw it), save that it had a number of references to Talking Heads in it. (They were the favorite band of the love-interest character, played by Mark Ruffalo.) My favorite movie around age 10 or so was the Uma Thurman-Janeane Garofalo rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a diffuse 90’s take on Cyrano de Bergerac. That film prominently featured Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre among more relevant plot devices, like a dog on roller skates.

I’m really not making that last part up.

So why the breadcrumb trail of high culture amidst the low? To me, it seems almost like a cry for help. Most young scribes don’t head out to Hollywood with dreams of writing 13 Going on 30. To put it in the terms of the best work on this subject, Barton Fink, they want to inspire the proletariat, and they usually end up writing a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But if one person who goes to see their middling romantic comedy picks up a Fellini DVD or a Talking Heads album, perhaps they can feel a little better about what they’re doing. And yes, proving they’re smart does have something to do with it, but I think it’s less grandstanding and more “Please realize that I have good taste and let me out of this cinematic ghetto.”

Or maybe all one incredibly savvy recruiting tool devised by studios: sneak a few brainy references into some dinner-and-a-movie pabulum, let one or two people follow the trail and become culture snobs, have those people come out to Hollywood with Big Dreams of being A Real Writer, assign them crappy movies to write. Repeat cycle indefinitely.

Either that, or let them become amateur film critics who warm slightly to crappy movies because of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to things they actually like.

No Country for Greedy Men

As usual, if you haven’t seen the film and want to, it’s probably best not to read this post.

The Coen brothers like to make movies about greed. Whether it’s the sizable sums of Fargo and The Big Lebowski or the more modest returns of Blood Simple, cheating, stealing, and generally playing fast and loose with the promise of wealth are hallmarks of Coen characters. Hell, they even made a movie about people stealing a baby. Come to think of it, I can’t come up with one Coen movie where money isn’t a central point of the plot– even Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, which don’t feature theft or cons outright, are still about the ethics of business, and how wealth and class interact.

So even though No Country for Old Men was a very serious film for the Coens, it wasn’t necessarily a departure from their major themes. In fact, it was almost a distillation of them: once Josh Brolin steals that money, you know he’s doomed sooner or later, and the outright admission of that point doesn’t detract at all from the pleasure of watching it.

Burn After Reading is a very strange thing: it’s No Country, recast in an upper-crust setting and, somewhat strangely, as a comedy. The Brolin stand-ins are the even more incompetent Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, as numbskull gym employees; filling in for Anton Chigurh is the equally foolish John Malkovich, a retired CIA agent whose memoirs the pair hold for ransom. As in the previous film, mix two unacquainted enemies, throw in a swath of supporting characters, add greed, and let the sparks fly.

The strange thing is that despite the film’s comedic tone, the stakes are no less lofty. People do die in Burn After Reading, a surprising fact that simultaneously elevates the comedy and makes the already shaggy-dog story even harder to read. Usually, the Coens can’t be matched for tonal consistency, but this movie definitely has some evenness problems: it’s equal parts spy-movie parody, Bourne-style shoot ’em up, and Lebowski-flavored bizarro comedy. The Coens also typically love regionalisms (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou), but this film has few. Maybe it’s because it takes place in D.C., a place where many people live but where few people are from; maybe it’s because the cast itself is so varied, from ultra-slick Tilda Swinton (with original accent!) to surfer-aping Brad Pitt to the always-unplaceable Malkovich (who further confuses the proceedings with some odd accent shifts and a smattering of too-perfect French pronunciation). It’s a weird thing to see a Coen film with little to no sense of place, and the background feels perfunctory rather than illuminating. Other than its involvement of a lot of government agencies, the plot of the film could take place in any city, and the variance from No Country‘s new-West setting is probably the biggest difference between the two films.

Burn After Reading also has a surprisingly large amount of throwaway gags that add up to nothing: Clooney’s character repeatedly eats foods he may or may not be allergic to, and there’s a bizarre number of appearances by the actor Dermot Mulroney and his fake film, Coming Up Daisy. (Mulroney is a somewhat failed rom-com actor, best known for My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I am utterly clueless as to why the Coens feature him so heavily, other than the fact that his name is really funny-sounding.) The title (probably a parody of the CIA memoir Burn Before Reading) also has nothing to do with the film’s content.

There is a wonderful and weird thing about Burn After Reading, though, in that it features its own Tommy Lee Jones-style Greek chorus. It consists of a CIA agent and his boss, played brilliantly by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and their observations are as trenchantly hilarious as Jones’ were poignant. They only have two scenes together, but those five minutes pretty much make the movie.

The funny part is that their conclusions are still the same as No Country‘s: greed is deadly, violence is senseless, and there seems to be no way to prevent either of them from sprouting up again and again. It’s the same lesson the Coens have been trying to teach us for over two decades, and it probably won’t be long before they find yet another innovative way to present it.

A Decidedly Wonderful Thing That Will Never Happen Again

As you probably know, David Foster Wallace was found dead on Friday, having hung himself in his home. He was only in his 40s. And he’s left a whole league of deep, deep fans completely bereft, myself included.

A lot of people have never heard of Wallace, or if they have, they know him as the author of Infinite Jest, a 1,000-plus page postmodern tome that was published in 1996. The book is primarily famous for being impossible to read (it’s not) and for having a lot of footnotes (it does, but many of them are awesome), so it’s not really surprising to me that Wallace never caught on with a lot of people. Once you read Wallace’s work, though, it was hard not to become a fan. And because he wrote so beautifully and vividly about depression, a lot of his fans (again, myself included) are sufferers.

This is hard for me– hard for us, if you don’t mind my speaking for a large group of people I don’t actually know, but with whom I share a distinct kinship. (Every time I’ve met a fellow Wallace reader, that person has usually turned out to be interesting in general and important to me in particular.) Wallace was an incredible advocate for the power of life, for the ability to go on despite the ever-encroaching personal and political despair that is living in America today. He defused so much of the modern noise and its pain by trying to find the humanity hiding underneath everyone and everything, from a game-show contestant to a sexual fetishist who enjoys burning women with his lighter to Lyndon B. Johnson. (And those are just examples from his first book.) And he was an unceasing advocate of this principle in life, too. An excerpt from his stunning Kenyon commencement speech, given in 2005:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and display. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

These appeals to the inner humanity are the things you’ll hear about Wallace in most of his obituaries; he was apparently also a great teacher and a really nice guy, though I didn’t know him in either of those capacities.

What everyone seems tentative about celebrating was how amazingly, explosively creative and funny he was as a creator of ideas. In her lukewarm summary, Michiko Kakutani even threw in a few potshots at him for it. Critics like Kakutani may claim that even the best fabulist needs a grounding in emotions for his work to make an impact, but even barring the fact that Wallace’s work comes packed with those emotions, his hyperactive brain is worth celebrating. Just a few of Wallace’s memorable set-ups: a group of freaks on LSD go to see a Keith Jarrett concert and attack a little girl whose hair fascinates them; a group gains control of a movie so amazing that those who watch it die of pleasure; a man whose voiceover-artist wife has just left him bursts into tears when he hears her announce the prices over the register at the grocery store.

In a literary world heavy on staid, sad domestic tales, not enough is said about how wonderful it is that imaginations like Wallace’s were able to continue flitting across the page. Was Wallace influenced by Pynchon and Gaddis and Barthelme? Absolutely. Did he still have soaring, funny, frighteningly sharp inventions of his own? Undoubtedly. Those inventions are no less worthwhile for being influenced by others. And when he decided (as he often did) to take on the things that were hard and serious and painful, his ability to reorder and reinterpret them was so wonderful to see and so comforting to behold. Combined with his capacity for language and his love for people, it was unstoppable.

The fact that he couldn’t find a more funny and reasonable escape from his own pain is something that will be hard for me to swallow for a long, long time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Wallace. It’s going to be hard without you.

Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est.
(They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier.)
Infinite Jest, footnote 32

The Noble “Savages”

When you set out to write something that matters to you, it always seems that the first thing to go is the idea of telling a story that no one has told before. I’m not saying that every detail of every story is the same (they’re like snowflakes in that way), but the basic plots still seem to repeat themselves over and over. I’ve set a goal over the next couple of years to write a novel, but the actual act of doing the writing isn’t what scares me; it’s coming up with a plot that’s smart and relevant and hasn’t been trod a thousand times before.

The Savages has that plot. And if nothing else, Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of the film, should be immensely proud of that fact. No one before Jenkins has made the film that seems so obvious given the number of people going through it each day: the endless war of attrition that is dealing with a sick, aging parent in America.

The Savages
stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon Savage, brother and sister. They’re both enamored of theater; she’s an aspiring playwright, while he’s a Buffalo academic writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. This aspect could have been badly handled from the start, but Jenkins wisely chooses to avoid the concept of theatrics in relation to the siblings’ actual crisis. That would be the dementia of their elderly father (Philip Bosco); when his longtime girlfriend dies and her family evicts them from the house, the siblings Savage are forced to deal with finding care for their father, from whom they’ve long been estranged (it’s implied that he abused them).

The estrangement thing is another cleverly avoided pitfall that could not be executed more simply: Bosco is just too far gone mentally to have a series of histrionic “You never loved me” scenes, and the childhood experience is dealt with quietly and sadly. Instead of being a constant source of tension because of his past, Bosco is really something of a shell, his self only surfacing from time to time, and not in the ways the siblings want. And so the story becomes much richer; Jon and Wendy have to take care not of the father they’ve steeled themselves against, but of a lost, dissolute version. And that makes their emotions about the situation infinitely more complicated. While Hoffman shuts down, placing Bosco in a comparatively modest facility, Linney, racked with guilt, tries to get him into a more elite nursing home. The interview goes disastrously; it has shades of overanxious parents trying to get their kid into a right kindergarten, and when it’s over, Hoffman blows up. I couldn’t find a clip, but here’s his speech:

Jon Savage:
Dad’s not the one that has a problem with the Valley View. There’s nothing wrong with Dad’s situation. Dad’s situation is fine. He’s never gonna adjust to it if we keep yanking him outta there. And, actually, this upward mobility fixation of yours, it’s counterproductive and, frankly, pretty selfish. Because it’s not about Dad, it’s about you and your guilt. That’s what these places prey upon.

Wendy Savage:
I happen to think it’s nicer here.

Jon Savage:
Of course you do, because you are the consumer they want to target. You are the guilty demographic. The landscaping, the neighborhoods of care; they’re not for the residents, they’re for the relatives. People like you and me who don’t want to admit to what’s really going on here.

Wendy Savage:
Which is what, Jon?

Jon Savage:
People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!

In one of the movie’s funniest moments, Hoffman abruptly cuts off this speech when he sees an orderly gently rolling an elderly woman in a wheelchair out for a walk.

And I think that’s what really elevates The Savages from other dealing-with-parental-problems stories: it’s deeply, darkly funny. Every time the grimness of the situation gets too out of control, Jenkins throws in a lovely counterpoint of wit. Another great example is a scene where the siblings try to help their father regain his memory by screening old movies he liked at the nursing home. The film turns out to feature a scene with blackface, offending everyone in the room; the good deed is decidedly punished.

Much was made in reviews of the film that the Savage siblings are abject failures. While they do have some obvious personal problems (they are not professionally or romantically successful, and Wendy seems to have a mild tendency towards compulsive lying), I think the “F word” seems to be a little harsh. They are conflicted people, aiming to do their best, and while failure is a part of that, they’re still bright and concerned. I don’t necessarily think that their failure is even supposed to be the heart of the film.

The failure that really concerns The Savages, and the one that I think will make the film an enduring one, is the American medical system’s need to keep the elderly alive at any cost. It’s an issue the Savage family has to face as their father approaches the end of his life, and the film is boldfaced about the inhumanity of growing old in America, the way that personal and religious guilt make the end of life a place of infinitely more suffering than it needs to be.

Towards the end of the film, Linney’s married lover has come to tell her that he is going to put down his beloved old dog; her hip problems have been painful for her, and if she gets the needed surgery, the recuperation will be long and arduous. At scene’s end, Linney asks him if he can do her a favor, and in the film’s final shot, we see her running by the river, encouraging the old dog to follow as her back legs are pinned to wheels.

This image has not left my mind since I saw the film, and as we face a generation of baby boomers who will age in ever-more-taxing ways, I wonder how often I’ll keep thinking of the dog on wheels.

The Twinkie Defense

Biggest Mirror apologizes for our recent decline in posts. The past two weeks have seen two moves, the most recent to an entirely new house that needs furnishings and work. Now that things have settled down, we aim to bring you the same high-quality pop-cultural analysis, dashed with mild self-hatred and moderate pretension. Kthx!

Moving changes a lot of your conceptions of what you will and won’t watch; the sake of roommate unity is often on the line, especially when you’re in the minority in the collective taste of a group. My new roommates are something like the Fairy Godmothers of entertainment technology; they flitted in with the biggest TV I’ve ever seen, a complete surround sound system for said, a PS3, an Xbox 360, a Wii, and an Apple TV. Overnight, I’ve gone from watching movies on my computer screen to watching them on a high-def monster in full Blu-Ray glory. So when they said they wanted to watch anime, I was certainly in no position to argue. My sheaf of French art films from Netflix are going to have to get some surreptitious viewing, that’s all.

I don’t have anything against anime on a constitutional level. In high school, I was briefly entangled by two Japan-loving friends into the genre, but I think they were disappointed when my tastes ran less to “Naruto” and more to “Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster” (still one of the funniest/raunchiest shows I’ve ever seen). The romantic fare, notably “Kare Kano,” played better with me, but it wasn’t compelling enough for me to really seek out the manga or the show.

We watched “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” a serviceable, if implausible futurist actioner. Even with its numerous plot holes, it looked damn good in Blu-Ray, and I found myself absorbed in a way I haven’t with many of the artsy-type films I’ve been watching lately. It reminded me of a time earlier this summer, when I was coaxed into viewing “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” which I also found shockingly entertaining.

My name is Allie, I write a high-culture blog, and I enjoyed “Resident Evil: Apocalypse.” There, I said it.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with watching these films. In fact, watching them has taught me to stop judging people as much for liking them (always a good thing when your primary hobby is soaking in pretentiousness). What’s even stranger, though, is that I’ve begun to wonder if my understanding of movies is really complete without ever having watched them.

I’ve been a big reader of film criticism since my earliest days; once I realized that critics seemed to champion most of my favorite early-childhood fodder (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), I quickly became enamored with reading whatever it was they had to say. Suffice it to say that I was the only twelve-year-old around who was seeking out Tarantino films and considered Philip Seymour Hoffman to be her favorite actor.

Part of the reason why movie critics don’t like genre movies, on the whole, is that they’re stubbornly formulaic. If you watch the latest cop, superhero, and horror films every week for a year, it’s not going to be long before you realize that there’s nothing new out there. So all but the most innovative genre flicks tend to get trashed. Critical teacher’s pet that I was, I learned to avoid them. Besides, how could I justify watching the Morgan Freeman thriller-of-the-week when I hadn’t seen anything by Cronenberg or Ozu or Renoir? There was a whole world of cinematic history to catch up on, and turning on some mindless Hollywood crap seemed anything but worthwhile in the face of all the learning there was to do.

I’ve come to realize, though, that watching Hollywood crap is maybe the only way to learn that these things are good. Every movie that’s made is going to give some kind of thrill: a really good stunt in an otherwise crappy action film, a hilarious throwaway line in a mediocre comedy. Dull colors, uninventive camera angles, bad acting, and poor plotting are mostly absent from the long list of modern classics; they’re all more or less perfect, and that’s great. But understanding that perfection from this perspective is like trying to understand what makes a really good meal without ever having had a bad one. You can enjoy the meal, but there’s no real point of contrast. (An alternative perspective: Oscar Wilde once said that “if nothing is serious, nothing is funny.”)

So I’m going to try to indulge in more movies that wouldn’t normally make my radar, and try to better understand what makes them a little less than perfect. When I do get back to my raw-food diet of international art films and classics, maybe a few Twinkies along the way will make me appreciate them all the more.

Or maybe they’ll just send me into glycemic shock.

All the Mad Young Advertising Men

I spent my most recent Sunday night catching up with “Mad Men,” which has now aired four episodes in its second season. I initially tuned in to the show because it combined two of my favorite things: period pieces (especially those from the 40’s to the mid-60’s) and what Tantek likes to call “meta-media.” Meta-media is, quite simply, the idea of a show within a show, or some kind of creative product within a show. Good examples are “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Sports Night,” all of which I really enjoy, as well as certain aspects of “Arrested Development.” Tantek coined this phrase specifically because he hates this kind of show, but as a creator (or aspiring creator) myself, I find the subject completely fascinating. I also think meta-media doesn’t have to be all about navelgazing– writers can, and often do, make potshots at what’s bad about their medium. (Network is a good example; so was “Sports Night”‘s ongoing deconstruction of the new corporate mega-media and the consequences it had for its pawns.) Not to ignore the fact that there have been missteps in the genre. Joel McHale does a great job summing up the train wreck that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:

“Mad Men” is unique, though, because it seems to be the first meta-media show that’s all about creative people ignoring the zeitgeist. If you know much about the history of advertising (and having been given a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising at age 7, I know a fair amount), it’s not hard to see that “Mad Men” is basically a series of dispatches from the decks of the Titanic. Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional agency, is the kind of enterprise that fell long and hard in the mid-60’s, as geistier talents like George Lois Julian Koenig* dragged advertising into the age of irony.

Last week’s episode was particularly pointed, as the established ad men mocked the younger, decidedly more ethnic talents interviewing at the agency. If you don’t know much about the history of American ads, their pointed envy, hidden behind a veil of racism, is still easy to recognize. Even if it’s only simmering below their consciousness, some part of them knows that they’re dinosaurs. If “Mad Men” offends you because of its overt misogyny and overindulgence, don’t despair: a big comeuppance is coming.

The problem with “Mad Men,” I think, is that it doesn’t let anyone enjoy this delicious irony quite enough. Yes, the ad men have their smoking-drinking-overeating-womanizing fetishes to attend to, but “Mad Men” never lets you forget for one minute that none of them are really having much fun. “Mad Men” seems to believe strongly in Thoreau’s adage that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And so, despite the glitter and indulgence of the period, all we see are pained, soul-searching characters, from protagonists Don and Betty Draper (Jon Hamm and January Jones) down to even the most minor waitress or secretary. Show creator Matthew Weiner used to write for “The Sopranos,” another very dark drama, but even that show usually had a dose of levity to counteract all the anguish. “Mad Men,” despite having almost none of its violence, makes “The Sopranos” look comparatively light.

I like “Mad Men” a lot. I think the writing is sharp, the acting uniformly excellent, the directing creative and well-thought-out. The level of period detail, from the costumes to the sets, is jaw-dropping. But I find it hard to really love the show, because it never gives me the impression that any of its characters will ever feel much joy. If they were a little happier, a little more attuned to their own needs, it might be possible to root for them; if they were a little more cruel or coarse, perhaps their ultimate demise might feel a little more welcome. Instead, we see them for what they are: sad, frustrated people, unhappy in objectively “good” lives, and about to see those lives get a lot worse. It could be the period: Weiner makes no bones about the thorough discrimination against women, immigrants, and blacks that thrived not too long ago. But that doesn’t explain the palpable pain of the show’s largest character constituency, well-off WASPs.

The only other explanation I can think of: maybe that’s what life is really like for everyone. If that’s true, I’ll be the first to congratulate Weiner on his willingness to paint a vision that’s thoroughly bleak. But even as a confused and easily disheartened depression-sufferer, I find Weiner’s world awfully morose. My life, at least, is shot through with some happiness, some occasional daily pleasures that leaven its tone. In “Mad Men,” sources of pleasure exist everywhere, but actual pleasure is almost nonexistent. This makes me want to classify “Mad Men” as a meta-drama: the first show in which every protagonist is not just beset by outside difficulties, but actively depressed as well. It’s the kind of show where you could expect any character to take to their bed for a week and think nothing of it.

Since the actually depressed and mentally ill (as opposed to the depressed-by-circumstances) are so rarely represented on TV, I guess I should be happy that my constituency is getting its own Emmy-nominated spotlight. As a sufferer, though, it’s almost overwhelming to watch Weiner’s little sadness corps parade by week after week. And so, I find myself asking the same question that Tantek does every time he scorns a meta-media show: “Whatever happened to escapism?”

* It’s come to my attention that Julian Koenig, not George Lois, was responsible for the copy in this and many other iconic ads. His daughter Sarah’s piece on This American Life discusses the situation.