not in our stars, but in ourselves
The days are getting colder and shorter, and I’m getting crankier and more cynical. What else is new, eh? I promise not to be 100% grumpy in this post, but I am really and truly grumpy about a lot of things this week.
1. As I started writing this, I found out that there had been yet another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino. What is wrong with us, America? This is incredibly scary.
2. Onto things that just make me grouchy, not panic-stricken: Do you know what I’m already sick to death of? That goddamn Pirelli calendar. In case you hadn’t heard, the 2016 Pirelli calendar – which has traditionally featured sexy women in scanty clothing, if any at all – will include photos of Amy Schumer, Serena Williams, Yoko Ono, Ava DuVernay, and others. Or, as this Guardian article puts it: “Pirelli calendar goes with less steam and more jokes for 2016.” It’s nearly impossible for me to express the ways I find this entire thing completely fucking horrible, but I will try to enumerate some of them. For one thing, there’s the idea that these women – who are soft and squishy like Schumer, or big and strong like Williams, or old and weird like Ono – aren’t as sexy as the usual Pirelli girls. I mean, they aren’t shot in sexy ways, so that’s part of it: they’re shot to show their squishyness, their musculature, their age, their supposed dowdiness and plainness, as if that’s somehow revolutionary. There was never any way for this to be revolutionary, obviously, but it is actually possible to shoot any of these women in a way that shows off their allure while also treating them like human beings instead of sex objects. See any number of photoshoots with Marilyn Monroe from the last couple of years of her life, when she was either fatter or thinner than she’d been at the supposed peak of her beauty, and marvel at how much lovelier she seems to be, how humane and intelligent she looks, even if she’s showing off her (always admirable, through thick and thin) figure.
For another thing, though, there’s the sheer poshlost inherent in the whole project. Now soft pink men can jerk it to Amy Schumer instead of Gisele (or whoever is usually in this crap) and congratulate themselves on their progressiveness. The whole point of a picture calendar like this is to have something visually appealing to glance at while you’re writing down your next doctor’s appointment (for those of us who are old-fashioned enough to write such things down on a physical calendar, and not to tap it into our phones). It is not to ponder the accomplishments of women who aren’t generally considered to be sex symbols. I just hate everything about it, and it galls me to no end that so many people I know – people I like and respect, even – are going nuts for it, with lots of “yaaaaasssssssssss” and “you go girl” sentiment. Please launch me into the sun. I don’t want to hear anything else about it.
3. People are all excited that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have said they’re going to give away 99% of their Facebook shares (in the stockholder sense, not in the viral clickbait sense, although there’s certainly plenty of clickbait in this story) to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which meticulously and vibrantly describes itself as “Advancing human potential and promoting equality.” These shares are apparently valued at $45 billion. Please note, however, that they have yet to give away a cent; and even when they do give their own shares to their own charitable foundation, it remains extremely unclear what they’ll actually do with that money. No, “promoting equality” isn’t a clear goal. Had Zuckerberg and Chan said they intended to donate some of their massive wealth to Doctors Without Borders, or to UNICEF, or to the Red Cross, or to Amnesty International, or to any number of extant charities that do real and important work – that would have been one thing, and a beautiful way to honor their daughter’s birth. But they have instead guaranteed lots of clicks, lots of goodwill, lots of headlines shouting that they’re donating $45 billion to charity, when that’s not really the case. If I were little Max Zuckerberg Chan (or Chan Zuckerberg, whichever it is), I’d be even more embarrassed about this publicity stunt than about my own name. (Which is embarrassing. Jesus, Mark and Priscilla, can’t you give the kid a break?)
4. I’m getting too riled up. Moving onto the good: the National Board of Review named Mad Max: Fury Road as the best film of 2015. This is objectively correct. I know the Oscars won’t get it right, so I’m deriving as much solace as I can from this. Good on ya, NBR.
5. On the subject of Furiosa et al., I read a truly amazing piece today called “Killing the Spirit of Fear: How Female Action Heroes Can Help Women Live Courageously” by Lauren Wilford. You’ll notice, if you hover your mouse over that link, or if you actually click on it, that the website is called Christ and Pop Culture. I bet you’re wondering if I’ve quite lost my mind. I am not, and have never been, religious. Nevertheless, I know good writing when I see it, and Wilford’s account of her upbringing in an evangelical Christian community – where she was constantly made to understand that, as a woman, she had little value beyond quietly supporting the men in her life – and how it took The Bride in Kill Bill for her to realize not only her value as a woman but also the true power of her faith is astonishingly great writing. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
There is a Christian case for confidence as the bedrock of an ethical, industrious life. Worry and doubt pull our focus inward and away from others. Consider Bonheoffer’s idea that “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Or the idea that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), or the apostle Paul’s call to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1–3). There is, frankly, so much to do in the Christian life, and we do not have enough stories in our culture that show women doing much of anything.
Enter Uma. Yes, The Bride is a figure of vengeance, with bloody ethics that leave no room for mercy. No one’s suggesting a youth group screening. But Uma Thurman’s performance in Tarantino’s films helped teach me a language for effort and power and excellence. I have never been at ease with the way that Christians use war imagery, but in this case I started to understand where it might be useful. Seeing myself as a warrior was more than I had ever allowed or imagined, and there are indeed fights to fight.
At the root of the word “protagonist” is “agon,” an ancient Greek word that means something like “struggle.” The “agonist” is an “actor,” but also a “combatant.” This is an actor in the sense of a person who takes action, who fights. Agon is the word that Paul uses in describing the “race set before us” in Hebrews 12:1 or the “good fight” in 2 Timothy 4:7. Importantly, this is the same root as the word agony. Agonia is used only once in the New Testament, to describe Christ’s struggle with fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was the quintessential protagonist, who answered a call, left his home, struggled, sacrificed himself went down into the pit, and returned home triumphant. Mythologist Joseph Campbell used the Gospel story as one of the sources for his “Hero’s Journey” model of storytelling. The Hero’s Journey is the most common template for our big-budget action adventure movies because this story of struggle is a universal tale we have been telling for ages. It is the human story—the story Christ embodied in his time on earth.
In popular culture, the Hero’s Journey is the stuff of midnight screenings and elevated heart rates and spontaneous applause at feats of stunning competence. It makes sense that we find these rousing stories in action films, where the fight is literal and the obstacles are physical. The agon is not just a metaphor here. A good action film puts us on the ground with the protagonist and keeps us cheering with their successes and cursing with their failures. As with sports, the connection is visceral. We read the lines of the human drama in the game and can’t help but be swept along.
Most of the time, however, we’re sold the idea that universal struggle is for men. Plenty of films feature women as supporting players. And plenty of films have female leads and explore feminine issues. But few films give us a protagonist in its full etymological sense—a character who suffers and transforms and rises to challenges, someone we can all root for and identify with—who also happens to be woman. So when a film gives us a genuine woman action hero, like in Kill Bill or this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it feels revolutionary. It feels like being told that women are human. It feels like being told that heroism is available to even one such as me.
I’m telling you: read the whole thing. I think about female power a lot, especially because I am – believe it or not – quite meek and timid in real life, at least up to a point. Not to advocate for running around with a katana or barreling down the road in a war rig – but holding those images in my mind, thinking of the strength they need to call on to stand up for what’s theirs, recognizing their courage in pursuing what they want and leaving behind that which no longer serves, can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic.
6. Reverse Shot’s “Unauthorized” series – in which they argue that a given film’s true “author” is not its director, but someone else – cinematographer, composer, etc. – included “Judy Garland’s A Star is Born” – and it’s deeply moving. For example:
It’s Garland’s voice—the darker shades it acquired after two decades of performing, the violent vibrato, the breathing verging on gasping—that makes it difficult […] to hear the song as anything other than an authentic cry of pain. And it’s their sharing of this same inimitable sound that makes actor and character impossible to disentangle. The scene assumes we understand that, in Garland’s hands, any sad love song is inescapably personal. Without her, such an unseemly outpouring this early in the film would lack all credibility. Esther necessarily becomes a palimpsest of the actor’s accumulated public selves, her voice containing the ghosts of younger, brighter Judy Garlands. And because we know the beauty of the singing originates from the depths of a life lived before A Star Is Born, we are led also to acknowledge an offscreen Esther, who for all we know may have suffered a pain that likewise preceded the camera. Garland’s public life, in its tawdry overexposure, sheds light on the places where her character has been granted relative privacy and mystery.
A Star is Born is, as the essay makes clear, a pretty uneven and frustrating film – but at the same time, it’s not to be missed. I mean, just look at this.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
7. To end on a ray of sunlight: my boyfriend, the best person in the world, got me Letters to Véra for my birthday. It’s a collection of all the letters Vladimir Nabokov wrote to his wife, Véra, and it’s marvelous. Listen to this one, from August 1925:
My sweetheart, my love, my love, my love – do you know what – all the happiness of the world, the riches, power and adventures, all the promises of religions, all the enchantment of nature and even human fame are not worth your two letters. It was a night of horror, terrible anguish, when I imagined that your undelivered letter, stuck at some unknown post office, was being destroyed like a sick little stray dog… But today it arrived – and now it seems to me that in the mailbox where it was lying, in the sack where it was shaking, all the other letters absorbed, just by touching it, your unique charm and that that day all Germans received strange wonderful letters – letters that had gone mad because they had touched your handwriting. The thought that you exist is so divinely blissful in itself that it is ridiculous to talk about the everyday sadness of separation – a week’s, ten days’ – what does it matter? since my whole life belongs to you. I wake at night and know that you are together with me, – I sense your sweet long legs, your neck through your hair, your trembling eyelashes – and then such happiness, such simmering bliss follows me in my dreams that I simply suffocate… I love you, I love you, I can’t stand it any longer, imagination won’t replace you – come.
I hope we’ve all been fortunate enough to love and be loved so ecstatically, but I don’t think many of us can express it quite so well. Oh, Volodya. If there’s any justice in this cold, horrid universe, you and Véra are together and happy for eternity. The rest of us will have to make due with your books (and correspondence – bless Brian Boyd and Olga Voronina.)