Monday, January 30, 2006

This Post Is Extremely Self-Referential

Having a site counter has made me feel I owe greater allegiance to my readers--there are few of you, but you're definitely there and it makes me feel cool. So I've determined to get more disciplined about my blogging, and to post at least four times a month. I will aim for more than that (this, for example, is my fifth post for the month of January), though I cannot guarantee it, but every month will include at least four posts of substance.

I thought for a while that I might break posts more into categories, as on Blue Skies Falling, but I do not use this blog as a personal journal, and beyond that, all of my possible categories (artistic, national politics, international politics, popular culture) tend to bleed into one another. So I've scrapped that. I can't figure out how I would tag a post like this. Business, I suppose, or pointlessness. Bilal also seems to have a pretty good tagging system set up. But categories have never been one of my great skills.

Also, recently my sister asked me whence came the name and URL of my blog. Since the last time I posted an explanation was over a year ago, I offer you this.

The Third Rail Theme
by Walt Kelly
published in I Go Pogo, copyright 1952 by Walt Kelly

The Party of the first Part
and the Party of the next
Are partly participled
In a parsley-covered text--

Were you partial to a Party
That has parceled out its parts
With the Party that was second
In your polly-tickle heart?

Then parlay all your losings
On a horse that's running dark--
With lights-out you may triple
In a homer in the park.

And if that doesn't explain it, well, I just don't know what does.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Guilty Pleasure

In China, my sister managed to acquire a full set of pirated Sex and the City DVDs, all six seasons. I asked her why she didn't get them for me, as well, and she replied that she didn't know I liked the show so much. "I do," I replied. "It's my favorite guilty pleasure."

"Why guilty?" Hallie asked.

Talia has long spoken of her great contempt for the show, and from her comes the opposite question: "Why pleasure?"

Years after the revolutionary popularity of its first season, long after the sexual exploits of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte and the new ideas of what a single, female Manhattan thirtysomething thinks about romance and carnal impulses have become embedded in the American and globalized ethos, here are my thoughts on Sex and the City.

Some might regard the show as a cultural touchstone of third-wave feminism. It is natural for these four characters to have jobs that earn them respect, to have fields of knowledge and expertise. They move through the upper echelons of high-powered Manhattan society with enviable ease. Each woman has a different place in these social spheres (from Miranda, a partner in a high-powered law firm earning enough to purchase a spacious apartment in an Upper West Side co-op building, to Samantha, a publicist on every conceivable financial and artistic A-list) and a resulting different take on her sexuality and vulnerabilities as a single woman. The diversity of these characters' views is such that within a year of the first episode, women all over the country were able to see themselves as "the Carrie" or "the Charlotte" of their social group. A woman's individual attitude towards sex and sexuality became acceptable; the show challenged--and successfully purged--long-held assumptions about women and pleasure that the second wave had not managed to flush out of the mainstream, and its characters are independent, capable, decisionmaking, three-dimensional beings.

Its characters are also white, priveleged, painfully elitist Manhattan liberals. While the four central ladies ostensibly come from different backgrounds and even earn divergent incomes, all of their lives seem to center around spending money, ludicrous and excessive amounts thereof. From the audience's perspective, the characters do little but spend money and have sex. We see moments of Miranda at work, but Samantha's work always seems to involve having sex, and until Charlotte chooses to leave her gallery for her husband (to the show's credit, a decision that shocks and offends all her friends), it's used only as a backdrop for the other three to meet sex partners. (Carrie's work, writing about sex, is of course the conceit of the show and therefore another matter entirely.) They embody the stereotype of decadent Manhattan so prevalent on television today, most notably in Will & Grace (which comparison Talia made--unfair in terms of quality, in my view, but perfectly fair in terms of the world and lifestyle they portray and endorse), showing a somewhat stupidly glamorized version of urban life. Of course, any television show creates an imagined city, but on SATC it is particularly glaring: some episodes seem to have been financially underwritten entirely by Manolo Blahnik. Viewing it, one often feels as if one is supposed to memorize (or already have an encyclopedic knowledge of) trendy Manhattan nightspots, to know how to take on such a lifestyle. The four women's liberated sexuality seems at some level part of their ludicrous, decadent lifestyle, rather than any kind of political--never mind feminist--statement.

To be fair, it's only now, at certain shorelines of the third wave, that class has even come into focus in feminist conversation. It's about time, certainly, but generally a television show does not break ground conceptually, but rather stands as evidence that ground has been broken, allowing what emerged from that break to enter the mainstream. But still, the lack of acknowledgement of the ludicrous class privelege marketed on the show does bother me. I recall in particular two episodes, "Attack of the 5'10" Woman," wherein Miranda contends with a new, Ukranian, moralistic cleaning woman, and "Ring a Ding Ding," in which an ostensibly close-to-penniless Carrie might have to move out of her rent-controlled, luxurious studio apartment as the result of a financially complicated breakup. In the first, Miranda's new cleaning lady, Magda, believes that Miranda should be more of a traditional female, and takes steps to make her into one--replacing Miranda's coffee with herbal tea, buying her a rolling pin so that she can make pies, which every woman should do, and claiming that if she uses a vibrator she will never get a man. Eventually she replaces the vibrator in Miranda's bedside table with a statue of the Virgin Mary, and Miranda threatens to fire her if she cannot handle the things that make Miranda a modern, independent career woman. The next night a dish of condoms appears on Miranda's bedside table, and somehow we're expected to find it moving. In the second, Carrie's ex-fiance, who purchased her apartment and the apartment next door before he became an ex, gives her thirty days to buy her place or be evicted. Having less than eight thousand dollars in her sole bank account, and no source of income besides the column, Carrie is turned down for a loan, and has to consider briefly the $40,000 she spends annually on shoes and her endless taxi rides before Samantha and, after much drama, Charlotte agree to lend her money for her down payment. Both of these episodes offer manipulative, almost-absurd balm for the decadent soul. Hallie says, in some ways appropriately, that the show's not about class, and given that it handles it as best it can. However, the writers do bring in these subplots, resolve them awkwardly, and then close episodes as if these issues don't linger. This is noteworthy because SATC, uniquely among television's lighter fare, permits itself to leave questions unanswered, allows doubts to linger from one episode to the next. Its kneejerk answers therefore stand out. Ultimately, I think something that focuses so much on its class privelege should not be allowed to evade the issue by "not being about class." In marketing "The Twelve White Steps," damali ayo claims that "the first step is admitting that you have a race," and I think it's about time that the same sentiment came into discussions about class. No class is neutral, any more than any race is neutral, and honestly I think that acknowledgement is the only thing that will keep isolationist identity politics (by which I mean, identity politics and nothing but) from holding progressive discussion in thrall. SATC somehow manages to make its characters' decadence neutral, and therefrom springs my guilt at enjoying it--their sexual/romantic decadence as well as their financial, I should add. The fact of the matter is that most single women neither have such a constant dating or social life, nor the money to spend thereupon.

But it would be nice if we could have that kind of life, that incesssant access, and therein lies part of the pleasure. Sex and the City, like many higher-end television shows and movies, takes a realistic emotional universe and places it in a relatively unrealistic, or at least inaccessible, practical one. Certainly there are people who live like the characters on SATC, I've spent too much of my life living in New York to deny it, but for the most part it remains a distant wish, a lifestyle we follow as we follow Hollywood glitter trails. Some read Us Weekly. others watch Sex and the City. Part of it is that simple.

However, part of it is not, and I don't want to be so dismissive of something with substantive artistic merit. Sex and the City is also an extremely well-written show (the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth season standing as a glaring exception) that approaches human relationships, and the passage of time, with unusual care and candor. Its characters are whole, distinctive, and by no means limited to their class privelege. And artistically, I think it would be a greater failure if its characters were nothing but their class and their sexuality, like the characters on Will and Grace, than it is to have a blind spot about class privelege and social context. While the show closed far too neatly and heteronormatively, which I discussed last year, its characters went through some very honest and very skillfully limned journeys, each one ending the show in a different emotional place than when they began, which is far more than one can say of almost any sitcom. I care about the characters on Sex and the City; I criticize their clothes, I disagree with many of their choices (Carrie's in particular--they stand out more because she's intended to be the Everywoman) and feel the show is wrong to endorse them, but the show also makes me react deeply within its world, rather than simply making me react deeply as a cultural critic. It's written, acted, and thought out better than most contemporary television, film, or theater. Not approving of the world in which the show takes place, and the way in which the show honors it, must be separated from not approving of the show.

And yes, I acknowledge that many disapprove of the show for reasons other than those I've just examined. Many find its attitude about sex callous rather than casual. I disagree; I think the show knows very well the difference between casual and non-casual sex and takes pains to clarify it. It also honors the choice to have, and the investment in having, casual sex. Some characters have trouble with it, others don't. But the show takes place in a world where the choice and the examination of the choice are honored. If that troubles you in the first place, it's clearly not the show for you. It also raises, and leaves unanswered, the question of whether a certain level of casual sex makes finding (or discerning) love more challenging. It's a question we have yet to answer as a society--probably there's more than one answer anyhow--and kudos to a show marketed on its embrace of casual sex for putting it on the table. Sex and the City is in fact tremendously sophisticated in its regard for its characters' emotional life, and even in its social contextualization of sex. Someday, the show will be prepared to acknowledge that it is indeed about class, but it could be that even in eight years discussions of class have moved substantially forward--that it *wasn't* about class when it aired at the same level that it is now. I'm not certain about that one, but it's worth mulling. On that front, I will leave with the same thing I ultimately concluded about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: that the fact that it doesn't do everything doesn't mean it has done nothing. Sex and the City is not retrograde; where it threatens to be, its characters are specific enough to save it. It moved some social examinations forward and ignored, or failed to acknowledge, others. For a television show to move anything but money forward is a tremendous accomplishment.

I feel guilty about loving Sex and the City the same way I feel guilty about the class privelege inherent to my upbringing. But love the show (and my upbringing) I do. Its decadence doesn't obscure the honest, detailed emotional lives of its characters, its nuanced portrayals of relationships both romantic and non-romantic, and those portrayals make its occasional errors, failures of logic, obnoxious moments, excusable, if not entirely forgivable. Its omissions are no worse than those of society at large, and its actual examinations of some truly important issues (though not all the issues it brings up) should be acknowledged and honored. Also, simply, it's fun to watch.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Laws of War, Wars of Law

Today's New York Times contains several articles of public interest, most notably about bin Laden's latest tape and Gonzales's attempts to rationalize the administration's Fourth Amendment violations.

Man, I am sick of everyone involved in this conflict.

That seems a callous way to put it, and obviously I would not be so callous were I feeling more raw about bin Laden's actions, or were I Iraqi or Pakistani with a recent memory of Bush's. Is there any way to discuss being sick of all these men without equating all their actions? Is it appropriate to equate all their actions? I guess that begs the larger question: in an age of terrorism and globalization, when the national boundaries imposed by colonizers on many parts of the world are finally showing themselves to be arbitrary and fallible, when nations fight wars against abstract concepts rather than other nations, to what degree does a state's sanctioning an action mean anything?

What Bush has that bin Laden does not are national--non-privatized--resources for destruction, the implied consent and support of three hundred and eighty million people for his actions, and the ability to conduct not only his attacks but his plans therefor in the open. Each man believes his cause to be righteous and each man's values are, ultimately, inimical to mine. Bush is also to some degree constrained by and invested in secular mores, which bin Laden is not. Bush is (ostensibly) beholden to a secular, constitutional legal system, which limits crusades, and bin Laden has no such limitations. I don't know, have no way of knowing, what Bush would be without them. Probably somewhere he is a reasonable man who can control himself and his thoughts and his actions; I've certainly never known the intoxication either of stress or of power at that scale. But as he shows less and less respect for a system intended to keep his actions in check, one has to wonder.

bin Laden has it right on one important count: when it comes to the War on Terror, U Can't Win. (Bottom of the webpage.) Yet it may, in some ways, be the War on Terror that has validated bin Laden's activities. As in, by waging a full-scale war on al-Qaeda we've validated them as an enemy. Instead of treating them as dangerous rogues, we've made them into a valid, cohesive enemy. But there again is our failure: that they aren't really a cohesive enemy and won't fight us in this traditional frame. We don't have a clear idea of what we're fighting for or fighting against; we can't, since our enemy hasn't taken on that cohesive a form. A War on Terrorism is unwinnable; could anyone think for a second that eliminating al-Qaeda will eliminate terrorism, that eliminating bin Laden will prevent another such demagogue from springing up in his place? A war on al-Qaeda, on the other hand, could be won, but are we better off declaring war--all-out, state-sponsored war--on a several hundred people than we are declaring war on an abstract concept?

Wikipedia has a pretty well-reasoned, fair and balanced definition of terrorism. The Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary beside my desk defines it as "[t]he unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons," not specifying the instigators beyond that.

While I recognize I'm walking a fine line here, I'm still not comfortable saying Bush is as bad as bin Laden--but more and more I wonder if it's just my American ignorance that allows me that discomfort. Our decision here, and it is one I have not yet made, is how much we accept the authority of a state to act as a force, an instigator, in a globalized society, how much the United States still gets to look out for number one. Bush's War on Terror does not, ultimately, conform either to the rules of war or to the rules of the country in which he lives and which he rules. If a state, in the current world, has more right to attack haphazardly, to inflict terror, to destabilize than has a rogue force more bound to a concept than a nation, then Bush ethically has the upper hand. But only then.

And if the state has more authority, than certainly the state has substantially greater responsibility to conduct itself ethically, ethically according to the codes it has set up within itself. Whatever difficulties there are with the Supreme Court (and soon-to-be Justice Alito), the Constitution embodies the ethics of government. The Constitution is a conscience. Upon ignoring it, one loses the right as a representative of the government to decry unconscionable actions and be listened to.

I wonder about the concept of a truce: obviously no one should accept a truce with unspecified terms, and there's no way to contact bin Laden, since any American who might happen to see him would be unable to resist killing him. But what's he asking for? Is it, indeed, a sign of defeat or suffering, as Cheney would have it? Certainly bin Laden is not sane enough that he'd ever stop what he has been doing for much of his life, and he's right that the greatest asset of terrorism with no allegiance to a state is that it can wait, and can hold societies in thrall just by waiting, and thereby take all the time it needs. I can't say I feel like making bin Laden a sympathetic figure, but why would he try for a truce? What does he have to gain? Did he simply want to flummox commentators, and so threw it in without any specifics purely for that purpose? Again, not something I would put past him. He may also want to appear to have a political (not religious) motivation, if a flimsy and cursory one. If the United States rejects his truce, as he might see it, they're inviting him to act.

The Bush administration's particular engagement with bin Laden has, in some ways, prevented our seeing him as insane. It engages with him as if he's not a rogue, not in combat, as if he might someday be bound by the same rules they pretend to be bound by, and should be bound by. He's not, and never will be. Someday America will be again. That, or it will cease to be America altogether. I guess both of those things are equally possible.

I can't say I hate America, or hate Americans. But I hate what this administration has caused "being American" to mean.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

But It's Eternal! And There's Sunshine!

ML Kennedy, who lived in my college dorm, writes a column on insidepulse called "Contradicting Popular Opinion: An Enquiry Concerning Why Your Favorite Movie Sucks." I read it regularly now that I have a desk job, and find that more often than not I agree with his assessments (at least of the movies I've seen). I've generally been a fan of his movie tastes, in one way or another: most noteworthy, he ran my dormitory's favorite hangout and during the 2000 election curated a Sunday-night movie series called "Monkey versus Robot." So I'm a fan. However, he posted several months ago in his column a very articulate and interesting deconstruction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which may, in fact, qualify as my favorite movie. Having read it, I brought it up to Lucas and Bri, only to find they felt the same contempt for the movie, in particular for Kate Winslet's character, Clementine, seeing her as antifeminist, pretending independence while clearly being as messed-up and in desperate need of a man as a character could be. I suddenly found, after the fourth time I'd seen the movie and loved it just as much, how many people in the world didn't like it, which I hadn't managed to know the first three times I'd seen the film. Now, still loving it after a fifth viewing, I feel honor-bound to defend the only movie whose DVD director's commentary I have ever watched.

I recognize, for the record, that this will end in disagreement; I'm unlikely to change anybody's mind. But I'm tired of the smile-and-nod, "yeah, you're right, I know you're right . . . but I still like it!" sheepish routine I sometimes end with. This is about what makes the movie important.

I'll start with ML Kennedy's central claim that nothing is at stake. At the beginning of Eternal Sunshine, we could be watching any relatively good romantic comedy. We're reading over the shoulder of an awkward, shy man writing in his journal; on the train he meets an awkward, abrasive woman and they experience instant, awkward chemistry. He gives her a ride home from the train station, she awkwardly invites him up to her apartment, and clearly they've connected enough to meet again. After which point the narrative jumps back a day, allowing us to learn that they have, indeed, met before; in fact, they dated for two years before having one another erased from their respective memories, a radical non-surgical procedure discovered by Dr. Howard Mierswiak and performed by smart, socially inept, clumsy, pot-smoking technicians, employees of Mierswiak's medical company, Lacuna, Inc.

It may be that some people find this premise too outrageous to deal with; once the concept came into the film, I thought it was clear we weren't dealing with a realistic universe. Kennedy has a point in noting that the procedure, upon its discovery, might be put to more productive use, but at the same time, in a capitalist system, why not use a new scientific discovery solely in the private sector in order to maximize your profit?

After this point, the majority of the film takes place in Joel's unconscious as his memories of Clementine are being erased. We see the relationship backwards through time, from the harsh argument that characterized the recent time to the genuine intimacy, back through the first buzz of falling in love. Imagining meeting these characters in my world, I don't believe I would like either of them: Joel's dull, repressed, and incapable of living in the world in a way that interests him, while Clementine's melodramatic, self-serving, likes being weird better than she actually likes her life. But more than either of the characters, the relationship itself becomes the protagonist of the film. It is the relationship, not either of the characters, that I found myself loving in spite of its faults and difficulties, caring about and rooting for. More than either of the particular characters, it's the relationship that continually surprises, that we learn things about as an audience, the relationship whose journey we are invested in. These people, however damaged and difficult, managed to make each other happy. What is at stake is the journey of the relationship, which we see grow and change, if in an unconventional narrative way. We know they've somewhat gotten back together from the beginning of the film, but we've seen it end in disaster before, and I'd say suspense is present. Will they waste two more years of their lives, will they realize what's gone on, can they?

It could be argued that the storyline with Kirsten Dunst is a deus ex machina, but I don't find it so. Tom Wilkinson is a good enough actor to demonstrate the ethical struggle involved with that situation, to show his journey and his confusion, and our investment in his performance and therefore his character justifies the eventual outcome. Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is not a good actor; everyone knows and acknowledges this. However, as far as I'm concerned she does a perfectly adequate job in this film. I feel about her as I feel about Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love: with a better actor in the role, this would have been an even better movie, but it's strong enough around Kirsten Dunst that she doesn't detract from it, simply remains neutral.

Kennedy claims that the characters in the movie learn that love causes pain as well as pleasure. I'd say they learn the opposite, and that that's a much more difficult lesson to portray. The founding principle behind Lacuna is that the pain isn't worth it; that's why each character who's gone through the procedure chooses to do so. Ultimately, the movie acknowledges what our society so often fails to acknowledge: that just because something does not exist does not mean that it never existed. In this case, that "something" is love, and happiness therein.

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, who in my viewing experience had one source of absolute intellectual fascination (Being John Malkovich) and one intelligent abject disaster (Adaptation) under his belt when I saw Eternal Sunshine, is a brilliant man with a tendency to be an intellectual jerkoff, a tendency I found almost nonexistent here. Interestingly, the quirky concept that was the center of the movie, rather than being prodded ad infinitum as in Adaptation, became casual, came to serve the story he was telling rather than be the story he was telling.

Then there's Elijah Wood's character, Patrick, the dorky, desperate, unethical assistant Lacuna technician who stole Clementine's panties while erasing her memory and starts a relationship with her based on the information provided by Joel's memories. Completely without independent thought, without any understanding of women, he attempts to recreate Joel's relationship with Clementine, which triggers in her some undefined echoes of the erased memories. Kennedy believes that to make Patrick and his ethical violations work, we should have seen him and Clementine having sex. Would it be rape? he asked. If so, could we do anything about it? They're interesting questions, certainly, nothing I would object to having answered by the movie. But it's not evasive not to answer them; in some ways, I feel that the storyline with Howard Mierswiak and Mary (Kirsten Dunst's character) serves that purpose. In the scene between them at Joel's apartment Tom Wilkinson clearly struggles with the sexual question; the scene with Mierswiak's wife and the aftermath of her revelation is so well-written that even an actor as bland as Kirsten Dunst can convey the conflict inherent in her sexual desires. I agree that Kaufman has not explored every possible social and ethical repercussion of his imagined technology, but so what? These questions arrive from what is present in the movie, and the fact that he hasn't pushed one of the many limits does not signify to me that he has not pushed others.

I'll concede that the people waving at the camera are a substantive problem, even though I haven't spotted them yet. That's sloppy filmmaking, and for it Gondry, the director, deserves to be chastised. However, I don't feel it exemplifies the general attitude towards quality in the filmmaking, and I would have a bigger problem if it did.

Also, I'll defend the slight presence of the supernatural/unconscious/psychic that causes Joel to skive off work and find Clementine again in Montauk. The film emphasizes that we don't know everything. We don't know everything about love, or about memory; we sometimes know results without completely understanding processes; it is possible to know something's missing (in both love and memory) without knowing what or how to find it. I'll say openly that I don't have trouble believing in psychic abilities either, although I don't have them; I can't see a logical reason why they wouldn't exist, why such intense sensitivity to others and to their mental states shouldn't exist in some people. Certainly that mysticism requires stretching our credulity, but so does love. Eternal Sunshine, like most films, exists in an altered universe. The realities of this universe are clearly defined within the film, and if they don't match up point for point with the universe I inhabit, I can live with that.

Is Clementine a hateful or antifeminist figure? She certainly contains some of the problems of the New Ingenue (about which figure I will do a longer post later) and her relationship with Joel, as with the standard male counterpart to the New Ingenue, takes those difficulties even further: always the intelligent, crazy girls (girls not women) are attracted to the boring, stolid guys and are able to bring out the creativity lurking beneath their bland exteriors, making the man's dawning, excited revelation into something like, "My girlfriend is beautiful and intelligent and fascinating and provocative and desperate and unstable--and she needs ME!" Always the New Ingenue seems like she's more solid and more capable of living in the world, but as she becomes more intimate with Boring Man she falls apart and we can see that he's a pillar of stability for her. (Most of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are from real life, and therefore I will ignore them. I'll come up with more films and plays when I do the New Ingenue post, but the Hooker with the Heart of Gold is her predecessor.) Eternal Sunshine doesn't violate this pattern--indeed, the scene under the blanket is its archetype. Yet I love that scene. Particularly in intimacy, I'd say we've all got some cliche inside us; perhaps it's only in intimacy that we can honestly know why cliches become cliches. And Joel has not, thus far, shown us very much of that stability, which undercuts some of the typical New Ingenue. Again, I'd say the movie is showing a man at least as embarrassingly incompetent at living his life as the woman. Certainly it's a bigger deal when a cinematic woman is incapable of living a fulfilling life than when a cinematic man is, but this movie more than most succeeds at making its relationship completely individualized, not compelling its woman to be every woman--perhaps because it spends so much time portraying intimacy, what is between two people that isn't relevant to anyone else. Is Clementine hateful? I wouldn't like her, but it's about time people started making cinematic women specific enough for me to dislike.

Talia's always insisted that at the end of the movie means that they will do better this time, that they were meant to be together, and that makes the film better. I don't think they will, I don't think they were any more than I think anyone else is, and I think that doesn't matter to the quality of the movie; in fact, to me the idea that it will still end badly makes it an even better film. If the characters have Learned Something by the end, it seems to be that sometimes things don't work and yet they're still worthwhile. What Joel has heard on the tapes isn't "this is the woman for me," what he heard was how deeply well he had known this person, this stranger, and how beautiful that knowledge was, even when its results were painful. The fact that they will break up doesn't mean they should not have gotten together in the first place; what's a waste is erasing two years of your emotional life.

The first few times I saw it, I thought the intelligence behind the movie was so strong that you could throw against it any questions you had regarding the Lacuna procedure and the film's logic would still stand. After a fifth viewing, I've come up with a number of questions: given how sweeping Joel and Clementine's erasures had to be, how was it possible to erase the *relationship* with Howard Mierswiak from Mary's memory without erasing Howard himself? How could Mary say to someone on the phone "you can't have the procedure done three times" when Lacuna customers don't remember that they have been Lacuna customers in the first place? Why does Lacuna trust the patients to remove every trace of the person to be erased from their household--wouldn't they need to do a sweep themselves, lest somebody keep an object for sentimental reasons or by means of neglect, as we find Joel has at the end of the film? But the intelligence and truth and honesty within the film are strong enough to conquer minor difficulties--it's excellent art that, like most excellent art, made a couple of mistakes. When I see a film that's both perfectly made and as deeply moving as this one, I'll happily move it down on my list, nor have I seen enough of the Top 100 Films to which Kennedy refers to object to its placement as number 31. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind unquestionably put something into the cinematic world that was not there at all before, and emphasized elements of human relationships that particularly in contemporary filmmaking are rarely explored. For that it deserves its high praise.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Secrets I Have Hid

My obsession with Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day" at long last led me to acquire his Michigan and Illinois albums. I was particularly eager to hear the much-discussed song on "Come On Feel the Illinoise" (do album titles go in quotation marks, or get italicized? I'm not sure) entitled "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

John Wayne Gacy, Jr., for those who do not know (I didn't until I heard about the song) was a notorious Chicagoland serial killer. He raped and murdered 32 young men between 1972 and 1978, twenty-seven of whom he buried in the crawlspace below his house. Neighbors visiting his home would comment on the smell, which he claimed was a broken sewer that he'd already sprinkled lime on. He was tried for the murders in 1980 and executed in 1994. He's particularly notorious as a "clown killer"; he was known to dress as "Pogo the Clown" for neighborhood parties, and Stevens' song speculates that he also dressed like a clown while suffocating his victims (I've yet to do enough research to know whether this is more than speculation). Prior to his murder spree, he'd spent a year in prison for raping a fifteen-year-old boy (sentenced to ten years, but paroled after eighteen months for good behavior).

In terms of pure musical and lyrical mastery, I was not nearly as impressed with "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." as my friends had been and as I anticipated being. It's melodically simple, with the same impressive arrangements that define all of Stevens' songs. But the lyrics are not nearly as skillful or moving as most of his other songs, and really I find them dishonest and difficult to deal with. I refer in particular to the ending "In my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid," but there are other moments in the song that veer in the same direction.

First, let me refer you to Textaisle's post on the subject. Textaisle clearly and skillfully articulates some of the problems within the song. Rather than pin it solely on Sufjan, though, I'd say it also stands as evidence of the weird, misguided, poorly thought-out backlash against the culture of aggressive individualism, the kneejerk liberal notion that we must sympathize with everyone because we're all the same inside.

And it's just not true. I assume that Stevens intends to convey not only that he himself is just like Gacy beneath his floorboards, but all of us: if we were to take an honest and deep enough look at ourselves, each of us would find corpses hidden beneath his floorboards. Perhaps I'm too much of a literalist, but using a serial killer as a metaphor for buried romantic injury seems a bit beyond the pale. And if it is not a symbol, then Stevens is just wrong. No matter how deep inside myself I look, I will not find that I have the same impulses as a serial killer, and I'm comfortable asserting that the same holds true for most of my readers. In describing the victims, Stevens also asks "Are you one of them?" Ultimately the only two options the song offers are to be a victim ("boys with their cars, summer jobs") or to be "really just like [Gacy]." Which strikes me, coming from a songwriter who can combine raw emotion with artistic skill like few others, as painfully dishonest, socially as much as anything else. It's awfully . . . well . . . it's awfully if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us.

Obviously Gacy exists in a context, as does anyone, and obviously the context contributes to his crimes. Stevens nicely (though not, in my view, beautifully) limns some of this context in his lyrics, and there's also the context of the society in which Gacy lived, beyond his family and community life. But individuals also exist. Seriously, they do. All of us are certainly poisoned to some degree by the ills of society, which may be what Stevens is trying to say, but again I don't think a serial murderer is a justifiable symbol for us all. Gacy was seriously ill, seriously damaged and seriously sadistic. Most of us are none of those things. I admit, as everyone should, that there is plenty to be found beneath my floorboards, but no corpses. That was Gacy. Contrary to Stevens' lyrics, I think that is a perfectly fair distinction.

Additionally, in Googling Gacy after hearing the song a few times, I found another small source of righteous indignation: articles that referred to Gacy as a notorious/prolific/insert dramatic adjective here "homosexual serial killer," or, if not in such explicit words, discussed his repressed homosexuality as if it obviously foreshadowed his crimes. Now, forgive me, but I can't say I see the qualitative difference between a homosexual serial killer and a straight one. Certainly the fact that Gacy raped and killed boys adds an even greater element of sensationalism than the average serial killer has (indeed, one biography of Gacy is entitled The Man Who Killed Boys), but the implication that "homosexual" somehow belongs with "serial killer" in the titles that encapsulate his fame is REPUGNANT. Millions of homosexuals, even hundreds of thousands of closeted homosexuals, do not become serial killers. Certainly I've read enough Thomas Harris to know that repressed homosexuality is part of the psychological profile of serial killers who rape their victims, and the details of Gacy's repressed homosexuality tell us something about his crimes, but does it not strike writers that something having nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality must first be tremendously off? Do these people not recognize how irresponsible their writing is, or do they not care, or do they do it on purpose?

So far, everyone I've read or heard writing about John Wayne Gacy, Jr., has felt somewhat irresponsible. Someday I'll be able to take one of those biographies, and I'll see what I think.