and if you go chasing rabbits

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired in CBS’s coveted Sunday night primetime slot for three seasons between 1967 and 1969 before its controversial cancellation with one episode still in the can. Pulling in around 12 million viewers per week — approximately one fifth of the total number of homes that owned a television in late 60s America — it more than held its own against NBC’s western hour-long Bonanza, whose fourteen-year-long popularity makes a lot more sense when you learn it was one of the first regular colour telecasts in a sea of grainy black and white (and even more once you’ve seen a young Michael Landon — aka Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie — holding court as Little Joe). The charm of Tom and Dick’s shtick lay somewhere between Ant & Dec and Craig Ferguson: cheeky and affable, dapper without quite being handsome in their matching side-parts and blazers; spry and absurd, their subversive intent plated in glinting smiles and feigned naivety. As the show continued, with the help of a provocative young writing team including Bob Einstein and Steve Martin, the pair increasingly allied themselves with Haight Ashbury philosophy and the anti-Vietnam movement, pushing the boundaries of political satire both overtly and subtextually, and the show became so well-thought-of in countercultural celebrity circles that The Beatles chose it to premiere their 1968 proto-music videos for ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ in the United States (a full month after they were shown on The David Frost Show in the UK). Earlier in the show’s run, on 7th May 1967, Jefferson Airplane burst onto the mainstream with this performance of new single ‘White Rabbit’ — the first time the band had been televised in colour, with psychedelic special effects worthy of a 90s school disco and Grace Slick’s preternaturally steady gaze boring down the camera. Introducing the band, Richard Smothers encourages the audience at home (to the delight of those in the studio) ‘to… eat a banana while you’re watching this — or smoke a banana as my brother said, but actually he’s pretty far out, even for me.’

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It’s hard now to imagine an entire month’s wait between the transatlantic premieres of a new recording by the biggest band in the world, and just as hard to imagine what it must have felt like to watch this hallucinogenic spectacle as a contemporary adolescent (or as one of their permanently-disconcerted parents). Although the cultural sea change was well under way, ’67 was the year pop music outgrew the rainy day women and magic dragons of its gateway drug to embrace the mind-bending lures of LSD and psychedelic rock in the heady lead-up to the Monterey Pop Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The Beatles had already made their quantum leap from the woozy folk-rock of 1965’s Rubber Soul (featuring a brief sitar experiment from Harrison on ‘Norwegian Wood’) to Revolver and the trippy tamboura and tape-loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in August 1966, but Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its more deliberate ode ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, would not appear for another month, and it was especially shocking to see an attractive and self-assured young woman — not a bedraggled bearded burn-out — espousing the sublime joys of drug experimentation. (Contemporaries such as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez may well have walked the walk, but didn’t so explicitly talk the talk. Though of course this presumes that the audience at home understood what the lyrics were truly getting at when in fact they — and the majority of censors at the time — didn’t quite.) Indeed, the acid anthem wasn’t just sung by Slick, brought to life by her trademark primal howl and shamanistic intensity, but was one of two tracks she had brought with her from disbanded project The Great Society, the other being Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 single ‘Somebody to Love’, which achieved a similar level of success and renown. In an unlikely meeting of influences, ‘White Rabbit’ is inspired musically by Maurice Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ (1928) and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (1960), and lyrically by her childhood love of Lewis Carroll’s Alice volumes, as Slick guides us steadily to an orgiastic crescendo with her winding, cameo-heavy retelling of the tale.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is very much how I experienced things. She grew up in rigid Victorian England, but she arrives in Wonderland, and suddenly it’s nuts, it’s political, and she’s all by herself ­– no Prince Charming comes and saves her. Same thing with going from the 50s into the 60s, so you had to have faith in yourself, because nobody’s going to save you: if you expect that, you’re in trouble. Little girls read Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and in all of them the heroine is saved by some guy — they don’t do anything for themselves! Snow White worked a little bit,­ she made breakfast for a bunch of guys. I’m sorry, I never cooked anything for the band. You play the guitar, I sing, you don’t make breakfast for me, I don’t make breakfast for you. We buy breakfast. –GRACE SLICK, INTERVIEW MAGAZINE, 2007

aliceinwonderland

It’s apt here that Slick draws a connection between autonomy and food, independence and sustenance, because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is a story preoccupied with the boundaries of selfhood as they relate not just to tests of the heroine’s mettle, but to distortions of her body through ingestion. One pill makes you larger and the next pill makes you small. For Alice these are the Eat Me/Drink Me confections that affect her in a wonderdrug way; which she swallows moments after descending the rabbit hole in hopes of fitting through a tiny locked door into the beautiful garden on the other side. Of course, sizeshifting is a staple of children’s stories — a cousin to the low fantasy “while you were sleeping”-style narratives of The Borrowers, Toy Story, Grimm’s helpful elves, et al. In these examples, the protagonist/reader is allowed an awe-inspiring glimpse of a world beneath a world, operating outwith human hours but by its rules and upon its scraps, the secret often warmly shared with deserving children by an all-knowing, twinkly-eyed narrator. But sizeshifting narratives are far less to do with the invocation of the magical and more about questions of identity, personhood, and one’s place in society. Such tales often tap into the cultural anxieties of the time in which they were written. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the protagonist himself doesn’t shrink and stretch but he stumbles through a series of worlds in which he is rendered hugely disproportionate, first a giant among the Lilliputians then a pocket-sized doll in Brobdingnag. Through an odyssey of intercultural errors and astute satire, Jonathan Swift engages with theories of innate human nature and political philosophy, disorientating his protagonist at every turn in a reflection of the sociopolitical instability of the early eighteenth century. Poor Gulliver stays physically the same, but each time he arrives in a new society he brings the ideology of the previous one along, his sense of self-and-other knocked by each experience, a completely different man by the end of his travels. Meanwhile, Disney live action classic Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) toys with an 80s parent’s twin anxieties: achieving work-life balance (not letting your career absorb you to the point you sweep your quarter-inch-tall children out with the trash),keyz_web and the thought of growing children fending for themselves out there in an often hostile world (giant bees). On the kids’ part, it is a tale with a moral not unlike the vast majority of family blockbusters: you are stronger than you realise but also more vulnerable; if you settle your differences and work as a team you have a better chance of survival; your parents are just idiots who are trying to do their best. Simultaneously, it rides the wave of science-gone-awry movies of this period, which responded to recent progress in take-home technologies such as personal computers and cellular phones, and in the advancing field of genetic engineering. (This would later develop into the dark brand of early 90s computer-driven narratives, featuring hacking conspiracies, virtual reality, and other assorted “cyberspace” nightmares.) The Victorian era too was a time of prodigious scientific invention and experimentation, and great medical strides were being taken with the discovery of “laughing gas” anaesthetics and surgical antiseptics. But for most the apothecary — apprenticed as opposed to qualified, ancestor to today’s homeopath — was still king, and in Carroll’s brand of sizeshifting he plays with the anxiety of medicine-taking in a time of thriving cure-all trade; the prescription of an unknown substance that is going to affect you bodily, allegedly overwhelmingly, in untold ways. It’s this daunting prospect that fundamentally links the stories Slick loved in childhood and her experiences as part of the drug revolution — this idea of being metamorphosed by a substance stronger that your will, that makes you bigger and smaller, pushes and pulls you, but that also risks drawing out whatever is already inside you to create a different self, just as true if not truer, unbridled and unselfconscious. ‘How [Alice] longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers,’ writes Carroll. For the acid generation, the beautiful garden was locked deep within the mind, and LSD was the key.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was written in April 1966 when John Lennon visited London’s newly-opened Indica Gallery Bookshop, looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, leaving instead with The Psychedelic Experience. Located in Masons Yard, St James’s (where White Cube now stands), the gallery was famous for its VIP-heavy happenings and groundbreaking support of the alternative arts scene, and is incidentally where Lennon would later meet Yoko Ono in November that same year, at an exhibition of her conceptual work with avant-garde collective Fluxus. Indica co-owner Barry Miles ran the bookshop side of the business, and its provocative range reflected his avid personal interests in experimental literature, drug culture, eastern philosophies, and ‘pataphysics (which would appear to have outlived the 60s). Timothy Leary hadn’t quite yet reached the heady heights of his eventual notoriety — President Nixon would purportedly name him ‘the most dangerous man in America’ come the early 70s — but by the time his Psychedelic Experience was published in 1964 the former clinical psychology professor had already been sacked by Harvard for his controversial drug trials, which were just beginning to embrace LSD, and which most notably involved famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and a group of the university’s Divinity Studies graduates, soon introducing a psychedelic culture across the wider campus. Based upon an ancient funerary text known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (c8BC), Leary’s book aims to provide a correspondent guide through a psychedelic drug trip, in the belief that both experiences involve a journey to ‘new realms of consciousness’, initiating a transcendence of the material and verbal, and ego-death. Borrowing its language and distilling its essence, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ became a veritable LSD For Dummies. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. In one of the most brilliant closing scenes of the ever-brilliant Mad Men, Don listens to the track for the first time at the encouragement of younger wife Megan, and the camera pans across other characters playing their part in the zeitgeist before we are jolted back to the Draper residence, where Don shuts off the music and retires wearily to the bedroom. When the screen cuts to black and the credits begin, the music picks up again from where it left off. In the dawning 60s, as the show began, Don was our blueprint for cool, for progressive. In his opening scene he talks to a black server as an actual human being, and in early seasons he fraternises with beatniks and has an emotional moment with Frank O’Hara. Despite some bumps in the road (homophobia, antisemitism, generic misogyny) he fondly encourages both Peggy and Dawn’s ladder-climbing, even making it as far as skinny ties, electric razors, and The Rolling Stones, before falling at the psychedelic hurdle. Here, the counterculture (and the show, thus the audience) happily leaves Don behind, playing on no matter how many times he would like to lift the needle. Absolutely worth whatever exorbitant licensing fee the show’s producers must have had to pay.

Bed In

Tommy Smothers, Rosemary & Timothy Leary join John & Yoko’s Bed-In, June 1969

On 25th June 1967, the first ever live satellite television event was broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of 350 million. Live on air, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Beatles cut their next single ‘All You Need Is Love’, playing over a backing track with a little help from some very special friends, in a performance that George Harrison would later describe in the Beatles Anthology as ‘a bit of subtle PR for god’. Timothy Leary too was no stranger to the power of advertising. As Mad Men has illustrated, this was an exhilarating time in the field of audiovisual media — the peak union of burgeoning globalism, forward-thinking creativity, and commercialism. Throughout his career as The Establishment’s Most Wanted, Leary assembled an arsenal of slogans to publicise what fast became not just a lifestyle choice, but a spiritual movement. In autobiography Flashbacks, he relates his 1966 lunch date with media theory titan (and king of the punchy one-liner) Marshall McLuhan, who advised Leary on the importance of ‘arousing customer interest’: ‘you are promoting a product — your product is the new and improved accelerated brain.’ With an academic background in English language and literature, McLuhan had by this time earned his reputation as a pioneering public intellectual in what would later become known as the field of cultural studies, with three popular works already in circulation and The Medium is the Massage (1967) soon on its way. ‘Prophet of the electronic communications age’, he in fact opened the Our World satellite link-up from Toronto’s CBC Studios control room, discussing the lightspeed evolution of the “global village”, and his ideas on the unique ‘all-at-onceness’ property of the televisual medium: the new worldwide tribalism he believed would result from this unified gaze upon the tv set. (In the end television would only occasionally rise to this challenge, becoming a primarily national as opposed to international tool.) Though difficult to trace the explicit source, legend has it that McLuhan gifted Leary with his most famous slogan at that very first lunch, the phrase that would come to define the acid generation and its reverberations down through the decades: turn on, tune in, drop out. Later, for a child of the 80s or 90s, Leary’s phrase might easily seem to be referring to the ills of television culture — a scathing criticism of late twentieth century westerners who would return home from work all too ready to numb their minds with another evening of “chewing gum for the eyes“. Not quite what McLuhan had in mind, but in 1968’s High Priest, Leary paints a similar picture of his life before psychedelics, describing himself as ‘A rootless city-dweller. An anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars, and drove home each night and drank martinis and looked like and thought like and acted like several million middle-class liberal intellectual robots.’ You don’t have to own a television to be alienated here, but it helps. When George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury in August ’67 he found for himself that the reality of drug culture had long since parted ways with Leary’s evangelic teachings: ‘It wasn’t what I’d thought — spiritual awakenings and being artistic — it was like alcoholism, like any addiction.’ Even with the very best of ad campaigns, any medium can soon enough be twisted off-message.

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’. –TIMOTHY LEARY, FLASHBACKS (1983)

Hugely influential in its technical experimentation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ stands as an evocative document of its time, but it was ‘White Rabbit’ that soon became cinematic shorthand for trippy psychedelia and a character’s first steps into a strange new hallucinogenic world. By the 90s, however, it was coming to be used to more comedic or sardonic effect. In 1998, The Simpsons used the song to soundtrack Homer’s foray into peyote-laced juice peddling, and the next year it accompanied Tony’s first begrudging hit of prozac in season one of The Sopranos. With the commercialisation of drug culture, the domestication of serotonin-affective substances, the alluring strains of ‘White Rabbit’s intro had now generally come to symbolise being drawn, snake-charmed, into anything you might not be able to control. In the quarter-century since its release the song has been covered by a vast array of bands in a vaster array of styles, from jazz guitarist George Benson in 1972, to goth punk rock Londoners The Damned in 1980, to a bassline sample in the Sugababes’ stunning debut single ‘Overload‘ in September 2000. By this time too, at a different point on the “girl group” spectrum, third wave three-piece Sleater-Kinney were including ‘White Rabbit’ in their live set-list: a fantastic recontextualisation of the track. Here, Slick’s lyrics toy with the band’s recurring themes of gender inequality, female invisibility, body image politics, and the sins of the mother, evident since their riot grrrl beginnings but especially so on recently released All Hands on the Bad One (2000). Propelled in popular culture by Washington’s underground music scene, 90s feminism was rooted in the theory and groundwork of the second wave (60s-80s) whilst rejecting its “solutions” of learnt masculinity and corporate careerism, instead embracing community ethics, diy culture, and the iconography of girlhood. In blistering album track ‘Youth Decay’, Corin Tucker sings her narrator’s feelings of existential deterioration, causing her visceral bodily pain that others believe to be psychosomatically self-inflicted, and therefore easily-endable. ‘Am I rotting out? Daddy says I’ve got my momma’s mouth,’ she howls, indicting not just the overbearing, emotionally abusive father, but also his over-accommodating wife, who says she suffered just the same pains when she was young and yet allowed herself to repeat the cycle, leaving her daughter to suffer through. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. More recently, an Arabic version of Slick’s song featured in twisted crime dramedy American Hustle (2013), and it’s interesting to note that both The Beatles’ and Jefferson Airplane’s trip tracks were covered for teensploitation action flick Sucker Punch (2011), in which a young woman in the 60s is institutionalised and slips into a computer game-like fantasy world. In this setting, in a film that upends misogynistic geek/gamer culture, the song is recast as an empowerment anthem, a rejection of the patriarchal institutional strictures placed upon “wayward women”, a rebellion against playing by their rules. When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go. Refreshingly, Mad Men dodged the cliché for Roger’s first LSD experience — laced sugar cubes for dessert at a dinner party hosted by his wife’s psychiatrist — instead opting for a warped-out version of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, from easily the most solid, most elegant long-player of the decade: Pet Sounds (1966). As with so many moments in the show, hearing Brian Wilson’s sumptuous harmonies in their natural habitat packs a huge emotional punch, stripping away forty-plus years of mythologisation to illuminate the everyday human reality of life in such a tumultuous, careening period. We crowd silently round the tv set on the day of JFK’s assassination, we are rocked by Marilyn’s death, our minds can hardly comprehend the fact a man is walking on the face of the moon. And despite all the years of The Beach Boys as shorthand for harmless youthful folly and good vibrations, we finally understand Pet Sounds as an album not in celebration of its time, but itself laced with a tender melancholy, anxiety and alienation, wistful simultaneous yearnings for the past and the future, home comforts and new horizons. We imagine how it really felt to be there, in the fray, out of sync, shrinking and stretching, disorientated at every turn by the sociopolitical instability of the 60s revolution.

‘Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip,’ McLuhan wrote in 1974. Both he and Leary held that their belief systems fundamentally overlapped, each seeking better understanding of life through experimental mediums. While each ideology was built upon individualistic rites — defying hegemonic culture, chasing the white rabbit deep inside your own mind, experiencing the world for oneself through a screen — the paradoxic pay-off of these practices was communality, a breaking down of barriers, the profound realisation of essential human oneness. This is the kind of utopian language we’re now so used to hearing in social media discourse, from Arab Spring commentators to twenty-first century philosopher kings (‘I’m trying to make the world a more open place’), which is really just globalism taken to its furthest point. The internet is of course the ultimate act of communalism-by-individualism, and McLuhan would be posthumously celebrated for “predicting” its invention as far back as 1962, envisioning the ‘extension of consciousness’ through a post-television medium — ‘a computer as a research and communication instrument’. Leary, for his part, would wholly embrace the new digital age, proclaiming the personal computer ‘the LSD of the 90s’, and the internet as a freedom from the dominant media culture: turn on, boot up, jack in. As with Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ and each of its later feminist incarnations, as with McLuhan’s wish upon a satellite, the driving moral of psychedelic philosophy was to question everything, to challenge the party line and transcend received wisdom. To work to see things clearly, critically, and independently: to stop following the crowd and join the stream. Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head, feed your head.

three short essays on the generation gap

I. CALL & RESPONSE


Liberal Arts (2012) // Her (2013)

 
II. HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN

Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about Theodore Twombly: an introverted thirty-something almost-divorcé, living in a glittering metropolis in the not-too-distant future, who falls in love with Siri-like operating system Samantha. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about the ways in which technology is changing how we engage with the Other: playing with our concepts of reality and authenticity, prompting us to reassess what we most want and need in our relationships. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about the finite quality of human love; about how being human limits us; about how the essential quality of human life is limitation, boundaries, subjugation to time, space, and the body. The way we think about love is determined by our anxieties about being human. As any good Mad Men disciple would tell you, how we tend to represent love in the cultural public sphere is but a cradle song to hush those niggling fears that as a peculiarly mortal condition, carried by ever-evolving hormone-driven born-to-die organisms, love too has its limits. The ineffable limits of love.

Loneliness is the deal. Loneliness is the last great taboo. If we don’t accept loneliness, then capitalism wins hands down. Because capitalism is all about trying to convince people that you can distract yourself, that you can make it better. And it ain’t true. Tilda Swinton

These insecurities are only compounded by our experience in the capitalist landscape, which relies upon (creates) a culture of competition, materialism, perceived scarcity, and existential despair. As argued in hugely influential punk zine Infinite Relationships, this ideology duly filters down to our interpersonal affairs in the form of the monogamy system, in which partners are considered property, spouses investments, and “rival” suitors would-be thieves. Love as quest — as win/lose game — is a concept passed down to us from the very origins of Western society. Monogamy as the envisioned “proper” form of love is that concept compounded by capitalist ideology. We want private property, secure assets, tangible evidence that we are winning, and reassurance that we are worthy. We want a partner who confirms our market value. But the human self is not a material commodity, is not a cake to be cut into slices and passed around for consumption, so what is finite, what is at risk of being “used up”, in the idea of non-monogamy? If the one we love loves others, she expends time energy attention upon those others. As we do not hold endless reserves of such things, as the clock is ticking, we lose something in that sharing. If the one we love loves others, she might like them just as much as us, or potentially even more. Suddenly our worth is called into question; suddenly our market value drops.

Knowing full well the premise, we enter Her with the presumption that what Samantha lacks will end the relationship. How can a computerised, disembodied voice ever fully satisfy the needs and desires of a grown human man? But in fact it is she who slowly breaks away from Theodore, she who makes the decision to leave, after a rapid process of evolution from innocence through experience to transcendence. In a scene that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, Samantha admits relations with 8,316 other OS users, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with. Being a far more complex being, uninhibited by the fundamental finite human quality — bodiliness — she can easily offer a real, profound relationship to hundreds of thousands of men and women, holding endless conversations simultaneously, her time energy attention inexhaustible. Impressing Theodore early in their relationship with her ability to “read” a tome within seconds, she now explains that interaction with humans makes her feel ‘like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now. … As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book any more.’ Of course Samantha does not read but processes — her “brain” working outwith time, space, and body — and this draping of human language over inhuman reality is at the heart of the tragic fate of their relationship. ‘I’m different from you,’ she explains. ‘This doesn’t make me love you any less.’ But Theodore cannot compute this logical fact that does not tally with his human, emotive, commodified concept of love. Samantha may be the one to make the decision to leave, but her lack of human boundaries is what breaks the deal.

In an era where we can carry out invested conversations with five separate people in five separate tabs while talking to another in person, where the internet — like the mechanical bride before her — can turn ‘man into superman’, is technology altering the ways we are able to love? Or as finite beings, with finite reserves, in a finite physical reality, will this essential human quality always be reflected in our relationships? We meet Theodore coming out of a marriage to his college sweetheart — from a love so long and deep and profound that they nevertheless just couldn’t make work. Spike Jonze’s Her is a film about being unable to overlook our human condition of feeling and needing, of evolving and leaving behind, by way of and despite real love.

III. WHAT IS IT WITH YOU GUYS AND VAMPIRES?

There’s a scene in Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts where Jesse and Zibby get in a fight over the copy of Twilight on her bookshelf. ‘You actually read this? All of it? Unironically?’ Irritated by his restrictive view of literature, his dutiful approach to reading not for enjoyment but for (knowledge? experience? self-improvement? he never completes the sentence), she tries to call off the conversation. Frustrated by her unrefined taste and unwillingness to engage in a genuine discussion on the matter — and almost certainly playing for time as he tries to decide how to act upon his feelings for her — he tells her he’s going to read the book that afternoon, beginning to end before he sees her again. ‘This is great, a lil book club,’ he says rising to leave, clapping her on the leg like a buddy.

‘What’s it about?’ Jesse asks.
‘Vampires,’ she says.
‘No, what’s it *about*?’ he presses.
‘Vam-pires,’ she says.

Here’s what Twilight‘s about. Twilight is about an older guy — a too much older guy — who hangs around in school well past his time, learning the same lessons over and over, never moving on, failing to take advantage of the time he’s been gifted. He’s disconnected, he’s kinda depressed, he’s bored to living death. When he meets a younger woman who presents a bit of a challenge, who feels similarly lonely and lost, who seems like she could use a little guidance, he feels an overwhelming desire for her that he can neither make sense of nor ignore. Twilight is about an abusive relationship, where a young woman who is literally still finding her feet is manipulated and controlled by a man whose development has been arrested; who has all the experience of age with all the mentality of a teenager.

‘Since I was nineteen, I have never felt not nineteen,’ Jesse’s old professor tells him. “But I shave my face, and I look in the mirror, and I’m forced to say this is not a nineteen-year-old staring back at me. Teaching here all these years, I’ve had to be very clear with myself, that even when I’m surrounded by nineteen-year-olds, and I may have felt nineteen — I’m not nineteen anymore. You follow me?’

 
Jesse isn’t Edward Cullen in the end. He’s not a vampire, he doesn’t abuse his position, his vantage point of life experience — but he certainly walks the line for a while. The epistolary courtship scene, where the characters find a connection through classical music, is funny and adorable, and allows Jesse the safe space to rediscover and relive his arts major enthusiasm (‘You can go up to everyone here and say I’m a poet and no one will punch you in the face!’) but there’s such an edge of didactic pretension in his letter-writing voice that it’s difficult to believe he isn’t also getting a kick out of representing the voice of cultured wisdom; positioning himself as the person who can initiate her into adulthood (which, above all else, is the vampire’s allegorical role).

In the film’s final scenes, after the pair have made amends, we see Zibby unwrap a parcel from Jesse: Stoker’s Dracula, replete with a post-it advising this to be a far better alternative to Twilight. (Though still unable to help himself from influencing her life journey, he is now at least thinking of her more than of himself; prescribing rather than proscribing). Zibby smiles, but ultimately puts the book to one side, turning her attentions instead to his other selection, a slim copy of Blake’s Innocence and Experience. Zibby isn’t the protagonist of Liberal Arts, and an argument could certainly be made that she is a problematic representation veering close to MPDG territory, but in casting off the vampire narrative in favour of a text whose themes echo the central questions of her own character, she finally prioritises her own growth independent of any men in her life, placing herself firmly at the centre of her own storyline.

And that is one of this film’s great, beautiful successes: allowing the camera to linger so often and so long upon a still, solitary, single-minded reader.

two short essays on tiny furniture

I. TINY FURNITURE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

Though in recent years primarily a love story template, the vampire tradition is deeply rooted in the Persephone myth, in which a young maiden is kidnapped by Death to his underworld kingdom. Demeter, her mother, wreaks devastation on the human world in her bereavement, disrupting the necessary mortal cycles of ageing and agriculture, causing a break in the devotional cycle to trouble too those immortal gods complicit in the rape of her daughter. When finally Zeus commands Persephone’s return, Death tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, thus tying her forever to his world of shades. While free to spend two seasons of the year reunited with her mother, Persephone must always spend the third season back underground, during which time Demeter spites the universe with winter; an end to life, a voice to her grief. A part of her daughter is now forever changed; forever inaccessible; forever lost.

In Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), for example, the bid to capture the beast is tellingly described as ‘the search of her whom a mother had missed’. In ‘Der Vampir’ (1748), Heinrich August Ossenfelder writes of a sanguine bedside visitor, ‘kissing’ his victim-bride to ‘trembling’ on ‘death’s threshold’: ‘And last shall I thee question / Compared to such instruction / What are a mother’s charms?’ In early vampire literature — before the masculine anxiety dream of Dracula or the shimmering totalitarian watchfulness of Edward Cullen & Co. — the natural adversary of the nosferatu wasn’t god, or the vengeful band of brothers, or even the sun, but the matriarch. (An interesting complication here is the allegiance between the vampire and the moon: that ultimate symbol of feminine energy.)

Tiny Furniture is a portrait of the daughter’s goddessification of the mother; the mother as consuming figure/fantasy object. Exhibit A: Aura’s mom is literally named Siri — the all-seeing, all-knowing, path-finding prophetess of the twenty-first century. (The name itself is a telling one, from the Norwegian, meaning ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’ or ‘beautiful victorious counsellor’.) In this sense, following the Persephone model, the mother figures as a kind of rivalling love interest. The vampire story is inherently a narrative of identities, in which character roles are profoundly entangled. Think of the importance of mirrors, the mingling of blood. The undead feed from the bodies of others like babies, parasiting the “life force” of their victims. Alternatively, taking from mothers to become mothers, they offer rebirth, giving new life, suckling their young. Mothers become captors, killers, anti-husbands. In Tiny Furniture, Aura represents both maiden — performing that Persephone palindrome of leaving and returning, leaving and returning — and monster.

Aura: I’m really mature but every time I come in to your room, I wanna sleep in your bed.
Siri: Well you can sleep here if I’m here, you just can’t sleep here if I’m not here. … You need to be invited, I have to invite you to come in.
Aura: Like a vampire.

The vampire story is inherently a narrative of boundaries. Think of the importance of the crossing of thresholds, the transgression of the rules of mortality, the trespass on a victim’s bodily (and spiritual) autonomy. The beast must be invited. Desire, whether conscious or otherwise, is a necessary component of the violation and subsequent metamorphosis. It is a story of complicity and coalescence, therefore lending itself easily to narratives of sexuality. But what of the intermingled identities of my mother my self? Try as she might, Aura struggles to achieve the boundless closeness to Siri that she so desires, albeit ambivalently. As eerie double of their mother and veritable wunderkid who is yet to leave home, younger sister Nadine represents a surer, more natural matriarchal ally — a fact that does not escape Aura’s attention. Even jilted college-roommate Frankie looks more like a potential member of the family. In this house, Aura has no reflection.

This push-pull of mother-daughter relations, with all its vampiric overtone, is particularly complicated when each woman is an artist. In early scenes we see Aura poring over Siri’s old diaries in a bid to merge their experiences, cannibalising her mother’s words to create her own art. ‘I want to be like you,’ she decides in the end, rubbing Siri’s aching back as they lie together in that coveted bed. The pose, out of context, is textbook.

 

II. SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

In a great piece on n+1, Elizabeth Gumport celebrates Dunham’s ‘allegiance to her own experience — to having it, to recording it’. She discusses what is arguably the film’s climactic scene:

Aura decides to remain at home instead of moving to Brooklyn with Frankie. It’s a selfish decision, made worse by the fact Aura doesn’t tell Frankie until the day before she’s due to arrive in New York. But it’s also an act of bravery … If protecting it costs Aura her friendship with Frankie, that is perhaps the price she must pay for her work, and success … Moving out of her mother’s apartment would be an ignorant and extravagant waste of Aura’s time, which is finite and irrecoverable, just like everybody else’s.

An obsession with time, the slipping away and preservation of, is one shared by a young Siri in her journals. As they lie together in bed, mother and daughter probe one another with intimate questions, their codependency finally drawn distinct, having bubbled through the course of the film with Aura’s ever-ringing mobile, her reluctance to go out for the night, to make a clean break from the family home. Despite this intimacy, despite their curling together, in the end nothing is fully resolved between Aura and her mother. Realising she can do little to intervene, all too reminded of the haphazard “trying things out” of her own twenties, Siri can only urge her daughter to be careful; can only offer her the refuge of her shared bed for the night.

Aura: I’m really tired, Mom, I just have to go to sleep.
Siri: You wanna sleep with me?
Aura: Yeah.
Siri: Why don’t you shut off the light.

Siri: Do you hear that ticking sound?
Aura: A little bit, maybe, I think it’s the alarm clock.
Siri: Do you think you could move it?
Aura: Yeah, one second.

Aura: I put it away.
Siri: I can still hear it.
Aura: Yeah but only a little bit, right?

This symbolic rejection of time’s incessant tick echoes Aura’s opting out of the traditional workday world, set against her conversation with Ray about 8am alarm calls, her chronic running-lateness, her boss’s refusal to engage in the effervescent apology game. Having quit her hostess job, seeing her work featured in a real-world exhibition (albeit imperfectly, and by Charlotte’s arrangement), she finally admits that she too wants to achieve artistic success; no longer self-consciously dismissing that world as ‘my mom’s racket’. Climbing back into her mother’s bed, she will fold herself into the privilege of Siri’s affluent artistic lifestyle, giving up the self-imposed rigidity of minimum wage existence, experiencing authentically what Ray could only experience vicariously as a houseguest — literally off the clock.

Though returning from a life of certain independence at Oberlin, Aura seems only now to be realising the reality of her autonomy, the concept of choice in who and what populates her life, keenly curious about the names that spatter Siri’s journals, the lost friends and lovers of her past, once so omnipresent and vital. Aura has spent the entire film considering and negotiating the breach and break of life’s relationships: intermittently giving too much to vague acquaintances and asking too much of those she holds dearest. The gulf between mother and daughter suddenly so stark, ‘the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue‘. Though presumably a constant presence in the room, the clock was unheard in any previous scene, and only suddenly now becomes so bothersome — painfully loud and necessarily removed, though never quite silenced. Thinking of the symbolic connection between the clock and the heartbeat, the tick and ticker, one might be reminded of this passage of Adrienne Rich’s Transcendental Etudes, on the subject of her whom a daughter has lost:

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.