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.

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three short essays on the power of love

I. THANK YOU AND GOODBYE

Frankie Goes to Hollywood released debut single ‘Relax’ in October 1983. In January 1984 it finally hit number one. Then we all know the story. Mike Read, Radio 1, Top of the Pops. Widespread condemnation. Single of the Year at the Brit Awards in ’85 (can we ever imagine living in a world so slow?). Number one follow-up single, number one album. Infamy beyond the band’s (management’s) wildest dreams. In this original extended mix of third single ‘The Power of Love’ — which also hit the top of the charts for one week in November ’84 before being ousted by the Live Aid juggernaut — over lush string orchestration, actor Chris Barrie recites the DJ’s sputtered live-on-air rant. The barely-held self-righteous fury of that farewell. To be sure the band were courting controversy, and made its first million in those short twenty seconds, but they also came face to face with the thinly-veiled culture of institutional homophobia that decreed a mere glimpse of their desires, fantasies, and lifestyles unfit for social consumption.

To live in a world where one self-prescribed arbiter of moral culture can feel such a right to censor creative culture. Doesn’t it make you want to grab hold of the internet and never let go?

In Radio 2’s recent series The People’s Songs, hosted by the wonderful Stuart Maconie, contributors of all ages and backgrounds from around the United Kingdom reflected upon the music and culture of post-war Britain, and the soundtracks of their lives. (Unfortunately it seems all the episodes have been de-iplayered for the time being but they’ll pop back up eventually.) My favourite instalment by far was ‘Smalltown Boy‘, about the creative evolution of post-Bowie pop queerness, heavily featuring Bronski Beat, the Communards, Culture Club, and the all-reigning Queen. The glaring omission, however, was Frankie. Though it’s entirely possible the band have blocked the BBC’s use of their track to this day, to fail to refer to the incident even in passing while rhetorically cheering on the gay rights movement and popular representation was a huge misstep. To claim to be crystallising modern British culture in fifty choice records without pointing an elbow at one that remains in the top ten bestsellers of all time is quite ridiculous.

‘The Power of Love’ carries all the weight of that prejudice, down through the decades. It’s my favourite Christmas song, and never fails to make me super-emotional the first time I hear it each year. After so much hatred, to sing a song about love and only love.

II. THE POWER OF LOVE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

In November 1991, days before the death of Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood lead singer Holly Johnson was diagnosed HIV+. One wonders if he might have been even peripherally aware of the disease when writing ‘The Power of Love’. It was in 1981 that US media began to report on a “rare homosexual cancer”, and that the first known case of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome was discovered in the UK; July 1982 when Terrence Higgins suffered one of the first British AIDS-related deaths. Though prefiguring the terrifying heights of the western AIDS pandemic then — certainly predating any real understanding of the cultural and imaginative ramifications of the disease — in the wake of what was to come, I can’t help thinking of ‘The Power of Love’ as a kind of gay (im)mortality anthem.

I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw
Keep the vampires from your door
When the chips are down, I’ll be around
with my undying death-defying love for you

Though on one level evoking a kind of wilfully childlike (and therefore ultimate) version of heroism, particularly in tandem with Penelope Pitstop’s shapeshifting foe, the invocation of vampires in this context is culturally significant. Vamps are fundamentally queer beings, bonding bodily and fluidly with members of any sex indiscriminately, living literally in the shadows of normative society. The first wave of vampire literature in the west came toward the end of the eighteenth century, with the most enduring tale unarguably being Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which a homosocial band of brothers unite against the lascivious foreign bearer of a blood-borne plague that renders the infected incurably subhuman. Though syphilis is never explicitly mentioned in the novel, Stoker does name-check field expert Jean-Martin Charcot, and captures wonderfully the moral (and mortal) panic of the pre-penicillin era, when upto a fifth of London’s population fell victim to this highly-stigmatised sexually-transmitted infection. Indeed, Stoker’s death certificate suggests that his untimely death in 1912 was caused by complications related to the disease. That the vampire genre saw a resurgence in popularity around the early 1980s cannot be interpreted as mere coincidence. If, per Joseph Campbell, ‘myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths’, the same can be said of society’s nightmares, which tend to manifest in its monster du jour. As Katia Yurguis writes, After AIDS we found ourselves once again in ‘an era when fear of possible infection restrains human interaction, and concepts such as sex and blood have become synonymous with death’.

Preaching the vital importance of the ideal over the material, Johnson’s lyrics in ‘The Power of Love’ laud the sublime purity of love in the face of life’s dangers and darknesses, the necessity of believing in one’s own beauty and worth — despite what the world might have you believe. The vampire figure remains ostracised from society, will never regain “human status” among the living. But in invoking him, rather than monstrification of the HIV+, we might find a way to subvert the AIDS narrative, transmogrifying it from a story of tragic hypermortality to one of supernatural strength, immortal invulnerability, undying death-defying love.

III. THIS TIME WE GO SUBLIME

Half-comprising a selection of bizarre cover versions, including ‘Born to Run’ and ‘San Jose’ (!), Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984) is an underdeveloped album that sadly doesn’t live up to its incredible conceptual title. While still evoking the sweaty hedonism of the band’s debut single, the name pays direct homage to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan‘ (1816), a poem written from an opium-drenched dream, and which is in fact quoted in the record’s spectacular title track: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree. Wordsworth and Coleridge are commonly acknowledged as important figures in queer study, by virtue of their Romantic ideal of homosocial friendship, and Kubla Khan’s walled green, with all its ‘fast thick pants’ and ‘mighty fountain momently…forced’ certainly makes sense amongst FGTH’s highly-charged homoerotic aesthetic. Indeed, in the queer canon, the garden is often situated as a gay space (seemingly traceable to Jesus and Judas’s kiss in Gethsemene), with artists from Oscar Wilde to Derek Jarman bringing it front and centre in their work. (One might also note that the meticulously manicured lawn and pathologically preened rose garden are staple symbols of the dark-rooted repression of the unexamined, ultra-normative life.) This symbolic reclamation is interesting when compared to the Romantic glorification of wild untamed nature, stretching off to the horizon; per Jarman, the garden is not nature in the vein of ‘Constable and Samuel Palmer’s Kent’, but ‘modern nature’, cultivated nature, adapted nature, queered nature.


Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986) // American Beauty, Sam Mendes (1999)

 

For the Romantics, nature was the ultimate expression of the sublime: the overwhelming sensory experience of witnessing gestalt perfection, the ecstasy of the majestic spectacle tinged with the terror of infinity, the anxiety of unknowability. This preoccupation followed Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which works to outline a theory of the sublime, offering nature’s beauty as proven presence of the divine — something larger, more grand, than humankind. This religiosity is reflected in ‘The Power of Love’: in the Christian iconography of its video, the invocation of the Lord’s Prayer in its original mix. But rather than singing to the glory of God and nature — rather than making ideological amends for the body-centric, queer-as-in-fuck-you, bdsm spectacle of ‘Relax’ — ‘The Power of Love’ develops its rapturous hedonistic abandonment to holy proportions. This time we go sublime / lovers entwine: divine, divine. For Holly Johnson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the sublime is to be found Between Men. In love that indeed now holds the promise of not just pleasure and pain, but very real danger.

Society’s nightmares manifest in its monster du jour. In Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), another story famously shorn from a dream, Mary Shelley forewarns of the danger of man [sic] meddling in the affairs of God/nature, and arguably of woman-as-childbearer — creating monstrous life by scientific means. In the original iteration of the “myth of progress”, technological advancement is symbolised as fire, which is stolen from Zeus and delivered to humankind by the “fore-thinking” titan Prometheus, freeing the mortal realm forevermore from its reliance upon the whim of the immortal gods. (That Prometheus is a recurring referential figure in the literature of the Romantic period illuminates the anxious preoccupation with the link between the divine and the mortal; with the notions of subjection and agency in a time of great religious and political upheaval.) In supplanting god with man (more accurately: men) in ‘The Power of Love’, Johnson effects just such a cutting of the divine apron strings. What’s more, his lyric keenly evokes Promethean evolution in its vivid refrain — a love that feels like fire, with tongues of fire, that burns with passion while also healing. Baptismal flames, cleaning, purging the soul.

Despite its firm place in the Christmas canon then (and the beige, chronically hetero opine of Gabrielle Aplin’s 2012 hit cover version) ‘The Power of Love’ might in fact also be read as a deeply subversive queer anthem. Thematically linked to the secular, to the profane; to the death of the divine, in favour of the flesh.

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.