Subjective Correlative

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked." T.S. Eliot, 1919

Location: Academia, NJ/NY, United States

Overeducated educator seeks part-time position as novelist, essayist, pundit, hack, comic, and/or laughingstock.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Cruise Control

Caveat Lector: The following was written by a woman who is both experiencing PMS and currently seeing a psychiatrist who gives her "psychotropic" medications (but not the fun kind). In other words, she has no idea what she's talking about because her brain is mush, and therefore she cannot be held legally responsible for the deceptively articulate opinions described below, so don't bother suing her.

It takes a whopping combination of fame and megalomania to view your personal foolishness and paranoia as valid, useful, and beneficial to the world at large, yet it seems that Tom Cruise has both, in spades. Having spent the last few years marinating himself in the self-absorbed, oblivious, classist cult of his “religion” and contemplating the need to impale something hotter (?) and hipper than Penelope Cruz on the end of his aging dick, the actor has embarked on a mission to liberate us all from the tyranny of voluntary mental health, while at the same time subjecting us to a series of Splendarific Barbie and Ken tableaux alongside his intended, Katie Holmes. I realize that this entry will only perpetuate the pointless hoopla (for God’s sake, don’t encourage him, Beth!); however, as someone who needs the very drugs Doctor Cruise would deny me in order to choose between organic (GOOD!) and …um … ganic (CHEAP!) milk at the supermarket, I feel pressed to contribute my two cents/co-pay before I see his new film (which is what again? "Howl's Moving Castle," right? Go! Run! Now!).

I am not a celebrity watcher. I am, however, a Yahoo user, and I do occasionally get sucked into one or two of the five or six headlines those folks regard as the news of the hour (and which I'm pretty sure are penned by some paragon of deadpan ... maybe Ben Stein?). Still, I somehow managed to miss the beginning of the fairytale. When my students told me that Cruise and Holmes were an item, I let out an utterly uncharacteristic shriek of disbelief that shattered my carefully-cultivated calm, cool, clueless classroom demeanor for the rest of the semester. Since then, I (and everybody else) have been kept abreast of the whole affair through photographs, press conferences, skywriting, subliminal advertising, blimps, coupon circulars, etc. Doubts about whether the relationship is “real” stem primarily from the persistent speculation that Cruise is gay. I agree that the pair cannot possibly be having The Sex, but I base my speculation on the far more mundane fact that neither Cruise nor Holmes have gone indoors since the whole thing started. Even in the hours after their “engagement,” there they were, beaming freakishly at the press. No need to speculate what goes on behind closed doors; there aren’t any.

BUT WAIT! Holmes’ last boyfriend was that god-fearing, white-bread bohunk Chris Klein. Might the the darling of the WB and Mr. American Pie have abstained from premarital relations? Could Holmes actually BE what Britney used to claim she WAS? Perhaps Prince and Princess Press-Hungry are waiting until their wedding night to have each other at hello. Will the world get to watch NBC’s exclusive coverage of Katie’s tasteful defloration, followed immediately by a postgame show with Oprah? I imagine the cost of ad time would rival that of the Superbowl, and, as with the Superbowl, the ads would be the only parts of an otherwise mind-numbing festival of overpaid manhood worth watching.

Cruise has played some decent roles. Because I like Cameron Crowe, I didn’t hate Jerry Maguire; I even thought he deserved an Oscar for his supporting role in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. Holmes, on the other hand, spent the zenith of her career passed out in Toby Maguire’s crotch in The Ice Storm. (Hey – same name! Coincidence? Yeah, probably.) Her “acting face” combines incomprehension with annoyance, a persona that has found little footing in the world beyond the incomprehensibly annoying “Dawson’s Creek” (a show I watched religiously for three years, so I should know), but which should serve her well through what I’m sure will be the many months of her marriage.

No word yet, however, on what sort of face she makes when Tom publicly lambasts the psychiatric profession about what he views as the overprescribing of psychoactive medications such as Ritalin. In a recent interview with Matt Lauer, Cruise called psychiatry a “pseudo-science;” when Lauer tried to give examples of people who had been helped by medication, Cruise responded graciously with, ''You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do.” Apparently, Cruise has taken time out from gumming Katie to familiarize himself with the chemical and psychological backgrounds and effects of every drug on the market, as well as every branch of psychiatric practice and its impact on each and every patient, past, present and future.

It’s not Cruise’s opinions that grate so much as his attitude. Ritalin may well be overprescribed; in fact, on the days that my daughters bounce extra-buoyantly off the walls, I find myself wondering if they’ll need it, and then immediately hate myself for regarding the energy of healthy children as an illness requiring remedy. But Cruise neglects to mention any individual cases of misdiagnosis other than his own, or alternatives therapies beyond “exercise and vitamins,” dubious solutions that offer little hope to people in low-paying jobs who have to show up at work every day in order to feed their families (or, for that matter, people like me, who a) hate vitamins and b) just prefer to not be fucking nuts). In his mind, it seems, the unenlightened, from Brooke Shields to me, should simply recognize the error in our medicated ways and search for more organic methods of relief from our ills. Something tells me, however, that welfare mothers may need more than a Pilates class and a mud mask to cope with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses that may be circumstantial, chemical, or both. I don't mean to suggest that Cruise's opinions neglect only the economically disadvantaged; it's an equal-opportunity idiocy that includes anyone who currently benefits from any genre of psychiatric care. While treatments such as ECT undoubtedly deserve careful scrutiny from the medical and legal communities, lumping shock treatments in with the short-term alleviation of postpartum depression demonstrates a glib ignorance of the world beyond the Perma-Spa in which someone with Cruise’s resources can afford to live.

A recent CNN online poll showed that 71% of respondents disagreed with Cruise’s blanket condemnation of psychiatry, as, not surprisingly, do most psychiatrists. Still, I hope that his cavalier grandstanding doesn’t prevent someone from seeking qualified help for themselves or their children. Whether medication is required or not, the mentally ill (or merely confused) should not be referred to L. Ron Hubbard. Shit, they can even call ME. I just ordered a bunch of pills in bulk from an outfit in Canada; I don't know exactly what they are, but one of them is bound to fix you right up in no time.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Against Princesses: A Polemic

Immediate apologies to Laura Kipnis, who I don’t think will mind.

Growing up, I was an ardent Anglophile. This stemmed directly from my love for the “young adult” (sounds like starter porn, don’t it?) novels by all the greats who now cower in Rowling’s shadow, such as the indomitable Joan Aiken (Nightbirds on Nantucket), Ruth M. Arthur (who seems inexplicably to be out of print, but look for the spooky A Candle in Her Room), and L. M. Boston (The Children of Green Knowe). America was all well and good, but what kid in their right mind would choose the Big Woods over Willoughby Chase? ("Let’s see … today, do I want to learn how to make candy out of sap and snow, or foil Hanoverian plots helmed by butch governesses out to unseat Jamie Three?") Aiken depicted the nobility as a pack of benign but overbred incompetents perpetually in need of rescue by enterprising commoners like myself. As a result, beyond being momentarily mesmerized by the 1982 wedding of Charles and Diana (and who knew what ill-fated idiocy lay on THAT horizon?), I didn’t have much use for royalty. Crowns were for birthdays; pictures of me playing around the house at age 3-4 indicate a preference for witch's hats. Wielding occult powers was obviously far more attractive to my pre-K self than hunting for princes (perhaps I should re-reck my own earlier rede, huh?). The only Disney movies I remember seeing were Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and The Aristocats, all notably lacking in the princess department, other than the “redskin” Tiger Lily, who bears about as much resemblance to Walt's version of Pocahontas as … well … Pocahontas.

My daughters, Maggie (5) and Lucy (3), on the other hand, were born into a world saturated with stacked, singing, well-born, wasp-waisted, doe-eyed, boy-crazy freaks. The Wide World of Disney, once confined to an hour on Sunday nights, the occasional re-release of a film (but only on the big screen), and a couple of garish compounds in Orlando and Anaheim, has mutated into a Magic Kingdom Without Walls from which there is no escape. Pimp-in-chief Eisner hawks his animated harem, which at last count included Snow White, Sleeping Beauty (aka “Aurora” – try to say THAT five times fast, or even once, if you’re 3), Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle, with rare affirmative-action nods to Jasmin, Pocahontas, and Mulan, on everything from alarm clocks to ukeleles. Should a little girl actually emerge, blinking, into the sunlight and rediscover the wonders of the four-dimensional world, they even offer dainty pink butterfly nets. (Then again, if they made one big enough to catch Ariel, it would be worth the $34.95 to hang that piscine brat out to dry.) I’d describe the hypnotic effect The Little Mermaid exerted on Maggie at age 2, but Adam Gopnik's "Barney in Paris" describes that first encounter with the Imaginary Other better than Lacan or I ever could.

All of the above is merely an elaborate introduction to my unmitigated admiration and reverence for the aesthetic and ontological alternative offered my daughters by the work of Hiyao Miyazaki. I hereby command you to see “Howl’s Moving Castle” before some piece of Pixar shit steals its slot at your multiplex. (For a far more balanced weighing of Miyazaki’s oeuvre in relation to American animation, see A.O. Scott’s review of “Howl” in the Arts section of the July 12th NY Times.) Evan and I took the girls this past Saturday, and spent the first half of the film desperately trying to keep Lucy content so that neither of us would have to walk away from a magnificent, epic account of Life With Wizards During Wartime; however, she also established our Miyazaki cred by bellowing “A TOTORO!” when she saw the Ghibli logo.

Like Disney, Miyazaki favors female protagonists, usually little girls. Unlike Disney, he provides them with problems beyond What to Wear, Who to Marry, and Should I Stay a Fish? Miyazaki laments the apparently worldwide tendency to turn young heroines into rorikon gokko, roughly translated as “play toy for men with Lolita tendencies" (thank you,, and Howl’s Sophie resists the label by getting transformed into a ninety-year-old woman in the first minutes of the film. Old Sophie, while admittedly spry, is thus absolved from her feelings of aesthetic inadequacy (she has a plump, popular blond sister) and can focus on getting things done. Once she finds her way into the castle, she cleans house – literally and figuratively – and sucks up much of its power for herself, although she doesn’t know it. Her fate is in her own hands, which gives the story a blissful unpredictability antithetical to Disney’s fairytale format. For once, I stared at the screen with absolutely no idea of how it would all end. (The crone gets the turnip, if that helps.)

The castle is a story in and of itself. Howl’s main talent seems to lie in his success as a sort of magical real estate mogul, for depending on how you turn the dial, the Moving Castle offers ocean views, Monet-inspired meadows, or the convenience of downtown, all from one doorstep. For all his emphasis on nature, Miyazaki knows that relationships rely on architecture, and that what we build influences not only who we are, but who we’ll meet, and what will happen. (The Totoro may dwell outdoors, but he saves little May by bringing her to her mother’s window.) The Castle brings to mind Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, albeit briefly, because in spite of its oscillations it avoids uncanniness by offering an (almost) impenetrable refuge from exterior chaos; still, its inhabitants find happiness only after it collapses. This ending is typical of Miyazaki’s worldview, which shuns all clear-cut boundaries and easy divisions between good and evil, male and female, human and … not human. The sad state of ambiguity in this country is evident in The Hollywood Reporter, which described Howl as “so multifaceted that it will confuse children, and it lacks the clear-cut heroes and villains typical of animation. Critics will find much to write about, but general audiences might be confused by the complexity.” 'Nuff said.

Perhaps because we can't quite grasp it, Miyazaki's comfort with ambiguity makes his depiction of war extremely disturbing. There is no good cause or right side, just pointless violence and widespread death, and we both hate and mourn everyone involved. For Miyazaki, war isn’t just wrong. It’s antiquated, anachronistic, and deadly, like the lumbering warships that glide menacingly through his frames, strewing generic propaganda and strafing nameless nineteenth-century towns. We never know who is fighting whom, or why, although the brief appearance of what can only be described as mushroom clouds may give us a distant hint at the target of his anti-militaristic message. The battle scenes aren't connected to the real story, but merely threaten to explode the far more meaningful small scale at which most of us live our lives. Still, in yet another challenge to any and all absolutes, one of the most amazingly beautiful moments in the film occurs when sunlight reflects off a warship’s windows as it drifts over Howl’s meadow.

Howl himself is elusivity embodied. Like many movie princes, he has long, flowing hair, but he also wears a pair of dangling earrings, and he lacks the broad shoulders that represent masculinity in the Magic Kingdom; instead, he’s built like the bird he occasionally becomes. Disney’s gender games have resulted in triumphs like Ursula, the animated aquatic transvestite who saves The Little Mermaid (the film, not the fish) from Extreme Banal status (don’t even get me started on all those masts and tridents; suffice it to say that King Triton loses his … um … potency AGAIN in the sequel, perhaps indicating a need for some sort of giant nautical jockstrap). But they are also responsible for the underhanded, literally predatory, effeminately-accented Scar in The Lion King. Most reviewers simply ignore Howl's complex sexuality, with the unfortunate exception of Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who went so far as to compare Howl to Michael Jackson. (The entire review adhered to a fairly Standard Snark Template, so pay it no mind.) While many children's films reinforce traditional male/female roles, or seem to think that "confident princess" equals "feminist," gender, like all of Miyazaki's structures, is fluid, and resists containment within any one form. Personally, I could care less who wears the wings in that weird little family. The true test of a good romance for me is whether I’m convinced that the characters – animated or otherwise – plan to get it on as soon as the credits roll (Exhibit A: Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, who I firmly believe had the best sex, literary or otherwise, of the entire 18th century – sorry, Fanny). Apologies to all those who find this sick, but I feel confident that Howl and Sophie will make sweet crazy wizard love as soon as he builds a new castle and finds someone to babysit the kid, the crone, and the fire.

Even an anime naïf like me can see how Miyazaki’s art is informed by that style and its manga roots. His characters have those deep, wet eyes, and tend to sprout feathers and fly at a moment’s notice. They are also gentle, fairytale renderings of more generic superheroes; Howl and Sophie’s first date, a walk in the sky, even winks at Superman and Lois. In spite of my profound disinterest in science fiction, I was compelled to research the connection between contemporary anime and a cartoon series I watched (when nothing else was on, I’ll admit) way back when: G-Force, which it turns out was indeed the offspring of a Japanese comic called Gatchaman. Members of a mainstream genre though they may be, every single character in Howl’s Moving Castle makes the Disney Chicks look fake and painted, a completely unfair fight akin to pitting The Howdy Doody show against the Cirque du Soleil. Several times during the film, I found myself looking past the action to marvel at the sunsets, oceans, and rippling grasses, a sentiment Sophie herself expresses best: “When you get this old, you just want to look at the scenery.” Of course, since Sophie isn't really old, I console myself that I'm not, either, but that's neither here nor there.

Unfortunately, there's a major catch to hailing "Howl" and damning Disney: Disney is distributing "Howl." My students will now witness a really bad example of counter-argument, and it is as follows ... I don't give a shit. Maggie may play with princesses, but she also kept me on the phone for a good thirty minutes to explain in detail the plot of "Nausicaa," which no (other) Disney feature has ever led her to do (and she still has "Princess Mononoke" to look forward to). She may actually be getting the message that protagonists should be more than pretty, and I feel confident that Lucy, who sees no conflict of interest whatsoever in making Barbie ride a monster truck, will embrace this as well. However, I feel far less safe in my new knowledge that Disney now owns the Muppets lock, stock and barrel (something everyone else has apparently known for years. What's the statute of limitations for using one's dissertation as an excuse for complete ignorance?) Their powers know no bounds ... will Piggy continue as her belligerent self, or will she get stuck playing support pork to those simpering cartoon tarts?

In blessed conclusion: Here's hoping that the McDLT marketing principle prevails: that the good stays good, and the bad stays bad, and never the merchandise shall meet. In other words, thank you, Mr. Miyazaki, and keep your mitts off my Muppets, Disney, you suit-wearing, mermaid-making, money-grubbing fucks.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

Geek Gone Blank Posted by Hello

Monday, June 13, 2005

Geek Gone Wild

If you’re planning to visit Daytona Beach, Florida, be sure to BYOI (Bring Your Own Irony), because they don’t have any. There’s no way to step outside the cliché, nobody to share a sneer with, and not a single tongue-in-cheek T-shirt to bring home to a hipster (my personal favorite was emblazoned with "Well, It's Not Going to Suck Itself"). Daytona is like the Olive Garden: when you’re there, you’re family, whether you like it or not. There are beaches and bikers and the racetrack (oh, my); the view from my 11th-floor hotel room framed the ocean (admittedly lovely), the Pelican Superhighway, and the twin towers of a boardwalk ride called the Yo-Yo, on which, for $25 dollars, you and a friend could sit in what looked like a hamster ball and get sproinged higher than the Hilton by bungee cords, spinning all the while. The screams usually began after lunch and continued until after midnight; after a few days, these expressions of abject terror seemed normal and oddly soothing, like the bleats of seagulls, although there were no seagulls, just pelicans. Unlike the northeast’s inquisitively parasitical waterfowl, pelicans command respect. They seem smart because they’re silent, and when they fly in formation at night they look eerily like the Luftwaffe.

The reason for my visit was prosaically pragmatic: I needed cash, and had agreed to prostitute my otherwise-useless talent for grading piles of inane essays without killing myself or anyone else to the almighty College Board, an empire that I now believe is second in global influence and sinister organizational abilities only to the Illuminati. For a week, I sat with 850 other English and composition teachers in a convention center on the floor of what is usually and still felt like a hockey rink, and read the work of America’s best and brightest. To my surprise, everyone was assigned to score only one question, which meant that, over the course of the next seven days, between the hours of 8:30 am and 4:45 pm, I read my fair share of 860,000 essays comparing two poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, both with the same title, “The Chimney Sweeper” (here's the later one). Suffice it to say that they are branded into my brain for all eternity.

It will probably take far longer than an eternity to forget the hash that most students made of those nine stanzas. Should I return to the world as a pelican, I will probably still hear whispers of “weep! weep!” as I ride the ocean wind; hopefully, I will not understand them, and will continue to dive for fish and stand on one foot in high places, unperturbed. I will not bore the uninitiated with the gory details, but I was occasionally jarred from my increasingly mechanical evaluatory stupor by assertions such as, “Everyone knows the old saying, ‘That man’s hair is his pride!’”, and one student’s insightful observation that “we as Americans” no longer employ chimney sweeps because “all those jobs have been sent overseas.” I learned new words like “disgustipated,” encountered well over a hundred spellings of “onomatopoeia,” and discovered that Blake shortened his second version of the poem because he ran out of paper. Several students praised enthusiastically Blake’s skill at rhyming words such as “snow” and “woe,” and one proclaimed his tale of short-lived, tortured orphans “gleeful and engaging,” as if pitching it to Disney (stay tuned for “Chimney Sweeper III: Back in Black”). In all fairness, I was, as I always am, knocked on my already-seated ass by moments of real brilliance, but these were rare. I must have read close to a thousand essays, and I gave the highest point value – a nine – to only three.

Perhaps as a result of Alanis Morisette’s utterly inaccurate examples – “rain on your wedding day,” etc. – the essays, like the town in which I read them, were decidedly lacking in irony, although Blake’s poems were full of it. I was reminded umpteen times of a great line from the NBC sitcom “Just Shoot Me” (RIP), which I’m pretty sure was penned by David Cross, the mastermind behind the shortlived “Mr. Show”: “That’s not irony; that’s what happened.” They didn’t know the difference, and, after a week in Daytona, I didn’t either.

Ultimately, I gave in. I drank frozen Mai-Tais and stuck the flowers behind my ear. I read – and enjoyed – a Reader’s Digest somebody left in the lobby. I sang along to endless acoustic approximations of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” although my last vestige of self-respect drew the line at Jimmy Buffett. I bought a conch shell in a store about ten yards from the beach. I sent postcards of smiling babies in sunglasses. Every once in a while, my critical side surfaced like a shark, mainly in the form of irritation with the media coverage of the missing Alabama teenager, which seemed to indicate that a young woman must be depicted as a naïve virgin in order to arouse the sympathies of America, as if she would otherwise be to blame for a sexual encounter that went horribly, tragically awry.

Safely returned to the epicenter of irony, I’ve been pondering my own snottiness, wondering how to balance the fact that Jeb Bush saved thousands of poor Floridians millions of dollars by telling cagey, recalcitrant insurance companies who withheld payment in the wake of last year’s awful storms to pay up or get out, with how he handed two elections to his brother. (I imagine I’ll get over that one quickly.) I argued halfheartedly with a couple of Nader voters, an activity which simply and sadly no longer gives me the self-righteous little lift it used to. I found what I hope will continue to be great friendships with a motley crew of smart, funny, well-read women (hi, guys). And, after all my complaining, I’m even considering going back next year for more than the money (and the big fried-fish sandwiches), if they ask me, although I get the feeling that giving nines to only .003% of those essays – and two of those in the last hour, out of pure guilt – might come back to haunt me.