Identity

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

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Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…

 

 

Bowker Hates Being Corrected

A few weeks ago I was pleased to see that the Toronto Public Library was stocking my “Oscar’s Ghost” and that all of the copies were checked out. I was surprised, however, when I clicked on the author biography to hear my life summed up this way:

Laura Lee has written several books, including Bad Predictions and The Name’s Familiar.

She lives in upstate New York where the bugs constantly annoy her.

(Publisher Provided) Laura Lee is the author of the bestselling Karli Lane series as well as the upcoming Dealing With Love series. She is a member of the Romance Writers of America focusing on paranormal, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance.

Laura lives in the Pacific Northwest with her wonderful husband, two beautiful children, and three of the most poorly behaved cats in existence.

Laura’s titles include, Beautifully Broken, Deal Breakers, and Pixie Dust.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Now, if you don’t know me personally and have not followed my career, you might not immediately notice that some of these titles are mine, and some are not, and you might not be confused by the reference to a husband and children (and cats) I don’t have. You might at least find it a bit confusing that I am supposed to be living in both Upstate New York and The Pacific Northwest. (I leave in the Detroit area.)

This seems to be a combination of my biography from 15 years ago at the beginning of my career with this person.  It is an easy enough mistake, but one that warranted correction. I wrote to the Toronto Public Library and they responded right away and explained that they got their author blurbs from a service, but they would contact them and let them know about the error.

Today the librarian wrote back to me to say that the blurb had been updated. “It’s not quite what I thought they would do, but it does include the information you gave us.”

So I looked up the new biography. This is what I found:

Laura Lee is based in the metro Detroit area. She is the author of 20 books (The Name’s Familiar and Bad Predictions being the least impressive). Her biggest sellers to date have been Blame it on the Rain (Harper Collins) and The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation (Black Dog and Leventhal). In addition to my humorous reference titles, I’ve written two novels and a children’s book (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet). I am a regular contributor to the journal The Wildean.

(Bowker Author Biography)

I guess I annoyed them.

For the record, here are the titles I have written:
The Name’s Familiar
The Name’s Familiar II
Invited to Sound (poetry)
Bad Predictions
Arlo, Alice and Anglicans
The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation (2001)
Blame it on the Rain
100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them
The Elvis Impersonation Kit
Broke is Beautiful
A Child’s Introduction to Ballet
Schadenfreude, Baby!
Angel (fiction)
Identity Theft (fiction)
Don’t Screw It Up
Around the World in 80 Cliches
Savoir Faire
Avoiding Everyday Disasters
The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation (revised edition 2017)
Oscar’s Ghost

I was also a contributor to The Best American History Quiz Book.

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

“Individuals of a Better Station in Life”

Working on Oscar’s Ghost over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to give some thought to social class. In Oscar Wilde’s England, social class was spoken of quite openly and the lines were not supposed to be crossed. Much of the circumstantial evidence that convicted Wilde rested on the idea that there was no legitimate reason for a man of his station to socialize with grooms and valets. (There is a nice scene in the movie Wilde where the audience in the courtroom gasps when an attorney brings up the working class professions of some of Wilde’s companions.)

A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Crossing class lines was suspicious. We often read passages like this with a little snicker, feeling a tad smug about how much wiser we are today. But are we? Or have we just changed the way we talk about social class?

There is a television commercial I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It is for an online dating service and one of the featured women says that she went with the service because you have to pay to be on it, and that proves that the men are serious about a relationship.

Of course, it is a luxury to be able to spend money on a service, especially one that has free variants available. So seeking out men who are willing to pay for the service is not only about “seriousness” it is about weeding out the poor. “Professional” is a euphemism we use these days rather than saying “people of my class” as Lord Alfred Douglas would have.

I would call this kind of language “coded” but that is not quite right. To speak in code is to be aware that you are conveying a hidden meaning. Most of the time when we use this particular kind of code we are keeping the class ramifications secret even from ourselves. I don’t believe that the dating service customer believed she was using code when she said “serious.” She believed she meant “serious” not “of my social class.” But the idea she has of a serious person includes certain social class markers.

Another example of this, a slightly more conscious one, is found in the romantic comedy “The Holiday.” I was so struck by something I heard on the commentary track that I ended up writing it into my novel Identity Theft.

Movies like this had always been a guilty pleasure for Candi. They were formulaic and fluffy, an insult to her intelligence, and yet who could resist the idea that we live in a world were perfect romance is possible? You run away from life, trade homes with another woman in an exotic faraway city, and no sooner have you unpacked than someone who looks like Jude Law knocks on your door and wants to make love to you. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that he is secretly a family man and totally the marrying kind. Candi suspected that these kinds of movies did to her brain what a diet of Twinkies would do to her body, and yet she couldn’t get enough of them.

In the commentary track, the film’s writer and director was explaining her costuming choices. It was important, she said, that Jude Law’s character was wearing a tie when he knocked on that door. Otherwise, she believed, audiences would not relate to Cameron Diaz’s character. They would think she was a slut. Good girls only have anonymous sex with boys in white collar jobs.

In other words, the definition of a slut is a woman who has sex “not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.