Reading Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) was a personally instructive experience. As a white, male reader with a pretty fat tire of privilege under my belt, it’s an often-excoriating, albeit hilarious, read. And while I would definitely have preferred it had Gay occasionally used the more contingent “some men” to describe the masculine influence on the cultural evils afflicting women today, I’m nonetheless convinced that the scale of the problem justifies the rhetoric. It’s not like I’m unaware of my own gender parochialism — none of this is news to me. But I sure am now questioning why I’m not that little bit, or even TEN TIMES better at checking myself and others on subjects that I know to be important when the moment arises. Instead, most of the time (to my shame) I’m more like the crowd at the Daniel Tosh set in the essay “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others,” a crowd that fails to stand up and say, “Enough.”
Bad Feminist is an excellent book for lots of reasons. Firstly, Roxane Gay’s really funny. “When I was called a feminist,” she writes of her younger self, “my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs… I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.'”
She disarms; she’s not holier-than-thou. She uses her wit to discredit the alienating (and false) ideal of feminism, which she argues is damaging. Her brand of imperfection is a kind of manifesto in itself:
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human… I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in the world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dance her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.
A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, &c, it’s hard to argue.
She’s also just funny-funny. In her chapter on competitive Scrabble, for instance, Gay confesses that she’s prone to taking games too seriously, to the point where she will “conflate winning the Game of Life to winning at life.” Her footnotes in that article are the kind of footnotes you wish you’d been allowed to leave in your college essays (“In all seriousness, Scrabble was invented by a man named Alfred Mosher Butts”). Even the premise of the piece is funny in a David Foster Wallace kind of way: what else do smart people do in a flyover state but enter major-league Scrabble tournaments?
Roxane Gay doesn’t care if you think she’s lowbrow. Lowbrow’s not even the right word, actually, but anyone who can say “BET is not a network I watch regularly because I am very committed to Lifetime Movie Network and lesser cable network reality programming” certainly and rightly doesn’t care what you think about her love of the Hunger Games or Fifty Shades series. And actually, these things deserve the intelligent attention she pays them: they’re the most widely consumed narratives of our time. Take the unexamined kink and posturing of Christian Grey, which, she writes, “reinforces pervasive cultural messages women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate in romantic relationships.”
Fifty Shades is a fairy tale. There’s a man and a woman, and an obstacle that eventually they are able to overcome. There is a happily-ever-after, but the price exacted is terribly high. It is frightening to consider how many women might be willing to pay that price.
That she both sort of enjoys the books and is able to die laughing at Ana asking for a glass of “white Pinot Grigio” “because it is the laziest mistake possible” serves to deflect accusations of snobbery while simultaneously making her extremely likeable. “Like most people,” she says, “I am a mass of contradictions.”
Late on in Bad Feminist, there’s a blistering run of chapters on recent movies dealing with race relations in the States — The Help, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and so on. Gay’s having none of it. The Help she dismisses as science fiction, “an alternate universe” in which “the magical negro” characters are almost grateful to their kind white employers. While she admires some of the performances, she finds the dialogue insulting and considers the characters to be racist stereotypes. Indeed, in its critical reception, and that of 12 Years a Slave, Gay rightly identifies a species of institutional racism that goes all the way back to Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar for Gone With the Wind. Prestige roles for black actors, however brilliantly carried off, reaffirm a retrogressive view of race relations, a view which adds nothing to the culture. 12 Years a Slave, undoubtedly a better picture, is nonetheless likewise… well, a bit pointless.
I confess I’m not so sure about Django, which appalled Gay but I rather liked. For me it lives, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s work, in a postmodern realm divorced from social history, despite its treatment of a specific milieu. Everything in Tarantino is sort of camp, I think, a mere staging of race relations or crime or revenge or whatever, dressed in the clothes and postures of other movies or performances. At the very least, I suspect that audience enjoyment of Django is a little more complex than Gay allows, in so far as I don’t think there is necessarily a latent longing for antebellum life in the unappalled viewer.
That said, part of the great value of Bad Feminist, here and throughout, lies in Gay’s ability to destabilise such comfortable (self-serving?) readings of culture. In a powerful piece on “trigger warnings,” she reminds us that “everything is a trigger for someone.” Your funny is someone else’s mortifying. What’s postmodern campery to me is, for Gay, a violent appropriation of a traumatic cultural experience “from a very limited, privileged position.” Check your privilege. If the effect of Bad Feminist is to tighten the screws of your reasoning such that greater empathic nuance becomes possible, all to the good.
We are responsible beings, as participants in culture. Responsible not just for avoiding crassness where possible, but also for representing a decent tranche of reality. This can place impossible demands on artists and public figures alike, of course. The particular problem with representations of women or racial minorities is that we’re so saturated with white male culture that anything that deviates from it is forced to bear an untenable burden of representation. Gay refers to HBO’s Girls, a show she likes but criticises for its treatment of such a narrow racial and socioeconomic demographic. On Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, she laments that the critical responses to Lean Infocused on Sandberg’s failure to respond to the situations of all kinds of women. “Public women,” she writes, “and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren’t, they are excoriated for their failure.”
What’s the solution? Greater representation of all kinds of experience. A war on cliché. A refusal to accept lazy archetypes. An end to feminist in-fighting and a greater recognition that at its simplest, the cause is no more nor less than a demand for equality. In the short term, the kind of critical thinking that Bad Feminist enables. Roxane Gay has produced a splendid manifesto in a year that — with Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs and Emma Watson’s speech at the UN both going megaviral — may yet go down in history as the Year of Feminism: Redux.
Prefatory note: strongly recommend you watch Boyhood without seeing the trailer or doing a Google Image search or anything like that. Probably don’t read this yet either. But the bottom line is, do see it.
Blue sky, white clouds, the opening chords of Coldplay’s “Yellow”, the handwritten title (in black): Boyhood. Reverse shot: Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), aged six, lying flat on the grass, his right arm thrust straight up above him, his left hand behind his head, staring up at the sky. What’s in his mind is a mystery, though it becomes clear that he enjoys the incidental pleasures of childhood like any other boy — computer games, graffiti, underwear catalogues, biking through the suburbs, Harry Potter at bedtime. Chris Martin starts to sing: “Look at the stars / Look how they shine for you / And everything you do.” It’s a song about unrequited love, here repurposed, perhaps, as a hymn from director Richard Linklater to his unconventional muse. When I saw Boyhood at BAM, Linklater and Coltrane spoke briefly beforehand, and the director compared casting Mason Jr. to selecting the next Dalai Lama. “What I liked about Ellar,” he said, “was that he kinda didn’t give a shit what you thought. This kid was gonna go his own way.”
Watching him go his own way is the remarkable content of Linklater’s film. Filming began in Austin in 2002 and ended in fall 2013. (Huge kudos to IFC Films for funding such a project, especially in the current — dire — climate for experimental film-making.) In the intervening period, the cast and crew reconvened annually to shoot more scenes. Coltrane is in virtually every one of them, and we have the astonishing, emotional privilege of seeing him grow up before us. Most critics have been name-checking Michael Apted’s Seven Upseries; some have mentioned Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films; the children of the Harry Potter films are another obvious point of comparison. But Linklater’s achievement is singular. There simply isn’t anything like it in the history of cinema. No other film comes close to representing with such resonance or tenderness cinema’s unique ability to capture the ineffable sadness of time passing. To experience Boyhood is to experience life at an accelerated pace; its unstoppability is devastating.
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play Mason Jr.’s parents, Olivia and Mason; Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is his sister Sam. All are superb. And as with Coltrane, time sculpts them over the course of the movie. They change shape, they gain and lose weight, hair changes colour and length. Twenty-first-century American life happens around them: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama v McCain, Facebook, the financial crisis. But Boyhood‘s use of the conventions surrounding time gives old tropes new flavour. Musical referents — Britney Spears, Vampire Weekend, High School Musical, Arcade Fire — are seemingly used in the same way that filmmakers play KC and the Sunshine Band or ABBA in a film set in the ’70s. A scene in 2008 with Mason and Sam erecting Obama placards in suburban gardens is, likewise, an obvious signpost of time and place. But knowing how the film was made gives these signifiers a different, strange, uncanny power. When they were shot, they were not the kitsch markers they seem now; rather almost documentary. It’s the cinema of nostalgia but with a heightened sense of ephemerality. Like Arquette’s Olivia, who declares that she will spend the rest of her life getting rid of the stuff she spent the first half acquiring, we see that the only things that last — that really matter — are our relationships with the people we love.
Manohla Dargis observed that the film is “set to the rhythm of life“, and this isn’t just critical poetry: the nature of the project dictated it. Detractors, currently almost entirely absent on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, will argue that the final product is kind of plotless and meandering. They will say that Boyhood presents a series of narrative clichés borrowed from soap opera and other realist dramas; that its concept cannot mask the imaginative poverty evident in its parade of alcoholic stepdads, mumblecore pop-culture ramblings, and scene-by-scene inconsequentiality. The shooting and editorial styles are unremarkable, the dialogue contains few surprises, the supporting performances are variable.
But Boyhood transcends cliché, both through its audacious concept and by making a sort of virtue of its low-key approach. Who hasn’t been at a party where someone’s picked up a guitar and started to sing “Wish You Were Here”? There are very few scenes that won’t be immediately familiar to viewers from their own lives: overheard parental arguments, parties, birthday presents, the violence of school life, the tyranny of adults, haircuts, petty disappointments and mindless exuberance. Boyhood isn’t shaped like art and sometimes it doesn’t look like it. But it achieves something that only great art can. It makes one feel intensely, and it’s capable of changing the way one sees both the medium of cinema and the world outside.
One of the great achievements of Boyhood is that it genuinely feels like a careful selection of moments from a much larger story. As Terrence Malick did in The Tree of Life (2011), Linklater discovers the profound in the quotidian. That Mason develops an interest in photography is a neat correlative of Linklater’s ability to take the inconsequential and, by the mere act of selection, elevate it into meaning. And there are many lovely moments to remember. A passed note from a girl in his class that reassures Mason that his new buzzcut (at the hands of his brutal stepfather) looks “kewl.” A fifteen-year old Mason returning home a little drunk, a little high, unashamed to confess his state to his mother. The evident, seemingly unacted affection Coltrane and Linklater have for their onscreen parents. Arquette’s spontaneous and heartbreaking sob the day Mason leaves for college: “I just thought there would be more,” she says.
Boyhood ends with Mason’s first day at college. He, his new roommate and two girls decide to skip the orientation mixer and take a hike in the desert. Mason and one of the girls hit it off, and in the film’s final dialogue they flirtingly discuss seizing the moment. “It’s like it’s always right now,” rambles Mason, delaying the moment of contact. To an extent this is a sort of “meta” statement, for moments captured on film do indeed retain the power to reproduce a now that’s now then. In Boyhood, though, we see cinema exhibiting a power we’ve never seen before. Linklater’s unique filmmaking process effaces the line between fiction and reality, lending his characters a new level of realism. This is partly because ageing simply cannot be acted as well as proved. But it’s also because the actors have shaped the material as much as time has shaped them. The filmmakers are fortunate that in Coltrane they found a boy who’d grow up to be the beautiful, gentle free-thinker we see at the end of the movie. They’re also tremendously blessed by the intelligence, humility and sensitivity of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who, in an understated way, give the best performances of their careers.
Cut to black, and Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue”. Lyrically, it’s a thoughtful answer to “Yellow”: “Here, in my place and time / And here in my own skin / I can finally begin.” Is this Mason, a boy on the brink of adulthood, discovering freedom for the first time? Or Coltrane, breaking through the fourth wall of a twelve-year performance?
If you’ve already seen it, watching the trailer will likely make you want to see it all over again. But anyway:
Whatever you think you know is subject to change at my whim. I will not be contained by my news feeds and online purchases, by your complicated algorithms for simplifying a man. Watch me break out of the hole you put me in. I am a man, not an animal in a cafe.
Goddamn auto correct. I wrote back immediately.
I meant “cage”.
— Dr. Paul O’Rourke to Dr. Paul O’Rourke in Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, D.D.S., is a brilliant dentist but a troubled human being. Searching ceaselessly but fruitlessly for “something” that might be “everything” — God, kids, the gym — his existence is nonetheless dominated by office life and Red Sox games. Joshua Ferris, whose Then We Came To The Endwon the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel, has scored another home run with the excellent, vaguely disturbing satire To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (Little, Brown, 2014).
One day, one of Paul’s patients tells him on his way out the office that he’s off to Israel. Not because he’s Jewish, he says, but because he’s an Ulm — “and so are you!” Not knowing what an Ulm is, and concluding wearily that “gas makes people say funny things”, Paul forgets about it. Six months later, though, when a website for his dental practice appears online accompanied by ominous biblical-sounding quotations and further references to the Ulms, he begins to suspect that the man headed for Israel might have something to do with it. Then come comments on New York Times stories about Israel and Palestine, including mysterious references to “the Cantaveticles”. Soon after, Paul discovers a Facebook page and a Twitter handle in his name. (@PaulCORourkeDental is crying out to be activated for real, by the way — thank me later, Little, Brown). Deciding to track down whoever’s behind all of this, he finds himself colliding with a canny billionaire and the curious romantic history of his digital antagonist.
To Rise Again is a brilliantly funny satire on religion, masculinity and the construction of meaning in the digital age. It takes contemporary frowners like online identity theft and atheist’s angst and adds a Borgesian twist. Has this crumb of apocrypha — the Ulm experience — fallen from a much mightier loaf? What happens to authority when anyone can set up a Twitter account in your name? (There are some ninety Josh or Joshua Ferrises on Twitter, incidentally, none of whom wrote this book.) And in Paul’s own words, to the rare book dealer he enlists to help him track down textual evidence of the Ulms, “how many people does it take to make a thing like this real?” The internet — and in particular social media, which Paul has long tried to avoid — is used to occasion a semiotic crisis for our indignant hero, who knows neither what to believe nor whom to trust.
Paul’s relationship with religion and its capacity for meaning-making is a complex one. He’s fiercely atheistic but consumed by superstition. In the event of the Red Sox falling nine or more games behind the Yankees he’d watch the next game outside New York City limits “in an effort to change my team’s fortunes”. His former girlfriends, including his current co-worker Connie, all prompted him to reconsider his religious affiliations, but more out of a desire to belong than a philosophical rapprochement with the prospect of the existence of God. As he notes, “That was a mighty Pascal’s Wager: the possibility of eternity in exchange for the limited hours of my one certain go-round.”
That religion retains recurring appeal for Paul is significant. “For all my proud assertions of self,” he comments,
I really only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular “we.” I wanted to be sucked up, subsumed into something greater, historical, eternal. One of the unit. One with the clan.
In this he finds a counterpart in his avatar-thieving assailant, who ultimately makes a sort of religion out of doubt. Could this be the sort of religion to finally ensnare Paul?
His desire for religious belief, a kind of existential fear-of-missing-out, is no doubt behind Paul’s accidie:
The city had almost nothing else to offer, and if this great city had almost nothing else to offer, imagine what it was like in lesser cities, or the suburbs, or the small rural towns where so many people are clerks and farmers, and you will understand, finally, why this country has become a nation of fat alcoholics and the nurses and therapists who tend to them. […] We are consuming ourselves alive as our physical grotesqueries grow in direct proportion to our federal deficits and discount gun shops.
Lest this sound too sanctimonious, it should be noted that this is a man who can say with apparently identical seriousness that he moved to New York to discover “what kind of city could make a monster like a Yankees fan”. His grandiloquence is constantly — and hilariously — undercut by his obliviousness to his own pettiness and ignorance. Likewise, dentistry is both a handy metonymy for human delusion and decay and the fertile ground for a series of very funny sketches:
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is a sharp take on the difficulty of spirituality in the digital age. Check it out at McNally Jackson here.