Romance Is Not a Children’s Game: Short book and movie reviews

Romance Is Not a Children’s Game: Short book and movie reviews December 29, 2018

A motley assortment, although I guess they do all roughly fit the post title.

Camille Acker, Training School for Negro Girls. I don’t know if this is the best recognizably “D.C.” short-story collection I’ve ever read–it has to battle with Edward Jones’s All Aunt Hagar’s Children–but it’s definitely the most recognizably D.C. short-story collection I’ve ever read. Acker’s stories all take place in the rapidly vanishing world of ungentrified D.C. Several of them are heavyhanded. When Acker doesn’t like a protagonist, she flaunts her contempt: for the social-climbing couple, for the self-absorbed TSA agent, for the teacher who hates Marion Barry almost as much as she hates the poor black student who challenges her classroom authority, even for the black newcomer who thinks her skin gives her membership in hometown DC, and acts like it gives her ownership. I agree with Acker’s dislike of ambition and mistrust of power, but contempt usually makes satire clunkier, heavier, not sharper.

The three standout stories, for me, were the first one, a raw story about the kind of kids who skid from rowdy to cruel, empathetic without the cliches and excuses that term so often now implies; “Final Draft of College Essay,” a perfect little portrait of a certain hard-won pretension and isolation; and the final one, with its beautiful depiction of the way a quiet car rolling along a dark street can become the only place where a parent and child can open their hearts to one another. I’ll also say that I loved the decision to divide the stories into “The Lower School,” tales of hard childhood lessons, and “The Upper School,” the further lessons adult women must learn.

This might be the first book I’ve ever read which gives literary expression to the world I grew up in–or not “in,” no white person ever grows up in that world. But that world was the planet to which I was an orbiting moon. You can read a review/profile of Acker and her “love letter to D.C.” here. I especially appreciated her comment about her decision to shape two of her stories around Len Bias and Marion Barry, our hometown heroes. Who are we, when our best-known heroes are known best for what they messed up?

Junichiro Tanizaki, Naomi (tr. Anthony Chambers). A man meets a girl in a cafe. He’s captivated by her Westernness–her strange name, Naomi; her Mary Pickford face–and he decides that he will bring her home and educate her. But the education, of course, will be his own.

This novel of sexual humiliation and obsession grew on me slowly, but eventually I did give in to it. Tanizaki makes you feel Naomi’s louche beauty. And I was struck by the way the narrator’s self-abasement gives him an unexpected confidence. He no longer cares what anybody thinks (even Naomi!). His life has now been organized in the service of Naomi alone, and any social norm or outside opinion which gets in the way can go and whistle. He has the freedom of a martyr–and the assurance of one, too, since the novel is framed as a suggestion to the outside world that maybe more of us should organize our lives as he does!

This is a reactionary novel by a man who was quite liberal on the subjects it depicts (Tanizaki defended social dancing, for example). It’s a novel in which the West is tightly identified with the commanding woman, her hands decked with rings that glitter like eyes, before whom the narrator can’t even speak. It’s an ambivalent novel about a man who has found a way to leave the ambivalence which keeps us normal far behind him.

Planet of Snail: A Korean documentary, done in a series of evocative scenes which suggest much and explain little, about a marriage in which the husband is deaf and blind, and the wife has dwarfism due to a spinal condition. It’s a movie about their intimacy–her hands tapping messages along his knuckles–but also about the limits of that intimacy. There’s a terrific scene which is just about them fixing a ceiling lamp. She can’t reach it and he can’t see it, so what can they do? There’s a hard, hard sequence where he tries to go about his business without her, in case he ever needs to do that–in case she dies. There’s a moment, which made me think of Wesley Hill’s writing, where the husband, encouraging one of the other deaf-blind men from their community to consider marrying, says that he was prepared for marriage by his deep loneliness.

This is a great movie, memorable and subtle; if I have one criticism, it’s that the couple’s Christian faith comes up explicitly in the context of their disabilities (they put on a play which includes depictions of healing miracles) and I would have liked a little more clarity there, on what healing means to them, what the miracles might mean. In general I respected the movie’s many caesuras but here I think we could have used a little more context.

A Christmas Story: I think I saw this as a child–I know I saw the tongue/flagpole scene somehow, since it horrified me for years. But I did not come in with a lot of nostalgia. I was essentially won over by it, despite hating the voiceover, which usually overexplained the action and the jokes without adding much in the way of adult insight. I tipped over into being on this movie’s side during the Santa Claus scene, which is just a tour de force of holiday agony, outrageous and hilarious. I was intrigued by the way the mom was so often placed alongside the children, as if she were really one of them. Sometimes that played out as a reflection of sexism (not a sexist portrayal, but a portrayal of sexism), as when the husband basically never considers listening to his wife or compromising with her. Other times it seemed that her role as caretaker for the children made her childlike herself, playful, or weird in the private experimental way children are weird–encouraging her “little piggy” to get his snout into his food, or tasting the Lifebuoy soap.

And then, when you’re intrigued and enjoying yourself, right at the very end, the movie smacks you in the face with a gross Chinese-restaurant scene. “Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra.” Just so you never forget who gets nostalgia and who doesn’t.

David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. Can something be a good sign, without actually being a good book?

I don’t know–I was desperately not the audience for this. It’s Bennett’s personal story, so Who Am I To Judge, but his personal story includes a lot of asking God for signs and then receiving signs, a lot of very convenient divine intervention. Those stories are always a trial of faith for people who have not had that kind of experience themselves. Bennett also quotes several people telling him about God’s plan for him, how God will use him to bring many people to Christ, and I… don’t know how well that works, you telling your readers that God is using you to do great things. Maybe let your readers decide that for themselves? The fact that Bennett reconstructs a lot of conversations from memory, unavoidably massaging them into something more coherent and didactic than the reality must have been, does not make the book more persuasive.

As far as specifically gay-Christian questions are concerned, let me address three things–a thing I think the book doesn’t handle well, a place where it’s intriguing but too brief, and a thing I very much respected. First, straight Christians often took it upon themselves to tell Bennett what they thought he needed to hear about Jesus’ will for his sex life. Many of those Hard Truth conversations were things he specifically invited, but at other times it comes across as the thing where Christians say, “God laid it on my heart to tell you this…” and I am glad that worked for Bennett but I have personally never benefited from a single thing that comes out of a person’s mouth after that phrase. You know?? (And I was one of the lucky ones.) The people who brought me into the Church talked with me about the aspects of the faith which had shaped their lives the most, not the ones they thought a homosexual might need to hear, and so when I began to consider conversion, I trusted them enough to bring them my questions about gay stuff. This is why when people ask me, “How do I talk with my gay friends about the Church’s teaching on sexuality?”, I try to remember to start by saying, Maybe don’t talk to them about that unless they invite you to do so? Try to live your life in a way that your faith invites questions and interest, and then answer the questions, rather than assuming you know what people need from you. Overall this is an area where the book is IMO really weakened by being one person’s story: Because these conversations helped Bennett, there’s no mention of what happens when they don’t help–when they’re done without mutual trust, or without humility on the part of the well-meaning straight person. Or when the well-meaning person doesn’t first listen, and attend to the reasons people often interpret any statement about the Christian sexual ethic in light of prior experiences of Christian silences and homophobia.

Second, Bennett writes quite beautifully about friendship, drawing on the Scriptural models of Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and John. He talks about “committ[ing] to a covenant friendship” with a straight guy, and the challenges that relationship faced due to their unspoken assumptions and fears. I would definitely not mind more on this, on the nature of that covenant. I found myself wondering what kinds of commitments these guys had made to one another, and whether they had discussed the future, e.g. will they live together, what will happen if and when one of them marries.

But one thing which leapt out at me about this book is that Bennett could easily have fit his story into a well-worn rut: I was unhappy and unfulfilled in gay relationships, I wanted something more, Jesus is the answer, now I see how shallow and self-absorbed gay communities were all along. Instead he insists on his continuing debt to gay communities: his responsibilities, our responsibilities as Christians, to fight oppression of LGBT people. He hasn’t forgotten the violence people face, the rejection and shame. He clearly sees LGBT people as people like anybody else, bound together by some common hard experiences, whose communities have characteristic strengths and beauties, as all communities do. I like his loyalty and his willingness to fight for LGBT people’s lives and futures, whether or not they ever come to share his convictions.

Smashed and Days of Wine and Roses: Reviewing these together since they’re kind of the same movie. Both of them are much better at making the downward spiral of addiction interesting than the upward crawl of recovery. Why is this so hard? (One of the things I loved about David Carr’s Night of the Gun is that he makes the work and joys of recovery–honesty, service, family, humiliation, hope–even more fascinating than the gutter odyssey of active addiction.) Smashed is funnier in its depiction of Kate’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drunken disasters, but it’s also even more cliched than Days in its depiction of recovery through AA. And that is saying something since Days is a tract, my friend, a folded brochure of a film, rescued by Jack Lemmon’s charm and some good dark camerawork. Days has one of those movie children that’s basically a doll made of guilt (Eyes Wide Shut did this too), whereas Smashed has a whole classroom of children who exist solely to torment our antiheroine with questions about why she killed her baby.

Days is a better movie, because although it hits its own rock bottom in the preachy AA scenes, it gives you enough of Lee Remick’s harrowed alcoholic mother to keep you going. (Remick is actressy in a bad way before her character goes downhill, but then she shines–the sheer meanness she gets into that one word, “Milk?”, is such a sharp-clawed sordid pleasure. Lemmon is the opposite, totally fun when he’s making her do bad things and then unnecessarily Oscar-reel when he’s howling and sweating in the mental ward.) Smashed is wall-to-wall good intentions from the moment Kate decides to go to a meeting.

I also watched A Woman Under the Influence, which is complex. That was my main impression of it–the complexity of everyone’s interlocking needs and motives, which the movie does not, for the most part, try to judge. I liked that the film never reduces what’s going on in that shaken family to one thing–it isn’t only alcoholism, it isn’t only the difficulties of working-class fatherhood, it isn’t only The Patriarchy, it isn’t only the isolation of the stay-at-home mom, it isn’t only the nosiness of a tight-knit community, although it is partly all of those things. Mabel (Gena Rowlands) plays her erratic, unreliable motherhood as the tragic version of A Christmas Story‘s comedy child-mother.

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