Empathizing with art

Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at avcqa@theonion.com.

A lot of the value of culture comes from the way a story or song can show us a new perspective, and let us know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. But there’s often more pleasure—and relief—in art that exactly parallels something we’ve been through ourselves. These “You aren’t alone” moments really make some pop culture work for individual fans. What moments from pop culture gave you that “Yes! I know exactly how that feels” sensation—or, from the opposite angle, “Yes! That was exactly how I felt”?

Tasha Robinson
Todd Solondz’s Welcome To The Dollhouse is not a remotely pleasant viewing experience; it’s so embarrassing and painful that at times, it felt like pushing a knitting needle through my leg in the hopes that it’d feel great when I stopped. What made it riveting, though, was the sense of familiarity. My childhood wasn’t nearly as miserablist and messed-up as Heather Matarazzo’s in that film, but it wasn’t the details I emphasized with—it was how well Solondz captured that feeling of being just past pubescence and completely uncertain what the rules are for living in the world, dealing with people, and especially managing your own body and other people’s expectations. The way Matarazzo awkwardly attempts to bluff her way through a minefield of social interactions, never knowing where the pitfalls are and when she might experience a stomach-jarring plummet, was shockingly familiar—and comforting to see on film, since it’s so rarely addressed. On a much less depressing tip, Reality Bites is a mighty dumb Ben Stiller film where Winona Ryder tries to decide which potential boyfriend best represents all her future ambitions: the smart, assholish business guy who represents the ’80s, or the mellow, ambition-lite twerp who represents the ’90s. Oh, the symbolism! But what stuck with me about that film was the moment where Ryder and some friends sit on a rooftop and have a low-key Schoolhouse Rock sing-along. Yeah, it’s a cheesy attempt to capture the zeitgeist with a culture reference, but it absolutely mirrors things I’ve done with friends, and the scene captured that low-key sense of just hanging out and sharing a piece of culture everyone around you knows. Besides, I really love sing-alongs.

Claire Zulkey
My parents still talk about the day, freshman year of high school, that I brought home two new friends. They wore Doc Martens and leather jackets, and one carried a binder full of poetry with FUCK YOU written on it, above an anarchy sign. “Whatever happened to that ‘F you’ girl?” my dad asks. (We’re Facebook friends, naturally.) Just a year earlier, I was in 8th grade in a very small Catholic grade school, and was the winner of the superlative “Most likely to do her homework ahead of time.” My parents must have wondered what happened to their little girl. Recently, I re-watched Freaks and Geeks and was blown away by how much I identified with the character of Lindsay Weir. Lindsay isn’t exactly the good girl gone bad—she’s the good girl who maybe wants to give being the good girl a break for a second, just to see what life is like when she isn’t busy with her extracurriculars and good grades, what happens when she stops doing what everyone expects. Lindsay chafed under her parents’ rule but still loved them, which I totally understood: I still remember being a jerk and griping against my dad’s bourgeois ideals while we were on a ski trip to Aspen. (Jesus Christ!) Very few shows or movies seem to capture a) the turmoil of being a high-schooler, b) the turmoil of being a female high-schooler, and c) the turmoil of the mostly well adjusted but still conflicted high-schooler. Re-watching the show made me want to go back in time and hug Lindsay and former Claire and say “Keep doing all of it, and it will all pay off.” 

Sam Adams
The Coen brothers’ critics have always accused them of lacking empathy, but as a critic, I identify only too easily with Barton Fink’s helplessly long-winded diatribes about art. I try to keep a lid on my enthusiasms around normal folk, but every once in a while, some luckless soul will make the mistake of asking me about some cultural object I’ve been keeping on a low boil, and I’m off to the races. If there’s a critic who’s never said the equivalent of Barton’s refrain, “But I’m spouting off again,” it’s only because they lack the self-awareness to know when their audience is bored stiff.

Noah Cruickshank
I went to see Superbad with my father when it came out (yes, I still go to movies with my dad, even though I’m a big kid now), and both of us came out of the film noting how much it reminded us of high school. Neither of us had ever illegally purchased Goldschläger, or got “period blood” on our jeans from dancing with someone’s girlfriend, but Michael Cera and Jonah Hill’s complete lack of ability to deal with women felt all too real. Both of us are a little too nerdy for our own good (we talk about Heidegger and the Pre-Socratics when we’re shooting the shit), and that led to many disasters with the opposite sex throughout adolescence. Every time Cera’s character completely messed up with his crush, I kept thinking about all the times I’d done that. 

Will Harris
There’s a seemingly infinite number of socially maladjusted teenage guys in popular culture who spend their days crushing hard on girls who they know they’d be perfect for, and who they know they’d be able to treat far better than whatever stuffed-shirts/poseurs/douchebags those girls are currently dating, but there’s never been one character’s experience that spoke so specifically to me as Duckie’s doomed crush on Andie in Pretty In Pink. I realize some watched the film and viewed it as a happy ending when Andie, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, defies all social odds and finds true love with one of the rich kids, but I was just depressed. Sure, Duckie ended up with Kristy Swanson in the end, thanks to test audiences balking at the idea that he might be left alone at the prom, but even at 15, I knew the scene felt tacked-on. By that point, though, I’d already lost count of how many times I’d thought, “Oh, my God, that’s me!” Rather than go down the laundry list of moments in which I saw myself, I’ll just cite the one that echoes more greatly than any other: when Duckie, naïvely believing that Andie isn’t picking up on his feelings for her, tries to decide whether he should lay it all on the line, moaning, “Oh God… I love this woman…and I have to tell her. And if she laughs, she laughs… and if she doesn’t love me, she doesn’t love me. But if I don’t find out… Oh, I love her too much!” I’m pretty sure I went through some equivalent of that speech at least three or four times a year throughout both high school and college. Indeed, I found his words to be such a stirring soliloquy that I used the audio clip to kick off a mixtape I made for a girl I had a profound crush on. The end result…was not a happy ending. Truly, I was Duckie.

Joel Keller
When you’re depressed, depressing songs speak to you. I don’t think anyone who’s reading this hasn’t been down, and turned on a song (or even a full album) and completely identified with the lyrics. When I was in some of my most depressed moods, somewhere around the 1995-2002 time period, I’d sing the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Down In It” like a mantra, even though Trent Reznor talks about how he “used to be somebody” and he was up so high, he was “never coming down.” That wasn’t my feeling then; I started down and got even lower. But the catharsis in the song is always what used to make me feel better after singing it, no matter how bad I was feeling.

John Semley
As a “millennial,” I’m forced to read a lot of dumbass trend-pieces diagnosing my generation with acute cases of “irony” and “self-awareness.” Ah! I just put “millennial” and “irony” and “self-awareness” in quotes! I’ve got it bad! Anyway, all this stuff mostly amounts to grumpy fist-shaking passing as pseudo-psychology, with crank authors telling kids with their trucker caps and blue-collar beer to get off their carefully-tended Gen X lawn. It’s annoying. So it was nice to see two recent films that tackled issues like this with actual insight, instead of prescriptive brow-furrowing. First is Rick Alverson’s astounding The Comedy, which really drove at the loneliness underlying this whole culture of privileged ironic savvy, perfectly casting Tim Heidecker as a PBR-bellied Brooklyn trust-funder forcing himself through a gauntlet of increasingly awkward social interactions, in a bid to just make himself feel anything. There was also Alex Ross Perry’s similarly astounding The Color Wheela brother-and-sister road-trip movie following two guarded, borderline-loathsome siblings on a drive to NYC and back. Like Alverson, Perry captures that push-pull between identifying with a character because you get them, then retreating because you find them repellent (which means, really, that you probably find yourself partially repellent). By the time Perry arrives at his jaw-dropping, dazzlingly executed finale (no spoilers here), those barriers between attraction and repulsion have been razzed, until all you can see is yourself. Or myself, anyway.

Steve Heisler
I recently watched Modern Romance for the first time, which is crazy given that I’m a big Albert Brooks fan, and most of my friends talk about that movie all the time, with me contributing very little. Or the obligatory, “Yeah, I’ve seen parts of it.” But I was struck with how timeless its notion of dating and commitment is. In the film, Brooks plays a character who always wants what he can’t have. When he’s in a relationship, he falls in love with the idea of being single, and promptly dumps his girlfriend. Then, upon realizing he’s made a huge mistake, he falls in love with the idea of his ex, and is quick to bring out what sounds like a heartfelt apology—only to fall into the cycle once more, this time even more insecure about his decision. We witness one such cycle, not sure exactly which one it is, and marvel at how Brooks can go through the same motions but pretend to be surprised every time. It feels all too familiar from my own dating life, which mostly involves overthinking when I shouldn’t, and underthinking when I really should be more careful with other people’s feelings. There are two people in every relationship, after all, and Brooks perfectly captures the mental tug-of-war in remembering that fact, coupled with the neuroticism and narcissism that comes with the endless pursuit to get love exactly right. Oh Albert Brooks, I wish I couldn’t relate.

Marah Eakin
My pick for this is a little fluffy, but whatever, I’ll stand behind it: I like The Mindy Project. While I enjoy the show on kind of a fun, mindless level, I also find that about once an episode, Mindy Kaling and her writers come through with one solid phrase or idea that perfectly encapsulates something I’ve thought or felt at some point. Moreover, it’s always something I’ve never exactly heard expressed before. For example, in the episode “Harry And Sally,” Mindy tells Danny that, for women, a “best friend isn’t a person; it’s a tier.” And in the episode “Testing Patients,” there’s a moment where Mindy’s boyfriend accidentally puts on her jeans that’s just so, so painful and true that I can’t help but giggle about it even now. They’re all little things, but in a field—romantic comedy—that’s pretty well-trod, I applaud The Mindy Project for still being able to come up with fresh, sharp angles on universal truths. 

Sonia Saralya
It’s hard for me to talk about pop culture I empathize with, mostly because I get embarrassed really fast and hide under the nearest blanket. The problem with admitting to empathizing with culture is that it means admitting something I’m not good at anymore—that I’m just like everyone else, even when I feel the most weird and alone. Now, that thought scares me, but as a teenager, it was a relief. I’m an emo kid at heart—and not even the good, critically approved emo, but whatever stuff made it through ClearChannel’s monolithic programming to my radio. I got through the pretty tumultuous ages of 16 to 20 listening to Blink-182 and Weezer and Brand New like many other kids in the suburbs. But probably no group, no album, no particular song has spoken to me as much as Jimmy Eat World’s “A Praise Chorus,” off Bleed American. Leaving high school and starting college and beginning that confusing process of figuring out who I was and what I wanted was really scary and hard, and “A Praise Chorus” seemed to know exactly how isolated I felt, and exactly how much I wanted my life to be different. The chorus’ last line is, “I wanna always feel like part of this was mine / I wanna fall in love tonight”—which spoke to that yearning in my soul (and many other souls). Best of all, it promised a way out.

Jason Heller
For a man who wrote a song titled “How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?”, Morrissey sure has sung a lot of songs that resonate with me. It began in high school, as such things usually do, and particularly with The Smiths’ “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” It’s an aching, atmospheric, adolescent anti-anthem for the lonely and leered-at that cut so deeply when I was 16, I still bear (and okay, treasure) the scar. Yes, it’s a total cliché to say all this, so if you can’t (or won’t) relate to Morrissey’s lyrics, I will bear the full brunt of your scorn with naught but withering, passive-aggressive arch-sarcasm. Morrissey has taught me well.

Brandon Nowalk
Watching Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, I felt like Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine, shouting in his head, “That’s me, that is!” Not every detail aligns, but the general portrait of the loneliness, connection, and public-private tension particular to gay life—well, that’s me, that is. To give a more specific example, the climax of Our Idiot Brother really speaks to me. Not the part about how everyone blames Ned for their problems, but the part where Ned blows up about how badly he just wants to hang out with his friends. “Goddammit, I just want to sit around with my family and play a fuckin’ game of charades.” That’s pretty much all I ever think.

Nathan Rabin
This is a big one for me, because I have what might be deemed an excess of empathy, especially where pop-culture is concerned. It seems like I can’t see a movie or read a book or listen to an album without identifying with it on an almost pathological level. To cite a recent example, I finally got around to listening to Analyze Phish, the Earwolf podcast where comedian, comedy-writer, and Phish super-fan Harris Wittels tries to convince non-fan (and Comedy Bang Bang host) Scott Aukerman to enjoy the band Phish. That experiment uncannily echoed my own decision to explore the strange world of Phish for the first time a few years back as an ostensibly adult 33-year-old for an upcoming book about musical subcultures I’ve written called You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Certain moments in Analyze Phish rang true to me on a level that was almost spooky. The note of concern in Aukerman’s wife’s voice just before he hit his first Phish show was, for example, very similar to the tone in my wife’s voice just before I headed out for the big Phish trip that constitutes much of the book. Only in my case, I was flying to New York to follow Phish with no money, no plans, no traveling companions, no car (I don’t know how to drive) and I was at the beginning of a nervous breakdown. I had assumed that my experiences were unique, but listening to Analyze Phish made me wonder if they were strangely universal. And isn’t that what we’re ultimately looking for, really? Art that reflects who we are and how we experience and understand the world around us. That’s what I found in Analyze Phish. 

Todd VanDerWerff
Longtime readers of my coverage of, oh, pretty much any show I really like in the history of the universe might say that I empathize too readily with art, that I’m too willing to toss aside all critical judgment if I can see any reflection of myself in anybody up there onscreen. And maybe that’s the case! But in my own experience, inside my own head, I too often feel cut off from what I read and see because my particular cultural point of view—adopted kid who grew up on a hog farm in the middle of nowhere among religious fundamentalists—is so friggin’ isolated and weird. All of that fell away, though, when I first picked up Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which was so directly aimed at the center of who I am that I had to read it in bits and pieces, I was so moved. Everything about that book, from the religious terror of childhood to the adolescent terror of human sexuality coming online, resonated in a way that was deeply personal and a little weird. I too often feel cut off from my emotions, a residue of Midwestern stoicism, but man, Blankets hits me where I live.

Ryan McGee
I’ve been through many iterations of “Holy crap, this song was written specifically for how I’m feeling right now.” Most of those occurred while I was still single, but even though I’ve been married a few years now, Ryan Adams’ “La Cienega Just Smiled” still cuts to the bone on occasion. It’s melodically miraculous, with lyrics steeped in alcohol and regret. It’s a song about my favorite pastime from my twenties, namely engaging in relationships that “feel so bad / but damn, it makes me hurt.” Even if the protagonist in the song doesn’t end the song by getting the girl, there’s still a feeling inside the music that suggests such a possibility exists, even if it’s long after the track itself fades to black. The main part of the song stands as a reminder of how bleak some of those days were, while the coda serves as a reminder that things need not always stay that way forever.

Kyle Ryan
I’m with Sonia on the Jimmy Eat World front, as the song “Roller Queen” hit me like a ton of bricks when it came out back in the day (not to mention a good half-dozen of the group’s songs dating back to 1996), but let’s not double up on that band. Most recently, a couple of songs by Scottish indie-rock band PAWS made me squirm, specifically “Catherine 1956” and “Bloodline.” I wrote about the former in Hear This, but didn’t mention that a big reason the song struck me is my similar experience. Both songs are emotional tributes by guitarist-vocalist Phillip Taylor, whose mother’s death from cancer clearly shook him to the core. I had the same experience when I lost my mom to inflammatory breast cancer in 2002, so the songs hit me hard, especially lines like “I would trade anything for one full day to just sit and hear her voice again” and “She wasn’t only just my mother / she was my friend, a good friend.” The songs are tremendously sad, but PAWS packages the sentiment in a briskly paced rave-up (“Bloodline”) and midtempo indie rock (“Catherine 1956”), so they never feel mopey. But if you’re missing a mom because of cancer, they’ll feel painfully familiar.

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