Art that hit close to home
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 email@example.com.
I’m an 18-year-old, so the Toy Story films came out when I was 4, then 8. I saw the third one last night with six of my friends, and four of us cried. We decided maybe the element of moving out and growing up, and the fact that we were so young when we first got to know these characters, really drove the point home. When have you felt like a work hit close to home for you, or almost like something was made just for you? —Jon O
Can I be really embarrassing here and admit that I was part of the generation that felt John Hughes’ teen movies were made for and about them? For some reason, I didn’t see Sixteen Candles until I was significantly older, so it never really latched into the right part of my psyche, and it always felt loud and overdone and fakey compared to the ones I saw at the exact right time: Some Kind Of Wonderful and especially The Breakfast Club. I was one of those awkward, glasses-and-braces-wearing, good-grade-getting teacher’s-pet types with my head perpetually in a book, and I was actually afraid of the louder, punkier kids at my school, as if they weren’t just trying on identities as harmlessly as I was. And I loathed and envied the popular kids, who clearly had it all together and lived in a bliss of perfect happiness. So having a movie suggest that loneliness, alienation, and anger were endemic to being my age, and that we were all really the same under the surface, was startlingly comforting and personal and evocative. It was a pretty, pretty dream that Hughes sold to us, even if it came with a depressing ending for a girl-geek: Everyone pairs up but the smart kid, who is left alone to dutifully write up everyone else’s essay while they all go off to make out. But hell, that rang as true too—practically an acknowledgement of reality amid the fantasy—so it hit even closer to home.
There are a million ways I could answer this, but rather than provide all the embarrassing instances of art that struck me as true when I was a dumb-ass teenager, I’ll go with one that hit me when I was much, much older: the recent A.V. Club Wrapped Up In Books selection Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris. It was already uncomfortably true to my daily work life in its portrayal of the way people fill up their days with trivialities, the way work issues can take on a ridiculous degree of importance, and the way people relate to each other in an office environment via a strange, shallow sort of friendship that shies away from real emotional connection. But in a much more specific and creepy way, it dealt with people getting losing their jobs during uncertain economic times—at the exact same time I lost my job in publishing, doing much the same kind of work. In fact, the exact same day I finished the book was the day we all found out our office was closing down. The book seemed to parallel my life so closely that for a nervous day or two, I expected another big terrorist attack, since 9/11 figured into the book’s final chapters.
To put it mildly, I’m a huge fan of karaoke. My friends and I go once every two weeks or so, relish discovering new spots, and compulsively scour the songbooks for the perfect tune to win over the crowd and perfectly encapsulate the evening. I even have “theories” about what makes a person successful at karaoke, No. 1 of which is “effort.” I think about it a lot. (It’s surprising I despise the mainstream karaoke outlet, American Idol.) So I was elated to discover that not only was my obsession shared, it was a cause for celebration. Enter Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered The World And Changed My Life. The book is funny, insightful, and unabashedly geeky about karaoke—one part is a long explanation about why “Sister Christian” is the ultimate karaoke song. I’m supremely jealous of Raftery, which is an emotion I reserve for people I find incredibly talented and who are doing things I wish I was doing. In the meantime, I no longer feel as ashamed to admit my karaoke fondness to new people, or, really, to all of you.
I’m one of a legion of dudes who saw himself in the Rob Gordon character in High Fidelity, both the Nick Hornby novel and its 2000 movie adaptation starring John Cusack. I saw the movie in the theater with my then-girlfriend, who kept poking me in recognition during the film. “Now you know how I feel when you go off about some Samiam bootleg,” she said afterward. “There aren’t any Samiam bootlegs,” I responded. We broke up a few months later, which crushed me and transformed High Fidelity from a jocular, “Hey, I’m kinda like that guy!” lark to a grim reflection of my life, which wasn’t so amusing. It also didn’t help that the movie was filmed in Chicago, at some of my regular haunts. In High Fidelity, Rob and ex-girlfriend Laura eventually reunite, and in keeping with that precedent, so did my ex and I. We even married a couple years later, which I hope breaks High Fidelity’s destructive influence—though when my friend asked Hornby at a Chicago appearance if Rob and Laura were going to make it, he laughed and said he had his doubts. Leave me alone, Hornby!
I think Kyle stole a few A.V. Clubbers’ answers with High Fidelity. This place attracts, you know, that type. Moving on… Every once in a while, a film will tell you exactly how you’re feeling at a certain time, even if you don’t know it yet. For me, that movie was Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming, in which one character pines wistfully over a love that just isn’t going to happen, because life is taking them in different directions. Meanwhile, a lumbering fellow played by Carlos Jacott lives on the verge of a nervous breakdown between shifts at a video store because of his fear of going to grad school in Wisconsin. I’d just dropped out of grad school, lumberingly, and was working at a video store in Wisconsin when I first saw that movie—when I took it home from the store, natch—and it hit very close to home. It’s a movie about being stuck between phases of your life and trying (and failing) to find pleasure in the things you used to do and the person you used to be. When I revisited it a few years ago on DVD, I found flaws I didn’t notice at the time, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the film. Plus, it introduced me to the music of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, which is amazing.
I don’t know whether I should admit this, but I have such a strong connection to the films of Noah Baumbach that I almost feel like I should recuse myself from reviewing them, since I know my reactions are as much personal as they are critical. The Squid And The Whale in particular was almost like watching home movies. I’ve never lived in New York (or even visited, for that matter), but the rest of the movie’s details are almost painfully familiar: the divorce, the intimidating parents, the music (right down to the Risky Business soundtrack, The Feelies, Pink Floyd, and “Street Hassle,” all in heavy rotation when I was in high school), and most of all the protagonist who fancies himself an intellectual, but is really just skating by on his superior bullshitting skills. I think The Squid And The Whale is a great movie anyway—funny, poignant, all that—but when it comes down to it, it’s hard for me to defend it to people who don’t like it. (I can’t really defend my adolescence either.)
Even the people who know me best still probably don’t have a real clue as to how weird my childhood was. “Broken” doesn’t even begin to describe my home, and most adults in my life were drunk, high, in prison, or simply absent. As a kid, I sought refuge in two places: books and the woods. So it makes total sense that Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me has had such an impact on me. Although I spent most of my adolescence in places like Florida, Vermont, and West Virginia in the ’70s and ’80s rather than the film’s setting of ’50s Oregon, Stand By Me’s untamed rural backdrop and Lord Of The Flies undertones felt eerily familiar when I first saw the movie in ’86. I was an utter wallflower back then, but since my family always managed to move somewhere near a forest of some kind, I’d often ditch the chaos of home and wander through the trees and across creeks and over old bridges, completely unsupervised or even accounted for, for hours at a time. In that sense, I identified easily with the two main characters in Stand By Me, the writerly Wil Wheaton and the delinquent River Phoenix, both of whom are forced to deal with isolation, abusive or aloof parents, and being miserably misunderstood. Those characterizations seem so oversimplified to me now, but I’d probably be lying if I didn’t admit that Wheaton’s character Gordie growing up to be a writer in some way pushed me toward the same profession. I’ve still never gotten around to reading “The Body,” the Stephen King novella that provided the basis for the film, but I can’t imagine it having anywhere near the same resonance at this point in my life. The strangest thing is, I palpably remember re-watching Stand By Me when I was in high school in the late ’80s—and even at that world-weary age of 17, I felt a sharp, bittersweet, heart-squeezing nostalgia, not only for a time and place I never inhabited, but for a youthful innocence I barely had a chance to know.
The first time I heard The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive, it felt like a kind of music I’d been hearing inside my head my whole life. The band always made the kind of music I enjoy—throwback rock heavily influenced by other groups I enjoyed, like Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band—but their lyrics, about hard-partying teenagers having good times that gradually turned into bad ones—often held me at arm’s length, what with the sheltered childhood and all. So while I can agree with most everyone that Separation Sunday is the band’s best album and Boys And Girls In America is its most accessible, something in Positive hits me dead center, right where I live. The opening track, “Constructive Summer,” could pretty much be the song written by an alternate-universe version of myself who stuck around in the small town of my youth and never followed any of his goals out of that town. And from there, the album goes out into a world of people who are getting older and realizing that, yeah, this is it. This life is all you get. That idea hit me pretty hard in 2008, and it hits me harder with every year that goes by. The CD release (which concludes with three bonus tracks) is bookended by songs that spout “Let this be my annual reminder that we could all be something bigger” and “We’ve got to try a little harder / We’ve got to be a little better.” While those lyrics offer hope, the desperate drive of the music suggests there’s something far lonelier just down the road.
Much as movie critics are loathe to admit it, we’re as responsive as anyone else to seeing our lives reflected onscreen, and my life and point of view was unquestionably and permanently altered by the birth of my daughter on February 1, 2008. The instinct to nurture her and protect her from harm, the perpetual awe in watching her grow up and respond to the world in miraculous and life-affirming ways—these things are clichés that might have had me rolling my eyes a little on January 31, 2008, but have been very real to me every day since. And I’m fairly certain it made me vulnerable to The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, an epic that’s probably every bit as overweening and banal as many of my colleagues claimed it to be. Still, it that left me completely blitzed by the end of it. The aging-backward concept does much of the work—if you aren’t moved by the image of a woman literally cradling the love of her life in her arms before he passes on, I can’t help you. But something about the intensity of having a single life compressed into the scope of a feature like Benjamin Button dovetailed with the intensity of being a father (on typically little sleep), and hard as I tried to push away this very flawed movie, resistance was ultimately futile.
All right, now that Scott has opened the door with Benjamin Button, I might as well go all the way with this. Lots of art gets to me in a personal place. I mean, that’s what great art is supposed to do, right? Either it tells us something we never thought anybody would be able to tell us, or it shocks us into thinking in a different way. Sometimes, though, art doesn’t have to be great to be affecting. Sometimes it’s just timing. In 2003, I’d moved back home to Maine after working for a year in Massachusetts, and I was settling into a new job, and I was having problems. So I went to a therapist, because I didn’t want to get fired, and after 20 minutes of talking, he told me there was a reasonable chance I had bipolar disorder. (Or I was manic-depressive, which, let’s face it, sounds much cooler.) That got a process started, which meant meeting more doctors and working out medication and so forth, and in a way, it was kind of a relief, because hey, who doesn’t want a medical professional telling you that your particular brand of crazy is not only a) definable in clinical terms, but b) treatable with meds. It was scary, though. We get through our lives by believing the illusion that we can trust our brains. To say, “No, this isn’t a good thing that’s happening, and I need to take steps” meant acknowledging I didn’t really know myself as well as I thought.
Anyway, all this is going through my head, and I start doing research, and I find out that Virginia Woolf may have been bipolar. No way to know for sure, but hey, she’s this well-respected, brilliant writer, so a guy could do worse for a role model. I read Mrs. Dalloway, loved it, read To The Lighthouse, loved that too. Then… ah, here’s the embarrassing part. Then I hear about The Hours. The original novel by Michael Cunningham uses Mrs. Dalloway as a jumping-off point to tell three stories about woman at various stages of crisis in their lives. I read the book and thought it was pretty good, but sort of airless and dull, which is how a lot of modern literary fiction tends to hit me. (Writing is supposed to be like fucking, people. It’s not supposed to be describing how somewhere, two people might be holding hands.) The movie came out while I was in Chicago visiting a friend, and I saw it in the theater, because I was so desperate to relate to someone else, to pretend like what I’d learned about myself had some kind of meaning. I know it’s a mediocre movie, and I know it’s as dry as the book. That didn’t stop me from just breaking down completely during Woolf’s suicide. I’m not exactly proud of that, but I’m not really ashamed of it, either. I think recognizing great art is what makes someone a good critic, but having some art cut into you regardless of its quality is what makes you you.