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Entries in elena schilder (8)

Monday
Nov042013

In Which We Remain Influenced By Sensualist Impulses

By Her Standards

by ELENA SCHILDER

Blue Is The Warmest Color
dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
179 minutes

Objects from French culture often provide a warning to our sometimes dogmatic American sense of irony. American women love to talk about how effortlessly French women wear their stylish clothing, and the same might be said for French stories, which sometimes seem able to pull off things American artists wouldn’t be able to stomach in their own work: naturalistic sex, for instance, or heartfelt scenes between lovers. When Hollywood tackles young love, we get Adventureland; from the French, we get Blue Is The Warmest Color.

Blue is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh; it traces several years in the life of a young French woman, Adèle. She falls in love with an older art student named Emma, and that relationship foregrounds other developments in her life during these formative years, when she leaves her parents’ home and studies to become a teacher.

A sequence of three scenes in the middle of the film depicts the first sexual encounters between Adèle and Emma. The first of the scenes is somewhere between six and ten minutes long. The second two sex scenes are juxtaposed with two dinner scenes, wherein each of the girls is introduced to the other girl’s parents; the dinner scenes each end in a quick cut to graphic sex that we assume is happening while the parents are downstairs doing the dishes. The contrast is meant, I think, to be funny. 

Do you remember what it’s like to be a teenager? Much has been made of sensuality as this film’s central topic: Adèle, the interpretation goes, is hungry, and the film lists her attempts to satiate herself. Critics say that Kechiche too clearly draws the link between the box of candy bars Adèle hides under her bed, the oysters she slurps with Emma, and their eventual sex life. Appetite is everything in this movie, we’ve heard. But do you remember how hungry you were as a teenager, both for food and for sex?  Blue is not the first creative depiction of this phase of life, during which emotion and appetite and sexuality each play a part in the quick growth of the body toward its adult form. It’s not an easy time for most people, and yet it is a crucial time full of first encounters and waves of preoccupation. It’s a painful pleasure to remember all that, watching Adèle.

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Manohla Dargis recently wrote an op-ed for the Times that followed up on her initial criticisms of Blue Is The Warmest Color when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. Her argument strays in manifold directions, but it generally concerns the way women and their bodies are portrayed in this and other films made by male directors. The op-ed begins, “It was her derrière that first caught my eye,” and goes on to describe Adèle’s ass as “a lovely derrière, no question, round, compact and firm.” The first paragraph ends with her assessment that “the director, Abdellatif Kechiche...likes a tight end.” I draw attention to these phrases out of context because they so clearly established for me Dargis’ tone, which adopts much of the crassness she attributes to Kechiche and his film-making. 

In order to make her points, Dargis continually and explicitly makes reference to the realm of lechery — obviously quite present and harmful in her mind’s eye but not necessarily apparent in the language of the film. Is sexual predation inherent to someone of Mr. Kechiche’s age and gender? Is it likely that Kechiche, a man who wanted to make a three-hour-long film about two French girls in love, did so because he wanted to get them to make out in front of him?

I don’t mean to say that it didn’t cross my mind while I watched that epic sex scene. I thought about the relative youth of the two women, and I thought about the man behind the camera and his position of power — multiple positions of power, since he is both an older man and their director. One of the things that so angered me in Dargis’s critique was that I felt bullied by it into taking a position much less nuanced than my own experience of the film had elicited. 

If I oppose her, I’m made to feel like an enemy to my sex, one of those women who defends male chauvinism, probably out of some deeply imbedded insecurity of my own. If I agree with her, I have to reject my feelings of identification with the film, especially if I was influenced by sensualist impulses. Adèle Exarchopoulos’s beauty is inarguably a driving force behind the film and its pleasures. Am I as lecherous as Kechiche for thinking she’s sexy? 

If I had time and space in this format, I would argue with Dargis point by point, because I feel strongly that conventionalized thinking about women and feminism is both pervasive and toxic. At one point, she quotes Simone de Beauvoir: 

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir wrote that “the erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of their condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and spirit, as the other and as the subject.” This is the ideal, but for Adèle, the erotic experience leads to despair, desperation, isolation. The body betrays her — just like a woman.

This is the ideal. One of the great things about being a woman in 2013 is that “the ideal” for you sexually is hopefully a function of your own tastes, your own “flesh and spirit.” Beauvoir, of course, was writing about the experience of sex, whereas Dargis is commenting on a depiction of it on film. But I can think of no evidence in Blue Is The Warmest Color that Adèle feels betrayed by her body or by Emma’s. In fact, one of the admirable things about the film is that it reminds us how connected the body is to the mind and the soul, how influenced Adèle’s thoughts and reading are by her desires and vice versa. 

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Dargis and others have commented that the sex in Blue “borrows from” pornography. They point to the distinct change in point of view that occurs when sex happens in the movie: Kechiche stays close to Adèle’s face, except when she’s in the bedroom. This has been offered as a comment on Kechiche’s inadequacy in documenting sex as naturalistically as he documents other parts of his characters’ lives, by resorting to moves from the “the industrial handbook of male-oriented pornography,” as Dargis calls it. 

It’s funny to think about Kechiche taking The Handbook down from his shelf and dusting it off before getting ready to film the pantomimed sex between Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. I think it’s fair to say that in this culture of “male-oriented” pornography, all sex acts, real or fictional, take on aspects of The Handbook, for better or worse. Porn is widely available and endlessly consumed. The sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color reminded me of porn I’ve watched; they also reminded me of sex I’ve had. I doubt those associations could have been avoided even by the most thoughtful, “female-oriented” director.

I don’t think I quite realized how pervasive images from pornography had become until I read American Psycho in 2010. I remember being struck by Bret Easton Ellis’s use of sexual scenarios that I’d seen in porn; of course, in that novel the ten-minute sex scenes often end in a bloodbath. But mixed into the brutality were images that now seem utterly commonplace to me and the other millions of consumers of Internet porn. I was struck by how different it was to read these images than to watch them, and how conventional pornography had become for me, though I came it to it rather later in life than most of my peers. People of my generation will no doubt agree with me when I say that porn has influenced our sex lives profoundly: men and women raised on porn tend to some degree to reflect its conventions. I could bemoan this as further evidence of the backward slide of civilization but I can’t help but feel anything but neutral about it.After all, whatever damage it’s done me is unlikely to be reversed at this point.

Another writer I admire, Marilynne Robinson, talks and writes sometimes about how her personal tastes, dictated in part by religion, preclude her from appreciating sex in fiction. In her Paris Review interview, she said:

When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases.

Anyone who has read a sex scene in fiction or watched a sex scene in a movie will know to some extent what Robinson means. Whether we are disposed to think of these scenes as exploitative or not, there is something inevitably awkward in them, a sense that the writer or filmmaker attempts to do justice to something best kept private. One understands the impulse to write about sex and make films that include sex, and that impulse need not be accused of capitalizing on some essentially “male” appetite for the pornographic. Because artists are free to depict sex, at this time and in this part of the world, they do. It’s thrilling to try it, but often the results are unsatisfying. Which, frankly, is not an uncommon description of the sex act itself.

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It seems unfair that Blue Is The Warmest Color's reception be so overwhelmed by the reception of its most intimate segments. As we are constantly reminded, “sex sells,” and the rumored ten-minute lesbian sex scene will inevitably garner the film a wider audience as it makes its way around the world (though not to Idaho). Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions about whether Kechiche has ignored “bodily excesses and excretions in favor of tasteful, decorous poses” (Dargis again). I have a very vague memory of the sex in the movie: I can remember their white bodies against a blue background, a little bit awkward and staged in their embraces. What I remember vividly from the movie is the repeated close-up of Adèle’s face:  smiling, weeping, experiencing.

American moviegoers don’t learn until the end of the movie that its French title is La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitre 1 & 2. I liked this detail and found it revealing. Thinking of the film as the first two phases of a life in progress frees it from the weight of love and sex, a weight we seem ready to throw onto anything that moves. 

Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her babysitting opportunities.

"Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk" - Linda Thompson (mp3)

The new album from Linda Thompson is entitled Won't Be Long, and it was released on October 15th from Pettifer Sounds.

Wednesday
Aug082012

In Which We Copy It Down In Their Handwriting

Over the next week and a half, we'll be looking back at books from our childhood.

Babysitting Opportunities

by ELENA SCHILDER

I haven’t read much of Jonathan Franzen’s work, but there is an essay in his book How To Be Alone that I remember one part of very clearly. He theorizes that there are two sorts of readers in the world:  those who read because it is bourgeois custom, and those who read because they are disappointed by real life. Both readers form their habits in childhood, and one imagines the two children as a pair of mismatched siblings:  one well-adjusted, with a healthy curiosity in life; the other sunk too far into the pleasures of narrative.  

I am paraphrasing a more complex thought of Franzen’s in order to identify myself as the second brand of reader, and to provide the beginning of what might be a picture of myself as a child. When I started reading The Babysitters Club, it was because I found one of the books in our family friends’ house, soon after our family moved back from Holland.  It was the one about Stacey being a lifeguard, or falling in love with a lifeguard — Boy-Crazy Stacey, it was called.  I started reading the book lying on Cheryl’s bed — it was Cheryl’s book. She was older than me by a few years. I remember thinking that this must be what girls read.

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Each book in The Babysitters Club series begins with a description of the seven principal characters.  Because the books can be read in any order, the characters barely change over time, and for an avid reader of the series the introductory description soon becomes repetitive.  The seven girls are distinguishable by their outward personality traits and lifestyle choices:  they are seven brands of human teenager, defined not by the things that happen to them or even by their relationships with one another, but with one or two choice adjectives each: Kristy is bossy and tomboyish; Claudia is scatter-brained and artistic; Mary Anne is sensitive and organized; Stacey is sophisticated; Dawn is laid-back and health-conscious. Mallory and Jessi have fewer distinguishing characteristics because they are only eleven.

In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper deflects a question about his upbringing by saying that where he was brought up, in the Midwest, it is considered impolite to talk about oneself. The irony is that Don knows no self fixed enough to talk about - for years, he has been pretending to be someone else. In Don Draper we have metaphorical representation of the idea that our outward selves cannot escape fabrication. But he serves to remind us, too, that it is strange we are asked to present ourselves at all, that in job interviews we are asked the question all the babysitters already knew how to answer, though they were only thirteen: “What two words would you use to describe yourself?”

When I started school in upstate New York I was seven, and I had never been around American kids before. Dutch children are much like their parents — stubborn, fair-minded, and unselfconscious. That is a generalization, but it is meant to illustrate the difference between the people I was around when I was very young and the people I grew to know in my adolescence, who were more conscious of what I’ll call their individual identities. It was not until I lived here and spoke English and read American books that I came to expect to be a person who would ever be described in any particular way.  

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Those who read The Babysitter’s Club when they were younger will remember that one of the pleasures of the books is their use of handwriting samples. The members of the club keep a record of their babysitting jobs in a notebook and are required by the rules of the club to write a paragraph or two about each job. In each book, a few chapters begin with hand-written passages, and the serial reader learns to recognize each of the seven characters by her handwriting. Kristy writes with the tight, controlled, cheerful cursive of a young athlete; Claudia, whose mind is on other things, writes sloppily and crosses out words due to misspelling; Mary Anne’s handwriting seems old-fashioned and feminine; Stacey prints and dots her lower-case I’s with hearts; Dawn prints too, but her letters are bigger, freer, and reflective of her West Coast upbringing.

Nobody writes by hand anymore, but when I was younger the issue of handwriting so obsessed me that I used to watch Party of Five with a pad of paper on my lap and write out the same sentence (always “The fox jumped over the fence”) in what I imagined were the five different brands of penmanship belonging to the five siblings. That identity and handwriting were inseparable is absolutely an idea I got from The Babysitters Club. In the non-fictional universe, I was perpetually dissatisfied with my own handwriting, and changed it often, depending on which of my friends I most admired at that moment.  I went through a period of thinking my friend Molly’s was perfect, but then, so were her L.L. Bean down vests and the mallards in her parents’ house. Handwriting and lifestyle and identity were all joined in a way I didn’t understand and couldn’t master.  

Nothing about handwriting analysis seems to be very provable, but one tenet that I’ve encountered says that though we try to change our handwriting, the basic gestures that our hands make are learned so young and ingrained so deeply that they will be recognizable all our lives. Which means that, gestures at personal style and branding aside, there are things about ourselves that we can’t change. 

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When I was in college, I read Sister Carrie for the first time in an American Studies class. My professor made the argument that Carrie’s failure to succeed in America comes from a level of personal malleability that weakens her; she is of nowhere and goes nowhere, though for brief and finite periods she attaches herself to people with better fortune than her own. Theodore Dreiser draws Carrie in terms that directly oppose the typology of The Babysitters Club:  she struggles because she is without personality. She fails to cultivate herself.

Although it’s silly and very typical of the compulsive reader to identify too deeply with a fictional character, I felt sad when I read Sister Carrie — for myself, and for all the displaced egos in America, who never quite settle on how they want to write. For the members of the Babysitters Club, the tension between being and wanting-to-be never existed at all. Though they lived in a dull and wholesome world, it was a world I wanted to live in.

Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Roches.

Enjoy The Perils Of A Literary Childhood At Your Leisure

Elena Schilder and The Babysitter's Club

Lily Goodspeed and The Golden Compass

Helen Schumacher and Little House on the Prairie

Jane Hu and Walk Two Moons

Kara VanderBijl and A Wrinkle In Time

Hafsa Arain and Harry Potter

Lucy Morris and Bruno and Boots

Alice Bolin and Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade

Dayna Evans and The Diary of Anne Frank

Thursday
Feb232012

In Which We'll Always Love You But That's Not The Point

Great Reserves

by ELENA SCHILDER

The first Shit Girls Say video went viral sometime in late 2011. You remember. A guy in a wig says, “Can you pass me that blanket?” and “What’s my password?” because those are things that girls say. Critics of the video and its creators claimed that most people say things like “Can you pass me that blanket?” at one time or another, gender notwithstanding.

Some forms of contemporary female speech have the quality of a low hum, like the sound I imagine a cloud of bees would make. It feels like it’s there to fill gaps, to distract and ease the faultiness of modern conversation — whose faults we owe, maybe, to a more general and well-documented mood of distraction in the culture. We look up from our phones, say something, look back down at our phones, write something to someone else who is not there. And girls — adaptable and socially attuned as we are — have the capacity to bridge those gaps with seemingly superficial and effervescent ways of speaking to one another.

Of course, there is something sad about this form of speech, which takes no pleasure in originality, and instead serves to make people feel comfortable. These phrases are like compulsive tics of speech — said just to say something, almost to oneself. It makes me think of the process by which, as a woman in my mid-twenties, I learned to use exclamation marks in my text messages and emails. I did it to create the feeling of ease I described above: I didn’t want other people to think of me as harsh or biting, and I wanted to provide a feeling of acceptance and enthusiasm. But now that I do it, I often feel like I can’t go back.

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The Roches are three sisters from New Jersey: Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy. They made the album that most of their less die-hard fans care about — self-titled, and produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — in 1979. Their music is most accurately described as folk music, with beautiful three-part vocal harmonies and strange, sometimes dissonant arrangements. They write witty lyrics, some of which are also silly. In 1979, on Saturday Night Live, they performed a manic a cappella version of The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. In their brashness, they remind me a bit of the theater kids I knew growing up.

The Roches remind me of the nuances of female speech because their lyrics often articulate the shared sentiments of womanhood in a startling way. Of all their songs, people are most attached to the slow and deliberate “Hammond Song,” written as if spoken by an older sister to a younger sister, warning the younger girl not to “go down to Hammond.” The song makes the ages-old argument against doing what Felicity did, following a man without first taking care of oneself. “We’ll always love you, but that’s not the point,” they tell the wayward one, and, “You’d be okay if you’d just stay in school.”

Watching and listening to the Roches of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the years of their youth, I want to describe them as innocent. But it’s a description that may say more about the observer than the observed.

The Roche sisters seem to exist in a pure, girlish space that is either pre-adolescent or pre-Lewinsky, depending on how specific you think such innocence is to the 1970’s and the influence of second-wave feminism. Either way, they display a lack of self-consciousness in their demeanor, clothing, and songwriting that simply doesn’t have a modern equivalent: they are often coy without appealing to anything so narrow as “sex appeal.” The cover of their 1980 album Nurds shows them butt-bumping the camera — a cheeky joke, but not at all raunchy.

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I recently took part in an argument about whether the new Diablo Cody movie Young Adult is misogynistic. On the surface, this argument, like the similar arguments I’ve had about movies like Bridesmaids or Knocked Up, doesn’t interest me. Good stories, we learn in writer’s workshop, should be true to themselves before being politically aligned. But a lot can be surmised about the political and cultural milieu into which stories are introduced by observing repetitions among characters and storylines.

In college I took a class on genre theory, and because I found the classification of genre to be a helpful way of thinking about stories, I have continued to think about them as falling into one of four categories: romance, satire, tragedy, and comedy. Of course, many stories engage more than one category. The thing about Young Adult, or — to take one example — the ever-popular Mad Men, or the Shit Girls Say video, as well as many other products of the culture, is that their portrayal of women is largely satirical or tragic. And that isn’t to make a criticism of the artists responsible for them. But when I watch Mad Men I sometimes feel a little scared, as if all the air is being sucked out of the room. Those women are chronically sad.

In the history of literature, much has been done with the sad woman, and even more has been done with the woman so empty, spoiled and materialistic that she can only be parodied. The Roches give me the same good feeling that I got when I read Harriet the Spy, another relic of 1970s New York girlhood. Women, like men, have great reserves of mischief and playfulness and, to be simple about it — happiness. And there is no law that says these characteristics can only be allotted to the pre-pubescent and the radically naive.

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In a classic episode of My So-Called Life, Sharon tells Angela that once you have sex, you can’t go back to just making out. And the Roches say that if you go down to Hammond, you’ll never come back. Of course, experience often bears out the truth of these hypotheses. Once you’ve come around to the legitimately tragic parts of being a woman, or found yourself saying things you never thought you’d say in the interest of making conversation with the girl selling you a pair of $200 leggings, it can make you feel like Peggy Lee sounds when she sings, “Is that all there is?” — in other words, cynical and asthmatic.

Poignantly, Maggie and Suzzy Roche’s 2004 collaboration is titled Why The Long Face? Why indeed?

Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about American Beauty.

"Hammond Song" - The Roches (mp3)

"No Shoes" - The Roches (mp3)

"We Three Kings" - The Roches (mp3)