It was a long year of looking at the lives of others, and even one’s own life, as if through a glass pane, or a warped lens, the recognizable contorted into the surreal or the uncanny. A sprint to what was once quotidian and comfortingly banal tainted by a hideous awareness of the effort of it all to do just that. As what was considered, various privileges notwithstanding, “normal” melts memories of smiles into clownish rictuses mocking the very idea, the only solace left is understanding what little solace is left, and that it’s found in strange in-between spaces of not being the subject or the object so much as in the action itself. Looking, gazing, seeking.
Forgive the histrionics of making broad statements about the world or whatever, but, as others smarter than myself have observed, the pandemic was just an accelerated version of what was already happening. It is then, most dishearteningly, something from which we have learned so little, other than to be swept up in temporal and phenomenological slippages and distortions. Everyone is along for the ride. Yearning, desiring, wanting.
I suppose I was most drawn towards films about looking this year, or the ones that yank you out of that state to force you to evaluate what you’ve been looking at or looking for. It’s a push and pull between dream states, the process of looking the only haven, the only escape. It is ongoing and ceaseless. It’s all that’s left.
Here’s 21 films from 2021.Read the rest of this entry »
Look at these people, Aren’t they eerie?
Look at this party, Isn’t it dreary?
I’m so glad I came
— Sally, ‘Don’t Look at Me” from Follies (1971)
The Friends set is not crumbling. The Russian dressing colored couch in Central Perk is not in tatters, and the moths haven’t eaten at the corners of its upholstery. The foosball table in Joey and Chandler’s apartment isn’t in pieces. The garish purple paint in Monica’s apartment isn’t wilting and weeping off the walls. Everything is as it was, unmoored by time. Well, except its cast. One by one, they tacitly enter the soundstage, walking through time the supertext of the scene. And with pop up clones of the sets that have traveled across the country, the world, Friends doesn’t exist so much as the ghost of 1990s pop culture and its sweeping influence; it is its mummification.
Inever wrote the essay about my sort of-ex that I had intended to, one that started out drawing the ironic comparison between his flawed communication style and inconsistent articulation of his desires with the fascination he had (which he then shared with me) in the flawed communication style and inconsistent articulation of desire, of the women on the Real Housewives of New York. It was intended to be a poisoned lollipop of a personal essay, a mode I generally avoid, vacillating between the mild transgressions of someone who didn’t know what they wanted, the person who got strung along, and the perhaps unusual pop culture artifact that functioned as the bridge between them. But that essay and its banal details — the improprities of a fuckboi are seldom all that interesting — would have been its own green screen backed, ill-lit framed confessional. It would have been both something truthful and attention seeking, not so much inauthentic as necessarily theatrical, and, had it been published, another invitation to flog oneself publicly. It could have all been a grandiosely told lie, but that would not really have mattered; the only thing that did matter was the impulse to narrativize something like heartbreak into something that was consumable.
There’s little else to do with one’s feelings these days. You feel them and then what? If there’s no one to perform them for, did they ever really happen? The question of whether a performance is still a performance if there’s no one there to watch isn’t new, but the ways in which it’s been inverted (if there’s nothing to watch, did anyone perform?) does feel strikingly of a recent moment, a recent condition.
For a brief moment, as it was both truly brief and momentary, The Real Housewives of New York returned to its quasi-anthropological (or at least by Bravo standards)/Lauren Greenfield-esque roots. In the premiere episode of its 13th season, the reality TV show paused to show us a reality that was beyond the grip of producers and could not be manicured or performed or contrived in the way that many of us reductively understand how reality TV functions. It was just about time and space for a second: the relentless streets of New York on March 1, 2020, everyone going about their lives, walking around, talking, the beautiful symphony of chaos that’s come to be associated with the city. The little card on the bottom left taunted as a piece of painful dramatic irony for the viewers, and in a few seconds, the show cut to October, five months later, New York now a ghost town. We’re still not so far removed from that, even if the city is trying to revive itself and approximate an impossible normalcy. But the juxtaposition between the starkness of a New York alive and kicking and the Chantal Akerman-esque emptiness is still close enough to feel, the transition, the feeling of time and space themselves, still tangible. (And didn’t the pandemic feel horribly contrived in its own way, as if produced by a vindictive god to get the most dramatic reaction shots?)
In Sally’s eyes, as played by Imelda Staunton in the 2017 National Theatre revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies directed by Dominick Cooke, you can see madness, pain, a dream slipping through her fingers, curdling into nightmare. It’s Sally’s folly in the back part of the show, the ghosts of the past not so much stalking her, her pathetic and unfaithful husband Buddy, her former best friend Phyllis, and the object of her desire Ben, so much as creating a phantasmagoric vaudevillian performance space which forces them to confront their ills. This is “Loveland”, as the hoofers tell us, draped in idyllic, too perfect to be true baby blue lighting, silky curtains, and costumes that uncannily resurrect the past. It’s so much sadder than being deranged because reality is just at the edges.
It seems significant that Sally’s number, quiet and rumbling compared to the vivacious pastiches of everyone else’s, including their former selves, is called a “torch song”. Minimalist where the others’ performances are maximalist, she sits by a vanity, her nightgown, her skin, her hair milky and shimmering in a way it hasn’t since she was a showgirl. She’s starlight, but she’s dying. A flame that’s burned eternal, the blue at its base wavering in the wind but still alight. Imelda Staunton’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” simmers at first until she douses herself in kerosene, her continued, desperate and mad pining for Ben, even when he’s once again spurned her, the ultimate kind of self-immolation.