mar 2 2020 - romanticism, not always for the 'gram
quick spoiler-free notes on TATBILB2, West Side Story, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|Benedict Nguyen||Mar 3, 2020||4|
there’s a vein of (not necessarily untrue) thought that explains the outsized popularity of superhero movies through their propagation of narratives on the discovery of one’s exceptional power, to be used for vigilantism (ofc!) in ~dark political times.~ or the recent resurgence of rom-coms, romance, or romanticism for the lightness, the potential, and real-time escape they offer in ~dark political times.~ sure !
I was excited to watch TATBILB2 with some friends the day it came out. Lana Condor is charming and her face so expressive. I had many misgivings about the first movie, but you know, problematic faves blah blah, and I wanted to see what happened. the power of a franchise!
with a streamable rom-com that makes easy background noise (this is not a dig!), repeat viewings have helped me understand the first film through its infuriating omissions (he has to drive across town ~in his jeep~ to get the yogurt. big deal! 🙄; she still doesn’t get her scrunchie back!) as much as for its portrayal of Lara Jean’s so sincere coming of age among different characters and plot obstacles.
sequel-ing a rom-com is an impossible task and ofc, P. S. I Love You let down in more than a few ways. Besides sanitizing Gen’s pretty awful behavior, it asks us to spend an awkward amount of time watching Lara Jean and Kavinsky doing instagrammable date activities and likely, instagramming their joyous fun for their classmates whose judgement Lara Jean rejects. to be a teenager today… I couldn’t! its narrow focus on Lara Jean with Kavinsky or with the equally charming Jordan Fisher as John Ambrose made other subplots less meaningful, Lara Jean’s character development less rich.
beneath the thick aspirational sheen coating nearly every scene in the movie (that expensive retirement home, the luscious basement of the retirement home, the perfect suburban tree house and time capsule), there was also a missed opportunity for a meta-commentary about how this film celebrates the joys of being in relationship as getting to go on dates that not only look good on film, but are made to look fun to other people online in the same filmic universe. gazes on mirrors on gazes! meanwhile, millions of people, rapt, watched all this happen from their own screens. and I was one of them 😎
during the Valentine singing in the cafeteria, I heard for the first time that song that apparently catapulted a certain multiple Grammy winner to fame ‘out of nowhere.’ imagine being a white American pop star singing about "napalm skies," invoking US violent imperialism as tragically romantic backdrop for a mediocre ballad, and potentially not even being conscious (or very intentional) of how resonant such a nostalgia is for white America, how much is erased by her singing those words.
in Kavinksy’s cotton candy selfie as in the Valentine's song, one can spot a vicarious romanticism: in the former, it’s to not only be romantic but to be seen and commended being romantic by one’s peers, an act that’s partly PDA, part posting your relationship status on Facebook again (apparently, Instagram official is a thing?), and again, and again, in case someone hasn’t logged in recently.
in songs like Billie E*lish’s, it’s the idea that to have found love after trauma or violence (that in the case of ‘napalm skies’ specifically, she has not lived) is more special, more important than love found under plain blue skies. this is perhaps indicative of the supposed popularity depressive cultural content has among zoomers, who are (according to the research) miserable. (I qualify this statement not to cast my derision, but to not make a sweeping statement about another generation). BE’s skies are exaggeration, artful metaphor to capture the pain one feels (and also, at odds with her recent comments about ‘fiction’ in rap!). Unfortunately, the image is also indicative of white America’s obsession and performative grief over the violence and trauma it has enacted. under this lens, they get to transform their remorse into romance, use it to serenade each other for all their friends to see how deep their love is. blegh!
at the same time, I’m wary of how ‘instagram’ (and its implied shallowness and performativity) itself has become a ubiquitous ~filter~ (heh!) through which art is critiqued when it’s not always the right one.
a recent review derided Broadway’s new West Side Story as an ‘Instagram show.’ it’s not a good show, hard to justify reviving at all (see Carina del Valle Schorske’s review instead, or my tweet storm here), but I didn’t experience it as a show built for the ‘gram. It’s live theater, and the choreographed 2-dimensional choreographic images that stick out from this show conform more to musical theater and commercial dance’s compositional conventions than any image meant for us to capture with our phones and share with our friends.
that said, there is a dialectic in how instagram has trained our eyes to appreciate minimalist aesthetics as easy or beautiful—see book covers and subway ads.
but also, if I can’t go back to the beach, watching other people frolic at the beach and live in castles with just 3 people (the sparseness!), is a passable substitute for viewing beauty. I found ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ moving and appreciated Melissa Anderson’s discussion of this movie’s quieter romanticisms; a heavy-handed scene here, an easy inter-class friendship there. There were many beautiful, romantic shots featuring one or two of the actors against spare backdrops, but I wouldn’t say it was an Instagram movie. Much else has been written about how it actually resists the (male) gaze with the camera chasing after the back of Héloïse’s head. Later I realized Céline Sciamma also directed ‘Girlhood’ (2014), which, as much as she tried to center the film’s Black actors, was still an exercise in the white gaze. Awkward! Veering into a white history of white France with Portrait, Sciamma is able to talk about the male gaze and run away from her awkward responses around race from her previous film. Convenient! When I first saw the film a couple years ago, I hadn’t known who had directed it at all, so maybe I should research more before seeing things.
or perhaps, learning about the context (besides ~dark political times~) of a film’s making would’ve ruined my blissfully ignorant consumption of it. maybe it should have? That Sciamma dated Adèle Haenel, who spoke out about being sexually harassed by director Christophe R*ggia this past fall and walked out in protest of this Saturday’s César awards after P*lanski won a directing award, after working on a previous film together makes me feel ____ ?
I don’t know enough about this gossip to want to say more
but see you on the gram 😉
extra slush mush:
one of you noticed I didn’t send a slushie last month and asked me in person where i’ve been and I thank u so much for missing this missive. I was, of course!, drowning in this grantszn
and of course, happy pisces szn! today’s first quarter moon is in gemini
I had to delete this graf from talking about TATBILB but wanted to share my cleverness : I have not seen the famed scene, but it makes me wonder if a certain multi-oscar nominated actress, one who’s been lambasted on twitter for her Very Dramatic performance in that nuptial movie, has ever expressed such subtlety but alas, I don’t remember and will not do the research to find out. I’ll just spend some words subtweeting her here instead.
while this is slushie reaches more towards coherence than I necessarily have before, I insist on lower-case to remind you how quickly these are written because i’m casual! this is fun!