Friday, March 30, 2007

Rated "H" For Hospital

A few months after my mom died, my husband Patrick and I returned to her vacant house to prepare it for sale. At night, we needed a reprieve from the dust and the strain. We rented a lot of movies and drank a lot of wine.

I enjoyed the first three quarters of The House of Sand and Fog. Its story was unique and interestingly told. But then Ben Kingsley waited in the hospital for his son to die; he looked upward into the operating room’s fluorescent lights and begged God to peck out his eyes. I burst into tears and told Patrick that I had to stop watching.

No one warned us that tragedy loomed in The Family Stone, either. Patrick got the worst of it this time. Diane Keaton was too reminiscent of my mother, perhaps. His own mother smokes a lot, and he worries.

There should be a warning on these boxes, he grumbled. Danger: Dead Cancer Mom Ahead, I suggested. We could have C for Cancer, he added, and H for Hospital. ET for Emotional Trauma. This was our impetus for a new rating system.

It seems like a sensible way to rate movies. What genuinely upsets you about what you see? Family dinners? Car accidents? Verbal abuse or playing cards doled out over coffee tables? What hits you where you least want to be hit?

Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated has movie ratings on my mind. The filmmaker portrays the Motion Picture Association of America as a conservative, dictatorial cabal in collusion with corporate studios. He spends a lot of time contrasting the MPAA’s response to violence with their response to sexuality, and, as one might expect, sexuality is considered more potent than violence. The more realistic the depiction of the sex act, the more severe the rating. A tight close-up of two partially naked chests heaving, for example, is not as provocative as a full shot of two completely naked bodies (or maybe even more than two!) earnestly thrusting. Thrusting is a problem, apparently.

Images of “the old in and out” disturb me much less than physical torture or mutilation. But estrangement? Sickness? Personal failure? Those get me every time.

When a Disney movie is released, the MPAA will alert viewers to what could be upsetting for children. Babies being separated from their parents is common trigger; this is difficult for little kids to watch. But perhaps this courtesy should be extended to older audiences. Who likes separation?

Years ago, I left the theatre after Good Will Hunting and resolved to break up with my boyfriend because our love just wasn’t like that. That film should have been rated R for Romance Killer.

I experienced another dead parent trigger not long ago in Marie Antoinette, this one more oblique. In one scene, Marie learns that her catty sister-in-law has gotten pregnant before she has. The young queen appeared to be failing at the only task she had ever been given, and her beloved mother was hundreds of miles away. Kirsten Dunst sneaks into a lady’s dressing closet, leans up against a wall, and sobs. The vertical composition and the tight focus of the shot underline Marie’s quiet aloneness. I held Patrick’s hand as we walked across the parking lot afterwards, the image of the lost, suffering Austrian daughter pinned to my mind.

I want a new ratings board: The Committee to Shield the Abnormally Sensitive (CSAS).

I don’t have the strength to serve on it, however.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Recuerdo a Noir

What is it with me and bad girls? I used to love Bonnie Parker (or Faye Dunaway, at least). For years, Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire was my favorite book. I emulated rebellious, smart, even nasty women—just as long as they were autonomous. I loved femme fatales.

Hitchcock’s fatales in particular were sleek, beautiful, and dangerous. In graduate school, I read about the director’s near-obsession with the costume and makeup of his female stars—he was a tortured, caressing architect of femininity. I learned this at the same time I discovered that Freud genuinely believed that women were incapable of morality because of penis envy. I studied film noir through this brooding filter, suspiciously watching for oedipal trajectories and phallic symbols among the dim interiors and rain-swept streets. Lipstick never seemed so suspect.

But these days, I talk about fatal women and their motives with a 17 year-old Cuban boy with crooked teeth and eyes like chocolate mousse. I’m his high school English tutor. He wants to box, but his mother won’t let him. French is one of his electives, and he writes vocabulary sentences about girls in pretty dresses. Film noir appeared on his teacher’s list of pre-approved research paper topics, and I urged him to pick it. Despite his gentle protestations, I think he still would have preferred to write about the lost city of Atlantis.

I can’t discern what opinion he holds of me. Some days, he appears freshly shaved and a little nervous. He blushes and has a difficult time meeting my eyes. Other days, he yawns, gives one-word answers, and slumps next to me in his school uniform pants, belt undone and dangling. His manners are always inscrutable, however, which renders him opaque.

He and his classmates seem to be part of Miami’s Cuban American elite. His friend’s family, he told me wistfully one day, used to own one of the biggest houses on the island, right on the beach. Fidel seized it and turned it into a hospital. Upon hearing this, I sighed and shook my head—I’m wary of delving into such complexity.

He’s a fan of Double Indemnity, but I’ve been urging him to watch The Lady from Shanghai, too. To tempt him, I pointed out what a knockout Rita Hayworth was. She was married to Orson Welles when they shot the movie, and Welles made her bleach her hair blonde. As a result, controversy ensued. She was (I paused gingerly as I told him this) Latina. My student rolled his eyes, familiar.

The femme fatale engages in a typical pattern: first, she seduces the noir protagonist, betrays him, and then ultimately gets hers. The protagonist generally concludes the story in a state of bitter lamentation. In voiceover, he might say, “oh, what a fool I was.” When the kid and I talked about this, we both smiled. I assume it was for different reasons.

The fatale’s power lies in her sexuality; she arouses men and whips them into clumsy, quivering submission. In general, noir is a world of erratic, ungoverned emotions. Not long ago, I tried to crystallize this idea for my student. “How do you feel when you have a crush?” I asked him one late sun-drenched afternoon, at the fancy dining room table from the old country. “Are you in your right mind?”

No,” he replied immediately, his Spanish accent surfacing a little more than usual. “You think about nothing but her. Your world revolves around her. You ignore everyone else in your life. And then, she’s not who you thought she was.”

I gently explained that the betrayals typically come after a relationship has been established, that we were still discussing the pursuit phase. Internally, I wondered who had hurt him and what I could do to her.

Later, I asked him to tell me how noir was similar to a lush tropical forest. This question was part of an educational technique called synectics, which requires a person to create metaphors based upon other metaphors. He said that both things were beautiful and complicated. “Okay,” I said, “What else do you know that’s beautiful and complicated? It can be anything, an animal, a plant, an object.”

He paused, then answered, “Women are beautiful and complicated.”

I laughed a little and told him that he might not like the next step in the exercise.

“How do you imagine it feels to be a beautiful, complicated woman?” I asked.

He was quiet for a long, long time. He did not come up with anything.

He also did not escort me to the door that day; he shut his bedroom door firmly behind him instead.

He will be Papi someday. I might still be talking to students about love and power.

The noir paper is due next week.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

~Bat Totem~

I didn’t understand lushness until I moved to Miami; the colors are richer and the touches deeper. Ocean Drive is fanciful. Coconut Grove is spirited. But it’s difficult to experience a genuine sense of place here—nothing simply is what it is, and it hasn’t been around long, anyway.

I lived in Boston for nine years. Miami is temporary; Boston is permanent. Miami is ingenuous; Boston is august. I had collected a number of “totem” places in the northern city. One of the walls in the Davis Square subway station sported porcelain tiles painted by a third-grade class. I would linger over the tiles, especially the one of the daisies and the one of the farting cow. I thought the patches of green grass running through the middle of Commonwealth Avenue were refreshingly un-manicured for such a fastidious urban environment. And a special part of my consciousness still dwells near the 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, where the ancient, toothless Reverend Larry Love used to sit out front and study passersby, with his ragged blue Sergeant Pepper coat buttoned and his golden soldier’s helmet affixed.

A totem place belongs to you—even though you leave it and even though other people might use it, too. These spots can serve as Rubicons for romances: if he loves me enough, you think, he will appreciate my special place. If she loves me enough, you imagine, she’ll understand why it’s so great. When s/he inexplicably does not, a little piece of the relationship dies.

After four years, I can happily report that the Perky Bat Tower on Sugarloaf Key (MM #17, i.e., 17 miles from Key West) has finally ended my totemless Florida existence. While it’s true that I don’t actually live in the Florida Keys, it’s also true that I live closer to them than I did before.

Joy Williams writes the following about the tower:

The bat tower, shingled, brown, and elegant, is about 35 feet tall and to be found down a dirt road just past the Sugarloaf Lodge…People bounce down the road to view it, circle it warily in their cars, then look a little embarrassed because they’ve“ gone out of their way to see it.” (The Florida Keys: A History and Guide. Random House, 2003. p.119)

During the 1920s, R.C. Perky planned to erect a glamorous resort on Sugarloaf Key; he envisioned a casino and a fancy restaurant (almost all of South Florida has fallen prey to developers’ fantasies and failures at some point). Mosquitoes were a serious problem in the Keys then, and conventional wisdom suggested that bats were the solution. Bats eat mosquitoes. To attract the special nocturnal Brownies, Perky built the bat tower based on the design of a Texas scientist, and he also ordered a box of special bat bait. Williams is convinced that the bait was snake oil.

The bats never came.

Perky went broke. He died, the fledgling resort vanished, and the tower alone remains. And I do mean alone. The road Williams mentions is paved now, but it’s still awfully obscure. The road provides no sign to guide visitors. You drive down the little road, and you begin to get the inkling that all you will see at the end is something industrial, like a generator.

The tower itself has no label of any kind. It is silently, maddeningly nondescript. It was raining and overcast the day I saw it—its slickened wood gleamed. The long chute down the front made the structure look ancient and magisterial; it almost suggested a Mayan ruin or a fortress in Myst.

One can stand under the Tower and gaze up into its intricate, symmetrical wooden slats. The slats create hundreds of crevices—perfect for a hanging bat in need of daytime retreat.

I suppose it’s foolish to expect any random third party to come along and take an interest in the tower, a deus ex machina to swoop in and declare it a special landmark. Besides, what would it be a landmark to? Capitalism? Quixote? The ungracious bats who never put in an appearance?

I live a little too far from the tower to appreciate its underwhelming glory on a regular basis; Miami is about two hundred miles from Sugarloaf. I think of it often, though. And later, I indulge in whimsical, cavernous, bloodsucking dreams.

The Bat Tower
The Florida Keys


Friday, March 9, 2007

Glasses Girl

I’ve been extraordinarily ill this flu season. Just when I thought I had removed the anvil from my chest and overcome the hurricane-level coughs, I became infected again. This is a hazard of working in a social profession; they don’t mention that you socialize with germs.

This time, my eyes were affected; my sinuses produced so much phlegm that it started to seep out of my tear ducts. (I know this is revolting, but I want you to understand the situation’s gravity before I describe where it led me.)

I developed viral conjunctivitis. My eyes were vermillion, like a rabid dog’s. I was Lindsay Lohan on a plane back from St. Bart’s with nary a heated towel or a Vitamin B shot to soothe me. The doctor told me to apply warm compresses and eye drops. I willingly complied, and my scleras soon faded to a petal pink.

But I had to wear my glasses. In public. For several days.

Glasses and I have a long-term, tumultuous relationship. I’ve needed them to navigate my world since the second grade when I flunked a school vision exam. As a kid, the first thing I did every morning was reach out with one hand, grab my glasses by the top edge of both lenses, and swiftly pat them into place. It was like giving myself a gentle slap.

I hated that I needed glasses to survive. I was dependent enough. And I could never get pretty frames. I was the coke bottle girl—the one with big, chunky circles hanging from her nose. I tried various experiments with color and style, including round, oval, square (this never worked), turquoise, tortoiseshell, rose, purple. The basic ugly always remained.

No one ever called me Four Eyes, but I felt like one. To ease this burden, my mother let me get contact lenses when I was twelve. After a cumbersome training period, I was content. Instead of slapping myself in the face every morning, I was poking myself in the eye a couple of times, and no one could tell how truly compromised I was.

Eyeglass technology improved over the years; I remember the officious saleswoman at the Echelon Mall who up-sold me a “roll and polish” job. This process was supposed to reduce the lenses’ coke bottle effect, but to no avail. Contacts remained my default.

Fast-forward to the present. Surprisingly, I like my current pair of glasses. They are a good color and shape for my face, and while the lenses are not exactly paper thin, they’re no longer so Hubble-like. So when the nurse timidly suggested that it really would be best if I could wear my glasses for a couple of days, I was not as dismayed as I thought I would be.

With trepidation, I went about my glassed business. I taught class, saw friends, worked at home, and had dinner with my husband. I looked in the mirror and didn’t cringe at what I saw.

I looked good in these glasses. And it felt more like me somehow. The genuine me, the natural me. The me without pretense. I considered giving up contacts altogether.

Then, my virus dissipated. The saline beckoned. I’m relatively vain about my Atlantic blue eyes; however nice my glasses are, they do obscure my irises.

On a recent morning, I finished preparing to leave the house. Dress, blow dryer, and earrings had all been deployed. Each contact lens rested upon its pupil like a lady’s parasol.

I kissed my husband goodbye. “You’re not going to be Glasses Girl anymore?” he asked me. I detected wistfulness in his voice.

I'm not sure if I am.