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Learning to live with terrors real and imagined
Saturday night, my wife wanted to watch Turning Red, which I was happy to do, as I’ve long enjoyed Pixar’s work. And I enjoyed it perfectly well; I had no trouble identifying with a teenager disturbed by changes in her body, mortified that her burgeoning sexual feelings will become public knowledge, and afraid of the consequences of properly differentiating from her mother.
Nonetheless, something about the film bothered me, and after thinking for a bit I figured out what it was. The premise of the film is that the women of Mei Lee’s family are cursed—or blessed—with the power to turn into giant red pandas whenever their emotions get too powerful. It’s a power that kicks in upon puberty, and Mei’s first such transformation is what kicks off the mortification and the differentiation. When her mother finds out what has happened, she’s empathetic (since she went through it herself), but explains that there’s a cure. Through a mystic ceremony on the evening of a red moon, the violent, passionate panda spirit can be confined to a talisman. Mei just has to keep control of herself long enough to make it to the ceremony without giving the panda too much power, and she’ll be safe from it forever.
It’s not clear precisely what the panda is supposed to represent—sexuality? creativity? anger?—and that’s a good thing; it’s a metaphor, not an allegory. But the one thing that is clear about it is that it is powerful, and therefore difficult to control. And yet, Mei gets control of it almost immediately. With just a little practice, she’s able to turn the panda on and off virtually at will. By the time of the climactic fight with her mother (who has transformed into a truly monstrous panda fit to go a few rounds with Godzilla), Mei is able to time her transformation in and out of panda-hood perfectly to avoid her mother’s blows and land her own. Far from it being her master—which is clearly what her mother and the other women in her family fear it will be—she masters it almost effortlessly.
And that just bugged the crap out of me. That’s not what my experience of sexuality, creativity or anger is like, nor is it how I experience anyone else in whom those currents course powerfully. Indeed, it’s not what we see of Mei’s own experience of her feelings in the film, either before or after she develops her panda power. They do take possession of her, and she lets them. She just . . . decouples that fact from the process of pandafication.
This stacks the deck in a way that I think does a real disservice to Mei’s ancestors, and, ultimately, to the film’s primary intended audience. Mei’s mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on back through the generations, believed that it was necessary to go through a painful ceremony to gain control over this dangerous power. That process is plainly a process of repression—control is gained at the price of losing touch with the power, and with one’s feelings. That’s a profound loss; I’m with Mei in not wanting to have to suffer it. The suggestion of the film, though, is that gaining control not only doesn’t require repression, but is quite easy to accomplish without it. If that’s the case, though, what on earth were those old women worried about?
A message that you don’t have to cut off, cut out or otherwise deny a part of yourself to become mature, that you don’t need a cure for developing secondary sex characteristics or for the emotional ructions of puberty—that’s a message that might have quite a bit of resonance in our era. But I think minimizing the challenges of deciding to live fully seriously undermines the message’s persuasiveness. And I suspect kids can tell when they’re being sold a fantasy. In my experience, they usually can.
My latest piece at Modern Age is finally up on the website, and it’s a write-up of Edgar Wright’s latest film, Last Night In Soho. The film is about a girl from the provinces who comes to London to study fashion. She loves the swinging ‘60s, and, to escape a tawdry and unpleasant present, dreams at night that she is back in her magical fantasy era. But the dream turns into a nightmare and the nightmare begins to invade her waking life. If this fantasy is a metaphor, what is it of?
For the bulk of the film, the most parsimonious explanation for these fantastical effusions is that they are a manifestation of Eloise’s own psychic disturbance. The film gives us ample clues, moreover, as to the nature of this disturbance: a terror of the opposite sex. The first person she meets in London is a cabbie who is shockingly lewd, practically slavering over her. On her first night out with her roommate—named Jocasta, for heaven’s sake—she spots a silver-haired gentleman (Terence Stamp) coming out of a massage parlor; when they make eye contact, he smirks, and she flinches, and every time she sees him thereafter in the film a chill runs down her spine, though in truth he’s done nothing alarming.
At the bar, men flirt with her in a gross fashion, so she leaves, and later the same night she is driven from her room when Jocasta brings home a man and begins to undress in the next bed over. Contemporary relations between the sexes are portrayed as gruesome and tawdry, but Eloise is the only one sensitive enough to be bothered by that fact, so she flees to her bedsit as a sanctuary.
Yet, as Philip Larkin memorably wrote, sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three. Mid-’60s London, the era that Eloise idealizes, was all about sexuality bursting forth as the courtship rules of an earlier age that had been loosening for decades finally and completely broke down. Eloise cannot possibly not know this. It has to be what she is drawn to, but also what terrifies her. Her dream is a dream of safe sex, of living the life of a liberated and confident girl of the era while safely hidden behind glass, something that should resonate with young people today increasingly inclined to do precisely the same thing via their phones. But her terror will not let that dream be, and must turn it into a lurid tale of abuse, degradation and murder.
If these terrors were effusions of her psyche, whether real or imagined, then what we would have is a story about a fragile personality in a brutal world, like Brian DePalma’s Carrie, and we would be moved to pity and terror by a recognition of our commonality with both that fragility and that brutality. But Wright, notwithstanding the Italian giallo horror films that inspired so much of the look of his film, flinches from locating the source of horror in his protagonist, or in the interplay between her and the brutal world. He’s as invested in her purity, her plucky independence, and her quest for safety as she is, and this determination to keep her safe is precisely what drives his film off the rails.
It’s funny; because Modern Age is a quarterly, anything I write for them is inevitably going to be way too late to be part of “the conversation” about a given film or other artwork. But in this case, I’m not sure “the conversation” ever really happened, because the film didn’t make the kind of splash that I imagined it would. I think that’s a shame, because the nettle it has trouble grasping has bedeviled plenty of other films of late, including, in a sense, Turning Red. So I think a conversation would be worth engaging in.
Please read the whole thing, and start one.
Will Putin Give Peace a Chance? More To the Point, Will Xi?
Back to world affairs. The foregoing question, it seems to me, is the most important one if we ever want to contain and gain control of the monstrous events playing out in Ukraine. The smart money says he won’t—but most of the people arguing in that vein seem worried primarily about the West losing its “nerve” rather than about the prospective devastation to come if, in fact, there is no plausible off-ramp that Putin would accept. I find that incredibly myopic of them.
If such an off-ramp does exist, though, it’s vanishingly unlikely Putin would take it if offered by anyone in the Ukrainian camp, because if it originates with the enemy acceptance would be perceived unequivocally as a defeat. The implication of that conclusion, though, is that it’s a good thing there are at least some powerful countries that haven’t lined up behind Ukraine, nor unequivocally behind Russia either, because it is only such a power that could plausibly broker a peace that might actually be accepted.
Historically, the country which often aspired to that role was the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt helped midwife the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese War; President Jimmy Carter mediated the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt; and President Bill Clinton helped bring about the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO and the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.
In the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, however, America cannot possibly play mediator. We are seen unequivocally as a party to the conflict — indeed, before the war, Russia saw America as the only important party to the conflict, with Ukraine and our European allies being largely dismissed. The latter part of that calculation has been altered dramatically by brave Ukrainian resistance and surprising European unity. The former has not.
Meanwhile, that European unity has also meaningfully reduced the sphere of neutrality, with Switzerland joining the sanctions regime and Sweden and Finland talking about joining NATO. If some power is going to broker a peace, it will have to come from the ranks of those less committed to the Ukrainian cause.
It is fortunate, from this perspective, that global unity behind Ukraine has been greatly exaggerated. Turkey, for example, notwithstanding being a NATO ally, has long tried to maintain working relationships with both Russia and Ukraine. It has charted a middle course in the current conflict, calling it a war and therefore closing the Bosporus, but also declining to join in Western sanctions. Brazil is another mid-sized power that has condemned Russia's invasion but also expressed pointed criticism of the sanctions regime.
Then there are the two Asian giants: China and India. China is increasingly viewed as a Russian ally — indeed, the senior partner in their relationship. But the invasion of Ukraine, clearly violating Ukraine's sovereignty and galvanizing Western unity, has put Beijing in an extremely awkward position. It has so far played the role of passive observer, but its power and position gives Chinese leaders the opportunity to do much more.
India, meanwhile, is a traditional Russian ally, and has been fairly supportive of Russia in its current conflict. Outright support, however, might put strain on India's growing relationship with the United States in containing China. Both Asian powers have considerable leverage with Moscow and substantial carrots to offer Kyiv that either — or both — might deploy if they wanted to play a constructive role and thereby enhance their global stature.
Read the whole thing to get the whole argument, including about America’s possible reaction.
The latest headlines are all about Russia asking China for military assistance to continue to prosecute its Ukraine war. It’s hard to see what benefit China might get from saying yes (assuming the reports of the request are even true). But it’s easy to see how the possibility of such aid could be useful leverage for China to use to bring both Russia and Ukraine to a more substantial agreement than they have been able to reach so far. That’s the move to make if China really wants to be seen as the one clear winner from the Ukraine war.
Remembering an Ongoing Pandemic
My other column at The Week is a Covid-Year-Three piece about how we’re going to remember the pandemic. I distinguish in the column between institutional memory—a fragile thing in our era—individual memory, and cultural memory. I end on the last by saying that we need to start telling stories that recognize the pandemic as a thing that happened, not an apocalypse or a morality tale or something unmentionable, but simply part of our history:
Film and television have mostly ignored the pandemic so far, in large part because executives assume audiences want to escape an unpleasant reality rather than confront it. Most often, our pandemic stories remain apocalyptic, like the popular HBO series, Station Eleven, which takes place in a world largely depopulated by a mutant flu virus. Apocalypticism, though, is just another kind of escape, a fantasy of escaping the burdens of civilization in which we are the lucky survivors. If there's one thing we should remember from the actual pandemic, it's that it was nothing like that fantasy.
What we need instead, in our films and television shows, our novels and our music, is to treat the pandemic as a normal part of our history. That's partly a matter of getting details right, no different from with any other work set in a specific period. But it also means tackling pandemic-specific stories without refracting them through the point-scoring culture-war lens that still dominates and inhibits the way we talk about what we went through.
The mom with chronic fatigue from long COVID and the kid with speech delays from two years of masking — those are both stories of suffering due the pandemic. Talking about one doesn't preclude you from talking about the other; they're people, not tokens in a sick cultural game we're trying to win. They each deserve a Lifetime weepy. I hope they get them.
Once again, read the whole thing to get the whole argument.
It’s a funny piece to have written, to some extent, given that the pandemic isn’t over and, in a sense, never will be. Europe looks like it might be at the start of another surge in cases based on a sub-variant of Omicron; we’ll see how big it proves to be and whether and to what degree deaths and hospitalizations will follow. China, meanwhile, just locked down the enormous port city of Shenzhen in response to surging cases, and may yet do the same with Shanghai. If they ever give up on their zero-Covid strategy, they’ll face the mother of all surges, and given the limitations of their vaccines there will probably be many more deaths in consequence than Western Europe will face from its next surge. If they don’t, though, both their economy and the world economy will continue to go through major disruptions—and they may well get a huge surge anyway.
But, actually, the fact that the pandemic isn’t “over” doesn’t change a thing about my argument. One way or another, we’re living with Covid. We need to tell stories about it that reflect that fact, and that treat it as normal. Because it is.
The Cosby Showdown
Bill Cosby was a towering figure in American entertainment in the 20th century as well as a figure of historic importance for Black Americans. He didn’t mean to me what he meant to so many Black people, artists and non-artists alike, but Fat Albert is a part of my childhood too, and I cherish my memories of the show. (I was aware of The Cosby Show but I wasn’t a regular part of the audience for it.) In addition to that, of course, Cosby was credibly accused by dozens of women of drugging them and raping them while they were unconscious. For this he was convicted, then subsequently released after his conviction was overturned because crucial evidence was improperly obtained. It was the most dramatic destruction of a heroic image that I can think of since the sexual abuse revelations about the Catholic Church.
The documentary does an exemplary job of laying out both sides of the man. It showcases his incredible talent, and his profound influence on two generations of American comedy. It shows how he navigated the complicated racial politics of the early Civil Rights era to be welcomed on American screens in a way that few if any Black figures were before, how he subsequently transformed himself into a major educational figure promoting both Black historical consciousness and Black uplift, and how he conscientiously and directly advanced the careers of myriad Black artists and artisans through working on his productions.
At the same time, the documentary makes it clear that Cosby didn’t just get corrupted later in his life but was a predator from the beginning. Core to the documentary are extensive interviews with multiple accusers, along with multiple references to Cosby’s body of work that, in light of what we know, are very hard to interpret other than as winking references to his Mr. Hyde side. Many of the same people who are interviewed about Cosby’s incredible achievements and his importance to them as a figure also speak about his crimes, and about the complexity of their feelings about him in light of the reality of both aspects of his character. The documentarian himself, W. Kamau Bell, doesn’t hide his own investment in this question. He’s one of those struggling, which is clearly why he made the documentary in the first place.
There’s a lot of material there to chew on, and I would heartily recommend the documentary to anyone with the stomach for it. Nonetheless, when I came to the end, I felt I had learned a great deal, and yet that I had really learned nothing at all. Why is that?
I think the reason is that, at the end of the documentary I felt that I still didn’t know Bill Cosby himself, which is to say, I didn’t understand how the different aspects of his character fit together into a single whole. Indeed, while the doc was eager to ask, rhetorically, how someone could be both a pillar of the community and a serial predator, it shied away from any serious examination of possible answers. But those answers have very different implications for the questions that the documentary itself is deeply concerned with.
If we’re going to applaud starting conversations, W. Kamau Bell deserves a big round. I hope my contribution to that conversation is taken in the spirit of joining in. That’s certainly how I intended it.
It’s a long post, but I do hope you’ll read the whole thing.
This wrap is a day late. I’d say it’s a dollar short, but you know, you get what you pay for, here as everywhere. In any event, my apologies. Not only does it mean you didn’t have anything from me to read this morning, but I’m now a day behind giving you anything new for this week as well. I hope you forgive me.