There are times when I find living in San Diego to be a little strange and unfriendly. Not always—most of the time I'm used to it here. But every so often, in different ways depending on the neighborhood, I'm brought a little reminder that things are different here from how they are where I grew up.
Or maybe they're not. Maybe people are like this everywhere, and I just didn't start noticing until I was old enough to think about it. Or perhaps things have changed, and that neighborly little community only exists in my memory now. In some ways I know that's true; I have a whole series of photographs about the pain of coming home only to find it different.
In any case, this is where I live now. This is where my children were born, and where they think of as home. I wonder what it will look like in thirty years, when they are the age I am now. How it will be different and the same, and how they'll feel about it. If nothing else, one thing I appreciate about this place is that there are all kinds of people here. Many of them are wonderful, some of them drive me nuts. And, apparently, some of them just want you to go away.
Lately when she calls out in the night, it's for Mommy. When she needs help in the bathroom, her voice rings out down the hall, "Mommy!" When she wakes up in the morning, her first request is Mommy. Sometimes she gets me instead, but she just sets her jaw and frowns. "No," she says, "I want Mommy."
I'm not sure exactly what it was she was writing here—the title of her next show, most likely—but I think I see "Daddy" in there. It's nice to know that she thinks of me sometimes.
The Paying Guests
By Sarah Waters
At several points while I was reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests I stopped to consider the phrase “not for me.” In the context of a review, those words usually translate to “I didn’t like it,” sometimes with the caveat “but I can understand why someone else would.” On the other hand, if you switch perspectives from the reader’s side to the writer’s side, it can instead mean “This was intended for someone else.” That may seem similar, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made, and it has to do with community, inclusion, intrusion, and the interactivity of art.
The Paying Guests is set in a genteel London suburb during the interwar period. Frances Wray and her mother, having lost Frances’ father and two brothers during the war, have fallen on hard times and are forced to take in lodgers in order to make ends meet. Their new tenants, Lilian and Leonard Barber are part of the newly rising middle class (as Frances calls them at one point, the “clerk class”), and their arrival brings a certain tension as the Wrays must alter their lives to accommodate the Barbers. Passions eventually flare, and everyone’s lives are thrown into upheaval.
Now, I realize that that description sounds terribly dull, but although The Paying Guests is certainly a slow burn, burn it does. As NPR’s Barrie Hardymon put it during an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, “it could be very fussy, but [Waters] doesn’t shy away from anything, so the sex is really sexy; the murder is super murder-y.” (Did I forget to mention the sex and the murder? Oh. Well there’s both.) It takes a while for things to get moving along, but that gives Waters plenty of time to establish her protagonist’s inner workings, as well as the atmosphere of the Wray’s house and neighborhood. It’s all just beautifully done. And, yeah, it’s really sexy, too. Not just sexy, but passionate, in the way that pulls you in and reminds you of that head-over-heels feeling of the young love in your own life.
So, I liked it, but at the same time, I have to admit that I felt a little… weird about it. That is, Waters is known for being a lesbian writer; as she put it, herself, in an interview with AfterEllen.com, “I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books.” Which is something that I applaud, and I’m so glad that these kinds of stories are getting written and published, and that so many previously marginalized voices are carving out their own spaces for expression. I think that’s legitimately great.
It’s the question of intended audience and safe spaces, though, that makes me a little uncomfortable, though. Now, I do think that there’s value to inclusion in both directions; that is, both in the majority culture including marginalized people and marginalized people reaching out to and including members of the majority. But I also recognize that it’s necessary and critical for marginalized people to have the ability and right to create their own spaces, and that part of that involves a certain amount of exclusion. This is a touchy thing for some people in the majority culture, but I firmly believe that a big part of empowerment involves spaces where oppressed people can act without fear or pressure.
How does this apply to a book like The Paying Guests? Well, the lesbian sex scenes in this book are by no means graphic, but they’re positively electric in terms of how sensual and passionate they are; it’s difficult not to get at least a little turned on by them. And having that kind of a response, I can’t help but wonder: is it OK for me, a straight man, to get turned on when a lesbian writer depicts two women having sex? On one level, I know that this is an intensely stupid question, but I keep coming back to that idea of safe spaces, and at times when I was reading this book, I felt like I was intruding, like I was in a private place where I really shouldn’t be.
Now, I know that this is entirely my issue. As far as I can tell from the interviews I’ve read, Waters is pleased at having all kinds of readers. And, who knows? Perhaps getting more straight people to read and enjoy books like this is a good step toward social justice. I don’t know. What I do know is that this was a really good book.
Started: 4/21/2015 | Finished: 5/8/2015
March, two years ago. She was a year and a half old, running, climbing, playing on a cool Easter morning on a huge backyard lawn in Virginia. The breeze on her face made her squint and squeal with laughter; it's something she's always loved, which she has in common with me and her sister, but not her mother or brother. She's bigger today but so far she still fits in my arms. Sometimes when I pick her up I still like to blow into her face, and her eyes sparkle and her manic little giggle warbles, she takes a breath to blow back at me and I quickly blow again, a little puff into her open mouth and she shrieks in delight, covering my lips with her hands and blowing back, blowing back, blowing back, her breath still sweet as a baby's, her joy still just as radiant and unguarded.
He really started noticing the camera when he was about three. That is, he'd seen it before, but that's the age when he really started to understand what it meant, and that I was looking at him. I don't know that it was self-consciousness, exactly, though that came too, eventually. But sometimes he didn't want to play along, and so he began to hide himself. He would duck his head down, or sometimes simply close his eyes in protest. Back then, it came with a scowl.
That was when I started asking his permission to take the pictures.
Nowadays, he will agree or disagree to being in a picture. Sometimes he will come along grudgingly, sometimes with enthusiasm. Sometimes not at all. Just before I took this picture, I told him that the light was really nice, and asked him if he would sit up so I could take a picture. He said OK, and closed his eyes. I asked him if he was sure it was OK, and he patiently said yes, so I clicked the shutter.
Shortly afterwards, a mischievous grin stole across his face and he pulled his pants down, shoving his back side toward the lens. "Take a picture of that!" he shouted gleefully.
So I did.
He said it was his favorite picture ever.
There's been a lot of new construction in the neighborhoods where I live and work. The city sets aside certain areas as "wildlife corridors"; the intention is to allow the local fauna some space to hunt, get access to water, breed, and get from one place to another without getting hit by a car. In the ten years that I've lived here, these corridors haven't gotten any narrower, but the edges have gotten a lot more defined as the houses have gotten closer.
Juliette sometimes looks at photos and says that his feet look like mine. His toes haven't quite lost that round, chubby, baby toe-ness, not yet. But his feet are getting longer and narrower.
Last night he decided that he wanted to take a shower—I think he was tired of waiting for his sister to finish her chores. He doesn't do this often yet, but he will. And then this kind of picture—of which I must have hundreds—will get fewer and farther between. The girls will still be taking baths for a while, of course. I suppose that softens the blow a bit, but each child is an individual, and parenting each one is its own story. Having younger kids doesn't really make me miss the oldest's littleness any less.
While We're Young
There’s a moment late in While We’re Young where Ben Stiller’s character, Josh, is in the middle of a moral outrage-fueled rant, and his elder-statesman filmmaker father-in-law (Charles Grodin) says to him something like “It doesn’t have to be one way.” I don’t know if writer-director Noah Baumbach intended for that to be a comment on his film as a whole, but it’s that scene that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been mulling over what I think of the movie.
While We’re Young appears at first glance to be a comedy about Josh’s mid-life crisis. Josh is a mid-career, middle-aged documentarian, frustrated by a decade-long project whose resolution continues to elude him. After meeting their best friends’ new baby, he and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), return home and have nothing to talk about but a series of what feel like familiar rationalizations: “We’re happy not having kids. We’re free. We could go off to Rome tomorrow if we felt like it.” The dissatisfaction, of course, shows right through.
Soon after, a young, aspiring filmmaker named Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) approach Josh after a continuing ed class Josh teaches, telling him that they’re fans and asking for guidance. They strike up a friendship, and Josh and Cornelia quickly become enchanted with and invigorated by the younger couple’s youthful energy and neo-bohemian lifestyle.
There’s a lot of comedy that can be mined from the juxtaposition of the two couples, and the film does. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what Baumbach thinks about it all. The easy laughs mostly come from the foolishness, the trying-too-hard vibe you get from Josh’s trying to ingratiate himself with the new friends who are close to half his age. That plays well into a critical tone that the movie takes toward the preciousness and pretentiousness of millenial hipsterism. They make everything! They’re all about the moment and the art and the authenticity! Isn’t that great! (No, not really.)
On the other hand, it’s not as though Baumbach spares Josh’s (that is, his own) generation much. There’s as much scorn for the disconnected, screen-driven tedium of the aging Gen-Xers as there is for anything else. In one montage we see Josh and Cornelia mostly experiencing their marriage in parallel, never intersecting—one watches YouTube videos while the other plays Two Dots, or one watches TV while the other is absorbed in a Kindle—which contrasts with the easy connection between Darby and Jamie, who spend their evenings entwined in each others’ arms, sprawled on a couch watching a VHS tape together, or playing a vintage board game.
There’s no real resolution here. At times in the movie, the millenial life seems warm and adventurous; at others it’s shallow and self-absorbed. Sometimes Gen-X middle age seems to be full of hard-won truths, honesty, perspective, reality; sometimes it’s just cold and disaffected. Even though Josh and Cornelia eventually figure out their own path forward, and head down it with enthusiasm, Baumbach isn’t interested in letting that stand—the very last shot of the movie is a giant question mark.
The thing is, in life there aren’t easy answers, and things don’t have to be one way or the other. So maybe I could laud Baumbach for making a movie that doesn’t aim for safe, pat comfort. Still, stories aren’t life. Art is something that people make, intentionally, for a reason. I tend to want a narrative to come with a point.
Still, I can’t deny that there’s something familiar here. If not in the movie itself, then perhaps in between the lines, in the way it’s put together. Right now I’m rounding the corner into the back half of my thirties, coming to terms with certain realities about my life, and struggling to find my place as an emerging artist. I find myself wanting to grapple with big questions, while at the same time feeling arrogant and hypocritical for assuming I have anything to add to these conversations. This tension between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing seems to be the underlying drive of the whole process of While We’re Young, at least, if I’m reading it right. It feels like the kind of thing I would make, if I were making movies about myself (instead of making photographs and writing essays about myself).
Is a narrative film with a public release the right place to deal with that internal struggle? I don’t know. Maybe you’d find such a movie resonant, insightful. Maybe you’d find it narcissistic. I can’t even make up my own mind at this point, but if nothing else it’s something else for me to chew on while I wrestle with my own questions—and, you know, things don’t have to be one way.
Viewed: 4/25/2015 | Released: 3/27/2015 | Score: B-
"Dinner is just about ready," I say. "It's time to clean up and come inside."
"OK!" she says.
A few minutes later I return. She is stooped over in the middle of lawn, picking up leaves one by one. The yard is still littered with toys.
"Eve, come on," I say. "You can play with the leaves some other time. You have to clean up and come in to dinner now."
"No! I'm not playing!" she insists. "I have to put the leaves in my collection!"
Around the corner, next to the crowd of tricycles and scooters, lies a little pile of yellow and green, fading to brown. She crouches down and places the leaf in her fingers right in the middle.
"Is that your collection?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. She's so proud.