Click the image above for my piece on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, published by Alma.
I love when a complex idea results in a really simple, familiar concept. I mean; I don't love it. It's like when you're writing this awesome new piece but then you boil it down and it's just a familiar plot you've known you're whole life. It would be great to make something new. It would be great to figure out something unpredictable, something without ten pages of notes on TV Tropes. But it's also comforting, and in this particular case, supports the notion of form following content. (It actually doesn't. It just reminds me of that. I love anything resembling form following content. I should look at that more.)
I have seen You've Got Mail (1998) about five hundred times. I grew up on it, much as I grew up on numerous romantic comedies that don't have sex scenes. Since it was approved by my mother, my sisters and I watched it over and over again. We watched Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) fight to keep her little bookshop open on the Upper West Side. We watched Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) threaten her livelihood with his Barnes & Noble stand-in, Fox Books. We watched them flirt online in a pre-aughts-unsullied Internet chat room without knowing each other's identity, and reveled in Kathleen's minor victories when she unwittingly used Joe's advice against him. There's never a question that they'll end up together, but seeing them overcome the unfortunate career situation is really enjoyable.
However, it's a wordy film. There is a lot of talking in "You've Got Mail". A lot of musing, a lot of literati references. There were a lot of scenes I tuned out of when I was younger. Watching it now, it's fun that I can understand the conversations that used to mean nothing to me. I appreciate the subtleties. (Especially Parker Posey. She's a gem.) Here, to get this out of my freaking system, is my favorite part of the movie that I discovered when I got big.
Kathleen's boyfriend, Frank (Greg Kinnear), is a journalist. He frequently and comically tortures himself with questions about time and things that have become obsolete. (His support for Kathleen's bookstore miiiiiiiight have been a clue that it wasn't going to survive.) In a scene where he talks over her, trying to support her, we learn Kathleen's greatest fear:
"I'm wondering about my work," Kathleen says. "I'm just ... what is it that I do, exactly? All I really do is run a children's bookstore--" At which point Frank delivers his funny line about her being a lone reed.
I always overlooked that line. The Lone Reed line overshadows it. But it's key to understanding Kathleen's struggles in the story. Hers is an understandable fear. Most people will look around at their careers or their jobs and wonder the same thing. Whether you enjoy your work like Kathleen or are doing it for the paycheck, we can't avoid taking stock of what we put our time and effort into. In this situation, Kathleen is being forced to examine her bookstore from the point of view of the conglomerate pushing her out. She inherited the store from her mother and so it has emotional significance for her, but if the going gets tough, is her work important enough for her to fight for it?
Later, Kathleen meets Joe at an industry party. The first time they met in her store, he kept his last name from her. When she figures out that he's part of Fox Books, she goes on a rampage, accusing him of spying on the competition. Joe knows he did her wrong. However, he's not one to admit that. He's about the bottom line and he wants his new venture to succeed. So instead of engaging in Kathleen's emotion, he remains passive and infuriatingly calm. But that comment about him trying to spy on her gets him enough to poke her back.
He says to her: "I have in my possession the super-duper secret printout of the sales figures of a bookstore so inconsequential yet full of its own virtue that I was immediately compelled to rush over there for fear that it's gonna put me out of business."
Joe was most likely trying to save face and shut her up: You think you're a threat? Nice try, lady. You're not. You're inconsequential. That word. It's devastating! Kathleen's deepest fear is that she's fighting for a cause that isn't worthy, that she herself is unworthy (which is probably why she comes off as the opposite, as virtuous). It's no accident that Joe knows exactly what to say to her. Indeed, it works, she's speechless, all she can do is point at him with a kitchen knife. And he knows it. He knows he cut her to the quick, as evidenced in his chat room confession later on. Here comes Mr. Nasty.
But: The feeling is mutual. Kathleen, while not as quick-witted as Joe in the moment, can be equally destructive. In the scene in the coffee shop when she's waiting to meet her Chat Room Prince Charming, Joe shows up and figures out that they've been chatting with each other all along. He doesn't reveal this information, however, and storms in without a plan or fully comprehending the situation. He doesn't understand how it's possible for two people to hate each other and be in love at the same time.
So he sits down and proceeds to torture Kathleen, making fun of the signals they had planned for identifying each other, teasing her that her man is never going to show up. He's lording it over her that she's probably at that very moment in love with him. But the fact of the matter is that he's in the same boat, he's just in denial. For now.
Finally, provoked beyond belief, Kathleen snaps at him.
She says: "You've deluded yourself into thinking that you're some sort of benefactor bringing books to the masses. But no one will ever remember you, Joe Fox ... You are nothing but a suit."
It's that line about no one remembering him that wipes the smug smile off Joe's face. Kathleen, just about in tears, is busy in the throes of being able to speak her mind finally, but even that satisfaction is quickly thwarted when she realizes how much she hurt Joe's feelings. Turns out he has the same fears that she does. That no matter how many books he brings people, that no matter how much money he makes, that's not what matters.
It's such a terrible feeling, to speak your mind when you wish it - as Joe had previously warned Kathleen during one of their Internet chats. Kathleen is devastated once again, but it's because of her own actions this time. She can't even blame Joe for it, other than the fact that he provoked her.
Joe realizes that he is in love with her and begins a journey to make amends and ingratiate himself to her. He is able to accomplish this easily - because of his subterfuge as her chat room confidant, yes, but it's more than that. Kathleen and Joe see each other. It's an extraordinary power, to see someone. To understand why they do things and what they strive for. As enemies, they exploited this power to harm each other. As lovers, Joe uses that ability to woo Kathleen instead. He comes over to Kathleen's apartment when she's sick and realizes that he's still bringing out the worst in her. He stops her from insulting him in order to help her avoid that horrible feeling again.
It's an example of there being a fine line between love and hate. Both require deep understanding of the other person and that understanding can be both used and abused. In this case, the whole story supports the fact that these two people are meant to be together - as a good rom-com should - right down to the speech and motivation of the two main characters. (Is there a form/content argument in there? I could have sworn there was ...)
Confession time: I watched the Dirty Dancing remake and I liked it. Specifically, I liked the screenplay. I could have done without the wooden acting; the "spontaneous" singing from everyone, all the time; the unnecessary melodrama in the delivery of certain lines. However, it was inspiring to see not-size-zero Abigail Breslin get the same treatment that Jennifer Grey did. And though the guy who plays Johnny (Colt Prattes) has super dead eyes most of the time, being able to act through dancing is not an insignificant talent – and both he and Breslin are really good at that.
But back to the screenplay: Written by Jessica Sharzer, this version of Dirty Dancing doesn't do what so many remakes before it have done – namely, a literal beat-for-beat recreation of the source material. (See: Beauty and the Beast.) Originally written by Eleanor Bergstein, Sharzer rewrote the movie with added depth. Her screenplay explores story lines hinted at in the original: Baby's mother (Debra Messing) is a frustrated housewife contemplating divorce. Kellerman's son (Trevor Einhorn) tries to impress Baby with knowledge of The Feminine Mystique. Robbie (Shane Harper) really is a dirtbag, like, salt in the wound uber-dirtbag. (But yeah – didn't really find it necessary for Baby's sister (Sarah Hyland) to become a Hairspray-style checkerboard chick who sings Bob Dylan, or for Johnny to be a dyslexic ex-con.)
Sharzer's working with the material means that she recognized and respected the audience's familiarity with the original movie. Obviously the people watching her remake would know the 1987 version by heart, and any lines lifted directly from it would feel disassociated and hollow. It's like a cover of a classic rock song where the singer knows her voice isn't as good, but by looking for new meaning in the piece she can bring something else to the table.
Watching the 2017 Dirty Dancing feels like a commentary on the original 1987 Dirty Dancing. Adaptation is a tricky process, and I love when it's done in a new and original way.
I felt the same watching Syfy's television show, The Magicians (2015-present). Now two seasons in, it's an adaptation of the book series by Lev Grossman. Take some young angsty millennials in modern times and have them learn that magic exists, along with their versions of Narnia and Hogwarts -- Fillory and Brakebills, respectively. The antagonist is a sadistic creature called The Beast. Another character informs students that she's been using time warps to figure out what the students can do to finally defeat The Beast in the present. In all honesty, I stopped reading the series after the first book, but my friend liked it so much that I got the sequel for us both to read. The sequel is when protagonist Quentin goes to Fillory and boy, does it pick up speed there. It's also where Quentin's best friend from childhood, Julia, gets her story told. The third book was even better, the best in my opinion.
While Quentin is often perceived as depressive and whiny - getting by mostly on his intellect and willingness to try anything - Julia doesn't get that luxury. In the books, she is rejected from Brakebills. The memory wipe of her entrance exam doesn't work, though, so she picks herself up and figures out how to become a hedge witch instead, learning magic outside of the clean and safe academia. Her story is tragic and it details the sacrifices she has to make to get what Quentin is handed on a silver platter.
When the Syfy series began, it was clear from the pilot that we weren't going to have to wait around for Fillory like we did in the books. Neither, as it turned out, did we have to wait for Julia (Stella Maeve). Quentin (Jason Ralph) gets in to Brakebills as he does in the books, and Julia's story parallels his from there. The series, however, works the material even further: Julia's rejection from Brakebills is not arbitrary in the series. Her rejection isn't because she's not smart enough or talented enough, because clearly she is. She proves herself more resilient and powerful than many of the successful students. Instead, in all of the previous time warps used to calculate The Beast (Charles Mesure), she was a student at Brakebills. She was happy and learning and not abused. The difference in the present time warp was that she was rejected and thus had to go on her journey to learn her magic on the streets, bargain for it, work for it, and therefore be able to defeat him this time around. Her pain is given more meaning in this version of events.
Instead of repeating the material over, Syfy's series - the creation of which Grossman is extremely involved in, by the way - works the material in a new way to create a new experience. It's building on the books and the story they tell. Remakes don't have to be nostalgic revisits of old stories. In both the Dirty Dancing remake and The Magicians, I felt that through the adaptation process the writers were able to enrich the original story with a commentary.
I had a coworker who died a couple of years ago on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. He was in his mid-thirties. Even before he died, I used to tell stories about him. He was unlike any other person I knew: At the point when anyone else would listen to their instincts to stop, take stock, and back away from a situation, that instinct only spurred him on. If he were driving and hit a cement wall, he would sooner hit the gas and try to drive through it than go into reverse. My friend who also worked with me and I devised a visual joke one day, she printed out sign that read: "Progress Begins Here! It's been ______ days since our last arrest, car wreck or serious injury." Not realizing that we would be resetting the count to zero ridiculously often, roughly every two weeks.
Sometimes after work, the three of us would go over to his apartment and watch a movie, or meet one of a variety of strange, vaguely sinister but altogether vulnerable people from walks of life I never encountered before and haven't since.
In that apartment we watched movies by the half. "Walk of Shame", which was too bad to finish; "Divergent", which was fine the first time around, but the DVD player didn't have a remote so when it inexplicably skipped and had to be restarted none of us could bear watching it again; "That Awkward Moment", also terrible; episodes of the first season of "Orange is the New Black" - but we didn't do much of that because it made him uncomfortable. Oddly enough, "Broad City" went over the best, in a room full of people of different races, different religions, different genders, different sexualities - we were all rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically at the antics of two cute stoner Jewish girls. His apartment was also where he turned to me mid-movie, about a month before he died, and said he'd seen a trailer for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and thought that it looked like a movie I'd like. I had already seen it in theaters and I did, in fact, like it. I was impressed that he knew my taste at that point and I remember thinking, Okay. Yeah. We're pretty much friends now.
Stories about work and my coworker used to go over really well. I got to share the experience of being in the orbit of someone whose actions belonged in a movie. This crazy guy. This crazy guy who feared no one, who let his instincts determine every move he made. Then, after he died, I told that story, too. I couldn't help it. There was a part of me that knew he probably wouldn't live long - he'd already gone through seven lives by the time I met him - but it didn't change the shock of him disappearing one day.
I still work at the same place. I used his office for a couple of months before I got a promotion this year. They're going to be tearing it down soon, replacing it with something new. Things aren't crazy anymore. I don't tell those stories anymore. I also don't feel the need anymore to tell strangers about this larger than life, generous, infuriating, self-sabotaging, creative, resourceful, generous, kind person who I used to see every day and never will again. I don't think about him much anymore, really; I thought about him so much in the weeks and months after his death that the memories started to feel like carbon copies, like maybe I couldn't trust myself to remember him as he was. But I pass that apartment almost every day and when I do, I send a salute to his memory, hoping that I won't forget.
Most of my MFA program was spent with other fiction writers. Seven of the eighteen required courses were workshops; after one of my fiction friends sneaked into a nonfiction workshop, the program started with some serious rules about taking other genres. But I'd share the classroom with the poets and creative nonfiction writers in literature courses and, in one case, a teaching practicum. (Surprisingly, I did make use of the course and teach high school English for a year. But at the time I had no intention of using ANY OF IT.)
One assignment was to create a syllabus. The poets did theirs on poetry. Mine focused on metafiction, an obsession I'm yearning to encounter in just about every piece of culture I encounter. And the creative nonfiction writers did their CNF thing. Our professor walked into the next session with our marked syllabuses in hand and addressed the class with a number of remarks. One of which was a gentle comment:
"Not everyone has to have David Sedaris as required reading."
Which taught me two things: Number one, that nonfiction works best when it's humorous and entertaining - even the professionals agree to that. And number two, that I'd discovered the CNF guilty pleasure. I found my new bathroom reading and did my best to catch up with this new information.
Recently, my friend was dealing with the grief of a loved one's passing. It made me think of a David Sedaris piece I'd read in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, about his sister Tiffany's suicide. I thought it might be cathartic for my friend to read; I remembered the piece being gentle and subtle. I remembered it focusing on the vacation that Sedaris treated his grown-up family to, only mentioning the suicide halfway through the piece. The deft way he expressed how he was thinking about the family as a whole, now missing a piece, had seemed so sad but beautiful at the same time.
When I went to look up the article, though, it was not at all as I remembered it. Most notably, Sedaris talks about the suicide right out of the gate. His attitude is not one of "How did we allow it to get to that point?" but rather one of "If it had to happen, it wasn't exactly surprising." The siblings all want to move on as quickly as possible - mentions of Tiffany occur mid-conversation, but not for long and without much depth. None of the subtlety I had been enamored with existed in the current piece I was reading.
Which, in a way, made the piece like performance art for me. The first time I read it in 2013, it had a deep, emotional effect on me. I was dazzled by the way the timelines were woven together. I wondered what it might mean for me to lose one of my five siblings during my lifetime. It caused me to consider new things and I was struck by the emotional core of the writer.
That was an experience rooted in time. It depended on the world being exactly as it was, on who I was at the time, what I was doing at the time, what confusion I was dealing with. I saw "Hamilton" this past weekend and spent half the show crying and the other half with goosebumps - and I know I will never again watch it and feel that same way again. But I expect that from live theater, something that changes from night to night, from audience to audience. What I didn't expect was to feel that way about a piece of writing, something I thought was static and stayed the same, and I didn't expect to lose the way I felt reading it. That makes sense, though. Creative nonfiction is about putting real life on the page, putting memories on the page. Our memories change with us. It's a personal form of performance art.
To be honest, fangirling – when your mind enters a fictional world so intensely that you develop territorial tendencies that border on the loyalty you feel for your immediate family – has always scared me a little bit. My teenage encounter with Buffy the Vampire Slayer coincided with my first experience of binge watching. And man, did that show take over my brain. After watching a couple of episodes in a row, trying to understand how a one-hour TV show could occupy me longer than any movie I had ever seen, I became obsessed. I thought, dreamt, breathed Buffy in a way that I never had about something fictional. Even the fantasy books that I read growing up (the ones that made me want to write my own fantasy books, the ones that kept me busy for hours in a corner by myself, the ones that made me so happy that my own writing was actually just rewriting the fantasy books I was reading) didn't take over my imagination the way Buffy did. Because of my awareness of that all-encompassing infatuation – along with a religion-inspired need to believe I cared about more than just television – I stopped watching it. Cold turkey. I had enough under my belt to talk to people about it, to appreciate the Sunnydale High School T-shirt a fellow intern was wearing the first day I met him, but I full-on rejected the feeling that resulted from immersion in Joss Whedon's vampire world.
Enter J.J. Abrams. When the new trilogy of Star Wars was announced, I was excited; but I wouldn't say elated. I had watched all of the films when I was a preteen, around the time Episode I and II came out. I did have to wait for Episode III until I was a teenager, glaring at the computer screen when I realized I would have to wait until 2005 for it to come out – 2005! three whole years! – and learning how to be patient for movie release dates for the first time. I liked the films a lot. I was proud to be able to talk about them with my older siblings. Yet I didn't watch any of the films again after that initial encounter. So when Episode VII was announced, I was excited and planned on seeing it after the hype died down.
A week before The Force Awakens hit theaters, I noticed that few of my contacts on Facebook and Twitter were rewatching all of the old Star Wars films. At first I was skeptical, thinking of the sheer number of hours it would take to get through the series. But I changed my tune pretty soon. As Episode VII's release drew nearer, I found myself committing to the same process. It appealed to me in some way: Work hard by getting through the old ones in order to enjoy the new ones better. Okay, I said to myself. Yeah. Let's do this.
I started with The Phantom Menace because, like I said, I wanted to work hard in order to reap the benefits. And boy did I work hard. Watching the first three episodes first was mind-numbing. The ratio of minutes to action is bogglingly high. I did, however, get the benefit of (sort of) keeping track of what was going on in the Senate for the first time. (I was also able to recognize Global Treasure Keira Knightley this time around in her geisha makeup.)
Now this may be a direct result of the fact that I started teaching high school at the beginning of the year, but one of my readings of the story arc in Episode I, II and III is about teaching. About the effects of good teachers and bad teachers. Yoda is a good teacher – we already know this from Luke's successful training in the original Star Wars. Palpatine is also a good teacher, in the sense that his students – Count Dooku and Anakin – continued the mission that he taught them. Qui-Gon is a good teacher, because his student Obi-Wan Kenobi continued his legacy as a stellar representation of the Light Side.
But Obi-Wan himself is not a good teacher. While I agree that the failure to align Anakin with the Light Side is due in part to him being too old, as the Jedi Council foresaw, as well as his generally childish attitude, I'd posit that Qui-Gon or Yoda might have been able to steer him despite all that. Obi-Wan was not up to the challenge. He let Anakin's delusions of grandeur balloon and affect his behavior, let the chutzpah ooze from him in nearly every interaction. I'd also suggest that in Episode VII, it turns out that Luke wasn't a good teacher either. His student, Kylo Ren, was tempted to the Dark Side and he massacred the next generation of Jedi – much the way Anakin did in Episode III.
Once I got through the first three episodes, I slinked into Episode IV: A New Hope without too much hope on my part. But boy did I get blown away. It was a mechaya to experience an enjoyable Star Wars movie after trudging through the first three. I couldn't believe how pleasurable it was to watch Luke, Han and Leia flying through the galaxy, kicking ass and taking names. I didn't realize how truly whiny Luke is in the beginning, which makes Anakin's arc a little more understandable. Not to mention how morally ambiguous Han Solo's actions are at every turn.
One of the fun things about the original three movies, though, is how complementary the three main characters' personalities are. They all have flaws that keep them from defeating the Dark Side on their own. They all need each other to accomplish that ultimate goal. Nonetheless, it never feels clear whether or not they'll actually be there for each other in the eleventh hour.
When Luke abandons his Jedi training to go save Han and Leia, it feels like a turning point that could become fatal. If he fails in his self-appointed mission, not only will it all have been for naught, but – as we later see – he would have given up on finishing his training completely. But he succeeds, and then he has to face Darth Vader and the Emperor on his own and witness the death of his father. When he returns to his friends, none of them can understand what he's gone through. They see a change in him, but it's not something they can relate to. Luke is on his own, the only Jedi left in the world.
All of this is to say that by the time I went to see The Force Awakens on Christmas Day, I had watched all seven Star Wars movies in the space of a week. A week! I never would have guessed I could do it but after the fact, I wouldn't do it any other way. I went into that new Star Wars movie with the wide-eyed excitement I first felt for the films back when I was twelve, sitting in my basement, watching VHS tapes on a VCR that couldn't rewind. I got goosebumps – as I had each of the six previous times I had seen and heard it that week – when the combination of the logo and theme music burst onto the screen in the dark theater. I watched Rey and BB-8 trying to figure out their place in the galaxy. I looked out for all the callbacks to the older movies. I enjoyed Kylo Ren's face reveal scene much more than I should have. (A hot Darth Vader, woohoo!) More than anything, though, the movie was fun, and I had a great time watching it.
It made me remember how fun it is to fangirl about something without a trace of guilt.
Now that the hype has died down, I no longer feel the need to buy Star Wars merchandise, or decorate my walls with Star Wars travel posters. But I do have a lingering desire to feel that excitement again. I've been wanting to see The Force Awakens again since I left the theater, but I promised myself I wouldn't go see it again for at least two months. February 25, here I come.
Disclaimer: I am not the world's biggest fan of the violent genres. I do not have encyclopedic knowledge of fight choreography and what makes a shootout/explosion sequence compelling (...uh, nothing?). I have not, despite my love for Timothy Olyphant, watched the movie called Hitman. However, I noticed this thing about movies depicting hitmen as their protagonist that I (previously explored in a Facebook post and can no longer find now) and would like to share here. To be clear, I am not referring to wisecracking, borderline psychopathic, obscurely idiosyncratic, Tarantinoesque/Coen Brotherly hitmen who provide humor in an otherwise bleak landscape of human grit. I'm referring to the stereotype of the uber-capable, never-misses-a-shot, does-this-job-because-he-has-nowhere-else-to-turn kind of hitman.
This kind of hitman in movies is the prototypical anti-hero. He is dark because he must be sneaky; he is mysterious because he can't have personal attachments; he is excellent at what he does because he is still alive to tell the tale. (Which he doesn't. Except to that one beautiful girl who will never see him again.) We like watching anti-heroes, such as the protagonists in Mad Men and Breaking Bad, because they allow us to feel better about our own bad behavior.
But there's a key ingredient when it comes to the hitman: He isn't meant to show emotion.
Think about Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for a second, who only ever killed someone in a dream. Yes, he's admirable for the suave coolness he oozes wherever he goes. But in addition to that, we watch him go through the full gamut of human emotions. We see him angry (a lot), we see him sad, we see him nervous, we see him having a nervous breakdown. The ideal hitman shows no emotion. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Colin Farrell in London Boulevard. Christian Bale in Equilibrium, who had to be given a puppy for us to like him. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator is the best example - he's a robot!
What I'm getting at is that while it's very cool to have a hitman in your movie, and I certainly am not immune to the charms of watching someone decimate an entire room of people with perfect fight choreography, the problem with having a straight up hitman as your main character is that they aren't very interesting as people. I have no emotional connection to them and no investment in their fate. Even Keanu Reeves in John Wick was entertaining, but not particularly compelling.
When you can't relate to a character emotionally, you're missing a pivotal element to the narrative: Why do I care about this person? Yeah, he's fun to watch fight. He's fun to watch saving people. But I don't get much else out of it, let alone the stamina to sit through 2+ hours of him fighting and saving people and not caring.
On the flip side of this (very rudimentary) theory, you have Kingsman: The Secret Service. Remember Christian Bale's puppy? Well, in Kingsman main British guy Eggsy (Taron Egerton) gets his very own puppy to train and develop with at his super secret spy agency. Now, Eggsy clearly does not have the makings of a super spy. He didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge. He doesn't have an impressive family lineage. Even his father, the reason Eggsy was accepted into the training program in the first place, died in the line of duty early on in his career. And to top it all off, Eggsy can't even shoot his stupid dog at the end of training – which, as he's later informed, only had a blank in it!
But the fact that Eggsy couldn't shoot the dog and didn't have the credentials to be a Kingsman is what makes him an interesting character. I could have listened to him goad people to fight in that British accent for hours. It was funny to see him revert back to his sartorial roots for a mission where he had to be a pickup artist. And when he ultimately saves the world, his motives stem more from avenging the death of his mentor than they do from a desire to actually save the world. The reason Eggsy is compelling is exactly because he didn't make for a good hitman. He doesn't blend in, he's terrible at playing nice with others, and above all – he displays emotions. Lots of them.
Video games, though. Now there's a place where a well-appointed, emotionless hitman can have it all.
I was a preteen when my family moved back to America in the fall of 2001. In the pre-Internet age, Israel had been in its own little bubble of eighties music and the occasional American blockbuster making its way to our theaters months after its stateside release. Suddenly, my sister and I had access to all of the movies that the actual Blockbuster could offer. We had access to music when it became available. Never before had I understood why some bands were on tour while others were not, but now I could see it was to promote a new album. We dipped our toes into the shining plastic world of American pop culture and then took a headlong dive into it.
More than anything, though, my sister and I immediately became obsessed with the Disney Channel – even though we were on the older end of its target demographic. We had caught glimpses of it during summer vacations to New York, but never had we been able to turn it on whenever we wanted. We were entranced. Our television watching habits became so bad in those first couple of months that our parents restricted us to three episodes a week. We were addicted to Disney Channel Original Series, devouring the likes of Even Stevens, That's So Raven, and, above all, the queen, Lizzie McGuire. We kept track of when Disney Channel Original Movies premiered so that we could watch Cadet Kelly and Get a Clue as soon as they came out. We must have watched Motocrossed twenty times. I wanted to be in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century so badly. (It's probably what convinced me that sci-fi can be as good as fantasy.) I left for college the year that Hannah Montana and High School Musical came out and I was secretly jealous that I wasn't "allowed" to like the Disney Channel anymore because I was supposed to have matured. (Didn't stop me anyway.)
For me, the attraction had to be that for the first time I was seeing programming aimed specifically at me. Before experiencing the Disney Channel, I watched Disney cartoons and movies that could have been targeted to anyone. Matilda and Aladdin are generation-spanning stories designed to be enjoyed by whoever is in the audience. The Disney Channel, on the other hand, was made for kids ages 6-14 – and no one else. The shows and movies were about preteens taking risks and getting into trouble, paving the way for their impending adolescence. Someone five years older than me couldn't have enjoyed the programs on the Disney Channel because they weren't created for her.
Of course, they didn't always get it right. It's not like the suits in California had a Skins-like writing staff to inform the old fogies of what's cool and on-trend with the kids these days. But the writers knew enough to give their viewers a prototype of what a model popular girl looks like, and therefore what we could strive to look and act like. Hilary Duff was supposed to be a super-awkward wannabe as Lizzie McGuire, but we all knew that you would have to be crazy to want to be Kate, the ostensible Popular Girl, instead of Lizzie. (That could be because intercut with Lizzie McGuire episodes were snippets of interviews with Hilary Duff, wearing the cutest clothes and generally being the cutest, in a way that was interchangeable with her character.)
Because Lizzie had the greatest friendships around with Miranda and Gordo. As did Raven, with Chelsea and Eddie. And if Even Stevens taught me anything, it was that you could hate your sibling and still be the closest people on the planet. The characters in these shows always got into trouble. They were always mischievous. They were always chasing after girls/boys and obsessing over their pre-sexuality. But the resolution of their bad decisions always ended up leading them to stronger bonds of friendship. In that sense, the writers understood that loyalty would speak to a preteen audience more than anything else.
Nowadays, as a Millennial, the world of entertainment is at my feet, clamoring for my attention and trying to please me and my generation with their programming. I can watch any channel on television and decide if I like what I see. I am the ultimate consumer, molding California studios to my taste.
Oh, you guys like Glee? Here, take Smash, Nashville and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Women in politics! You guys like women in politics! Here's The Good Wife, Madame Secretary and Scandal.
Gays? Bring on the gays! Here's Looking, The New Normal and How to Get Away with Murder.
While it's nice to have more options (and the reminder of how I'm getting older and therefore my mortality), I look back on my encyclopedic knowledge of early 00's Disney stars with fondness and appreciation. The Disney Channel made me feel special. It acknowledged my struggles and gave me a sense of community, that I could be like the kids I was watching – if I wanted to be. I think more than anything, though, the Disney Channel taught me that my opinion mattered before the world decided it did. For that I'm grateful.
Back in the fall of 2008, I had freshly arrived in New York City to begin my college career. I was already writing for the Arts & Culture section of Stern College's newspaper, The Observer, and my section editor informed me that she had been contacted by the press department of a new Broadway musical called 13. We were given prime orchestra seats amid an audience that skewed very young, mostly because the cast was made up entirely of teenagers. Since it was my first time – and only time, so far – seeing a show in previews, I wanted it to succeed. If it did, then I would have somehow participated in the genesis of something great. Alas, the show closed four months later – most likely because the audience that would find the show most appealing was the teenage bracket, which isn't exactly the target demographic of Broadway musicals.
The storyline was cute and familiar: A Jewish boy is about to have his Bar Mitzvah when his parents move him away from shiny NYC to Bumbletown, Indiana. There he deals with the intrigue of adolescence and puberty in a small town. He learns valuable lessons about friendship and the cost of popularity.
That is, I wouldn't remember much about 13 if it didn't have a surprising track record of cast members becoming stars in the seven years since. The biggest alum is Ariana Grande, who played Charlotte. After being a regular on a Nickelodeon TV show, she became an international pop star. Elizabeth Gillies, who played the gossipy gospel singer Lucy (above), also became a TV phenomenon through Nickelodeon and has since moved up to FX. Graham Phillips played Evan, the protagonist of 13, and is now working in both film and TV, including as a series regular The Good Wife.
The musical itself might have been a flop, but I'd like to suggest that as a sample, 13 was wildly successful. Giving legitimate Broadway stage time to an entire cast of underage actors yielded actual results. Maybe the combination of subjects and subject matter didn't sit well with Broadway audiences, but by giving these actors an unheard-of opportunity at such a young age, the producers of 13 clearly jump started the careers of at least three of them. I'd say that if such a production were to be staged again, you'd be able to pick out three more rising stars. So that's my two cents: Stage more young plays so we can have our own previews of the actors who are going to make it big some day.
Stephenie Meyer swapped the genders of Twilight (sigh) in some attempt to change our view of Bella's character as a damsel in distress. I did read the first Twilight (and subsequently subjected my roommates to many a dramatic reading of particularly potent passages) but personally, I have no interest in reading this retelling. My issue with Twilight is not that Bella pined for Edward and needed him to feel validation. Whatever. Meyer is hardly the first to write a passive character. My issue is that Bella did make active decisions in the first half of the novel by rebuffing Edward's advances, but then when she stops resisting him, all of her power is gone. The problem is that the book gets boring when Bella becomes passive, which is why switching the genders won't make a difference to me. That book has been written. (I assume. I only saw the movie:) It's called Beautiful Creatures and once again, one character has all of the power.
Which is why I found it fascinating when the film version of Ender's Game (2013) had this moment that didn't appear with such stark vision in the book. Near the end of the film, Ender leads his team to a victory in battle over the Formics. He's so exhausted, though, that he has to be carried out because he can't support himself. That moment was so cool to me. Even though this kid is supposed to be the hope and future of his society, his own power makes him vulnerable and in need of protection. The people responsible for him recognize that and rally around him.
I found a similar concept in the (painfully ill-advised) movie version of Vampire Academy (2014). The movie itself didn't have much to offer, but the same idea struck me: In their universe the vampires have magical superpowers, but they are completely vulnerable to attack. Their power makes them weak, which requires each one to have a personal bodyguard who can give them physical protection from other vampires and such. While Lissa can bring a person/animal/creature back from the brink of death, she can't stop someone from killing her and needs Rose to do that for her.
Maybe I enjoyed this concept because it balances out the power. Gives the character weakness etc. that makes the narrative more believable. If Edward had a weakness in Twilight that wasn't an actual person – like he's some hitman who's spent years crafting a rough exterior but still has a heart made of flesh and blood that can be pierced with just the right amount of sappy exploitation – maybe we wouldn't take so much issue with Meyer's portrayal of said person AKA Bella. Likewise, I don't think bringing to our attention that the narrative is what needs work, rather than the stereotypes engendered in the characters, is a move that will change our minds.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.