Your Best American Girl

“I still haven’t found it, with a capital I,” Mitski explains. “In the U.S., I don’t quite feel American and I don’t quite feel white enough. But then, to fellow Asian people or in Japan, I’m also a foreigner. I’m mixed, I’m half white, I’m not Asian enough, I don’t understand… I’m stuck in this kind of middle ground of not being allowed in either camp.”

Ever since Mitski released “Your Best American Girl” months ago, no matter where I am when I listen to it, there’s a 95% chance I’m gonna have tears in my eyes by the end of the first chorus.

your mother wouldn’t approve
of how my mother raised me
but I do, I think I do
and you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help try to be
your best American girl…

I understand that Mitski wrote this song about a very specific relationship, a specific experience that belonged to her, but it feels so much more universal than that. She wrote it for herself, but in ways, it feels like she wrote it for every woman of color, every woman with a complex identity, who ever fell in love with a white American guy.

It’s that feeling when you exist between fixed identities and because you don’t belong anywhere, you are both everywhere and nowhere.

It’s that feeling when “America” is supposed to be a “melting pot” but you know you’ll never be that “American girl.”

It’s that feeling when you know that you can’t — and shouldn’t try — change who you are in order to be what someone else wants, but that means you feel like you might never be enough of anything for anyone.

It’s that feeling when you resent media and culture for breeding in you an attraction to that white American boy aesthetic, but it doesn’t change the fact that that IS what you’re attracted to.

And, it’s not learning how to stop feeling any of those things, but learning how to live with them.

Dear Mr. Albee,

In my early twenties, I wrote this letter to Edward Albee, my favorite playwright, thanking him for writing, and though the letter itself now feels puerile in ways,  I am certain that I still could not come up with better words to describe how much his plays meant to me. I can’t believe he won’t pen any more insightful, incisive, utterly absurd plays. His plays truly changed my life, and I’m so grateful. Rest easy, sir.

When I was sixteen, my high school English teacher gave me a copy of The Zoo Story. At first, it baffled me – I felt a heart-wrenching empathy, but I didn’t understand it. I devoured a number of your other works, trying to reconcile these emotions. When I had the chance to see Peter and Jerry at Second Stage Theater as a 20 year old, I thought I started to understand.

At the time, I was an undergraduate in a film and theater studies program, and I clearly remember a class in which we discussed the early work of Todd Haynes. In an interview, he spoke about the role of “deviance” in his films. He talked of exploring what threatens people’s sense of normalcy, and this struck me as a lens through which I could view your work. Sitting front row center at Second Stage, I watched Jerry threaten to bring the conventional structure of Peter’s world crashing to the ground.

I think that is when I understood why I love your plays so much. In them I see that the surface absurdities are masking pathos and earnestness, reveling in the ridiculous that which threatens the comfort of our world’s established social constructs. Of course, I can’t presume I understand what your intentions were while writing, but I don’t believe that my interpretations are invalid. This is my lengthy way of saying that your work has profoundly affected my attitude toward and general perspective of the human condition, and I could never effectively express my gratitude to you for helping me grow in the ways I have.

Ever since reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I’ve firmly believed that the work of an artist is the work of a hero. Campbell’s hero looks deep within himself, identifies the demons of dream and myth that we avoid because they threaten our security and comfort, and in tackling them, he discovers his true self. Upon resurfacing, the hero becomes something better, and then helps the world become better as well. I think it takes courage for an artist to find and destroy such demons and create from the ashes something that will elicit truth through the reaction to it. To then also have the greater courage to share that creation so the world can experience and react to it, makes the artist an undeniable hero.

Thank you, Mr. Albee, for being a hero.

Most sincerely,

The sublime.

In one of my seminars last week, we watched Crossroads — not the Britney movie; a 1970s experimental documentary made entirely of footage of atomic bomb explosions. The professor asked us if we were familiar with the concept of the sublime in aesthetics and gave a rudimentary explanation, saying that most simply, it’s beauty so great in magnitude that it defies intellectualization, it exceeds language. You can’t communicate it, replicate it, imitate it. Then she said offhandedly, as though to a stranger in passing, “Imagine how frustrating that must be, to not be able to put your reaction into words!” And moved on.

Two things about this struck me. First, I was interested in how she managed to so aptly describe how I feel about everything we discuss in each of my seminars every single week through an explanation of the sublime. Secondly, I was moved by how unbelievably tragic this simplistic description of the sublime sounded. If the sublime can’t be intellectualized or put into words, then in a sense, an individual can never experience the sublime independently and then share that experience with others — except through art, I suppose. Maybe that’s why some visionary artists are so compelled to create images — maybe they feel like they need to find a way to communicate their experience. Maybe they’re just trying to diffuse the inherent tragedy of the sublime.

I think I deeply sympathize with that need.

December 2010

Marina Abramović – “The Artist is Present” (MoMA)

I went last Saturday to see the William Kentridge exhibit for class. It was great. I barely remember it, though. The Marina Abramović retrospective “The Artist is Present” invaded my consciousness and overtook it completely. I ended up spending way more time at the Abramović exhibit than at the Kentridge one. Abramović’s performances explore the spatial relationships between the performer and the audience by testing her own personal physical endurance and the connections between her body and mind – it’s inexplicably profound.

For the retrospective, MoMA is displaying some of her sculptures, videos of her original performance pieces – she was really big in the ’70s – and they’re featuring contemporary performers recreating some of her past work. Abramović herself is also performing there currently. She sits at a table in the middle of an open atrium, and one by one, viewers sit in front of her at the table and capture her gaze. By the end of the exhibition, it has been calculated that she will have sat and stared – performed – for over 716 hours.

In one of her previous performances, Abramović took this medication given to patients in a catatonic state while perfectly healthy. It sent her into convulsions, and for 15 minutes, she had no control over her body. In another, with her long-time collaborator Ulay, she held a bow while he held an arrow drawn taut, aimed directly at her heart. They stood with their feet close to the other’s and each leaned back, and the longer they stood there, the more rapidly their hearts would beat. That steadily increasing tension that existed both physically and abstractly between them, that total and complete trust, defined the performance.

It may not make sense, and it may sound really strange, but the whole experience is intensely moving. I wish I’d gotten to take part in her current performance, sitting at the table. Abramović forces the audience to consider her performance outside their realm of comfort, to consider their relationship to her, to consider the moment – she challenges the viewer as well as herself. I’ve never experienced anything, any art, remotely like this – I definitely think anyone with any interest in any kind of art should go. Everyone in general should go. I want to go back. The exhibit ends May 31.

(If you can’t go, at least check out the live feed of Abramović’s current performance during museum hours, and this NYT slideshow.)

Why Mike Nichols is brilliant.

Lately I’ve been saying, I don’t want to do a movie unless it’s Cinderella or Rocky, because that’s all people want to see. And the other night, I was sitting in bed watching The Blind Side with my wife, and she turned to me and said, “See, this is Cinderella AND Rocky.”

At a Q&A session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater the other night, I learned that Mike Nichols is a born storyteller. Not only did the man simply get on stage and relate various anecdotes to the audience for 45 minutes, but he revealed the secrets to his brilliance through each little story – if you were paying attention.

First of all, Nichols does not only appreciate adaptation – he understands it. After all, his first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate were both adaptations. He talked about how all aspiring screenwriters need to read both the novel and the screenplay of The Graduate, and how it really is the Greek myth of Hippolyta and Phaedra. He gets it: palimpsestuous text never goes away, and old stories are everywhere.

Secondly, Nichols knows how to hone a single vision – his own – and deliver without letting it get cluttered. He talked about the role of the director in film. He spoke of how, on his first day shooting Virginia Woolf, he told the D.P. how he wanted to shoot a particular scene, and the D.P. suggested an alternate way of shooting it that completely miscommunicated Nichols’s idea for the scene. This was his mental reaction:

Oh shit. I’m alone. I’m the only one who knows the story, and that’s no one’s fault, but I have to call the shots. I have to tell the story.

And so he did. He told the story on screen that Albee told on stage. And when he read the novel of The Graduate, he immediately recognized what story he wanted to tell:

I wanted it to be this story about a boy who’s being turned into an object, because objects are what moves his parents’ lives…[a boy who] saves himself through passion and madness.

He told his screenwriter this, and what did the screenwriter say? “Well, I don’t want to do that.” So Nichols got Buck Henry – whom he knew from the improv comedy scene – to do it instead.

During filming, Nichols never thought of The Graduate as a revolutionary film that was going to reflect the zeitgeist for an entire generation, as well as for successive generations (that audience last night was a mixed bag full of Boomers, Millennials, and every generation in between). He did realize, though, that although it was 1967, this movie didn’t have to be about Vietnam in order to speak to people in their own voice. He wasn’t thinking about how The Graduate would affect contemporary youth. All he wanted to do was tell a story about a boy.

His simple yet crystal clear vision for that story resulted in a film that not only resonated in the moment, but continued to impact viewers. It’s forty-three years later, and The Graduate endures, not only because it was a timely movie that struck a 1960s nerve, but also because it’s a timeless story clearly and gracefully communicated in a way that any viewer can appreciate.

And that, my friends, is why Mike Nichols is a brilliant storyteller.

Sometimes when I see a great movie or a great play I think, Being human means you’re really alone…

…So many things I’m interested in come down to the subject of regret. That’s Capote alone on the plane at the end of ‘Capote,’ the priest and the nun in ‘Doubt’ who make judgments they may wish they hadn’t and Clint Eastwood [in Gran Torino]. I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t have profound regrets. That’s probably why I work so much. I don’t want to feel I missed something important…

I still get wide-eyed… It’s true that I’ve made a lot of movies, and I know there’s a microphone over there and a camera back there, but when you see something great, you lose all that. I’m sitting forward, and I’m being moved, and I have no idea how he did it. I don’t know Clint Eastwood, but what’s amazing is that you have the sense that he’s doing exactly what he wants to be doing. He’s so committed. In this film, he keeps the action going, and the people don’t ever behave against their true nature. That’s what I look for in my work: when a writer can deftly describe the human experience in a way that you didn’t think could even be put into words. That doesn’t happen often, but it gives me something to play inside. Too much of the time our culture fears subtlety. They really want to make sure you get it. And when subtlety is lost, I get upset…

I heard that Eastwood is saying that this will be his last film as an actor… There’s part of me that feels that way during almost every movie. On ‘Synecdoche,’ I paid a price. I went to the office and punched my card in, and I thought about a lot of things, and some of them involved losing myself. You try to be artful for the film, but it’s hard. I’d finish a scene, walk right off the set, go in the bathroom, close the door and just take some breaths to regain my composure. In the end, I’m grateful to feel something so deeply, and I’m also grateful that it’s over… [smiling] And that’s my life.

— Philip Seymour Hoffman, New York Times Magazine, 19 December 2008

Can I just use this as my personal statement for grad program applications?

I believe that accessibility does not equate to disposability.

I believe that quality does not equate to inaccessibility.

I believe that the abstract can be accessible.

I believe that accessible does not equate to transparent.

I believe that pop can endure.

I believe that authenticity equates to quality.

I believe that reproducibility does not decrease quality.

I believe that the context of the moment of exposure affects reaction.

I believe that personal truth is in the reaction.

I believe reaction is performance art.

I believe art is connection, and art is reaction.

I believe art is life.

Goddamn. I just want all of this for everyone, all the time.