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Archive for December, 2011

I love the sublime (Edmund Burke – look it up).

The whole beauty of the concept was further illustrated as I trekked through the streets of New York for the first time.

To be overwhelmed by the size of a collage of buildings, to catch the art of urban architecture, even to walk through the expanse of Central Park.

People make beautiful art out of this place, and I feel so lucky to be able to engage in it.

This is a weird, convoluted point for Corey and I. Somewhere in-between enthused and thrilled I am, most certainly, dangerously close to breaking. I called this the next phase – the point where I slowly fall apart.

Maybe total intimacy shouldn’t happen… and maybe we’re living out an accelerated relationship. Corey told me yesterday:

Nothing you do surprises me anymore.”

And while I doubt he still feels that way (bombshells were dropped), I know the timbre of that comment. The walls are wearing thin.

And there lies what Eliot called “the overwhelming question”…

Am I in too deep?

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Says it all, right?

Me & My Shadow and While I was Dying are totally different projects. Merging them is weird.

But this challenging, exhausting process is teaching me the sort of daily lessons I thought I’d have to search deep to find within myself.

At this very moment it’s about the collaborative process. You can’t make a (good) movie alone. I work with different facets of my six-person crew at all hours of the day. We fight, we talk, we laugh. Corey and I wouldn’t have a project without them – we’re as much at their behest as vice-versa. And really, as Corey and I are to one another.

Nothing teaches you quite so forcefully as working with others. Each member gives me something –

  • Chloe Anagnos: Is a very dedicated producer. Not that everything is easy when we’re trying to make directorial/production choices – but we’re doing our best to make it work. More than anything, you have to respect someone who does their best to keep things on track. That’s a tough one for artists…
  • Danny Delaney: Is about the sweetest kid you’ve ever met. Genuine, passionate, and kind. He wants to keep filming, and I want him to achieve that dream. He’s really something special, and someone I’m so happy could brighten my day up while I’m cuffed.
  • Patrick Ball: Is the man. No – seriously. Pat and I knew each other very little before we started, but four days of consistent filming changes that pretty quickly. Driving through the hills of West Virginia at 3 AM also helps. While Pat and I were talking I got a sense of just what a real, likable guy he happens to be. He’s also a talented, consumate professional. Okay – now I’m gushing. Look, he’s really cool.
  • Marcus Carroll: Sort of my heart. I call Marcus the moral compass – and with good reason. He’s a consistently good person – one who has stuck by my side since we met early in highschool. He, like Danny, has a very special, very genuine quality about him. I’m excited to see the sort of man he becomes, but also tremendously heartened by our bonding in this trip. As the trip began, I would have described my feelings for Marcus as a strong like – transformed through trying times into love. He’s a good person – and that is a rarer thing than you can possibly imagine.
  • Corey Rudell: Something very strange. There aren’t really words, and there won’t be even once the project is done. I couldn’t handcuff myself to anyone else. And I don’t want to speak too soon, but I already know Corey and I have done something incredible. Infuriating, maddening, and wild, Corey breathes life into everything he touches. That alone is remarkable. I feel privileged be a part of it.

 

That’s us. For better, worse, and tomorrow. Everyone needs a family – clan – place to be. We made one, and that means more than any movie.

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Still handcuffed. Awesome.

Today, I talked to some wonderful women who happen to be lesbians. I know that sounds like a weird distinction to make… but it meant a lot to me.

In fact, the whole day had the air of disclosure. These women were willing to share one of the most personal facets of their life, with a sincere passion for the civil rights they so undoubtedly deserve.

Their honesty and passion truly impressed me. More than that, they made me want to tell my story. Each entry is a part of that – each story reveals another shard of what it means to be alive.

One of the best parts of this project is the sheer opportunity to meet and talk to people. That’s not an American thing – the cute blonde girl I met two days ago (underage) at a bar in Philly told me as much – and I’m continually baffled by the results one nets through sheer perseverance.

There’s life outside. I’ve fervently believed that for a few years now, but living it changes the dynamic. It opens up the world in the same way as my previous journey into the West.

We need to communicate – it’s our lifeblood. Otherwise we are consumed by our personal divisions, destined to segment and fragment into eternity.

Go out – Talk – Experience.

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I reconnected with an old friend today.

And it was on of the best decision I’ve made in so long.

My childhood best-friend Ben and I fell off as friends after I moved to Indiana in 7th grade. He did his best to stay connected with me and, frankly, I was confused and scared by the idea a relationship could exist long-distance.

I was younger – and wrong.

Today, as we sat and talked about the missing years, I re-discovered a bit about growing up. Good relationships change, morph, and develop. At their best you can reach out and re-make them. We were able to reconnect through the trip – I was able to do better.

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Things can return.

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I’m typing this with one hand.

Shoot…

The part where your art meets your idealism is a tricky one. And having to re-type a sentence is no simple feat.

I embarked on this adventure to see its inherent artistic value. And about four hours into cuffing myself to Corey I considered throwing the whole thing away.

I know, I know. Age isn’t making me more reasonable.

Okay. You have no idea how long this has taken to type…

It’s home for the next two weeks. Make the best of it, accept the message, find the meaning, and grow.

I’m about to go stand in line at a McDonalds handcuffed to my co-director…

What a terrible mistake.

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I cannot shake the exceptional fear that my public education has failed me.

Irrevocably, and wholly, they have missed the point. The will to learn, something which has survived by mere chance and fortitude, cannot be claimed as an off-spring of the system which reared me. Rather, it is the by-product of the occasional bright-spot, the opportunities provided and encouraged by exceptional educators and mentors in my life.

It is also the product of my attentive mother.

But to examine, as I do know, the surroundings of my education… is a dreary thing. I can tell you too much about 1776 and too little about 1976. My educators pushed forward with the idea that World War I never took place, and that the events of World War II were sudden and erratic – this is propagandist fantasy. At its worst I have been fed outright constrictions of the truth, and often pure ignorance promoted as fact.

The last forty years of the Cold War are a foggy mess. One I work through every day as I explore the histories of remote countries like Afghanistan and Egypt. Countries promoted and fueled by the distant imperialism of American and Britain, lands which still bear the brunt of our eager desire to exercise control.

Nearly every country was affected by our actions in the Cold War – to have left them out of the record in public education is a disgrace. It is only now, with something of a curious spirit, that I have begun to explore the decision-making of my homeland. I am baffled, often confused, and occasionally disheartened to examine the twilight-zone we consider the past 50 years of neo-imperialism.

It is a remarkable and bizarre situation to hunt through the bones of the past. Stranger still to find so many of the skeletons unrecognizable.

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“Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those tales. Though it started out that way…”
– Olive Penderghast, Easy A (2010)

*So, uh… you read a lot? That’s cool, I guess. But what do you want to do for a living?*

^ The above is a fairly frequent response to my major choice.

*Now, you say it doesn’t matter, but look at Othello! His jealousy is just like yours!*

^ The above is precisely why teachers in highschool suggest my major matters more than anything.

*How many of you have ever felt like Boo? Huh?*

^ And again.

*You have to admit, the gossip about Hester really isn’t that different than the gossip today? Is it, ladies?*

^ And again.

Classics matter. Especially those pesky highschool readers, the type everyone gets a crack at. Why? Because they enter the public discourse, are embedded in our memory. A wise-crack about Belgian colonialism isn’t likely to hit all those Joseph Conrad fans on the head, nor is a well timed play on the predicament of Gregor Samsa. Such is life.

But, for those who manage to negotiate and breath life into old texts, a world of pop-discourse suddenly springs to life. For a simpler example, look at the Harry Potter series, which even managed to proliferate classrooms in my highscool education. The world is open to the eager re-interpreters of myth.

Sometimes these are cleverly disguised. Sometimes they’re teasingly open. The recent film Easy A, which transmutes Hawthorne’s 1850 romance The Scarlet Letter, manages a canny balance of both.

In sum:

The Scarlet Letter: Is the story of the accused Hester Prynne. Well, primarily. It’s also about a doomed priest, her wiley daughter, angry ex, and the town of Boston in the Puritan era.

Easy A: Follows a young woman named Olive Penderghast as she becomes the pariah of her highschool. Otherwise unnoticed, she becomes the talk of the town once rumor spreads she’s lost her “V” card. Olive decides to live the myth up, and finds empowerment before the situation spins wildly out of control.

Now, Easy A invites intertextual study with its breezy attachement to the source material (they’re reading it in class, make light of the infamous bathing scenes in the 1995 Demi Moore adaptation, and Olive begins her introduction with the phrase – “let the record show” – similar to the “trial” Hester finds herself in as the novel begins).

But as we examine the two stories we’ll quickly see that they’re cut from different ideological cloth. Hester’s tool is silence, where Olive cues the story with a very important phrase.

Olive: “There are two sides to every story. This is mine – the right one.”

Well! Hm. Readers of Letter are thrust into the action of the story from the prison door onward. Not so for Easy A, where we hear Olive’s reasoning first-hand:

“I guess maybe it was because the first time I’d felt, sort of, superior…” she says of the lie itself, suggesting an empowerment to sexuality not only concurrent with strains of contemporary feminism, but also a benefit of the first-person narration versus the distanced narrator of the novel.

And what of the confession? Further division.

Olive renounces her branding almost immediately to the ultra-conservative Marianne Bryant (Amanda Bynes):

“What you heard in the bathroom the other day wasn’t true, at all. It’s actually a funny story…”

We never hear the end of that amusing tale, but Olive’s desire to renounce the image (early on) proves nice cognitive dissonance for Hester’s response. Questioned by reverend Dimmesdale she refuses any attempt to de-label herself visually or verbally:

“It is branded too deeply! Ye cannot take it off.”

And a paragraph later:

“I will not speak!”

Hester says when pressed for confession. Another interesting note is Hester’s appearance in the novel. Even before striking out from the Puritans Hester is marked apart as “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale.”

Olive, on the other hand, is quick to note her “below average breast-size” and lack of physical appeal – that’s part transformation and part personal narrative. Still, it’s interesting to consider how the transformations (opposite as they are from outcast to accepted) mirror two very striking women.

But broadening, there’s that tricky symbol of the “A”. And, more importantly, what it comes to represent in the current of the works. I quote University of Illinois professor Nina Baym:

“[I]ndeed the deepest conflict in The Scarlet Letter is that between Hester and the Puritan rulers over the letter and who it is to decree its meaning.”

And the crux of what I’ll argue here is over the importance of that ideal. How do different generations interpret its importance? In pretty widely differing ways. The multiplicity of symbolism is inherent here, as it is with the “A”. Let’s ask Baym’s question:

“[W]hat is her side? That is, what does she want, and what do we want for her?”

Depends on which one you consult. The entirety of Easy A is predicated on the wildly out of control manifestation of Olive’s experiment.

On the other hand, Hester Prynne never sees her action as a mistake. That is all Dimmesdale, who differs from Hester in the acceptance and acknowledgment of his actions. Struck down in the town square and unabashedly repentant:

“The law we broke!- the sin here so awfully revealed!- let these alone be in they thoughts! I fear! I fear!”

He recognizes his “mistake” and accepts it after ignoring it the length of the novel. That is Dimmesdale’s confession – his way of conquering his own “A”. Likewise, the entirety of Easy A focuses on Olive’s apology. The video-blog which frames the story is her way of taking responsibility for her actions – just like the reverend in his public admission.

Take a look at Olive’s analysis of the second half of The Scarlet Letter.

“But then the town realizes she was too harshly judged, and she’s really a good person – she dies a saint.”

Not. Exactly. Hester remains a baffling creature to the end. The denouement of The Scarlet Letter is an eerie, disquieting thing. Hester, in her later years, never abandons her “A”. Never admits culpability in the adultery at all, really, and the sainthood referenced is one Hester seems to shy from. She’s the object of the lost women of Boston, but hardly beloved of the overall town.

This brings us back to that “A”, and what it means to accept or reject it. The multiplicity of meaning suggested by Easy A is rather linear – an object of empowerment moves to one of leper-dom as Olive begins to live the life she imitated. Individuality, while not wholly un-aligned with sexual independence (Olive suggests her sexual emancipation on her own terms at the close of the film) ultimately reflects a return to moral forthrightness and certitude.

But there are fewer simple answers in The Scarlet Letter. The “A” appears on Dimmesdale, visibly on Hester, and once in the sky:

“[L]ooking upward to the zenith, he held there the appearance of an immense letter, -the letter A,- marked out in lines of dull red light.”

What does it stand for, exactly?

  • Adulterer
  • Angel (a word associated with Hester at the close of the novel)
  • Arthur (he does have one, after all)
  • Anything, really. Hawthorne himself admits “another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it.”

Even Pearl, the dutiful child, is so passive as to frequently suggest she may be the living symbol of the adultery. Fluid identity permeates every aspect of The Scarlet Letter, from the changing roles of Dimmesdale (his confession) and Chillingworth (learning to let go of his monstrous hatred) to Pearl (who we witness grow and develop throughout the novel).

The static character, what Baym calls the “defiant individual” of American literature – is Hester. Even more striking as Baym sees it because she is a mother, possessed of “stubborn strength”. Hester never re-cants, and her ultimate triumph is as liminal as the lives of of every character in Hawthorne’s story – imperfect, muddled.

Yes, Hester enacts a small change on the Puritan society, as her acceptance suggests what Baym sees as “enlargement, progress in human history”. But it’s also the story of a woman so stalwart she cannot admit any personal fault. If heroes are uncompromising to a fault, Hester wins. But if we ask for a hero with more self-awareness, one who can accept and grow in a more traditional way, she’s hardly the protagonist. And if growth overtime – the arc suggested by Aristotle – is relevant, the hero is far better cast as Arthur Dimmesdale. For he is the one who makes concerted effort to own up, progress, and ultimately acknowledges his actions. Hester, for her part, sees no wrong-doing, and produces the peculiar situation where she cannot be buried with Dimmesdale:

“It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle.”

And so it doesn’t. They believe in different triumphs of the spirit. The final images of Easy A and The Scarlet Letter say it all. Hester and Dimmesdale buried together-yet-apart, while Olive and her new-found love Todd (Penn Badgley) finally embrace – both accepting their actions as proof of their ability to embark on a relationship together.

That is, finally, where the two make their break. What Olive characterizes as Hester’s “humble silence” is actually calculated defiance. The Scarlet Letter is a panoramic, ambivalent essay on the power of definition. It concludes, via the re-definition of each major character in the cast, that labels are ultimately ineffective, unimportant, unreadable.

Easy A tacks on the lens of teenage individualism and refracts it through the eye of a single character – opting for a quasi-moralistic ending and, perhaps more importantly for the Hollywood film, an easy ending with quota established, broken, and (mostly) restored. Responsibility taken yields positive growth – a much more comfortable suggestion for audiences than Hester’s problematic (and perhaps selfish) confidence.

These are different morals for different times. While I entered into this essay planning on disproving the validity of Easy A (I think the moral is white-washed for movie-going audiences) it’s the message fit to the medium. The Scarlet Letter remains so curious because it refuses easy answers, and so frustrating because it pulls a Bartleby and forces the reader to accept the futility of decision.

There are, finally, no simple definitions. But at the heels of such complexity will continually bite the jaws of labeled conditioning. Reminding us, if nothing less, that there’s more to morality than “good” and “bad”. That there’s more to narrative than responsibility equating with personal progression. And, I suppose, that a narrative reflects a moment, while an interpretation negotiates an era.

“Sympathetic readers might have hoped for a finale where the letter is simply put aside once and for all. But it is Hester who insists on wearing it when she returns to Boston in later life.” – Nina Baym, Introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1982/1850)

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