"Me...love 'dead'." -- Monster (Bride of Frankenstein, 1933)
If the rest of the media universe is playing it safe and cuddly there's at least two chunks of media that strike a deep unnerving chord of the 'real' in the last few weeks of 2011 -- Fx's American Horor Story and that found-Americana video for Lana Del Rey's one song, "Video Games."
Passing the 10 million hit mark, inspiring the usual countless remixes, the song+video+singer taps into a nerve of sadness and loss that has the authentic feel of a drunk night crying to your best friend long distance while you thumb through old photo albums. Watch the video ten times in a row and you can get that feel even at work, sober, on the phone to no one. Still, a lot of people seem to think she has no right to be sad. There's a huge internet bloglash both pro and con (read Awl's "Who's Afraid of Lana Del Rey" to catch up and choose a side). Lana Del Rey's hot lost little girl from 1965 look -- the thick hair, Julia Roberts lips, black eyeshadow, vintage dresses and paisley headbands-- make her come off like Evan Rachel Wood in THIRTEEN now grown up in reverse and her own grandmother at 21, dating a hot young rockabilly guitarist alcoholic who's always on tour, leaving her alone but 'safe' in our care, we being the ghost of a lover long dead (she'll only see us smoldering, never old or charred). She makes me excited to see YOUNG ADULT. Like Charlize Theron in that role, we don't have to worry about Lana's deep sadness overwhelming us via a real relationship. She's just a friend, and she doesn't even exist... she's a ghost in the machine, like Samara in THE RING. She even looks like Hayden, Ben's 19 year-old ghost ex-mistress in American Horror Story!
So what does this broad have to do with American Horror Story, specifically this week's episode, "Smoldering Children," where (Spoiler Alert!) we find out Violet, the lost little daughter has been dead since a few episodes ago when she overdosed on pills?
Everything. It has everything to do with it.
Look at Lana's photo above, with the cigarette and white dress. She could step right into any David Lynch film and be either in the flashback to the early 60s or a current retro hipster with ironic collagen--either way she's an American ghost story ready to haunt your iPod. The photo above is the kind of thing you find when cleaning out your deceased grandparent's room. Who is that beauty? And before you find out you swoon, just a little bit, for your own mother. Lana Del Rey may just be playing dress-up, but she nonetheless radiates a sadness that's not fixed in any one generation. It creeps through decades like vintage clothing and DNA, and the flag. America strong!
For comparison, let's look at another pretty, lost, augmented little girl who is talented, driven, and also trying to be re-born, in this case as a sitcom star, Whitney Cummings. Her self-titled show comes on after The Office (read Meghan Wright's solid recap here), the key time slot for any current sitcom, which is how it's drawn my indignant attention. Am I the only one who is suspicious? No. In "Understanding Screenwriting," Tom Stempel writes:
In Whitney, Cummings plays the title character. She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex. They make jokes. They are afraid of marriage. They go to a wedding and make jokes with their friends. Whitney dresses up as a nurse to seduce Alex and he ends up in the hospital. They make jokes. Most of the jokes are variations on material from Cummings' stand-up act, and so the show falls into the trap of a lot of sitcoms based on a comedian's act: all jokes, no story, no characters. Half an hour of this just gets tiresome.Part of why this show is doomed can be summed up right in the above paragraph, particularly one sentence "She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex." - what kind of dumb idea is that? Has anyone ever done such a thing? Be wary of Whitney and her conspicuous displays of enjoyment. She misunderstands the fundamental basics of romantic comedy. "Tiresome," indeed!
The most fundamental comedy truth is this: a couple is only cute and watchable when they are not quite together - either always about to hook up--the will they or won't they of Sam and Diane (Cheers) or Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd (Moonlighting) or Fox and Scully (X-Files), or Ross and Rachel (Friends)-- or they already have before the show began and are now just friends (Jerry and Elaine on Seinfeld). All but Seinfeld gave in to audience's demands of seeing the leads hook up and get married or live happily in congress, and viewers dropped off like flies once they got their wish and didn't make them feel how they thought it would. Smart shows know in advance this is doomed to happen. (Pam and Jim on The Office are beyond terminal in their Whitney-ishness - but luckily it's an ensemble show).
As I've written before, the original 1970s Charlie's Angels was ingenious in this regard. Aaron Spelling wrote the book, which we now open to examine the reverse case of guys like Ashton Kucher and Howard Stern. As long as he was married to older Demi, Ashton had some gravitas --his flirty douche bag qualities were tolerable, even amusing. He's in the process of now of realizing the extent Demi's presence kept him from getting Sheen-level skeevy. And as long as Howard Stern was married and unable to 'do anything' with his strippers--fighting against the current of his own tastelessness and desire --he was funny and edgy. Once the chains were off, that edge was lost, he was just another skeevy guy trying to drag all his smelly buddies into the bedroom with him. As long as the dog is on the leash barking and straining against it, he's so fierce. Take him off and even he knows it's put up or shut up, just as long as Hannibal Lecter was imprisoned he was terrifying; escaped and free and he's suddenly just another dude trying to get a piece of the action.
Similarly onscreen couples without constraints--misunderstandings, break-ups, deaths, fights, infidelities, abuse, divorce--are suddenly cloying. The tortured misery of Ben and his crazy wife in AHS, for example, made all his temptations exciting. Once the wife was gone, however, giving into those temptations would just be softcore boredom, hence his heroic resistance, as I wrote about last week. This week he got his reward: he even got to vent his rage on the tormentor of his wife, the evil Tate!
Tate is an ideal representation of the 'absent lover'--the animus, the incubus -- in that he is actually dead - and his grisly past makes him a 'bad boy' in ways we never want to compete with - he's like Lana Del Rey's lost rockabilly guitarist come back from the dead to demand beer and fidelity. If you listen to the lyrics of Rey's songs they're like the dream girl words bound to have any video game playing bad-girl loving boy blushing at the thought he just might be able to hook up with this doomed, sweetly tragic, DSM-IV type of lost little girl:
|Lance Kerwin, 1977|
In AMH, Violet will never have to go back to school now that she's dead, but at the same time she's not entirely sure a life playing cards with Tate is the answer to all death's prayers, or so it seems by her only mildly bemused response towards his displays of devotion. In a way she's already 'cooler' than Tate just from knowing him. Perhaps what is happening to Violet is the same thing that happens to us watching Whitney -- without obstacles and uncertainty the ultimate emptiness of our coveted prize comes into focus. The only reward for our struggles was temporarily forgetting what a disappointment the prize is. Knowing school and her father were always threatening to separate her from Tate, Violet's love was wild and Brontë-esque. Now that she can't escape him, her love is feeling fenced-in. Jessica Lang's character understands this and her final bit of cruel torment to the disfigured burning man who adores her and serves her faithfully shows her Dietrich-like insight into his masochistic condition. She's giving him what he needs, knowing anything less than torment and heartbreak would be destroy him. It doesn't matter if she really loves him or not, as long as she denies it he'll keep working to win it.
|Frances Farmer, 1891|
At least we'll always have that first album, song, or movie. We'll always be able to marvel at JL's youthful sizzle in 1981's POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. We don't want to lose our Violets or Lanas, or let them grow up or let them die or even keep them just how they are for that matter, but we have no choice. We can only watch and listen to them from our Lazyboy graves, aging and decaying while they stay eternally young, even if it's just for that one damned haunted song, playing "Video Games."