Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tripping to Tortura: IN A WORLD, ADULT WORLD (2013)


Two worth-your-time 2013 films with similar themes, color schemed posters and even titles, recently made themselves, like whores, available at home: IN A WORLD is a semi-autobiographical female voiceover artist trying to make it in a deep-voiced man's game tale, written and directed by and starring Children's Hospital hottie Lake Bell; ADULT WORLD stars Emma Roberts as Amy, a Syracuse University undergraduate poet who finally realizes she's not 'too good' for her job at an adult bookstore and is written and directed by men (a detail I will be addressing) and bearing a tacky tag line (make it out in above poster if you want, but I warned you). Both 'girl' characters start their films living with their parents, rent-free, and the films chronicle their respective launches into the real 'adult' world, reaching down for the big brass rings, stooping to conquer, and finding help along the way, mostly from sensitive boys and/or male mentors.

Why do I mention one film is made by a woman about a woman, and the other is about a girl made by men? I happen to be a pretentious Syracuse English major / poet who applied at one of the city's many local XXX bookstores ("the endless trains of the faithless" - spouts Robin Williams on the TV commercial playing behind me, advertising the Chevy Silverado, "Find new roads!") so I see deeplier (!) than most to this story so I can swear in court that Amy's adventures in that accursed city may look right (the film was shot there) but just don't add up. She says she's an over-achiever with a straight-A average and is a virgin, yet she is also hot, and yet she wants to be a furious poet. She lets her car get stolen and then admits she has no theft insurance because she spent the money her dad gave her on SASEs, confident of her imminent fame as a poet, which in itself is very suspicious for a supposedly straight-A student, this being the age when most submissions are done via e-mail (and there's not enough poetry journals in the world to warrant such expense. Alas, a great many people are willing to believe real life girls living alone for the first time are idiots like this, ala Juno and Frances Ha! --neither I've been able to see more than five minutes of at a time. (1)

But Amy is just the sort of girl a sexual anxiety-prone male closet-macho writer would create, i.e. one who needs a man who's good at organizing, so said writer can toddle in her wake making exasperated sighs and treating her like a child. That's fine if you're not trying to show someone adapting to the real adult word, the reality of which is that there is no earthly or celestial way a girl as hot as Amy wouldn't get published, laid, and invited to endless readings, even if she shouts her stanzas like a sorority pledge on her third Molson.

Although it's never clear if Amy's in school or out of it, she latches randomly (by finding his book in someone's car) onto a disillusioned middle aged poetry teacher mentor in his -nth mid-life crisis named 'Rat' (John Cusack). This clown does his own sewing, wears a ski cap indoors, and uses the word 'cray' (for crazy). Luckily Cusack is a pro, and clearly had some input into his character; he takes a page from the Bill Murray playbook and modulates his usual aloof warmth to include a complete ambivalence towards towards nearly everything including his own sexual desires. The pleased smile that comes across his face after Amy trashes his apartment has few equals, you have to go back to the 1982 Betty Blue to find another guy as laid back.

He even sews / just like a woman
And yet he can't even be bothered to take her virginity, even as a favor to her. Jean-Hughes Anglade would never stoop to such petty morality! He'd sleep with Amy even knowing it would destroy her respect for him and lead to blackballing and hushed whispers in the dean's council. He would do it as a favor to her, because Amy needs disillusionment; she needs to realize sex needn't be earth-shaking to count as real world experience. These are good lessons that a truly good mentor wouldn't refuse. To paraphrase Wilde, the only thing to do with a cute student protege is make love to her if she's beautiful, and to someone else if she's plain.

The Hall of Languages, behind them, where 90% of all my classes were held

At least that element of ADULT is not overly cliche. But alas, there's a tall drag queen who lets Amy crash at her squat, and teaches her how to smoke weed and dance. Thank God she also doesn't get AIDS halfway through and give Amy a parting monologue about reaching for the sky. Even worse is that Amy gets a job at a homey mom and pop XXX-rated video store (an idea lifted from an old Mr. Show sketch) with a cute stockboy (Evan Peters), allowing for the bait-and-switch sordidness of the title and tag line but without adding up to anything truly subversive.  If this cute XXX store had at least one sleazy element the comedy might have had some bite. If there were rats in the squat, or she had to step over junkies to get up the stairs... something! Adult World, yeah right.

True story: I applied for a clerk job at a XXX store when I was studying up in Syracuse and let me tell you, it was not a mom and pop operation. I remember filling out my application and talking to the fat suspicious owner, who loomed down at me from the tall counter, while what sounded like a woman reaching a lengthy orgasm or else being tortured with hot coals echoed from the back room. I knew I would go insane having to listen to that all day so I began to seem unreliable (not exactly a stretch). "Ever take a polly?" he asked. He meant polygraph test, to assess whether or not I had stolen from past jobs. I told him I would try anything once, but I think he could see I was turning pale after only ten minutes of listening to those shrill, echoing moans. He probably had applicants stand there talking as long as possible to see if they could hack the toxic vibes and nonstop moaning from the peep booths for more than ten minutes (there's no such booths in this mom and pop place, don't worry, honey).

See, Adult WorldThat idea could have been a movie, call it "Ever take a Poly?" but every edge set up for cutting latent baby teeth in Adult World comes to us already sanded possibly through rewrites and second-hand sanitization: Cusack's mentor won't seduce her; the adult bookstore is really just a sweet homey place where everybody knows your name; the drag queen bestie (Armando Riesco) is just a droll nurturer ala John Lithgow in World According to Garp; the cute stock boy supports her and straightens her out as needed, patiently waiting to bust his move until at least an hour of running time and 'growth' has elapsed.

I like a lot of things about Adult World, but it makes me miss another film, Art School Confidential, which is unofficially set at Pratt, where I reside now. Think Jim Broadbent or John Malkovich in that movie would have been so rude as to refuse m'lady's request for de-virginizing? The very idea of refusing such a hottie is hateful to Americans!


That's not a problem for Carol (Lake Bell ) in In a World. She goes right after fellow Children's Hospital star, Ken Marino, a successful voiceover artist who her father (Fred Melamed) has taken as a protege in some twisted effort to have a son (his only other child is played by the always amazing Michaela Watkins). Ms. Bell has always been my Children's Hospital favorite and here she ably carries the film in the tricky role of being both a success and a little disorganized, struggling to make it AND making it, getting by with a little help from her friends and dealing with a dad who desperately wants to keep her from being a success. Dimitri Martin is nice guy sound engineer who helps her get breaks but is too shy to bust a move, though he in turn is helped by an actually cool lesbian wingman, and when Carol does get a break it's from a woman producer (Geena Davis) who has her own problems with sexism. In short, it takes place in a genuinely adult world.

Many comedies are stuck on cliche auto pilot for women characters: either their ditzy or ball-busting career gals, vain actresses, or doting moms, and all idling around until some pasteurized thirtysomething hunk with soft eyes materializes in the midst of a shopping cart collision. But In a World moves forward three squares to capture the awkward phase past the 'ditzy klutz in search of a man' phase, to chronicle the 'what goes on between the lucky break and established success' period. Every time Carol wakes up in the film I found myself worried she had slept through some big gig or audition, because I've been so conditioned to believe that if a film shows a woman waking up alone on the day of a big career-making event, she will wake up late and have missed her chance. I won't spoil whether she does or not, but I think it's interesting that I assumed she would, due to movies.


Much as In a World seems remarkably astute in these areas, Adult World never feels quite real, quite set on a tone or era or even able to depict Syracuse as it really is: Amy's apartment is way too clean; there isn't adequate representation of how everything gets crusted over with salt, especially cars and shoes, or the way frozen slush rises up in a dirty brown wave in the wake of passing cars, etc.  I did respect that her walls just had a Sylvia Plath poster above a mattress on the floor and she was half-trying to commit suicide (very Syracuse), and I like Emma Roberts overall and she's game to go the distance here, but she's still coming into her own as an actress of real gravitas; even when smashing Cusack's guitar she seems like she's just trying on emotions. Of course at that age all poets are too young to realize they can't bum-rush greatness, so either she's an amazing actress or else just perfectly imperfect. Her dad is Eric Roberts! Julia Roberts is her aunt. See, that kind of thing would be cool to see in a movie.


It's that sense of playing herself that makes Bell score so much more points de la resonance. She takes risks and shows us things that might make her friends and employers mad if they think the characters are based on them. Of course In a World has problems too: Carol must be making money, so why she can't afford her own rent in a place as cheap as L.A.? She winds up getting a windfall of work, which is exciting, but a subplot with her sister cheating on her husband with a handsome Irishman doesn't really add up to much compared to the riveting central drama of the father screwing over his own daughter, who in turn is screwing the guy the father's screwing her over for. But half-baked side plots are not something to holler over, and the bitchy voiceover artist party at Ken Marino's house is worth the price of admission alone.

There it is again!
Moving back to the idea of men (and women) being uncomfortable with movies where women move ahead without men approving and helping them (a theme central perhaps to the strange hostility towards the movie Scarlet Diva -- see "Her Body, Her Ashtray"), another true story:

The year was 1987: I scored big at a Syracuse poetry reading, won acclaim and the plum spot opening for Allen Ginsberg when he came to town. Unfortunately my girlfriend got sick and sabotaged me. For my big debut I had been drinking sangria with a lovely girl who had been letting me do all the talking - everyone before me at the reading was nervous and wobbly but I was a huge smash. I decided to always be drinking before readings from then on. In hindsight I realized it was the flirting that calmed me, not just the drinking.

But for Ginsberg, a semester later, I had drunk way too much trying to get that magic back, and now I had a legit girlfriend, no more flirting so I was nervous, the auditorium was packed, and I drank too much and couldn't get a buzz. My hand still shook holding the paper. I didn't stick around to go to the diner with Mr. Ginsberg after the show, as I had been invited to, citing my then-sick girlfriend as an excuse. I bravely ran away / away.

Flash forward: I didn't just leave it at not getting the XXX job. I also tried my hand at an erotic novel, figuring money might be found there (as Amy finds in Adult World). Mine chronicled a disturbing vision I had the year before at a Rochester Dead Show, tripping and having a major 'too many people' bad one, of a gigantic carnival of S&M torture, where people huffed laughing gas while being chain-whipped naked on a merry go round in the middle of an array of robot claw arms.

A housemate had an old LP called Tortura inherited in a stack of interesting old LPs from his uncle. It was a very disturbing thing to listen to--mostly just the sound of whip cracks and impassioned screaming and moaning-- while tripping your face off. And it probably effected that S&M vision of the Dead Show. It was hilarious, but on acid such ceaseless horror takes its toll, and since we always had guests who wanted to hear it and we were always on acid, it seemed like whole cycles of death and rebirth were just endless torturing jail sentence; that outside our realm there was no time, no stopping this deeply-felt soul torture, and that I had been tortured in the past and would be in the future, and the album just ripped open soul scars I'd had far longer than my current incarnation. That uncle also had a lot of Zappa, and "The Torture Never Stops" was also in rotation, and seemed to be confirmation and extension of the grim existential cruelty that the LSD-enhanced Tortura delivered, together they formed an apt summation of the painful truth behind the 20th century first world's curtain of blasé painless decency. My cult-starting tract, Shroomsadoplasticism, was never finished, and typed on a manual typewriter, so there's only one original - with the first and last ten pages long ago fell away... and now the pages are even out of order... so symbolic, man... hell, I'm not even sure I still have those soul scars.

A few years later I realized I'd never be a real poet anymore than a real erotic novelist, because I couldn't get into Hart Crane or Marianne Moore. Trying to understand their poetry was worse than tripping to Tortura. I did a bunch of open mic nights over the years but all that came of it was that the long-haired hippy freak M.C. of the event stole my hot girlfriend. Then after a night at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe (circa 1992), I realized I just could not endure the terrible onslaught of bad poets SHOUTING / in this same /STYLE / every other / WORD / of their / POEM. I'd really hoped Adult World's Amy was going to rant her poetry in that style. I'd be TALKING and THINKING in that STYLE for DAYS after a poetry slam. Didn't Emma Roberts even GO to a POE-etry reading to reSEARCH how to SLAM like a BAD poet?

Then in 1996 I lucked into voiceovers, mentored by a cool older lady from an ad agency that shall go nameless. Then I was told I needed to join AFTRA to do any more. I joined (cost, $1000) - then my mentor lady told me they weren't using AFTRA people, because of the writer's strike. I was on the road again...

So in the early 90s, after I'd been graduated and loose in the uncaring world for five years, (working as a freelance direct mail copywriter), I read that our beloved poetry teacher Stephen Dobyns was suspended from Syracuse for using 'salty' language in the classroom. His suspension was picked up in the NY Times as the exhibit A of the new PC fascism taking over college campuses everywhere:
No one suggests that he offered to trade good grades for sex. He is not accused of sleeping with or propositioning students -- one says he tried to kiss her at a drunken party -- or of the focused protracted hectoring we might call "harassment." The allegations all concern language: specifically, what the committee calls "salty language" used outside the classroom at graduate-student parties. They involve attempts to be funny, and to provoke. There was one cruel sexual remark about a professor who wasn't present, and the suggestion that another might benefit from a "salty" term for a satisfactory sexual encounter.
Is this sexual harassment? Not in any clear sense, but those clear borders have been smudged by university policies that refer to "a hostile workplace," to "patterns of intimidation." "Hostile" and "intimidation" are subjectively defined, as they were by the student who testified (hilariously, I thought, though, again, no one seemed to notice) that he felt intimidated by my friend's use of a "salty" phrase. He felt he was being asked to condone a locker-room atmosphere that might offend the women present.
There was much talk of protecting women from blunt mentions of sex. And the young women who testified were in obvious need of protection. They gulped, trembled and wept, describing how my friend yelled at them in class or failed to encourage their work. Victorian damsels in distress, they used 19th-century language: they had been "shattered" by his rude, "brutish" behavior. After testifying, they seemed radiant, exalted, a state of being that, like so much else, recalled "The Crucible," which used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the Army-McCarthy hearings. --11/26/95 
My fellow students from his class, Abbe and Laurie wrote a letter to the Times citing an example of Dobyns' scathing honesty all three of us remember: there was a seething frat boy in class whose poetry was so seething with misogynistic sexual frustration that even though there was nothing sexual per se in it, just the phrase "huffing and puffing to her house on his Huffy Spitfire" brought waves of douche chill torture to our liberal arts cores.

"What do you think?" Dobyns asked us. "Should we try to help this poem or just take it out into the hall and shoot it?"

With that phrase, we loved him.

Out of politeness we refrained from applauding but most of us laughed. Dobyns didn't need guide rails from some PC Volturi to uncover a misogynist frat boy when he heard one and his fangs came out. Times were different and poetry, at least in his class, still had a violent, dangerous edge. We went to learn poetry not to have our hands held on the road to incompetency's supportive slaughterhouse. Tall, cold, like a Howard Hawks and Max Von Sydow mixture but with no accent or drawl, Dobyns taught us Chekov in a measured way that showed us one might be both masculine and sensitive, serious but with a self-effacing deadpan humor, quiet but with the kind of deadshot aim that means you don't need to waste words (or bullets), and an inflexible personal code that meant tolerance for everything but unconsciousness, misogyny and mediocrity.


Adult World is clearly a product of Syracuse University's Dobyns-less lockstep thinking; it takes place not in my dangerous, alive, edgy Syrause from 85-89 but a PC dead zone of safety bars and bloodless ambivalence. Promising sordid or 'authentic' real world experiences -- squatter drag queens, XXX video stores, older poet mentors living alone and with darting eyes -- it steers well clear of the disgust, disillusionment, the soul scars, the Tortura on acid afternoons, Amy really needs to grow into a decent writer. Some PC chaperone must have shaved it all down from an R to a PG-13 like a furious Olympic curler. The drag queen doesn't even smoke pot in a joint -- it's bad for the lungs! --but uses a vaporizer - and has to let us know that it's medical. The XXX video store is just a friendly family of genial eccentrics, they all but sing "Lean on Me" in perfect harmony to encourage Amy to run after Evan Peters as he saunters off into the midnight rain to catch a flight. And a guy named Rat refuses to take advantage of a willing, hottie protege as if his name meant nothing whatsoever. This the Adult World ain't! Dobyns! Dobyns... come back! 


In a World by contrast is blissfully matured past this kind of naïveté. Carol uses sex and the lack thereof with an adult's savvy of the world, knowing how it changes things for the good and bad every single time. Her scatterbrained aspects feel real rather than workshopped in some hack screenwriting 101 class; she still makes it to her big jobs on time, knows how to not mess up good things by being 'flighty.' A real artist, she's fascinated with accents and determined to master them and to capture real dialogue and the naturalism of speech. Take the above photo for example: in it her sister's tearing her heart out like here is some big cry into your ice cream and talk about boys moment (hubby cheating video) and Bell is quietly pressing play on her recorder to capture her sister's emotional tonality for future use in voiceover and dialect coach work. That's the real trick to becoming a success, not to keep your eye on the big prize but on each successive small one and to never put boys over art, to grant big emotions more power than your craft, to miss an audition because you're expected by the male screenwriter to hole up in your apartment with a cat, an afghan, box of tissues, soap operas, wine, and chocolates. It's what I call the Keith Richards life preserver. A devotion to your craft--be it guitar, painting, writing--keeps your head above water even while the ship goes down all around you.

Cusack says as much in Adult World, but it's one thing to have an older man explain it to a young girl and another to see a girl just fucking doing it for herself with men telling her nothing of any value whatsoever. Cusack even tells Amy to make mistakes, to 'fail better' but Adult World in itself fails the fine art of failing. There's something a little off about a joint written by a boy about a girl taking life lessons from another boy, and then not even following that advice, delivering a stale set of characters that only the strong acting of the players can freshen (unless you find the nurturing gay male bestie of the frazzled heroine thing still subversive). 

If not, well, PC chaperones can clean up 42nd Street all they want, can ban smoking and nanny state a poet's life into irrelevance, but in a real adult world the torture never stops. Suicide isn't just a joke, it's a real option many artists take. If Adult World Amy ever wants to really want to find out what that sort of true life experience is, what true poetry is, she'd best make some genuinely bad decisions, fast, like suffering through the voiceover of Prozac Nation, listening to Tortura on acid, or dying accidentally of autoerotic asphyxiation (as out guitarist did, two weeks before the Lockerbie bombing killed 30 of my classmates). Finding a career writing erotica before you even lose your virginity doesn't really count as truth, he said, knowing of what he speaks, gesturing vaguely at the 'world' from the vantage point of his filth-encrusted podium of flies (all green and buzzlin'), rose thorn whip welts, funerals, and whores! (my voiceover demo reel here --interested parties contact erichk9@aol.com -- and weep). 


NOTES:
1. Strangely enough, those two films are very highly praised yet I can't stand them, but I love Jennifer's Body and Margot at the Wedding, which aren't.. hmmm

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