Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Kids are All Right, but I'm on Edge: A Review of Lisa Cholodenko's Latest Lesbian Project

Wednesday night was a big night for me. I left the girls home with a babysitter for two and a half hours while Sandy and I went to see a movie with our friend, Amy. It was a big night on three accounts, actually - because I have only been away from Elanah one or two other times for an hour or so, because Sandy and I haven't been out to a movie in three years (since before Darah was born), and because we went to see a movie about a two-mom family. We were lucky enough to have a team of babysitters. Adam and Elisa (our close family-friends, one of whom happens to also be our very own sperm donor extraordinaire and the other who is, by day, a professional childcare provider and, by day and night, a caretaker for several others of the human and non-human varieties). Darah was thrilled to have them over for a nighttime visit; she had a mental list of activities planned, including a movie in the basement, dress-up, a visit to the Rock Palace (the space beneath our neighbor, Rosemary's, deck), fun with play dough, and tortellinis and cream for dinner. Sounds like a two-year old's dream, right?

Elanah, on the other hand, had neither anticipation of pleasure nor any desire for some fun time away from Mummy. Elanah is anxiously attached to me, and she has been since she was two months old. That's an unofficial diagnosis. And so is this: she's what William Sears calls a "high-needs child." She's just recently begun playing for periods of time on her own, with me in the room or nearby. Sandy and I (and poor Dar) had a go of it for a while there - and, by that, I mean TOUGH TIMES. She wasn't necessarily colicky, but she could scream and shriek with the best of them if I was unable to hold her at almost all time. She still has wondrous shrieking abilities, as I am sure Elisa and Adam can verify after their visit with her. When we visited Buffalo in July, my grandmother was so full of piss and vinegar (alcohol) that she could barely open her eyes and be conscious enough to say hello to my sweet daughter, Darah; however, she managed to get up later and tell me, royally, that Elanah was spoiled rotten. I managed to keep my cool when she looked at the round face of my crying child and shouted, "What a spoiled brat!" After all, Elanah might well be a spoiled brat. Or, at least, spoiled.

But she's a baby, and I'd rather spoil her than deny her. It is quite something to see when Elanah goes from hellish shrieks to sweet silence within seconds of being scooped into my arms. And I can only imagine that my grandmother had her share of hardships (like rubber hoses breaking her skin) during childhood. Whole lot of good it did her to have her baby needs and desires denied. So, I have a little baby whose spoiled rotten or highly needy or anxiously attached or obsessed with her momma. I can't change her. I can only gradually and as compassionately as possible help her to do her best to live in the world productively and happily. If I had a child with developmental delays, would I be spoiling her by adjusting my approach to better fit her needs? I don't think so. I'm doing my best to fulfill her needs, and I am just assuming she needs a little extra comfort as she gets accustomed to the world. I never said it was easy, but it's getting easier as she becomes more independent and capable. My right arm is now disproportionately strong in comparison with the rest of my frail body. I hold Elanah in it rather than putting her in a carrier because she does not like being confined by a carrier...she prefers my arm. Soon, though, she will walk. And the heavens will open. And I will trade my carrier arm in for a holding hand.

Until then, I am right there with both my children whenever they want or need me. I choose this, so pity is not necessary. I do worry for the mental health of others who have to endure Elanah's unwavering upset when I am out of reach. On film night, I left her for two and half hours. I did not have to witness her wrath or self-pity. I did not have to hear her loudness. I did not have to watch anyone else feel astonished or exhausted or annoyed or helpless in response to her wails. It was hard, still. It was hard to leave the house. I had a sick feeling in my chest. But I left her. Rationally, I had no reason to be concerned. She was well-fed and in good, loving hands. Emotionally, I just wanted to make us both feel less anxious by holding her. I have a lot of compassion for her anxiety because I deal with mild-moderate anxiety caused by the chemicals in my body and the signals they send to my brain. Of all of the personal defects I could have, I'm not too, too pissed that this one is mine. This is all to say, one of my kids is part screamingbansheecrazybaby and I am part nervousnellienailbitingspoilermomma and somehow we managed to get some time away from each other. I ran out of the car when we got home from the movie, and hurried down the stairs to relieve everyone (mainly me) of Elanah's cries. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming even louder in anger. "Ahhhhh. Ahhhhhhhhhhh-hhhhhh-hhhhhh." As if she was saying, "Whyyyyy? Whyyyy did you leave me? How could you?" As a matter of fact, her Baby Speak was much like my grandmother's Mel Speak. Toddlers and grown-ups have a lot in common. Even the very mature grown-ups have their toddler moments. We can learn so much from toddlers.

The other BIG element of last Wednesday night was that we saw "The Kids are All Right," a film by Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art," "Laurel Canyon"). I rented "High Art" when I was in high school, and I was staying home at night, watching lesbian films from Blockbuster in the hopes of pleasuring myself psychologically by juxtaposing The One I Loved and me into any romantic or erotic scenario. I didn't even finish "High Art" back then, but maybe I wasn't smart enough for at the time - I probably wanted something simple and romantic. Like "If These Walls Could Talk 2." I loved watching that. I tried to watch it once with a friend in high school, but we stopped it at the beginning. He didn't relate to it. But I finished watching it later, alone in my room, because I did. The pain of losing the one you love on top of the pain of not being recognized as the spouse of your loved one at their death is awful. Then having the family come into your home and take your loved one's things (as if you do not exist, your relationship never existed, and as if they have ownership over the things you shared) is heart-breaking. The first segment of ITWCT2 is about dehumanization as well as loss. But I guess that didn't appeal to a high school guy at the time.

I definitely had a bit of a guard up about "The Kids are All Right," because I had read a synopsis ahead of time as well as some lesbian feminist reviews. My skepticism was balanced out by my love of the actresses playing the lead role (particularly Annette Bening). It was also balanced out by my idealistic desire for a mainstream queer-themed film to be great. I think Lisa Cholodenko (or the film, itself) was probably under a lot of pressure to "be" something for its lesbian audience. The time was right for a mainstream award-winning lesbian film to take center stage and be a huge hit with both heterosexual and alternative communities. While this is pure speculation, perhaps this pressure had an effect on the film, mainstreaming it to the point of alienating parts of the lesbian community. I have no doubt that "The Kids are All Right" was not meant to be some cookie-cutter portrayal of lesbian life. The point was, in my opinion, that shit can happen in any family. It has nothing to do with the sexuality of the parents or the make-up of the family, and kids usually survive the shit regardless of that extra alternative element. I think the comedic elements were geared toward a heterosexual frame of mind. Although I cannot say for certain, I assume that the majority of the audience in the local theater we visited identified as heterosexual. There may have been some members of the LGBTQIAetc community in the theater with us, but we were probably the only lesbian parents who conceived with a sperm donor. Because we have a few external elements in common with the film (i.e. lesbian moms, middle class, two kids, sperm donor, one working and one stay-at-home mom), we came into it with heavier hearts. We also came in with a more serious desire to connect with the film because of the experiences we've had and our individual personalities. We're kind of sick of and depressed with the story that repeats itself over and over in so many films lately: people transitioning through phases in relationships and in life, and as a result hurting one another by having sexual affairs outside of the relationship. I think we're more interested in films that look in depth at monogamy; or that explore in depth the painful process of the deconstruction of a monogamous relationship AND follow that deconstruction up by exploring in depth the aftermath of sexual and emotional infidelities. Because what matters is this: WHAT ARE WE LEARNING from the repetitious pattern of failed monogamy? WHAT ARE WE LEARNING about ourselves as humans? We want an intellectual critique of monogamy (its attributes, successes, failures), not just another superficial glance into the construct of lesbian monogamy. In fact, I do not think "The Kids are All Right" taught us anything new about monogamy; nor did it teach us much of anything different an unique about lesbian relationships. Perhaps that was not the creative contributors intention. But intention matters, so I would be very interested in knowing what intentions were behind the film.

So we came into the film wanting to learn something, but we did not feel we learned anything that we didn't already know. I guess we were, in our own ways, bent on hope and change - and one film (or person) can only do its (her or his) part. Emotional expectations got in our way. The television ads made it look like a feel good movie. The heterosexual audience seemed to feel good, but we felt disappointed and frustrated. Sandy and I did not laugh at most of the major comedic moments. And it really pissed us off whenever the heterosexist audience was laughing during a moment that we found troubling, disappointing or even painful. Why were they laughing at the painful mistakes of others? If they related to the characters and their confusions and pains, I doubt they would have been laughing; which makes me think the audience truly felt they were watching a foreign film. I might even go so far as to suggest that the heterosexual laughter exoticized and dehumanized the characters (and, therefore, the lesbian community). Seriously. People in the audience laughed when Jules jumped at Paul to kiss him (and then jumped at him to do the heterosexual deed). I was pissed. Is it funny for someone to betray their family members? That's messed up. The decision to make a comedy out of a painful transition in the life of this family is interesting. On the one hand, we, as humans, often look back on painful memories with humor. On the other hand, we usually find humor when we are at a good distance from the moment and when the moment was not extremely life-altering. Like when I think about my high school years, I have a nice laugh over some of the crazy things I did but I don't laugh when I talk about the parts that hurt me to the core. So there needs to be a balance. And I think the creators of TKAAR tried to create the balance of the tragic-comedic element in the comedy, but I don't think it was entirely successful. I think the tragic elements were not captured in their fullness, and so the balance of the other elements was disturbed. The humor was accurately portrayed in detail; however, the painfulness of the transition for each individual family member took a lot of the joy in the humor away and made it feel cruel and insensitive. It didn't gel. There was a disconnect.

I got off (pun intended) on the wrong foot at the start of the film, when each of the characters was absorbed in some issue with sex and sexuality. The teenage daughter was facing peer pressure from her sex-obsessed friend, the teenage son was having issues with his moms suspecting he and his ass-hole friend (the kind who pisses on homeless dogs) were having sex, the sperm donor was fucking around, and the lesbian mothers were having sexual issues. I was really annoyed that the film starts out with the Jules giving Nic oral sex while Nic watched gay male porn and treats her insensitively by yanking the sheets off of Jules. Who does this? Do other lesbians treat their partners like this while having sex? It was as if the writers were trying to set it up so that we would have more sympathy for Jules when she abruptly started fucking Paul. I actually felt a lot of empathy for Nic, and I fel tit was out of character for her to be that way in bed. We didn't get to SEE the lesbians having sex, either. Jules was under the covers. We got to SEE heterosexual sex, but not lesbian sex. The first sex we see between the women is bad sex that involves images of men. I am getting annoyed just remembering it. Then, just when you start to think you will see a tender love-making scene between the couple; Nic gets caught up in her job and doesn't follow through. That was such a set up and a cop out. First off, she is being a good doctor by taking an emergency call to help an expecting mom. Are we supposed to feel sorry for Jules because Nic doesn't come back upstairs and follow-through? Maybe. I could see how a pattern of that behavior would cause problems. But. BUT, secondly, problems in the relationship don't justify suddenly jumping on a man like a dog in heat. I did not buy into the idea that Paul made Jules feel appreciated. I guess her self-esteem was pretty low if all he had to do was watch her with his horny man eyes and compliment her fruit pie to get her to jump at him with a kiss and then, subsequently, jump on him like she had been having heterosexual sex her whole life. For a person to have been in a long-term monogamous relationship for almost twenty years, I would think it would take A LOT to cause you to jump into infidelity and unknown terrain (WITH YOUR SPERM DONOR...A GUY YOU JUST MET...WHEN YOU'VE IDENTIFIED AS A LESBIAN FOR SUCH A LONG TIME). But it seemed so easy for Jules to develop and give in to her heterosexual desires for Paul. On top of my anger of the ridiculousness of her actions, to think that she would not stop to consider the immense effect her choice would have on her children is even more outrageous. But I guess people DO do outrageous, selfish, reckless things in real life, so why the hell not make a movie about lesbians doing it? We do not get to see ONE image of lesbian loving/sex/love-making throughout the whole film, although we do get to see lots of hard, violent heterosexual sex. Why are we shown Jules having sex with Paul but not with Nic? It makes me angry because I feel the characters and their relationship deserve more than that.

Sandy and I were also disappointed in the way in which the aftermath of the affair was handled by the creators. The most real moment in the film, for me, was when Nic was at dinner at Paul's and she discovered Jules' hair in the drain. Time froze, and her pain was immense. It came through so well in the silence (and in Annette Bening's brilliant acting). I could so intensely relate to the feelings she was experiencing: being outside of herself, being outside of her world, being an outsider, being thrown in a moment into a reality that changes your trust in everything and everyone forever. That moment was brilliant, but then the rest of the film felt like it was in a hurry to tie up all the loose ends and make things - ahem - all right. The pain that the whole family was thrown into seemed to only last a night, and then it was on the mend. Now I realize that there is only so much you can do in a two hour time slot, but it just did not do justice to the intense level of pain and family betrayal that the characters were thrown into. The process of shock-denial-anger-grief-forgiveness was far too slighted by the creators.

So, the kids are probably all right (even though they've had their trust broken and seen their world nearly fall apart because of a man...but, hey, I've been through some crazy crap in my own life and I'm more than all right). Everyone is probably all right. Life goes on, we survive until we're dead. Are Nic and Jules like every other middle age heterosexual couple? Maybe. Should they be? Maybe. Maybe not. They are what they are. They're two and a half hours worth of human. If the movie is about family being family regardless of sexuality, then that's fine - it's just not saying much for the institution of family. Family seems pretty tough. But, in many ways, it is tough. Life is tough. Making healthy decision is tough. I guess that's one redeemable aspect of the film. It captures one of my favorite sentiments: humans are crazy. We're so contradictory. We're crazy when we think we know the answers, and we're crazy when we're not convinced of any of the answers. We're just crazy. That's my line, and I'm sticking to it.

"The Kids are All Right." Translation: "The Kids are Crazy. The Parents are Crazy. The Family is crazy. The Humans are Crazy."

I guess our reactions to the film say a lot about us, more than anything else. Sandy and I take our connection, our relationship, our monogamy, and our family very seriously. Not that we can't have a good laugh over the trials that we face, but the discombobulation and combination of storyline elements didn't sit well with us during our first viewing. Maybe we'll feel differently twenty years down the road, when the kids are headed to college and we're looking back and thinking, "Hey, they're all right." But I hope not.

(We had a nice chat with a friend to and from the film. Our kids were all right while we were gone.)


amycarr said...

I too sensed the movie did not quite gel. It attempted a lot; the dialogue was at times really well-written (dense with meaning and allusion, as in a play). And I agree that showing heterosexual sex so passionately, and no lesbian sex (or only bad lesbian sex), seemed a way of appealing to those looking to see straight sex (and finding it even hotter because it's 'forbidden'). I suppose as a bi woman, I could say 'hey, why couldn't Jules just have been bi, so the real issue was whatever drove her away from monogamy?' but no, she walked away from the man falling in love with her (or thinking he was) with the line "But I'm gay"--not with "I'm sorry, I want to recommit to my wife." It's easy for me to wish bisexuality were more often seen as a matter of fact possibility than something itself seen as part of another forbidden zone. In any case, I've known other lesbian-identified women who enjoy having sex with men, but who just don't feel emotionally attached to them; and there's no reason the film should have portrayed Jules as part of a coming-out-as-bi if that wasn't the central issue in the story. (It was surely an INVITED issue.)

I though Jules' draw to him (I've forgotten his name) for feeling "seen" by him made emotional sense; they had a similar aesthetic, go-with-the-flow approach to the world. And I thought both Jules' and Nic's struggles as individuals felt real and authentic. I don't think I ever felt the depth of their attachment to each other. It was stated, assumed, but I'm not sure the actors knew what made them bond deeply as a couple--or knew how to tap into and express it. They were forefronting a more self-conscious awareness of their life struggles than most films attempt to portray in their characters . . . so I wasn't surprised to learn the director also made the disturbing film High Art.

I liked what you said, Jess, about wanting to see more films that explore monogamy. I think more queer films that explore people in the middle of long term relationships would be wonderful; there are too many that focus just upon coming of age or coming out. (Or that's my perception; I don't watch many movies these days either!)

Mason McFadden said...

Amy, I love your response to my post. Thorough and serious. And I would expect nothing less of you. I really like your comments about Jules' "But I'm gay" response to Paul. I, too, think the issue of bisexuality was present but sort of repressed or ignored or inadequately addressed.

Maybe you can tell me more about the film, "High Art," since I don't remember anything about it except that I disliked it and turned it off shortly after starting it.

I know you're busy, but the wagon awaits if you're ever up for a often-interrupted chat!