Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Father Tom to ground control..."

The fall of my junior year of college, I arrived in London to study abroad. I was fully neurotic, perpetually anxious and absolutely no fun at all. Here I was in LONDON and I was supposed to be having the MOST AMAZING EXPERIENCE OF MY YOUNG LIFE. Yet, for almost for no reason at all, I was sad. Really sad, so sad that I wanted to leave, go back to America, get married to my Canadian boyfriend, give up all my dreams and never have to make another decision again.

On a particularly bad day two months into my trip, a day where I almost booked myself a ticket back to the States, I decided instead to go to church. I was raised Catholic and being in a church anywhere in the world still feels like coming home. I’d like to say that I was wandering my neighborhood and out of the London fog rose a steeple and below it, a old wooden door with a round knocker and I found my solace there. But it was 2009 and what really happened was I googled “Catholic Church near me” and walked the .3 miles there. I knocked on the door, which did really have an amazing medieval knocker and a short, gray-haired priest opened the door. I said, choking back tears, “Hi, I’m Maura I’m an American and I’m really sad but I’m Catholic, so I thought I’d just drop by.” I gasped for air. There was a pause. He blinked and then said, “Umm, hello, Moira, why don’t you come in for tea and a biscuit and a chat, because you've just dropped out of heaven and I have not a clue who you are..."

He took me into the rectory and I told him everything, how I started having panic attacks, how I was scared about living here and mad at myself for being scared, and how all my friends just wanted to party, but I felt like it wasn’t real life, I wanted to leave, to leave the acting school I had worked so hard to get into, to drop out, to do something else, to become someone’s wife who wasn’t even asking me to, by the way, someone who wanted me to stay in London, who loved me because I was strong. I finally paused. I had nothing else to say so I took a sip of tea.

He looked up at me and said, ever so gently,
"Moira, you have one million dollars in your hand
and you are about to drop it to reach for a paper clip. 
Don't let your emotions get in the way of reality."

It was the same advice everyone was giving me, and I don’t know, maybe because this time the voice of God was behind it, I was able to step back out of my self-inflicted misery and actually hear it. After that day, I was able to begin the hard work of patching the dam in my mind to hold back the floodgates of my fears. And with time, like everything, it ended, my sadness ended. Study abroad ended. College ended. That relationship ended.

What Father Tom said to me that day is the best advice I have ever gotten. I am prone to get so emotional, so in my own way, that I find it helpful every so often to look into my palms and see, truly see, what it is I am holding before I panic and let it go. Is it a million shiny bucks, or is it a crummy paper clip?

In the end, even though I was a small sad little disaster, I do think I made the most of my time studying abroad, because I got a truly unique, very British experience that the guidebooks don’t tell you about: English Catholic priests brew a really strong cup of truth bomb tea and they are only just a Google search away.

St. Etheldreda's in Holborn, London

This piece, a rework of an older post, was originally performed at Story Club Southside on February 18, 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

On what's really unsettling.

A smart, successful female friend of mine recently posted about seeing Spike Jonze's latest film, Her, on Facebook. She said, among other things, that she found it "excruciating and unsettling." Someone whom I do not know commented on this status saying:

I was struck by this remark because I, on the other hand, loved Amy Adams' "retro-futuristic," practical outfits. I thought her unkempt hair was amazing and her skin seemed flawlessly unaltered. Clearly, we disagreed on the matter, perhaps because we have a difference in taste. But the more I thought about his comment, the more it became clear to me that this was not just an issue of mere preference: I like a frumpy, relaxed style and said troll does not, I like curly hair and said troll does not. The issue is in the word "unsettling." This person found Amy Adams' physical appearance in the film unsettling. Let's take a look, if we dare...

Amy (Amy Adams), Charles (Matt Letscher) and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her

Amy Adams is 39. She looks her age in this movie. Unsettled yet? She does not wear makeup or straighten her hair.  She dons collared shirts with boxy sweaters over them and carries a leather messenger bag. Her character, also named Amy, incidentally is a video game designer. I don't want to further complicate matters by implying that all ladies who work in tech fields don't wear makeup or dresses either now or in the future. However, as someone who spent ten years acting before enrolling in a Pre-Medicine post-bacc, I can attest that most actresses I know wear makeup most days and many of my science classmates do not wear makeup many days. I don't wear makeup more days that I do wear it now, because my priorities are different and it takes a lot of time to learn the bonding principles of organic chemical compounds... my point is, one should not be unsettled, or surprised even, that a female video game designer in her late thirties presents herself the way that Adams appears in the film.

Perhaps the issue is not how Jonze presented her, but how he didn't present her. He did not present her as a sex object for the viewer's immediate gratification... like David O. Russell did in American Hustle. In this promotional poster, she doesn't look frumpy. She also doesn't particularly look like Amy Adams. She is an airbrushed object, not a woman. Her body is being used to sell this movie to an insatiable consumer. American Hustle's Amy's eyes say she wants you and therefore you are pacified, you feel special, you feel safe, and you definitely don't feel unsettled because then you might walk away and spend your money elsewhere. 

Her's Amy isn't on the poster and she isn't naked in the movie and she doesn't want to have sex with you, thank you very much. We should be celebrating Her's Amy, with all her natural normalness, not tearing her down because she didn't show us any side boob. Glib comments like these are indicative that an actress' most valuable contribution to a film is her physical body. I'm not criticizing Adams for her work as a scantily clad woman in American Hustle. I'm saying it is for her work that she should be valued no matter what she is wearing.

I trust that my friend's friend is a totally reasonable and at least mildly intelligent person. I'm sure if I asked him, "Hey, do you think women should be judged by their looks instead of their character?," he'd say, "No way!" I'm sure if I walked up to him and said, "I'm not wearing makeup or a dress down to my navel, are you feeling unsettled?" he'd say, "No, what are you talking about?" So why did he send this small jibe into the internet ether, even if he was just kidding? He probably didn't realize he was sending it directly into my living room. The hidden and not so hidden judgements in the way we talk about women, especially famous women, twist and distort the way we think about ourselves, i.e., If Amy Adams is unsettling, then I must be vomit-inducing. If women repeatedly hear "harmless" jokes like this one, they quickly become convinced that their value is determined by their ability to visually please others and I don't find that funny.

We can blame the amorphous and omnipresent, big bad Media for the objectification and sexualization of women and for its obsession with youth and desire. We can do that... and let ourselves off the hook. Because today so much media and content is created by us and we must hold ourselves accountable when that content becomes belittling and disrespectful and small. My friend's friend completely missed the point of a movie about reality versus illusion. Instead of saying, "Amy Adams looked unsettling," he could have said "Amy Adams looked remarkably like the normal human being of average means she was supposed to be portraying." Or he could even say, "She looked frumpy." if he absolutely needed to put an adjective on her. Although I still disagree with him, I don't object to "frumpy." Just the other day, I was wearing one of my boyfriend's cardigans with reinforced elbows and a blue patterned dress I made from a vintage sheet I found at the Renegade Craft Fair. He chuckled when I walked into the kitchen and called me "frumpy chic" and I don't think he found me unsettling in the slightest.

I loved Her. I think it is one of the most complete, beautiful portrayals of the simultaneous miracle and tragedy of love in the modern age that I have ever seen. Amy Adams gave a simple and heartfelt performance. And my friend was right, the film was "unsettling" because it forced me to confront my fears of my increasingly digital future self. The message of Her is less about the future and more about today. People would be more comfortable with an Operating System, a partner that can be bought in a vending machine who lacks a physical form and will love them unconditionally, than with a woman who wears clogs and is too busy working on her documentary to worry about what her hair looks like. 

Amy Adams is an actress who is in a movie where she looks like how I look most days and I like that.