Saturday, January 29, 2022

The admiring bog


I show a lot of movies in my literature classes, in part because it’s a nice break from other types of classroom activities, in part because the students enjoy it, and in part because it’s fewer classes I have to plan. Look, I’m tired, OK? Movies work well when the subject is something like Shakespeare or 19th century British novels, but this semester’s topic is poetry, which is a bit more challenging. Still, I managed to find a number of relevant films that I figure could be worked into a discussion of the image we create of poets, the personae created by the poets themselves, and some other stuff I’ll make up as I go. This week we looked at several depictions of Emily Dickinson, including one full-length film and a few excerpts from the TV show Dickinson. If you knew nothing about the poet other than what you saw in these two productions, you’d be hopelessly baffled, as there’s almost nothing they share other than agreement on her name and the fact that she wrote some poems.

My students begged me to show Dickinson. I obliged, not without an inward cringe. It is not entirely generational difference that makes me skeptical-to-scornful of Dickinson. I actually think the blending of period dress with contemporary music and slang is kind of fun, and I can even shrug off the massive deviations from historical fact. Dickinson clearly isn’t a documentary, though to its credit it does insistently spotlight Dickinson’s passionate relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue, in a way that actual documentaries had ignored or glossed over for a very long time. What bothers me about Dickinson is that the titular character is in many ways indistinguishable from just about every other young female protagonist in the popular media. I’m thrilled that the show pulled no punches to show that Dickinson was in love with a woman. I’m irked that there’s very little that’s introverted, introspective, or intellectual about her depiction. Admittedly, these are not easy qualities to capture on film—let’s face it, writers are cinematographically boring. Even Hemingway had to have taken significant time off between bullfights and deep-sea fishing to craft his stories, and it wouldn’t have been any more exciting to watch him do it as to watch the reclusive poet of Amherst.

The film we saw, A Quiet Passion, was not quite as big a hit with my students. I had mixed feelings about it myself, but I doubt they were the same mix as theirs. They did like young, rebellious Emily, singled out by the stern schoolmarm for rejecting religious dogma and daring to take faith on her own terms. They want their Emily spirited, defiant, witty and pretty—because let’s not kid ourselves, Emily on film must be pretty Emily, with just enough of a resemblance to her famous family portrait for a veneer of authenticity but with a veneer over the veneer to make her easy on the eyes. There is a sketch of Jane Austen done by Austen’s sister which the famous author claimed was a perfect likeness of herself; it is not a flattering picture, all frown lines and stubbornly set jaw, nothing like the dewy, chisel-cheeked vision seen on Barnes & Noble bags. Ditto Dickinson. We can’t have her truly be a kangaroo among the beauty, so let’s at least make her a pretty kangaroo, sassy and sexy in her period dress but with a kicky skirt so she can leap away in an instant.

They did not like the depictions of older Emily, embittered, cantankerous, rebellious still but not in a way that many people would or could emulate. Hers was not a “girl power” rebellion easily translated to social media memes and T-shirt slogans. Fiftysomething Emily, close to the end of her days, is not easy for teenagers to contemplate. It’s not easy for their fiftysomething-year-old teacher to contemplate either, but it’s a whole lot more relatable. When there is surely more time behind you than ahead of you, what do you make of your life? How do you reconcile yourself with questions that you know now will go unanswered forever?

Of course, unrelatably to most of us regardless of age, Dickinson was a genius, one of the greatest poets who ever lived, and she had to have realized her own brilliance (while doubting it in equal measure) despite only seeing a tiny fraction of her poetic output published in her lifetime. But did that satisfy her in her last days? The TV show Doctor Who brings Vincent van Gogh into the present day to see how loved and admired the painter became after his death; Dickinson does something similar with the poet, and I imagine this is something fans of each artist wish they could do. We want to give back, to answer her “letter to the world” that never wrote back with an outpouring of heartfelt assurance: yes, you made it, you did become famous and you are so very loved. That may make us happy; would it really have done anything for her? I rather doubt it, but it’s all we have to give in exchange for the stunning beauty we have received.


Monday, January 24, 2022

How to be a fan (if you're me)

American Football this past weekend, those who watched it will tell you, was as good as it gets: four close, exciting games with everything from a blocked punt to a 13-second drive. Here is the point in this post where you can either sit up and pump your fist and say “yeah!” or lean back, roll your eyes, and snort, optionally muttering something about how the players are paid absolutely stupid amounts of money to clobber each other senseless when teachers across the land have to buy their own school supplies. I myself do all of the above, fist pump to eyeroll. I am a teacher, I have bought some of my own school supplies, and I found out recently that even the lowest-paid NFL rookie makes literally ten times what I do. Granted, they risk life and limb for their job; on the other hand, my school performs regular active shooter drills, so there’s that.

I’ve been watching football since I was a child. My father used to iron his dress shirts Sunday mornings while games were on, and my sister and I would watch with him, lying on the floor eating our breakfast cereal (this was Hawaii; games were on really early). Because he went to school in the Bay Area, he always rooted for the 49ers. They won a lot back then, which certainly didn’t hurt my lifelong interest in the game.

My sister has remained a 49ers fan, even though she’s never lived in the Bay Area. Like my dad, I went to school there, though I haven’t lived there or Hawaii in decades and I have zero loyalty to any particular team any more. But I still watch football, and I’ve developed a complex methodology for picking which team in any given game I’ll cheer for. I’ll pick teams of cities I’ve been to and enjoyed (New Orleans, San Diego) over cities I’ve been to and feel mostly meh about (Phoenix, Pittsburgh), the north over the south because I’m a damn Yankee (though I do not cheer for the baseball Yankees because duh), and the Midwest over pretty much everyone because this is my home now, with a perpetual nod to the 49ers because they’re the reason I started following this sport in the first place.

I like this way of picking favored teams because it gives added interest to the game while also acknowledging that the concept of “team loyalty” is somewhat absurd. Almost no one who plays for a pro sports team has any real bond to its place and people; for the right dollar amount they’d join the Antarctica Albatrosses and play football in a stadium of overdressed emperor penguins. And of course there are many far more problematic aspects of fandom. Football is brutal and full of appallingly bad behavior, on and off the field. Support of the game often makes me feel like I’m supporting some of the worst aspects of humanity.

But bad behavior in idols is hardly limited to sports. This beloved novelist is virulently transphobic; that famous singer was truculently anti-vax. Again and again, if you’re a fan of anything at all, you’ll end up asking yourself what you’re supposed to do now that your hero has proven to be less than laudable. You feel disappointed, of course, yet you need not feel compelled to defend them, nor should you feel the need to defend yourself. Liking their work does not entail a blood oath.

Sometimes, of course, you do stop caring about them. There are things that are simply unacceptable. It’s possible one day, because it has happened before, I’ll once again be so disgusted by a writer or musician or perhaps even all of professional sports that I’ll eliminate them entirely from my consideration, the way I stop buying products from companies that perpetrate egregious human rights violations. I’m under no illusions that my boycott matters to anyone but me, yet I don’t do this merely to feel self-righteously smug. This is how I choose to balance enthusiasm with awareness. I enjoyed last night’s game with a bowl of chili, because it’s the best thing to eat if you’re watching football, and I made the chili with plant protein instead of beef, because cutting back on meat consumption is a really good idea on a number of levels. Cheer or eyeroll as you see fit; this is how I do fandom.