The Property Brothers and Permeable Boundaries

Sometimes, readers, ideas arise from the strangest places.

Recently, my car needed some work. So I was in a waiting room with a very large wide screen TV, which plays with the sound so on mute that it might as well be off.

And so it came to pass that I watched The Property Brothers for about 4 hours straight.

If you’ve never seen The Property Brothers, it’s a standard home show: house is desired, house is fixed up to the nines, obstacles are overcome, desires are met, and ultimately all is well.

The wrinkle in The Property Brothers is that the principals of the show are twin brothers. One, Jon, does the contracting work and is shown hammering and so forth. The other, Drew, is the business guy who talks money to the home buyers, and negotiates and irons out the financial details.

But because the sound was off, of course, I could focus on the more meta story of The Property Brothers. The details — were they in Toronto or Austin, with a couple or a single woman, a townhouse or a ranch? — were far in the background.

And I think the meta is this.

The Property Brothers is really about making the border between people who work with their hands and businesspeople/entrepreneurs potentially permeable. For some time now, American society has been increasingly separating the two. Folks who work with their hands are relegated to less and less of the pie. Businesspeople have gotten more and more. There is less and less interaction between the two.

The Property Brothers, though, works against the division while at the same time replicating it.

How? Let’s start with the replication first. In every show, Jon is what we might call “working guy” (tool belt, plaid shirt) and Drew is “entrepreneur guy” (suit, tie) who makes wealth out of the house not with his hands, but with his meetings, cell phone and so forth. Check out the pic below for how this works.

total binary

Then, let’s examine the way it works against splitting the roles. The show works to subtly move each brother out of their respective “working guy”/”entrepreneur guy” role as well, as the series goes on. Jon does occasionally talk to the home owners about the financial trade-offs of this or that alteration. Drew sheds his suit and walks around in an open-neck shirt sometimes.

Also, of course, the division is partly erased simply because of their visual similarity and kinship. They’re brothers, of course, and twins to boot.

I think the show works on a subconscious level as a kind of unification of “folks who work” with “folks who make money from investments.” It’s popular partly because it counteracts the increasing real life division. The imagery tells its audience “if we can morph between these roles, so can you.”

In addition, of course, the potential of rising real estate prices does make this unification between working stiff and investor possible for some people — which establishes the potency of the metaphor even more.

Here’s the pièce de résistance on their morphing between these two roles. The brothers have a web site devoted to themselves, http://www.thescottbrothers.com/, that is quite separate from the show’s web site. On it, Jon and Drew trade sartorial places. Jon, toolbelt guy on The Property Brothers, is dressed not only in a suit, but a three-piece suit. It’s quite spiffy as well. Drew, entrepreneurial guy, is in an open necked shirt. (There is a third brother, who works behind the scenes, and is right between the two sartorially.)

And, get this, they morph. The page that greets visitors is the page where their facial expressions keep changing. It’s as if they are saying: “this is all about morphing.”

Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

What Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap Has To Do With Terrorism

Last weekend, I went to a local theater to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. This is not ordinarily a play I would have gone to see. Despite my great affection for mysteries (which I have discussed before on this blog), I have never been a Dame Agatha fan. Too c-r-e-a-k-y.

However, I was inspired to go and see it by reading an observation about the play. Now, reader, a confession. I am no longer sure where I read this observation. I believe it was in the program handed out in the previous play, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. I also believe it was said by The Mousetrap’s director, Adam Immerwahr.

But alas, programs were made to be thrown away…and I did throw it away. But the observation kept growing in my mind. Here’s what it was, recalled by me and rolled into a nutshell by my memory and my computer.

The Mousetrap is very germane to an age concerned with terrorism. Why? Because Christie was writing in the World War II period, which was very concerned with where death and injury were going to come from. There was no way of predicting where bombs, for example, would hit. There was no way of predicting what they would do. There was no way of fully knowing when death or injury would strike. There was no way to fully shield from them.

That applies clearly to the bombing of London during WWII, for example. But it also applies to recent terrorist activity. And by recent we can go to the Brussels bombings of last week or 9-11 fifteen years ago.

So The Mousetrap, which (as many people know), is a classic murder mystery. It is set in an English country house. Everyone is trapped inside by a snowstorm. One person is murdered. Someone in the house must be guilty. But no one knows who. They all suspect each other, by the end.

As always in a Dame Agatha mystery, the end is wrapped up neatly. Order is restored.

Yet it does fascinate me that associations with a concern as recent as terrorism can be made in a work so associated with the English idea of order and so old. (It’s the longest running play in the world. A stage production has been running in London since 1952.) One of the qualities I love about art, though, is its ability to stand apart from the truisms of the age. The Age of Terrorism, if we are in it, is nothing new.

Some of the interest of mysteries is not only the working toward order, but the continuous possibility that it be ripped. And that is not as new as yesterday’s terrorism, but literally as old as the hills.

Why Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 Is Like The Hunger Games

I don’t keep up with television, and, frankly, only watch many television shows when they make it to Netflix—which I do watch. Recently, I saw one that relates so much to the current moment—including presidential politics—that I had to write about it.

I recently watched the first several episodes of a show that aired several years ago entitled Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.b apt 23

Reader, it seemed to me like The Hunger Games of television. The latter, both book and movies, are something of a parable about competition’s role in times of economic and social uncertainty. Young people are loosed to kill each other in a series of bread and circuses televised for everyone’s enjoyment. That’s the game.

hunger gamesThe premise of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is simple. A young Midwestern woman, June, comes to New York City dewy-eyed, with a great job in finance, a great medical student fiancé, and a company-paid place to live. All economic and social issues firing happily on all gears, in other words. Love and work, and a nice cushion.

She no sooner arrives in the city than she finds the company—which paid for her move, her apartment, and will pay her salary—has had its assets frozen for CEO fraud. When she walks in her first day, law enforcement officials are cleaning the place out. Needless to say, that means company-sponsored apartment is moot. She is desperate to find a place to live in a highly expensive city.

So, she becomes prey. Now, this is a comedy, mind you. But, after finding a number of predatory/weird situations, they comes upon a more urban young woman, Chloe, who needs a roommate. Our Midwestern woman is ecstatic.

However, viewers know that Chloe has a scheme. She takes the deposits and first month’s rent, and then drives the roommate out by her behavior. In the meantime, she’s a scam artist, with a number of grifter-like techniques to obtain food and clothes.

Then, Chloe sleeps with the fiancé, thereby helping to unmask him as a major philanderer.

June’s engagement is broken, she retaliates against Chloe by behaving outrageously as well. In the end, sitcom style, they have become friends.

Which is just as well, because June doesn’t have any place to fall back on. Her parents, seen on Skype, tell her that, to pay for her MBA tuition, they have skipped their mortgage payments.

Oh! And she takes an unpaid internship which she loses to a woman with a tipped uterus. The boss likes that she can never have kids. She starts working in the local independent coffee shop.

I know this is a long synopsis, reader. It’s long for a reason.

The plot coordinates have to line up to let us see how starkly this is a parable about predatory behavior in the age before Bernie Sanders put on the table a discussion of how predatory the environment looks to young people. Actually, a lot of people, young or not.

Now, what happens is that Chloe is still predatory—she makes a living scamming people in various ways—but the two women bond. Significantly, June pays her back in kind by stealing all her furniture and holding it (with the help of one of Chloe’s ex-roommates) until she gets her money back.

So, if we go with The Hunger Games as metaphor, June learns not to be just nice sunny smart person with a plan, but someone who retaliates in kind. She is a strategist with buoyant optimism when we meet her. She has to learn to become a warrior.

More centrally, however, the fact that Chloe uncovers June’s boyfriend as a no-goodnik bonds them. They become friends.

Oh, let me add one other detail. June’s would-be mentor at her job is, of course, downsized when the firm closes. He ends up as a coffee shop manager. June needs a job. He hires her, saying words to the effect of, “oh, I fired someone for absolutely no reason to make room for one of my friends.”

I find this very grim. In the moral universe of the show, predatory behavior, stealing and dishonesty are all ok. They are a kind of lingua franca, actually. People bond by doing them, and then move on to friendship. But it means that the bedrock is untrustworthiness.

There’s a whole part of academia that examines the philosophical meanings of television shows. There is, for example, a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy.

friends_hContrast this with the universe of Friends, a similar “people come to New York and hang in apartments and coffee shops” kind of show. In the Friends moral universe, they actually are friends—supportive. it’s important to have a social network that is not dependent on economic need. Economic need is hardly ever mentioned. (They are never in danger of being the baristas at Central Perk.) It’s the product of a good economic time.

It disturbs me that the predatory moral universe of Apartment 23 is played for laughs. And I hope Bernie Sanders and his campaign—president or not, elected or not—changes the cultural climate in which it took place.

 

 

Sailing to Byzantium: On West Versus East

So, reader, yesterday I talked about the spatial arrangements of the northeastern and western United States. Today’s post is a continuation, and I want to talk about the growing power of the western United States vis-à-vis the northeast in recent decades.

archangel michaelSo, to begin. A number of years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of Byzantium (Constantinople)—and it was beautiful, large, and stuffed with art. Icons, primarily, and artifacts of daily life.

It was also, of course, a nicely curated exhibit with plenty of informational items on the relationship of Rome and Byzantium. (Unfortunately, no record of this exhibit survives online, so I can only give a thumbnail sketch of what I remember.) Briefly: Rome had a host of problems; Constantine became emperor; he converted to Christianity; he established the seat of empire in Byzantium/Constantinople. That city, once the eastern-most satellite of the Roman Empire, eventually took over Rome’s place as the largest and most powerful capital.

Essentially, the exhibit was arguing that Constantinople was the art capital, the cultural capital, and the political capital as Rome became far less powerful. I also remember thinking that the exhibit was trying to remove the art of Byzantium from the effects of the word “Byzantine,” which is pejorative. It means subterranean, or unduly, treacherously complicated. Not trustworthy. It was seeking a place for Constantinople as a strong capital of empire.

As I recall, Constantinople was presented as a lovely place, full of beauty and ease. The overall idea was that, rather than being “Byzantine,” with everything that connotes about up-to-no-good complexity, it was the best place to be in the Roman Empire of the period, whereas Rome was, well, fallen upon hard times. “Byzantine” was a political attack by Rome upon Byzantium, not a full representation of the place.

(I might add that, in searching for the exhibit I saw and not being able to find it, I did come across a record of a talk at the Smithsonian’s web site that has something of the same points. I quote: “The Byzantine Empire shone with intellectual and artistic brilliance at a time when Western Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and flourished long after the first stirrings of the Renaissance. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium as the new eastern capital and renamed it Constantinople in 330 A.D. The empire was one of the longest that has ever existed, and its arts continued to influence other cultures long after it came to an end.”)

Here’s what I thought, walking out. California is Constantinople. New York is Rome. transamerican new vs oldPowerful, and putting an imprimatur on things. But suffering such constriction that it will never again be able to genuinely lead. What I have been witnessing in my own life is a turning from one major capital to another. And the other was once thought lesser, but now has far more resources.

Next: more on the western states as emergent capitals.

 

Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!

 

What’s Represented in Representation?

Today, I want to talk about how different representations can change what we see and how we interpret it.

Why do I want to talk about this? Well, as part of my work, I have been looking a lot at offerings in and around the California Institute of the Arts, an art school in southern California. Poking around their web site, I saw iterations of their logo that I’d never seen before, and they seem worthy of comment.

California Institute of the Arts is often referred to as CalArts.calarts-logo-square-orange It was started as a kind of “Caltech of the arts” by, among other people, Walt Disney. Therefore, it makes sense to think of the logo as the equivalent of that, CalArts, running together the abbreviation for the state and the abbreviation of its main offerings, just as California Institute of Technology does in its shortened name, Caltech.

Except that, poking around, I saw another logo that is often used. It’s right below, here. cal arts black on white

This logo is so different than the one above. It doesn’t seem to be making the case that it’s abbreviating California Institute of the Arts. It seems to be, um, saying Ca, La and then a bunch of letters. It seems to be emphasizing the primacy of Los Angeles (assuming that’s the la) in California, and the mutually reinforcing nature of the two. (CalArts is about 30 miles outside of Los Angeles proper. Interestingly, though, one of the foundational schools that eventually became CalArts was the Chouinard Art Institute, which taught the early animators of Walt Disney studios. CalArts was in part started so that animators, and the rest of the industry, would have a state-of-the-art art school on the West Coast.)

So, since it is well known that the Disney animators like to make visual puns in the Disney films, I couldn’t help but wonder if this were one. If we read the ca and la as mutually referential and reinforcing, the rest of it is “rts”—which could be pronounced “arts.” At a minimum, it seems to be making the point that CalArts is in L.A., not San Francisco (the other California center for the arts) or New York. Is it a response to the fact that Disney was dissed in New York, and his films not considered real art? (This according to the recent PBS documentary on Disney, which is fascinating.) Or, is it just making sure that LARTS is the most dominant part of the logo, with “ca” the smaller brother? Is “ca” a smaller reference to Chouinard Art, even?

I think this is an intriguing example of how letters and their arrangement can work as caltech white on blackart. In the Caltech logo, the “ca” is not set off as much—it reads as Caltech, just the way it is said. And, in other representations of CalArts, as in the orange logo above, it looks that way too. But in the black and white CalArts logo above (or should we call it calarts), the “ca” seems to inhabit a different universe from the rest of the letters.

I think this is some artist, somewhere, making the point that representation, not the letters, the building blocks of words only, matters.

I’d love to know the history of the logo, so if anyone knows, please contact me!

I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

There has been a lot of talk in the critical world about the parody of the film Twelve Angry Men in the comedy show Inside Amy Schumer. (See, readers, I not only write blogs but I read a lot of blogs on Slate, Salon, and New Yorker, all of them abuzz with praises of this parody. It ran a few months ago, but I thought I would at least sing the praises of Inside Amy Schumer before I see her film Trainwreck.)

If you didn’t see/read the media hoopla on this and don’t watch the show, a bit of background: the parody takes the claustrophobic room with a jury sequestered inside from the 1950s film Twelve Angry Men, but instead of debating the guilt or innocence of an accused murderer, it is Amy Schumer herself who is on trial. The accusation: whether or not she is sexy enough to have a TV show. (Alas, although the episode-long parody was available for streaming in May, it now seems to be behind a pay wall, but do check YouTube or Comedy Central for clips. I’m at least giving you a picture that gets the point across. Here on the right, the parody; on the left below, the original, with a special inside amy s 12 angryshout-out to the actor in the center who parodied Lee J. Cobb, the original actor pictured alone on the left. Of a group of great parodists, he was the best.)

Most of the critical conversation has centered around the hilariously accurate mirroring of the film’s 1950s milieu: the black and white film, the clothes, the fan blowing air around in the age before air conditioning, the histrionic debates. Several, notably Salon’s Katie McDonough have gone a bit deeper, noting that the parody hits deeper than skits usually do by pinpointing the pain underlying men’s objectification of women.

12 angry menI want to put out another aspect that I think makes this parody kind of profound, one curiously uncommented on by anything I’ve seen so far. And that is the physicality that the 1950s film shares with the meaning of the parody. I saw the movie many years ago but I remember vividly being struck with the irregularity of the men’s faces in the film. They have wens. They have lumps (bulbous areas in both their faces and bodies). They have tics. Not only that: almost everybody is characterized by large waistlines, receding hair, unattractive lee j cobbeyeglasses.

I don’t say this to diss the guys’ overall appearance. In my initial viewing, I remember thinking something along the lines of “that’s how ordinary people looked in the 1950s.” Not a movie star style of attractiveness: these guys look more like Ralph Kramden or Ed Norton (if dressed in suits) than like 1950s icons of handsomeness Gregory Peck or Paul Newman. (Or for that matter, Henry Fonda, who, as the leader who is the voice of reason and charity, is the only actor with a symmetrical, handsome face. I have to disagree with Salon that the actors look like the originals: many of them strikingly do, but the actor in the “Fonda” role is just as asymmetrical and odd-looking as the others.)

And of course, if you do take them as very ordinary in looks, that’s an unstated part of the point. They are the very ordinary citizenry. They are called upon to do justice as interchangeable, unremarkable parts of a functioning democracy—the jurors. They start out dismissive of that responsibility (most of them want to get it over with as soon as possible, although they are weighing a death sentence). They do, though, in the end, through argument and debate, perform that justice. For all its focus on anger and hostility, the film seems to believe in the possibility of ordinary citizens serving justice (….as long as they have a good leader).

That subtext—that looking ordinary is a marker for an ordinary citizen—and that citizens might be called upon to do duty always implicitly theirs but seldom explicitly requiring action, even if they want to go to a ball game—forms an unspoken commentary in the parody. Because they are trying Amy Schumer for not being “bangable” enough to be on television. By extension, they are weighing whether ordinary women get to be public women with a public voice. (Yes, I know it’s television, but it is a metaphor for point of view and voice here, and also given the content of Inside Amy Schumer.) And it’s quite clear that the democracy of the body they enjoy—they get to speak and have a vote no matter how they look— is a) so implicit that they don’t even think about it and b) something they only grudgingly and ambiguously extend to her.