Rivkah Writes…

August 18, 2009

Hurts So Good: War as a Drug in “The Hurt Locker.”*

Can addictions ever be deemed positive? And if so, by what measure? These questions are brilliantly explored in “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

On one level, “The Hurt Locker” is an astonishingly suspenseful movie, focusing on a 3-man U.S. bomb disposal squad stationed in Iraq. On another, the movie serves as a canvas against which basic human emotions are played out, along with complex motivations for the action we see.

Staff Sgt. William James, the movie’s protagonist and the actual bomb disposal specialist, does not enjoy war per se, so much as the thrill of mastering what makes Iraqi bombs – well, tick. His approach to war is that of the obsessive, single-minded genius, fascinated by the bombs he defuses, challenged by their structural complexity, and determined to locate and disarm their operating systems, even when his actions endanger both his own and his men’s lives. By contrast, James cannot quite manage the humdrum routines of civilian life. He is a man for whom, as the voiceover at the start of the movie observes, “war is a drug.” You can almost see a pre-military James finding less acceptable outlets for his recklessness – until the army teaches him to sublimate those tendencies and live life on the edge in the name of patriotism. Like any addicts, then, James both loves and needs to diffuse bombs, even though the means to his salvation may one day kill him.

But while James is impervious to fear, he is no psychopath. He shows affection and concern for an Iraqi boy with the unlikely name of Beckham; continually encourages Specialist Eldridge, the most inexperienced and apprehensive of the 3-man operation; is reluctant to brag about his accomplishments; and clearly wants to save lives – those of innocent Iraqis as well as Americans. Yet James’ careless bravery, irrespective of its results, angers and terrifies Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, for whom survival is the name of the game in just another dangerous tour of duty. While they’re counting down the days to the end of their deployment, James revels in the daily peril and once home, pines for his next Iraqi stint. Back in the combat zone, the cockiness returns to his eyes and the swagger to his tread. James is such a cocktail of recklessness, compassion, and naïveté, that you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat, uncertain whether to shake your head or cheer him on. He pulls off his protective gear to detonate a multiple bomb structure in the trunk of a car, claiming that “we’re dealing with enough ammo to blow us all to Jesus, so I may as well die comfortable”; is a pleased as a child when finally unearthing the deadly operating switch; and doesn’t even get angry when Sanborn, whom he technically outranks, decks him for ripping off his headphones in frustration. James isn’t in this for honor or pride – he just loves what he’s doing; nothing he’s done has come closer to feeding his adrenalin rush. Hooked, armed, and dangerously likeable, it’s no wonder James scares Eldridge and Sanborn; they never came to Iraq expecting to fight the enemy in their own back yard.

*A reference to a poem of the same name by Brian Turner, the Hurt Locker symbolizes, among other possibilities, the repository for the weapons and agents of destruction spawned by the war.

August 3, 2009

Expiation through Self-Sacrifice in “Gran Torino”

Many people would agree that the rational treatment for post-traumatic experiences is therapy of some kind. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be everyone’s treatment of choice. Why? Because weakness, craziness, and/or femininity are stigmas that still cling to any kind of psychological help. As a result, fear of discovery may inhibit people in certain insular groups, such as holocaust survivors, and in certain professions, such as the army and the fire and police departments, from seeking this kind of assistance. Some turn to drugs and alcohol as an alternative means of numbing the memories; but others, stronger willed, draw a veil over past traumas, refusing to either talk about or refer to them. While this coping strategy allows many to function, it takes its own toll, forcing the individual to build a protective fortress around his or her emotions – a fortress that keeps family and friends out, and blocks meaningful human interaction. This theme has been visited frequently in literature and film, most recently and brilliantly in Clint Eastwood’s production, “Gran Torino.”

In the movie, Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowlaski, a retired auto worker and misanthropic loner so haunted by his painful experiences in the Korean War that he is unable to connect with other human beings, never mind his own family. Snarling, cantankerous, and unabashedly racist, Walt makes short shrift of the 27-year old priest who rashly promised his dying wife that he would persuade Walt to go to confession, dispatches his son and daughter-in-law with even less ceremony when they suggest Walt move to a retirement community, and churlishly rebuffs his new Hmong neighbors. With his wife gone, Walt’s only connections are to his 1972 Gran Torino, well maintained, but rarely on show – like Walt’s good heart – his dog Daisy, on whom he lavishes the affection he cannot show his family, and his barber with whom he exchanges heavily barbed racist repartee on a monthly basis.

Then circumstances throw Walt together with Thao and Sue, his young neighbors. Local gang members pressure a reluctant Thao into stealing Walt’s Grand Tornio as an initiation rite, but Thao fails when the old man catches him in the act. Gang members show up to “give him another shot” despite Thao’s clear desire to be left alone and his older sister’s furious attempts to protect him. When the altercation spills on to Walt’s lawn, he orders them off his property at rifle-point – and ironically becomes a hero to the descendents of a people he was once ordered to kill. Irony piles atop irony as we examine the full ramifications of Walt’s action. When he draws his rifle at the intruders, he doesn’t bother to distinguish victims from attackers. All he sees, in purely blinkered terms, is a bunch of trespassing gooks. Successive events, however, teach Walt to view his neighbors through a prism of grudging tolerance. After he saves Sue from hectoring young black men, Walt is exposed to this fearless young woman’s teasing attempts to draw him into her world. Having no trouble standing up to menacing gang members, Sue remains unfazed by the racist slurs Walt throws her way; she recognizes these as the defenses Walt has erected to keep the world at bay. In fact, she parries his verbal assaults with cheerful explanations of the people and customs Walt learned to demonize in surviving Korea’s daily horrors. Ultimately, Walt starts to run out of steam in the face of Sue’s persistence, along with that of his Hmong neighbors who continue to leave food on his steps as tokens of gratitude to their unwitting “hero.” He also reluctantly agrees to let Thao work off his Gran Torino-theft offense, and under his rough tutelage, watches the withdrawn young man gradually come into his own. In time, Walt becomes more connected to Thao and Sue than to his own family; more receptive to the community’s holy man than to his own priest; and more aware with every day that goes by, that this family will find no peace as long as gang violence against them continues unchecked.

When his neighbors’ home is subjected to a drive-by shooting and Sue is violently raped, events crystallize for Walt into an unspoken epiphany. Without articulating his intent to anyone, without even clearly articulating it to himself, Walt begins to prepare for battle: he has his hair cut and tips the astonished barber $10; he has himself fitted for a custom-tailored suit; he leaves Daisy with Thao’s grandmother, a woman with whom he shares a mutual bond of elderly mistrust – and he goes to church to make his confession, much to Father Janovich’s consternation – “what in God’s name have you done!” Never once amid these seemingly mundane events, heavily loaded with portent, does Walt’s grim humor flag, his courage wane, or his façade crack. He remains formidably cranky to the end. Significantly, the one sin Walt does not confess to is killing men under orders during the Korean War; he is about to atone for this in actions rather than in words.

When Walt confronts the gang members at their home, he draws out the tension until he is certain there are plenty of witnesses to what will ensue, secure in the knowledge that for him, this is the point of no return. Walt is not even carrying a gun when the gang open fire; significantly, he falls to the ground arms outstretched. Like Jesus, Walt dies to save others; unlike Jesus, though, his sacrifice expiates his own burden, redeeming his soul by bringing hope to the descendents of men he unwillingly shot in Korea. Precise and responsible to the end, Walt is ready for his burial – hair trimmed, custom-made suit ready to be picked up from the tailors. All that remains is for Father Janovich, the young priest’s forebodings confirmed, to deliver the sermon. And as the final pièce de résistance, Walt bequeaths his Gran Tornio to his emotional heir, Thao; freed of its owner’s burden, the material symbol of Walt’s goodness can finally see the light of day.

So what, actually, is Walt’s reasoning in his moment of epiphany? He comes to the realization, in common with his Dickensian analogue, another sardonic, nobly flawed character, Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities,” that nothing in his life is more important than saving those he loves, that nothing in his life stands in the way of his departure, and that ultimately, expiation through self-sacrifice is “….a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done.”* We can only hope that, along with Sydney Carton, having fulfilled his destiny, Walt finds his way to “…a far, far better place…than I have ever known.”*

 

*A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. At the moment of sacrificing his life for his rival, for the sake of the woman they both love, Sydney Carton says:

“It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done. It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Fallen AngelMan in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray, Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed, and The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle.

July 10, 2009

Man in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray

In his 19th Century novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde created an ingenious metaphor for corruption – a portrait of untarnished innocence slowly perverted by evil. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian Gray, the subject of the portrait, declares he would rather die than grow old and ugly, and makes a wish that the inevitable toll of life be visited on his portrait, rather than himself. Dorian’s wish comes true, albeit not quite as he intends. For Dorian doesn’t just grow older, he also loses his innocence. And, each step he takes down the path of degradation incrementally distorts and disfigures his picture, until it becomes a loathsome representation of Dorian’s ruined soul. When Dorian finally confronts what he has become, he recoils from his beautiful face, knowing full well what it conceals. Determined to destroy the picture, aka, his guilty conscience, Dorian stabs it. Yet when his servants hear Dorian cry out, they find the body of a man with a monstrously evil face sprawled beside his portrait – which once again depicts him in all his youthful innocence.

In many ways, we can use “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to understand the tragedy of Michael Jackson. As the beautiful, irresistibly talented young man soared to the heights of fame, his oddities seemed to grow apace. And, as the rumors of his behavior grew more insidious, the beautiful face grew increasingly distorted, plasticized, artificial, surreal. Unlike Dorian Gray, however, Michael had no painted doppelganger to absorb his disfigurements – he had to deal with them in the flesh. While the causes of Michael’s facial changes are well documented – vitiligo, plastic surgery, drugs, etc. – from a literary perspective, it seemed the alleged perversions of which he was accused had slowly turned outward, destroying the perfection of the once beautiful, mischievous – but for all that – innocent face. The change began innocuously enough – no longer a child sensation, Michael strived for more edge. In the process, though, the whoops of joy became whoops of anger, the handsome male, a handsome anomaly, the fluid movements, an exercise in jerky, twisted virtuosity. Ultimately Michael’s dead eyes, waxy-pallor, and frozen features became a parody of the dancing eyed, adorable dimpled, enormously talented man we knew. The adopted eccentricities – masks, veils, etc – served only to emphasize this irrevocable transformation.

Forced to bear his physical and moral disfigurements in life, in death, Michael has been given a second chance. And, as Dorian Gray’s death restored his portrait to its innocent perfection, Michael’s demise has restored his reputation. In our minds and in our hearts, he is the joyous, good humored, beautiful young man we remember him to be. And in memory of that man, we deal kindly with the poor, ruined face of the Man in the Mirror.

For more on the Michael Jackson tragedy from “Rivkah Writes…” see Thrill Seeker.

June 28, 2009

Thrill Seeker

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Michael Jackson, although we were practically contemporaries. I always enjoyed his music – could anyone not move irrepressibly to the rhythm of his songs? – yet the paraphernalia of his idiosyncrasies never occupied center stage of my mind. I was too busy dealing with my own burgeoning angst, seeking an elusive perfection – in appearance, in accomplishments – that dog me to this day. Watching the retrospectives of the last few days, though, including videos of the hits I had (believe it or not) never seen before, I am struck by the fact that in our pursuit of perfection, Michael and I ran on parallel trajectories. The difference is, I’m still in hot pursuit, while Michael’s run out of time. And before anyone gets bent out of shape, of course I’m not putting myself in the same category as this musical legend. It’s not my talent I’m equating with Michael’s, just his thrill-seeking striving for perfection.

For some people, myself included, no joy comes close to that thrill of accomplishment. And that’s all well and good. The problem is not excellence per se, but the pursuit of excellence, which becomes a curse in and of itself. Like many tormented perfectionists, Michael was never content to rest on his laurels, to take a step back, to simply enjoy his accomplishments, because there was always another barrier to conquer, another goal to attain, another “first” to dream up, choreograph, and perform. But what’s a superstar to do once he’s created the best selling album of all time, conquered racial and cultural boundaries, used the cultural signifiers of his day to produce cutting edge iconography and videography, raised tens of millions of dollars for Africa, ripped his shirt, given back, and given his all, over and over again? The burden must have been enormous, unimaginable. And so by the time Michael was in his 30s, he had scaled the summit of his innovative powers and reached the dark side.

Despite his crotch grabbing, hip thrusting, chin jutting postures, Michael was clearly confused about his sexuality. Watch his video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.”*  See how he circles his female prey, hurls his desire at her like a challenge, yet neither touches nor dances with the supposed girl of his dreams. Never fully gown up, Michael took up the Peter Pan persona in earnest, turning his home into a theme park, and playing dubious games with children that had the media up in arms. And, as he slowly transformed himself through layers of surgical artifice, the grotesque result seemed to parody the songs that had brought him fame. Here was the “Man in the Mirror,” turning in horror from the “Thriller” he had spawned. Here was what happened when Michael, in truth, could neither “Stop” nor “Get Enough,” when “Beat It” became the command he used to drive himself to further and further feats of the bizarre until there was no turning back. From the pinnacle of fame Michael had reached the pinnacle of notoriety. What else remained but to bow out, tragically?

I am not and never was in Michael’s league, either professionally or personally. My struggle’s just that of your average OCD personality who, as I’ve said before,** can never cut him- or herself enough slack. Every day, though, my unhealthy tendencies are redeemed by a loving family that give me the kick in the butt I need to stay sane – and alive. It’s a shame no one could do the same for the legendary King of Pop.

 

* “The Way You Make Me Feel,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEU9Q8NlOiY.

**In “The Dream Lives On: In an Open Letter to Susan Boyle” I wrote:

 “As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.”

June 22, 2009

Twilight Zone

Be warned – this is a “Twilight” movie critique. I wince at the echoing commentary ricocheting off my keyboard as I go about my task: “shoot me now!” “who cares?” and from devotees, “why now?” 

I am sensible to your disquietude; nevertheless I reserve my belated right to speak up on the “Twilight” phenomenon. So bear with me if you will.    

In the past I’ve mentioned my passion for fairy tales – Hogwarts, Narnia, Hobbits, Mordor – oh, and of course, vampire tales. Long before Stephenie Meyer dreamed of crossing over to the dark side, there was Ann Rice, Lestat, and the erotic, sensuous otherworld of the undead.

There’s a special atmosphere created by all classic works of magical fiction, and it is to envelop myself in this atmosphere that I re-read these books and anxiously await their screen debut, hoping this medium does not wreak havoc on my beloved tales. In most instances, my fears go unrealized. The movie versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and the Narnia tales, for example, are as wondrously realized as the original novels. I admit I may have tuned out over that whole Tom-Cruise-Brad-Pitt-“Interview-with-a-Vampire” phase. Still, once my daughter became enamored of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, I matched her, book for book, movie for movie. But that’s when the trouble started. Because, while the Harry Potter movies depict a wholly re-imagined world, their setting and characterization as effective on screen as in their original conception, there is one major problem with the “Twilight” movie; its magic does not ring true.

Now don’t get me wrong. The “Twilight” books themselves are terrific.  Meyer brilliantly uses “good” vampires struggling valiantly against innate blood thirst as a metaphor for humanity fighting innate – but unacceptable – impulses. The novels juxtapose mystery and magic with teenage angst, and just enough romance to set the pulse racing. Oh the thrill of the shy, withdrawn maiden chosen by the gorgeous, tortured, demonic hero – oh the delicious constancy and devotion he manages to hold in check for 2½ entire books. Indeed, Meyer renders unconsummated yearning and desire so viscerally, Keats* himself would be proud. And in the movie itself, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart admirably personify Edward and Bella. True, Edward could up the smolder factor a notch, but he is believable as the brooding, conflicted creature determined to transcend his blood lust through devotion to Bella. And Kristen Stewart re-creates Bella’s awkward self-consciousness with wonderful subtlety. I also loved the “bad” vampires – such devilishly sexy characters, their “good” counterparts seem pallid by comparison.

But the movie’s truly fatal flaw lies in its special effects; to be brutally honest, they left me cold. In a crazy way, the movie’s atmosphere is “Twilight”-meets-MTV-while-under-the-influence – almost self-consciously un-magical, using cult appeal and edgy music to inflate scenes as un-sinister as they are unbelievable. Edward’s incredible speed translates into a cartoonish immediacy that comes off as amateurish. Is it just me? Back in the days of yore, was “The Six Million Dollar Man”’s incredible strength interpreted that much more skillfully? Maybe I’m just older and more critical.

Moving right along, what about that horribly unrealistic snarling – was I seriously meant to be frightened by that? By contrast, think of Bilbo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings” begging Frodo to let him hold the ring one last time. Think how the ring’s power turns that benevolent face terrifying in a matter of seconds. What’s a few second of terror within the elfish paradise of Rivendell, right? But that demonic face made my blood run cold.

Oh, and when Edward removes his shirt to reveal why he must hide from the sunlight, his sparkling, waxen-hued torso made me want to laugh rather than empathize with his undead condition. And no, you can’t just write me off as a middle-aged cynic. I mean, when Harry Potter teaches Dumbledore’s Army members the Patronus spell to combat Dementors in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the resulting scenes make me smile with childish pleasure, so clearly I’m not cynical, right? Well then, why does “Twilight” magic make me want to rush for the exit? Because – and here’s the irony – successful fantasy feels real, even when it clearly is not.

So my message to directors filming “New Moon” – the “Twilight” sequel – is this: make magic I can believe in and a world I yearn for…edgy music optional. 

*From “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats  “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

June 7, 2009

The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:11 pm

Dear Susan,

I am just one of your many fans, one of the many who have felt uplifted watching you perform, one of the many who has cast her vote in the “should she or shouldn’t she?” makeover debate, one of the many who watched your final performance on May 30. What an incredibly tumultuous journey you have traveled over the last few months. After a life spent in relative obscurity, you have gone from overwhelming acclaim, astounding success, and magical moments in the spotlight to…second place. And to you, who have always sought validation, this not-so-perfect outcome seems like the end of the world. As of course it must. Anyone who has fought to be recognized for his or her talent will understand the keen pain and disappointment you must be experiencing. You don’t know me, but I understand what it is to be called a star in the making over and over again – and then to never quite make it. Still, I am here to tell you – that dream you dreamed – it lives on.

Of course, we’re comparing apples to oranges here – at the latest count, I’ve had 1,225 hits on my blog, Rivkah Writes. Which is nice, but clearly, no one’s looked me up 100,000,000 times on YouTube or anywhere else. So by almost all standards out there, you have made it, you are truly a star, a gracious woman, a beautiful person, a devoted daughter, and as Piers Morgan put it best, an inspiration to us all during these tough times.

But Susan, I know you. So I recognize that anything less than winning that contest and performing for Her Majesty at the Royal Variety Performance does not spell success in your eyes. As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.

So Susan, let me put my dysfunctions to good use here – let me be kind to you. Let me hold up a mirror to show you what you have accomplished, and what you still stand to accomplish. Your second-place standing is not the end, but the beginning of the next chapter of “Susan Boyle Superstar.” Think about it. Out of the millions of people out there that voted in Britain’s Got Talent, you came in second – second in the entire country – a magnificent accomplishment in and of itself, and one, I might add, that many runner-ups have parlayed into hugely successful careers. Think of Adam Lambert, runner-up to Kris Allen on this year’s American Idol. Not for one moment does anyone believe that Kris Allen‘s win detracts from Adam’s star-studded prospects. Moreover, Diversity’s accomplishment, while notable, does not overshadow yours. You were not judged runner up to another singer, but to Diversity, a talented, euphoria-provoking dance group whose appeal cleverly dovetails with the ostensible purpose of the Royal Variety Performance: to introduce – well, diversity. But Diversity’s success takes nothing away from yours, because – apples and oranges again – Diversity’s talents are nothing like yours. You exist on polar opposite planes of existence, and can each succeed on your own terms, and in those separate planes.

So Susan, here’s what you need to do: have a good rest. Go on vacation. Take time to process what you’ve been though. Then put one hand on your hip, close the other around a mike, shake that booty, and go back to doing what you do best. Trust me, there will be no shortage of offers to do just that. As for losing the chance to sing before the Queen – my guess is she may request the honor of your presence before you get your second chance. Something tells me she dreamed a dream too – and it looked and sounded a lot more like yours than like Diversity’s. So you hang in there, you hear?

As for me, I’m working on pretending to be someone else. That way I can be kind to myself too.

All the best, Susan –

Rivkah

May 20, 2009

Fallen Angel

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 10:59 am

Back in high school, when my friends and I played Charlie’s Angels, I always chose to be Sabrina. It didn’t make sense, really. My two other friends, Syrit and Maya were the exotic ones – dark, sultry beauties from Russia and India, respectively. When I went out with Maya – with whom I was really better friends – some guy was always asking her where she was from while I, boring English rose that I was, watched patiently from the background. Maya’s answer depended on her mood; sometimes she was Brazilian, sometimes Greek, most often Israeli, but never Indian. Anyway, with Syrit and Maya being that dark, it made sense that I, the one with light coloring, should be Jill. But some willful tendency made me disdain Jill, exactly because everyone raved about her. Her looks, her hotness, her blondeness, her real life marriage to the Six Million Dollar Man – I mean, could you get anything more perfect than Farrah Fawcett’s life? But something about Sabrina resonated with me – her down-to-earth approach to life, her more sensible clothes, more sensible hair – all of this made me identify with Sabrina rather than Jill – after all, I may have had fair coloring, but that made me neither hot nor desirable. I felt that those descriptions suited girls like Maya and Syrit, not me. So when we played Charlie’s Angels, I was Sabrina, Maya was Kelly, and Syrit nonchalantly adopted Jill’s part, despite the discrepant coloring.

Poor Farrah; I didn’t want to be her then. And I don’t want to be her now. My arrogant 16-year old self viewed her character, and by extension, her actual self, through a mist of lofty stereotypes; Jill/Farrah was the dumb blonde. Who wanted to be a dumb blonde? I felt virtuous playing Sabrina/Kate, who was clearly the brainy angel.

I first became aware of Farrah’s depth as an actress/person when I saw her play an abused wife in 1984’s The Burning Bed. In this role, Farrah’s willingness to strip herself bare of artifice and assume the vulnerability of a physically and emotionally battered woman rocked my preconceived notions. Watching her, I wondered, how could I have thought Farrah superficial? Caught in the vortex of her husband’s abuse, her mother’s helplessness, and her in-laws’ resentment, Farrah’s character remains a quiet, poignant force, wanting nothing more than to be left in peace. When things get bad, she takes it on the chin without fanfare, literally as well as emotionally, warding off obstacles as best she can, for as long as she can, until she takes action to save herself and her family.

Watching Farrah on screen, I remember being blown away by the understated power of her performance, by her mute, palpable resilience, her incredible courage. And it is exactly these qualities I find so heartbreaking in Farrah’s currently documented fight against cancer. Once again, in life as in art, Farrah confronts her abuser with quiet fortitude, weeps silently, and remains unwavering in her resilience and courage. Of course, the cynical will say that Farrah is, after all, still in character, albeit playing herself. But what does it matter? Even if this is life imitating art, more power to Farrah if the role helps her through her ordeal. You see, I’m rooting for Farrah. Like I said before, I still don’t want to “be” her; I doubt even Syrit would want to be her now. But I wouldn’t want this to turn into the story of Farrah the Fallen Angel.  She doesn’t deserve that.

April 28, 2009

Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:53 pm

Caught between disbelief and wonder, many of us who saw Susan Boyle’s extraordinary performance on Britain’s Got Talent mentally recast her appearance to match her incredible voice. Because, as human beings, our minds aren’t equipped to deal with dissonance – elements that don’t “fit” our value system or embedded set of stereotypes. We want things to be of a piece – so we expect ordinary looking people to have ordinary abilities, and extraordinary looking people, to be extraordinary. The truth, though, is that beauty doesn’t guarantee genius. And, by the same token, genius such as Susan Boyle’s can exist in ordinary packages. Still, most people remain blissfully unaware of life’s delicious ironies, and in the wake of Susan’s performance, their unconscious processes have gone busily to work on the tabula rasa that is Ms. Boyle. As a result, much blogging, twittering, and references to Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, and God have been devoted to the Susan Boyle “Should She or Shouldn’t She?” makeover debate.

 

But has anyone noticed, amid the various back and forths, that we’re assuming a makeover would impact only us, Susan’s audience? That the only issue of importance is how we’d feel if Susan’s beautiful voice existed in a more becoming setting? When what we need to consider is that a makeover might have considerable psychological impact on Susan herself?

 

Think about it for a moment. Susan has spent her life in a small village in Scotland, working as a church volunteer and caring for her mother. Since her mother’s death, she has continued to live alone with her cat, Pebbles. By any standards, Susan’s life to date has been sheltered and she’s lived among people far less concerned with appearances than their American counterparts. Subject this woman now to cosmetic changes of even the most basic kind, and the consequences of suddenly rendering her visible, when she has been mostly invisible, added to the public attention generated by her newly discovered talent, and Susan may find herself bewildered, paralyzed and lost. The impact of transformative change on many people can render them self-aware and questioning about abilities they have previously taken for granted. The impact of transformative change for Susan could turn her effortless gift into a burden loaded with people’s expectations.

 

Writing in the nineteenth century, Charlotte Bronte also knew a thing or two about the dangers of transformation. In Villette,* she introduces us to Lucy Snowe, a young English governess who cannot risk articulating her emotional desires and needs because her social, physical and economic marginality make it unlikely that she will ever be able to find fulfillment; poor, plain, and destitute, she is considered at best, invisible at worst, ugly and unimportant. At the boarding house in France where she is employed, Lucy is compelled to accept a part in a play to be performed by students. At first reluctant to play her part, Lucy finds that once on stage, she transcends the mediocrity of her everyday self. As actress, she becomes another person, transforming her role and using it as a vehicle for expressing the person she cannot be, the feelings she cannot have, the desires she cannot accept. As with the prospect of a makeover for Susan Boyle, Lucy’s newly discovered talent suddenly renders her visible in a way she has never been before. Yet once the play is over, Lucy decides she will never act again. Why? According to the critic, Tony Tanner,** Lucy realizes that as an individual alone in the world, she can rely only on her self, and therefore recognizes the importance of knowing full well what that self represents, no matter how alien her surroundings or how inviting the new attentions of those that surround her. Consequently, Lucy struggles to keep the core of her personality intact, lest, as Tanner points out, by yielding to the role of actress, she shatters “into a multiplicity of discontinuous and unrelated partial selves which she might be unable to integrate.”

 

Lucy Snowe has much to teach Susan Boyle. Not about depriving herself of a makeover – we are, after all, in the twenty first, rather than the nineteenth century and no longer burdened by the kind of class system Lucy endured, a class system that would have made the governess feel her differentness no matter how famous she might become. No, Susan Boyle is supported by a network of family and friends who would all be cheering her on as she embellishes the setting that houses her magnificent voice. Nevertheless, the Lucy Snowe example suggests Susan’s most important tasks over the next few months – indeed, the tasks of every person in charge of molding Susan’s image at Britain’s Got Talent – are to keep the core of her personality intact, to maintain the integrity of her effortless gift, to ignore public expectations, and above all, to keep Susan transcendent, even as she is transformed.    

 

 

*Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

**Tanner, Tony. Introduction. Villette. By Charlotte Bronte. London, Penguin Books, 1985.

 

 

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