Progress Not Perfection

Spoiler warning: if you have never seen Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, do not play this initial video. It’s a huge spoiler & I wouldn’t want to kill that film for anyone. This clip is only meant to enhance my piece and is not essential  to the comprehension of the rest of the entry.   

I was told recently by someone who I highly respect that we are all works in progress.

While there hasn’t been much to make me feel positive about my situation as of late, to an extent, this statement (and the person it was coming from) did. It came on the heels of having spent an incredible summer day with the women that I went to Catholic-all-girls-school with. Most of them are married, with babies, good jobs, productive lives. Hell, even my punk rock math teacher was there, reminding me that I had been in honors’ math (me?? honors math?? I can’t even figure out a proper tip at dinner with friends anymore! I was good with numbers at one point in my existence???) and quoting the Descendents. Man, she was a great teacher.  I sat there, we laughed, caught up, talked about the things that we got out of our schooling that few others did- why do women these days seem to hate each other so much? And why do they think it’s “cool” to smack each other down and say “Well, I like having guys as friends better”? You need your ladyfriends, yo. Just like guys need their guys! It was a great afternoon talking about how we were inadvertently trained to develop a very strong idea of sisterhood that has lasted us throughout our lives.

We are in our mid-30s. We have known each other since we were 12/13. That’s a fucking long time. Every one of us has made inordinate amounts of mistakes. Pissed our friends and lovers off, learned to fix it. Then learned that each “fixing” method changes for each person. We’ve changed careers, regretted treating our parents or family members in certain ways, learned that maybe certain friends or family members were incredibly toxic and it was our responsibility to play Personal Doctor (we know our own bodies best- mental and physical) and cut out that tumor before it became a larger cancer and destroyed larger portions of our Lifebody.

This is what we call Progress. None of us will EVER EVER be perfect.

I keep thinking of this film by Christine Lahti that I love, called My First Mister. It stars Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski.  I cannot count how many times I’ve watched that film. If you haven’t seen it, it will simultaneous make you fall in love with life, laugh and cry. It is one of my all time favorite pieces of film work, and I don’t say that very often. Friends, you can judge me for my excitement and frequent hyperbole when it comes to cinema, but certain films? This is on my list of Films I Would Marry. Come to think of it, I should write up a list like that sometime. But back to My First Mister.  I probably like it because I see bits and pieces of myself in Leelee Sobieski’s character (especially the scene that was shot in Retail Slut on Melrose, RIP). But Albert Brooks character serves as just as much of a mirror. It’s a heartbreaking and heart-fixing story about two broken off-kilter people who walk around limping and frowning through life until they find that other person who makes them laugh and dance. But it is not a love story. The film is a perfect story about how people are simply not and that is a beautiful thing.

My First Mister explores the ways in which we make progress with each other and relationships in ways we never counted on. Did I ever think that 20 years after meeting these women I would be sitting in the sunshine with their babies and realizing that we all basically look the same and are just as sharp-witted, strong, loving and quirky as we were in 7th grade? No way. I would’ve laughed if you had told me that a few years ago. But that’s progress. Progress is also the realization that I need these women in my life. They are so good for me. I hesitate to say it, but I feel like the insecurity that I have now was all received because I was put in an environment that was not as progressive and diverse as that which I spent my early teen years. Not to say that we weren’t all normal jerky teen girls (we totally were, in our own ways), but we also related to each other in a different way. I’m romanticizing it a little, but I think of the way that I entered that school and I remember the way I left and the people I have now. I look up to them. Those relationships were hibernating building blocks. I’m glad that they were awakened.

Internet radio has decided to play “Under Pressure” by Queen right now. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

I graduated from my moving image archive studies program in June. It’s about to be September. In my albeit small graduating class, every single person I have spoken to or heard about already has a full-time job but I do not. The minute that my classes were completed, I applied for unemployment and I was denied. I have appealed the decision, gone to court, and been dealing with this for months now. I have had EDD employees tell me that leaving a full-time job  to complete grad school and do freelance online journalism was a “bad decision” and if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be in this situation now. I have had them tell me that freelance work and online journalism/writing wasn’t “real work” so that’s why they didn’t count it. They basically yelled at me and told me that my current state was of my own making, and had I done the smart thing and kept the “real job” and not gone back to school, everything would be fine.

Of course, this woman’s rant just seemed to realize all of the fears and terror-dripped paranoias that I have been pouring out to my boyfriend for the last few weeks, as my job applications kept getting sent into these black holes and no interviews or interest has been shown. He’s a great guy, but it’s frustrating for him. He wants to fix this situation and make me feel better. He just wants to fix everything, just wants me to feel better and see the woman that he sees. But this isn’t a “fixable” situation. And what a terrible thing to lay in the lap of a basically new relationship, right? Poor guy has to listen to me cry about how I wish that I hadn’t gone to grad school and how I feel like I’m no good at what I do. Logically, of course, I know that both of these statements are patently untrue but I feel completely helpless when I cannot do anything for myself economically and when I am not working. The me that I like the least is the unemployed, unassignment-ed, undeadlined me. I am at my most shining when I am powered up and whirlwinding through tons of stuff, 100mph. I glow. Right now, I feel dejected, rejected and like I’m doing nothing.

Another one of my favorite films that I have basically memorized comes to mind at this juncture. Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. A brilliant film about the foibles and follies that befall a group of (yup, indeed) college graduates, right after graduation, and coming to term with adult life. If you have not seen this film, SEE IT. But, basically, right now I feel a hellovalot like Max.

Thing is, I’m not Max. I do many things. It’s just all volunteer work. I’m the chair of a committee and have been diligently working on that as things have been moving forward. I volunteered for Outfest, the LGBT film festival, and worked like crazy for that. I recently began involvement in another project for cataloging standardization as well. Pure and simple, applying to jobs is work and, to be frank, new relationships are work. I seem to push all these things to the back of my mind because the only thing that counts in my eyes is getting that “real” job out of school, getting the “real” work that everyone else is getting. This, of course, backfires completely on me because what is “real”? What is that qualifier? Who is to decide? It seems that the qualifier is The Paycheck and that discounts the very real work that I have been doing elsewhere.

I’m working on this, though. Slowly but surely. Because while I am not perfect, the one thing that I have the utmost faith in is my ability to make progress and be productive.

I’m not going to lie. I’m scared.

But I’m scared because I actually care about this. It would say quite a bit if I wasn’t scared. This is my dream and my greatest love. It irritates my guy when I say that, but it’s a different kind of love than I got for humans in my life; I can’t explain it. Film will always be That Thing for me. I am the most fulfilled, the most ME I can be when I am within that realm. I would be disturbed if my unemployed status wasn’t causing a pre-ulcerous condition. I’ve never found any career path that I gelled with like I do this one.

So I have one basic option: keep making progress. And this involves a variety of things.

1) Be realistic: the things that are being done are not nothing. They exist and they contribute to larger bodies of work. My place in the field is important, whether I am actually employed or not. Dropping out is not an option. The healthiest addiction I have ever had is being addicted to film archiving & preservation work and not being able to keep my mouth shut about needing to be active in these pursuits. This isn’t a bad thing.

2) Be grateful: the new people who have entered and re-entered my life are some of the most charming and supportive people I have ever met. And they are adults. Change is good, change is progress. Many times, positive progress comes from the most unlikely of places (see: My First Mister).

3) Listen to Wilder: Billy didn’t write bad dialogue. Always listen to him for advice. Every time my brain is arguing with me on the things that I can recognize are untrue, I will simply revisit Some Like it Hot and get smacked in the face by the reality of me being, as my boy is wont to call me every so often, a silly goose.

I realize that this is a bit more personal than some of my other entries, but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. Thanks for listening.

I Must Make My Witness: Technojunkie-ism, Unemployment and the Loss of Anger

I’m sitting in a coffee shop. Surrounded by techno-junkies…and I…well, I might as well be one of them.
My “smart” phone is on the left of me, charging through my computer. I have my headphones on, listening to the clips that I’m playing and readying for this piece and my iPod is on the right of me, charger underneath, just in case the battery runs low.  It is truly amazing, this. What the hell am I doing? This isn’t me.

I look, for all intents and purposes, either like some weird Star Trek creature, with wires and mechanical technology hanging out all over the place (that is, if you include my tattoos & piercings), or some mad automaton you would call for assistance with your cellphone perhaps. “Hello, this is Verizon, how can I help you?”

The rest of the coffee shop? Not so much. They look happy. Dependent. Smiling. Ready to send off that next resume before hitting that next audition. But first, they’ll hit up Facebook to see what’s up, ya know? And that’s the hilarity. I come to this place with some regularity. It’s near where I live. I can take a pretty good gamble and say that amongst the very filled up shop (yesterday it was almost difficult to find a place to “plug-in”) most of ’em, myself included, are unemployed.

But this is Los Angeles. The LAND of the unemployed. After all, isn’t it still possible to get discovered? No, boys and girls, it’s not. Oh, and just to shatter your dreams even more, That Schwab’s story is an urban myth as well. Lana Turner, if she was discovered *anywhere* was most like discovered somewhere down the street. Schwab’s, on the other hand, much like the place I current am inhabiting, was also a  locale for the unemployed to “check in” and “catch up” and perhaps get a break from someone else who may have a lead.

When I lost my job, everyone smiled and laughed and said, “Hey!! Now you’re on FUN-employment!” and I looked at them like they were crazy because, really, it’s an insane way to look at the world. Insane, in every sense of the word. See, you take away someone’s work/worklife/space, and you take away their reason to get up in the morning or their reason to leave the house. Quite literally. Say what you will, but it is true. And I always knew this, which is why I never took my job for granted when I had it. I liked my job. I loved my job. I did anachronistic activities sometimes with anachronistic materials but that made me feel like a million bucks. Now? Well, I’ve totally read a mass of books. I’ve watched a bunch of movies. But I’ve gotten to the point where Law & Order episodes are repeating themselves and that. Is. Not. Good. I miss having a job.

Here is the basic problem: Working give us parameters and schedules and rituals and routines. Human beings need these things. We always have and we always will. Most importantly, work gives us purpose. Just like relationships with other people give us purpose. What happens when we lose one? What happens if we lose both?

See, we have social worlds that are significantly interwoven and related to our working lives. Take away one…well, I don’t think I have to explain what happens to the other. You would be surprised at how much you actually depend on your co-workers. Those people may not be your best friends; in fact, you may not even like them, but you need them. The nauseatingly interesting thing is this: we are learning to supplant all of our social interactions- even those with the most disliked of office co-workers- with those of technology.

So perhaps, then, due to your Iphone 8.5,000 and your awesome new Ipad and whatever the latest and greatest techno-toy is, when you get laid off you won’t be so lonely?

See, I’m not actually sure that this will be the case. Argue what you like, but I have historical back up. When I was in elementary school, I became madly obsessed with the transcendentalists. I thought they were incredible. I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I went straight into an obsession with the Beats. Just made sense. What didn’t was the fact that I was also reading Stephen King and ridiculously thick, poorly written gothic romance novels, searching incessantly for another Jane Eyreor “Rebecca”, but hey…who’s counting?

At any rate, there was this guy. Henry David Thoreau. I thought he was a rock star; his ideologies and his whole conception of the world were beyond anything I had ever heard before and it blew my mind. At one point in his career he decided to go and take a cabin in Massachusetts, alone.

By spending  a good long time there, he realized he had to leave. But not before having learned something extremely important. In his words, he left the woods:

…for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. (Thoreau, Walden)

His desire not to “go below” speaks of something a bit more than simply non-conformity. Walden is, by no means a simple piece of literature. It is a gorgeous piece that discusses a litany of topics that, while having some sway on this discussion, would, literally, SWAY us off-course. Thoreau did not wish to “go below” because he recognized that his place was with other human beings, not in seclusion. To paraphrase and oversimplify, people need people in order to move forward through the world in a productive manner. He left for as good a reason as he came: solitude. The recognition that he had lived the “solitary life” and found it to be not as satisfying for the long-haul was a big step for a man as independent as Thoreau. So he left the woods.

The human connection is actually quite strong. Strong enough to leave the woods for, strong enough for people to give up organs for, strong enough for people to do lots of incredible things that make all the people on Oprah cry and go “Aw…” and “Wow!”  And that’s great. It’s the wonderful part of the Opposable World. But it seems to be changing a lot as we attempt to turn flesh and muscle into metal and wire, like in the latest Droid commercial…

So here is the problem: we are working very very hard at making very very sure that we do not need people at all. The more we do that, the more jobs are lost and the more unemployment we have. The more unemployment we have,  the more relationships and social worlds are lost and broken. See a pattern here? So, with all of this, and especially with the substantive rise of unemployment, don’t you think we should be more ANGRY?

You would, wouldn’t you? Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet certainly did, back in 1976. But back then, their major technological contender was the luminescent screen of the television, with some politicians and advertising schlumps vying to control people’s minds! What a thing to say…Oh Network, life was so much simpler then…*cue old-timey music and the squeak of a rocking chair*

I am not trying to downplay Network‘s content or the film itself by any stretch of the imagination. Every word, every bit of that narrative, every slice of that piece of cinema remains as true today as it was in 1976. What terrifies me is that in 1976, Paddy Chayefsky was discussing anger, and in 2010, due to a malaise come upon by what I call technojunkie-ism, no one gets angry anymore. Or heartbroken. Or even, dare I say it, really excited or happy. Being attached to these techno-toys, as shown in the Droid commercial, is turning us into robots, really sick robots, dangerously fast. There is even a new anxiety that is being written about called “disconnectivity anxiety” and it is EXACTLY what the words mean. It’s damn scary.

As you saw in the above clip, Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, walks into the studio to “make his witness.” What isn’t shown is that he has recently been fired and this is his last appearance on the show. He is, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. And he isn’t just unemployed, he has threatened suicide as a result…while he was on live television. The “last broadcast” in the above clip is supposed to make up for this “poor reaction” to being told he was, as the British say, being made redundant.

What we are shown here is his rage, pure and primal, beautiful and real in all of its intensity. As he asks the audience everywhere to join with him, we watch as he is being co-opted by Faye Dunaway’s character, and the remainder of the film just spirals gloriously from there. However, what is essential to this discussion is the way that Howard Beale expresses himself at this moment in time. He is being removed from and losing everything. He has spent his life working towards his goals, he has the aforementioned social connections (in fact, his best friend/co-worker was the one who had to give Beale the news) and now he has…nothing.

What Beale does, at this juncture, is appeal to the one community that he still has: his audience. He is no longer their television anchor; he is one of them. At the beginning, it seems that every time he says “we”, Beale might as well be saying “I.” However, his only somewhat-subtly disguised subjectivity does not take away from the effect his speech has on his “new peer group” due to the fact that he has now joined their ranks. In fact, if his rawness does anything, it only draws them in closer (thus making it easier for Faye Dunaway to continue to exploit him, and the television audiences, throughout the film).

His next dialogic switch from accusatory direct address to strong demand for everyone to stand up and assert themselves is key. Due to his recent termination, Beale has been left feeling invalid, not even human. He was going to take his own life on broadcast television due to the fact that the station had already done so. Beale gives adamant instructions. He states,  “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamnit, my life has value!'” Beale, through his anger, has connected with another community (his audience) and gotten back some sort of personal value for himself.

Tragically, that same personal value that Beale regained doesn’t seem to come into play when it has to do with techno-toys. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything much “personal” about them, save, perhaps, the painfully bedazzled cell-phone case or an iPod with your name inscribed on the back. Even those aspects seem to speak more about the “value” than the “personal.” Due to our heightened dependence on the largess of the technological empire, whether it be within Network (1976) or reality, our connections to each other are failing deeply. Howard Beale says it perfectly at a different juncture in the film.

Yep, Howard Beale, I couldn’t agree with you more. We ARE in a lot of trouble. These days, it’s not just that one tube we have to contend with. There are chips and boards, and all sorts of wonderful items that create trouble. Oh, Howard, we’ve let you down. 30 years later, have we learned nothing? When you pleaded for us to turn off that set, who actually did? More importantly, was there anyone at that juncture who actually would have? Who didn’t want to see what “happened next”? And ah…therein lies the rub.

We are now a generation of people in need. We need to know, need to have, need to be updated, needneedneed. It is as though we went through two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea and other assorted conflicts, and then, upon getting new technology, decided it was high time to regress to child-like mentality again for everyone so that we can play. The most problematic feature of this (ok, so it’s all problematic, but the very worst one) is that we have no one to parent us or tell us no. Thus, we are losing our way (and each other) as fast as we can develop new toys to play with.

David Wong wrote a brilliant article entitled, “7 Reasons Why The 21st Century Is Making You Miserable” and he hits the nail on the head every single time. He mentions that our social interactions have degenerated to basically less than nothing, making it so that we rarely interact with strangers and we very (if ever) open our friend groups. This alone is heartbreaking. OK, so beyond our retracting our social claws, we also communicate increasingly poorly (almost exclusive through text and online), are almost never criticized (there is a difference between a criticism and an insult…he explains it quite well!), and because most of our friends are online or “virtual,” they are actually a great deal less demanding and therefore the friendship is much less fulfilling and deep. Those are a few of the reasons. I would love you to read the article. It is fantastic and alarmingly accurate.

What Wong hits on is something that I find scariest of all: it is all being taken in stride. Our separation from ourselves and our friends is being shrugged off like a drug charge on Paris Hilton. There is no Howard Beale out there, and if there was, who would listen? These instruments are too much part of our culture now, too convenient…If anyone got upset, all someone would have to do is offer them a free upgrade or a new model and *whoosh*…gone…They would be happy as hell, and gonna find a new app!

As we slip further and further into the abyss of some Cronenberg-ian nightmare, where our Smartphones become part of our hands and our iPods and their holders become permanent bicep attachments from jogging at the gym, it would be nice to think of Howard Beale every so often, and hope that maybe we can figure out a way to put down the techno-toys for a bit before it becomes too late. Unless it is too late. But I would like to think that it isn’t. We need to be responsible about our technologies and each other.

Realistically, I’m not sure I want to know everyone sitting at my coffee shop. But I’m unemployed, I’m lonely, and frankly…I’m game. If we don’t get along, fair enough. But to be perfectly honest, I would rather be out in the world right now trying to have conversations with sentient beings than cooped up in my room continuing a road to ruin and devastation along the lines of what David Wong discusses.

Dear Howard Beale,

Thank you for inspiring the anger in me, and reminding me that I, too, am a human being, goddamnit, and I have value.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!

Love,

Ariel

Every time he says “we”, Beale might as well be saying “I”