Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 9: Kings, Queens and the Vast Middle

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For those who are curious: I only had one drink at Harvest Moon on Monday night in celebration of my 21st (paid for, thankfully, by one of my roommates): a Coke with Captain Morgan mixed with it. Hardly enough to get me drunk (thank goodness), but it was actually a pretty good drink.

It was a pretty good feeling to be able to show off my driver's license to the guy standing at the door and hear him say, "You can go in." In fact, realizing that that day was December 4, 2006, he even wished me a "happy birthday" both when we went in and just as we left.

I don't know how frequent of a barfly I'll become now that I'm 21, but I guess it's nice that I can actually enter into bars now. Who knows? Maybe one of these days---to elaborate on the Charles Bukowski namedrop I threw into my last entry---you'll be seeing me piss drunk, holding my mug of beer up high, and saying "To all my friends!"


In my journalism seminar on documentaries Monday, we watched a two-hour, four-part documentary series about social classes in America that apparently aired a few years ago on public television (alas, it's not available anywhere on video, as far as I've seen; my professor showed us a video copy taped off of television). The series was called People Like Us: Social Class in America, and it was probably the most impressive documentary I've seen in that class all semester (I'm not counting Gillo Pontecorvo's justly celebrated political classic The Battle of Algiers because it isn't nonfiction)---mostly because it trained a pretty wide eye on social classes and inherent social divides in the country, trying to cram in the voices of all major groups, from WASPs to "rednecks" and everyone in the (self-proclaimed) middle.

I could maybe create a whole laundry list of fascinating insights that I gleaned from the film (for instance, isn't it funny, the film points out, how almost everyone---even upper-class celebrities like Jay Leno---likes to label themselves as middle class? Some would rather do that than risk the resentment of others by flouting your upper-class status, whether or not it's actually financially accurate). The most interesting effect the film had on me, however, is that it made me think back on one of my most nagging suspicions: that, in my relatively comfortable suburban existence, I've somehow been stunted of real-world survival skills, somehow been deprived of learning how to really live the way others---perhaps others under my social class---have.

I really hope that doesn't come off as insufferably condescending. Maybe it's my low-self-esteem-shading-into-self-loathing speaking here, but I can't help but respect the hell out of other college students I know who have taken the initiative to try to make it on their own: rent their own apartments or houses, pay their own bills, try to earn their own money while still going to school, etc. What am I doing? Yeah, I occasionally work at the State Theatre on Friday or Saturday evenings, but I don't work nearly enough a week to earn a great deal, and it's not like I'm necessarily struggling to balance my need to earn money with taking classes and doing my homework. And my mother---in spite of her threats a couple of years ago that she had had enough with helping to pay my tuition after I dropped out of the Rutgers Business School at the last minute---still helps me out with some college finances as well as a couple of other personal finances (credit card bills, cell phone bills, stuff like that). No doubt I'm appreciative of her financial help---but sometimes I wonder if, by not being brave enough to financially cut her off almost entirely, I'm stunting my own preparedness for my future success in trying to handle all this stuff by myself. Because she isn't going to help me out forever; even she's made that clear to me.

Thus, I see some of my peers---including one of my roommates---juggling schoolwork, extracurricular activities and a part-time job, and I think: boy, he's most likely more prepared for making it on his own than I feel like I am. I'm especially disturbed by this because I thought I had braced myself enough for struggling on my own as a writer. But has that really sunk in? Or is my clarity clouded by naivete and my relative middle-class good fortune?

I dunno. Not sure if I should be worrying about it now, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern.


I suppose Stephen Frears' The Queen (*** out of ****) is the kind of movie that temperamentally doesn't make me go crazy with enthusiasm: it's an actors' movie, and as such, it concentrates basically on creating an agreeable but not intrusive environment to allow the actors to cut loose. Months from now, no one's going to really be talking about aesthetic daring the way people will probably be discussing The Fountain in such terms in the future (whether or not an individual likes the film or not). The Queen hardly seems like a desperately personal project like Aronofsky's film uncompromisingly is. Instead, a movie like The Queen, with its careful, unobtrusive (though undeniably skillful) craft and emphasis on character and thematic development above all else, will be remembered more for its acting and maybe for its dialogue than for a bold or particularly expressive visual style. If I wanted to be snarky, I'd say this kind of movie was prime Oscar bait (or, to put it in French cinema terms, an American version of the old "Tradition of Quality" against which French New Wave filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut and Resnais rebelled).

And yet, if The Queen is the essentially the stuff that actors' Oscar dreams are made of, it's still a pretty solid movie. It achieves its own kind of perfection not only because of high quality of the performances, but also its fairly vivid and rather moving evocation of the dying customs of the British aristocracy, and one woman's---Queen Elizabeth II---subtly regretful realization that modernization---represented by Tony Blair and his promises of New Labor reform---is creeping up on her and slowly cancelling out her long-cherished belief in tradition and honor.

It's not just about Queen Elizabeth, however. In many ways, it's also about Tony Blair. One of the surprising things I noticed about The Queen is its portrayal of Blair as an understanding person who is adamant about what he wants to do as prime minister, but also sympathizes with the queen to an extent and ultimately tries to save her standing in the public eye as the press---and subsequently the people---start to publicly question her after she refuses to say anything in public about the death of Princess Diana in 1997. A lesser movie, in trying to sentimentalize Queen Elizabeth's regret, might have tried to take easy shots at Blair and the way he and his advisers focus more on public image than with the kind of traditions the queen steadfastly sticks to. But Peter Morgan's script remains honest and unsentimental: it sees the emotions churning on all sides with insight, and, even if it isn't always subtle about its points (Morgan, like Paul Haggis, hails from television, although Morgan strikes me as much smarter and less crude than Haggis generally is), one can't help but admiring the intelligence underlying nearly every line of dialogue.

Does Helen Mirren live up to the hype? I think so, although I can't help but be a little wary about the hype itself. I mean, hasn't she been considered a more-than-respectable actress for a while now? What's so special about this performance that is causing Oscar buzz? Is it just because she plays a real-life queen---a pretty easy ticket to an Oscar nomination if done well? Maybe, maybe not. So let me just suggest that she goes deeper than impersonation-level creates a warm, understanding portrayal of a mostly hard, intimidating character, one that doesn't talk down to the way she holds on to "antiquated" royal customs. But it's not just Mirren's movie. To me, Tony Blair is arguably the second main character of this piece---the man who admirably tries to bridge the gap between old and new---and actor Michael Sheen inhabits him with as much subtlety as Mirren does with Queen Elizabeth. For all we know, Tony Blair may well just be trying to curry favor with the person who is supposed to invite you to the P.M. position; Sheen---undoubtedly with the help of the script---is able to suggest this without shortchanging Blair's eager yet knowing and mature disposition.

At the end of The Queen, it's quite possible that American viewers will not only have a greater knowledge of British custom and tradition, but also have a greater appreciation for the very human feelings a person in a position of royalty might have when faced with the dawning realization that a way of life has personally passed for you. Well, whether or not a movie like The Queen represents the pinnacle of great moviemaking, that kind of sympathy for a personality other than your own is certainly something movies can accomplish just as well as novels or plays. On that count, this film must be counted as a success. I don't know if I'll be remembering this movie as much as I will, say, A Prairie Home Companion or The Science of Sleep---or even the flawed yet oft-dazzling Fountain---maybe a year from now, but on its own unassuming terms it's a sympathetic, warm, engaging piece of work.


Anonymous said...

Some feedback on some of your self disclosures: Sure, it feels good to be able to go into a bar and order a drink and do it legally. After all, you waited 21 years for this. I know you are realistic though about drinking and how, for so many people of all ages, it is a disruptive and negative influence in their lives. Everything from a DUI to getting hit by a drunk driver to domestic violence to homelessness is related to alcohol; and surely you know that writers have been particularly prone to heavy drinking and drinking is a habit that builds and escalates upon itself.........I am sure you know all this......(Sorry, don't mean to be preaching here.)

As for the other issue you mentioned: its really the norm for middle class kids to be supported through the college years and to work very little, or if they do, to still get support from mom and dad. You are well within the standard on this. When you graduate (assuming you do not go directly to grad school) you will most likely get a job and assume a greater role in supporting yourself. So, you really have nothing to feel bad about at this point because what you are doing is what most middle class college students do now and have done in the recent past. You're ok.

Kenji Fujishima said...

So, you really have nothing to feel bad about at this point because what you are doing is what most middle class college students do now and have done in the recent past. You're ok.

I sure hope so. It's just that I sometimes feel like I've been handed too much by my parents. It's not that I'm ungrateful; it's just that I sometimes fear that I just haven't been equipped enough to be able to deal with living on my own. Even though I'm living away from home, I feel like that doesn't necessarily mean anything right now; I'm not struggling to pay my way through like other people are. And sometimes it seems like people who are struggling---and not the "standard" college students---are a lot wiser about certain little things about living than certainly I am, with my relative inexperience in juggling jobs, work, etc.

Perhaps my recent flash of apprehension is exacerbated by high expectations: now that I'm pursuing a path that my mother doesn't approve of, I feel the burden of fulfilling expectations. If I'm not able to support myself somehow doing journalism...well, it'll just justify all the pressure she put on me before I "rebelled" against her. "I told you so," in essence. I know I shouldn't think about that, but you know me: I can't help but think a little bit on the negative side sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Well, you think alot on the negative side sometimes,LOL. If you can't support yourself doing journalism than you will teach, if that doesnt work out than you will do something else. I doubt you will starve; you will use your creative energies to be productive, I am sure. Think of your life as being fluid; it is not written in stone that you will pursue just one path; it could be many paths or a combination of paths. You know that you will never exactly fulfill expectations anyway so stop worrying about that. Just keep going, see how the career goes and change direction if that's what is needed. It will all work out.

Kenji Fujishima said...

It will all work out.

Again, I sure hope so. Hopefully that won't end up simply being wishful thinking in my case, b/c sometimes---and maybe it's just b/c I've been around my parents too long---that's what it sounds like sometimes. (I mean, is it easy to simply change career paths just like that?)

Anonymous said...

Nothing that is worthwhile in life is really "easy". But, yes, as long as you are young and healthy, changing career paths is something that is done all the time and often with great success. At this time, the world is wide open to you depending on your motivation, drive and creativity; there are many directions you can take and you are not locked into your first choices.