Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
CLASS? OR SEX? WHAT SHALL I DO?
by Michelle Said
(editor’s note: we are republishing this essay, originally written in 2011, in honor of the 15th Anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, which is, literally, today.)
My high school years were not all that special. I fell into a group of girls on the first day of school that would be my friends for the following four years. Two of those girls were my best friends for three years and then my worst enemies for one year, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here (we are still not friends). So, I was kind of stuck in a rut. I wasn’t cool, but I wasn’t a geek. I was a Quiet Girl, who was in a group of Quiet Girls, placed in the smart kid classes who tended to monitor classmates with a scowl. (I would later come to realize this was a product of the chronic bitchface that was partially a result of my natural, unabashed skepticism and partially a result of bitchface genes, passed down from generations of bitchfaced Saids.)
I didn’t like most people in my high school. And yet, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to put my mark on the school. And, most importantly, I wanted to have something on my college application that was more accomplished than, “Can recite in order every TRL #1 hit from the year 1998,” or “Has seen every episode of Daria more than five times,” or “Obscene knowledge of the Back to the Future trilogy.”
And so, bizarrely, I became editor of my high school yearbook.
This did not make me beloved, or recognized at all, actually. When I would interview people for the yearbook, they would often squint at me before saying, “Oh, we have Spanish together, right?” However, it did allow me to become prematurely nostalgic for the ‘90s, a trait that has now fully evolved into my current obsession.
When you are the editor of your high school yearbook, it is, at the very least, your responsibility to include every single one of the two thousand odd people who have gone to your high school over the past school year. Every face should shine from glossy pages; every team, every club, every teacher must be featured. If you are somewhat more ambitious, you might be creative and try to distill every memory into an easily digestible form. You might condense personalities into superlatives, make sure there are enough pages at the end of the book for people to autograph, dab in a joke or two to make people laugh, but be prescient enough to make them not so obscure that you will know what they mean when you are in your middle age and can’t see your toes.
So when I rewatched Can’t Hardly Wait for this essay, the heavens opened up, I gazed up into the space above and I came upon an epiphany, which was, “Can’t Hardly Wait is better than any yearbook I could have ever made.” Maybe people who went to high school in the ’80s felt that way about John Hughes movies, or maybe that’s just the thing about Can’t Hardly Wait because everything is time-capsuled so perfectly for me, personally, as a person who went to high school in the late 1990s. The fashions (chunky black heels, baby tees, fitted leather jackets, Seth Green’s entire wannabe boy band get-up), the music (I counted two Eve 6 songs in the first 15 minutes), the actors themselves (Jennifer Love Hewitt is the hottest girl in school, because of course she is, it’s the ‘90s).
The movie came and went pretty innocuously. Critics who couldn’t relate didn’t give it much of a second glance. It was sandwiched between a whole bunch of teen horror movies (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and updated Shakespearean classics (which was really a thing in the ‘90s: Romeo + Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You). But it held a special place in my heart for its inclusiveness: if American Pie was for the dudes and She’s All That was for the chicks, Can’t Hardly Wait was for everybody.
Like The Breakfast Club, the movie deals in stereotypes. There’s the lovable, bookish nerd Preston (Ethan Embry, who has those puppy dog eyes that just kill me every time), who has the unrequited crush on high school princess Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who just got dumped by the school football star Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), a douche so powerful that he goes by two names all the time. Preston whines to his best friend, Denise (Lauren Ambrose), the Daria of the film, that he has gone four whole years without declaring his love for the object of his affection and then staunchly declares that it will all change! That night! So of course it will!
Oh, and there’s also a Revenge of the Nerds plot headed by the school valedictorian. And we can’t forget the irrepressible Kenny (Seth Green) whose sole mission is to get laid before he starts college at UCLA in the fall:
“They say here ninety-two percent of the honeys at UCLA are sexually active. Ninety-two percent of the women in Los Angeles at UCLA walking around going, “Class… or sex? What shall I do?” Ninety-two percent, yo! Hey, you know what that means? It means I gots a ninety-two percent chance of embarrassing myself. I roll up on that shorty be like, “What’s up yo?” she be like, “You don’t know 20 different ways to make me call you Big Poppa” cuz I don’t yo.”
Kenny’s subplot basically became a movie of its own a year later, co-starring a warm apple pie.
The characters interact over the course of the film in separate but equal plotlines, with a single thread—Preston’s crush on Amanda—to lead us through. It’s like if Dubliners were placed in some generic American suburb and then also dumbed down a whole heckuva lot.
Did I just compare Can’t Hardly Wait to Dubliners?
These are the stereotypes that come naturally to the viewer because they’ve been pounded into our head for decades. Which came first? John Hughes movies or the “nerd, outcast, rebel, princess, jock” quintet? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg debate that would take a lot of research on my part to solve finally and forever once-and-for-all—and so I won’t. Let’s just agree that we’ve been dealing with these characters for ages now.
Watching Can’t Hardly Wait is like reliving my own final night of high school all over again. Well, kind of. Actually, not at all. I had nothing that equaled that kind of party, mainly because I didn’t go to a party at all. My family was moving a few days after I graduated, so I had to go home to pack up my room. Unlike Preston, there was no Vonnegut class for me to take, no train to hop onto, no Yaz soundtrack or blossoming romance, only a six hour drive away to a new home and a new town due to my dad’s new job. I don’t remember anything about the night of graduation. I don’t remember anything at all.
For a former Keeper of Memories (read: yearbook editor), my memory is obscenely weak and ineffectual. I am notorious for receiving Facebook friend requests from profiles that tell me that we have 23 mutual friends in common and graduated from the same high school in the same year and drawing a blank. (I get updates from a dude named TJ that I am pretty much convinced is fooling everybody else in my high school but I’m too embarrassed to ask any of my friends.) High school now comes to me as a blur; I only remember snapshots. I remember climbing into the back of my friend’s truck and going off-roading in the hills by our high school, clinging on to the sides of the bed. I remember ditching class for the first time ever my senior year to go to the beach and digging my toes into the sand as I sipped a cherry lemonade from Hot Dog on a Stick. I remember playing Never Have I Ever on ten fingers and struggling to defeat my equally prudish friend. The cool air on our cheeks as we walked up and down the green suburban hills. I remember these moments of my past, but only briefly, like a whisper in my ear.
In comparison to my hazy memories, watching Can’t Hardly Wait is akin to entering a time machine. The weird thing is, the movie utilizes actors that sparked feelings of nostalgia even for audiences who saw it in theaters when it was released. Ethan Embry, our lead, was the wide-eyed kid in Empire Records, Melissa Joan Hart in her cameo as Yearbook Girl had everybody gasping that Clarissa, Explainer of it All was being shoved around at a drunken party, Jerry O’Connell, who at that point was known simply as being the fat kid from Stand By Me (and also Sliders, if you’re a sci-fi geek like me), is plopped down as a has-been jock, and Donald Faison embodies Clueless just by standing there and grinning. Can’t Hardly Wait was a film released in 1998 that was already nostalgic for the ‘90s.
Does this make it a “good” movie? No. I guess not. It’s not a “good” movie — there’s no message to take away, there’s no deeper meaning. There’s no symbolism and the stories are kind of mushed up in a haze. The good guy gets the girl, the jock and the nerd find a drunken truce together, the two misfits “work out their differences” (read: bone).
So if someone were to ask me what Can’t Hardly Wait is about, I would say, “It’s a movie about a party on the last night of high school.” But that’s not what it’s really about. It’s really about me. Or it’s about what I didn’t have. To this day, I remember Can’t Hardly Wait more clearly than I remember any party I went to in high school. I could start a whole other essay on how pop culture is ruining us, obfuscating our memories and killing our brain cells, but, truth be told, I like it better this way.
Michelle Said did not write “Denise Fleming is a tampon” on your locker.
Spirited Away (2001)
GROWING UP AS ANTI-ADULTHOOD
by Mike Rowe
If you’re an adult, you probably don’t sit in the backseat much anymore. When you drive you probably drive alone. Occasionally there’s a passenger. If you or someone else actually ends up in the backseat, the impromptu conversation becomes vaguely medical: “How are your knees, are they okay? Too cramped?” You’re too young to be discussing orthopedic surgery, but get into the backseat of a car as an adult and you’re roughly halfway to your first consultation.
When you’re a child, though, you sit in the backseat nearly every time you get into a car, and everyone assumes your joints are fully functional. When you vacation, you “take a drive,” not a plane. Two-hour car trips are interminable. Life seems long and endless because it nearly is. All you want to do is get out the door you came in. Run wild or, conversely, just cease. When you’re a kid, a long car ride is the rotten totem of never-ending life.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away opens with a child in the backseat. She leans between her parents in the front. She objects to the notion that she has to move away from her friends, her school, and her home. Then her father takes a wrong turn, and his grin waxes possessed as they speed down an unknown forest road, arriving at an enigmatic gate. They pass through it on foot. Soon enough, Chihiro’s mother seems possessed as well. She and Chihiro’s father ravenously consume the food that seems abandoned, piping hot, in the apparently vacant—what, fairground? There are no rides, only some barren alleyways, tents with food, and then an enormous house, flared in reds and blues, across a footbridge. This is Yubaba’s bathhouse, a spa for gods and monsters.
One of the more miraculous aspects of Spirited Away is the fashion in which its whimsical details also seem threatening—but only to Chihiro. For the viewer, the world of ghosts and gods and witches into which Chihiro has been flung seems charming even when a large, semi-transparent monster sprays gold from his palms to entice the greedy employees of the bathhouse before proceeding to swallow them whole, salivating and grunting like one of the pigs into which Chihiro’s parents have been transformed. In part, this effect is due to the soundtrack, which manages to scale back the weird in just the right way, with either light tones or bright, orchestral swells. Nevertheless, monsters and impossible distance clot Chihiro’s escape route. Yubaba, who reluctantly hires Chihiro, has stolen her name and keeps her parents ensconced with their trough.
Even trickier, smell, which is usually an underplayed sense in film, tends to erupt starkly in Spirited Away. The movie concentrates maniacally on the effects of stench and registers them vividly, facially. Whether it’s the contorted expressions of Chihiro’s parents as they consume the food that will transfigure them, or the wind-tunnel-skewed faces of those who direct an unstoppable Stink God to his bath, smell casts a physical shadow on the eyes, mouths, and twitching noses of characters throughout the movie.
But in a film colonized by clever details, the most convincing and wrenching one comes, I think, when Chihiro is given a scrap of food that will “give you your strength back,” and then musters the energy to weep. The timing seems perfect. The restorative food permits a cresting of grief. It even strikes me as basically true, because maybe comfort fills you up and prepares you for release. Catharsis may literally be a purging, but Chihiro’s jag of tears suggests that crying’s corrective is about redistributing energy. She can only go on if she can spit out this bubble of misery, those lovingly animated tears that wash her face and chin. It seems ludicrous to call her tears cartoonish, but they are drawn in a distinct way, glassier like baubles and more outsized than other aspects of the film’s story. They seem a gift somehow.
And the narrative itself revises that cherished bildungsroman theme: Chihiro matures, yet Spirited Away effects this transformation by revealing her virtue to be an anti-adult one. She resists all indulgence. She alone refuses the slavering monster’s gold, she begs off the enchanted food her parents can’t deny, and most crucially, she doesn’t look back when a single peek might seem the most innocent satisfaction of curiosity. In a world that is literally animated (for the viewer) by an accumulation of smart wonders, Chihiro proves herself by throwing off distraction and obsessive observation. She is not enchanted in the same way the film’s viewers are, but rather measured and shrewd about her presence in this alternate world.
In a story as dedicatedly straightforward—for all its wit—as Spirited Away is, the real joy of the film lies in the way it honors both Chihiro’s initial reluctance to be in the backseat, moved against her will, and her later desire to return to her new, unloved destination. She is ready for the endless backseat. By learning how to arrive in Yubaba’s kingdom, to inhabit it and its rules, Chihiro unfolds a “where” that, if it accustoms her to arrival, also becomes a place she can leave. Thus the beauty of Spirited Away’s sidestep into a fantasy world is that it allows its own story to mingle escape with homecoming, to deploy them simultaneously. And in the end, the movie bestows Chihiro with the kind of experience only magic or maybe the movies give us: She gets to go back out the door she came in. After all, home is the place we have to be most at peace with leaving.
Michael Rowe lives, studies, and teaches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He tumbls here.
Star Treks, Iron Men, and the Movies: Examining the Franchise in Hollywood
by James Smith
I’ve written at some length previously about the dearth of original projects in today’s Hollywood, and 2013 seems set to bear out the trend for another year. As of the time of this writing, four of the top six movies of the year, in terms of domestic gross, are products of familiar franchises (Iron Man, The Wizard of Oz, G.I. Joe, and Star Trek, respectively); if you expand that definition to include movies based on extremely familiar source material, you could make that statistic six of the top nine (adding in The Great Gatsby and 42). I hesitate to call that a problem, exactly, because people clearly like watching stories that they are already familiar with. This is the era of film in which we live, and it would be both snobbish and shortsighted to claim that there isn’t good work being done within its strictures. Even Iron Man 3, as frequently disappointing as it was, managed to have one of the year’s most refreshing and subversive cinematic moments. Nonetheless, I’ve been finding myself increasingly troubled with such franchise films, not because I don’t find them entertaining or worth watching but because of how they warp the understanding and development of story.
There is, to be sure, always an issue of representation in adapting any sort of source material for the screen, ranging from questions of casting (is Leonardo DiCaprio the right person to play Jay Gatsby?) to problems of pruning (is there really space for developing the romance between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway?). I think, however, that that issue is always exacerbated in films that take on franchises with established mythologies and large, fervent fan bases, as is the case with Star Trek and the multitude of comic book movies that have been invading our cinemas since X-Men broke the seal back in 2000. Writers and directors are no longer tasked with figuring out the best way to bring a text from page to screen, because, often, there is no strict source material from which to choose. Rather, their job becomes about servicing a fan base, finding a way to bring the universe to life while also fitting a story into it. Narrative, in other words, comes second, losing its precedential place to the concern of meeting the expectation of the audience.
One will contend that every movie has to ‘meet the expectation of the audience,’ which statement is self-evidently true. The problem with such franchises, though, is that the expectation of the audience becomes itself suspect, operating against, not towards, the success of a film qua film.
Usually, it is the need to meet the expectations of its audience that forces movies to innovate, to bring to that audience themes or ideas or images that it has never before seen, to tell satisfying stories in interesting ways. Yes, there are plenty of movies out there that are content to be mediocre or mindless and fulfill only our basest needs: franchises like Fast and Furious wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t some desire for lowbrow fun. Both critically and financially, though, the most successful films are the ones that reach for genuine innovation; even Avatar, silly as it was, opened up a new visual landscape for the movies to explore, and rode that to become the highest-grossing film to date.
The problem of the franchise film, however, isn’t that its aim is to fulfill our need for lowbrow entertainment; a $40 million opening weekend makes a bona fide hit out of a movie like the first installment of the Fast and Furious series, but that won’t quite cut it for any franchise film that cost in excess of $100 million to make. Rather, the problem of the franchise film is that its path to success is laid out, not in terms of its narrative consistency or visual power, but through an appeasement of an audience that already has, a priori, ownership over the film. Put another way: franchise films don’t have the freedom to present a story, but are instead limited to treading ground already familiar to their intended audience. There are two central and equally off-putting elements to this lack of freedom. First, such films rely on our prior knowledge of their characters and mythologies to give weight to events happening on screen, rather than developing import through the construction of their narrative. Second, the stories that these movies can tell are circumscribed to those already known, in one form or another, to the audience.
I’m going to use Star Trek as my main example for both points, because it’s the only one of these universes that I’m particularly familiar with and because it’s the franchise film most recently released; accordingly, if you haven’t seen it, and you’re planning to, this would be a good time to click away from this article.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that sets out to reinvent and celebrate its source material all at once, an effort that is nowhere more perfectly demonstrated than in a scene late in the film that duplicates one of the most famous moments from The Wrath of Khan but inverts the roles of the characters involved. And, really, this inverted moment in Star Trek Into Darkness perfectly encapsulates both parts of the argument of this essay. On the one hand, it deliberately plays on its juxtaposition with the scene from the earlier movie to heighten its dramatic import, pulling out the emotion felt for the previous moment and applying it to the new one. On the other hand, it has the movie falling back onto a story already well familiar in the mythological history of Star Trek, that of the great enmity between Khan and the crew of the Enterprise.
Admittedly, allusion and re-creation are elements at play in all fiction, and the audacity of the scene makes it the most fascinating moment in the entire movie. There is a difference, however, between a moment heightened by referencing another work of art and a narrative that cannot realize itself without relying on those references. And Star Trek Into Darkness, like most franchise films, belongs in the latter category. To someone watching the movie with no prior knowledge of the franchise, the death of Commodore Pike at the beginning would be interchangeable with that of any other little-known father figure that the filmmakers might have chosen. Because Pike has a certain backstory known to fans of the franchise, though, the specificity of that detail gives the moment an unearned effect. Similarly, when a few lines of breathless dialogue place Khan in hiding on ‘the Klingon homeworld,’ the casual viewer will get the impression that this is a dangerous, bad place, while those familiar with Star Trek will have the pleasure of knowing that this is a really big deal, goddammit.
Meanwhile, the choice in Star Trek Into Darkness to make Khan its villain—much like the egregious reveal in last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises that the true antagonist of the piece was in fact a well-known villainess of the comic book’s world—highlights the sense that audiences don’t want new stories so much as new versions of stories that they already know. Each universe has its stock of sidekicks and bad guys, each of whom has his or her own place in the meta-storyline; that is to say, however many versions exist of each character’s story, the fundamentals of what he does and how he impacts the hero don’t change. In theory, part of the fun of these universes is the room to create narratives never before seen or imagined by an audience. In fact, though, by the time such a universe has grown into its own as a franchise, its mythology has congealed to the point that it no longer has that freedom.
The purpose of the franchise film, then, is not so much to tell a story so much as it is to show an audience in a new medium what they are already familiar with in an old one. In its best forms and moments, it can either subvert its mythology, as with Ben Kingsley’s brilliant performance in Iron Man 3, or it can transcend it to become a great story that just so happens to take place in a franchise universe, as in The Dark Knight. Most franchise films, however, are like Star Trek or The Avengers, wherein story becomes little more than an accessory to what the audience really wanted: not a compelling narrative but the sight of familiar heroes and villains fighting familiar battles.
I don’t want to go so far as to say that there’s no place for that; there is something comforting in a familiar story, be it a Homeric epic, an Arthurian romance, or a Jedi mind trick. The difference is that, in those stories that never seem to age, the mythology has grown up around and because of the narrative; Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere always have familiar characteristics and storylines because that’s the way the story goes. Crucially, the story itself is so familiar that it can be altered by a storyteller to give his own take on it. The franchise film is the opposite, with story dictated by the need to appease the audience by way of its familiarity.
There was a moment in Iron Man 3 where it seemed poised to take its material in an altogether new direction and become the first bona fide superhero comedy. Unsurprisingly, it veered away almost immediately, resorting instead to a tired climactic battle sequence inside a naval yard where it’s okay to have as many explosions as you want. In the end, the need for the franchise film to embody its franchise killed off its opportunity to offer a story that was genuinely new. In other words, the very thing that made the movie appealing to its audience prevented it from becoming the best movie that it could be.
James Smith (@jentlemanjames) lives in Los Angeles, CA, where he works in the film industry and writes essays on the business and art of the movies. More of his work can be found at his website.
NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT.
by Elizabeth Cantwell
I am not a Carrie. I am not a Miranda or a Samantha or a Charlotte. I’m also not a Rachel or a Monica (although I’m sometimes a Chandler, just like I’m sometimes a Liz Lemon, although not nearly as often as my glasses would have you believe). I love watching Peggy and Joan and Betty and Megan, but I’m not any of them, either.
I’m an Elaine.
Of course, playing the who-am-I game is essentially an exercise in fantasy. The girls running around claiming to be Samanthas or Joans really want to be like those characters. Whether they actually are is another question entirely. And sure, some of the same fantasy is at play in my own psyche when I say “I’m an Elaine”; when I mentioned this to Chris the other night, he wasted no time in responding, “You WISH you were an Elaine.”
So, okay, guilty as charged. I wish I were an Elaine! But why? What is it about Elaine that I love, whenI love so shockingly few women on TV and in the movies? Which of her characteristics do I admire, covet, adore, envy?
The correct answer to this question should probably be “none of them.” Elaine is not someone to emulate. In fact, if you’re emulating anyone on Seinfeld, you’re doing it wrong. These are awful, selfish characters, as the infamous season finale shows us in no uncertain terms. They’re petty, mean, self-absorbed, lacking in empathy. Over the course of the sitcom, George shoves children and elderly people out of the way to escape from a burning building; Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye from an old woman; Kramer carelessly leaves a lit Cuban cigar by some newspapers in Susan’s family’s cabin, burning the cabin to the ground; and Elaine abducts a neighbor’s dog and drives it miles out of the city before leaving it on a random doorstep. And these are just token examples of the near-hatefulness that these characters incubate in their deepest, darkest selves.
Elaine: All right, all right, look, I don’t have grace, I don’t want grace, I don’t even say grace, okay? (“The Chaperone”)
But despite this bleak reality, I can’t help myself. I love almost everything about Elaine. I love that she’s obnoxious, that she can be crude at a moment’s notice, that she is the worst dancer on earth. (That last one is made all the more wonderful by the sheer unabashedness of her bodily malfunctions, the freedom with which she makes a mockery of the dance floor.) I love that she’s allowed to be weird, to be unattractive—for example, she’s told by a blind date that she has a huge head (“The Andrea Doria”), and a pigeon later confirms this by running into it.
I love that she eats on screen—a lot—and it’s so normal that she doesn’t even have to say a bunch of jokey punchlines about it. Liz Lemon is perhaps a good counterexample here—she’s also often portrayed eating, but whether it’s a donut or a pizza or a piece of cheese, the food is always the punchline to a joke. Because watching a cute woman eat a lot is just HILARIOUS to us, right? But Elaine, she just walks into Jerry’s kitchen and starts eating cereal—or ice cream, or muffins—while talking about the weather or about how she hates her roommate or about toupees. Not one word about the food. It’s almost as though she’s just eating because she’s hungry or even—gasp!—because she simply wants to. This is maybe the healthiest portrayal of a woman’s appetite I’ve ever seen on screen.
Speaking of appetites, Elaine is also granted the license to have a sexual appetite—a pretty ravenous one, at that—but, refreshingly, Seinfeld and Larry David don’t use that to define who she is. She has sex with a lot of guys, sure. And it’s played for laughs sometimes—who can forget “The Sponge,” in which Elaine’s preferred method of birth control is being taken off the market, and she has to decide whether a man is “sponge-worthy” or not? She even masturbates (“The Contest”)!
But though she operates as a sexual being, it’s not her primary function, as is common with so many female sitcom characters (there are probably about five minutes total of Sex And The City during which the main characters are not talking about 1) trying to get with a man, 2) how they’re dating someone but having problems, or 3) bemoaning the end of a relationship). Elaine’s a lover, but she’s also allowed to be a writer and a woman with an IQ of 145 and an Orioles fan and a French literature major and a friend. We’re not forced to see her through the lens of sex – but, refreshingly, she’s also not excluded from that lens.
Kramer: I got news for you: handicapped people, they don’t even want to park there! They wanna be treated just like anybody else! That’s why, those spaces are always empty.
George: He’s right! It’s the same thing with the feminists. You know, they want everything to be equal, everything! But when the check comes, where are they?
Elaine: What’s that supposed to mean?
Elaine rarely gets the one-liners. She’s more in the business of dry asides. And I like her that way. Upon re-watching some of my favorite episodes, Jerry Seinfeld’s delivery seems almost unbearably cheesy. (Seinfeld delivers his lines like Jimmy Fallon right before he’s about to crack in an SNL skit—the smug smile, the bemused I’m-making-a-joke attitude.) Kramer is hilarious, but his comedy is purely physical—and the whole racism thing still taints Michael Richards a little bit for me. Jason Alexander is still funny—sometimes brilliantly so—but his character is so over-the-top that he verges on grating. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, however, is the comedic cornerstone of the group. She’s pitch-perfect in her delivery. She flies under the radar. Her timing is impeccable in its subtlety.
Elaine transcends the ’90s heyday of the show and stands alone as a strange and beautiful and frustrating commentary about what it means to live in a world where it’s Every Man For Himself (as Roger Sterling so appropriately said to Peggy a few weeks ago on Mad Men). This might stem, in part, from the character’s unnatural conception. Elaine was, after all, written into the show subsequent to the original script because NBC was concerned about drawing in a female demographic. And Jerry and Larry, in turn, were concerned about not being able to write in a voice that was convincingly “female” enough. So what we get is a woman who’s stuck in this world just because it didn’t have a woman to begin with—this paradox of a thing, this pH strip of a person who appears out of nowhere to reflect back to these delusional men a little corner of their actual existences.
I’ve read some essays criticizing the character of Elaine from a “feminist” perspective for just being “one of the guys,” and thus not being an accurate reflection of female life. I think that’s unfair. Hanging out with a lot of men doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to be a man, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re not an authentic woman. It just makes you … a woman who gets along with guys. I grew up with far more male friends than female friends; at various points in my life, I was used to being the only woman in my social group. There’s nothing good or bad about that. I’m a woman who has made a career out of building walls, who gets anxious about hugging, who can become defensive at the worst times, who secretly enjoys wearing huge, bulky cardigans and blazers that would be a better fit on her dad.
Who, sometimes, lets the mask slip and is suddenly, brutally exposed.
Elaine: Let me tell you, I didn’t intentionally bare myself, but now, I wish I had. For it’s not me who has been exposed, but you! For I have seen the nipple on your soul!
Watching Seinfeld is an adventure in exposure, in seeing the nipple on your own soul. We know, as we see George eating from the trash, that these people should disgust us. But when the TV turns off, in that moment just between being swallowed by a fantasy and attempting not to be swallowed by your own life—in that moment when you’re alone with yourself—it’s clear that you’re too much like these characters to feel repulsed by them. You can empathize far too easily.
Sometimes we watch television to escape our lives. The best television refuses to let us. It turns the tables.
Watching Seinfeld, all I can do is take the first step: admit that I have problem. I, too, am a woman who sometimes drinks too much and tells secrets. I, too, am vindictive; even manipulative. I’m a horrible driver. I cry too much, just like Elaine cries when she hears the Bubble Boy’s story. I make fun of people behind their backs. I always want a big salad, and I can never spare a square.
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m an Elaine.
If you need Elizabeth Cantwell, you may be able to find her eating black and white cookies and yelling at The English Patient. You can also find her here.
The Burning (1981)
NOT YOUR USUAL CAMPFIRE STORY.
by Letitia Trent
Sometimes it feels like the most difficult part of my marriage is the fact that my husband, Zach, has an aversion to horror movies and I have a morbid drive to watch horror movies, sometimes obsessively. Not only do I like horror movies, but I like horror movies that are intentionally depressing and probably traumatizing. Give me Last House on the Left (the original, please) any day over Shaun of the Dead (though Shaun of the Dead is amazing, of course). As I’ve been watching slasher movies for my other movie-related project (The Brood podcast), I’ve found a curious point of convergence: Zach has seen many, many more slashers than I have. He watched them on weekend movie nights with his parents or on late-night cable. He saw most of them when he was a pre-teen or a teenager, during that golden time when all you really want is to see boobs and blood—and slashers provided both, in excess.
I never watched slashers when I was growing up, and I never really wanted to, either. Something about the apparent humor in the killings, the obsession with teen ceremonies like proms or camp, and the excessive focus on women and sexuality did not appeal to me—I was bookish and nerdy; my idol was Emily Dickinson. I never went to camp and intended to never go to prom (I did, eventually, end up going to prom). I hoped I would someday live hermetically enough to make singular, isolated poetry that almost nobody would read until I was long dead. I did not want to participate in what seemed liked the lowly cultural ceremony of slasher films. I loved horror films in general, and my reading always tended toward darker fiction, but slashers seemed to be “fun horror”, and I wasn’t interested in fun. I was interested in everything being very serious business, and I did not believe that slasher films were serious business enough for my concern.
The more slasher movies I watch now, the more I realize how very wrong I was (not about the fun part, but about the not-serious-business part). Film critics in the 80’s quickly picked up on the ways that slasher films worked with guilt, gender, subjectivity, and a variety of other issues (the critics Carol Clover and Vera Dika, in particular, have excellent books on these subjects). Two major elements dominate the slasher genre in its most “classic” forms—the “final girl” character, the only survivor of a stalking and killing spree, and a first-person POV camera, which allows us to see “through the eyes” of the killer, often in voyeuristic shots of hapless teens in various forms of undress (think Halloween or Friday the 13th). Other common elements in these films include the teenagers being “hunted down” and killed based on some event in the past which is “activated” in the present.
One of my favorite slashers is The Burning, a summer camp slasher film that I’d never seen or even heard of before my pre-podcast slasher binge. The camp slasher is probably my favorite sub-sub genre—from the truly bizarre Sleepaway Camp to the formally classical Friday the 13th, this genre provides a particularly potent metaphor for the wild territory of adulthood and adult sexuality. The foresty campsite creates not only an often beautiful and compelling setting for mayhem, but a forest is also one of the most potent archetypes we have. Is there a better setting than the forest for a story about becoming an adult, dealing with sexuality, and facing monsters?
The Burning begins in the typical camp slasher fashion—a few young campers pull a prank that goes wrong and leads to the burning of a camp employee named Cropsey. A few years later, a collection of young men and young women converge on a campsite, all hormones and jokes—the usual mix of sexuality and cruelty—and Cropsey is back, wielding an enormous pair of garden shears.
The Burning stands out from similar films due to the complexity of characterizations and the ways in which the plot manipulates our expectations. For example, it’s not completely clear who the “main character” is in this film, or who the “last girl” figure will be, until the very end—unlike many slashers, this film most closely follows a group of young men instead. The group includes the funny and universally-liked Dave (Jason Alexander!), the bully, Glazer (Larry Joshua), the neurotic-yet-loveable Woodstock (Fisher Stevens), and the bullied Alfred (Brian Backner), who is called, among other things, a “creep” and “pervert”, all things that the other boys are trying desperately not to be.
Seinfeld: The Early Years
Interestingly, the movie does not play these dynamics out in the expected way. Although Glazer is clearly a bully, he’s also clearly overcompensating, and nobody seems to actually like him. Glazer is bigger, stronger, and more evidently handsome than the other young men, but he still can’t really get his girl Sally (Carrick Glenn) to sleep with him without resorting to whining—and even their sexual experience is underwhelming (“Is that it?” Sally asks once he is done, and apologizes for his poor performance). It has to be one of the saddest sex scenes in teen slasher history.
He takes out his frustrations on Alfred, a friendless character who represents all the emasculation and lack of power that Glazer fears. Alfred isn’t completely sympathetic, either. He is, technically, a bit creepy, and in an early scene of the film, we see the first-person camera voyeuristically viewing Sally as she showers. This subjective use of the camera is typically from the POV of the killer, but the camera here breaks away when Sally shouts—and shows us we are actually seeing all of this through Alfred’s eyes. This association of a particular voyeuristic point of view with both Alfred and the killer, Cropsey, draws a parallel between them: both lack the kind of sexual power they want, and both can only come in contact with women by viewing them from a distance.
A great deal of The Burning takes place in the joking, bullying, and horsing around between these young men, and as we get to know them, one thing becomes painfully clear; they all want, desperately, for the young women to notice them. In one particularly poignant scene, Dave brings all of the guys contraband, like condoms and girly magazines. Glazer, anticipating sex with Sally, says that pornography is for perverts—he wants the real thing. It’s an odd line (I’ve never heard a teenager speak disparagingly of the power of pornography), but it shows how desperately Glazer wants to be a “real” man. These teenagers are trying to figure out how to be adults in the world, how to have meaningful relationships, and the killer, Cropsey, represents everything they fear—it’s impossible for him to even hire a woman for sex (the first scene after he emerges from the hospital involves him murdering a prostitute who is horrified by his burned face), and he lacks all power or status.
The Burningalso distinguishes itself by infusing even its minor characters with actual personality. While in most slashers the characters outside of the primary characters are largely disposable, here they have moments of real reflection, expressing shock and horror at the death of the other teenagers around them. I found myself hoping for the survival of my favorite minor characters—the adorable Woodstock, who takes Vitamin E pills for his health, for example, or Dave, who has all of the confidence and good-naturedness that Jason Alexander’s later Seinfeld character lacked almost entirely. In one significant scene, after campers find a raft full of dead fellow teenagers, the camera lingers over the campers, showing them simply overcome with emotion: crying, some on the ground, being embraced by the older characters. It’s a strange scene, which seems to come from an entirely different sort of movie, but The Burning is full of surprises like this.
The filmis also about gender in a way that makes it unique—about how young men deal with feelings of inadequacy and questions regarding exactly how to have the “right” kind of adult male sexuality. Plus, the film is just good—the cast (which also includes a young Holly Hunter!) is winning and emotionally compelling, the movie itself is lushly dark and woodsy, and the surprising turns of the plot both fulfill the genre expectations and complicate them. While slasher films are definitely not for everyone, The Burning is both a characteristic film within the genre and an anomaly as well, and certainly worth a watch for anyone interested in the much-maligned and easily parodied slasher film.
Letitia Trent is a writer and poet living in Colorado. She tumbls here.
TIME AND SMALL SPACE
by Emily Yoshida
In an interview with The Village Voice shortly after his debut feature film Primer premiered at Sundance in 2004, writer/director/actor/autodidact Shane Carruth explains his primary gripe with time travel in science fiction, and it probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of. He points out that most sci-fi writers and filmmakers don’t account for the position of the earth at the time that the traveler arrives in relation to the time that he departs. Every fictional machine seems to be affected by the drag of the earth’s spin and orbit, even though, hypothetically, the probability of one landing on earth after making a leap from one point in time to another would be quite slim. You’d be much more likely to find yourself suspended in the Earth’s mantle, or, more likely still, floating at some point on Spaceship Earth’s path around the sun.
This (usually overlooked, obviously completely valid) concern tells you a lot about the brain that is responsible for Primer. Carruth’s film is about time travel in the most physically accurate sense possible, not space-time travel. The boxes that Abe and Aaron use to alter their experience of linear time bear little to no resemblance to Doc Brown’s DeLorean (which may not need roads, but apparently needs wheels) or Wells’ Machine (which also took inspiration from its contemporary automobiles, saddle and all.) Through their exterior design, these machines promise to take the operator somewhere in addition to sometime, which makes them a lot easier for us temporally linear beings to understand and get excited about. “Going” is fun and unnerving. “Staying”, at least in Primer, is just unnerving. By that turn, Carruth’s time machine isn’t a vehicle. It’s a container, in a film obsessed with and governed by containment.
They took from their surroundings what was needed, and made something more.
It’s hard to talk about Primer without talking about how Primer was made (and it all too often becomes a convenient conversation crutch for film geeks who are afraid to admit that they don’t completely “get” the film, which, come on. Nobody does.) The film had a budget of $7,000, and was shot not digitally, but on 16mm film that was later blown up to 35mm. The film’s runtime, without credits, is 74 minutes; Carruth and his crew (mostly family and friends in Dallas) shot 80 minutes of film, meaning virtually every take was a one-and-done. Carruth’s dad is listed as set caterer.
So it makes thematic sense, then, that the film opens and spends much of its running time in a garage - home of high school rock bands, home car repairs, everyday acts of DIY glory. It is in the garage that Abe and Aaron build their first prototype, secretly, with hushed, giddy excitement, toiling late into the night with myopic, almost adolescent fervor as their families sleep. They take out Aaron’s carburetor for the palladium, they nearly dismantle Aaron’s refrigerator for the copper tubing - until Abe points out that it would probably be cheaper to just buy copper tubing. They aren’t being paid to do this; they’re squeezing in time after work and on weekends, but it’s clear that they take what they do in the garage far more seriously than anything they do outside of it. All of this should all be immediately familiar to any struggling artist.
Primer’s sparse, claustrophobic interiors are a direct result of its economy, but they are also conscious stylistic choices; one never gets the sense that Carruth (or Abe and Aaron, for that matter) had a particular need or want for more abundant resources than he had. Nobody walks out of Primer thinking “That was pretty cool, but imagine what they could have done with seven million!” Rather, we’re repeatedly blown away by how Carruth was able to conjure so much out of so little, so cleanly and so precisely, without ever falling back on sentiment as a substitute for substance. So much of Primer’s success is a numbers game, but it’s the kind of numbers game that is so intellectually satisfying that it becomes an emotional experience, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Is it stable?
As Abe and Aaron stand on the precipice of discovery before their prototype, an ominous metal box lit by the sickly green flourescent lights of the garage, the problem of observation arises. The box is windowless, featureless, three cubic feet of Schrodinger-esque mystery. Abe suggests putting Aaron’s camcorder in the chamber to observe the effects of the machine on their test object. Aaron balks at first. “You want to put my camcorder into the box that’s so dangerous we can’t look into it?”
It’s a funny line, but also kind of terrifying, like much of the humor in Primer. The two have found themselves outside of a barrier protecting a space of perfectly calibrated - and as they later discover, self-sustaining - conditions. Things are different in there - just different enough that the idea oflooking inside seems to be out of the question, and for the first time we sense how much of this whole endeavor is accidental. Abe and Aaron don’t understand what they’ve built, but apparently they’ve built it well enough to know they should be scared of it.
They cover the garage windows with black plastic and tell their erstwhile colleagues that they’re fumigating. And after their first successful test, they lift the cover off the box, and the screen goes black. That was their first mistake: taking off the lid. As any five year old on Christmas morning knows, once a box is opened, it ceases to be anything and becomes something, and sometimes the something is not what you wanted it to be.
What did you do all day?
Hotel housekeepers have some of the most philosophically heavy jobs in the world. Every morning, they visit a series of recently vacated short-term rentals spaces, spaces made optimal for sleeping, bathing, sex, the most intimate of human activites. Though more conscientious guests make an effort to clean up after themselves before checking out, traces of these activities are still left behind: dents in the bed, hair in the sink, needles in the trashcan. The housekeeper comes in with an arsenal of cleaning supplies and mini-soaps, strips the bed, vaccuums the floor, folds the end of the toilet paper, and deletes any evidence of the last twelve hours of the occupants’ lives.
What better place to go when you need to not exist for a day?
The apprehension in the room is palpable as Abe and Aaron toss footballs and play Scrabble, waiting out the six-hour period when their doubles will eventually be unleashed on the world. The scene could almost be in a fallout shelter, waiting for for the bombers to pass, staying away from the windows. Looking outside or turning on the TV while another you is out their making his or her mark on the world would be more than a little spooky, like Tom Sawyer peeking down from the choir loft at his own funeral.
So they stay inside, and suddenly it’s just them, in a room, with an unplugged television and some board games. They’re barred from building or tweaking or taking any action for six hours. There’s nothing to do but wait. And think.
It’s this entirely separate world, and you encompass most of it.
In a film dominated by industrial lights, white shirts and ties, and anonymous office parks, It’s easy to forget that Abe and Aaron are human beings with fragile bodies and and even more fragile minds. But as the film enters its final act, Abe and Aaron exit their boxes once more, and we start to see the psychological effect it’s having on them:
AARON: God, everything is so different in there. You feel how cut off you are. It’s this entirely separate world, and you encompass most of it.
ABE: And the sound. Isn’t the sound different on the inside? It’s like it’s singing. I guess you can’t hear it on the outside.
AARON: I had this dream in there.
ABE: About what?
AARON: I was on or near the ocean, and I just kept hearing the surf. It was so uneventful.
ABE: At night. And the tide kept coming in and out.
Their speech is relaxed, narcotic, casually overlapping each other; like two acid-heads stumbling around in daylight after a screening of 2001. Did they have the same dream? Are they starting to go jointly insane? Regardless, these aren’t the overgrown science-fair geeks we met at the beginning of the film. Their suits and ties may stay the same, but their insides are changing; the sudden stream of blood trickling out of Aaron’s ear shortly after that exchange is the physical confirmation, as is the bizarre reveal near the end of the film that Abe and Aaron’s handwriting has been steadily deteriorating since the experiments started. “What’s wrong with our hands?” Abe demands of Aaron. “Why can’t we write like normal people?” He’s angry, but he’s even more scared; he sees as clearly as we laypeople do that nature is waving a red flag, trying to tell him that something is fundamentally wrong here.
Or is it? Abe describes his time in the box as “the most content he’s ever been” - that is, once he got his oxygen tank to work and took some Dramamine. And who wouldn’t believe him? He’s completely untethered from timespace, napping in a capsule of peaceful isolation. Claustropobia becomes irrelevant when you remove the concept of “inside” and “outside”, six hours loses its meaning when you’re in a temporal feedback loop. Before his first jump, he asks Abe if the process is safe, Abe answers emphatically in the negative, but that doesn’t stop either of them from hopping inside of their home-made Argon chambers for six hours, ten hours, days at a time. Are they brave or stupid? Both and neither - they’re inquisitive, they want to feel and see what no other human has had the privilege of feeling and seeing. Boldly going, etc, etc, etc.
But unlike the brave and stupid explorers before them, Abe and Aaron can’t return with tales of adventure and peril. The experience is contained, secret, unshareable - that’s the price of experiencing it. Even as the film’s audience, we can’t exactly share what they have been through (unless any of you have figured out how to create a time-loop, in which case, I apologize,) all we can do is guess at what it must feel like. But this doesn’t make Primer any less enjoyable - those of us with an appetite for philosophical thought exercises have plenty to chew on with every viewing and re-viewing.
Carruth has said that everything we need to “solve” the film is right there in front of us, but again, as that five-year-old on Christmas knows, just because you have something in your hands doesn’t mean you know what it is. I won’t tell you what percentage of the film’s events I claim to understand, and I don’t have a handy diagram for you to refer to. What would be the point, and how would it enhance your enjoyment of the film? My advice to anyone watching Primer, be it the first or the fifteenth time, is to keep unwrapping, but never forget to appreciate the box.
(editor’s note: This essay first ran on BW/DR in May 2011.)