Bright Wall/Dark Room.
1 year ago
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Election (1998)

NICE GUYS FINISH LAST

by Brianna Ashby

My husband is a teacher at an all-girls private Catholic school.  He also happens to be young and dashingly handsome (if I do say so myself).  I’m no chemist, but even I can see that the combination of these two variables is potentially hazardous, even explosive. If I were prone to jealous rages and paranoid delusions, I would most likely insist that he find another line of work, or in the very least, transfer to the all-boys school across the street.  Happily, I’m not prone to either of those things, and supple young flesh doesn’t interest my husband, who clearly prefers his ladies a bit older with dark circles under their eyes from getting up seven times a night with a young baby, and who haven’t had a haircut in well over six months. No, being surrounded by lithe, perky, schoolgirls with the propensity for hiking up their skirts well above the the modesty line isn’t even remotely tempting, especially when they’re batting the lashes of their doe eyes, ever-so-sweetly asking for a little bit of, ahem, extra help.  Not at all.  Although my mate is a saint, I can certainly understand how a lesser man could fall prey to these raptors disguised as plaid skirted ingenues.  

From a young age, girls begin to recognize that they have a particular sort of power over the opposite sex, and most learn very quickly how to harness it.  Before long, the boy chasing her around the playground trying to steal a kiss is completing her book report on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” while she sits watching afternoon cartoons.  The dynamic never changes, it simply matures as the players mature, and since girls tend to mature faster, their targets change, soon moving from their classmates to their teachers and so on and so forth. This is not to say that all men are saps, but there is empirical evidence to suggest that a large portion of men will go to great, even humiliating, lengths to get their hands on a pair of breasts.  Sadly though, some men are saps, and there’s a certain breed of woman who can spot these unfortunate souls a mile away, knowing just how to manipulate them to insure that they get what they want.  These women are commonly referred to as “total bitches”.  

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a total bitch.  Quite often women who are strong, smart, ambitious, and successful are called bitches, because all of those things — especially in combination — are superlatively intimidating.  Tracy is certainly all of those things, but that’s not why she’s a bitch.  Rather, she is that certain breed of woman: her strength comes from an innate ability to recognize weakness and prey on it mercilessly.  Sure, she is driven and hard-working, but the paths to her achievements are littered with the broken bodies of all the people she had to step on to get there, most notably her former teacher and lover Mr. Novotny. 

Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) is an ordinary guy with an ordinary home life and an ordinary job.  Ordinary men of a certain age seem more prone to being hoodwinked by the Tracy Flicks of the world, who tell them that they’re not ordinary, they’re really something! You’re better than your wife and 2.5 children, they’re just holding you back! Write that novel you’ve always wanted to write! I believe in you! YOU ARE SPECIAL! Some people are easily convinced that their lives are monotonous and boring by people who purport to be exotic and interesting - the human equivalent of new car smell.  All of Tracy’s admirable qualities — her drive, her intellect, her ambition, and her bubbly blonde personality — are intoxicating to poor Mr. Novotny, who soon finds himself convinced that he is in love with this girl, and she with him. Of course, he isn’t in love with her (and she is most definitely not in love with him); he is in love with the idea of her.  More often than not, when people claim to be in love with their partner in infidelity, it’s simply that they’ve become enamored with the idea of improving their own self-worth, and the person who “showed” them that they were worth anything at all becomes something of an idol. 

Maybe I’m being too hard on Tracy.  Tracy is lonely.  Loneliness manifests itself in different ways.  In Tracy’s case, it’s resulted in extreme overachievement and over involvement in every possible committee, group, and after school activity that Carver High has to offer. (An obvious choice for student body president, don’t you think?) The more she has to do, the less she has to think about the fact that she’s alienated all of her peers and literally ruined the life of the one person that cared enough to talk to her at all, and she’s left a hyper functional but emotionally stagnant android of a teenage girl.  Like I said, loneliness manifests itself in different ways.  Tracy the zealot, meet Linda Novotny, the damsel in distress. 

After relieving Dave of his duties as husband, Linda (Delaney Driscoll) is rendered completely helpless, unable to open pickle jars or attend to minor plumbing problems.  She needs a man.  I get it, I do.  Finding out that your spouse is not only screwing a teenager, but has justified it by proclaiming his love for the little slut, is soul crushing. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) gets it too.  Jim is a reasonable man with a reasonable dislike of Tracy Flick and a reasonable amount of sympathy for his best friend’s ex-wife.  Jim also happens to suffer from the same problem that afflicted Dave.  Jim is bored, and once Linda starts getting under his skin, he starts to notice.  He’s no longer a three-time “Teacher of the Year” winner, suddenly he’s just a civics teacher that can’t seem to make anyone understand the difference between ethics and morals.  He’s no longer happily married to his best friend Diane (Molly Hagan), instead, he’s a slave to her ovulation cycle and her demands to “fill her up” so she can have the child she always wanted.  Jim McAllister is shuffling through his homogenous existence and, frankly, no one really gives a shit, at least not in a meaningful way.  Enter Linda, poor, broken, newly divorced Linda.  Linda and her plumbing problems and busted light bulbs.  When Jim, who is not only reasonable but also a genuinely nice guy, begins offering his jar opening muscles and friendly ears, our desperate housewife realizes that she’s onto something.  Linda can see through his willingness to be at her beck and call; it’s not just a nice guy being nice because he’s a nice guy, it’s a nice guy being nice because he desperately needs to be needed. Things go from bad to worse and the rest…well, you can imagine the rest. 

I think what I’m trying to say is that what it really comes down to is need, right?  We all need something. We all have space to fill.  The difference is that some of us are far more eager than others to step in and help plug up the holes - not out of love or concern, or hell, even interest, but because it’s a distraction that helps keep us from staring too hard into our own dark spaces, our own loneliness, our own boredom.  People cheat and abet cheaters because if anyone took the time to systematically catalog their lives, they would always find that something is missing.  Does this something really ever matter?  Sometimes it does.  Sometimes it’s a huge, gaping something, an insurmountable loss or overwhelming setback.  Most of the time, it’s really nothing. 

It is baffling that people can’t seem to recognize what’s right in front of them, they just look ahead, straining to catch a glimpse of what bigger and better things would be afforded to them if only they could just shrug off the lives (and people) that are holding them back.  Somewhere along the line, a stigma was attached to living a comfortable unassuming life, to being a successful teacher or a good student with a quiet home life and a small, but meaningful, sphere of influence. It’s bullshit.  There is so much good that comes from normalcy and stability and such tremendous harm that comes from believing, even for a moment, that the grass really might be greener on the other side.  People are not landscapes and climbing into someone else’s bed does not constitute a change of scenery.  When you climb out, you’re still you.  You’re still lonely Tracy Flick, overachiever extraordinaire or misguided Dave Novotny, convenience store clerk. 

Brianna Ashby has never so much as cheated on a math test, so help her god.  She tumbls here.  Honestly.

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1 year ago
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Reader’s Request Week: Cruel Intentions (1999)

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD

by Brianna Ashby

Pucker up, for heaven’s sake, there’s never been so much at stake.” – Placebo

A few days ago my father came for a visit. Whenever he pays me social calls, he likes to bring along boxes and crates and portfolios full of my belongings that he’s (rightfully) grown tired of storing, but can’t quite bring himself to throw away. The most recent delivery yielded five or six somewhat embarrassing charcoal self-portraits—immediately chucked in the bin—and a long, unwieldy cardboard box stuffed to the gills with all the posters I once had hanging in my teenage bedroom. I unfurled VanGogh and Dali prints, shook my head at an image of the sun and moon sandwiching a sickeningly cheesy inspirational quote, laughed out loud at the monstrous Dave Matthews Band poster that always engulfed any wall I thumb-tacked it to.

Rummaging through shreds of my past life, I always feel a little bit like someone going through the belongings of a girl long since deceased: Here lies Brianna Duggan. Her poor fledgling heart gave out when David Duchovny made a surprise appearance at a Third Eye Blind concert. In lieu of flowers, her family requests that mix tapes be sent to Freddie Prinze Jr. in her honor. But, though she may be gone, she hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Certain films and records from my formative years actually hold up surprisingly well against time, and keep me connected to the spirit of that strange and complicated, bell-bottoms and body-glitter wearing adolescent. Cruel Intentions, however, is not one of those films.

I know, it surprised me too.

It’s taken me a little while to put my finger on exactly what I found so unsatisfying about watching this movie now, through older eyes. If we were to discuss it academically, I would point to the dismal acting (I’m looking at you, Ryan Phillippe!), the preposterous sophistication of the characters, the overwrought dialogue, and the problematic adaptation of a novel about pre-revolutionary French aristocrats (Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses) to a high school setting. But even in tandem, even within the context of 90s teen movies, none of these things strike me as important enough to consider actual disappointments.

It was only when I started comparing Cruel Intentions to its peers that the difference became glaringly obvious: of all of the movies of its kind, it was the only one that was almost entirely about sex.

When seventeen-year-old me sat in the movie theater, I was an awkward and self-conscious virgin whose greatest sexual escapade to date had been making out on someone’s couch after their parents had gone to sleep. High school Brianna was seduced by the idea of seduction, and found the sort of power wielded by Kathryn and Sebastian (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe) almost aspirational. They were the nexus of that twisted little universe: intelligent, attractive, sophisticated—and as far as I was concerned, decidedly adult. Watching the same story unfold now, thirteen years later, I find myself put off by just about everything that had drawn me to the movie initially.

At nearly 30, I know too much.

When I first saw the film, unfortunately, I found both hapless Cecile (Selma Blair) and self-righteous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) all too easy to relate to. I was basically clueless when it came to intimate relationships and, in order to mask my jealousy and insecurities, I cast aspersions on my friskier classmates, adamant that I was waiting—which was a load of sanctimonious bullshit. The only thing I was “waiting” for was a devastatingly handsome 17-22 year old boy that was willing to have me. I was secretly in awe of those girls like Kathryn, the ones that my friends and I would call sluts in furtively passed notes. I wondered what they had that I didn’t. They seemed so confident and mysterious—study hall Lolitas that got drunk at school dances and gave hand jobs to the boys on the basketball team.

I spent four years trying to figure out why no one wanted anything from me. And within that particularly self-deprecating, hysterical, and claustrophobic teenage brain space, it begins to make sense that I would find a glimmer of hope in something as silly and ridiculous as Cruel Intentions. I mean, if the new headmaster’s frigid daughter could have her defenses shattered by a pillow-lipped sexually liberated rich boy, why couldn’t I?

The adolescent mind is fueled almost entirely by fantasies, daydreams, and lofty aspirations, which can be both a tremendous asset and an Achilles heel. The constant barrage of new and novel stimuli left me so malleable, that I had very little trouble convincing myself that cinematic sex in the friscalating dusklight was practically guaranteed. Of course, the trouble with setting out to fulfill a fantasy is that reality tends to begin almost exactly where our reverie ends. No single, glorious moment is endlessly sustainable. At some point we have to begin to ask, what now?

There is a psychic line that divides our lives into BS and AS (Before Sex and After Sex). Once you cross that line, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience: You can suddenly see, with great clarity, the person that you were hours, days, even years before that moment when your life took a turn toward the carnal—yet that you is now somehow barely recognizable, an acquaintance at best. (It’s worth noting that the phrase “sexual awakening” couldn’t possibly be more accurate.) Onscreen, I watched as both Cecile and Annette were transformed from girls (like me) into keen, confident, self-aware women under Sebastian’s libidinous tutelage, becoming more and more like Kathryn with every new touch. But what the film completely glosses over is the horrible discomfort that comes with suddenly being thrust into that different version of yourself, something I had to find out for myself the hard way.

When I lost my virginity a year later—without fanfare, but with a full measure of adolescent awkwardness—I wasn’t disappointed, but from that moment on, I considered myself much more of a realist. Which is not to say that I wasn’t still a romantic or still mostly naïve (because I was both of those things), but rather that I was forever dispelled of the notion that my sex life would be filled with mood lighting, flattering angles, nuanced whispers, and perfect soundtracks. From that very first night AS, I was clued in to the reality that sex is often a fumbling in the dark. Even great sex. And, though it takes a little while to actually come to terms with that reality, once you do you can start to figure out who you are as a brand new sexual being, and where this “new you” fits within the familiar context of your old life.

As if it weren’t enough to embark on a tumultuous journey of self-discovery, I was also being forced to understand at the very same time, little by little, that sex is a life force—and to recognize the power that I inherently yield. The one thing that Cruel Intentions did manage to get across, albeit ham-handedly, was the dichotomous nature of intimacy, and the lightness and darkness that lies within all of us. Sex is both tender and animalistic, an expression of love and a means of control, a way of connecting and a way of escaping, the yin and the yang, everything and nothing. Being young and emotionally careless, there were times that I wounded people because I simply couldn’t see, or refused to admit, that there could be consequences to giving my body and walling off my heart.

Sometimes fucking is just fucking, but even the most detached among us are rarely sociopathic. Even Kathryn’s come-and-get-it attitude was a disingenuous mask, because at root her most manipulative deeds were spurred by a bout of rather typical teenage hurt feelings. That’s the part that gets tricky: navigating between sex and love, separately and together. But if you’re at all like me, that’s the journey that really mattered.

As I got more comfortable with the idea that I was becoming a liberated, if more emotionally responsible adult, I learned how to be honest, both with myself and others. I learned that sex is a tool, not a weapon. I learned that I could be confident and shameless and greedy at the very same time I was being attentive and giving and grateful, that it was necessary to embrace both aspects of my personality. I learned that it can be heartbreaking to confuse love with lust, but that I refused to settle for one without the other. I learned that sex is quirky and weird and awesome. I learned that there are some things that it’s better to discover for yourself. You can’t believe everything that you see.

Brianna Ashby wishes there were more synonyms for the word sex.

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