Italian, Film, and Me

When I was in fourth grade, for some reason the gifted and talented program that I was placed in decided to hire a woman, two days a week, to teach us German. Why not Spanish or French? I have no idea. My best guess remains that the administrators simply couldn’t find an instructor in Northwest Indiana prepared to teach either of those languages to a roomful of nine year olds.

At any rate, Fraulein Leep was a delightful, energetic instructor auf Deutsch, and I took to the language immediately. I think at that age, I was probably just on the edge of that neural plasticity that allows children to become proficient in a second (or third, etc.) language much more effortlessly than adults. If it had been spoken around me more often than just two days a week, and/or presented as language immersion rather than dry grammar and vocabulary lessons, I probably would have achieved something close to fluency. Regardless, I had a natural affinity for the language and seriously studied it from then all the way through high school. I even declared German as my major as an incoming freshman at Indiana University, before abandoning it for English and Film Studies.

In high school, desperate to weasel out of math and science classes whenever I could, I eventually added French and then Spanish to my schedule. I’d convinced my guidance counselor it was OK because I would be going into international studies, hoping to become a translator or interpreter. I can no longer recall if I actually believed any of those arguments myself. But, I do know that I genuinely loved studying languages for the sake of themselves. I was also quite impressed with my newly invented identity as “language girl.”

So convinced I remained of my ability to pick up new languages with relative ease that, in the summer of 1999, I decided that I was going to teach myself Italian. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful had recently been all the middlebrow rage, and I remembered a Mexican literature professor mentioning that he was able to get around Italy just fine, speaking Spanish, as long as he spoke slowly enough. I reasoned that the bits of Spanish and French I knew could only help my effort, so I procured a copy of Italian for Dummies to get me through the basics.

I was working that summer in the office of a small steel manufacturing company in Hammond, Indiana. I recall very little of whatever tedious tasks I was assigned to complete, only that there was barely enough to keep me busy for a full day. This was just before the Internet really took hold as a business necessity, so, instead of spending my downtime surfing the web, as I would were I in that position now, I somehow got away with reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels in chronological order and studying my Italian flashcards at my big metal desk in the corner.

Since I never had anyone to practice or converse with, though, very little of the Italian I managed to cram into my brain stuck with me. But, I developed something of a fixation on Italy itself. Still considering myself a nascent Woman of the World, I declared that the next foreign country I wanted to visit, after I spent the summer of 2000 studying abroad in London, was Italy. In proto-vision board style, I took home a clean paper placemat from some church fundraising spaghetti dinner to hang on my bedroom wall, simply because it had a map of Italy on it.

Life, as it tends to, intervened, though, and these past fifteen years I’ve been less the international playgirl than I thought I would one day be. A weekend trip to take precepts at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in the summer of 2009 made Canada my next visit outside the U.S., followed by ten or so days in Ireland three years later. I still haven’t been to Italy and even question whether, as a woman in her mid-thirties in the post-Eat, Pray, Love era, that aspiration might even be an embarrassing cliché at this point.

So, as Italy remains a dream for me, it makes sense that I would adore the deliciously dreamlike film The Great Beauty. Chicago’s excessively cold temperatures were no match for its two hours and twenty minutes of beautiful people wandering around Rome, celebrating life and philosophizing about death. I’ve always been notoriously bad at parsing plotlines (something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy makes my brain numb), so I was grateful to this nearly stream-of-consciousness visual extravaganza, where nothing much happens anyway. I was freed to just revel in the endless dance party sequences, the golden light bathing the city’s architecture in a sensual glow, the impeccably fashionable clothing worn by even the minor characters, and the director’s loving meditations on the lines in lead actor Toni Servillo’s face.

With notions of failure, and regret, and loss, shading the edges of the revelry, though, main character Jep Gambardella finds himself questioning the choices he’s made with his life. Was it the right career? The right place? The right time? His friends and associates (and often strangers as well) repeatedly ask him why he never wrote a second novel after his first and only youthful success, as if there could be a satisfying answer to such a question.

Because I watched my own father fail, in ways both major and minor, for so many years, I’ve long had a soft spot for these kinds of stories about men reckoning with what they didn’t, and couldn’t, achieve in their lives. Now that he’s gone, and now that the passage of time has brought me to what, I suppose, counts as the beginning of the middle of my own story, I wasn’t sure if I was identifying with Jep’s aimlessness on behalf of my father, or on behalf of myself. Jep, though, does eventually find inspiration for his future in a key memory from his past. I have to believe there’s still plenty of time for me to not only find inspiration from my past but to actually allow it to remain in the past as I build a future for myself that’s better than any dream.

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My Word for 2014

As is perhaps obvious from my previous post about picking the “right” perfume to wear for New Year’s Eve, I’m a sucker for creating a Sense of Occasion for pretty much any event. So, of course, I love making new year’s resolutions, though I don’t take them as seriously as I did in my teens and early twenties. This year, however, I decided to try a slightly different approach, inspired by a few other blog and Facebook posts I’d read, and declared for myself a Word of the Year instead. After I bit of meditation and contemplation, I settled on BUILD.

Actually, I came up with REBUILD first. But, energetically, that felt a bit more shadowy. Not quite negative, exactly; just touched with loss in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with inviting in to set the tone for the full twelve months ahead. (I plan on still working with REBUILD to be honest, just from a more Jungian Shadow perspective, as a necessary yin to the yang of BUILD.)

As for BUILD, though, I intend to use it to remind myself not to run away from a thing after I’ve enjoyed the excitement of the Beginning of it.

I am endlessly capable of being seduced by Beginnings; it’s seeing things through their long, indefinable Middles that I am less good at. Someone once described my defining character trait as my sense of curiosity, which was one of the most accurate (and lovely) things that has ever been said about me. I never want to find myself in a place where I’m not fascinated by the world around me. However, I can often allow that curiosity to serve as justification for half-assing my way through the completion of a goal or project because I want to get to the next shiny thing that’s caught my eye. To be sure, in an effort to get to an Ending, I can grit my teeth and barrel through pretty much anything. But after a lifetime of wishing myself to 5 o’clock, or Friday, or the end of the season, or the end of the year, I’m hoping to finally slow down a bit and learn to actually enjoy the Middle of any given experience.

Focusing on Middles is also an attempt to step away from the precocious child routine that has been secretly running my life, like a bad Wes Anderson script, for as long as I can remember. My inner eight year old still wants to be immediately good at a thing, or not do it at all. As I watch so many of my peers beginning to find tangible success in their chosen fields—success that has come through sticking with an idea or goal—I find myself kind of inwardly pouting over my own perceived stasis or lack of achievement. Achievement being a euphemism for recognition here, of course.

I’ve always been enamored of the spotlight, and applause is usually more of a motivator for me than the simple inner satisfaction of a job well done. But of course applause doesn’t come in the middle of a thing, which, I’m sure, has contributed to my attempts to avoid all those slow, quiet spots between the beginning and the end. I wouldn’t need to remind myself to focus on BUILDING for a full year if applause didn’t matter to me.

But, luckily, I’m starting to see that the secret power of BUILD is in the way it serves as a reminder that I have so many good things in my life right now. BUILD does not equal CREATE. I’m grateful for the solid foundation I’ve made for myself in so many crucial areas of my life. Surely the best way to honor the work that I’ve done so far is to not allow those good Beginnings to atrophy into lackluster Endings simply because I’ve abandoned them as good enough. I’d like to work with the energy of 2014 as a gateway into the middle of my grand adventures, as I begin to BUILD my beginnings into something so much richer than I ever could have imagined from the starting line.

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A Smell for the End of the Year

I don’t remember myself as being an overly girly little girl. Mostly, I was a show-off. So, if a dress or other frilly thing helped me show off more effectively, then that was great. But I don’t recall gravitating to any certain activity or hobby or way of presenting myself simply because it was specifically feminine.

Who knows how my self-presentation would have continued to develop if my mother hadn’t died when I was eight. But, not only did I lose my primary female role model, I also then instinctively but unconsciously began to align myself with my father. I’m sure it partly stemmed from a child’s need to imitate her elders in order to experiment with how to be a person in the world, but, in my case, it was also a strategic way to figure out how to avoid my father’s hot temper. If I could match him, then hopefully I wouldn’t end up doing anything to set him off, because I would be acting as him in some sense.

And so my energy became more and more boyish as I gained weight (thanks to genetics, uncontrollable stress-eating, and my father’s lazy habit of feeding us a steady diet of fast food) and marched toward puberty.

In high school, I delighted in being one of the guys, especially among my theater friends, and once wore a tuxedo to host a local musical variety show. I thought it was cheeky, to be a 17-year-old girl with a voluptuous figure dressed like a boy. In reality, I just kept distancing myself further and further from my own femininity.

Around the same time as that variety show, I was performing with a coed show choir that required the girls to wear formal dresses for our many concerts during the holiday season. I’d found an old black velvet halter dress that had belonged to my mother and had it altered to fit my measurements. My best friend and I, dressed up in our finery and walking through the school one afternoon, on our way to some performance or other, ran into two middle-aged women teachers in the hallway near the cafeteria. They asked us to twirl around and show off our dresses, and one of them, in reference to me, drawled to the other, “god, if I had a body like that. . . .” I remain shocked by the comment to this day. Not because it felt threatening or inappropriate, but because, with all my insecurity about my weight and all the ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, I couldn’t conceive of my very obviously female body as being anything for anyone to envy.

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I’ve done a lot of work in therapy and meditation and energy healing over the past ten years, and I’ve started to feel more OK about my body and my gender presentation. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to play with persona is through perfume. Though I’d always been obsessed with scent, perfume became a more intentional hobby for me in late ’09, initially as a distraction from a breakup that wounded me more deeply than I had expected it to. And as my perfume collection grew beyond the point where it was possible to have only a handful of default scents (say, one for work, one for fancy occasions, one for winter, and one for summer), choosing a daily scent became an exercise in asking myself, “how do I want to feel today? What kind of person do I want to be? How can a perfume help me perform the version of myself that I most want to present to the world on his occasion?”

One of the sweeter aspects of my father’s personality that has become part of my own is his ability to get sentimental about anything and everything. Which means that I’m not only always looking backward in time at the things I used to do and be, I’m also always projecting myself forward and wanting to make sure that I do right by my future self in making sure I’ve done enough to memorialize whatever experience I may be living through at the moment. And since scent is so inextricably tied to memory, I’m perhaps overly fixated on finding the “right” perfume to wear on any given day.

I know I’m not alone in this, especially among other smell obsessives that I read about via the many wonderful perfume blogs being published online, but it’s extra freighted for me as I seek to retrain my childhood instincts away from a more masculine default that no longer serves me toward a femininity that I’ve long suppressed and find myself hungering for. All this is bad enough on a daily basis, just going about my regular workaday life. But the decisions are extra-intense on holidays or other special occasions. So today, New Year’s Eve 2013, the first thing I thought after getting out of the shower was “oh god, what perfume should I wear to say goodbye to the old year and ring in 2014?”

I’d just received a handful of decants in the mail that I wanted to test, but committing to one of those for the full day was way too risky. What if I picked something that didn’t work with my skin’s chemistry or inadvertently stimulated some dormant memory of an unpleasant experience? Better to go with something I already knew that I liked.

But, should I go with an old standby—with emphasis on the old? Would an old standby, because of its familiarity, not retain enough magic to mark the specialness of the day? So, that eliminated what felt like dozens of options.

And though I’ve made peace, despite everything that I’ve written above, with my attraction to scents that fall toward the more masculine end of the spectrum (particularly the smoky, leathery, boozy ones), perhaps obviously I felt like it was best to steer clear of those today as well. As I was pawing through my perfume box, my fingers touched upon the perfect thing: Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis. Anima Dulcis

It’s sweet and sultry and just a bit naughty; my favorite description of it would have to be Denyse Beaulieu’s evocation of “a series of embedded stories and/or spaces. In Mexico: a convent. In the convent: a cell. In the cell: a nun. Under the nun’s habit: a lace skirt. Under the lace skirt: pimiento, vanilla and chocolate. The holy of holies: a noble virgin’s body.”

The warm, chocolaty yet slightly sweaty embrace of this perfume pushes me to reimagine myself as a more unguarded, boldly erotic and unapologetic woman. Which, I feel, is as good a reason as any to leave this scent here, on this day, like a bookmark for me to glance back at from some future time, maybe less out of nostalgia and more as a marker of the declaration, “it was from here that I began again.”

Why Scorsese and Stiller Are This Holiday Season’s Most Meta Directors

I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street a heck of a lot. Sure, I feel a little dirty about it, and worry a bit about what Rachel Syme in The New Yorker calls its potential for winning “bad fans” (“watch closely as Scarface posters in frat houses are quietly replaced with Wolf ones,” she says), but when I think about my experience of watching it, I know that I was having fun.

And, one of the most fun things about it was DiCaprio’s performance. Not just because it was an insane, shameless, fearless, Oscar-worthy, can’t-tear-your-eyeballs-away tour de force (which, pretty much any review you’re going to read right now will likely agree on), but because it was so pointedly referring back to his whole prior body of work as an actor.

I’m not enough of a fangirl to be able to get chapter-and-verse comprehensive about it, but, for example, tell me that wasn’t a Titanic joke in the scene when they were on the ship in the storm and he was standing behind the actress playing his wife, his arms around her, while gripping the railing and looking (in this case, fearfully) into the distance. And, even if DiCaprio insists his Quaalude-induced slug crawl from the country club to his car was a reference to a viral YouTube video, I think it’s also a piss-take on his “I’m a serious actor because I’m portraying a character with a handicap” Oscar-bait performance from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As the hopelessly starry-eyed newbie in thrall to Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of the film, he could be gesturing toward any of his former ingénue characters—an out-of-his-depth Romeo, perhaps? I’m sure there are other examples.

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Another instance of “did that just really happen?” meta-commentary in this year’s crop of holiday films was the Benjamin Button sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Some critics seem to have thought it was hilarious; others, predictably thought it was a tonal misstep. But I was primarily fascinated with the way the joke was directly referring to another movie based on another early 20th century short story that took the story’s title and basic concept as a jumping off point, disregarding everything else.

Even however many years after its release, I stand by my assertion that casting Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button is the most intriguing part of that needlessly bombastic film. There’s no way that, without him, the film could evoke the emotional resonance of watching a person age in reverse. It requires an actor who’s been so famous for so long for being so beautiful that our own nostalgia for that person’s youth will filter back through the film we’re watching. (I guess maybe Johnny Depp could have worked the same trick? Or, can you even imagine some alternate-universe version with Elizabeth Taylor?) It was a genius bit of casting, in league with DiCaprio in Wolf as I just mentioned above.

But, that’s where the brilliance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stops. There’s almost nothing in Fincher’s turgid film that resembles the playful, snotty smarminess of the short story. (And, I say “smarminess” as a huge Fitzgerald fan! It’s just that his fixation on his own youth is both why he’s awesome and why his writing often reads as overly self-satisfied and insufferable.)

In much the same way, both film versions of Mitty (I’ve seen bits of the Danny Kaye movie and found it nearly unwatchable) have taken Thurber’s sad, sick-feeling short story that’s centered around anxiety about masculine ineffectuality and turned it into a man-child’s fantasia about Living Yr Dreams! or Becoming the Hero of Yr Own Life Story! or somesuch hokey Hollywood garbage.

And, getting back to my whole point here, does Ben Stiller actually realize that’s what he’s doing with this Mitty adaptation? I think he does! I think he’s admitting it with the Benjamin Button parody! I think he’s essentially saying, “look, y’all, the movie version of Benjamin Button pissed all over the Fitzgerald short story and no one seemed to care, so this is my fair warning to you that I’m going to do the same thing now with Thurber. Don’t say I didn’t tell you in advance how it was going to go down. Peace out.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as an actor and a comedian and, despite the almost bone-chilling cynicism of this little hat-tip, I have to say, it’s pretty brilliant.