What a mood I was in last night, which resulted in me staring into the darkness of my bedroom for a good hour and a half, mulling over the events during which I did not show myself to best advantage.
(I can write a sentence like that presently because I’ve been listening to the same 5 Georgette Heyer books incessantly, in order to facilitate me in the performance of my household chores and the ability to fall quickly asleep, a thing I could not, alas, last night do, because I refused to put on an audiobook, thinking I’d was better off brooding, though I’m not sure I actually was. Ah! Long parenthetical gyrations! Not to mention … elliptical asides! Gifts from, you guessed it, an early life spent reading Robin McKinley.)
Sometimes I get into “nightmoods,” as I call them. And while living alone in my twenties, this was often the mood in which I wrote rambling, confessional letters to a close circle of friends, and also LiveJournal entries. I mean, I wrote letters and blogs while NOT in a nightmood as well, thank goodness, elsewise I’d likely have few friends left. But anyway, they’ve not gotten less nightmoody as I’ve gotten older, nor are likely to, nor, I think, necessarily should.
Some things I can do to stave off or divert a nightmood, such as not reading the news at night, or engaging in melancholy art forms. In the last few months, we started watching cartoons. I’d tried the new She-Ra some time ago, for childhood’s sake, but though the story was all right, found the voice pitched in such a way as to pierce the gray matter of my bone box STRAIGHT THROUGH. So I thought maybe I was off cartoons, or had outgrown them, like dolls, and would no longer ever be able to enjoy them, or partake in the She-Ra and Steven Universe discussions that often abound among my friends and colleagues. But then Carlos, who’d be waiting and waiting for the Harley Quinn cartoon to become widely available, embarked on that series, and since he so rarely wants to watch something I felt myself in honor bound to watch it with him. (Actually, I just like watching things with him.) And lo! I REALLY LIKED IT.
I like the animation style, I liked the vulgarity, I liked the vicious high-humored violence of it–that Grand Guignol cartoon violence that slaughters all but harms none–and I liked the relationship between best friends.
I wouldn’t say I loved it, mind, because while the central relationship between the two females was marvelous, they were still the only two females, more or less, and all the drama and personal growth and vendetta targets still centered around one man: the Joker. Which got boring. The rest of the crew, too, was male, and so were all the villains. So–in many respects, She-Ra still wins on many counts. (More about She-Ra presently.)
After that, we were still in a cartoon frame of mind. I was surprised about how cartoony had become the bend of my thoughts–with occasional animated dreams! which I hadn’t had since, I don’t know, at least high school–and how pleasurable it was to engage in quality writing, in the short-form, with clean, bright, surprising art.
Cartoons can do all kinds of things live-action can’t, do not require the same pact with their audience. I haven’t thought about the difference between suspension of disbelief in a cartoon vs. live action, but cartoons are perhaps closer to theatre, with much of the pretending done up for you in huge splash-page-like moments. I will dwell more deeply on this, perhaps.
So we began Avatar the Last Airbender, since between us we’d promised about six friends and family members that we would try. I’d heard such bad things about the live-action film (especially when compared to the cartoon) that it put me off the whole enterprise, and the amount of episodes to be watched seemed endless.
But it was not so. It was some of the most pleasurable, flexible, deeply philosophical, artistically gorgeous, astonishing, and goofy storytelling I’d encountered in a while. Middle Grade and Young Adult media isn’t really my jam–I get a little tired of kids/teens saving the world (which is not to say we shouldn’t train ’em young, because eventually they’ll be adults with a hellish world on their hands, as we all find, in our time, but still–I wouldn’t mind a few more Cordelia Vorkosigans in my literature, if you know what I mean)–but for genius, I always make an exception.
All of which to say–I loved this show. And I also mostly liked it. Some episodes, I thought, were more uneven than others. But that’s almost always TV for you: the vagaries of the writing room, I think, and deadlines, and showrunners, etc. Some episodes, I thought, did the TV thing of using the characters solely to advance plot, and conveniently put aside everything else we’d already learned about their characters, their needs, wants, desires, etc.
But mostly ATLA’s storytelling did that thing Carlos likes to say about his favorite pieces of literature, when: “character is plot.” When character arcs and arc of plot are aligned, entwined. When one only grows because of the other.
Also, because the episodes were short but the arc was long, the artists and writers were allowed that novel-like breathing room: a few episodes that were indulgences in character only, and hardly bowed to plot at all.
After Avatar, I immediately wanted Legend of Korra, or, barring that, Tucca and Bertie, since I’ve been promising my friend Jess I’d give it a try. But husband and also roommate were feeling a little more adventurous, and wanted to try Undone. Mir had already started it, and was excited about the writing and storytelling. Carlos was very excited about the rotoscoping, a technique that he loves.
I was… curiously resistant. Or not so curiously if you know me. I knew next to nothing about it, and while most people hate spoilers, I love them. (I call them “spicers.”) My curiosity/motivation to try new media is lower than I’d like (and lower than the average, probably). I don’t actually watch a lot of TV, and I read less and less–much less than I want to. Also, between being really into The Great, which Mir and I are watching long-distance with my mom, and hooked on that inimitable Avatar taste, I was reluctant for the artistic/aesthetic/psychological whiplash Undone would inevitably, I thought, give me.
So you see, I did not enter the new thing with the right attitude. Now, I can drum up the right attitude if I just think about it. But I didn’t think about it. I wanted to be community-minded, and watch the thing my household was most excited about, and I didn’t want them to agree with me and my desires just because I have the loudest voice. Which I do. Which is something I’m trying to work on.
All of which to say, Undone was absolutely beautiful. The writing was impeccable. The artistry was glorious. The pacing, the editing, all perfect.
And I didn’t like it.
This is not to say that I won’t love it, eventually, especially after I see the whole thing and can consider it as a whole.
But, for one, I think we started it too late. Nine o’clock, or later. Which is right in my night-mood window. Second, it’s cruel. Not vicious and hilarious like Harley Quinn. But just… jagged.
“Broken people break things” is the thesis of the first episode of Undone, and I know I’m a coward, but starting me off with a character in her downward spiral never really works with me as a hook. It starts and ends with a jolt of terrible adrenalin, and the sadness and manipulation and the self-destruction of the first episode left me feeling sick to my stomach two hours after. And I don’t… really… enjoy that.
I mean, it works. As art. It makes me FEEL something. As an artist, I feel that I OUGHT to be feeling something. And since I’ve been dieting on a steady tepid drizzle of the same 5 Georgette Heyer books–and not EVEN my favorites–maybe I’ve gone a little contemptibly soft.
I thought Fleabag was very fine too, but I couldn’t pursue it after two episodes. Maybe I will someday, when I want to watch a very clever woman ruin all her friendships and family relationships (such as they are) and bathe in an acid bath of bitterness and isolation. And maybe it gets better.
“It gives the character someplace to climb out of,” Carlos said last night, gently. “It’s your reverse-katabasis–which you like.”
I do. I do like a reverse-katabasis narrative. I like STARTING OUT at the bottom. But I don’t really revel in the fall. Star Trek: Discovery is a reverse-katabasis narrative. And I loved it, uneven as it was. Jane Austen’s Persuasion was another reverse-katabasis story. A character begins at her lowest: the rest is a bloody-nailed, barefooted scrabble to the top.
But in Undone, we watch the character plummet, first off. The first thing I thought was that she reminded me of a friend in college. Her sharp intellect, her great fear and sadness and anger, her predilection for ruining her own relationships, and hurting herself. The rotoscoping animation was uncanny; the emotions stark, with a fever glitter. But oh, all the harsh chemicals it brought into my body!
I wonder, for me, if there’s some magic spot of narrative information–the order in which I learn about the character, her fall from grace, her struggle for redemption, or whatever–that makes a story more palatable for me.
As if that’s what I want from art.
I mean, I DISAGREE WITH MY OWN TASTES. Another reason I found last night so upsetting. I wish I could endure more, and be changed the better for it.
I remember learning about what I “liked” in a movie when I left halfway through Requiem for a Dream. A beautiful movie, a necessary one, and one I couldn’t actually watch. I’d never just… up and left a room before. But I couldn’t take it. I’d had family members come very close to destroying themselves through meth; it wasn’t something I wanted to watch again. But for some, maybe it was revelatory, or acted as a spiritual purgative. I’m glad it exists. I felt weak for not finishing it. I still remember the scene with the vacuum.
I don’t go out of my way to read melancholy books either. If someone tells me a story is “oh, so beautiful and so sad,” I’m unlikely to touch it. I miss out on a great deal of literature this way. But if the mood of a book could be described as “overcast” or “silvery-blue” I feel like my chances of enjoying it are less than 60%.
Which is not to say I can’t be surprised. Sometimes I like an icy work. Henning Mankell’s DEPTHS, for example. I mean, look at the cover. Read the synopsis. No way did I think I’d like it. But I read it because a friend loved it, and I wanted to dwell in his brain a while. And I was blown away.
Now, there were books I thought were melancholy before reading them–making a solemn assumption on the basis of very little–that I ended up loving hopelessly and finding hilarious–like, for example, Crime and Punishment. It was brutal, yes, and dark, and awful, but so nuanced, and somehow so vigorous and joyous in that nuance, with such barbs of insight and humor, that I adored it. And it wasn’t EVEN as good as Brothers Karamazov–which I perforce had to read more slowly than my whole being desired, because every chapter deserved to be thought about for weeks, even though the writing and characters and mystery propelled me onward.
Last night, right after the Undone episode, Mir asked me if I liked it. I lost it.
“No, no, I didn’t like it! I’m upset right now. It worked, okay? I need to be alone!”
And other such flailing of that nature.
Hence, the nightmood.
It reminded me of this:
A friend asked me once, point-blank, in public, if I liked her story. Everyone at the table turned to hear my answer–or at least it felt like it.
(I… I never ask anyone that question of my own work, not even my closest friends. I suppose it’s my theatre training. The last thing you want to hear, when you’re hopped up from the energy of performing on a stage, is the truth of what the audience might have experienced, which is bound to be far different from the joyous and occasionally transcendental surge of performance, which can happen whether or not you were actually any good.)
(Unsolicited praise is great, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t want to KNOW if you hated something I’ve done, that I’ve put time and practice and struggle and hope and my own confused and complex feelings into. I don’t like being tagged in bad, or even mediocre, reviews of my stories. If my story failed, I’m sure I’ll learn about it, if I didn’t already know, without asking someone directly–and implying, in the asking, that all I really want is praise. Which is another actor trick too, as well as a writerly one, but one I don’t generally employ.)
So I told my friend–my face very hot, and probably stammering a bit–“Your story was hard to read. It was terrifically sad. It was drenched in colors. The writing was beautiful. It moved me deeply. But I couldn’t say I liked it. It was painful, not pleasurable. I like”–I sort of waved my hands around–“silly things.”
Bad form on my part, right? That scene still haunts me.
I think I disappointed her. I know that we are not close anymore. And while I do not know if our friendship ended because of that conversation, I do think it didn’t help it any, and I wonder if I should have answered more diplomatically. There are all sorts of ways to tell the truth. And one of my truths is, I don’t have to like something to think it’s important, to appreciate it, to be glad it’s in the world. My likes are narrower than I’d like. My critical appreciation is more rigorously trained.
Carlos and I disagree about what “like” means, re: art.
To me, there’s a real difference between enjoyment and appreciation, between like and love, between attending to something because it’s a great and necessary thing, and attending to something because it really speaks to every nerve of my body and compels me to seek more. I think, to him, every new experience brings him joy–because he loves learning. He loves things that give him something to think about, because he loves thinking.
Maybe I just don’t love thinking as much as he does. A mortal failure on my part. I really am looking to challenge myself in literature and media more… Just maybe not at 9 at night.
Maybe 9 at night is my time to be reading The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry and thinking about how alike we are to the poets of the Tang Dynasty. Li Bai, I love you.
Remember that Joshua Bell experiment? Maybe to experience high art, to appreciate it based on its own real merits and not on one’s mood, one must set aside a time and place for it, treat it as holiday or ritual, create the headspace for a fair reception, prepare one’s attitude for clarity and impact and analysis.
Maybe, if I think a thing is going to be hard but important, I shouldn’t engage in it casually. For instance, when I’m relaxing at the end of a long day, and just want some cartoons.
Or maybe, as a dying Daniel Day Lewis says at the end of The Ballad of Jack and Rose––a very strange movie that I love but maybe do not like, but which has stayed with me, and which I am glad of–“It’s a matter of taste.”
And there’s no accounting for taste.