Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nothing Easy about It

Have you ever been an "outcast"?  I have.  Multiple times.  It's a set of experiences that scar you in ways you don't discover until the next go-round, when the next mob of villagers gather together with torches to chase you up a mountainside.  It's transformative without allowing for a lot of self-reflection, and by the end of the process your whole personality has changed.  Your whole being.  But you just move on, scarred and smarter, exhausted and scared but also filled with a knowledge you could not have gotten any other way.

Emma Stone's Olive in Easy A, a talky, sweet, self-conscious movie-reinvention of John Hughes for the 21st Century, is the perfect "outcast," in that she is female, smart, sarcastic, and warm-hearted, a perfect recipe for pissing most "normal" people off for some reason.  And the movie gets a lot things right around the concept of being exiled and scorned.  First of all it's ur-text is The Scarlet Letter, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's beautiful starchy novel is used in a variety of ways to enlighten us on the sociology and psychology and artfulness of being driven out of town.  As well, the actors who support Stone, especially Patricia Clarkson as her mom and Stanley Tucci as her dad, have a nonchalant lovingness in their eyes, and the actors who play her tormentors, especially Lisa Kudrow as a whore/guidance-counselor and Amanda Bynes as Marianne, the Bible-believing bitch-leader of a group of teenaged Jesus Freaks who lead the EXPEL-THE-SLUT campaign, have a special, dry, cartoony evilness, like Jeffrey Jones' principal in Ferris Bueller's Day off.  The plot is easy and swift:  Olive lies about having sex with "George," a made-up college freshman, but her lie ignites a rumor inferno to the point that Brandon, a gay friend of hers with tormentors all his own, begs Olive to lie and say they've done it too.  To be his extra-special beard.

What sets Olive, and the movie, apart from a lot of other teen comedies trying to channel Mr. Hughes, is the joie de vivre Olive has in tormenting her tormentors:  she doesn't just lie about bumping uglies with the gay guy.  It's an all out Cirque de Soleil of teen-sex at a house-party, with the two of them yelling and moaning so all the high school kids outside the bedroom door can hear.  As Olive tells Brandon:  "I don't do anything half-assed."

Emma Stone is a star, and this movie is only the beginning I hope.  She can dish it out and take it.  She can be victimized without being a victim, kind of like Barbara Stanwyck or some other glamorous, throaty, old-school movie star.  There's a scene in which she is waiting to go to the principal's office and Marianne (who works in the principal's office) is sharpening pencils.  Stone's Olive does not let this anal-retentive display of whore-hatred go unnoticed.  In a hilariously sarcastic triumph, she "coaches" Marianne through her pencil-sharpening fit:  "Sharpening pencils are we?  That's just great.  Yes.  Keep sharpening.  Yes.  Yes."  And so on.

At that moment I knew Emma Stone is a star, and that the movie has something to say about surviving being an outcast by getting the joke but also never forgetting that the "joke" is serious as hell.  Marianne would like Olive to disappear.  Meaning:  under all the high-school farce and frenetic pacing and Olive's sweetly insouciant voice-over there's a serious tone, a life-or-death feeling in the movie.  The only way you can get through a life like Olive's, the movie is letting us know, is torment right back, and also figure out your exit strategy, or you're dead.

Olive's exit strategy goes into movie-movie brilliance, with a wonderful homage to Ferris Bueller's Beatles number in downtown Chicago.  She ends up happily ever after, thank God (you wouldn't want it any other way thanks to Stone's performance), but the movie leaves an afterburn.  It made me think about all the times I've been cast as an "outcast," and how that feeling has given me both a sense of terror dealing with people, as well as an evil sense of humor.  There's never one without the other.  I've had religious zealots pissed at me because of a novel I wrote about a child-molester, asking for my head and my job; I had hoods and even a cheerleader threaten to beat up in high school; more recently, as a co-founder of a non-profit arts organzation that supports people with developmental disabilities here in Cincinnati called Visionaries & Voices (V&V), I had some folks there unleash some vicious rumors about me because I was seen as a stubborn megalomaniac who wanted their heads.  Etcetera, etcetera.  What all this boils down to is that I've learned absolutely nothing I can actually tell you about concerning "outcast-ness."  Except there is now a density in my thoughts, a fear that hardens into a new kind of laugh, a new way to approach the world.  Stone's Olive is symbolic of this new approach:  sew a letter A on your outfit, torture those who torture you.  Don't do anything half-assed.

Raymond Thunder-Sky, the reason I helped co-found V&V, dressed up like a clown and a construction worker (a scarlet letter all his own) and walked around town drawing drawings.  There are stories of him being beaten up.  Called names.  Stories of people calling him a "John Wayne Gacy" freak.  One story about him being pushed off a city bus.  But you know what?  He was triumphant.  He did what he needed to do.  It's in his face, that look of derision and gallow's humor, that mix of innocence and the wear-and-tear of what people can do to you.  

There's nothing easy about it.