Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blanche Dubois in a Tracksuit

The first two episodes of the second season of The Comeback have been pure bliss: humiliating, hilarious, poignant, sad...  Basically the new shows are a direct extension of what made The Comeback's 2005 season so incredibly satisfying.  Almost every review I've read of both seasons, however, focuses solely on the show-business satire:  Valerie Cherish trapped in a world that does not want her, the superficial, vanity-drenched universe of reality TV and/or Hollywood in general.  But I think the setting and situation are just red herrings, glossy reasons to make a show.  Valerie Cherish is one of those characters that not only satirizes and parodies excess (in Valerie's case:  vanity, star-hunger, ambition beyond ability, etc), but also somehow has connective tissue to a reality and pathos way beyond satire.  She's full-fledged, made from parts that seem totally valid and emotionally relevant.  She's not a cartoon.  Her behavior carries with it moments of extreme illumination on what it means to be a human being in a pretty nasty world that often crushes spirits while also remaining totally blank-faced.  I know this sounds totally overblown and very Valerie-Cherish-ish, but I kind of liken her to Blanche Dubois or Willie Loman, two beautifully flawed extremely irritating but spiritually poignant symbols of humanity trying to maintain grace and sanity in a universe not built for them, or not even aware of their wants and needs.

In short, Lisa Kudrow does a drag here that pierces through the kitsch and shame, until finally at the end of the day Valerie is one of us. 

The new season's first two episodes illustrates this point a little more succinctly than a lot of the first season's episodes.  In one gorgeously penultimate moment, Valerie tries to sell herself to HBO so she can portray a horrible version of her real self on a semi-autobiographical HBO-deluxe "dramedy" about the rotten little sitcom she was co-starring in almost ten years ago (one of The Comeback's kickiest conceits is the use of meta upon meta upon meta narrative intaglios).  The show is titled Seeing Red, and Paulie G, her arch nemesis from the first season of The Comeback, and the creator of that rotten little sitcom, Room and Bored, has written it.  She stumbles upon this fact, and at first tries to maintain "dignity," as Valerie likes to call it, only to twitch and squirm until she winds up in front of a bunch of hipster-icy HBO execs asking her to "cold-read" a scene for them in which her character, Mallory Church, barks out a pissed-off monolog about how she's sick and tired of being the "old lady," the "joke," the "unfuckable one."  It's a truly Blanche-Dubois-meets-Carol-Burnett-as-Eunice moment, and yet Blanche wins out in the end.  Kudrow plays the meta-meta seriously, to the bone.  That room of execs is blown away, as are we, because we know what she is saying is so true, at least in this context and more-than-likely in many more contexts, and we're on Valerie's side not because of gender inequality of anything, but just because her tragedy is given to us without restraint or audience-pleasing satirical obsequiousness.  Valerie's anger, while it will never come out in the real world, is given a moment to geyser in that HBO conference room, and in the steam heat we feel every frustration she's ever felt.  And we somehow know her frustration is ours.

Valerie is a clown, but her clownishness is not alien to the species.  In fact it is elemental, a facet of human consciousness and behavior that we all like to pretend we don't share.  She is embarrassingly self-serving, manipulative, pathetic, status-conscious, overwhelmed by her desire to be what she can't be, and yet all of those traits don't alienate her from us.  They bring her to us somehow.

Valerie's relationship to another clown, her hairdresser Mickey Deane (played with soul and verve and a beautiful exhaustion by Robert Michael Morris), gives us another way to witness her self-involvement and also her hilarious co-dependency.  Mickey dotes on her, protects her, actually establishes a zone of tranquility for her, and in turn Valerie simultaneously thanks/ignores/berates/belittles/compliments him all in one fell swoop.  Their dance together dramatizes one of those great comedic couplings in which timing and chemistry and a total dedication to (as Valerie would say) "honoring the wonderful material" written for them.  They move through their days together completely unaware of the tragedy of their adventures, and yet also secure inside a plastic bubble of their own making.  They take care of each other's need for self-importance and applaud the smallest of one another's triumphs.  It's a joy to witness, even while you wince.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wicked Witch

Frances McDormand plays the title character in Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this month, and she is more than remarkable, so remarkable it's hard to explain.  Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is the story of a middle-class family in Maine who make ends meets stoically but also with a passive-aggressive sense of humor and a grim sense of irony.  McDormand plays the matriarch with an uncanny lived-in charisma that is never displayed, only smoldered, delivered through her eyes, the way her mouth is shaped into staccato sentences, the way she picks up and puts down dinner plates and garden gloves and greeting cards.  A dour school-teacher with a lust for life that somehow gets translated into meanness and rudeness, Olive is someone who is never satisfied but also never figures out why.  She just continues moving forward, making what she can of what she has, either as a wicked witch, a put-upon spouse, a Madame-Bovary wannabe, or a down-to-earth champion of people most people want to ignore.  Olive surveys 25 years of Olive's life with her sweet, doting husband (played to innocent perfection by Richard Jenkins), their confused, pissed-off son, and an assortment of sad, sometimes suicidal friends and family who pass through. 

Cholodenko and screenwriter June Anderson convey all of that time and incident through a poetry steeped in banality and yet intensified by melodrama and violence.  It's a blissful mix of soap-opera and character-study, without losing the juicy texture of either.  Cholodenko has a Douglas-Sirk sense of heightened stylized scene-making, but also a melancholy Emily-Dickinson sense of cut-to-the-chase pathos.  It's a large movie really, expansive and yet completely whittled down to essences, which describes McDormand's performance too.  Both director and actor seem to share the same sense of aesthetic connection.  But it's McDormand's sensibility that somehow sends it all over into a territory of pure greatness.   She blurs together really horrible personality traits with genuineness and kindness, a mix-and-match humanity that allows Olive to glow incandescently without losing her acidic center.  She never changes, barking out rude orders, saying whatever comes to her mind, harboring deep-seated hatreds and jealousies and yet also so close to real you can see yourself in almost every move she makes.

The penultimate scene, the one McDormand grabs onto with so much quiet gusto it's breathtaking, is during the marriage of her son to a woman from an uptight California family.  The wedding is taking place at her son's house near the Maine coast.   Right after the nuptials, exhausted by all the phoniness, Olive in wonderful Olive fashion, decides to take a nap in her son and new wife's bedroom.  Through a constant slew of interruptions Olive stubbornly tries to sleep away the consternation, and at one point, the bedroom door slightly ajar, she overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her, saying how strange and bitchy she is, and even mocking the dress Olive made for herself, a floral sweet homemade-looking frock that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the array of California-lady fashions at the ceremony.  As soon as the daughter-in-law finishes, Olive juts up and seems to be in a fever-state of despair/anger/regret.  There happens to be a notebook with a yellow highlighter on it next to the bed.  She grabs the marker and opens the closet door.  She grabs one of her daughter-in-law's beautiful silk blouses, unfolds it, takes the marker and draws a long fluorescent line on the sleeve.  She folds the blouse and replaces it.  Then she sees on top of the dresser a pair of earrings.  She steals one, placing it into her pocket.  She returns to the bed and naps.

McDormand does something in this scene you can't really convey in words.  She's a zombie, she's a hurt animal, she's a pissed-off middleaged lady tired of being treated like shit -- she's all of that at once through her gestures, her seemingly blank facial expressions filled with a million emotions, her rigid yet somehow fluid moves through that bedroom.  She is claiming her dignity, but also somehow giving up on herself. 

It's one of those moments you won't ever forget.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mask Theory

Friday I had a phone conversation with someone at the end of my work-day so truly frustrating I got so angry after it I felt as if I weren't going to be able to think for the whole weekend.  It was one of those fumy, funky feelings you get when you are confronted with a point of view so completely outside of your own it feels as if you've been kidnapped and thrown in a basement for a while. 

The different point of view has to do with all kinds of stuff, but mainly the topic of heated discussion was about the people with developmental disabilities we were both trying to support.  I'm not going to get into anything specific because it's not worth it here, but I figure I might as well blog about the Big Issue which is:  how do you separate people from their historical origins, from their tropes?  How do you pull the "type" away from the way you talk about and connect with them? 

The person on the other end kept laying claim to people, as in "my clients," or "my people," and I just don't do that.  That "my" becomes plantation-esque somehow, indicating an ownership that feels grounded in institutions and brainwaves from the past.  I think the fury I felt truly came from that alone mainly, hearing that "my" over and over and over, and then today rehashing the whole thing I thought about Diane Arbus' photographs of people with developmental disabilities taken during a Halloween party at a state institution back in the early 1960s.  One of them is above.  Somehow that "my" is trapped in that same moment above, that cryptic, masked sense of no-self, no-determination, no-ambition, just a group of identities only given identities as a group.  

How do we help get rid of those masks?  How can we separate the way we think and act from that instant classification, that instant knowing what's best, that "my-ness"? 

One way I guess is by always knowing what's up, and by not saying the "my" and also knowing why you don't say "my."  Still that's just semantics, still just a version of self censorship.  The move to make might be empathetically created (as in "I wouldn't only want to be thought of as only part of a group," etc.) but also it has to be functionally practiced.  We often think of ethics as only connected to an HR training or a high school course we took and slept through, rules that don't really matter outside of saying they do, ephemeral pontificating.  But ethics, in the way I'm trying to figure them out, are only important when acted on, as in erasing that ownership sensibility by understanding its weirdness and unkindness and moving forward from that, outside of platitudes, outside of words.  Doing something about it.

It was words, of course, that pissed me off so much on Friday.  That and the fact it was Friday and nobody wants to get into a work argument or any kind of argument on Friday afternoon.  But the words highlighted something very deep:  you can't take action until you figure out what's wrong with the way you're thinking about the actions you take. 

In this stuff, ethics are so important because they can allow you to unmask yourself.  And without a mask you, and everyone else, can see exactly who you are.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Living Wages

A lot of times in trainings and meetings people use Clip-art configurations in their Power-point presentations just to gussy things up, or to prove a point without having to prove a point, almost like instant branding.  Clip-art allows anyone a catalog of pictographs and overarching almost blank logos to "explain" things without really accounting for the explanation.  Clip-art provides a shortcut that leads back to the fact something can't be codified, can't be illustrated:  everything is complicated and yet easily simplified.  In my case I go to a lot of trainings and meetings about employment for people with developmental disabilities, and somehow the Clip-art responses to that grouping of abstractions ("people," "disabilities," "employment") come off so inept as to be ironic, even absurd, not because the people in the Clip-art depictions aren't depicted in wheelchairs for diversity's sake, or whatever.  It's not the visuals.  The simplicity of the "Clip-arting" process is the main problem:  hugely complicated topics can't be easily abstracted especially while you're living through them.  There's no ap for that.
Helping/supporting people with disabilities to get actual jobs with living wages is about trying to do a lot of activities people on all sides of the table aren't used to.  It's about decreasing the importance of programs and increasing the importance of expectations both on the people we're trying to help get real jobs, and on the employers.  These expectations vary of course.  On the part of the people with disabilities, we are counting on them to have the skills and desires and competencies needed to work; on the part of the employers, we are counting on them to think beyond stereotypes and to make hiring decisions based on a person's skills and desires and competencies, not on charity or pity.  The equation sounds simple, but it is so complex as to become confusing, even depressing.  The contemporary history of vocational ambitions for people with developmental disabilities is pretty dismal:  consigned to sheltered workshop making sub-minimum wage.  In the 1980s a service set called "supported employment" caught on for many folks, but still those segregated work spaces held on, so that a small percentage of "job-ready" people were referred for employment in the real world, but a vast majority were still told they "belong" in a sheltered work environment, always being told they weren't ready yet. 
In 2012 Employment First, a national initiative, came to Ohio, signed as an executive order by Governor Kasich.  It stipulates that all the service-systems statewide here in Ohio presume people are employable.  Are "ready."
"Ready" is a loaded word and concept, and as I keep trying to figure out how to help make employment happen for people (in tandem with a bunch of other folks, including social workers, counselors, family member, and employers, etc.) I always try to understand that not everyone we're trying to help "break through" will make it, and some may not even want to.  But my presumption is that all of us want to be contributors to the world, using whatever talents we have to make it a better place.  My presumption is everyone deserves a chance.  Lots of chances actually.
Good old Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had Blanche Dubois whisper, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  With all this employment stuff, we are depending on the kindness, and open-mindedness of people with developmental disabilities, their family members, services providers, supervisors, CEOs, coworkers, and so on.  "Kindness," in this case, seems to be a process of seeing beyond what's right in front of you, and what's in the historical record, maybe even in the subconscious.  People who are not consigned to Sheltered-Workshop-Land often have images in their heads of groups of people with developmental disabilities in school on the little yellow bus, in backroom classrooms, on the playground in clusters.  They have images from TV and movies and literature that dictate these folks are helpless and in need of all kinds of "special" support.  People with developmental disabilities, and their service providers, advocates and families, often have a lot of fear about connecting with the "real world," about leaving behind the intended safety and comfort of programs designed to protect them and to perpetually "prepare" them for eventual "inclusion."  "Kindness" may be the only way for people on all sides of the equation to see, without blinders, a world in which many people often considered not "ready" are actually capable of contributing and ascending even.
So employment is maybe one of the only ways to put social change into practice, to test the boundaries of "kindness," not charity or pity, but a kindness that is predicated on the Golden Rule that essentially states: You should treat others as you would like others to treat you. 
Pretty simple.  Bet there's no Clip-art for that though.  
In summation, here's a picture:
This happened last week -- a team of temporary employees with developmental disabilities became full-time employees of ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a company in Southwest Ohio that makes auto-parts.  They had to work really hard to prove themselves, not just because it's a hard job, but because they don't have the luxury of not being labeled.  That labeling is an obstacle everyone involved has to overcome.  The employer had to figure out how to accommodate for a few things, but also expect great things; the employees had to figure out how to word hard and push forward and even maybe surprise themselves with how strong they are; the job coaches, families, supporters, and supported employment people had to figure out how to make all of this work without interrupting efficiency and the workplace.  It goes on and on.  Complications arise, but the will to incorporate those complications (not really solve them, but contend with and work with it all) becomes a version of "kindness," and eventually a little bit of triumph,  Right beside the big ThyssenKrupp Bilstein sign stands the CEO Fabian Schmahl, who gave a great speech and then handed each new employee their uniforms.    
Without employment, this process on all sides would have never happened.  It was not a Utopian moment, as much as a simply joyous one.  Which is probably a lot better, at least from my point of view.