Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Busting the Myth of the Lonely Only

Here is a piece I wrote for JSTOR Daily about being the mother of one child (published November 18, 2015):

My one and only dancing outside a motel in Seattle.

Bill and Hillary have one. Franklin D. Roosevelt was one. And the chances are you probably know one or two. Even I have one of the selfish, lonely, and maladjusted creatures said to be populating America in greater numbers every year. I am referring to the “only child,” also known as singletons or onlies.
Despite the only child being a growing demographic, having one still attracts a surprising amount of criticism. At a playground in London, one mother told me she thought having an only child was tantamount to child abuse as she watched my daughter toddle alone in the sandbox. When I told my mother that I probably wouldn’t have any more children, she exclaimed disparagingly that one child was “simply not a family.” My husband, on the other hand, has not had any of these accusations leveled against him. The shaming of mothers of singletons is yet another arena in which guilt, scorn, and impossibly high expectations are heaped upon women, encouraged by society’s biased views.
23 percent of Americans have only one child; in New York City, as in a lot of urban centers, the figure is 30 percent.
A year ago, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated the world’s population at 7.2 billion. At the same time, natural resources like clean air and water are dwindling. Yet to talk of restricting the number of children people choose to have smacks of coercive policy-making or, worse, genetic engineering. In developed countries, though, a limit on family size seems to be occurring organically, without the need for legislation or encouragement from campaigners. If you had asked American women in the 1930s how many children they wanted, 64 percent would have said they wanted at least three. Today, most women feel that 2.5 is ideal. Many of us, however, don’t manage more than one. In fact, 23 percent of Americans have only one child; in New York City, as in a lot of urban centers, the figure is 30 percent.
For many, the rationale for stopping at one child is financial. The cost of raising a kid in the U.S.—before he even gets to college—is $245,300. For others, there simply aren’t enough childbearing years left to have another. And, for a very small minority, the environment and overpopulation are factors. But there is something else at work here: Society is moving away from seeing only children as disadvantaged—though the shift is happening painfully slowly.
Just more than a hundred years ago, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall declared that being an only child was a disease in itself. 
Just more than a hundred years ago, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall declared that being an only child was a disease in itself. He was responsible for putting forth the stereotype of the singleton as deficient, indulged, and spoiled. His theories—which he promoted around the same time that psychoanalysis was beginning to blossom—firmly took root. Hall has since undergone some scrutiny, and many of his theories have been rejected within the realm of academia, but popular opinion has yet to catch up. Hall’s words continue to reverberate around playgrounds and kitchen tables all over the country. We hear so often that only children are self-centered, antisocial, and unable to share, that the stereotype has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at the very least, what is known as a “cultural truism.”
In her essay “G. Stanley Hall: Male Chauvinist Educator,” the scholar Gill Schofer accuses Hall—the father of child psychology—of being outdated. In Hall’s eyes, women were born solely to be mothers and wives. They were not to engage in any pursuits that might be mentally taxing, such as learning Latin, Greek, or mathematics. If women were to roam outside the realm of the house, society would crumble.
Hall advocated something called “retarding,” a process by which a girl’s education was designed to prevent her from engaging in analytical or cerebral pursuits.
In fairness to Hall, who was born in 1844 and lived the life of a Victorian gentleman, these views were not uncommon for the time. He wrote at length about his mother, whom he worshipped. He described her as the epitome of the Angel in the House, selflessly devoted to her children, her husband, and God. For society to function, Hall believed, all women needed to model themselves on her.
Some of Hall’s opinions were quaint, while others were dangerous. For instance, he advocated something called “retarding,” a process by which a girl’s education was designed to prevent her from engaging in analytical or cerebral pursuits—any curiosity about important subjects such as science, history, or politics was to be repressed in order for her untainted maternal intuition to come to the fore. To Hall, “a purely intellectual woman is…a biological deformity.” And “to a man, wedlock is an incident, but for women, it is destiny.”
In 1987, Denise F. Polit and Toni Falbo undertook the first large-scale attempt to understand the effects of not having siblings on children.
So why have Hall’s views on only children held such a grip on our culture when we have shed every one of his opinions on gender roles? In the 1980s, when more women were heading for the workplace and delaying having children, articles in academic journals with titles like “Negative Stereotypes About Only Children Unfounded; They Do Well on Any Measure” finally started to appear. These articles helped balance the established preconceptions about only children with careful research. And then, in 1987, Denise F. Polit and Toni Falbo undertook the first large-scale attempt to understand the effects of not having siblings on children.
Polit and Falbo’s findings, which were the result of in-depth analysis of past and current studies, came to the conclusion that singletons and multiples shared much more than we had previously thought. What’s more, they found that the disadvantages of being an only child were, on balance, nonexistent.
Reading the study today, certain details jump out, such as the section on antisocial behavior, one of the traits Hall ascribed to onlies without exception. In previous research, sociability had been measured by self-report, with only children seeing themselves as much less sociable than other children. However, when peers were asked about the sociability of singletons, they were said to be more sociable than children with siblings on average. Another case of cultural truism, perhaps? If you tell a child often enough that he is unsociable, eventually he’ll start to believe it.
More recently, Lauren Sandler’s 2013 book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, merges personal stories and anecdotes with up-to-date statistics. Parental happiness, Sandler reports, declines with every child. And in Denmark, women with one child scored far happier than women with no children or women with more than one. Despite this research, the myth of these sad and lonely only children with their desperate and unfulfilled mothers stubbornly persists.
Only children have higher IQs than those with siblings.
Many studies on the benefits of one-child families, however, seem to feature factors that are irrelevant to many women when they are deciding how many children to have. Most of us probably don’t pay much heed to the fact that only children have higher IQs than those with siblings, or the fact that they often reach higher academic rankings. It certainly wouldn’t be a reason for any woman I know to stop at one. The fact is that modern motherhood and a working life are often incompatible. Some women excel at juggling careers and multiple children—either through hard work, having the money for childcare, living near family members who can look after their children for free, or any combination of these factors. Others simply can’t do it. We stop at one because we don’t have the money, the time, or the love for another child. Our financial and emotional resources, we feel, are only ample enough to nurture one child well. Or perhaps crippling postpartum depression frightens some women away from going through the difficult and lonely years of caring for another baby. That was certainly a factor for me.
One major raison d’être for feminism is to allow women to make informed choices: whether or not to marry, to work, to have children. But the taboo around choosing to have one child persists. I found it shocking that so many people I barely knew felt entitled to point out how selfish I was for not giving my daughter a sibling. But selfishness is closely linked to—and sometimes confused with—self-preservation, a human being’s most deeply ingrained instinct for survival, and a desirable and healthy characteristic for someone raising a child.
Singletons, in other words, are more maligned than maladjusted, and it does them a disservice to perpetuate outdated stereotypes invented by a reactionary Victorian gentleman.
Perhaps, in time, as more people choose to stop at one child, the stigma will disappear. This will also make it easier on those who had the decision to have one child thrust upon them through infertility, ill health, the breakup of a relationship, or, in some cases, the death of a child’s sibling. It will also free children without siblings from having to prove to the world that they can be social, generous, and well-adjusted. Negative comments directed at one-child families suggest a view of life where we can all choose what we want, when and how we want it. Even when it comes to having children, the image that people are being sold—and that some are buying—is one of the happy consumer with an array of endless choices. Yet the reality of bearing children is far from this.
Whatever happened to the idea that life cannot be perfectly planned, nor can we always get what we want when it comes to the big decisions facing us. We are all muddling through, doing the best we can. Siblings won’t necessarily make a sad and lonely child happy, nor will not having siblings necessarily make a happy child miserable. Singletons, in other words, are more maligned than maladjusted, and it does them a disservice to perpetuate outdated stereotypes invented by a reactionary Victorian gentleman. G. Stanley Hall has been dead for 90 years. Maybe a burgeoning acceptance toward one-child families is finally starting to creep into society at large, one that will allow modern women and the people around them to stop seeing one child as being “only” one, and to start seeing them for the abundance they really are.


Adolescents’ Perceptions of Parental Affect: An Investigation of Only Children vs. Firstborns and the Effect on Spacing

Journal of Population, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 148-166
Published by: Springer

Negative Stereotypes About Only Children Unfounded; They Do Well on Any Measure

Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 13, No. 3 (May - Jun., 1981), pp. 147-148
Guttmacher Institute

Only Children and Personality Development: A Quantitative Review

Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 309-325,
National Council on Family Relations

The Only Child Grows up: A Look at Some Characteristics of Adult Only Children

Family Relations, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 99-106
National Council on Family Relations

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: 'Spinster' by Kate Bolick

Spinster, Schminster: The Destruction of a Perfectly Good Word

Kate Bolick, left, and her book Spinster, published by Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House.
Kate Bolick, left, is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her New York Times bestseller Spinster, right, is published by Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House.

What a difference seven years can make. Kate Bolick, author of the well-reviewed and much-discussed Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which traces her life as a young professional writer dodging the marriage bullet, graduated from high school in 1990. My voyage from high school to university at the age of 17 was in 1983. Those transitional years between the mid-eighties and the early nineties mark a period of shifting ground when Second Wave Feminism crashed loudly into the unsettled waters of the Third Wave. During these years the emphasis in the feminist movement was shifting from the collective to the individual, and from the political to the personal—and not coincidentally these changes occurred simultaneously with the rapid growth of Reagan-Thatcher capitalism and its emphasis on individual choice and consumption.
The portrait of the society Bolick inhabits—a society, which by her account, is populated by women who are all busily dreaming of marriage is not one I recognise. She speaks for all women in the opening sentence of Spinster in what I can only assume is an attempt at Austenesque irony: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” The use of “every woman” here, which is repeated throughout the book, only serves to alienate those of us who actually took on board the literature, the academic probing, the arguments and discussions from the Suffragettes to the feminists of the sixties and seventies and beyond as we navigated our way through the world as young women. “Though marriage was no longer compulsory, the way it had been in the 1950s,” Bolick writes, “we continued to organize our lives around it, unchallenged.” We? Unchallenged? Really? What a difference those seven years made.
Towards the very end of the book, Bolick shifts into a more personal gear when she asserts that “the question I’d long posed to myself—whether to be married or to be single—is a false binary. The space in which I’ve always wanted to live—indeed, where I have spent my adulthood—isn’t between these two poles, but beyond it. The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Exactly. That choice doesn’t belong in the 21st century because it was debated at length by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and countless intellectuals and writers. Even the early feminist Lady Mary Chudleigh (1656-1710) famously made the connection between patriarchy and marriage when she wrote: “Wife and servant are the same, but only differ in the name.” That was in 1705.
Where Bolick had always dreamed of marriage – “But of course I wanted to be married. In college I’d decided I’d marry by thirty” – my friends and I were dreaming of love and sex. Marriage was seen as the unnecessary packaging destined to be thrown into the metaphorical feminist landfill site along with chastity belts, foot bindings, and corsets. Marriage was love wrapped up in the bells and whistles of capitalism and the conventionally accepted narrative of a woman’s life—the very things we were fighting against. Not for us the virginal white dress, the changing of our surname, the ‘giving away’ of the bride by her father (oh, the awful symbolism in this gesture) and the vows of servitude and obedience. Unlike Bolick’s friends, we wanted none of it. Apparently in Bolick’s social circle, not to get married required “a very good explanation” – which, she adds, “I certainly didn’t have”. What about the wealth of feminist thought, argument, literature and essays for furnishing those pesky explanations? I notice Bolick name checks Simone de Beauvoir in her bibliography without mentioning her once in the text. Surely a few lines from The Second Sex could provide Bolick with the elusive excuses she and her friends need to justify their desire to not tie the knot?
The title of Bolick’s book set up for me the expectation of a historical overview of the single, unmarried woman: the fictional heroine from Brian Moore’s eponymous book, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, perhaps. Or Henry James’s construction of spinsterhood in the form of Olive Chancellor in TheBostonians. Or maybe the real Salem Witches and their foremothers. Bolick does mention Henry James’s Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller without noting that neither of them were actually spinsters. But who cares! For Bolick the term “spinster” is so elastic that it loses all meaning: “For the happily coupled, particularly those balancing work and children, spinster can be code for remembering to take time out for yourself.” Code? What does that even mean?
For anyone who cares about language, and I put people who write books into this category, it is an irrefutable fact that the definition and etymology of words are paramount. If a writer uses “dyke” or “queer” or “spinster”, they do so with the responsibility that comes with communicating with a reader. But in Bolick-land, who has time for semantics when you have a book to sell? Real life spinster writers don’t get a mention in the book. There is no Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Flannery O’Connor, Maria Edgeworth, or Christina Rosetti, nor do we find any of the writers who challenged marriage and forged new lives as independent women like George Eliot and Mary Wollstonecraft. What we get instead are lightly drawn portraits of five women whom Bolick calls her “Awakeners” (without so much as a nod to Kate Chopin’s 1899 proto-feminist novel, The Awakening. Chopin’s seminal work isn’t even listed in the bibliography).
Out of Bolick’s five spinster “Awakeners”, only one of them, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was actually a spinster. Neith Boyce was married with four children. Maeve Brennan (Bolick’s “patron saint” of spinsterhood) had been married, as was Edith Wharton. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was married with a daughter. But none of this matters to Bolick. The fact that the word has a history and a meaning is irrelevant—another symptom of the strange ahistoricism at the heart of this book. Bolick flounces through the lists of boyfriends and suitors who can’t help but offer her a brownstone if only she’ll marry them, or the lovely men who want so much to be with her, but from whom she needs her space. This is not spinsterhood. This is called making a choice. To remain unmarried as a personal decision is not the same as having it thrust upon you. And despite the fact that Bolick thinks that being unmarried is a brave move on her part, it is simply the result of the political actions and sacrifices of the women who came before her, whom she doesn’t care to mention. To choose not to marry in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries was brave; to do so now is simply acting upon one of many choices available to women. Bolick manages to drain any political discussion from the subject of women as spinsters, which is a shame, especially as the book came out a month before same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland, and two months before it became legal nationwide in the U.S. A time when men and women are seeing a new freedom in whom they choose to make a life with—or not. Bolick’s assertion that all women dream of marriage is anachronistic.
There is an important subject to be probed here, one brought up by de Beauvoir in 1949 when she wrote: “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female.” One could add to this the age-old adage that bachelors are always seen as “swinging” while spinsters are seen as “sad”. There is much more to be said on this matter in the early 21st century, but Bolick with her inability to place herself in the context of this ongoing discussion is not the person for the job.

Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is published by Crown Publishing Group.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hazard, Viper, Defiance: The Films of John Cohen

Finding Nearly Forgotten Music 

John Cohen's photo of Roscoe Holcomb.

“Can I add something to your mix?” asks John Cohen after I tell him that I’m attending the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, to write about it. At the time, I was new in town, having just moved there from London, England, and was finding my footing by writing about the place.
“Yes, please,” I reply. After all, this is the man who introduced the great banjo player Roscoe Holcomb to the world, photographed Bob Dylan before anyone else, and was the stills photographer for Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s iconic 1959 film Pull My Daisy. Of course I want his feedback.
“What is documentary?” he says, fixing me with a razor-sharp look.
“I think it’s changing at the moment. In flux,” I answer, thinking about the award-winning Canadian interactive documentary Highrise and the other i-docs I’ve recently sat through, headphones clamped over my ears, clicking around screens to unveil stories with no beginning, middle, or end.
“That film tonight,” he says, referring to Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, “is just so different from my films. It is so objective,” he adds. “I don’t trust objectivity.”
When Cohen was living in New York City in the 1960s, along with Jack Kerouac, the Maysles brothers, and Robert Frank, the idea of authorship and objectivity was being explored and expanded. Cinéma vérité had established limits because it didn’t conceal the presence of a camera, and yet it was understood that trying to erase the director’s presence resulted in another series of formal problems. True objectivity is an elusive beast.
“I want to feel the filmmaker in the film,” Cohen says.
“Yes,” I say and fall silent.

John Cohen holds up one of the many photos he took of Bob Dylan.

The work of John Cohen is all about experience and has nothing to do with the mess of facts available on our iPhones. But now that we’re firmly in the age of information, documentaries have become more concerned with delivering “content” than with sharing a human response to a subject. And with the rise of i-docs, choice is what it’s all about, allowing viewers to select preprogrammed narratives at the touch of a button. We are all authors now, as we navigate the brave new world of interactive documentaries.
Cohen points to the bluegrass-tinged string trio Scrapyard Lullaby performing on a makeshift stage and says, “I’m going to be playing with them on Sunday night.”
It takes me a second to remember that Cohen is 82 and, with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. Formed in 1958, the Ramblers ignited the old-time music revival by bringing the rural vernacular music of the South to audiences whose knowledge of folk music didn’t stretch beyond the Kingston Trio. Not only did they bring the music of the people back to the people, they also managed to get near-forgotten performers to play live around the country, sharing the stage with the likes of Clarence “Tom” Ashley, the Stanley Brothers, Maybelle Carter, Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, and Roscoe Holcomb.
The New Lost City Ramblers were very much on the scene when Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village from Minnesota. Cohen told me of a clip he’d found of Dylan, which he’d filmed on a rooftop in 1962. He was testing the camera that he and Robert Frank had just bought from the Maysles brothers in order to make his first film, The High Lonesome Sound(1963). The sound recorder was broken, so the clip was silent. Over two minutes of raw footage, Dylan seems to channel Charlie Chaplin as he playfully tries on a variety of hats plucked from his guitar case.
Recall any photo you’ve seen of Dylan from the ’60s, whether he’s smoking or not, walking down a street or sitting in a loft, and there’s a good chance it came from the camera of John Cohen. Unsurprisingly, Dylan has a huge amount of respect for Cohen and the New Lost City Ramblers. In his Chronicles, he writes: “Everything about them appealed to me…. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days…. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.”
* * *
My first exchange with Cohen reverberated long after that opening-night party at Big Sky. It turned out to be the first of many rushed conversations over several days, between screenings of his films and over cups of coffee in the lobby of the Wilma Theatre, or sitting by the stage at the Top Hat in Missoula.
The High Lonesome Sound has become a touchstone for musical and cinematic authenticity—the cinematic equivalent of Alan Lomax’s and Harry Smith’s field recordings. Cohen makes it clear from the beginning that for the subjects of his film, which was shot in eastern Kentucky, “Music is the celebration of the hard life…. The home music and the church singing are a way of holding on to the old dignity. Music is not an escape. It gives a way of making life possible to go on.”
The film’s images possess and haunt the viewer. A miner, smoking a cigarette, crouches into a wagon as it delivers him underground. What looks like fog rolling across lush, ancient forest turns out to be coal smoke. Children play in wheelbarrows and dogs scamper in the background as men, smeared in soot, wander home from the mines. Girls in pretty dresses skip through the grass. In the Holiness Church of God, men and women cry out and feel the Holy Spirit as it absolves them, comforts them, and releases them from life’s pain. Flannery O’Connor’s hardscrabble world is momentarily given life.
The music that Cohen captures—whether the singers in church or Roscoe Holcomb on his porch or the Shepherd family around their dinner table—is the connective tissue that links the mines, church, and people in this part of America, which in 1963 already looks and feels very forgotten. Towns with names like Hazard, Lynch, Viper, and Defiance, and a lane called Lonesome Mountain Road, all make an appearance, the names themselves pointing to a past and present as far removed from Greenwich Village as possible.
Holcomb, who had never been filmed or recorded until he met Cohen, talks of his music as being spiritual—not in the sense of a New Age seeker, but rather of touching something beyond the realm of the seen or the everyday. His banjo playing, he explains, “is a gift, and I believe God gave it to me. And I believe it enough to where I’m going to let him take it.”
His face is serious and thin, marked by lines etched in a pattern of worry, work, and sorrow. It’s the countenance of William S. Burroughs drained of self-consciousness. Holcomb’s penetrating voice tells of a hard life and a deep soul. One of the finest banjo players to have ever lived, he speaks like a philosopher and sings from a place that seems almost untouchable. The songs themselves are old, and yet in their purity and simplicity they come across as timeless.
According to Cohen, the scene shot in the Holiness Church of God in Delphia, Kentucky, almost never happened. In fact, a lot almost never happened in this film. Cohen went to the church every Sunday for five weeks, asking if he could film a service. And every Sunday, he was told no. On the last day, he went to the church and told the congregation he was leaving. “Oh, c’mon in,” they said. “You’re one of us now.” He filmed using only available light, and the scenes have a powerful intimacy, as if we were right there with the preacher and the men and women speaking in tongues, receiving the Holy Spirit, convulsing with passion for Christ. They don’t seem to be aware that they’re being filmed, such is Cohen’s sensitivity and his ability to be present while remaining unobtrusive. The hand of the director is there, but it is unseen. It works like magic. To answer his earlier question to me, “This is documentary.”
Seven years after The High Lonesome Sound, Cohen made The End of an Old Song (1970), about unaccompanied ballad singers in North Carolina. One of the greatest of these was Dillard Chandler, from the town of Sodom. The film opens with Chandler in his spartan cabin, saying he isn’t too lonely because every now and then he goes to town and takes a woman out and maybe keeps her for a day or two. Chandler tells us, “My address is Route 3,” and then adds that he has no mailbox and no use for mail. This is a land where people have no bank accounts. It is impossible to imagine, in our hyperconnected age, such acute physical isolation—and yet, for all our connectivity, many of us also live alienated lives.
In one extraordinary scene, Chandler goes out to find a companion for the night. He meets a dark-haired woman in a bar. We can’t hear their conversation, but in a voice-over he tells us, “All my good times are past and over.” Then he stares at the jukebox, which has been playing Merle Haggard and George Hamilton IV. “Is this the future?” he seems to ask. When the woman he’s been talking to slips away to sit with another man, Chandler’s face is that of a character from one of the ancient ballads he sings with such longing. This is a document of life being lived as art.
Cohen tells me a story about being the “good little filmmaker”: After he finished The End of an Old Song, he went to North Carolina to show it to the people who were in it. The film started, and Cohen noticed that Chandler wasn’t in the audience. He became worried that he was portraying Chandler in a bad light to his community. But when Chandler talks in the film of getting a girl for a night or two, men in the audience began shouting out, “Dillard, you tell it like it is!” This is also documentary.
To wrap up the festival’s weekend retrospective of his work, Cohen took to the stage with Scrapyard Lullaby. They played “Jenny Jenkins,” “The Girl and the Snake,” and “The Coo-Coo Bird,” among other traditional tunes. He told me he was going to sing a song he had written in Missoula 40 years ago, when he was playing with the New Lost City Ramblers. He had been here for some kind of “cultural event” (spoken in the tone of someone who is not in favor of manufactured culture) and was taken to see a church on a nearby reservation. He said he couldn’t sing the song here all those years ago, but felt that Missoula was probably ready for it now. “I liked the Indians, but I hated that church,” he told me.
Cohen sang the song a cappella. It tells the story of how the church had been painted with holy scenes. Someone realized that the figures in the paintings were white—not a native face to be seen. So a painter was brought in to add some Indians: They were portrayed as those writhing in the flames of hell. All these years later, Cohen’s anger is still palpable. Yet this anger somehow never dominates his work. It simmers quietly, giving his work its urgency and potency, even as his films and songs convey a respect for the ability to weather injustice and heartbreak.
At the very end of the last evening, someone asked Cohen to name his favorite creative act.
“Inhaling and exhaling,” he replied without missing a beat.
To me, that fleet-footed response captures what John Cohen’s work is all about: not just being alive, but being alive to all the possibilities around him. What more is there?

John Cohen's photo of Jack Eliot and Woody Guthrie in 1961.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Film Review: Force Majeure

Force Majeure and the Artifice of Control

Force Majeure (originally titled Turist) by Swedish director Ruben Östlund is like a Caspar David Friedrich painting inhabited by characters from a Michael Haneke film: the stark yet sweeping Romanticism of the French Alps is a counterpoint to the vanity and shallowness of a bourgeois family on a skiing holiday. Their neon ski garb and their civilized manners are no protection against the forces of nature, which ultimately shatter their fragile cocoon. On day one of their holiday, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two gorgeous children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren), are photographed on the slopes by the resident photographer. In their body language we sense immediately that something is amiss: the strained smiles, and the awkwardness as the photographer asks Tomas to put his arm around Ebba.
A simple
A simple photograph betrays all the frictions and falsehoods at play in Force Majeure.

Our feelings of unease are further heightened by the mise en scène: barren, crisp white mountains, sterile tunnels connecting ski runs and empty chugging chair lifts recall The Shining more than Ski School. Vivaldi’s almost manic Summer segment from his Four Seasons soars over images of the resort and its incessant snow-making machines. Ominous canon fire, used to create controlled avalanches, also punctures any ease on the viewer’s part. We are firmly on European art-house terrain, and stunning it is, too.
The ski resort’s sleek blond wood interiors and the photogenic family lazing in their matching long underwear self-consciously parody the world of advertising. Yet from the first moment we meet them, we know that under this veneer of middle-class life lie some very deep flaws just waiting to be explored. And Östlund does just this. He forensically exposes the cracks in this relationship just as his compatriot Ingmar Bergman did in Scenes from A Marriage. In this case, Östlund puts the couple in danger. He asks: How will they react when they are torn from their normal day-to-day mode and forced into survival mode? And the film itself answers this question: Not very well.
This danger arrives in the form of a controlled avalanche, which appears to go awry, and threatens to engulf the family along with dozens of other tourists while they eat lunch on an outdoor terrace. We watch as the avalanche goes from a sight to be captured on every iPhone, to something that is getting a bit too close, to a seemingly catastrophic event as everyone either runs for cover or dives under tables. It is beautifully shot, using footage of a real avalanche in British Columbia, a large green screen on set in Gothenburg and real smoke to look like snow. As Östlund has said in interviews, he wanted to create the most spectacular avalanche sequence in film history.
The formal rigour with which Östlund has lead us though this terrain is then echoed in the controlled dynamic between the central couple. Control is an underlying theme throughout the film, with Tomas and Ebba trying vainly to stem their reactions to the avalanche. The landscape has its wildness tamed by being reduced to manicured mountains covered in manufactured snow and yet one feels at any moment it might rebel. To Östlund, this parallels human emotions, which like nature are also not to be controlled. The marriage portrayed in this film, like the mountains in the background, is rife with fissures that have the potential to engulf the members of the family at any moment. Despite willing themselves back to normality after their near catastrophe, the characters have revealed themselves to be what they are: Tomas is the sort of man who runs away from his family, grabbing his phone on the way; while Ebba stays put and tries to protect their children. For the rest of the film Ebba tries to reconcile what she sees as her husband’s deep cowardice with the man she thought he was. Her frustration, which she tries to keep under wraps simmers up when she and Tomas are with other couples. These excruciating scenes of public humiliation and domestic unravelings make for some of the best moments in the film. Ebba displays the icy beauty of a Bergman actress, particularly that of Ingrid Thulin (Cries and WhispersThe Silence). She is an actor who quietly watches, and without a word manages to convey her every thought. Kuhnke’s performance expresses something creepier. He is not an innocent and even his tears, it turns out, are fake.
Östlund delivers a strange ending.
Östlund delivers a strange ending.

Unfortunately, what is played out after the moment of danger, whilst insightful and gripping, seems to then escape the director’s control. The film’s inscrutable logic falls away. It is all the more noticeable because the first two thirds of the film are so perfectly water tight. This is a film in search of an ending, and Östlund can’t seem to settle on one. When the family leaves the resort, we see them on a bus with other holiday-makers. The driver incompetently lurches around hairpin bends narrowly avoiding sheer drops. Ebba, in a panic, insists that the driver let her off. She doesn’t take the children with her. She commits the same crime of which she rightly accuses Tomas. Yet, it is not clear what the director is saying here. Are we to believe that because the danger in this case is simply perceived by Ebba and not necessarily real, it is acceptable for her to flee, leaving the children behind? Or are we to questions the idea that there is one set of rules for a woman and another for a man? I was baffled. Just as I was baffled by what comes next. The passengers file off the bus and do a sort of Nights of Cabiria-style ponderous walk. Tomas lights up a cigarette and comes clean to his family about being a smoker: gone are the pretences. Now that they have seen themselves nakedly for what they are — she: neurotic and prone to publically shaming her husband and he: cowardly, unfaithful and manipulative — they can finally let it all hang out. Then the camera lands on the young Fanni (Fanni Metelius), who we know from previous scenes is having an affair with a much older married man, Mats (Kristofer Hivju). Is the director trying to convey in this shot, that the mess of relationships is destined to live on in future couplings? Is he making the point that we all start off thinking we will be different, as do Fanni and Mats, that our marriages and relationships will be pure an untainted by the darker forces that lurk within us only to be proven wrong when our flaws eventually surface? That, ultimately, it is impossible to keep our natures under control? I wasn’t sure. Yet, the point of a good work of art is not to come to any hard and fast certainties but to get us probing and thinking about what these certainties might be. And Force Majeure does this brilliantly.
 Force Majeure is in UK cinemas from April 10th.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speaking of Grief, short version

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed[1]

This sentence still strikes me as the most honest attempt to encapsulate grief of any I have read. Not so much for its sentiment, but for its insistence that the speaker has not being prepared for death. This is something one learns when one mourns: nothing prepares you for it.

Almost nine years ago, my sister Mary died in Toronto, at the age of fifty-two. For many days after the news of her death reached me in London, I lay in bed unable to do anything apart from cry. One of the most terrible things about grief is that it fades with time no matter how hard we hold onto it. And we do hold onto it. Letting go of our grief is like saying ‘yes’ to the death of the person we are mourning. By holding onto it, we think we are holding onto the person we love. But how wrong we are.

When Mary died, I remember thinking that I would never be happy again. To my ears now, this idea sounds melodramatic and slightly mad. The awful truth is that one does, for want of a better word, ‘get over’ it. One does begin to enact the rituals of everyday life.

Towards the end of his essay about the death of his wife, Lewis does come to a sort of acceptance of his loss, when he says, ‘I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.’[2] Over the years, I have come to a similar place. I can smile when I think of my sister and I can talk about her without crying. And strangely I feel as close to her as I did in the early stages of mourning. I am reassured by this trick of perspective, or is it time passing. Maybe it is simply a version of the madness inherent in grief that enables us to the see so clearly the absences in the world.

The paradigm shift towards acceptance happens despite ourselves. And the constant surprises that fall onto one’s path on the landscape of grief remind you that grieving is a process. It is not a state that remains solid and fixed. The forces of life are so much stronger than the pull of loss. And this is actually what ‘getting over it’ means: the grief eventually loses out.

At Mary’s funeral the thought I couldn’t shake was: ‘I don’t know how to do this. I need Mary to tell me how.’ She had always been there to advise me about every aspect of life. Once she was gone, I had to do what people in films or in Nancy Drew stories do, I had to think, ‘what would Mary do?’ And, oddly, it sort of worked. I would be faced with an invitation to a party and, rather than stay home and cry on the sofa, I would think, ‘would Mary want me to go?’ Invariably she would.

I so remember after my sister’s death the sense that the world as I knew it was no longer recognisable. Words I had been using all my life felt empty and meaningless. My sister was appearing to me at night and giving me instructions. She was so like herself in my dreams that when I woke I could barely believe she was no longer alive. I could not understand her presence in my life, the fact that she was so much there and yet absolutely not there.

It has taken me these nine years to process my loss and to see it as something worth writing about. I have realised that grief is both universal and terribly specific. Talking about death and loss should be part of life. I want to be able to pass on a vocabulary of grief to my daughter. Some day she will no doubt find herself mourning the death of someone close. Some day she may find solace in CS Lewis or perhaps in something yet to be written. I hope she can find the words, and use them to navigate her way through the terror, the confusion, the sense of utter loss and desperation that comes from losing something that has in essence become part of oneself. I don’t want her to say, ‘no one ever told me grief felt so like fear.’ I want her to know it feels like fear and so many other things, unnamed things, unwritten things. Things that will be specific to her and yet linked to every person who has loved someone and watched them die. 

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, London: Faber & Faber, 1961.
[2] Ibid., p. 48.

This shortened version of a longer piece I wrote about grief was published in September 2014 in the Hope Paige Medical Magazine.