Random thoughts: Wunderkind underdog & throwing away talent

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You can start off well, with something like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (“The False Husband”). Set the scene, tone, soundtrack.

I made a deal with myself that I need to be in the habit of writing, so I write in this blog come hell or high water, as the saying goes. I force myself to write every day – usually I have something to say, even if it is largely useless, and can cobble together something that stays thematically cohesive (for example, it might not be important to tell the world, i.e. whatever unlucky soul stumbles into this blog, that I changed my mind about Julie Delpy or that I desperately want to make chicken pho, but these posts at least have a theme and a target – a point.

Today, though, my head is a jumble of random thoughts that I want to spew out in a most random fashion, if for no other reason than to follow through on writing at least one post per day. Rest assured, all the deal-making with myself will hopefully not be for naught. I have specific writing projects I want to tackle at some point but have fallen so far out of the habit of regular, disciplined writing that I am at least trying to create a pattern or a rhythm to start with. The organization comes later. It’s kind of funny because you’d think that writing about things you really want to write about – whatever it is – would come easily. For me, as soon as I sit down, determined to write something with a purpose (other than something academic or a blog post, anyway, which is informal in any case), everything goes out the window. That is, every day in my job and in my freelance work, I research, organize and write all kinds of outlandish things that I never imagined knowing the first thing about. But it’s something that can be ordered – someone says, “I need a white paper about connected TV” or “We need a clinical summary of this paper on manual dexterity when employing double-gloving practice” – I am perfectly able to wrangle all the disparate details, read the studies, gather intel and info and get to work and produce perfectly workable results. Someone else has requested these things, so it’s work.

But when it’s me and my stuff – with a fairly solid outline and a crop of good ideas – I can find every reason to put it off. I don’t know when this happened. As a kid and teenager, I suppose I was less concerned with what other people thought about the outcome and wrote stories every single day. All I did was write and, like a maniac, get months ahead on school homework so I would have more free time to write. I earned this reputation among teachers and adults around me as “a writer” to the point that the reputation preceded me and stifled me and caused me to start feeling insecure and trapped. I stopped writing and buried myself in foreign language textbooks. I distinctly remember making a couple of choices at the pivotal age of 13 or 14. Take creative writing as my English course or enroll in regular English (where my friends were). I opted for the latter. The following year, our courseload was reduced from seven classes per day to six (so we could have even longer classes – ugh!), meaning we had fewer choices/options. I was faced with the choice between taking journalism or French. The journalism teacher (who had taught creative writing the previous year and was disappointed that I did not join) practically begged me to join – I took French. The journalism teacher still let me write articles for the school paper. I did it, but my heart wasn’t in it. By then, I was completely in love with all my irregular verbs and the passé composé.  I spent the rest of my school years studying all the languages the school had to offer – except German, which seems to have hurt the German teacher’s feelings. Writing for pleasure – complete fiction and imagination – stopped.

I still wrote a lot, of course, because I was a very engaged student. I wrote papers and never, ever managed to stick with word limits. I still struggle with this but am getting a little bit better. I became skilled at research and writing what was asked of me – and this continues today in my career and my lifelong engagement as a student (always enrolling in study programs just for the sake of learning).

I am, however, further away from personal writing, really good writing and being able to self-edit my own personal writing. I let all the creative energy slip away. Perhaps it is still there somewhere, but I have no one but myself to blame. As I wrote, all the adults in my life encouraged me to write to an almost daunting degree, but that was also the problem. It was daunting, and I did not think I could live up to their expectations or hopes. I was not sure I wanted to. Deciding to pursue something in life like writing or the arts or photography is undoubtedly a hard road – completely subjective, all about timing, a person needs to develop thick skin and embody perseverance. I was never sure I could endure the subjectivity and fickle nature of perceiving “talent”.

My feelings about it are still mixed. Creativity and imagination when we’re young are vibrant and unbridled forces – unfettered by the real life we later experience, which dampens the spark we may have to explore ideas that are fictional and illogical. Yet writing, fictional or otherwise, informed by life experience can have so much depth and meaning, touched as it is by reality, which requires time, insight and experience. My feelings on the subject are similar to how I feel about therapists. In addition to wanting to write, I always thought – and still think – I would like to be a therapist. I love listening to other people’s problems and thoughts more than almost anything, but it occurred to me early on that it seems, no matter how mature and insightful you are when you’re young, that you don’t really have enough insight, gravitas or authority to be a good therapist until you’re about 40. Rough rule of thumb, really. I am sure there are gifted therapists of all ages, but for me, and in my view, I never seriously considered going back to school to become a therapist until the last few years. I only feel fully prepared to do that right now.

Then again, if I am being honest (and random), there are a lot of things that I only feel prepared to do (or think about doing) right now. I only think of things like having serious relationships or rearing children now. It seemed totally improbable and unappealing in my 20s. More power to the people who did pursue those things when they were young and potentially had more – or at least less complicated – choices. I still think there are plenty of choices but I tend to think fairly broadly. The whole world is my workshop (my personal motto and seemingly also the motto of American foreign and military policy! Reminds me, totally off topic, that my brother described the end of the last US government shutdown thusly: “the dick show is over”). I don’t feel limited by location, language or any other constraints.

Things can expand into all kinds of crazy territory if you let them. For example, you can start out with a marketing idea of just giving your customers some cake and somehow end up with seven local, interactive microsites to capitalize on their brand loyalty. You can start off buying green beans from Kenya and end up with a wife from there! Sounds like a good case study, doesn’t it? “Kenya: From green beans to a new wife” – it certainly piques some curiosity and raised eyebrows. “What could this possibly be about?”

But then you can end badly. Toto will do it for you with “Africa”. Don’t get me started on the whole “generalizing Africa” topic.

Why I Changed My Mind: Julie Delpy

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Julie Delpy is, for lack of a better term, a real woman. A woman of many talents, not afraid to be herself, not afraid to be quirky. And not even afraid to be a bitch. When she was younger, it was hard to see things like Europa Europa, her guest arc on the TV hit ER or Trois Couleurs: Blanc and see her as anything but bitchy – her roles were sort of icy or manipulative in ways that made it hard to see her in any other light. And things like Before Sunrise with the generally overrated Ethan Hawke did not lend any charm – a favorite “romance” flick for Gen Xers, Before Sunrise, never appealed to me (like most Gen X pop-culture goalposts and anthems, such as Reality Bites – also with Hawke or Singles, which still does not make sense to me).

The subsequent nine-year intervals between sequels to Before Sunrise, though, have made the films Before Sunset and Before Midnight quite compelling – and I think this is all down to Delpy. Since I don’t get and have never gotten the Ethan Hawke thing (somehow he was the one in Dead Poet’s Society who was singled out for attention, when it was Robert Sean Leonard‘s passionate and tragic turn as Neil that got my attention. Or the passionate, do-anything-for-the-girl classic guy-with-crush performance of Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet. What did Ethan Hawke do in that movie that was so remarkable except defy authority and be the first to jump up on a desk at the end? Yet Ethan Hawke has been the movie star and these others have been “television actors” in popular and well-respected shows, such as House and The Good Wife (and no, I don’t mean that in the snide way Warden Gentles did in Arrested Development), I can only imagine that the load is carried in large part by Delpy.

After the aforementioned “cold” roles in her early career, followed by some missteps like Killing Zoe and An American Werewolf in Paris, I think I could be forgiven my rush to harsh judgment. None of this is to say that her talents went unrecognized – I never watched these films and believed she lacked talent or was just playing variations of herself. I just wondered how it was that she always played this aloof or sometimes misguided character (thinking here of her “Leni” in Europa Europa – she was passionate all right, but the passion was wholly devoted to producing children for Hitler’s “pure Germany”. Perhaps in hindsight I can applaud Delpy’s believability because that role had to have been hard to pull off).

My re-evaluation of Delpy began when I saw Before Sunset. Yeah, I know – I hated Before Sunrise but still had enough curiosity to see where Jesse and Celine (the characters) ended up. I like to torture myself this way, watching things I don’t like, listening to music I don’t like – perhaps just to remind me that there are other, much more beautiful things to watch and hear in the world. But Before Sunset surprised me. Later I saw Delpy in other roles but really decided I liked her after seeing Two Days in Paris (and later, the even funnier Two Days in New York). (I also enjoyed the on-screen keying of cars that Delpy’s father engages in – dismissing it as “normal French behavior” – exactly what I have been trying to tell everyone who isn’t French!) Her performances were subdued and grounded in reality – and that transformed the way I saw her and interpreted her roles.

The change in my opinion also came about because I liked learning that Delpy is so active behind the camera as a writer and director – I love the idea that someone creates the stories they want to see, or they want to appear in. I have read a few interviews where Delpy has kind of downplayed the uniqueness of being a female director, particularly because France actually has quite a number of well-respected, well-known women directors. But this is rather an anomaly in the cinematic world. Not every country has a Claire Denis, an Agnès Jaoui, a Catherine Breillat, a Josiane Balasko, a Mia Hansen-Løve and the countless other women who direct films in France. Delpy can, I hope, forgive the rest of the cinema-loving world for admiring the rarity of her multitasking, multitalented jack-of-all-trades approach to her artistic career.

My feelings should not be overly influenced by what I read or the person Delpy is or appears to be – but the truth is, reading about her own feelings of insecurity or feeling like “a cow” after her child was born – and seeing how she actually looks like a real woman – a stunningly beautiful and stunningly natural woman – imbues her performances with a kind of earthy reality that is not easily found, felt or seen elsewhere. I don’t often have commentary on how actors and actresses look. They are resoundingly “perfect” and put together most of the time, and the especially beautiful and polished are slathered in accolades if they do anything that might make them seem anything less than perfect. It’s like becoming a regular or slightly unattractive person makes a beautiful person an automatic consideration for acting awards. Is that really the measure of how well someone acts? How much vanity they are willing to give up – temporarily, note – to alter their appearance?

Not the point. The point is that Delpy actually looks and sounds the part (“the part” being a woman in her 30s/early 40s). Contributing to the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the conversation – content and pace – throughout feels almost dull at times but in a refreshing and good way. Why? Because that’s how real conversation is. Sometimes it digs into emotion, sometimes it digs into feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, sometimes it is witty, sometimes it is just the kind of petty shit that people hurl at each other in moments of weakness, despair, anger. It’s not perfect – but in that way, it’s perfect. A perfect reflection of everyday life. In Before Midnight, Delpy especially – but really the whole cast (which is mostly Delpy and Hawke) – captures, with almost no action – the up-and-down nature of a relationship. Before Sunrise was lauded for supposedly capturing this, but it’s easy to have two young, idealistic adults meet and talk all night and have it be the most romantic night of their lives. Before Midnight, though, is entirely another level of “romantic” because it had to capture two people who had actually idealized each other when they were young – it showed the reality of what happens if someone pursues the “what might have been” or “the one who got away”. It isn’t going to be ideal. If anything, the dialogue and performances convey perfectly the fragility of relationships. All the things unsaid, the resentment, the misinterpretations – and the question of whether love is ever really enough.