Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Half-Believer's Story

I love: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Yet another film to be poorly received by critics who like their genres tight and their narratives "compelling," Magorium is a vignettish, slightly coquettish, whimsical, sad, and lovely moment that has a character I've only seen in real life, not in movies: the half-believer. I could write for two hours about the many aspects of the movie that were brilliant, but the representation of this half-believing person in Molly Mahoney hurt me. She was me. I was her.

You want some helpful plot? Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a magic toy store. Molly Mahoney was a child piano prodigy and has been working at the store since high school--she's now 23--and is having writer's block in last few lines of her first big concerto. Magorium is 243 years old, and has decided that it's time for him to "leave." Mahoney flips out. She clings, she cries, she threatens. The point is, Magorium wants to give her the store, and she doesn't think she can run it. She's perfectly happy believing in the magic of the store, but she's confined her belief in anything beautiful ("magic," of course, is allegory) to the store, and to Magorium. More than once she says, "but I'm not magic, I can't do it. Only you can."

The poignance of this character in my life can't be understated. I've been her, and I've been the Magic One trying to convince someone else they can! Do it! I'm rarely the Real Unbeliever (here represented by an accountant)--the one who most often appears in children's films as the grown up, or the villain. In films like this, usually, when something fantastic is happening, there's the people who get it, and the people who don't. But Mahoney straddles the land of childhood fantasy/imagination/belief in magic/excitement at the world around AND the land of adult responsibility/pressure to achieve/pragmatism. She actually believes that magic exists, but can't seem to see herself as part of it.

She reminds me of people who come to SARK events and express jealousy at the life SARK has had. They believe in the possibility of an extraordinary life, they just don't think THEY could ever have one. For years I felt this way about SARK too--and about Anthony, Linz, and Louis. It just seemed like the big crazy beautiful things happened to other people. I was jealous of them, but I didn't feel like I was really the "kind of person" to whom those things happened on my own.

What I failed to do for so many years, and what Mahoney fails to do for most of the film, is realize that this pseudo-victim position is actually a position of total culpability. Mahoney's nine-year-old friend Eric tells her this more than once--he knows she could "be magic" if she quit being so insecure, and he knows that no matter how imprisoned she seems to feel, she built the prison to protect herself from the responsibility and potential heartbreak of being BIGGER. SARK's been trying to teach this to people for decades now! And Mr. Magorium has many moments of it that are concrete, if not patently philosophical. (For example, when he and Mahoney are about to run into a mattress store and jump on the beds, she says, "Ok! on Go!" and he says, "No! It's always on Go!" and she says "You're right---um, okay, on Triscodecaphobia!" and then when she yells "TRISCODECAPHOBIA!" off they go. She was already in the eccentric situation of being about to jump on beds, but Magorium asks her to go further, weirder, even more outside.)

Mahoney suffers from that ridiculous pop-psych superstition about "personality" that leads so many people to say they aren't creative, or just "don't think that way." What Magorium helps her understand, and what delighted me the most about the movie, was that there really isn't a "type" of person that is magic. There is just a type of decision a person can make to be so. The decision has everything to do with letting go the self-protective ego, letting go the fear of being out of control, letting go the fear of losing things, letting go the fear of being on one's own, of being disapproved of, etc. There may be circumstances or temperaments that lead some to make this decision easier than others, sure. I'm not discounting the complexity of being a human being who has a particular family, socioeconomic background, experience of real victimization, and so on. However, I think we mistakenly rely on that complexity when almost every time someone thinks they aren't magic it's just because they're afraid of some consequence of being so.

The fear of consequence manifests in another piece of the film's genius--many times characters are being dishonest with each other in ways that are actually socially normalized (for us), but totally unacceptable in a world where magic, desire and curiosity reign. So--instead of their little social stories getting ignored the way they normally would, the stories are pulled out and scrutinized. You must be absolutely honest about what you want or you will be forced to confess it, basically. It's genius, and it's heartbreaking to watch the people in the film putter around something and then finally come out with it, clumsily, abjectly: "I like you," or "will you play with me?" or "I don't understand," or "I'm sorry." Erudition is no help in moments like that, and Magorium's hilarious, wonderful playfulness with language completely falls away when emotions like these need to get expressed. Rightly so. Rightly so.

So the film doesn't just rely on messages about behavioral change, although it is very clear that it is important for everyone to start doing everything differently. It asserts that there is a moment of surrender involved when you want to become "magic"--and that this moment is available at anytime to anyone. You have to surrender to a childlike sense of unfamiliarity with the world in order to see its potential. That surrender doesn't come easy--most adults need something really big to happen to them--a drug trip, a trauma, a baby, falling in love--and then they usually compartmentalize it and try to get back to "normal."

But we should remember Mr. Magorium, who lived until he was 243 precisely because he never came back to normal. He stayed high! He kept a zebra in his house! He learned to play the Euphonium in a hospital bed!

He also never once lied about there being sadness in the world. He was very aware of the loss Mahoney would feel when he died. This is why critics thought the movie was not really for kids--they forgot that whimsy is always contexualized by the rest of life, in the same way that sadness is contextualized by the rest of life, even for kids. There was magic and grief in the store at the SAME TIME. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.

This was especially important for me, right now, as I'm in more than one state of loss. Instead of having the grief paralyze me, I've been keeping it "in motion"--every day trying new ways to engage it. Eroticize it. Write it. Cry it. Fight it. Get pummeled by it. Hate it. Eat it. Triscodecaphobia! There is never a time when we have to stop being magic.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Paths of Desire Cross Deliciously

I went back to The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Armed with another year and a half of education, experimentation, and creative life, I loved and was fascinated by it in deeper and more fantastic ways. One of the most important realizations I had in the tea room upstairs, in conversation with Max and Lauryl (thanks guys!), was that the organization of the museum, the very way it is physically enacted, is as important, if not more important, than the content itself.

The Museum is a shrine to desire. What ties all the exhibits together is not a particular theme, genre, time period, geography, or any other organizational principle we normally associate with curated information. What ties them together is simply that they all demonstrate someone's idiosyncratic desire to see a fascination embodied. Concretely: if someone walked into my house and saw my old Cabbage Patch doll, my dog-eared copy of This Earth of Mankind, my antique teacups and my three black jackets, and those things were ostensibly part of a "collection," they would understand that what connects those objects is my desire. I like them--each for a different reason. That's it. My love for each thing is what makes them a single entity, in their disjunct.

This is an anti-capitalist way to organize information. The MJT holds no objects with real cultural capital--there's no featured exhibit of some famous person's stuff, some renown artist's sketches, etc. Nothing there cries out its importance--you must discover or create the importance of each exhibit by yourself, which means I was faced with my impatience, my prejudice, and my vulnerability to the cultural dictates of taste. There is a room dedicated to the trailer parks of America of the 20th century. I am drawn to ephemera, and so during my first visit to the museum I liked looking at what seemed like detritus (old doilies, plastic figurines, etc.) displayed in glass cases in that room. But this time around I realized that my thinking it was detritus in the first place belies my capitalist understanding of spaces and objects--specifically, that transience (not travel, but nomadic living) is a sign of poverty, and that the everyday objects from an 'anonymous' transient life seem somehow even more disposable than the everyday objects of, say, the Vanderbilts at the Breakers mansion. (Which I wrote about almost two years ago--I liked those teacups a lot, too.) In a room that is organized to proclaim the importance of trailer parks, I noticed a dissonance, an air of defense of that importance against some unspoken force that constantly, even forcibly, ignores trailer parks. That force is classism, and in particular the insidious, almost completely unconscious classism that masquerades as "taste." To follow a path of desire that leads to the trailer park, without exoticizing/turning the park into the Other, means one stops being classist, stops being told what is important in the capitalist priority scheme.

Let's not forget the self-loathing that accompanies this moment, though. I hate, hate, hate discovering habits in myself that are dictated by cultural forces like that. It's horrible. I'm horrible. It's only after that realization that I can desire to do it differently. Desire to be free of those habits. Desire to learn about the trailer park. It's a surrender, and it feels like the world has widened out, it feels like a new hand on the small of my back, it feels like being in love.

Now that I'm more clearly following the paths of desire, pursuing that which fascinates, excites, and delights me, I'm living in a state of constant, ecstatic convergence. It turns out that all the people I admire--the artists, thinkers, writers, musicians--like each other too! Athanasius Kircher, the subject of an exhibit at the MJT, is an obscure figure about whom almost no one has written, except for Umberto Eco, the author of the novel I'm reading right now: In the Name of the Rose. Tom Waits, who I quietly suspect of mind-melding with me in my sleep, and who has been the background to much of my writing lately, showed up in The Tiger and the Snow, a Roberto Begnini movie I watched this week in a whimsical moment of wanting to study Italian away from my book. There are many more of these moments cropping up as I read academic books and papers by people who all seem to comment on each other. I feel like I stumbled upon a huge garden party, and everyone there is someone I adore!

So I'm throwing on a cute little frock and heading for the Mint Juleps, because I'm going to stay at this party for a long, long time.