Subtitle (less SEO-friendly): The Visual Language of Loneliness.
In the kind of coincidence that Alison Bechdel, in thrall to psychoanalysis, would say isn’t a coincidence at all, I was more than halfway through Bechdel’s new graphic novel when I saw Moonrise Kingdom this weekend.
And while I fear that combining the two reviews might short-shrift each, they are just so compelling together. Not quite peanut butter and chocolate, though.
More like, you know, beet gnocchi and horseradish ricotta. (Totally stole that from this restaurant I like).
When we imagine how loneliness might look, we tend to think of, maybe, some darkness. Some sparseness. Some barrenness. Maybe some contrasting colors. Maybe a stark white wall.
We don’t necessarily imagine layers upon layers of obsessively detailed color, line, and texture. We don’t imagine this:
For all the ways one might dismiss Anderson as style-over-substance, crowned philosopher king of the twee invasion, I have always seen such melancholy and grief in his work.
Such an elaborate mise-en-scène seems like nothing but a sad, lonely kid blocking out the world while creating the perfect space for himself and his fantasies.
Stealing library books to keep a secret of her very own. (That’s the girl in Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy.)
Building an “office” in a small corner of her home to hide in the same private space that her mother has. Building a “plexiglass dome,” inspired by Doctor Seuss, Virginia Woolf, and a mother’s isolation to build a space of one’s own for working our her ideas. (That’s Bechdel:)
Alison’s mother was in a “plexiglass dome,” just like the freaky panopticonnish chap in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book. (One of the doc’s best, in case you were wondering). So young Alison put herself in one too.
Do I put myself in a plexiglass dome?
Is every single shot in a Wes Anderson film a plexiglass dome?
You know the answer.
Every one of Anderson’s films has been about lonely children. Lonely kids who are still kids (Rushmore, this one), lonely kids who grew up but are still lonely kids (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, Darjheeling Express). And every single one after Bottle Rocket is piled up with such an exhausting amount of stuff.
Cut to Alison Blechdel, who tells her therapist that she can’t draw spontaneously. “The kind of drawing I do has to be meticulously planned, every line has to convey specific information.”
Are You My Mother? is a dense, layered, intellectual, and chronologically mystifying exploration of how to let go of being a lonely child.
Bechdel overlays narratives of herself, her mother, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and Virgnia Woolf in pictures and text-boxes.
So she’ll draw a picture of Winnicott playing with a child patient, put a text box over it with some of his or Freud’s published words, put a different text box in a different corner of a phone conversation she has with her mother, and maybe draws a little picture of Woolf in the corner, crossing the street on her way to her own therapist. Or maybe uses a text box to summarize, in her own, plainer language, the psychoanalytic texts she’s been reading feverishly.
For example, this stunning two-page spread covers a lot of ground: her interpretation of her own baby photos, a conversation with her mother about Lady Gaga, an excerpt from Winnicott, the tools of her own artistic trade, and a completely out-of-pproper-chronology jar of baby food.
“Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.”
In particular, the search for a transcendent self depends on the everyday. Today’s everyday, and many everydays before.
Throughout the book, events are out of order, overlapping, and repeating. And she draws Woolf and Winnicott into her and her mother’s stories so often that we start to see this difficult process of selfhood, the central, striving plot of the book, as collective, as historic, and as overwhelmingly intellectual.
So I have to say: you may have to have at least a passing interest in hard-core psychoanalytic theory, or at least in therapy, to love this book.
[Or you could be like me: lured by psychoanalysis’s profound explanatory power but dismayed, at every last minute, by an inescapable gender essentialism. It’s everywhere. There’s no father that is central to an infant’s development. It’s all breast! breast! breast! And then I lose faith in the whole enterprise. But then they pull me back in.]
At least Winnicott is nice about this mother-focus, though: the good-enough mother can’t be blamed for ways that she fails to give a baby enough attention. Even though she may be unable to support her baby fully, which will give the baby reason to develop a “false self.” A self devoted more to caring for her mother than for herself. We have to understand that this kind of mother probably has a critical lack of support in her own life–financial or emotional. Or experienced the same thing when she was an infant.
And Bechdel and Anderson both offer deep sympathy for these parents. I suspect that one of the reasons critics are holding back their standard “heartless” line about this latest Anderson film is that it is nicer about the parents than his past films.
And Bechdel comes to accept the ways her mother failed her (Oops! Gave away the ending! Hah!).
Bechdel talks about Winnicott talking about “the mind,” artistic and intellectual pursuits, becoming important ways for lonely children to compensate for the ways their mother (I’d say parents) failed to provide adequate support. “The mind” can both comfort the lonely kid and impress and comfort the needy parent (because lonely kids are lonely because they learn that instead of their parent comforting them adequately, they need to hide their own feelings and comfort their parent.)
So these brainy creative projects are a seriously happy solution. Building the best camp (Sam), painting (Sam), reading fantasy stories (Suzy), drawing elaborate cartoons (Alison), acting (Suzy and Bechdel’s mother both). But the lonely kid has to be careful to channel her “true” self, not the false one she created to take care of her parents and deny her own needs.
And when Bechdel’s mother criticizes her work for being too personal, her response takes three panels, but explains both her own book and Anderson’s filmic quirks:
Yeah, but don’t you think that…
…that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life…
…you can, you know, transcend your particular self?
But Sam and Suzy, in Moonrise Kingdom, transcend their loneliness by connecting with each other. They build their own private kingdom together. They have their own creative pursuits, sure, but it’s their devotion to staying together that changes their worlds for the better. They inspire the parents to put aside jealous frustration and make their own lives better.
What I loved most about Moonrise Kingdom was that these children, labeled as “troubled” for their completely sane response to a ridiculous and frightening world, change that world by committing to each other. It’s unrealistic, of course, for 12-year olds to show this much maturity. But it’s a fantasy for all of us.
When Sam first meets Suzy, she has just punched a mirror. Her mother is having an affair, her parents are distant from her and each other, she’s about to hit puberty. The blood seeps through her bandage.
Meanwhile, Sam is bullied at his foster home, seemingly the youngest in a house full of 50s-style toughs, and he bullies back out of self-defense.
Both Suzy and Sam are the non-compliant children that Winnicott argues, based on his work with London’s WWII orphans, are the healthiest. The ones we least worry about. The kind of child Bechdel says her lesbianism forced her to be.
In a world that is completely hostile to children—with parents focusing more on their own pain than their kids’, and with kids fighting each other for dominance the minute they get out from under grown-ups’ eyes—we hope that our children will have the courage and resilience these ones show.
Even if it takes them until middle age to get there.