Two different styles of Americanism

The Seagull (2018), based on the Anton Chekhov play by the same name, is kind of a downer. First, I’ll say this for it: it’s pretty brave to cast a period piece based on a translated piece of literature entirely in American accents. Of course, it’s a weird, subtle hangover from our imperialist origins (separate in their cultural impact from our imperialist present, natch) that the American collective sense of taste says that the sophisticated or intellectual aura of a period piece based on a work of classic literature is better served by being rendered in a British accent. Translated works which are still understood to take place in their country and, by extension, language of origin, could hypothetically be played with any accent or collection of accents with the same level of accuracy, and the choice of American accents for a movie which is, theoretically, at least largely aimed at American audiences, makes sense as a shorthand for the fact that the viewer shouldn’t understand the lines as being accented at all. Still, there’s something surprising about seeing such a delicately rendered costume and setting, all so clearly not American, populated by American voices.

Second of all, though: this story really is pretty grim for everyone involved. Annette Benning is an uncharming egomaniac and fast-falling star of the stage; Saiorse Ronan, taking on Kiera Knightley’s briefly sidestepped mantle of period-piece queen, is the brightly manipulative ingenue; and Elisabeth Moss is the Camus-in-training, the 2002 Avril Lavigne ripped from the timeline and thrown back into history, the character in this piece who would most benefit from the opportunity to take a few years as a Hot Topic teen before she was required to make life-shaping decisions. Theoretically, there are men in this movie, too — plot-important, personality-driven, distinct male characters, even. In practice, however, there are female characters and male demands on their time and attention embodied in turn by Corey Stoll, John Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen hot off his first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Billy Howle, and Brian Dennehy.

One story analysis game I like is figuring out what the fantasy is that’s being played out in the text — for example, one of the fantasies in Macbeth is carnage and unchecked ambition; one fantasy in Romeo and Juliet is that once you’re dead, everyone who has ever wronged you will see the error of their ways; and the fantasy of Much Ado is that it’s possible to get the satisfaction of ‘once you’re dead, everyone who has ever wronged you will see the error of their ways’ without actually dying and also your two friends who always bicker-flirt until you want to tear your own eyelids off will finally hook up. In The Seagull, the fake-out is that the fantasy will be ‘the person who broke your heart will come crawling back because the person they left you for sucks,’ but in the end, the real fantasy is that the psychosocial melodrama you weave out of the dysfunction of your familial relationships is high-art enough to be a tragedy, instead of just fucked up.

On a completely different note, when I watched movies and TV shows about high school when I was a kid, I never expected to get there — not for any morbid reason, or because I expected to drop out, but because I was sure that the high school experience I saw on TV couldn’t be anything like any reality I was ever going to see. For the most part, I was right — most media made about high school made in the ‘90s seemed trapped in this vaguely-1950s shape that shows like My So-Called Life were created specifically to refute. In the last twenty years or so, along with a move away from the pattern of casting a 26-year-old actor to play a 15-year-old high school student, there’s been a shift towards a recognition of a version of high school that’s a lot more like something I recognize, but in most fictional universes, there’s still a certain kind of disconnect that comes from trying to depict a present moment that hasn’t been defined yet. It’s only through hindsight that it’s possible to really see what makes a time distinct from other waves of culture and association, and that’s why the only two pieces of media I can think of which have any relationship with the high school experience as I remember it are Greta Gerwig’s excellent and critically acclaimed Ladybird and the high school scenes in 2012’s 21 Jump Street reboot, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

In fact, the Jump Street  movies in general deliver a surprisingly large slice of emotional realism about the high school and college experiences for movies which draw their suspense from cartoon-style acton violence and draw their main emotional heart from a friendship that’s no-homo’d hard enough that I can only imagine it’d have a much harder time getting made today. In 22 Jump Street, the scenes that take place in a frat house have exactly the right sticky-floors-and-splintered-wood, crown-moulding-filled-with-holes-from-throwing-darts, warmly ingratiating sense of menace as you might remember from the first college party you ever tag-along followed your cousin to, if you, like me, have a more socially adept, slightly older cousin. 

The Jump Street movies also provide an object lesson in the importance of understanding genre conventions in enjoying a given movie. The aforementioned cartoon-style action violence, for example, is only fun if you’re able to not just accept that the beatings the characters take over the course of the movie are not, for the most part, going to have realistic medical consequences, but if it simply doesn’t occur to you that such consequences are possible. The tension of worrying if a character is going to sustain a spinal injury over one of their offhand, barely-plot-relevant stunts, followed by the relief of seeing them be fine, is not the point. What is the point is to never have it enter your mind that there’s any way in hell that anything bad is going to happen to these characters in the personality-establishing first scene, because you know that in a movie with this shape and tone, any possible badness can only be reached after a whole lot of slapstick. In case this review is in any way unclear, I like Jump Street movies a lot.

Sidney Dritz is currently reevaluating what to do with the rest of her life, which makes the angle to take in bios tricky. She finished her three-college tour of America at the University of Southern Maine, and her poetry has appeared in Glass Poetry Press’s #PoetsResist series, in Claw & Blossom, and in Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters.   

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