Saturday, February 7, 2009

Life Life vs. Movie Life.

Recently I was half-watching The Devil Wears Prada on TV.   It is an enjoyable, well-enough-made film, certainly well-acted.  And I found it shed interesting light on some aspects of drama.

My acting teacher at Yale used to say:  Blanche Dubois can't settle for less.  People say to her:  Blanche, why don't you stop sleeping with young men, dreaming of your past, living in illusions?  But she can't.  Blanche is not "well-adjusted."

If Blanche were well-adjusted there would be no play, no drama!  And he wanted to say to us:  don't be entirely rational as an actor.  Have your whims.  Accept your strong likes and dislikes, your quirky desires.  Want things you can't have.  Life is more dramatic that way.  

Indeed, drama requires characters who are stubbornly wrong-headed.  It's a fine line between us enjoying watching them and detesting them.  And a lot of art probably comes in to disguise how wrong-headed they are.

We get a glimpse of this in The Devil Wears Prada.  

A young woman wants a career as a serious journalist.  The only thing she can get is being assistant to a haridan fashion editor.  Her father needles her:  she gave up Stanford Law School for this?

So this is the beginning of the first act--it happens quickly.  The young woman is desperate, seeks a change, so she accepts a solution she really should not accept.  If she did not do this, there would really be no movie!

Since I was only half-watching, I was not committed to her choice.  Perhaps her need was not made dramatically effective enough.  Perhaps it was me.  

At this point, I thought to myself:  Doesn't this girl know she could move to Providence or Sheboygen and work on a newspaper for a year or two in order to get enough experience?

But no--she wants to move to the Big City, start at the top, not work her way there.  She's greedy.  She wants a shortcut.  And she takes something that's glamorous rather than utilitarian.

Everything that follows is very much her own fault.  She wants the easy way.  And she just plain takes the wrong path.  

But that choice sets up the second act, with all its promising adventures that turn into problems more grave than not having a job as a serious journalist.

There's something about life here--an intuition, a sense of what life is like and how life is different from drama.  If this young woman did not want to have it both ways, she would have no adventure, and we wouldn't want to pay attention.  This is a pint-sized version of the tragic hero being punished for hubris:  the outcome isn't tragic, but there is a kind of moral punishment.  And we do have a sense that life demands choices, and that those who want to much ultimately pay, that Icarus flies too close to the sun and so must fall.

The young woman accepts the series of adventures.  At first she fails.  Then, in an interesting turn, someone essentially tells her that she's failed because she looks down on them.  This has the virtue of being true, and it turns the young woman around.  

In any case, the young woman transforms herself into a chic and somewhat cruel, competitive creature--exactly the embodiment of everything about the fashion world she doesn't like!  But we may well ignore this--if indeed we do--because the clothes are enjoyable to watch.  

The young woman loses her moral compass and her friends.  

When she then sees just how cruel the fashion world is--which was there all along--she finds it is too late:  she has become contaminated.  She is now just like the people she loathes--whom she loathed from the beginning, quite correctly, and whom she foolishly imitated in her wrong-headed quest to for the specter of success.

But it turns out not to be too late!  I notice that Hollywood movies often have this feature.  All doors close, and there is no way out.  Life, the films seem to insist, is crue and implacable.  There Is No Going Back.  Some Decisions Can't Be Unmade.  

And then the movie proves itself to be a movie and not life:  it gives us the magical world in which Life Is Life--cruel, implacable, at once obscure and transparently obvious--and then this gives way to Movie Life, in which we get just one more wish.  

The young woman gives up her job.  That is:  she re-ranks her values.  She decides that what seemed important was not.  She basically realizes what we might well have seen from the outset:  honey, you cannot get there from here.  If you want to be a serious writer, don't become the personal assistant to a dragon-lady fashion editor.  Seriously.

One can complain the movie is about a fool.  But foolish people exist, and we are all a little bit foolish at one point or another.

Probably the film could have made the fashion world more desirable from the get-go.  Or put in some other motive for taking the job which immediately vanishes--like working with a literary critic who then up and dies.  

 In the end, in looking for another finds her time in the fashion world was not wasted.  Which is again Movie Life.  Or maybe it's Life Life.  I'm not sure.

--E. R. O'Neill

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