“Live in the moment,” they say. “Bullocks,” I think.
There has never been a better time to live in a dreamworld, of your own making or one created by others. TV, TikTok, movies, books, Instagram…they all offer escapism from our grim reality of coronavirus, racism, sexism, empowered authoritarians and wannabe dictators.
I just got back from Paris, where I was working for talent agents to the stars. What a bunch of connivers! Some had hearts of gold deep down, and they all truly cared about cinema. I was put off by how often they hopped in bed with each other, but what do you expect? In France, sex steps in when writing isn’t up to par, versus violence in America.
No, I didn’t go to Paris for work. I just binged on “Dix Pour Cent,” aka “Call My Agent.” It was fun, it was escapism. There were famous people in beautiful clothes, great shots of the City of Light. It was a return to the office–I’ve been working remotely for years and desperately miss being around colleagues. It was fun, even if it was very lightweight. Formulaic. Every time I thought the characters were going to be developed more deeply, they reverted to what I suspect was their list of descriptions: Mathias the power-hungry cheater, Andréa the anti-woman, Gabriel the mess, Camille the victim, Arlette the wise sage. The lies and inventions were over the top. And when things got too crazy, they went a little farther and unlikely people paired up, to make it all crazier. Maybe the point was to keep the storyline in the fantasy world, away from reality, which is far more boring and less attractive.
Two things struck me as dated: stiletto heels and the absence of masks. Other things, too: eating indoors at restaurants, parties…The head of the World Health Organization recently said he hopes the pandemic will be over in less than two years. How much stranger will everything feel to us by then, if we already feel shock at the sight of bare faces and people breathing on each other?
Will it be like the difference between the Paris of “Dix Pour Cent” vs. the Paris of “Les 400 Coups” (The 400 Blows), which I also watched recently? The same streets, the same landmarks, yet everything so, so different. Little details that I remember but that my kid has never known–a milkman, for example. In this era of everything delivered, it’s odd that this no longer exists, at least not in an everybody-in-a-working-class-neighborhood-does-it way, on schedule rather than on whim. My grandma had a box next to her front door, where the milkman would take the washed empty bottles and leave filled, fresh ones.
Before Paris, I went to Naples, again. My second trip was easier than the first, because my guide was Ann Goldstein. It was quite a voyage–not just to a place I’ve seen only in passing, two decades ago, but also in time, to an era before I was born but whose remains were still prevalent in my childhood. The same era as “Les 400 Coups.” I read Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” a few months ago in French and while it mostly went OK, some of those passé simple verb conjugations have no resemblance whatsoever to the root verb. Take être–to be. Je suis (I am); tu es (you singular are); il/elle est (he/she is); nous sommes (we are); vous êtes (you plural are); ils/elles sont (they are). Half start with e and half start with s. OK. After all, “to be” turns into am and are. Passé simple is hard because it’s used only in writing, not in speaking. You have to go looking for it; you can’t just get familiar with it gradually. Être in passé simple conjugates as fus, fus, fut, fûmes, fûtes and furent. What the F? Where did that come from? I had already learned être and some others, but such a literary work as Ferante’s used verbs I didn’t recognize at all, much less in passé simple. Sometimes I took dictionary detours and boosted my vocabulary; other times I powered ahead, driven by the story line and hoping context would provide comprehension.
I found “The Story of a New Name,” the second book of the Neapolitan quartet, in English and devoured it. I was back in Naples, with images of beaches and streets and shops and apartments and dresses and cars flicking through my mind’s eye, assembled from vacations and movies and simple imagination. I see rooms lit in garish fluorescent light, like that in my grandma’s kitchen, like that in a restaurant in Florence I went to years ago that was trapped as if in amber, everything from an era long ago but still in perfect condition. The brilliant friend’s new apartment must be in one of those buildings like where Paparezzo (who gave his name to paparazzi) lived on the outskirts of Rome in “La Dolce Vita.” The buildings where the characters grew up must be like some of the insalubrious places I’ve visited lately and will describe more later.
Do you do that? Assemble a mosaic of bits from life and cinema and TV and pictures and come up with a place that exists only in your head, that only you can ever see because the pieces of your mosaic are unique to you. The same set of words–a book, for example–can set in motion, like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, the process that leads to completely different mosaics in different readers’ heads, but we’ll never know how different because the pieces can be a mystery even to ourselves. Where did that detail come from? A place I’ve been? A place I saw only in a magazine? A TV show?
I used to have a recurring dream. I was in a dark, cool tunnel. It smelled a little earthy. There was blinding light at one end. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I was in a happy place. After many years of this mini dream, I went back to where I had been in Peace Corps in Africa, and noticed, in the capital city, a seed shop where I would buy supplies for my attempts at gardening. Tourists don’t need to buy seeds, but I went in anyway, for nostalgia’s sake. And I was in my dream. The tunnel was a real place! It seemed dark only because the equatorial sun outside was so bright and because nobody in Africa is so foolish as to turn on electric lights during the daytime. It made me question how many pictures in my head, those fleeting images that are triggered by a whiff of a scent, a few notes of an old song, the gait of a stranger passing, how many of those are real, lived experiences? And the others–the images from, say, “La Dolce Vita”–are those not real as well? The pictures on Instagram? Real or not?
Maybe this is it: Nostalgia. But isn’t nostalgia a kind of escapism? A very specific kind, escaping to a place that’s known and loved. Not like sci-fi escapism, for example, or dystopian escapism. Funny, but my recurring dream in the tunnel stopped once I knew it was the seed shop.
I was just talking to someone back home who was telling me that while Covid-19 is bad in the U.S., it is under control where he lives. I looked it up. 100 cases per 100,000 people in his county, which indeed is about middling for the U.S.–and that is not a compliment. What does it say about the future, about November, when somebody thinks things are fine when they are terrible, just because it’s even worse elsewhere? “We’re not as bad as Florida.” As if that’s ever been a measure. Here, in Aude, we have fewer than 1 case per 100,000; for France overall it’s 34 cases per 100,000 population. Masks are obligatory, indoors and out. People obey. OK, most people pull them off when they’re out of the center, walking alone on a street. Shops are open, schools are supposed to open Sept. 2, lots of workers have returned to offices, restaurants are full–outside only. There are no lines at the supermarket and the shelves are well-stocked. Nobody wants to return to April. It felt like dystopia. For real.
I don’t know what I’ll read or watch next. Maybe something historical. No matter how bad the present is, the past was worse. But I’m more into nonfiction. Current events. The thing is, with the Internet, one gets incrementalism. Constant updates. What’s new, rather than what’s important. We lose perspective, context, analysis. Oh, yeah, everybody analyzes and opines today, rarely with qualifications. I risk going on another rant here–my original plan was to excoriate the U.S. coronavirus non-response, and then I thought, no, I’ll write about coping with Covid craziness. But another thing nags at me: the distain for experience. Granted, some people can live through things and learn zilch. Introspection isn’t a universal skill. Not just introspection about the past but the present. Instead, there is so much focus on process. And the process that consumes most of our time is keeping up with technology. But technology is nothing more than the grease for the machinery that gets things done. Technology is incrementalism at an exponential scale. It isn’t substance itself. It’s being busy but not necessarily productive. Updates, new apps, new tricks. Yes, we need to constantly adapt. Yes, new technology makes life better, work easier. But sometimes I suspect we are changing for the sake of change, not for the sake of improvement. Different isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just churn. As for the work itself? The thinking that goes into it? I despair about that.
I’m working with a new person. Her emails are larded with phrases like “soft proof points” and “widen the aperture” and “usecase.” The guy before her loved “inflection points” and “sea change.” Neither fully grasped the projects, the substance. It felt like they were running alongside, hoping the projects stayed on the rails, rather than actually driving the projects. They didn’t know how to drive. And forget about finer details.
Part of me thinks, fine. Let them learn to swim by throwing them in the deep end. But what if they’re incapable of learning, of introspection? Or if they’re like the agents in “Dix Pour Cent, so busy keeping up with one crisis after the next that they don’t stop and think? On the other hand, there’s the ancient agent, Arlette, who takes under her wing the brash new owner of the agency and gives him the cultural education he lacked. The French are big on structure–on training, on mentorship, on passing exams, on proving oneself before being promoted. A criticism is that this system stifles innovation and creativity. Maybe. Or maybe it celebrates real value over churn. They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Maybe it would be good to have more people in charge who aren’t learning the words for the first time.
Do you feel a need to escape from reality these days? How are you doing it? Reading and watching suggestions welcome. Good Instagrams, too. I am thinking about some vicarious travel posts for you, and some live-the-good-life-in-France-wherever-you-are posts. BTW, the title is an allusion to “The Year of Living Dangerously,” a great movie, if you’re looking for one.