Whenever I feel guilty for not having exhaustively researched one of these Chronicles, I remind myself of Georg Lukács’ chapter on the essay in his 1914 Die Seele und die Formen. Lukács calls the essay an ironic genre, in which by writing about some specific subject, one in fact offers a view of a general one. This requires that one have faith in one’s intuition.
But why else do we have, not just essays, but artworks, if not to exercise and strengthen our intuition of exemplarity? To see a beautiful painting or watch a beautiful film gives satisfaction “in itself,” but this is above all because, as Kant pointed out at great length, the “judgment of taste” (das Geschmacksurteil) is universal—universal not merely in the sense that one assumes that everyone else will share one’s judgment, but in the higher sense that this judgment, although directed at the specifics of a single artistic composition, applies to the human world as a whole. Beauty is not merely a pleasurable sensation; it is one that, mediated by the universal scene of representation, provides an intuitive guarantee that its example is universally meaningful. Exactly how, we cannot tell in advance, but a successful work of art is a model of the self’s harmony with the world. In the case of love-stories in particular, the model requires little effort to apply to our own lives—which explains their popularity. We all need models of love to adapt to our human relationships: imitatio Christi is nothing else.
Today this sense of esthetic exemplarity is no doubt most powerful in film. Cinema is the one art we all experience as undoubtedly alive. It is no coincidence that even a low-budget indie film is the product of the collaboration of a community of professionally qualified specialists. In a sense this should not make a difference; Shakespeare didn’t need it, nor does the writer with his laptop. Yet the market realities that make a movie the most complex and expensive artwork to produce provide a guarantee of collective authenticity whose importance the spectator cannot deny.
As a counter-example, lyric poetry, a genre that I have malgré tout practiced fairly extensively, strikes me as irredeemable—essentially because the barriers to entry are so low. Can we really distinguish the cause and the effect between (1) nearly everyone is literate and has access to everyone else through the Internet, and (2) traditional poetic form, not just rhyme but meter and sound harmony, is passé; the poet is “free of constraints”—as though the average amateur could write free verse like T. S. Eliot. Once anyone who wants to “express himself” feels “empowered” to write poetry, the genre itself becomes a vehicle for “self-expression.” As a consequence, poetry comes to be judged by the same criteria as “self,” which today means by those of “identity politics.”
But there is no point arguing with reality. Artworks must find their audience; and when the dialectic of supply and demand is distorted, the form itself loses its viability. With the result that today, those who still attempt to write and publish “serious” poetry will tell you, sadly, that “no one reads poetry.”
In contrast, I am heartened by the fact that the cinema shows no sign of decline. Some have indeed written about the “end” of cinema, but unlike similar forebodings about the novel, these prophecies of doom strike me as simply false. In my judgment, the seventh art is as good as it ever was. I can name a dozen or more movies of the past decade or two, in a number of traditions, that I would place as high as any from cinema’s “heroic” age.
The cinema is indeed a very special genre for the modern era. As I pointed out recently (“The Screenic,” in Mimetic Theory and Film, ed. Bubbio and Fleming, Bloomsbury, 2019), it provided the original model for the “screenic” phenomenon that has by now redefined every aspect of human communications—to the extent that if I wanted these Chronicles to reach a less selective audience, I’d deliver them on YouTube as vlogs. It is a welcome guarantee of the underlying health of our culture that we continue to experience genuine beauty in the cinema—and I mean mainstream cinema, if not the most popular blockbusters.
This is all the more reassuring because we know that the vast majority of the creators of this culture stand with those who approved of Robert de Niro’s anti-Trump obscenity at the Emmys last year. Thus it is no surprise today that, even aside from out and out political films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or Vice, Hollywood produces films with a strong victimary flavor, The Shape of Water being among the more obvious. And there are also occasional “anti-PC” films, such as American Sniper or Chappaquiddick. But it is all the more marvelous that movies can be made that avoid fighting political battles and are simply beautiful.
If our culture can produce such works even in the throes of its victimary obsession, there truly is still hope for our ever-threatened Western civilization. Nor is it merely a matter of ignoring the victimary. The protagonist of the film I am about to discuss is indeed a “victim.” But her case is offered as an example of how we can learn to see ourselves, as religion once made it easier to do, as all both victims and sinners, whose task on earth is to overcome temptations and handicaps and treat our fellows with love.
I honestly believe that William Sullivan’s Jane Wants a Boyfriend (2015) is the most beautiful love story I have ever seen. Like most of us, I am something of a sucker for romcoms—what else makes Pride and Prejudice so eternal? But when esthetic appreciation reaches a certain level, one must have the confidence in one’s judgment not to dismiss one’s pleasure as mere self-indulgence. It is the privilege of the “popular” arts at their best to transcend the high-low distinction between indulgence of resentment and wish-fulfillment and the high seriousness of great literature. There is sentiment porn as there is violence porn, but Jane is something different.
In a theater vs cinema reference that should remind film buffs of Carné’s Les enfants du paradis, Bianca, the older of two sisters, is a young Shakespearean actress who is just quitting her bartending job for a glamorous starring role as Titania, queen of the fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s most fairy-tale play—one particularly beloved of René Girard for its mockery of mimetic desire. Indeed, the one scene we see played out briefly on stage (III, 1) shows Titania, bewitched by a love-potion, in love with the “mechanical” Bottom wearing an ass’s head.
Jane, Bianca’s younger sister, is turning 25. A sufferer from Asperger’s syndrome, she is able to interact with others and function in the world, but not without problems. Thus she holds down a job in the wardrobe department of her sister’s theater—where she hopes one day to design the costumes and not merely repair them.
Littérature et folie
It is no accident that in our era obsessed with victimary difference, a number of films focus on protagonists with mental disorders: Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia. These difficulties provide tacit models for the race-gender differences too fraught today with historical baggage to offer a “level playing field” for the audience. A novel/film such as To Kill a Mockingbird was exemplary in an era when racial segregation was still openly practiced; a similar film today could only be experienced as a piece of well-meaning propaganda. In contrast, the mentally ill are indeed victims, but not of any obvious discrimination or prejudice. Mental illness at Jane’s level allows us to confront an individual’s suffering for her failure to meet the norms of the society without having an oppressor to blame.
But we can take this theme of marginal mental illness much farther. Once we forget about the DSM, we realize that marginal mental illness is in fact the implicit archetype of all literature—and the overt one for the modern era. The protagonist of any story, whether play, epic, novel, or even lyric poem, is always a bit crazy—or is it the world that’s crazy for not allowing him to fulfill his desire? (To further extend this reflection, think of each new melody, each new image, as just a bit crazy in its difference from all those we have previously seen and heard—or were they insane to have missed it?)
The novel, after all, begins with Don Quixote. (The affinity between Jane and Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s wonderful 1752 The Female Quixote [see Chronicle 486], will be touched on below.) There is no doubt that Girard’s conversion-narrative analysis corresponds to the “moral” of the story, here and in the other works he discusses. But, as those 18th-century ladies well knew who enjoyed ces romans qu’on ne lit que d’une main, or like Augustine saying “make me chaste, but not yet,” the novel, and art in general, is not summed up in its “moral”; like any true artwork, it provides us with new means of understanding and interacting with the world, both real and transcendental.
Cervantes shows us that the modern individual, however “mimetic” his desires, enjoys a new freedom in applying them to his experience. Even if windmills aren’t really giants, the unexpected fact that the Don can get away with calling them such for 500+ pages is not merely negative. It is a sign of his, and all of our, ability to remake the world in our own image, even if we risk exaggerating this propensity in the direction of … Asperger’s syndrome. Jane too “hallucinates,” obsessively trying to imagine herself like the modern-day celluloid equivalents of Dulcinea when the real world confronts her with frightening perspectives that the less sensitive of us would not perceive.
Like Quixote and Arabella, Jane is able to function in the real world by virtue of her “folly,” and like the latter, although not the former, even to reach a “happy ending.” As a counterexample, we may take 15 Park Avenue (2005) by the Indian filmmaker Aparna Sen, who seems to specialize in problematic relationships—her previous film, Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), depicts a couple of pen-pals in India and Japan who “marry” but never meet. In the later film, a young schizophrenic woman (the victim of a savage gang-rape) has a fantasy of living with her lost fiancé in an Edenic home in Calcutta, but at this iconic New York City address. At the conclusion, after her elder sister’s vain efforts to bring her back to reality, the film displays her as actually finding this mythical address on a street in Calcutta—an “address” that remains invisible to the family members desperately searching for her—and disappearing into it, in an esthetic transcendence despairing at best.
In contrast, Sullivan’s sensitive and unsentimental treatment makes Jane a female Quixote for our time. As the title indicates, Jane, having reached her 25th birthday, wants—although her desire is, in one of the film’s many brilliant cuts, expressed by another character in a sequence from which Jane is absent—a boyfriend; to enter at last the world of amatory exchange that she knows only from vintage movies. Although not always “reasonable,” Jane is largely aware of her difference from those she herself calls “psychotypical”—displaying the problematic but also privileged marginality of being normal enough to understand that she is not “normal.”
What makes Jane’s love-story so satisfying is that its every element of desire is bought and paid for by love. Jack, whom we meet early in the film as a denizen of the local milieu and a former college pal of Rob, Bianca’s journalist fiancé, is suffering from Weltschmerz, dissatisfied less with his restaurant job as sous-chef than with his lack of perspective, ten years out of college, on his future in the “adult” world of marriage and family. At Bianca’s engagement party, to which he has invited a young waitress who seems uniquely interested in drinking and sex (although the first eventually obviates the second, and she spends most of the evening in the bathroom throwing up), he runs into Jane, whom he had already met in Bianca’s bar. When she playfully throws him a noir vamp-like gesture, he replies with the Taxi Driver line “Are you looking at me?” upon which, half in panic and half in playfulness, she runs up the stairs and out onto the roof, from where we can see the Empire State Building. Jack follows her, and they begin a desultory conversation, in which she impresses him with both her general knowledge and curiosity (“I read”) and her uniquely weird sense of humor. But Bianca, on discovering them, mistaking Jack for a mere sexual predator, drives him off, angering Jane.
Yet Jack remains certain that the two of them “had something.” On Rob’s telling him that Jane has Asperger’s, he reads up on the subject, wheedles the family phone number out of Rob, and calls Jane for a date, which is eventually set for the evening of Bianca’s premiere. For dinner, he takes Jane (by subway) to his restaurant, which he has arranged with his boss to open just for her, and specially prepares her (slightly regressive) favorite, grilled cheese sandwiches, for dinner, which they eat by candlelight. He then takes her to the theater.
I will leave the climax of the plot for later. But I will reveal here the noteworthy fact that, for all the sweetness of its conclusion, Jane refuses to project a future vista. There is no “happily ever after”; Jack is a boyfriend, not a fiancé. Their love is perfect as far as it goes, but we are not invited to speculate on how much farther it might go. One perceptive IMDb viewer pointed out that the film deliberately ends, not on Jane, but on Bianca watching her run off to meet her date, to show us that the film’s real lesson is for her: to let her little sister go and live as an adult, no longer under her protection. And the last gesture of tenderness in the body of the film is the parting embrace of the two sisters, each telling the other that she is her best friend.
Why is this necessary? Precisely because Jane is not emotional pornography that would let us immerse ourselves vicariously in happiness projected into a fairytale forever-after. As a work of art, it is careful to define its limits, neither hyperbolizing, as in 15 Park Avenue, the capacity of the esthetic to transcend reality, nor conversely, of undercutting its own fictional reality, but simply of reminding us that the lesson is in the work as we see it, not in any future projection of it. More precisely, we are indeed invited to make such a projection, but in our own lives, not in those of the characters, who, as we must always admit when the curtain falls, are only figments of our imagination.
One can nit-pick about some plot contrivances, in particular, Rob’s getting a coveted overseas assignment just when he and Bianca had rented an apartment in anticipation of moving in together. They had been distraught at the idea of having to take in Jane, since their parents had unexpectedly decided to move from the city to rural New Jersey—the couple is portrayed as blithely unconcerned with the effect of their move on Jane, who could not both live with them and commute to her job in the city. But now that Bianca will be alone for several months, she’ll be happy to have Jane stay with her. The latter insists that this arrangement will only be temporary, but we have no idea where she’ll go afterward, since Jack currently lives with roommates and it’s certainly too soon to presume they will move in together. But these details do nothing to affect the authenticity of Jane and Jack’s love-relationship.
Jane and Arabella
Jane, like Arabella, is an exemplary romance heroine: winning her heart requires her lover to overcome exceptional obstacles—perhaps not fighting off five hundred Saracens single-handed, but having to go to a bookstore to read a book on Asperger’s—albeit without paying for it—and above all, to absorb its content.
But Jane is exemplary in another sense. Her intensely mimetic existence—mouthing the dialogue in old melodramas, like Elizabeth Taylor’s in the 1954 The Last Time I Saw Paris or Coleen Gray’s in the 1952 noir Kansas City Confidential—provides her not only with models of “attitude,” but of creativity. The excessive sensitivity to “stimulation” that defines her condition is at the same time a source of reactions that precisely cannot be predicted from stimuli.
To clinch my case that Jane is truly the female Quixote of our age, I offer in evidence a revelatory and surely unintentional parallel between these two so different personages: the autistic seamstress and the Quixotic aristocrat both design their own dresses. And in Jane’s case, the revelation produced by the success of her dressmaking provides the climax of the film.
Indeed, one might ask what other creative activity could unite these inhabitants of different centuries, nations, and social classes? Arabella’s quixotic lunacy, in keeping with her Spanish model, is more comical than Jane’s, and can ultimately be abandoned as a youthful folly. But her desire to design her own clothes surely will not. I cannot imagine that her long-suffering soupirant Glanville, after patiently enduring her Scudéry-ish fantasies, would not have found this particular trait something to cherish—a detail we must be content to imagine, such subjective niceties being foreign to Lennox’s world.
Dressmaking as an archetype of feminine creativity directly impinges on a woman’s appearance and desirability. Arabella is beautiful already, but she wants to be beautiful in her own terms. Jane, we discover, had already before meeting Jack been designing for herself a beautiful dress, as though knowing in advance that she would find the occasion to wear it.
In the climactic sequence, after sitting down with Jane in the theater to watch Bianca’s opening, Jack commits the error of “over-stimulation” by trying to take her hand. Jane abruptly rises and runs out of the hall, escaping into the flies of the theater, where we first met her watching her sister’s rehearsal at the very beginning of the film. After Jack follows her, and wins her pardon by acknowledging his error, Jane, instead of returning to watch the play, leads him through a backstage labyrinth to the wardrobe room, her place of employment. After showing him around a bit, she has him wait in one place—and then emerges wearing the lovely dress, which we had briefly seen her working on at an earlier moment, without yet knowing its purpose.
In a moving revelation, Jane in her dress is truly beautiful, yet still herself—as Mallarmé might have put it, telle qu’en elle-même enfin sa belle robe la change. Through this transformation of herself into her own creation, Jane role as the film’s heroine comes fully into its own. Her skill in creating a beautiful dress out of discarded material is both a sign and a symbol of her ability to piece together the imperfect material of her own persona to make herself desirable both physically and psychically.
Seeing the evidence of Jack’s genuine admiration, Jane now invites him to come close to her and, for what we understand to be the first time in her life, accepts with enthusiasm his request to kiss her, which he does, chastely, on her lips. In one more beautiful editing touch, this climactic moment coincides with the soundtrack from the applause for the just-concluded Shakespearean performance in the theater below. (A more thorough analysis would reveal numerous examples of both creative editing and parallels/contrasts between cinema and theater that truly merit the comparison suggested above with Carné’s masterpiece.)
The final lesson of the film is, as we have said, for Bianca, so to speak as the representative of the audience, whose typical member neither suffers from mental illness nor is likely to be the boyfriend of one who does, but may well have a friend or relative of whom he or she risks becoming overprotective. Yet, lest we forget Jane’s salience, the film gives us a wink in the credit sequence—fair game as a kind of epilogue-commentary—where we revisit the key moments of Jane’s and Jack’s romance, concluding, in an endearing, old-fashioned iris, with their kiss.
No formula can fix the boundary of authentic art from false, tell us what makes it justifiable for one protagonist to succeed while others fail, which handicaps can be esthetically overcome and which are simply pathetic. But to accept the Quixote—or as I would prefer, Lennox’s more charming version—as the model of the novel, and of modern culture as a whole, points to the fact that, in a world liberated from the straitjacket of ritual, we are all forced to exist somewhere along the “autism spectrum,” taking our values from mimetic models—but adapting them to our own purposes.
I can clearly picture, in the heavenly circle reserved for illustrious literary heroines, Jane and Arabella sharing tips on dressmaking. Since there would be no ladies’ maids in heaven, Jane would happily show her comrade how to operate a sewing machine.