Sunday, July 29, 2012

Alison Bechdel: DTWOF, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother?

I first encountered the work of Alison Bechdel through her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, which ran weekly in the fondly remembered Coming Up! (which later became, and still remains, the more prosaically titled San Francisco Bay Times). I found that the dramas and dilemmas of a group of lesbian friends interconnected by past, present and future romantic relationships quickly became can't-miss reading. On those rare occasions when DTWOF was inexplicably missing from the paper I went through a mild form of withdrawal. I felt a special empathy for the often hapless Mo, the most political of the group, who seemed like the character that Bechdel most closely modelled on herself.

A selection of most of the DTWOF strips has been collected between hard covers as The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), which follows Mo, Lois, Sydney, Ginger, Clarice, Sparrow, Jezanna and all the rest as they grow and change over the years. Bechdel herself has described DTWOF as "half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel." Perhaps not endless, unfortunately; DTWOF has been on hiatus since The Essential... was published.

But even the many pleasures of DTWOF—the range of characters, the clever writing, the allusions (sly or direct) to the political and cultural issues of the day—didn't prepare me for the power of Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Alison grew up with a closeted gay father who was domineering and emotionally volatile, and the book brilliantly and insightfully depicts the effects of his barely concealed secret life on the rest of the family. Bechdel portrays her father with sympathy, but also anger; identification, but also wounded incomprehension: he died under ambiguous circumstances which point to suicide.

Bruce Bechdel was a high school English teacher in a small town in central Pennsylvania, and had also taken over his family's business, a funeral home (the ironically-named Fun Home of the title). While his violent outbursts and inability to express affection created a gulf between father and daughter, as Alison grew older that gulf was partly bridged by a shared love of literature. Fun Home is filled with quotations from and allusions to Camus, Proust, Fitzgerald, James, Wilde, Joyce, Adrienne Rich, Catcher in the Rye and Wind in the Willows; literature is one way that both Alison and her father understand and come to terms with their experience.

In Fun Home Bechdel's father emerges as self-involved and occasionally self-dramatizing. As does her mother, a New York-trained actress who wound up performing in community theater productions of The Heiress and The Importance of Being Earnest. Bechdel has now published another graphic memoir, and as the title (borrowed from P. D. Eastman's classic children's book) Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) suggests, her relationship with her mother is also emotionally fraught.

Many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and an clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved—are also present in Are You My Mother?. But the later book has some weaknesses as well. In place of the rich literary allusions that suffuse the first memoir, the second primarily invokes the work of psychologists Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) and D. W. Winnicott (although Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss are also referenced). Not only is the psychologists' prose more jargon-laden than that of the previous volume's literary writers, it seems to inhibit Bechdel somewhat—it begins to feel as though Miller and Winnicott are speaking for her. By the end of Are You My Mother? I wanted to hear fewer of Miller's and Winnicott's insights, and more of Bechdel's.

A second problem is noted by Bechdel herself in Fun Home. She writes there, "Although I'm good at enumerating my father's flaws, it's hard for me to sustain much anger at him. I expect this is partly because he's dead, and partly because the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers" (p. 22). Bechdel's mother Helen is still alive and they still talk frequently on the phone (or, from the evidence in Are You My Mother?, Helen delivers stream-of-consciousness monologues that Alison faithfully records). Bechdel seems to have felt more constrained and to have had more difficulty in writing about her mother than about her father (a difficulty that she acknowledges in the opening of Are You My Mother?, which she reveals is a radical revision of an earlier version that wasn't working). Perhaps, too, her feelings about her mother are more complicated and harder to untangle.

But I don't want to sound too critical. Are You My Mother? is very rewarding, and will undoubtedly be on my list of favorite books from 2012. To say that it doesn't quite reach the standard set by Fun Home is like complaining that Dubliners isn't A Portrait of the Artist.

By the way, I bought my copy at the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago, probably the best store for new books in the United States. Yes, I paid list price, which thanks to Bechdel and her publisher is only $22 (and had I been a Seminary Coop member, I would have gotten a discount). If you choose to buy Are You My Mother?, which I strongly recommend, please support local independent booksellers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Don 2

don 2Don 2 (2011) has a built-in problem. In writer/director Farhan Akhtar's Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006), the remake-with-a-twist of the original Don (1978), good-hearted street performer Vijay (Shah Rukh Khan) is coerced into impersonating the criminal mastermind Don (also Shah Rukh Khan). It's a clever story (devised for Amitabh Bachchan in the original film by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, father of Farhan) that allows us to have it both ways: we can vicariously revel in the transgressive criminal actions of Don, while at the same time rooting for the good guy Vijay. It's not only the audience that experiences some cognitive dissonance: the beautiful Roma (Priyanka Chopra), who wants to kill Don in revenge for her brother Ramesh's death, finds herself instead falling in love with Vijay-Don.

There's no way for me to discuss this without a spoiler, so be forewarned, but at the end of Don: TCBA

—spoiler alert!—

we discover that Vijay was murdered by Don before he could take his place. So throughout the second half of the film, we think we're rooting for Vijay, but in the final shots of the film we discover that all along we've been pulling for Don, who was impersonating Vijay impersonating Don. With Vijay dead,

—end of spoiler—

Don 2 leaves us only with Don himself, which is the problem. Don is a pretty nasty customer—Shah Rukh's fabled charm is not much in evidence. The only thing that gives us any interest in the outcome of Don's elaborate heist at the Deutsche Zentralbank is that every other criminal in the film is even nastier. Along with a sympathetic main character, gone are the clever Infernal Affairs-like plot twists from Don: TCBA. Instead, Farhan Akhtar gives us an efficient recounting of the planning and execution of the theft. It's almost disappointingly straightforward. It also leaves very little room for songs, unlike Don: TCBA, whose remixed/remodelled soundtrack borrowed liberally from the 1978 film.

It was nice to see the underused Kunal Kapoor as Sameer, a reformed hacker who agrees to one last job for his wife and unborn son. But that's about it for subplots. The unfinished business between Don and Roma (who apparently still has residual feelings for Don despite Ramesh, who is barely alluded to) and between Don and criminal rival Vardaan (Boman Irani, who is given very little to do other than glower), isn't allowed to distract from the car chases, gun battles, explosions, and other standard action-movie sequences. But despite the high-tech slickness of the filmmaking, the object of the heist—currency printing plates—seems almost quaint. And (mild spoiler alert) the way Don eludes arrest at the end is simply lame.

Of course, the filmmakers have to leave their options open for another sequel. I found Don 2 to be an entertaining enough watch on a summer evening, but perhaps the point of diminishing returns has been reached for this franchise.