Behavior

Vulture's review of Top of the Lake had me at "Jane Tennison" and "Elizabeth Moss." I would never have thought these names--one fictional, one not--would be in the same paragraph, but now that they were, it made sense.

At first the reviewer, Matt Zoller Seitz, sounds like someone "who's watched in dismay over the last 21 years as program after program tried to be the next Prime Suspect and failed miserably," and like someone who's watched Top of the Lake. But maybe he only skimmed it. Why else such confusion about the motives of a character whose frustration we are so often asked to share?

After watching the first two episodes, this sentence borders on unprofessional and nonsensical: "Robin’s behavior at first seems erratic, at times bordering on unprofessional and nonsensical, until you start learning her secrets and studying her interactions with the townspeople and with her mother, who’s suffering from cancer." Surely I am not so Sarah Lund-addled that her "behavior" (what is she, a case study?) only seems normal to me? Saying that "we" are asked to share Robin's frustration may be premature, of course, but the idea that the show speaks to me alone is absurd narcisism.

This sort of singling out is the atmosphere that Robin inhabits. The men of the local police force, and almost everyone else, for that matter, consider her a looney eccentric at best, and more often an irrational (tell me, what do "erratic," "unprofessional," and "nonsensical" add up to?) inconvenience--a pain in the ass. This is for the obvious "reason"; when the police chief hears she's a she, he says "oh, fuck, well, this is going to be a painful."

The trajectory of Seitz's view of Robin is exactly the police chief's: he tolerates her and then seems to soften once he finds her reasonable (in Seitz's terms, "learning her secrets"). But the way he communicates his newfound respect, praising the way she "handled that" (a briefing) when they sit down for coffee, makes you wonder. Patronizing sweet nothings come as easily as the sunlight through the windows in a cute coffee shop. You know he wouldn't take any of his boys here.

We learn that her mother is ill before we even meet her. Later, Robin asks her "why do I feel manipulated?" but it's clear in the first scene in her mother's house that manipulation is afoot. To someone on the phone (her fiance, I now assume) Robin says "Mum's doing well. She might even be happy finally." Finally, now that she has a reason to be unhappy, she can be happy. She can summon her daughter to take care of her--"I know, whatever she needs"--because who knows how much more time she has. The pull of love-cum-obligation is so strong that Robin has to ask her "can you spare me for the afternoon?" What exactly she can do for her mother the entire day, I couldn't say. The irony is, the reason Robin ends up brandishing as trump is "it's a child." She escapes the need of her mother--who, no longer needed by her daughter, has to settle for being needy--to be needed by a child. If doing so is Robin's "behavior," it's anything but "nonsensical."

If on the other hand the behavior in question is her restless investigatory tendencies, then it's less erratic than impulsive, in a genre way. That's what hard-boiled detectives do. Besides, down that road, along which characters are just collections of predictably crazy impulses, is "David Lynch-style characters," which the Sundance Channel bafflingly proclaims its own show has. What comes to mind of course is Twin Peaks, whose characters mindlessly repeat their particular compulsions. They're all "characters" in that sense of being both eccentric and utterly stuck in their eccentricity. Top of the Lake may operate in a psychosexually charged register, but the characters are not like Lynch's--they're more rational, they retain the capacity to surprise, and they're less cariacatured.

But this principle-of-chaos difference feminism doesn't stop with Robin. Seitz describes the landscape as "pregnant with narrative potential and buried secrets," and goes on to say that "Campion's narrative landscapes are as female in their imagery and concerns as Martin Scorsese's are male, utterly and unapologetically so." I do think that any account of the landscape's role in this show is bound to be clumsy (for instance, I felt like saying "mesmerizing"), but this sounds as lazy as "water = semiotic chora." I get the feminism he's going for, Campion being unapologetic about the femaleness her show, but I find the idea that there are female and male concerns a bit risable.

I'm reminded of Robin playing darts in the bar. The local men question her in a manner somewhere between curiosity and aggression. "Are you a feminist?" one asks. She doesn't answer. That a woman is considered a feminist because she acts human is a good reason to be a feminist.

24 March 2013

Fire

I had a professor who demanded that I have "fire in the belly." I still don't know what that is, but slices of jalapeno steeped in chicken broth has a certain feeling. I have had a cold for the past two weeks, and I disingenuously tell myself that hot hot chicken soup with fresh lime juice (for the vitamin C of course--certainly not a dubious "fusion" impulse!) would help. It does have a medicinal quality. I can't decide if drinking it is tasty or a chore. In lieu the symptom, the broth makes me cough, which is cathartic in its way, like crying while chopping onions.

The gas range in my apartment has the opposite problem that an electric has. "2" is enough to caramelize onions, and the only possible utility of "Max" (right above "8") is boiling water. A month and I still misgauge just how hot it is, always worrying that "Min" cannot possibly be hot enough, bumping the dial up a bit and then back down and back up again, and rationalizing that it's at "Min" if I look at it without bending down to see exactly where the mark lines up.

The cast-iron pan I have has a concavity in the middle--what might be called a "dip" on a road sign. The lower the heat, the more the flame heats the middle, which is exactly where the pan is lowest and thinnest. Turning it down sometimes does exactly what I mean to avoid, yet at the same time heats everything less. So a low flame sometimes both burns and fails to heat. This leads to for example burnt grilled cheese with not-quite melted cheese, or still-gooey pancakes with a burnt spot. I exaggerate, but if I didn't there wouldn't be much to say about it.

Grilled cheese and pancakes are of course not foods that should be made, and the grease that flies off them accumulates on the stove, the fridge, the walls, the fan and the air. The windows may be opened, the fan may be turned on, but a certain not entirely unpleasant smell persists. The smell of the oven when it's on is far more intense and acrid, yet it can be evacuated out the window within an hour, and does not affect what's baked inside.

19 March 2013

Comfortably Rusty

In my room, the sun primarily does two things. It overheats the room, and it blinds me. Yet I am careful to avoid covering my two windows. I think of the light that comes through them as preicous. My desk is placed right below the windows, so that it is a kind of shrine to the light. My computer screen is in front of the bit of wall between the two windows, so that it does not block the windows, and so that the bright windows do not glare behind the screen. Yet when the sun does come out--the moment for which all of this is in preparation--I squint. Inside, the sunlight is a nuissance, but it seems worse to close the blinds. I feel compelled especially in this city to enjoy the sun. It's so rare. Spending time inside sheltered from the sun comes with a niggling sense of waste. Even reclining in a sunbeam on my bed feels like some kind of rebellion against the compulsion to go outside.

I spent most of the other day outside, in the most beautiful weather since I've moved here. Though, beautiful is not really the word for sunshine in this climate. Illicit, perhaps--the clear sky is so unfathomably blue that I feel that I both really should and really shouldn't be looking at it. It's as if the world's clothes have flown off, which is to say that aside from these conflicting pressures, a clear day is not much.

At the end of that day I found a west-facing porch where food and coffee were served. In a rocking chair I sat engrossed in a book. To be engrossed is as rare as the sun here.

Walking home, I attributed the relaxed state to having worked that day. Work tends to relieve anxiety, turning expansive, anxious free time into constrained, relaxed free time. Thinking this, I noticed that the sun had gone down, and that I was congratulating myself for the remission of anxiety--something I hadn't noticed was there until it wasn't. My thoughts soon began defensively claiming that they were not being defensive. I didn't want to admit that their jumbled, nervous character had returned. My pace hurried. My eyes darted. Surely, I thought, I couldn't blame my mood on the lack of sun?

Portland had returned to its presumed state of diffuse light.

At the end of the next day--another sunny day, which as someone living in Portland I can only hyperbolically call miraculous--I found myself willing the sun down. It's such a pain, enjoying it.

There is a comic, "Orygun," that is almost nothing but jokes about the rain. Its profusion of tired jokes about how much it rains here make a joke about how many tired jokes about how much it rains here can be made. It's attempting--exhaustively and exhaustingly--to make light of living under the dark clouds of a stereotype of dark clouds. Of course, those same clouds are a blanket to hide under.

They're the kind of jokes that you groan and roll your eyes at, but they can be oddly illuminating. Not because they're true, exactly, but because they extremely state things that are already thought to be true. I'm really just thinking of one joke: "People in Oregon don't sunburn. They rust." This malady of being drenched rather than overexposed sounds like a more recent commentary on Portland's relationship to ambition: Portlandia's "where young people go to retire." These quips ring awfully true, and, combined with the fact of the grey weather, a colorless puddle of truth congeals.

In an autobiographical story published in an old issue of Tin House, Katie Crouch tells her ex in New York--who is there because he's enlived by New York--that he "wouldn't like it here. You wouldn't like the sleepy way people drive." Another membrane that once read cannot be peeled off. The cars do proceed lacksadaisically, politely, as if their drivers are encased in another skin, and driving through a thick liquid.

As Crouch pitting the two places against each other speaks to, New York is perceived as having the opposite relationship to ambition. It's a city whose drives seem right up against the skin, whose drivers drive restlessly. They find Portlanders "so nice."

It's true, benignness is everywhere. People say hello passing on the street, they mythologize breakfast, and half of the pages of both of their popular weekly publications are filled with pot culture. Portland's persona is so laid back, it can't be. What's all that pot meant to counteract, anyway? Have you ever heard such discontented snark than from the retired?

12 March 2013