Ivory Tower Style
Boyhood: Every Terrible Party You’ve Ever Been to Rolled Into One Three-Hour Movie
You know how annoying it is when you’re watching a movie that has flashbacks or flash forwards and there are different actors playing the same character at different ages? Or how completely distracting it is when they try to make the same actor look older or younger using makeup and wigs? Me neither. But as an inelegant solution to this nonexistent problem, we now have the movie Boyhood.

If you haven’t already heard from one of the many rave reviews this movie has already gotten, director Richard Linklater has cut the Gordian knot of intractable problems associated with filming a story that takes place over decades by using the same actors, and actually filming the story over decades. Ellar Coltrane plays a boy named Mason, who starts the movie as a pretty toddler who can barely talk and ends it as a pretty college freshman who can barely talk.
Of course, this pathbreaking method of film-making carries with it some practical problems of its own. In particular, as I overheard one guy say to another at the urinals after the film, what if they cast a five-year-old that grew up into a sixteen-year-old that can’t act? This question need no longer be posed in the subjunctive, because the definitive answer is the movie Boyhood.
This is the first problem with the movie. The main character mumbles and shuffles through the story. Part of the reason the movie is so long is that it takes him about five minutes to say a single sentence. This is not a three hour movie that goes by in a flash. I actually felt like I had spent the entire 12-year span of the filming in the theater myself. Patricia Arquette has her moments as Mason’s mom, but the only flashes of life are the scenes with Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke. Let me repeat that in its own paragraph in caps for full effect:
ETHAN HAWKE IS THE ONLY GOOD PART OF THIS MOVIE.
This is the same guy who played a shitty actor on the shittily acted show Entourage. Wait…or was that Kevin Dillon…one of these guys needs to shave their goatee/stache thing so that I can keep them straight. Anyway, Ethan Hawke is pretty good in this movie.
The deeper problem is that the actors have nothing to work with. The movie has been praised as a new kind of movie, one “without a plot” and is instead a “realist” presentation of life in America. But there is a plot, it’s just not very interesting. It hints at familiar, cliched story lines, and leaves us to fill in the blanks with stock characters of our imagination. It’s a movie for people who like looking at strangers’ scrapbooks. 
Let me take one scene as emblematic of this tendency. In high school, Mason develops (heh) an interest in photography. His straight-from-central-casting teacher finds him in the dark room, and delivers a speech that could have been ripped from any family sitcom about how he can’t just go off and follow his vision, he has to do the grunt work and turn in his assignments on time, because although he is talented, there are a lot of hard-working aspiring photographers who will take his spot if he isn’t focused. This moment is so trite and the movie’s presentation of it so grandiose that the staging felt comedic. During the teacher’s speech, I kept waiting for something to break in on this Hallmark card of a scene. Mason fights back in an impassioned way that becomes a turning point for his character. A friend breaks in to say that one of Mason’s photographs has gone viral on the Interweb in a way that the teacher couldn’t have anticipated. The teacher unleashes a stentorian fart. Anything.
But we don’t get any of that. We just get this vapid scene, presented as if it is poignant. As if it is fresh, simply because two hours ago we were looking at this same actor as a third grader, and now he is having an experience that is acted out on network TV at 6:14pm every weekday evening. 
But this is the movie’s strategy - to present scenes that are generic enough that we can “relate” to it, and fill in the blanks with our own experience, even though the movie itself offers absolutely no insight on this experience. Another less intrusive but equally annoying element of this strategy is a steady barrage of cultural references designed to mark the passing of time. So although it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, we waste time watching one of the children line up to buy a newly released Harry Potter book. Because OMG I remember that! I love this movie! So relatable!
The last few scenes of the movie show Mason, like every human before him, struggling to grasp the meaning of his existence in inarticulate adolescent ways. “What does it all even mean?” he asks his father as they drink a beer after his high school graduation. The movie closes with Mason checking into his college dorm room, eating pot brownies and going on a hike with newly met fellow froshes. “You know how they always say ‘seize the moment’?” asks one of the high undergrads as she sits on a ledge beside Mason, “I feel like it’s the other way around…the moment seizes you.”
"Yea…" responds Mason through a haze that I would call drug-induced if it didn’t afflict his sober state as well, "moment after moment…like…it’s always right now…"
Aaaaaaand FIN.
That’s the movie. A cut to Keanu Reeves doing is “whoa” face would have really sealed it. 
Linklater has taken upon himself a tremendous logistical challenge. That he is able to keep a handful of actors alive and committed to the same project for so many years is remarkable. When Patricia Arquette’s character cries at Mason’s departure for college, we get the sense that it is the actress herself being overwhelmed by the approaching completion of this huge cinematic task. For the actors and directors, this was a transformative experience. For me, as an audience member, it was almost unwatchable.

Boyhood: Every Terrible Party You’ve Ever Been to Rolled Into One Three-Hour Movie

You know how annoying it is when you’re watching a movie that has flashbacks or flash forwards and there are different actors playing the same character at different ages? Or how completely distracting it is when they try to make the same actor look older or younger using makeup and wigs? Me neither. But as an inelegant solution to this nonexistent problem, we now have the movie Boyhood.

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To be human is…to endure the trauma of self-consciousness. It is to be aware of the existential shock of the threat of nonbeing. No other living thing before us has ever been required to embrace this level of anxiety….It means that if life has no ultimate meaning, we alone of all other creatures embrace the threat of meaninglessness. In response to that threat, human life is driven to create meaning. It was and is the human experience to tremble before these realizations. It is, however, also the acknowledged human destiny not to win the struggle for meaning, for survival or for life. The fate of all living creatures is to lose, but only the human life knows this self-consciously. It is thus not easy to be human.
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: MY FIRST FASHION SHOW (PART 3)
Part 1. Part 2.
Now that I have kept you breathlessly awaiting completely unaware of the next installment of the narrative reenactment of my first fashion show for this long, I will finally describe the show itself.
The space was set up as theater-in-the-round. We all gathered around in the dark spaces at the edges of a centered X, lit in bright white light. Black tape painted baselines on the runway, presumably indicating the path the models should take. At the crux of the X was a tall rectangular post with a sort of circumcised obelisk look to it. The black tape scaled the Jewbelisk rather than circumnavigating it, which meant either that the models didn’t have to stay inside the baselines or that we were in for something more special than I could have imagined.
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Disappointingly, the models did not defy gravity. They were, however defiantly inhuman. We made a lot of progress since the first male fashion show in stripping the clothes-wearing man of any personality whatsoever. Models today are walking mannequins. They are humans imitating an imitation human, down to the waxy porcelain skin. I wouldn’t be surprised if they rehearse in department stores after-hours, pausing occasionally to ask the real mannequins if they’re doing it right.   
The models march first down one leg of the X, then, after circling the Jewbelisk, down the other. Their Buckingham-ready implacability excites that familiar urge to violate what attempts to be inviolable. The urge to topple these precariously perched hats was particularly strong:
 
My favorite things in the show were these two shirts:


But I managed to stay respectfully in my seat through the entire show. On my way out I paused for the photo you see above of my sneakers in front of the central Jewbelisk, a reminder of the monumental and fundamentally useless task fashion has assigned itself, to scale an obstacle of its own making, which can in any case be easily avoided. 
Some of my fellow audience members, however, left awed by something else entirely. “And that,” I overheard one say, “is why I now dress head to toe in Robert Geller.”

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: MY FIRST FASHION SHOW (PART 3)

Part 1. Part 2.

Now that I have kept you breathlessly awaiting completely unaware of the next installment of the narrative reenactment of my first fashion show for this long, I will finally describe the show itself.

The space was set up as theater-in-the-round. We all gathered around in the dark spaces at the edges of a centered X, lit in bright white light. Black tape painted baselines on the runway, presumably indicating the path the models should take. At the crux of the X was a tall rectangular post with a sort of circumcised obelisk look to it. The black tape scaled the Jewbelisk rather than circumnavigating it, which meant either that the models didn’t have to stay inside the baselines or that we were in for something more special than I could have imagined.

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In subjective terms, the search for the self seems to entail a paradox: we are, after all, looking for the very thing that is doing the looking. Thousands of years of human experience suggests, however, that the paradox here is only apparent: it is not merely that the component of our experience that we call “I” cannot be found; it is that it actually disappears when looked for in a rigorous way….Almost every problem we have can be ascribed to the fact that human beings are utterly beguiled by their feelings of separateness.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1. 

Our flock finally gathers in a vestibule at the top of the stairs. Eventually I realize that we are all waiting to check in at a bank of fold-out tables mashed together like 8-year olds arriving at summer camp. The harried interns behind the tables probably have cousins in Vermont doing this exact same shit in front of a log cabin by a lake. 

There’s a wait to check in but no apparent effort to stop people from just walking past the check in area and straight into the show. I spend the entirety of my wait in line considering doing exactly this. By the time I had decided to make a go at it, I was already giving my name to harried intern number 3, who found me on “the list” and handed me a card marked “ST”. The guy next to me got an “ST” as well. “They must hate us,” he says to me. So I assume I’m in the standing section. We leave the fluorescent purgatorial light of the check-in area and dive into the dark glow of Studio B. 
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Let me try to describe what I see as the difficulties and opportunities involved in designing a runway show, and how they differ from those involved in designing a collection for a store. When you design clothes for people to wear IRL, you are forced to consider the environment in which they will wear them. Not just things like if the garment is practical or versatile. But how it will look in a sea of jeans and sweatshirts, or business suits, or workout gear, or whatever setting you want to nudge or shove or tickle by placing your design in the middle of it. Your understanding of the world in which your garment lives is a fundamental part of the design of the garment itself.

A runway show is completely different, or at least a very special and pathological case of the problem described above. A runway show is an abstracted, artificial environment. You can, and must, design not only the clothes, but the world in which they live. Humans are present not to work and travel and work out and go on dates but to look at clothes. And ONLY your clothes, without the backgrounds and foils of the crap other people wear. Even the smallest scale, most humble designer is granted no pardon from a sentence of megalomania. He must consider a world in which everyone wears his clothes.

All of this artificiality and grandiosity contributes to the public’s justified perception the whole thing ridiculous. The histrionics that surround the production of a runway show do not show, but they are almost foisted upon the designer. He is forced to have a “vision” - how else can he create the self-contained world that is the runway show? 

The show’s program, left waiting on every seat (some front row types didn’t show up, so I was pulled from the standing room area into a really top-hole seat right across from the blonde mentioned in Part 1; maybe they don’t hate me so much) begins portentously, “What is modern? could be the question that prefaces the Robert Geller Spring/Summer 2015 collection.” It’s easy to be cynical reading this. First of all, given that this is the first sentence of the program that greets us on arrival, not only could this be the question that prefaces the collection, if there is any meaningful way a question can preface a collection, this one has already done it. But beyond that, is this a question that needs to be asked? By a clothing designer? The program continues:

“Robert Geller offers an answer to that question by pulling back from past seasons narratives, allowing himself to focus on essential shapes and colors, hence carrying out his interpretation of modernity.”

My first reaction is that, my upgraded view notwithstanding, they must really hate me after all. But my second is a deep sympathy for the plight of the fashion designer. 

Coming Soon: Part 3.

Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Our flock finally gathers in a vestibule at the top of the stairs. Eventually I realize that we are all waiting to check in at a bank of fold-out tables mashed together like 8-year olds arriving at summer camp. The harried interns behind the tables probably have cousins in Vermont doing this exact same shit in front of a log cabin by a lake. 

There’s a wait to check in but no apparent effort to stop people from just walking past the check in area and straight into the show. I spend the entirety of my wait in line considering doing exactly this. By the time I had decided to make a go at it, I was already giving my name to harried intern number 3, who found me on “the list” and handed me a card marked “ST”. The guy next to me got an “ST” as well. “They must hate us,” he says to me. So I assume I’m in the standing section. We leave the fluorescent purgatorial light of the check-in area and dive into the dark glow of Studio B. 

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Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 1)

So I went to my first fashion show. It was Robert Geller. It’s a little bit strange that he was my first, since I don’t own anything from his brand, nor could I have told you anything about it before the show. Maybe I should have held out for someone I really cared about, but whatever. I guess I’m easy and don’t even care if everyone knows it.

In some ways the fashion show experience is a metaphor for the fashion world as a whole. The core of it is that some people walk around wearing some clothes. That’s it. But because wearing clothes is such a banal activity, and therefore watching someone wear clothes, by the Law of Indirect Exponential Banality, is at least twice as banal, there has be a lot of hubbub and brouhaha to make the event and all the people involved in it seem Important.

The first step in this process is waiting. I arrived at showtime right on the cuckoo but found only a bunch of people milling around in the ground floor lobby area. I ask someone with a clipboard how to get to the Robert Geller show and he looks at me like it was it was the second day of school and I had just asked him to senior prom. “We’re not letting people up just yet.” So I become one of the people milling around in the ground floor lobby area.

Let’s just get a couple of questions out of the way first, because in my experience this is what people are most curious about. How hot are the girls, and how gay are the dudes? The answers are that the dudes are pretty gay and the girls are not that hot (NTTAWWT). There was exactly one truly attractive woman there, a beauteous blonde wearing white hot pants, boots, and a baseball cap with “NEW FREAKING YORK” printed on it, just like that, in big bold capitals. The other women there were in dresses and heels and looked like they wanted to be models but had to settle for listening to the gay guys call them “fabulous” for the last twenty years but still loved every second of it.  
To be honest I don’t know if the fashion people assembled here consider themselves part of something Important, which understanding is nurtured by the whole royal antechamber scene here and the glossy magazines and New York City and the New York Times allocation of staff writers to the Style section. Or if they just like clothes like I do, only they feel less guilty about it. In either case, they all seem to be having such a good time that it feels downright misanthropic to question how seriously they do or should take themselves. 
For me, dressing for a fashion show is an odd exercise. IRL, you can manipulate how much attention people pay to your clothes, and how much attention people think you pay to your own clothes. At a fashion show, both are automatically turned up to 11 because fashun. So does this mean you should wear your wildest shit because you can now close the curtain on the charade of pretending that you don’t care about what you’re wearing? Or is “dressing up for a fashion show” just the kind of thing an overeager neophyte would do? But then for the same reason maybe wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans is the most insistently and pathetically delusional thing you can possibly do, like following Phish around for a summer but insisting you’re “not really that big a fan.” Most of the other dudes at the show had had probably spent enough time watching people wear clothes professionally not to feel this tension.  
Anyway, I wore a white seersucker shirt and linen pants because it was hot as a rhino’s asshole outside. Don’t think anybody cared. 
After a half hour, everyone started herding up a flight of stairs to where the show will be. We don’t know exactly on whose authority we have started this migration, nor exactly where we are going, but nobody seems to question whether we’re doing the right thing. Like I said, the whole thing’s a metaphor. 

Part 2 to come soon.

Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 1)

So I went to my first fashion show. It was Robert Geller. It’s a little bit strange that he was my first, since I don’t own anything from his brand, nor could I have told you anything about it before the show. Maybe I should have held out for someone I really cared about, but whatever. I guess I’m easy and don’t even care if everyone knows it.

In some ways the fashion show experience is a metaphor for the fashion world as a whole. The core of it is that some people walk around wearing some clothes. That’s it. But because wearing clothes is such a banal activity, and therefore watching someone wear clothes, by the Law of Indirect Exponential Banality, is at least twice as banal, there has be a lot of hubbub and brouhaha to make the event and all the people involved in it seem Important.

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Therefore my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out - bear with me - and let me go on, and tell my story my own way - or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road - or should sometime put on a fool’s cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along - don’t fly off - but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside - and as we jog along, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing - only keep your temper.
Laurence Sterne, Tristan Shandy
The Unbearable Politeness of Being
I have been politely nudged no less than five times in the last week to read this well-polished gem of humblebraggery on ‘How to be Polite’, by Gentleman Paul Ford. So I have, and have been duly regaled by the author’s lamentation of our current impolitic times, and how far ahead in life and love he has gotten by sending thank you cards, “turn[ing] the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker”, and not touching anyone’s hair without permission until “at least six or more years of marriage.”
I will try, though my editorial muscles twitch with vituperative energy, to refrain from mentioning the many ways in which this article is poorly written. (Okay, allow me just one as a proof of concept: “at least six or more years” reduces to simply at least six years. The “or more” is superfluous.) I want to focus on the message, since it bothers me more.
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Politeness, like irony, another overused tool in the modern arsenal, is a way of protecting oneself from any genuine communication or exposure. Gent Ford admits as much:

What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions.

To further demonstrate that his politeness is not really for serious, Gent Ford tells us explicitly that it’s a sort of game he plays, only everyone else is too self-absorbed to figure it out, or possibly even care:

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.

Gent Ford proudly tells us of one particularly successful episode in which he engaged a “very beautiful woman” in conversation so relentlessly speaker-directed that he “didn’t reveal a single detail about himself, including [his] name.” (If two Raconteurs stumble into a face-to-face, what happens? Does the conversation hover in between them, held in stasis by equal and opposite forces, cat-and-buttered-toast style?)
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that those who aren’t quite beautiful enough to be as oblivious as this particular partner question the sincerity of Gent Ford’s attentions. In fact, the piece begins with a coworker telling him that she at first considered him “a terrible ass-kisser” but later decided to accept his politeness as a productive “strategy.” Gent Ford asides to us that this co-worker is being impolite, then graciously thanks her and moves on with the rest of his story about what a successful life strategy politeness is.
Towards the end of the article, Gent Ford tells us (reluctantly, by his own account, but I have my doubts) about “another aspect of his politeness.”:

I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy….This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Can I suggest that there’s a fertile middle ground of interaction between telling a stranger you love them in the midst of a hot run of Raconteur and waiting until a seventh year of well-mannered marriage to touch their hair? Despite having never been married for even one second, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of some quite spontaneous and uninvited hair-touching (even grabbing), and never felt the need to send or demand an apology email the next day. I would also like for the people I meet to get something out of talking to me that they wouldn’t be able to get from a chat bot programmed with state-of-the-art politeness, even if it’s just my name.
The biggest mistakes of my life have come not from forgetting my manners, but from allowing them to form a barrier between myself and someone I cared about, and prevent us from caring about each other more. Just as irony as a cultural norm interdicts the question of “what do you really mean?” as banal, a culture of politeness interdicts the same question as rude and invasive. In both cases, we are alienated from each other.
I don’t know what Gentleman Ford really means with this article. I don’t know if he is hand-signaling to someone as we read, amazed that politeness and an anecdote about prostitution is enough to win him an Internet. I don’t know if he is genuine when he tells me that he “like[s] and respect[s]” me, or if he’s just being nice. It’s a performative piece of writing on a performative way of living, and therefore both very clickable and completely inscrutable. But I hope its influence is minimal, because the seed of intimacy isn’t politeness. It’s sincerity.

The Unbearable Politeness of Being

I have been politely nudged no less than five times in the last week to read this well-polished gem of humblebraggery on ‘How to be Polite’, by Gentleman Paul Ford. So I have, and have been duly regaled by the author’s lamentation of our current impolitic times, and how far ahead in life and love he has gotten by sending thank you cards, “turn[ing] the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker”, and not touching anyone’s hair without permission until “at least six or more years of marriage.”

I will try, though my editorial muscles twitch with vituperative energy, to refrain from mentioning the many ways in which this article is poorly written. (Okay, allow me just one as a proof of concept: “at least six or more years” reduces to simply at least six years. The “or more” is superfluous.) I want to focus on the message, since it bothers me more.

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SEX, POWER, AND SUITING? 

Cameron Wolf an article in Business of Fashion magazine that has me perplexed. The thesis of the piece is that skinny suits of the sort designed by Thom Browne and Hedi Slimane have re-injected men’s suits with a forceful thrust of sex and power. “The slim suit is where sex and power converge,” says Wolf.

Perhaps tellingly, the article’s only photo is a picture of Barack Obama wearing a suit that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the skinny, or shrunken, suit popularized by Browne and Slimane (pictured above - Browne suits on top, Slimane for Dior in the black and white photos). Because nothing about the skinny suit projects sex or power.

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…irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
David Foster Wallace