Is Margo Roth Spiegelman a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Here’s a thoroughly ridiculous example of success:

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John Green has written four significant young adult novels in the last nine years, and all four of them are still in the YA Top 10 best-sellers list (An Abundance of Katherines is Number 9). The film version of The Fault in our Stars promises to be a runaway success even if it’s bad. Green is four months older than me. Only a fool would expect this kind of triumph. And Green isn’t writing about wizards or dystopian battle royales, he’s dealing with teenagers who can adequately be described as “real.”

I’ve now read two of his books, Fault and now Paper Towns. While the former has a more deeply moving subject matter (teenagers with terminal illness), the latter is the more complex and interesting: if Fault answers a bunch of questions, Towns – like its patron saint poet Walt Whitman – mainly asks them. And one of those questions is about whether or not its beautiful, mysterious protagonist can have an existence outside of our imaginations.

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the object of many stories within the world of the novel itself. In other words, her existence is filtered through others, primarily through the at-first milquetoast narrator Quentin Jacobsen. It’s not too much of a spoiler (it’s in the summary from the NYT above) to say that Margo enters Quentin’s life dramatically and leaves mysteriously, and that the brief experience liberates Quentin. Which puts her in the realm of “Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.”

The Manic-Pixie Dream Girl came to be out of this brilliant review of Elizabethtown by pop-culture guru Nathan Rabin. He uses it to describe the regressive, but very familiar stereotype of a quirky female character whose sole existence within a story is to liberate a male protagonist. Though she’s seemingly an eccentric iconoclast – usually conveyed through her insistence on wearing silly hats – she has no inner life, exists in no conceivable reality, and yet somehow ends up being domesticated by the very dullards she was created to liberate. Instead of subjectivity, she possesses an endless series of quirks, appetites, and elliptical quasi-profound fortune cookie proverbs. She’s such a fantasy that we’re surprised that the movie doesn’t end with her saying “My work here is done,” and then walking into a spaceship.*

On Facebook, friends pointed out that Green’s work often draws this critique. In short – that his books are centered around passive male characters who encounter brilliant females who turn them into the heroes they’re supposed to be. At first glance, Margo, who climbs in Quentin’s window dressed like a ninja and demands he sneak into Seaworld, seems not merely to be an MPDG, but the most egregious example of an MPDG of all time. If you’re looking for ammunition, here’s what Margot says when she and Quentin sneak into a building so they can see the best view in Orlando:

Here’s what’s not beautiful about it: from here, you can’t see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You can see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q: look at all those culs-de-sac, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.

This is exactly the kind of thing the MPDG says, in the hopes of unshackling “Q” from his droll, “paper” existence.
But wait. There’s a moment in the book where Quentin is over at his friend Radar’s house helping him prepare for a party by putting away Radar’s parents record-breaking collection of Black Santas (Green is brilliant with these kind of details). Q says, “You know, when you see them all together, it really does make you question the way we imagine our myths.” If you read the Goodreads quote page, you’ll see a lot of quotes like this. Here’s another: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

I point this scene out in connection to what Green, who has mastered social media and uses it to engage his readers, says about this critique:

Margo is certainly presented by Q as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of PT. Absolutely. But that only acknowledges that some boys believe in Manic Pixie Dream Girls; it doesn’t argue that MPDGs actually exist, or that Margo is one . . . Paper Towns is a book about–at least in part–the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held MPDG fantasies.

This isn’t thematic retrofitting; it’s there throughout the novel. Quentin objectifies Margo, and by fitting her in this category so do we. When it turns out that Margo is full of darkness and a complexity that Quentin realizes is more complex than the complexity he’s imagined, Paper Towns reveals itself not as participating in the regressive trope, but examining, complicating, and critiquing it. Quentin is liberated, but it’s not because Margo is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but because Margo is not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl designed for his emancipation that he wants her to be.

In Sonnet 75 of his Amoretti, Edmund Spenser does something rare for a sonnet – he lets the object of the love poem talk back. In the first stanza, the speaker says he going to immortalize his beloved, but he can’t.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

In other words, “I want to immortalize you but I can’t.” In the next stanza, “she” responds to this poetic activity.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

“You can’t immortalize me,” she says, and the underlying reason is that she’s too intricate, too exceptionally mortal, to be reduced to the aesthetic object of the poet’s “pains.” And of course, the poet goes on to say he’s just going to do it anyway. Quentin’s doing something remarkably similar to what the poet is doing, and often we are too – in trying to categorize this female figure, he creates boundaries and capture her within his own profoundly self-involved vision.

This is challenging, problem-posing stuff for young adults, and I hope that Green’s novel initiates a lot of conversations. I think they can handle it. I’m teaching this in my Fall English 105 class, and I plan to use the MPDG issue as a discussion starter, and as avenue of talking about representations of teenagers and women more broadly. As the novel ends, we’re denied some of the satisfactions we hope we’d get, just as the questions about Green’s female characters have no easy answers.

* – (If someone ever makes the case that E.T. is the ultimate MPDG, I want to be cited.)

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Black for Jailer!

blackforjailer

I’ve been seeing a lot of signs around for the election for Jailer in several different counties. I didn’t even know Jailer was something you ran for, so I’m throwing my hat in the ring. Our county jail needs a fresh face, not one of those politicians from Washington. Vote Andy Black for jailer.

Experience: I’ve watched a lot of prison movies and I was once invited to a charity event in which I would spend the night in jail.

My six point TOUGH ON CRIME policy:

  1. I will not spend the state’s money on alcohol for a fully stocked bar for the prisoners. My jail will be strictly BYOB.
  2. I will not repaint the cells merely because a prisoner requests a color change, unless the prisoner gives two weeks notice and assists with the painting.
  3. There will a dramatic improvement in the quality of the jail’s annual theatrical production. Next year’s performance of West Side Story is not to be missed!
  4. I am tough on crime, but I am tougher on toilet grime. I will dedicate at least ten percent of my state budget to Scrubbing Bubbles. My goal is to have the cleanest toilets in the state!
  5. Upon incarceration, each prisoner will receive an egg which he or she will have to treat as though an infant child.  If after two weeks, the egg is still unbroken, the prisoner will receive a full pardon.
  6. Finally, the prison will be will be run on the honor system. This includes all vending machines.

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Alternate Oscars – 1976

I’m going to start picking what should have won the Oscar in a given year. At first, I thought I should provide a lengthy description of why I’m doing this, but that seems pointless: I’m doing it because I think it’s kind of fun to think about. The Academy Awards are pointless and infuriating, but their existence prompts conversations about movies, which is basically what this is. These are argument starters. Here are some criteria:

  • I choose the year using this random number generator. I’m starting with 1970, just because, and it’s unlikely I’ll go any further back.
  • I’m limiting myself to the big three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, though I might mention an oversight here or there.
  • I’ll be referring to (and in some cases will be inspired by) Danny Peary’s wonderful but sadly out of print book Alternate Oscars, in which he does what I’m doing only in detail and better. All of Peary’s choices are listed here.
  •  I’ll be sticking to five nominees in each category, no matter how it actually played out. I still insist this is the best way to do it, and Mark Harris offers a more persuasive argument than I can.
  • My choices will be neither entirely objective or subjective. I might pick something because it captured the zeitgeist, or I might pick something because it’s an unquestioned classic. Or not. The academy has whims and so do I. But time has shown us that Out of Africa and Gandhi are boring but “important” movies that no one talks about anymore while Dazed and Confused and Memento are awesome and increasingly relevant, so I’m in a better position to judge that than they were.
  • In other words, I have hindsight – as I do below, I might be political in giving the award to someone who gives a knockout performance over someone who will be frequently nominated.
  • Just to narrow things a bit, I’m going to stick to American or English releases, and keep “foreign film” in its own category. The Academy is weird about this, as you’ll see below, in which two actresses from foreign films were nominated, and one of those foreign films (Face to Face) clearly could have been a favorite for best picture. I don’t really have a rationale for doing this, it just seems like it makes things less complicated. If a film has American or British actress or an American or British production company/distribution (like The Artist or Life is Beautiful), I might reconsider.

With that said, here’s my first year: 1976

Best Actress

  • Their pick: Faye Dunaway, Network
  • Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousine, Cousin), Talia Shire, (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)
  • My pick: Sissy Spacek, Carrie
  • Nominees: Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Faye Dunaway (Network), Audrey Hepburn (Robin and Marian), Talia Shire (Rocky)

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Dunaway’s power-tripping and amoral programming genious Diana Christiansen takes her sly sexiness as Bonnie Parker and turns it up to eleven. She’s at once intensely masculine, hopeless neurotic, and dangerously feminine. Yet while it’s a career-defining role, its as much a product of the meaty dialogue she gets to deliver and the world she inhabits as Dunaway’s performance itself.  Dunaway was best at roles that required to be loud and theatrical, and she would never have a role like this again; Mommie Dearest would present her most magnificent piece of over-acting. In this case, she’s a close second. I choose Spacek because it’s so much the opposite: she invests the wilting flower protagonist of Carrie with equal parts silent strength and immature confusion. Spacek seems so out of place in the “scream queen” world of contemporary horror movies that Carrie can be viewed as a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. In the years since, with several attempts to remake Carrie, all have existed in Spacek’s shadow.

Especially in contrast to the bold, socially adept teenagers around her, Spacek seems out of time and place. Without Spacek’s grounding performance, the movie completely gives itself over to Brian De Palma’s trademark stylistic excesses and leering voyeurism. So many of Spacek’s scenes are silent, which means she creates her character through scared glances and scary reactions, particularly in the bloody finale. As the film is careening and split-screening wildly around her, her sensitive take seems at odds with the movie she’s in, yet still stands out.

Best Actor

  • Their Pick: Peter Finch, Network
  • Nominees: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)
  • My Pick: Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
  • Nominees: David Carradine, Bound for Glory; Robert De Niro, (Taxi Driver),William Holden, (Network), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears)

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Whenever Peter Finch’s Howard Beale appears in Network, he eats the movie – everything changes because of his prophetic, raving pronouncements. Yet Finch’s performance is clearly a supporting one (William Holden gets much more screen time); the Academy clearly elevated it because Finch had just died and they wanted to reward what was an iconic role. In my alternate universe, Finch wins Best Supporting Actor (sorry Jason Robards, who was great), and we get one of the closest races in the history of the awards – Sly Stallone vs. Robert De Niro. Both actors have roles of a lifetime as outcast losers who figure out a way in, though to drastically different effects. Both were New York actors in gritty, urban dramas. It could go either way, and I’m tempted to give it a tie. But while De Niro is obviously the better actor, I’m going to do a little politicking for Stallone. Also, in retrospect, De Niro would have several more opportunities to win this, and had won a supporting Oscar before in both a real and alternate universe for The Godfather Part II.

At this point, critics were comparing Stallone to Brando and Tango and Cash was years away – part of that was because of the way Sly was so understated and sweet. He lacks the lazy, slurring bombast that he would bring to “Cobra.” We like Rocky because he’s nice to caged dogs, sings along with street singers, and is a terrible loan shark. His scenes with Talia Shire are terrific; he would never have this kind of chemistry again with anyone, male or female. The final fight scene is so rewarding simply because it’s impossible to think of a character we’d rather root for. Part of this has to do with the fact that Stallone wrote the movie and refused to let anyone else play the role. Even in the later Rocky movies, Stallone would never again be this good; most of those performances are something of an increasingly ridiculous parody of this one. But what remains one of the most satisfying sports movies ever made is almost completely due to the success of its writer and star.

Best Picture

  • Their Pick: Rocky
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
  • My Pick: Taxi Driver
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, The Bad News Bears, Network, Rocky

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As I’ve argued, Rocky was the product of its writer and star, and I realize this downplays the achievement of director John G. Avildsen, who would only re-approach this success when he remade the movie as  The Karate Kid. But Rocky recycles urban tropes in an adequate way more than does much interesting with them: the film succeeds because of winning performances, a great soundtrack, and a great final fight. The nomination should have been the award. Of my five nominated films, The Bad News Bears is superior as a sports movie.

Therefore, I’m going with Taxi Driver. As great as De Niro is, it’s Martin Scorsese’s vision that captures a city, a moment, and a character. Whether with obvious visual language, such as when Travis hopelessly woos a girl on the phone and the camera veers to an empty hallway, or in the subtle moments where Travis is watching television and thinking God-knows-what, Scorsese films the ugly underside as no one ever has. Filtered through Travis’ madness, it’s a dark place that needs saving. We’re never sure how to deal with him – hope for his salvation, or turn him into the cops. Taxi Driver exemplifies the “new cinema” of the 70s in its darkness. The key to Travis’ madness is not that he looks in the mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” It’s the next line – “I’m the only one here.” Taxi Driver captures that here, the scary milieu that either stimulates Travis’ madness or is a product of it; it’s to Scorsese’s credit that we’re never quite sure.

Other awards

  • B.S Actor – Them: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men Me: Peter Finch, Network
  • B.S. Actress – Them: Beatrice Straight, Network; Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
  • Stallone’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could have been nominated for B.S. Actor for his warm performance in the underrated Stay Hungry. So could Richard Pryor, in his best comedic performance in a movie for Silver Streak. But this was a strong year for supporting performances (Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith – Beatty is the only one I’d boot, just because he’s only in the movie for five minutes.)
  • While Haskell Wexler deservedly won Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory (a sadly forgotten movie), it’s ridiculous that Gordon Willis wasn’t even nominated for All The President’s Men.
  • As good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen was, it should not have beaten Bernard Herrmann’s for Taxi Driver.
  • It’s just plain silly that Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which is why don’t even consider it as at a category.

They said

  • Danny Peary: The Front, De Niro, Spacek
  • Golden Globes, Drama: Rocky, Finch, Dunaway
  • National Society of Film Critics: All the Presidents Men, De Niro, Spacek