When Sex Is Not Sex: Bug, Lars, and Comics

Bug, starring Ashley Judd
Lars & The Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer
– “Three Septembers & A January,” by Neil Gaiman

Ryan Gosling as Lars
I saw Lars a while back and I was really touched by it. That was surprising, because normally I hate stories where a French Lady/Magic Retard/Reincarnated Loved One In The Form Of A Dog/Otherwise Strangely Disposed Individual arrives on the scene, and teaches a whole town full of poor people to love and reclaim the joy in their own lives, through the power of Magical Chocolate/Forbidden Concupiscent Dancing/Skill With A Kazoo. Maybe that’s why I liked it: I went into things knowing that the whole town was going to inevitably realize the value of love and community, so I was free to ignore the movie’s message — which was not in the least facile, to my mind; just uninteresting to me personally — and enjoy the individual reactions and interactions that got the town to that place. However, that’s not what I’m interested in talking about.

I saw Bug two days ago, after waiting more than a year for my ship to come in, or the stars to align in order to get me into a Bug-watching situation. I’m kind of notorious for never getting around to seeing the movies about which I’m most excited, and then whining about it, but this one I kept quiet about. It’s a weird, deeply weird movie; weird in the way that only a screenplay faithful to its theatrical roots (The House Of Yes, Agnes Of God, Angels In America, The Children’s Hour; the obvious Virginia Woolf, the execrable Proof) can be weird.

Play language is not human language — that’s part of the point of plays, and playwriting. Of course, the linguistic tics are not the main issue with Bug — a movie I loved, don’t get me wrong — but they definitely put one into the familiarly queasy linguistic space between poetry and vérité that so often distracts from our suspension of disbelief. And really, that’s sort of the point: not only is the language of modern theatre self-conscious and literary (one could almost substitute the more apt “painterly” there), but these are, one and all, fundamentally stories about madness.

Contrasting the two films seemed at first quixotic: the stories begin on different ideological continents and spend their lives fleeing in opposite directions. But in delusion, and in loneliness, and in the stark existential terror of connection, I think they meet, on the other side of that globe.

In Lars, a young man with a clear disorder that may or may not be undiagnosed high-functioning autism uses an imaginary proxy as first a defense against the aggressive care of his family and small town, and eventually as a passive tool for storytelling: he brings these invaders (which amount to the entire world) into his story through the backdoor and getting everybody on his emotional page, in order to level the playing field. There’s almost an audible pop in one’s ears, when the township finally comes to accept Lars’s “girlfriend” as a separate individual; the feeling is of an ocean’s pressure suddenly equalizing.

Of course, there’s a very personal, highly emotional story being told here, but it pales in interest (to me) when set against this story: like Ennis Del Mar or Humbert Humbert and Dolores, Lars uses every manipulative tool at his disposal in order to arrange the world around himself in exactly the way he wants it. Unlike those past worthies, of course, there’s a happy ending. Embarrassing degree: in the film’s hurried third act, the young man spontaneously overcomes his myriad fractures in a series of out-of-the-blue catharses ranging from survivor guilt (mom died in childbirth), Oedipal/sibling-incestuous feelings (toward his brother’s wife), altered sexuality (gets a girlfriend!), and — most intriguingly — his terror and horror of the human body (cannot bear to be touched; assumes prenominate sister-in-law will die in childbirth).

A few crumbs are dropped, including a dissonant encounter with the boys’ more conventionally messed-up father, but on the while, it’s a fairy tale and a parable of the best kind: if you’re prone to crying in movies, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a tearjerker. If you’re prone to crying in movies for reasons you don’t understand, in moments of enormity or transcendence or grace, I daresay you’ll enjoy it just a bit more.

And then there’s Bug. Which is neither a fairytale nor a parable, exactly, and which contains moments of enormity and intensity, but will not, perhaps, inspire many tears of sadness, or joy. In brief, Bug is the story of an incredibly lonely woman whose cooperation with (and eventual co-option of) a stranger’s schizophrenia ends in a literal conflagration. It is, also, awesome, but cerebral. Where Lars is all heart, to an irritating degree, Bug is almost all brain. And maybe a little stomach.

While the grimy desperation of the film’s first half is effectively desolate, and the third act is an unrelenting descent that often feels like it’s dragging you down with it, one’s ultimate response by the end of things is more likely one of narrative and literary satisfaction: the story points out its road map to you at every point, subtly, and then teases just a little bit before giving you the next “reveal.” The entire point of the story, of course, is that there’s not a single “reveal” in the unfolding sequence of “discoveries” suffered by the two intrepid adventurers: they are astronauts in the stratosphere of their own madnesses, shared and separate, locating and excavating new twists and turns of fate while locked in a room together, watching the story they’re creating twist and turn around itself, coming to a — horrifically, understandable — Byzantine and brutal conclusion. The subjective reality of the film’s early, grotesque portrait of loneliness similarly builds itself directly into later scenes contrasting the claustrophobic and frighteningly deranged interior with the calm, realistic world outside: the eventually tinfoil-covered room shakes, imaginary black helicopters thunder, lights flash and dim crazily. I’m not a “horror-porn” hater, but the Roths and Saws of the world could learn a thing or two from Bug‘s balls-out impressionist evocation of internal mayhem: this really is the way the world ends.

Bug (2007)
No more “I love you’s,” goes the song: “The language is leaving me … Changes are shifting outside the word.” I’ve always found the lyrics of the song (originally by The Lover Speaks, covered memorably by Annie Lennox) mysterious and almost obnoxiously evocative — certainly a little precious — but I’ve been thinking about it a lot, both versions, while putting together this little essay:

In an absence, or rather a reversion, of quantifiable fact, language becomes a spiritual source of communication: the lovers speak, they use the language of entomology and Area 41 conspiracy to reify their delusions and desperation, lending support to their madnesses, twining them together into a long and bristled thread. Outside that room is a world that has proven, again and again, to be a brutal and incomprehensible place: outside that room is a world that steals children and will jail and torture you for no reason at all. Outside, things shift without meaning or fairness, but inside, in their tinfoil Eden, all that exists is the story they create; their love takes place in their collaboration, creating meaning from all the ingredients they have. Those ingredients are sad, and scary, and ugly, but it’s a heaven nonetheless, because at least within the insect garden, they have control of the narrative. The fact that the story, like the floor itself, bucks beneath their feet is of no consequence: they are literally creating a world of the only pieces and facts the cruel world has shown them. (“And you know what, Mommy? Everybody was being really crazy! The monsters are crazy. There are monsters outside.”) No matter how hideous and painful that created world might be, they declare again and again against their imaginary oppressors, at least they have their humanity, and their own self-determination.

The tasks of the writer, director and actors are, in a recursive-iteration story like this, very specific and unusually similar. In order to believably sell the story’s endpoint, all three must work together at creating a linear development from A to Z, without ever letting go of the primal naïveté of each passing moment. We have to believe that a reasonably functional — if desperately walking-wounded — woman could move through that alphabet with such speed and intensity, and all three sides of the team have to do this work in tandem. And while it’s not a failure on this level — which is pretty much the entire raison for the piece, this development — I will say that Judd’s performance (and her co-star, the taut and fascinating Michael Shannon; perhaps also the play itself) has something of the workshop about it.

It’s understandable. The pair create world upon self-devouring world, never ceasing to raise the ante or deepen the conspiracy they’re imagining, sometimes moving too fast for us, or their various foes and would-be rescuers, to even stay aboard. Flipped sideways, that’s your basic summer camp improve class: actors one-upping the emotional stakes while rewriting history around themselves, working themselves into a fantastical and delusional furor. If you’ve ever seen it, or taken part in it, you know the kind of Pentacostal power the act can carry — the possession that overtakes actors in the heat of that moment is both particular and universal to the religion of possession, whether it’s vodoun or snake-handling backwoods Baptists. But if you’ve ever seen it, or taken part in it, you’ll recognize it here. It’s almost a strength, and certainly speaks highly of Judd and Shannon’s talent: they seem to be improvising the entire time, which is the mandate here. However, one wonders if the particular rhythms and cadences of the film’s final torrential descent don’t take some of their flavors from the training of actors itself.

Which is a technical distraction: there’s nobody to blame, because there’s no blame to place. It’s impossible to look away from, and so carefully delineated and built that you wouldn’t be faulted for calling it a technical masterpiece, on that primally creative level. As the disparate tragedies and terrors and deep sadness of the two leads begin to weave themselves more and more nakedly into the madness of their shared narrative, one feels almost a sense of relief: it’s a lot easier to believe a nearly nude woman, especially one as beautiful as Ashley Judd, screaming “I AM THE SUPER BUG MOTHER!” when you realize she’s been pacing the conspiracy all through its development, waiting to add her two cents of bereaved motherhood. In fact, it’s the terrifying and heartbreaking moment that Judd’s Agnes takes the controls that you know there’s no turning back, for either of them. She steers their shared delusion to its apocalyptic crisis with a firm, strong and terrifying hand; with a will that could move mountains.

Just like Lars.
His Majesty Emperor Norton, seen here posing with a Sword
In Gaiman’s story “Three Septembers & A January,” collected in the Sandman volume Fables & Reflections, concerns itself with the effects of a family of demigods on a historical figure, in this case <a href="
“>Emperor Norton of San Francisco. (The rest of the Distant Mirrors cycle, collected alongside it in the same volume, places the story’s themes during the French Revolution and the reigns of Augustus Caesar and Haroun al-Raschid.) Joshua Norton is a fairly well-known historical case, but one thrust of the story here is the statement that he is a rare case in which, quote, “his madness keeps him sane.” By devoting himself wholeheartedly to his delusion of empire, Joshua keeps himself from succumbing to the despair of his poverty, the distraction of desire, and the oblivion of delirium itself. (“I used to have demons in my room at night,” goes the song: “Desire, despair, desire: so many monsters…”)

Like Lars, Joshua defends himself from the terror of physicality by putting a proxy — his imperial duties — above the temptations of the flesh. Like Agnes and Peter in their hotel room Heaven, Joshua sidesteps both despair and delirium by devoting himself wholeheartedly to his delusion: creating truth and more importantly purpose within the world as he defines it. And like Lars, he manages to con a whole city into going along with it.

There’s a well-known Freudian axiom to the effect that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Solely, he’s saying, those are the two factors that keep us from killing ourselves: the twin madnesses of love, or connection, and work, or meaningful purpose, are the highest and most basic of our mental needs. For Lars, it takes the form of using his devotion to the imaginary girlfriend as a way of reestablishing communion with the people around him; Lars creates meaning by telling a story, and shares that meaning by convincing everyone around him to help create it. To collaborate. Agnes and Peter find love in a platonic mutual obsession (they have sex once, at the end of the first act, and that’s a gun that goes off, in the end, with quite a bang); they find purpose in a world that has treated them both with a singular cruelty through collaboration on their shared mythology, and through the meaningful work of fighting off the ever-shifting conspiracy that hounds them.

Love, and work: combined, that’s collaboration. I’ve always maintained, in line with Kierkegaard, that religion is ultimately personal — on the level of privacy reserved for things like sexuality, in fact — but that the collaborative effort of political movements, churches, revolutions — even those against our insect invaders — fulfill a need just as basic as the need for solely spiritual meaning. The solidarity and community found in self-selected social groups (online television viewers, for one example; sports mania for another) provides a sense of collaboration, work — love — that could go head-to-head with church any day of the week, in terms of the human need for connection. (Absent the question of personal spiritual development, of course, which is another need entirely.) Collaboration, then.

It takes a lot of forms, and Lars is the only truly happy ending here, normatively speaking, but there’s something almost hopeful in the deluded empires built by Joshua, and by Agnes and Peter: even given no positive raw materials at all, no grace or faith or hope or charity, humans will always find a way to sketch out a structure for meaning. We’re lucky to be only minorly neurotic, for the most part, I think, and the castles we build in our particular skies are gigantically preferable, given the fact that we have worthwhile building materials. But in the same way that everyone deserves to experience love, or meaning, or work, or collaboration, I can’t see my way to discounting what Peter and Lars and Agnes and Joshua worked so hard to build. Might be destructive, might be filthy and horrible to look at, but if the only alternative is madness, if you don’t have any other choices, you could do a lot worse than constructing a narrative in which you are the Emperor, or a devoted husband to a woman of rubber and plastic, or even the Super Bug Mother herself.

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