The Lonely City (book review)

I finished the book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing today, and I’m here to write a review.

Laing talks in this nonfictional social study book, predictably by the title, about loneliness, the kind that comes from being alone amid a city of millions of people.  Her particular interest is on people who are lonely because of structural prejudice or traumatizing experiences, and she explores those people and spaces through the artworks and lives of famous historical artists who she believes personify such loneliness and prejudice.

It’s an interesting read, trailing through countless pieces of artwork, countless lives.  There is a particular focus on prejudice against homosexuality as well as the AIDS epidemic.  What I thought the book was a little short on was Laing’s conclusions based on this research.  She essentially claims in the book summary that she has potential remedies to heal loneliness, but the book is very short on that particular element.  Instead, she spends most of the book talking about the loneliness of artists, or about being lonely in New York City herself.

From what I could gather, her conclusions about the cure to loneliness were threefold: First and foremost, we have to realize we are not alone in being lonely, by her recommendation through looking at the lonely works of famous artists.  Second, we have to learn how to befriend ourselves first and other people second.  Third, we have to recognize and face the fact that some loneliness is structural and situational – not all of it can be solved with a pill.  She also had an interesting chapter on technology, the Internet, and social media as both a cure for and a way to intensify loneliness, all wrapped up in one experience.

Let me say that I agree with all these conclusions.  I just wish they’d taken up a larger part of the book.  I wanted her to elaborate on them, when really they did not take up very much of her 281 pages of writing.  I even wanted more elaboration on her own lonely experiences in New York City and her own struggles with gender identity – those, too, took up a very small section of the book.

I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but I am saying that the summary is deceptive.  I picked up the book because I remember being lonely myself in a city I used to live in.  I picked up the book because I’m going to move to another city and I want to try and avoid feeling the same way again.  But that’s not the point of this read.  The point of this read is to look deeply into the lonelier lives and works of artists and the historical and structural prejudices they faced.  Laing wants us to avoid making the same historical mistakes again.  Her own loneliness, or a potential therapy for loneliness, is more of a brief aside, a way to make a larger point.

If you’re interested in that, read the book for those reasons.  I am interested in those issues, and she handles them well with some pretty thorough and interesting research, but I wish I’d picked up the book knowing that was what I was going to get.

My other criticism would be this: out of all the artists Olivia Laing profiled, do you know how many were female?  Two.  One was extremely disturbed, obsessively stalking Andy Warhol, and both were portrayed more as consequences of and connections to male artists, rather than as artists in their own right.  You’re honestly telling me no interesting female artists accurately portrayed loneliness without the catalyst of a man?

Still, it was overall an interesting read into historical and structural issues and famous works of art, doubling as a mini biography concerning the loneliness of the lives of several famous artists.  My one main warning would be that this book contains triggers.  I had to put the book down at some points.  Child abuse and depictions of child mutilation, possible pedophilia, and severe mental illness eventually spiralling into stalking and homelessness are all portrayed in this book – with compassion and reflection instead of cruelty, but honestly and bluntly nonetheless.

If you are easily triggered by any of the above issues, and do not feel you could work past seeing them in a text the way I did, this may not be the book for you.


Hidden Figures

I went to the movies tonight.  The theater is a big old 1920’s era thing, built about a hundred years ago.  It plays jazz music in between movies over the loudspeakers, and has a back wall covered with authentic vintage movie posters.  It mostly plays independent, foreign, politically relevant, and artsy films, as well as live theater performances.

Tonight, it was playing the movie Hidden Figures.

The floors were damp from spilled Mountain Dew, and my feet hurt from walking there across town in my new shoes.  It was a packed audience, exceeding all theater expectations.  Maybe because of the current political climate, it seemed the whole town had come out for this movie.

So I bought a bar of Dove chocolate, and sat back to watch Hidden Figures.  It’s about three women of color in the early 1960’s who work for NASA.  The movie centers around their struggles to be accepted as intelligent human beings equal even to white men, in the atmosphere of NASA trying to justify its space program by launching its first man into space.  These women prove instrumental in that goal, and thus succeed in life and career, rising up with the help of impressed white people through a mostly-white system.

Though Hidden Figures did not take risks in anything other than very basic premise, it was a conventional inspirational movie.

What struck me most, I think, was what a powerful intersectional feminist tale it was.  These three women of color are probably smarter than every man in the room, and their area of expertise is math and science.  One is trying to brave a white school, taking night classes, to become an engineer.  One is a numbers girl who ends up working in the head office, and another becomes a supervisor for the new computer division, fighting to take all of her fellow women of color with her.

Their work is their own, but they do eventually impress and gain the support of white people as well.  One of the most poignant subplots is between the woman who ends up becoming a supervisor, and a white woman also working for NASA.  For most of the movie, the white woman actively works against this woman of color becoming a supervisor for anything, in spite of clear qualifications.  At the end of the movie, the woman of color impresses the white woman so much with her intelligence and clear head, the white woman clears the way for her becoming a supervisor and even gives her the announcement of her new position herself.

The movie takes a clear stance, even stated by one of the three main characters at one point: There are many ways of achieving civil rights, not all of them through violent revolution.  It is mentioned how important the current civil rights protests are, but the women in this movie are made to challenge the idea that’s the only way of doing things.

There was also a lot of physical affection between couples of color in this movie.  I say that with approval, because even in 2017 I don’t see physical affection between couples of color very often on television.  There was also a lot of men supporting strong, intelligent women without feeling threatened by them in this movie, which I was a huge fan of.

On a more craft related note, the movie hit all the right buttons: The ah-ha moments of victory, the moments of witty humor, the inspirational music, the heart-stopping moments of tension, and nothing was there that didn’t absolutely need to be.  It didn’t take any huge risks in elements of craft, instead choosing a plucky-sports-team-movie sort of aura.

I was left feeling empowered by the idea that anyone can do anything they really set their minds to – especially and including intelligent women.  I think we could all use some happy endings in our current era, and Hidden Figures delivers.

Touched with Fire

Today I’m reviewing the movie Touched with Fire, which I just watched for the first time recently.

Touched with Fire is about two bipolar poets, Marco and Carla, who fall in love while staying in the same ward of a mental hospital.  They continue their relationship for over a year, even after the mental hospital, despite everyone trying to pull them apart, but this is not a happy love story.  Rather, it is meant to portray the dysfunction inherent in a mutually bipolar relationship.

As someone with bipolar disorder myself – and as a musician and poet – I liked this movie because it was unusual.  Most movies look at bipolar from the outside: its unexplained violence and strangeness as people with it interact with supposedly “sane” people.  Most movies try to play up the inexplicable, fearful factor.  Their audience is “the sane.”

This movie looked at bipolar from the inside: the madness continues to be seen as madness, but the movie strives for understanding between bipolar people, rather than focusing on judgment and fear from the outside world.  You understand why the bipolar characters do what they do, even while you realize they’re mentally unstable.  And the bipolar people are capable of kindness and love toward other people and toward one another, even as a bipolar couple continues to be unhealthy.  The audience is “everyone.”

Touched with Fire is a compassionate look at bipolar disorder and how it behaves in families, in couple situations, and between both “sane” and bipolar people.

For example, during depressive scenes there is an all-consuming silence, while during manic scenes there is heavenly, lyrical music.  There are lots of little artistic choices like that throughout the movie, along with the delusional grandeur of art amid the enormous creativity of mania more inside the plot.  So there is subtle artistry embedded within the movie, but then also overt, grand artistry between the bipolar characters.  Everything is elevated for them to an extended plane.

The bipolar characters’ delusions are explained, which I thought was a really nice touch.  Every mentally ill person latches onto something, and for these two people it’s a feeling of never quite belonging in society, which inflates into a delusion in which they are aliens who have to die to get back to their own planet.  They feed off of each other in a deeply unhealthy but realistic way.

There is in fact an immediate unhealthy connection between Marco and Carla.  Some people might complain that there was no conceivable explanation for why they got together.  I would argue that’s the point.  That’s what it feels like to connect with someone or something during mania.

Both people bring something unhealthy to the relationship.  Marco doesn’t see bipolar as a limiter, yet is willingly immersed in it to the point where he thinks meds “interfere with his creativity” – a common bipolar artist thought.  Meanwhile, Carla sees everything about being bipolar as dark and dreary to the point where she considers bipolar people a “mistake” of biology and thinks the illness fundamentally changes who she is.

The movie managed to balance evenly the love between the two people with the mania between the two people – there was a subtle but noticeable difference.  For example, they walk to a fountain hand in hand – love.  They throw their meds into the (highly public) fountain – crosses the line into mania.

The arguments with their families were great – a perfect representation of the mentally ill interacting with the mentally sane.  The parents don’t understand and make resented executive decisions that have the children freaking out, yet the mentally ill children are overly sensitive to signals of rejection and indicators that they’re unwanted for being what society calls “crazy.”

My only complaint would be that it was hinted Carla had alcoholism, but nothing was ever really done with that.  I would have liked to see more of how addiction interacts with bipolar disorder.

I think bipolar-with-bipolar relationships are by their very nature unhealthy, so I agreed with the premise of this movie.  I make the metaphor that it’s like with anyone.  In astrology, for example, they always give you the advice never to date yourself – your own type.  It’s asking for trouble.  Dating advice from the ancients.  And that is especially the case with two people dating who both have bipolar disorder.

I can see why it’s appealing.  I can connect with fellow bipolar people in a way that I can with no one else.  Does that make it healthy for me to date a fellow bipolar person?  No.  Our negativities would feed off of each other.  And that’s what this movie is trying to portray.

I think this movie gave a lot of good messages – that friendship between bipolar people is good but romance or living together might not be, and that while meds can seem limiting at first over the long run they actually improve the person’s cognitive ability instead of decreasing their creativity.

I guess the overall feeling I was left with – was not like with most bipolar movies I’ve watched.  Instead of feeling judged or studied from the outside, this movie felt like a love letter to bipolar people, and it even had as happy an ending as I could have hoped for.  I was left with an understood, and emotional but contented, feeling upon finishing.