Lucy and Todd

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

The rest of us zhlubs want to be happy too

In Lying in Bed Watching Movies, Recent Articles on February 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Being abnormal used to be normal. In movies such as The Apartment (1960), it was redemptive. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are outsiders who’ve missed the boat, careerwise and hopewise. She’s wasting her time on a married man, while Baxter is caught in a sexual vortex established by his superiors, who have clandestine trysts in his apartment while “Buddy Boy” gets nothing but colds and TV dinners. It’s when they both decide to ditch the self-hatred and take more of a risk that things start looking up, romancewise.

There are a million films in which the staid and stable (but wrong) choice of mate loses out in battle with the dynamic and volatile. As in “Cinderella” and Jane Eyre, in these stories the hare, not the tortoise, wins. Some hare escapades tragically fail: in Brief Encounter (1945), Laura (Celia Johnson) relinquishes Alec (Trevor Howard) for the sake of her amiable but dull husband and children. But in screwball comedies, risk-taking often pays. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant is swept off his feet by zany Katharine Hepburn, and thereby saved from a sexless marriage to a woman interested only in dinosaur bones.

We try to formalise it with weddings and His and Hers towels, but love is a childish, dreamlike state and that’s what’s so good about it. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Holiday (1938) – all starring that odd pair, Hepburn and Grant – are comedies of mismatch, in which oil must be separated from vinegar, in that the childlike hero or heroine must be prevented from collapsing into the arms of some treadmill adult. In these plots, conformity is a cul-de-sac that can’t accommodate real emotions. The supposedly stable alliance falls flat on its face, while the farcical candidate from leftfield emerges as the winner. “Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end,” Grant tells Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. But we want him saved, essentially from adulthood – all work and bank balances and Gradgrindian facts.

In The Philadelphia Story, it’s Hepburn who’s about to marry the wrong guy, having divorced Grant out of pique. But at the start of Holiday, Johnny (Grant) is in a pickle, newly engaged to a creep. He rushes over to tell his friends, Nick and Susan, whose own eccentricity is displayed in their unAmerican reluctance to answer the door (in TV shows devoted to conformism, Fred MacMurray and Mary Tyler Moore always answered the door). “She’s sweet, intelligent, the perfect playmate,” he tells them. No she ain’t. The first thing his fiancee Julia does is scold him about his hair and his tie. She’s rich, self-satisfied, conventional, and in love with money, not him. It’s Hepburn as Linda, Julia’s aimless sister, the black sheep of the family, who perfectly comprehends Johnny’s aversion to business, security and stolidness, his aversion to America itself. Their love is celebrated by leaving the country. Catastrophe averted, they catch a boat with Nick and Susan, creating their own Fun Squad. It’s a triumph of eccentricity over the perversity of normal.

In the more kindly form of romcom (none of them very recent), looks don’t count and weirdness wins the day. Green Card (1990) has the “nice” Brontë (Andie MacDowell) confront with distaste the French “oaf”, Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu). At first, she’s all effortful serenity: a beautiful NY apartment, charitable gardening work, occasionally seeing her “nice” vegetarian, environmentalist boyfriend. Salvation comes when she relaxes and takes on the chaotic and unpredictable, in the form of the more human, if ungainly, Georges. One of the thrills of this movie is its plea for foreignness, even making the case for economic migrants in search of green cards. But mainly it’s about francophilia – the solution to much American ennui has after all been to head for Paris.

France feeds Julie and Julia (2009) too, that misshapen movie about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her culinary stalker, Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Compare these two marriages. Julia Child’s is a late-in-life pairing, but happy. Child talks funny, looks funny, is very tall and awkward – but every day after lunch she and Paul jump into bed (the secret of marital happiness). In Paris. “What if you hadn’t fallen in love with me?” Julia asks Paul sombrely at one point. “But I did,” he answers.

Julie Powell and her husband in Queens never convincingly congeal; they’re just playing house. Because they’re in their 20s and have been brought up on bad movies and no books, they have no emotional vocabulary. There’s something objectionable about the dime-store morality of Julie French-cooking her way out of her job in a call centre helping victims of 9/11. The only proper response to other people’s tragedies may well be to stuff oneself with butter, but at least have the grace to do it in France.

Powell’s self-improvement route to fulfilment is also promulgated by Eat Pray Love (2010). In this abysmal Julia Roberts vehicle, Roberts, as Elizabeth Gilbert, checks out gurus all over the world in a quest to regain her joie de vivre, leaving quite a carbon footprint behind her in every anorexia-ashram she visits. Never mind the film’s obnoxiousness about religion, paternalism and, most shamefully, Italy. The worst thing about it is the implicit instruction that, to deserve a man, women must now transform themselves spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Gilbert’s mystical retreat is really just the latest form of charm or finishing school, like carrying a book around on your head. But what are the men doing to make themselves acceptable to Gilbert? Drinking beer and crashing cars. As usual.

Two recent French films differ in their interpretations of eccentric love. Delicacy (2012) offers a skewed, cruel adult sphere in which everyone misconstrues what’s important, and pursues their offensive goals in a confusion shared by the audience; The Fairy (2012) dumps notions of conformity for a surreal, childlike, more innocent world where love is not barred to the unprepossessing. In the first, an ordinary-looking man woos a pretty girl. Big deal, you’d think. But oh the consternation this causes. The friends of Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) express horror about her going out with someone they regard as not handsome. Isn’t this the sort of adolescent nonsense we all try to leave behind as soon as possible? But there’s no real questioning of the status quo in this movie. We’re left as perplexed as her pals about Nathalie’s choice.

Delicacy chooses to address the issue of male beauty, but we all know the pressure is on women in terms of beauty. Now everybody’s supposed to be beautiful. So we’re stuck with plastic surgery, sun beds, cosmetics bills, sadness and disappointment. Whatever happened to love among the real?

The Fairy takes a more compassionate look at the rights and desires of the funny-looking. Fiona Gordon, as the fairy, displays her long, sinewy legs as if the human body – any human body – were beautiful, a revolutionary idea in this age of artifice. All seems comically dismal at first. A miserable hotel receptionist (Dominique Abel), down on his luck, nearly chokes to death on a ketchup bottle top hidden in his sandwich, and is saved by a strange woman (Gordon) who may have just escaped from the mad house. But their love is transformative, as you see when these two sad sacks suddenly start to dance – underwater. And the jokes keep coming: at one point, Abel is in the foreground moaning about a cut finger while Gordon is in the final stages of giving birth to their baby in the background; just as a Bandaid is applied to Abel’s wound, the baby pops out, as if the two torments are equivalent.

At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959) gender no longer seems a relevant concern. Another endearing relationship is depicted in Harvey, an anthem to eccentricity and probably the first and last American movie in which the pleasures of alcoholism are given their due. James Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, and Harvey is his love object, an invisible 6ft white rabbit sometimes described as a “pooka”, a sort of sprite who can make your dreams come true. There isn’t a single character, whether confined to the asylum, or working there, or driving a cab, or singing an aria at a tea party, who doesn’t display an array of unusual behaviours. In the midst of trying to get her brother Elwood committed, Veta (the splendid Josephine Hull) is constantly readjusting her girdle, flirting with a judge, and wondering when she can go upstairs to bed and just “let go”. Her spinster daughter, Myrtle Mae, finally attracts the attentions of a psychiatric orderly on the strength of her egg and onion sandwiches. The head of the hospital wants to avail himself of Harvey’s magical powers so he can have a three-week break in Akron, Ohio, being patted on the hand by a mysterious young woman. But as the Laingian shrink in Bringing Up Baby says, sporting a startling facial tic, “All people who behave strangely are not insane.”

The heroine of my new novel, Mimi, is plump, middle-aged and menopausal. She has hot flushes, big feet and a big mouth. She’s not the narrator Harrison’s type at all. He’s a New York plastic surgeon fully persuaded that physical appearance can be usefully adulterated. Despite all this, he and Mimi fall in love. I offer this improbable romance, in contravention of all the crap that our culture tries to instil in us about who deserves love.


(A version of this article appeared in the Guardian, Feb. 9, 2013)

Praise for Mimi

In Reviews of Our Books on February 10, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Mimi is ringing with love and rage and hope. Ellmann’s best sentences are so springy and rhythmic, they make you think of a Slinky coursing down the sweet spot of a staircase, happy as Larry.’ (Susie Boyt, Independent)
‘…even as Mimi gaily batters the reader into submission, she does so with such charm, wit and ingenuity that it’s rarely less than a delight… There’s plenty to take issue with here, but you suspect that Ellmann wouldn’t have it otherwise. And can you think of another novel that includes paeans to quilts, Matisse and homemade jam? Worth celebrating.’ (Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail)
‘A wildly hilarious, modern film noir in fiction form, it’s the sort of novel you love or hate immediately. I loved every minute.’ (Viv Groskop, Sunday Telegraph)
‘A lively, sweet, funny tale of well-off Manhattanites in love … For all its satire and tricksy inter-textuality … this is simply a big happy book about loving women. Now that’s shocking.’ (Melissa Katsoulis, Times)
‘Neurotic, crazy, and fun, with a love story, too.’ (Vogue)
‘Funny, angry, sarcastic and utterly individual, Ellmann has been described as “one of modern literature’s most well-kept secrets”. ‘ (Alison Flood, Observer)
‘This breakneck fable of love and loss has an energy that captivates … A true original, a love story with lashings of horror and a whimsical tour de force. It might leave you exasperated or exhausted but will certainly make you think … Ellmann’s writing is fearless in its experimentation: a whistle-stop tour of the paraphernalia that litters all our minds. Oddments that most of us notice and discard are here burnished into literary devices … Mimi is at its best when Ellmann uses her innovative style and light touch to highlight society’s darkest truths’ (Alice Fishburn, Financial Times)
‘A lively ride … It is tempting to describe Ellmann as a quirky writer, but this book goes deeper. It is bolshy, life-affirming, feminist and energetic. It makes you long to chuck your job, gulp oysters and run naked through the surf. This is all wonderful.’ (Lucy Atkins, Sunday Times)

‘So much of the charm of Ellmann’s eccentric take on the world lies in the common ground it makes with the equally frustrated reader; who among us, after all, hasn’t vainly yearned to love and be loved?’ (Laura Miller, Guardian)

‘Ellmann had me eating out of her hand … 182 pages of chortling, misty-eyed delight … Delicious, delicate confection … Ellmann’s writing is richly imaginative.’ (Charlotte Moore, Spectator)

‘The rich layering of literary and artistic references adds depth to this portrait of shallow lives. In exuberant, exhilarating prose that carries a substantial cargo of humour and wit, this cutting social satire anatomises an era and, by focusing on a man who alters human bodies, offers an X-ray of the curious workings of the mind.’ (Anita Sethi, New Statesman)

‘Like Lucky Jim, Mimi is a comic novel that climaxes in a bravura public address which does not go according to plan … Not many people could write about a cloudless love affair with such aplomb.’ (Suzi Feay, Literary Review)
‘Mimi is the story of a New York plastic surgeon who dreads making public speeches and the woman who knows she can help him overcome his fears. A delightfully playful, upbeat, erotic and meaningful work.’ (Rosemary Goring, the Herald)
‘In what is surely an early contender for 2013’s Book of the Year, Lucy Ellmann once again turns the comic novel into a work of the highest art … Ellmann’s sharp, funny, clever Manhattan tale … If Mimi is about anything, it is about family, sisters and female power, all wrapped up in a fairy tale where every word works magic to show a superlative comic novel embodying tragedy and all the human emotions. It may be Ellmann’s finest novel yet.’ (Lesley McDowell, Herald)
‘Her extraordinary new novel … is, amongst many things, a love letter to New York.’ (Chitra Ramaswamy, Scotsman)
‘A gleefully weird novel full of mischief and meaning.’ (Malcolm Jack, the List)
‘It’s difficult to write objectively or reasonably about Mimi…such is my passion for it.’ (Emma Herdman, The Bookseller)
‘A modern love story that packs a punch. This is the ultimate love story of our age … The antithesis of all the clichéd romances of contemporary novels and films … A feminist text disguised as a page-turning novel … Fans of Caitlin Moran will find the Valentine’s Day chapter in particular a real distillation of feminism for our time, perfectly masquerading as a story that will have you laughing at every other page … Some beautiful and original writing. Mimi doesn’t just set out ideals, it also offers great advice and terrific phrases … Ellmann’s first book in six years is a triumph for feminism, and deserves to become a classic’ (Emma Herdman, Psychologies)
‘With its saucy take on the perpetually perplexing battle of the sexes, Ellmann’s zany, zestful contemporary romantic comedy pulses with sultry steaminess and titillating humor.’ (Booklist)
‘Lucy Ellmann returns with her characteristically zany, high-wire prose, crafting a narrative that is funny, thought-provoking, sexy, sweet, and ultimately hugely satisfying.’ (Barnes & Noble)

‘This must be one of the most enjoyable novels ever. I laughed out loud, I re-read pages, I admired the richness, the playfulness and the touching warmth. Mimi is a rare read – an intelligent romantic comedy, artistic and sophisticated. The novel makes a claim for the most overlooked and undervalued pleasures of life – women’s minds, women’s bodies and most of all women’s company. But it does this with an eloquence and a cheekiness that is a joy to experience. There are only two things now needed to complete the perfection: a literary prize as hefty as its heroine and Mimi – The Movie.’  (Leila Aboulela, Amazon)

‘YES! I’m throwing all my woolly winter berets in the air for Mimi! Only Lucy at her best is able, somehow, to rap on in a manner that binds together Bugs Bunny and Wagner, Haydn and hunchbacks…’ (Barbara Trapido)

‘I am bowled over by Mimi.. Most of all, it is wonderful about love.’ (Susannah Clapp)
‘I am not much on humor — i.e., satirically energized  always talented frontal assaults on social irritants and abuses and the like. I accept the genre but have often thought it narrow for the novel, though as we know, the novel arises in part from it, from social critique, and thus from some of the motives of satire. Anyway I was delighted and even moved by the inventive targets and voice of your book and the language … &  many many moments of curious surprise that are not satirical at all — when H “wanders into the bathroom.” … The fiction of it all is delicious and the first real destruction of Canterbury in literature that I know of.’ (Joseph McElroy)
‘There is a fire in this book but that’s not what makes it incendiary. There are doctors in this book but that’s not what makes it healing. There is a glorious love story at the centre of this novel but that’s not why there should be a copy under every woman’s pillow. There is sex (good!) and violence (bad!) depicted as they should be, but that’s not why men should read this book just before bedtime. This is a roaring beast of a text which prods us and shakes us out of our media-induced TORPOR of fake modernity (or modernist fakery?). It takes us on an emotional adventure of epic proportions and then invites us to take arms against a sea of terrorists…’ (Suzy Romer)