Thursday, January 26, 2012

Guest Post: Show Me Love

Hello all, this is Shenan writing another guest post for Dan, because he seemingly has no motivation to blog when it’s not October. And we just watched a movie that I particularly connected with--you know, the kind where you read 12 different reviews of it after watching just because you want to keep hearing people talk about it. So I figured, if I couldn’t get Dan to write about it, I’d just write about it myself. Anyway, this movie came out in 1998 and presumably the rest of the world doesn’t live under a rock like I do, and has probably seen it or at the very least, is probably aware of its basic plotline. But for those who aren’t, I will have to warn: SPOILERS ahead, because I haven’t yet mastered the artful craft of film writing in such a way that I can talk about the movie, weaving in just enough explanation of the plot incidentally in my analysis to make it all stick, without explicitly summarizing the succession of action. So, read on, and be warned.

Now, I will begin by saying this: I have never been a teenage lesbian in small-town Sweden. This may come as a surprise to some of you, I know. But, truly, on the surface, I seem to have less in common with the two main characters of SHOW ME LOVE, Agnes and Elin, than Donatella Versace has with the 99% (topical hyperbole FTW!), save for my gender and the fact that I too was, at one point, a teenager. But this movie plays so subtly true to the teenage and, frankly, the human experience, with tenderness and compassion, that the details of the setting or the particulars of these girls lives are just that: details. You will continually see parts of yourself, or who you had been, or things you had felt at one point in your life, in it. I equate this movie to what I’ve often said about Bruce Springsteen: I know he can be hit or miss (and I’ve heard “Born in the U.S.A.” on the radio way too many times in my life at this point to even consider not switching the station when it comes on), but I don’t care who you are, the only way you can not adore “Thunder Road” or “The River” or “Dancing in the Dark” is if you have never been a teenager, or have never been in love. And if you were at any time a teenager, then I guarantee you, you have been in love. Unless you were a teen robot. In which case, you were probably the plot of a Disney Channel movie at some point in the mid-90s.

I digress.

SHOW ME LOVE takes place in the small Swedish town of Amal(the namesake of the movie’s original title, FUCKING AMAL), where 16-year-old Agnes (who looks much younger than her years) moved the previous year.

Agnes, quiet and self-awaredly different, has no friends in Amal, save for one wheelchair-bound girl just as unpopular as her, whose friendship is more one of convenience, both being outcasts, than it is based on anything they have in common or even a mutual liking of each other. She’s depressed, lonely, not only ignored but actively hated and harassed, and a lesbian, though she has yet to say as much to anyone directly (all the kids at school seem to somehow know, though). On the flip side of this equation is Elin:

Elin is beautiful, popular, self-assured, much older-looking than her 14 years, with her pick of any and all the teenage boys in town, and just as miserable as Agnes. She’s achingly bored, with what she perceives as both the emptiness of her life and the emptiness of the place she lives, where she fears she’ll be trapped forever because she has no vision of her future, no sense of what she wants to do or what she wants out of life or if anything she could possibly want would even be a realistic possibility, and thus sees no way out of Amal. There seems to be no father in her life, her family is poor—they couldn’t afford another mirror in their apartment after Elin broke theirs, so she has to use the mirror in her building’s elevator to get dressed and do her makeup—and her mother seems to be Elin’s worst nightmare vision of where she could (and probably will) end up: empty and sedated, not even sad or dissatisfied anymore at the lack of…anything, really, in her life, besides her two daughters. I mean, she watches the lottery on TV without buying a lottery ticket. Why? For “the music…and other things,” and how “it’s fun to see what other people win.” Metaphor much?

Oh yes. And Agnes is in love with Elin.

The plot, very briefly goes like this: Elin kisses Agnes ona drunken bet from her sister Jessica, then runs off and the two sisters go to a party. Elin wants to go back and apologize, but Jessica steers her away. The two go to the party, get horrendously drunk, and Johan (a young man in love with Elin, whom Elin seems repulsed by) makes a move on her, which causes her to flee the party. Meanwhile, Agnes, having just been kissed by the one she loves as a joke (ding ding ding! We have a match. I have very similar memories from my own middle school years. Can I just make the ding-ding-ding sound everytime Agnes or Elin has an experience that I can directly relate to from my life between the ages of 11 and 17?) is trying in an almost endearingly inefficient way to slit her writs with a safety razor (the kind that come 10 to a pack).Elin knocks on Agnes’s window, apologizes, and the two end up walking around at night talking. Elin kisses Agnes, sincerely this time. They both dispel their misconceptions about each other: though Agnes is firm in her sexual identity, she has never kissed a girl before, let alone been with scores of them as Elin thought; as much as Elin has messed around with seemingly every guy between the ages of 14 and 19 in Amal, and has a reputation for being promiscuous, she has never slept with a man before.

Elin promises to call Agnes. But frightened of her mother’s and sister’s potential responses to her love for Agnes, Elin is scared away from associating with her, let alone admitting she was attracted to another woman. Elin completely ignores Agnes, Agnes’s heart is broken, and Elin dives immediately into a very sexual relationship with Johan, perhaps in part to convince herself that if she can be attracted to—or at the very least, sleep with—a man, she can ignore what she felt for Agnes. But Elin eventually dumps Johan, corrals Agnes into a single-occupancy bathroom at school, and tells her of her feelings for her. They end up with a crowd outside, who all think Elin is in the bathroom with a boy, goading them to come out so they can see who it is.

I’m going stop there and just talk about all the reasons I loved this movie for awhile, before I segue into the ending. Just personally, I saw so many aspects of my younger self in both Agnes and Elin. Crazy, right? The two polar opposite leads of this movie and I, an unrelated American third party, have lots of stuff in common? I think that right there summarizes the teenage experience: you feel you are so different from everyone else, in every way, all the time. And so does every single other person. But in reality, there is so much of everyone in everyone else. So much that the older I’m getting, the more I’m having trouble comprehending on a day-by-day, person-by-person basis how it could be possible not to find at least something I love in everyone I actually spend time with (well, except the complete asshats). I said I was going to make the ding ding ding! noise whenever I related to Agnes or Elin, but I guess I’m just going to summarize it instead. So much for that gimmick.

First Agnes: she feels so alienated, different, and rejectedby her peers that she acts aloof and angry at everything and everyone while in public, as if they’re all stupid and she is above them, not needing their acceptance because she’s tough as nails. Meanwhile, she sinks into deep, paralyzing depression that renders her unable to do much but lie on the couch and move her head yes or no at one point (ding ding ding…shades of me in highschool). You can also see her coming into her own as the film goes on though, perhaps when she passes the point where she feels like she has nothing to lose, and you can see her self-assurance start to build. She learns to deflect instead of hide, but without lashing out or fueling the fire, as in the scene when three male classmates stick a pornographic photo on her locker. You cansee her emerging from the dark side of teenage-hood into the more self-confident light, and everyone, I’m sure, has also had moments like that when all of a sudden you find that you’ve become a notch more comfortable in your own skin without realizing it.

And Elin: she’s just as alienated as Agnes, but manages to hide it in beneath the layers of makeup, the boys, and her playing of the popularity game. But she never actually connects with anyone or does anything meaningful because, frankly, I think she’s scared to. She creates this promiscuous persona, one who’s wild and unafraid, and is happy to let people believe it from a distance. But she never actually engages with anyone closely enough to let them find out if any of it is true, or what actually lies beneath the surface of Elin, either because she’s not quite sure herself, or doesn’t want to risk them not liking what’s there. Or both. Ding ding ding! Here’s a little personal history of me: I think somewhere probably around 7thgrade, I started becoming convinced that I knew everything and everyone else knew nothing. Naturally. And, thus, I had to be extreme, and extremely different, to set myself apart from everyone else. Let me give you a picture to demonstrate, circa age 15:

I think I wore that jacket (with anti-war buttons on it) every single day to school. You know, when I wasn’t walking out of school to protest the war in Iraq. I played guitar, wrote poetry, painted psychedelic artwork on my walls, read The Politics of Ecstasy, and hung out in Takoma Park a lot. And, as I said, became increasingly convinced that I knew something big that everyone else was ignorant of. Although I do think I really did feel and believe all those things I felt and believed at that age, there were two other very major factors that contributed to me being how I was back then: one, for the validation of a boy I was in love with (never got that validation, natch), and two, so people could know who I was at a glance, and (so I dreamed) create some big picture of me and what a deep and meaningful and creative person I was, without me actually having to expose any part of myself to others. I was happy to just build up my (imagined) mystique and live behind it, because it beat the alternative of actually giving people the chance to get to know me and possibly like me, for fear that they wouldn’t. Ding. Ding. Ding. Just like Elin. Or, what I read into her character, at least.

I’m sure everyone reading this can probably relate to all of that, and other things in the film, in some way. Because it’s all the universal teenage experience. Loving others so powerfully we’re sure the world might turn on its axis. Wanting to be loved. Being afraid to let ourselves be loved. Sneaking out and then coming home and eating all the chips in the house to make it look like someone with a teenage-sized appetite had been home all night (another part I loved: “Why can’t we just not have eaten the crisps?” “No, she’ll never believe that.”)

And it looks like I did manage to use the dings after all!

Finally, what I also loved about this movie was how it refrained from taking any sort of moral or political stand where it may have otherwise found the ground to. Not that I think taking a stand is a bad thing, but refraining from doing so really let the humanism of the characters shine, without leaving the viewer feeling that they might have merely been agents in some sort of agenda. Which I think was essential for building characters that seem as true as these two.

The movie also never assigns Elin a sexual identity. I thought this was interesting and enlightened, and true to how many human beings actually operate. Not only because of the commonly accepted notion of the Kinsey scale, but because sexuality as an “identity” at all is not a universal construct, it’s a cultural one, and one not shared by all cultures. In some cultures, sex, with whomever, is just something you do, and doesn’t contribute to your sense of self. Way back in ANTH 101, we learned about the Baruya tribe in Papua New Guinea, for instance, believes that manhood does not organically happen, but rather it’s a tangible thing that must be given from men to boys. Thus, pre-pubescent boys must ingest the semen of older men in order to become men themselves. Then once they go through the initiation ritual to become men, they take a wife, sleep with her, and meanwhile pass on their manhood to younger boys. All with no concept of “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality,” or “pedophilia” for that matter, or how their sexual activities contribute in any sense to who they are. “Sexual identity” to them would sound as strange as “food identity” would sound to us if someone defined a large part of who they were by their love of pizza and distaste for artichokes as we do by our sexual preferences and activities (personally, I’m “onion-curious”: I’ll eat them cooked, or in small amounts raw within other foods, but never in large quantities raw, and I won’t call them in the morning).

Likewise, from what the movie gives us, Elin isn’t a young woman who believes herself to be straight until Agnes comes along and leads her to discover that she is gay, or bi-sexual. She is simply someone who loves someone else. She’s someone who’s kissed a lot of guys, has never been in love with anyone before, and then happens to fall in love with Agnes. Even when she sleeps with Johan, there’s no real indication that she didn’t enjoy the experience because she’s definitively not attracted to men as a whole, only that it was not the wonderful thing she always thought sex should be because she doesn’t love Johan (and to be fair, Johan is kind of a spineless prick). At the end, when Agnes finally coaxes Elin into opening the bathroom door and showing the school who was actually in that bathroom together, Elin doesn’t come out declaring “Ta-da! I’m gay!” she comes out declaring (actual quote)“Ta-da! This is my new girlfriend. We’re going to go fuck.” And the two walk off hand-in-hand together, grinning. It’s an important distinction. And it’s an absolutely wonderful ending, to see Agnes finally validated and Elin finally directing her confidence towards something she actually does feel for once.

Though a part of me did still wonder, as Agnes and Elin are shown in Elin’s home drinking chocolate milk together (a nice detail, maybe indicative of how neither has to put on a false sense of adulthood around each other like they do with their peers, and can be vulnerable towards each other?), where did Elin’s fears of being shunned by her mother and sister disappear to? Did they come to fruition, or were those fears overblown to begin with? Does her mother know she and Agnes are girlfriend and girlfriend (we assume the sister knows, since she was there when they emerged from the bathroom), or does she think their friendship is platonic? We don’t know. But, I suppose it’s not something we absolutely need to know for this film’s purposes, either.

So in conclusion, thanks, Dan’s readers, for letting me ramble on about my teenage years and this movie I loved so fucking much. I think I’ll end with the words of Charles Taylor, film reviewer for, on this final scene: “There’s humor and sweetness in the way the movie leaves the girls teetering between the shelter of girlhood and the bigger, scarier, more thrilling world of sex. That they don’t seem willing to give up either only makes them even more appealing. Like all adolescents, they want it all, a chocolate milk and a nice afternoon fuck.” Isn’t that all any of us really want? Amen.