Projection and Johnny Depp (and Miley Cyrus, too)

The recent hubbub about Miley Cyrus and the recent VMAs has gotten me thinking about Johnny Depp. Or maybe it was a dream I had last night about the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Either way, my thoughts on Miley and Johnny both have to do with the same thing: our projections.

Johnny Depp experienced an exponential growth in his fame in the 2000s, arguably with the success of Jack Sparrow. Prior to the 2000s, his roles have been unusual–Edward Sissorhands–or they have spoken to a special Aphroditic place in our culture–Don Juan. With Jack Sparrow, however, Depp played (and rather well) a character right out of our cultural shadow. The Pirate pillages and plunders, and riffles and loots, and we’re not supposed to look to them as heroes. Indeed, we wouldn’t have seen Jack Sparrow as anything but another Blackbeard had it not been for his support of the Will/Elizabeth diad. In the popularity of Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp went from being “that weird actor” to “The Sexiest Man Alive.” And it was thought for several years that is presence in a film or on marketing materials would guarantee success–blockbuster (and I mean financial) success. He continued to make successful films with Tim Burton (a relationship that I tend to trust for “good cinema”) but he also made some less successful films. Let’s consider those a moment (in no particular order):

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: I love the franchise, but without Will and Elizabeth, Jack Sparrow seems lost. I’ve heard rumor of a Pirates 5, but I think it would only work if they tied up some loose ends (such as Will Turner’s son).

The Rum Diary: I liked this one, but I’m among an elite few. I think this one failed because people were expecting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and got something else entirely. I appreciate Depp’s attempts to keep the works of Hunter S. Thompson alive, but it’s really not the time for him right now. Mythically, we need someone else.

The Lone Ranger & Dark Shadows: I lump these together because they are an attempt to revive an old television franchise for a new generation. Both were expected to do well–but how can they do well when their target audiences don’t even know the shows? Dark Shadows becomes yet-another-vampire-movie and the Lone Ranger, which I haven’t seen, doesn’t fit in our mythos that presently doesn’t have space for an old fashioned Western (exceptions: sci-fi westerns–Star Trek, Firefly–and historical fiction). Because of our apocalyptic myth transition, we are hungering for saviors. It shouldn’t be surprising that Marvel films are doing so well.

I saw a headline this morning that said that Depp is thinking about stepping out of the limelight. What’s happening to Depp is akin to what happened to Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin, the public wanted the Little Tramp so badly that they weren’t interested in The Great Dictator, when he used his medium to send us a warning about what was happening in Germany. Our public wants Jack Sparrow so badly that we aren’t interested when Depp actually gives us cinema with a purpose.

I would love to say that we’ll stop projecting our Aphroditic expectations onto Johnny Depp, but I only think that’ll happen once we get someone else to project onto. Rather, I would love to see Depp take on roles that go beyond the “Johnny Depp” brand and challenge us to see him in new ways. We’ve seen Leonardo Di Caprio do this many times. While on screen, he’s clearly Leonardo Di Caprio, but he is also a character actor like Depp, and successfully challenges us to see him as Howard Hawks, J. Edgar Hoover, and Gatsby. Depp has convinced us to see him as Hunter S. Thompson and as John Dillenger, and yet we just want Jack Sparrow.

Back to Miley. Why is it that we continually see young female celebrities needing to exert their adulthood through sexuality? Why can’t we just let them grow up and stop being “that girl next door” (or Hannah Montana)? The Disney girls seem to fare less well with the transition into adulthood than others. We want them to continue being our image of what a role model for girls should look like, but we forget that we need role models for young women as well (otherwise they’ll look at Bella Swan from Twilight). Women just don’t have decent role models because women are still fighting the sexual role defined by a male-dominated Hollywood. I don’t consider myself a feminist by any stretch, but I can appreciate that need for role models, and the need for those role models to push back at our projections and exert her independence. (which, by the way, is what the Disney Princesses and heroines of the 90s did.)

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The Up Series

My post the other day about The Truman Show inspired me to see if 56 Up was streaming on Netflix yet. Since it is, I treated myself to watching it yesterday.

The_Up_series_DVDThe premise of the Up series (of which 56 is the latest installment) begins with the philosophy of “Show me a boy at 7 and I will show you the man.” Director Michael Apted initially interviewed a collection of British children at the age of 7, showcasing a slice of British life and classism. This series continued to follow some of these children, checking in with them every 7 years. Through this series, we’ve watched them grow up, seen their opinions and attitude change with age, watched their successes and failures. Even though we only see them every 7 years, somehow they feel like they are our friends and family.

But they’re not.

Each installment is edited in a very creative way that highlights some aspect of British society–the inherent classism, political attitudes, etc. Through this careful editing, Apted or someone one his team, makes a statement at the expense of these people. And that has been the criticism against the series, coming from, among other sources, the subjects themselves. Some recognize that they only participate in the program at this point because it is an opportunity for them to advertise for their cause. One man, Nick, has said that he’s going to be remembered for the series, not for his work in Physics, and finds that a little sad.

In a way, Michael Apted has given us a real live version of The Truman Show. We see these people for a short period, but we watch their stories unfold with the same engrossed entertainment that we watch reality television, that the people watched Truman’s story unfold.

But, just as with Truman’s story, there is a tragic side, and that’s the way that the series has impacted the lives of the people involved. One man, Peter, left the series after 28 because there was a negative publicity campaign about his comments (seemingly spun to be a criticism against Margaret Thatcher) that impacted his work. (He came back at 56 to use the platform to promote his band.) Another man, Tony, a professional cabbie, told a story in 56 about a time when he was driving Buzz Aldrin and another cabbie asked for his autograph. Tony assumed he meant Buzz, but the cabbie really just wanted his autograph! (Ok, that’s a positive story, but it speaks to the level these people are getting recognized.)

I enjoy the Up Series. I want nothing more than to start a campaign to help Jackie, and to send sweaters to all their grandbabies. I want to ride in Tony’s cab, and take a class from Nick. Their lives are captured forever in these little documentaries, these little nuggets of hyperreality. This is why we think the Up participants are our friends, and it’s the same reason we watch every 7 years.

I started watching the series because I was curious. I continued to watch the series because I was captivated. I am not oblivious to the political spin each installment is given. But what do we get from it?

Reality and The Truman Show

“It’s not fake. It’s just controlled.”

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally saw 1998’s The Truman Show. I’ve heard much about the show for ages, so I’m not sure why I haven’t seen it before now. (Unless it’s because it’s *THAT* movie that everyone has seen already, so no one wanted to watch it with me, and I tend to watch familiar films, television shows, or documentaries when I’m alone.)

The premise is that Truman slowly discovers that his entire life has been lived on a live, 24-hour television show. It’s like what we call reality tv without the editing. Truman has no control over his life, which causes a major existential crisis. The producer, Christof, and his team fabricate every single one of Truman’s experiences.

Which invites the question, just how much control do we have over our lives?

Anyone who grew up in America following World War II has had their entire lives influenced and shaped by corporations and what Jean Baudrillard calls “hyperreality,” a simulated environment so perfect that we willingly accept it in lieu of it’s real, non-simulated counterpart. Examples permeate our consumer culture, from themed restaurants to shopping malls. Disneyland is cited by Baudrillard and Umberto Eco has the paragon example.

We would like to believe that we have control over our lives, that our decisions make a difference. My cousin recently posted on Facebook that he young son, with no known exposure to Disney princesses, could describe princess attributes. Is this because the princess is an archetype that all children can identify? No, it’s because the image is saturated across modern culture. (I’ll add here that this cousin lives outside the United States.) Prior to 1989, Disney’s princess line-up consisted of FOUR princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, and what’s-her-name from The Black Cauldron (thank you to Amy Davis for that reminder). Now, almost every Disney movie has a princess and it has branded them as their own franchise. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this young boy can identify princess behaviors.

And there’s the decisions we make thinking we are doing something good for the world, like buying eco-friendly products (that are really produced by the big corporations). For example, until I had a major life-change that hindered my idealistic intentions, I cloth diapered my baby. Once upon a time, cloth diaper options were a square of fabric folded just so and safety pinned to baby. A single Bum Genius brand diaper can go for $20, and the thinking is that what’s $20 if you’re helping the environment? What’s wrong with that square of fabric?

Reality television is one such hyperrealistic world we consume. Each episode brings into our homes someone’s “life” in a very controlled environment. Each participant is informed–to differ from Truman’s experience–of the level of involvement the show will actually have in their experience, some events are actually heightened in the interest of “good tv.”

Why are we so interested in reality television? Even though we know the set-ups are fake, we willingly accept their version of “reality” almost as reminders that our lives aren’t nearly as pathetic as we think they are. This is why reality shows dominate television.

The really sad part is the comment about our world that we choose hyperreality over reality. Is it because current culture sucks that much or is it because we are being blinded by leisure at just how much it sucks. Or is the argument that the world is suffering in fact part of the simulated illusion?

Post-Dissertation Blues (Pacifica-Style)

One of my cohort defended his dissertation the other day. Out of my cohort group, that makes three of us (including me). But my cohort extends farther. I’ve adopted all of my Pacifica friends as “my cohort.” We may not have gone on the journey at the same time, but we nonetheless went on very similar journeys. I could say, we went on the same journey together.

During the process of dissertation formulation, everyone is quick to describe “dissertation monsters,” or little bits of life that get in the way of writing the dissertation. These range from feelings of inadequacy (“Why am I even torturing myself with this. NO ONE is going to care!) to life changes (divorce, death, move, etc.). They also encourage us to build a system for dealing with these dissertation monsters. Talk to your friends, take some time off from the dissertation… blah blah blah. Those of us on the other side of the dissertation can tell stories of how we almost quit because of our Dissertation Monsters, and we can stand with pride next to our diplomas and our pretty copy of our dissertation and say, “We did it.”

But then there’s that unspoken bit that they didn’t prepare us for. The Other Side of the Dissertation. The, “I completed my dissertation, I owe a quarter of a million dollars in student loans, I can’t get a job. Now what?” The Post-Dissertation Blues.

I think I’ve said it before, but Pacifica Graduate Institute isn’t like other graduate programs. It’s not a degree mill. The academic work we do during the program works us as much as we work through it. Something within our shadows is activated, and how we deal with this shadow flavors our approach to the program. For me, it was the money thing, and I hear the same concern echoed among many of my peers. It does make us feel like Atlas or even Sysiphus to come out of this program, stare at the mountain of debt, and try to figure out how to pay it off (or at least down).

It’s because of this level of self-work, however, that we actually have a Post-Dissertation post-partum period. Our dissertations aren’t just about analyzing Jung or Campbell and getting a degree. We pick topics that aren’t only interesting, but near and dear to our hearts, often dealing with as much autobiography as academic research.

Disclaimer: I do know there are people who graduate and hit the ground running into academic work. Power to them. Seriously. My hat is off to you.

My dissertation is about Disneyland, but it really is about so much more than that. It’s about identifying the mythology that has ordered my entire perspective. It’s about defending why I don’t subscribe to traditional approaches to myth and academia, and helping to explain why others share my perspective.

By the time I started writing my dissertation, I was running on fumes. I had a year off between undergraduate and grad school, and maybe a semester between my Master’s program and Pacifica (a semester spent getting into and ready for Pacifica). So from the start of that Master’s program in October 2004 until the end of coursework in August 2010, I had been functioning solely as a graduate student. THAT IS SIX YEARS. Three of those years were spent at Pacifica, being worked on and massaged by a variety of world mythologies, and they were, hands down, three of the most intense years of my life. Much of my cohort can’t share in the timeline of graduate student, but most of them can share in agreement that the three years of Pacifica work are three of the most intense years of our lives. Is it the vibe of Pacifica? The content? The faculty? The contrast between one week of intense class followed by three weeks of intense loneliness? It’s all of that. And I’m not going to say that those of us who made it to the end are any stronger or better than those that don’t. It’s more that what we are seeking is something that only Pacifica can provide. It’s that the myth of Pacifica (and yes, there is a very strong one) is the myth we need. Those who don’t make it all of the way through the program are looking for another myth. My hat goes off to those friends as well, and for those who are still on their search, I wish you well.

It’s because of the Pacifica myth we stay through until the bitter end (of course work, the dissertation is another matter). And it’s because of the Pacifica myth that we can go to an event on campus, such as a friend’s dissertation defense, and feel a brief surge of revitalized energy. But it’s also because of the Pacifica myth that we leave the program SO VERY EXHAUSTED. For those who aren’t Pacifica people, I can only sum it up this way: You know that kind of really intense dream? You know, that kind that keeps you engaged for a period of time, shocks you awake, and affects your mood for the rest of the coming day? Like that episode of Friends where Phoebe was mad at Joey for the entire episode, only to remember that she was mad at him because of something he did in a dream. Pacifica is like that, every day, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. Now, think of how exhausting it is to wake up from those dreams. Perhaps you are mentally refreshed, but your body isn’t. Pacifica is like that, every day, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. And then you have to write your dissertation.

And this is where I laugh loudly to myself. It’s a wonder that any of us do finish.

But then we do, and we’re exhausted, sad, depressed. Now what? We can’t find jobs. Our degrees are too weird and Academia, the path that most of us set out to achieve, isn’t hiring. (This, sadly, isn’t a problem with the larger model of Academia, not just with Pacifica folks.) Our families, who have suffered while we did this work, are on edge, wanting our attention or our active contributions again. Our friends, those few who still speak to us (because they understand the difficulties of going through grad school), are only willing to be so patient while we whine about how there are no jobs, how we need to make money to pay our loans, and so on. They tell us, “buck up and get a job already!” without considering the hit that we all take to our resumes by the life change of going through this work. Our old jobs or professions no longer want us. Without considering how few jobs there are, or that it can take upwards of a year or more to get a phone call. I just received a couple rejection letters from applications I put in before I started working on my dissertation. Our loan creditors send us statements that ask for four digits worth of repayment, and are only willing to negotiate so much.

And in the middle of all this? We’re supposed to publish, but we can’t even write a sentence. Think of how many blog posts I’ve made since finishing my dissertation. The few that I’ve made are difficult enough without having to think about articles and books.

So, to my Pacifi-peeps who are going through these Blues: it’s ok. Most of us go through it. Let’s share our tears together.

To my Pacifi-peeps who are getting near the end: don’t try to fight it. One of the often used images at Pacifica is that of the Underworld. You may think that your coursework is the Underworld. You may think that writing your dissertation is the Underworld. In truth, it’s this period after completion that is the Underworld, and guess what? We have to be here. We have to work through the last little bit of Pacifica to emerge.

To our families and friends: I know it sucks. We already asked for 5+ years of your time, but now we have to ask for more. We need your support now more than ever, otherwise the work we did is for naught.

We are phoenixes. We are burnt up from the work and research. We can only emerge from the ashes when we are meant to emerge from the ashes. I defended in May 2012, and I’m still struggling. I know that I’m not alone, and that does make it a little easier.

Please share your experience Post-Dissertation in the comments, whether you had the Blues or not, or even whether or not you went to Pacifica. I would love to hear your story, and I think more grad students and post-grad scholars need to know that it’s not always possible to walk into the Academic Publish-or-Perish world. I would also like to hear what you did to solve some of the life stressors (such as lack of employment) and what directions that helped move you.