Monday, February 28, 2011

Personal Space

For Christmas my husband surprised me with a YMCA membership because he knows how much I love to swim. I am not now and never have been a particularly athletic person. When I was younger I took lessons in Modern Dance, which I loved, but I stopped when I got older because I became too self-conscious about my abilities to participate within a classroom setting. If there were an affordable way to take private lessons, like you might take when you learn to play a musical instrument, I would consider that. I can't be in a class with other dancers, though. It's just too daunting. While I have always liked being in the water one of the great pleasures, for me, of swimming, is that it can be a solitary activity. If I swim long enough and get tired enough my brain quiets down so that it can focus on keeping me afloat in the water; I love it when that happens.

Three mornings ago I had my second swim at the Y and I enjoyed it, for the most part. The water, at 85 degrees, was warm and lovely right from the start. The lifeguard was friendly. She greeted me when I got there and she smiled and asked me if I enjoyed my swim when I got out of the pool. I don't need the lifeguard to acknowledge me in order to have a good swim but I do like it when people are genuinely sweet when they aren't required to be. I am not yet used to swimming with a lifeguard on duty and I'm somewhat embarrassed by my technique, which I usually describe as frog-like (I am, however, sort of pleased by how I barely break the surface of the water when I swim. If I ever need to sneak up on or flee from an enemy via water I'm fairly confident that I will excel at the task). I was the first one in the pool Saturday morning and the only swimmer for several minutes. If there were no lifeguard present I would want the pool all to myself but since there is a lifeguard, and swimming in absolute solitude is, regrettably, not an option, I actually prefer it when there's someone else in the pool besides me (I feel slightly less self-conscious when the lifeguard's keen eye must be fixed, at least some of the time, on something other than my self-taught swim style). So I was happy when, not long after I'd started with my laps, another swimmer showed up. That is until she proceeded to do something that ruined, in part, what would have otherwise been an altogether enjoyable swim: she sat her towel down next to mine.

There are two metal benches against the wall, at one side of the pool, for personal belongings. When I walked through the double doors and into the pool area on Saturday morning I sat my towel at the very end of the bench closest to the lifeguard, at the shallow end of the pool. Had I been the second, rather than the first, person to arrive at the pool that morning, I would have looked to see where the other person had sat her belongings and then sat my stuff as far away from hers as possible. Because when it comes to people I don't know I have a thing about personal space. I like to give myself a wide berth and I like to give my belongings a wide berth as well (since, I suppose, because they are mine, I'm prone to assign them the same personality traits that I possess. Or maybe I just think of them as extensions of myself). I accept that in some instances it's unavoidable to bump up against other people. I don't mind being close to strangers when I ride the subway in New York, for example, because that's the way it's got to be (in fact I love riding the subway, though I can't explain why that is. Probably something to do with the complete and utter feeling of anonymity it gives me when I'm adrift in the big city). My neighborhood branch of the YMCA, however, is hardly the New York Subway System so why, with two long benches to choose from, empty but for my humble aqua-striped towel, did this woman decide to sit her own towel - and her grubby gym bag -down right next to where I'd sat mine? Practically on top of it. And then park herself on the bench as well so that she could leisurely enjoy a hot beverage? She wasn’t in any hurry at all to get into the water. Not only had the safe, invisible little bubble that I assumed would surround my towel (because I put it right at the end of the bench, leaving plenty of room for other people's belongings, on purpose) been compromised but now there were twice as many people possibly watching, and secretly judging, my poor swimming technique.

I got anxious and weighed my options. I thought about getting out of the water, grabbing my towel and making an elaborate show of moving it to the far end of the unoccupied bench, all the while casting disapproving looks at the offending party, so she’d know I was really put out and it was all her fault. I also considered climbing out of the pool, drying myself off a bit and pretending to need something from the changing room. I could have disappeared for a moment or two and then returned, placed my towel as far away from the other woman’s towel as possible, and resumed my swim like nothing was the matter.

I could have confronted the woman and demanded an explanation for why she had done what she'd done. Did she think my towel looked lonely, there on the edge of the bench all by itself? Did she sit her own towel next to it as some sort of friendly gesture? Maybe, out of all the available bench space, the spot I’d placed my towel upon, nearest to the lifeguard, at the shallow end, was considered the best spot. Maybe everyone who came to the pool would want to put their belongings right there. Perhaps I had inadvertently grabbed this woman’s “usual” spot, where she’d become so accustomed to leaving her own stuff that she didn’t even notice my towel. Or what if she noticed it, minded that it was there, and placed her belongings more or less on top of mine in a passive-aggressive show of ownership, in which case I guess I should have been grateful she didn't just kick my towel off the bench and grind it into the concrete floor with her flip-flop clad heel.

In the end I didn’t do any of the things I thought about doing (and I only seriously considered the faux-excuse/changing room idea, because I always pick the option that’s most inconvenient for me and least likely to be construed by anyone else as confrontational). I seethed in silence for a quarter of an hour or so and then I kind of got over it. In any event moving the towel wouldn’t have made a difference, since the offending action had occurred and could not be undone. I tried my best to just accept this and move on.

In all likelihood this woman was not trying to be either overly friendly or territorial and possessive. She's probably just a touch absent-minded and unobservant, which makes her thoughtless (because it's really not too much to expect, is it, that she leave a little bit of room between her belongings and those of other swimmers, when there is so much free space readily available?) but not unlike any number of people I might encounter in any given public place. Like those people at the movies who have, on occasion, sat down right next to me even though there are only three of us in the theater and there are, quite literally, hundreds of other seats readily available. This sort of behavior, while not uncommon - or even inconsiderate, depending on who you ask - is something I personally cannot understand. Probably because I’m so painfully aware of my physical presence in the outside world and how it relates to those of other people. I go out of my way to avoid stepping on anyone's toes, out of a combination of empathy, respect and fear of embarrassment. Though, mostly it’s out of a fear of embarrassment.

So I can’t know for certain if it’s selfishness and indifference that makes people so oblivious to those around them, or if they’re just outright clueless. Perhaps some of them are driven by loneliness and a desire to involve as many participants, willing or unwilling, as possible in any public activities that they perform

I do know that it's not enough to keep me from going back to the Y. At least not yet.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Sofia Coppola has mastered the art of quietly cool filmmaking. Her movies are full of tiny, seemingly ordinary moments that become emotionally satisfying and memorable not just because they are so keenly observed but because they are presented in a manner that is at once beautiful and unassuming.

Her latest offering, Somewhere, is, I think, the quietest, coolest movie she’s made to date.

Somewhere is about a burnt out movie star named Johnny Marco. Johnny is never shown acting, as the movie prefers to focus on the more tedious aspects of his job, like promotion and publicity, and the mess that is his personal life. In one scene Johnny attends an awkward press junket for his latest movie (it looks like a big budget thriller) and tries to make nice with a co-star who also happens to be a jilted ex-lover. When he travels to Italy to receive some sort of honorary statuette, shaped like a cat (it's adorable), at some big flashy awards show, he is, again, confronted by an angry former flame (and they briefly rekindle). An anonymous sender (or maybe it's more than one) shoots him text messages now and again reminding him that he is an asshole while new women approach him constantly, coming onto him at parties or crossing hotel lobbies in vain attempts to chat him up. Johnny’s reaction to it all, the work and the women, is one of bemused disinterest. There is something genuinely sweet and touching about him buried under all the ennui but it takes a visit from his charming daughter Cleo to truly bring it to the surface.

Cleo is eleven. She lives, primarily, with her mother but spends the occasional weekend with her dad. They hang out in his room at the Chateau Marmont a lot, playing Guitar Hero and goofing off with Johnny’s friend Sammy. Cleo is young but presents as remarkably mature. She’s quiet, cool and self-possessed, a perfect Coppola heroine. She appears to be capable of more or less looking after and entertaining herself and she has an easy rapport with her dad. In many ways they are more like good pals than father and daughter. Towards the movie's end, however, Cleo’s loneliness, uncertainty and isolation become more apparent and it becomes obvious that she’s had no choice but to learn to do for herself because she cannot always count on the adults in her life to be there for her. There is no resentment directed at her father, even though she clearly needs more from him than he’s been giving her for the better part of her life. As Somewhere concludes Johnny’s future remains uncertain. Will he make a change, become more involved in his beloved daughter’s life? If he does, will that bring some kind of purpose to what has become a rather apathetic existence? Has Coppola provided a glimpse at a turning point in the life of this man, or will it be business as usual once the guilt wears off and the moment of clarity passes?

Like 2003’s Lost in Translation, Somewhere isn’t so much concerned with what happens as it is with creating a specific mood and inviting the audience into the headspace of its characters. But while Lost in Translation gets to take the audience on a romantic adventure, set in a candy-colored city that never goes to sleep (and made all the more wondrous because of insomnia and culture shock), Somewhere is assigned the far less glamorous task, at least in the first half-hour or so, until Cleo shows up, of making the audience feel bored and disinterested, just like Johnny feels. While I applaud Coppola’s minimalist approach and deliberately-paced storytelling, I can’t deny that there were moments in that first half hour where she did her job too well and I was genuinely bored. I don’t, however, think the slow start undermines Somewhere as a whole. In the end the movie may even be stronger for having had that rather dull beginning; what better way to recognize and understand what is at stake for Johnny?

I appreciate the intimacy of Coppola’s storytelling in Somewhere and I love the acting by the two leads. Stephen Dorff’s Johnny is appealing and endearing. I know I’ve seen him in other movies but he’s never made much of an impression on me. I thought he was superb in this. Very natural and sweet and sad. And Elle Fanning, as Cleo, is marvelous. She carries herself so beautifully and she’s so understated and graceful. I hope Coppola will use her again; her acting style seems so suited to what the director is aiming for with her heroines. I like that I remember the feel of the movie even though I can barely recall a word of dialogue. I like to imagine that, at some point in the future, Coppola may make a movie that’s entirely free of spoken moments, relying on nothing more than pretty pictures and a quietly throbbing techno soundtrack to tell her tale.

Up until this point, Coppola has done a good job of creating a fairly cohesive body of work. She’s explored similar themes without making the same movie over and over again. With Marie Antoinette she took some terrific risks and I admired her choices and her apparent desire not to repeat herself. If I have one complaint about Somewhere it’s that it seems, at times, like Coppola is channeling Lost in Translation a bit too much, particularly in the latter movie’s lighter scenes. The Italian journalist Johnny is accosted by bears more than a passing resemblance to Bob’s interpreter in Tokyo. And the awards ceremony that Johnny attends, where he’s presented with the afore-mentioned adorable cat statuette before being engulfed onstage by an army of Solid Gold-style dancers, is far too reminiscent of Bob’s talk show appearance with the “Johnny Carson of Japan.” It’s as if culture clash played for laughs is the only kind of joke Coppola knows how to tell; it seemed relevant to the story in Lost in Translation, less so in Somewhere.

What Coppola does well she does extremely well. If she wants to add levity to her movies she should maybe consider bringing in a collaborator but, other than that wee niggle, I think she’s doing interesting work. I’m curious and cautiously optimistic about where she’s going to go from here.