Whatever you’re doing [as a writer] is trying,
because you don’t know if you’ll succeed.-Henning Mankell
While obsessively searching the web for a specific episode of Wallander (the English version on PBS with Kenneth Branaugh – please watch the Swedish version also, and read the books if you can) I stumbled upon an engrossing interview with Police Inspector Kurt Wallender’s creator, Swedish crime novelist and dramatist Henning Mankell. I have posted this interview on my Google+ site, and I encourage you to watch it, most particularly because we no longer have Mr. Mankell with us to dish out nuggets of insight and wisdom. Much of what Henning Mankell has to say touches on the subject of this blog post: the movie Adult World, starring Emma Roberts, Evan Peters and John Cusack, deftly directed by Scott Coffey.
Adult World (2013), is a pretty ambitious little indie movie that truly encapsulates the word bittersweet. It tackles a great deal in text and subtext, not always succeeding, but noble and engaging in its attempt to get inside the artistic process of a young woman’s struggles to be recognized as a poet, and it’s pretty funny to boot.
What the would-be poet, Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts) lacks in maturity and craft she makes up for in enthusiasm, self-belief and just plain wackiness. Of course, she is obsessed with Sylvia Plath, not the good things about Plath, but the one thing Plath is most famous for outside of her work – suicide.
Only young dreamy young girls or complete morons would think that Sylvia Plath romantically died for her art. We now know if she were alive today Plath would be taking citalopram or paroxetine or some other pharmaceutical, and who knows, maybe writing poems about that experience.
Thank goodness Amy Anderson’s attempt to do a Plath in the hopes that her work will be recognized posthumously is thwarted by Amy’s own angry will to live, if only to have one last confrontation with her unwilling mentor, the abrasive poet Rat Billings (John Cusack).
Amy Anderson is one of the most engrossing female characters I have come across in film. At first, I was repulsed by her because she’s so annoying, and she does not stop being annoying throughout the entire film, but there is something so precious about her commitment to poetry as an art form and as a calling, that elevates her bullshit in such a transcendental way that she is ( at the risk of sounding corny) somewhat of a poem in the flesh; maybe we all are and don’t realize it. Hmm, I’ll have to let that thought incubate and get back to you. It does sound intriguing doesn’t it? Andy Cochran, who wrote the screenplay, has given us a young woman who is complex, not always likeable and, most importantly, she does not morph into some cuddly bunny at the end, thank you Jesus.
After stealing a book of his early poems, Scream of Abandonment, Amy becomes obsessed with the poet and former wunderkind, Rat Billings whom she accosts at a reading and book signing event, then proceeds to stalk relentlessly, convinced that he must become her mentor. In the meantime, Amy who has a BFA in Poetry is living at home with her parents. When her car is stolen while she’s at the Rat Billing’s reading, her father calls the insurance company only to find out that Amy has not been paying her car insurance, nor has she been paying off her student loans. Since her father has been giving her money to do both, he’s furious and wants to know where the money’s going. This is when we learn that Amy has been spending thousands of dollars to enter poetry contests and submit her poetry to literary journals — to no avail.
All you poets and short story writers out there know about this crazy shit. It is crazy but true. It’s not cheap being what they call an aspiring/emerging writer especially if you are a writer/poet like Amy whose aspirations far exceed their current capabilities. But what can the world expect from a young woman who has been told she was ‘gifted’ since birth, who has no life experience, and who has been coddled in the warm cocoon of what used to be called the middle class?
Now, horror of horrors, Amy has to get a job because her father has cut her off. It’s freaking hard to get a decent job with a BFA in Poetry, which Amy finds out PDQ, so after passing a Help Wanted sign in a nondescript storefront several times Amy is forced to put pride on the shelf for the sake of survival. The name of the establishment is Adult World and it’s a sex-paraphernalia shop owned by Mary Anne (Cloris Leachman), her husband Stan (John Cullum) and managed by the puppy-dog cute Alex (Evan Peters).
Adult World is where the virgin Amy learns about what gets people through the night and about the milieu of grown-ups where life lessons are learned through joy and pain–literally and figuratively. Speaking of pain, Amy’s pursuit of the poet Rat Billings, whose real name we learn is Richard Simmons, is fraught with pain of the existential kind.
Rat Billings, who is a man imbued with the bitterness of the once great, but now not so great; a man who is too cool to show his total contempt for the human race, but will go there if pushed; a man who sees something in Amy he likes, but a great deal that he doesn’t. Naturally, he rebuffs all of Amy’s attempts to get in his good graces so she can be mentored by him. Eventually she wears him down and he consents to read some of her poems. He is not impressed. We’re talking about lines like: “the screaming dirt of chaos.” Amy fights back:
“I got straight A’s and my SAT’s were in the 97 percentile!”
To which Rat retorts:
“The SATs don’t mean shit. It’s like being in Scientology!”
While Amy gets lessons in life from Adult World, she gets lessons in poetry in exchange for cleaning Rat’s house and acting as his de facto assistant. When Amy accompanies him to a class he teaches at the local university, we the audience, are exposed to the world of academia today, which breeds the Amy’s of the world. A place where there can be no separation of the wheat from the chafe, the talented from the pedestrian, because real artistic critique is verboten; a place where parents are more than happy to have their children educated beyond their intelligence. It comes as no surprise then, when Rat is called on the carpet by the Dean after several students complain that his criticism of their woek is too harsh.
Amy’s mentee/protégé relationship with Rat strains under the weight of her youth, inexperience and self-absorption, but she’s really a child struggling as much against adulthood as towards it. This is what I like about her: she does not shy away from the struggle or from her path as a poet. I think this is what Rat Billings likes about her as well: she’s not fully formed as either an adult or a poet, but the promise is there. Adult World is not just the name of the sex-shop where Amy works; it’s a metaphor for the Promised Land.