Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares As A Child, #5

"What's This?" Edition

The newest installment of my series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.

The Fear

“Boys and girls of every age, wouldn’t you like to see something strange?”

My answer was no.

I’ve always loved Halloween. As a kid who was scared of nearly everything, I loved that I got to be scary for once. Not that a three-foot-tall tiger or witch is very scary, but it was the spirit of the thing. It was also my dad’s favorite holiday (though probably my mother’s least favorite) and he always made it fun. We would watch The Twilight Zone with him, listen to his “Horror Sounds” tape until we wore it out, and go look at the decorated houses in our neighborhood. There’s always one street in a town that goes all out on Halloween, and for us, it was Florence Street. Ghosts and witches and monsters rode around in a train in a front yard, skeletons reached for us, a horrifying scarecrow with a hidden speaker yelled “I’M GOING TO GET YOU!” and we yelled “NO YOU AREN’T!” back at it.

I also really liked the Christmas season, even if I didn’t actually ever celebrate Christmas. I never cared about Santa, and Baby Jesus meant nothing more to me than any other cute Jewish baby, which my family already had a lot of. But I loved everything around Christmas. I loved Chanukah and New Year’s, getting presents, picking out presents, the smell of pine trees and cookies in the oven, singing Carol of The Bells and We Three Kings in choir, and getting to see the houses on Florence Street all decked out for Christmas. Every year I prayed for snow, and every year, I was disappointed. (I didn’t see snow falling until I was 12 in Canada, but most Winter Breaks from school my family and I would go up to a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills to play in the snow for a few days. I was so Southern Californian that I never told people we were going to the mountains, I said we were going “to the snow.”) My first Winter back in LA, I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly flooded with memories of drinking hot chocolate and lighting candles and playing King’s Quest with my brothers. Why does it smell like Winter Break? I thought, and then I realized the heater had come on. Heaters are so rarely used in LA, my only associations with it were of holidays.

I should have been a natural fit for Nightmare Before Christmas. But I was young when it came out, too young, and I was instantly afraid of Jack Skellington. Who was he, and what did he want, this strange creature with strange hollow eyes? Real skeletons weren’t scary to me, they didn’t speak and sing, except in old cartoons which were far too old and silly to be scary. Jack Skellington felt a little too real, and from what I could tell, he wanted to corrupt all the goodness of Christmas and Halloween. He wanted to ruin the holidays, the way teenage boys who smashed pumpkins or told little kids that believed in Santa that he wasn’t real ruined them. I hated him for it. Every time a commercial came on, I ran right to my bedroom and slammed the door.

But I couldn’t hide forever. When you grow up in Tim Burton‘s hometown, work on practical effects-heavy Hollywood film sets, and have almost exclusively goth and drama nerd friends as a teenager, you are going to encounter Nightmare before Christmas whether you like it or not.

Revisiting the Fear

It’s worth noting that not only did I love every other Tim Burton or Henry Selick movie I saw (to this day I maintain the controversial opinion that Mars Attacks! is funnier than Ghostbusters), I had a six degrees connection with them. I went to a premiere for James and the Giant Peach, and when I worked on Matilda, some of the designers (and actors!) working on it had also worked on Nightmare.

Most fears start to dissipate once you look into them a little further, and I had a very deep look while filming Matilda. I didn’t think to watch Nightmare on my own, but I now knew all the work that had gone into it. It couldn’t be terrifying anymore, not when some of the nicest people I knew had helped make it. At one point Danny Devito told me he wanted me to design a doll for Matilda to have, something she could have made out of things lying around the house, and I made a design based on the strangest things I had seen when I went to the craft store with my mother. When we brought “Wanda” to life, stitches and all, one of the designers looked at her and exclaimed, “She looks just like Sally!”

My appreciation grew even deeper when my high school show choir decided to stage Nightmare as a musical for our Winter Concert. We had connections: Disney’s studios were just a couple blocks away from our school, and many choir parents worked there. We got our hands on a script, cut it down, made some spooky and festive props, and had our choirs sing all the big numbers. My high school choir was not always a warm and welcoming environment. It was often competitive and cruel, with demanding directors and choreographers, and tons of mean girls and gross boys. But our stage version of Nightmare Before Christmas was one of the most fun performances I’ve ever been in, before or since.

So I appreciated the art, and I loved the music, but I still don’t think I watched Nightmare Before Christmas in its entirety until I was an adult. It was Christmas Eve, and I was celebrating with my Filipino stepfamily, who always open presents at midnight. Trying to fight the East Coast jet lag, I rented a movie on my phone. (The beauty of Nightmare is that it is both a Halloween movie and a Christmas movie. Hello, double residuals checks!) And I really enjoyed it!

I’ve probably only seen it a few times since then, but for the record, I do think it is a great movie. Maybe there are some plot holes (How do they get from the holiday lands to the real world? Does only Jack go, or does all of Halloweentown? Why does the mad genius Finkelstein still trust Sally to make his soup after she’s poisoned him twice in one week?), and there may be one or two unnecessary songs, but the imagery and the designs are just fantastic. It really does manage to evoke the feeling of Halloween and the spirit of Christmastime. So last week, when I was over at a friend’s house, and my friend’s partner suggested we put it on, I agreed. But I also decided to take some notes.

This past week, I was on the film discussion podcast You Are Good talking about Hocus Pocus, and Sarah Marshall brought up a very important question: what is the difference between spooky, scary, and creepy? Spooky, to me, is atmospheric and mysterious, evocative but not provocative. Scary is provocative, anything that puts you into a state of fright. Creepy is something makes you feel uncomfortable, makes your skin crawl. The Others is spooky. Scream is scary, or at least has scary moments, as do most slasher movies. Blue Velvet is creepy. A great horror movie or thriller can manage to do all three, Parasite being a good example.

I personally think “scary” movies for children aren’t scary at all. They are actually just spooky. There are a few exceptions, such as the very scary Return to Oz and maybe the 1990 The Witches. (I’ve also heard Matilda is scary, and I don’t personally think so, though I’m obviously a bit biased there.) How much of Nightmare is actually scary? In my grown-up opinion, very little. Like most fears of my childhood, the version I imagined of it is much scarier than the actual thing. It’s exceedingly spooky, but not scary.

Think of how it opens: a parade with all the characters from Halloweentown introducing themselves. They say what kind of monsters they are, what they do, and even insist “that’s our job, but we’re not mean!” From the beginning, we are meant to be on the monsters’ side. That makes them so much less scary. So much fear is about loss of control, and the unknown. It’s why it’s scarier when you see just a hint of a monster in a movie, and not the full thing. It’s why the birthday party video in Signs is terrifying, but the ending scene, where you see the full alien, is laughable. It’s why movies are scarier in the theater, when they are a full experience somewhere away from home, and not interrupted by your cat meowing to be fed or someone asking you to do the dishes. Nothing is scary if you know what to expect. It’s scary when you don’t know what the creature under your bed is or what it looks like. If it tells you it has “teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red,” you know to shine a light in its eyes and hit it in the teeth with your little league bat if it ever comes after you.

The scariest monsters in the Halloween parade are the more mysterious ones. “I am the ‘Who’ when you call ‘who’s there?’” That’s pretty scary. Clowns are inherently scary, because they hide who they are, and a clown with a tear-away face, is even scarier. My own history has corrupted this a little, though, because in my high school production the clown with the tear-away face was played by a freshman bass who got in trouble for adding an impromptu pelvic thrust to his choreography.

When Jack is introduced, he is riding high, clearly beloved, the hunk of Halloweentown. A witch’s fondest dream! (I think that was one of my lines in our stage production.) He’s lithe and elegant, he can survive being set on fire, he has a lovely speaking voice and beautiful singing voice, and he’s sad and needs comfort. There’s also an awful lot of expressiveness in those empty eyes. The uncanny valley could strike here: a lot of people don’t like stop motion and puppetry for that reason. But I really don’t think it does. Henry Selick knows how to make things cute.

The only characters I can think that might actually be frightening are Oogie Boogie and possibly Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The trio don’t look scary, but they are chaotic, and chaos can be scary. But I think they are really just the right mix of cute, mischievous, and incompetent to appeal to kids. As for Oogie Boogie, would I have been scared of him if I had seen the actual movie as a child? I don’t think so. We didn’t talk a lot about the Boogeyman growing up (maybe Baba Yaga, but she actually seemed pretty cool). I also didn’t have the personal connection to Santa Claus most kids did, so seeing him threatened with torture wouldn’t have been as terrifying to me. His song has a clear New Orleans jazz influence, and my grandfather was a jazz drummer; this was the kind of music I grew up listening to. Oogie Boogie always just felt fun and entertaining to me. (Oogie Boogie, it’s worth mentioning, is also played by Ken Page, a gay black man. He gives an incredible, remarkable performance, but there was definitely some controversy about that when the movie first came out, and people are still talking about it today. It’s an uncomfortable topic, to be sure, and honestly, not one I feel fully qualified to discuss. I will say that I think probably until fairly recently, maybe even the past 10 years, many if not most villains in Western children’s stories and movies were queer-coded or based on ethnic stereotypes. Often this wasn’t a conscious choice: they were based on characters in fairytales or folktales, and a lot of these stories were xenophobic, homophobic, and racist. I’ve talked before about how I never really was afraid of most witch characters, because they looked like me and my family. Jewish-coding of witches goes back centuries, and it’s still around today.) I have to wonder if really any children were actually afraid of Oogie Boogie. Often the things that are meant to give the villain more depth just make them more interesting and more fun, and I think that’s true in this case.

The plot of this movie is deceptively simple, but I think that it is also very unusual. So many other American children’s movies are about following your dreams, trying new things, going the distance. Nightmare Before Christmas is a story of someone trying at something, essentially failing, and returning to what they’re good at with a renewed sense of purpose. That’s not a common narrative in American movies. I’ve heard before that Disney kind of disowned this movie when it came out, only really capitalizing on it later when it became the major cult hit it is today. It didn’t fit with the aesthetic Disney had at the time, and it really didn’t fit with the message of the rest of their movies, which were very much universally positive and about achieving your dreams.

“What is the moral of this movie?” I remember a friend asking as we watched it at a Halloween party at my friend Andrew Farmer’s house a few years back.

“The moral is ‘don’t go chasing waterfalls,’” Andrew replied, and I think he may be right. Quite honestly, it’s a mid-life crisis movie, but I would still take it over any of the other “acclaimed” mid-life crisis movies out there.

Is It Still Scary?

No. Of course not. How can it be? Jack Skellington is everywhere. I see his face on a car license plate frame near my house at least once a week. I see people wearing t-shirts with his face on them year-round. Nightmare Before Christmas fandom seems to have hit critical mass. In fact, when I first started writing this, I wondered, what can I say about Nightmare Before Christmas that hasn’t already been said?

But actually, I don’t know if that much has actually been said about it. A lot of fanart has been drawn. A lot of fanfics have been told. A dizzying amount of merchandise has been made and sold. Is there actually that much discussion of the movie itself, other than the usual concerns over some problematic elements, and “it’s amazing”/”it’s overrated”?

Does it deserve its fanbase? That is, of course, subjective. I really love stop motion and think the animation in this movie is wonderful. And I get why everyone loves Jack Skellington. They love him because he is a cute sad boy they want to cheer up, a guy who really just wants to make the best of things and make people feel good, because he is an outsider and everybody can relate to feeling like an outsider at some point. I often felt like an outsider because I didn’t celebrate Christmas, and I always felt guilty about my love for Christmas carols and trimming trees. There’s also an argument for the whole movie being a queer narrative.

…OK, maybe there has been a lot said about Nightmare Before Christmas.

At this point, it has the same problem as Radiohead, or Rush, or Rick and Morty: an obnoxious fandom has overshadowed the actual content. (And I know I am going to get some shit from at least one of those fandoms for grouping it in with an inferior show or band.) When something is as beloved as it is, as widespread as this is, you’re probably not going to like a lot of the fans in that fanbase. Either because they’re annoying and cringey, or something a little bit more sinister.

A few months ago I was on my way to an MRI appointment, and requested a Lyft last minute. I was already a little nervous about the procedure, small enclosed spaces aren’t exactly my comfort zone. When my driver came, I noticed that she was a pretty woman about my age with hair and clothes right out of the early 2000’s, and she was even listening to Evanescence on satellite radio. But what I noticed most was her makeup, because she wasn’t wearing a mask. I won’t ask someone to put one on around me outdoors, but when I am in a car with a stranger, I feel safer with both of us wearing one.

“Do you have a mask you could put on, please?” I asked.

“You want me to put on a mask?” She sounded incredulous, like I had just asked if she could tap dance for me. I nodded, and she reached for a mask in her glove compartment. The mask was covered with a giant pattern of the American flag. There was also an enormous American flag hanging from the dashboard.

That’s when I started to feel a little uncomfortable. When somebody wears the American flag on their clothing, and it’s not the Fourth of July and they are not Abbie Hoffman, I figure we probably don’t have the same politics. And that’s fine, I don’t need to have the same politics as everybody I know, and certainly not everybody that I accept a car ride from. But that combined with not wanting to wear a mask made me wonder if I was dealing with a conspiracy theorist. I only got more uncomfortable when I looked through the back window and I noticed that the window was completely covered up with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Who feels that strongly about masks, flags, and the Pledge of Allegiance that they literally obscure their own view with it? A certain kind of person, and in my experience, some of those people also really don’t like Jews or anyone LGBTQ. It’s not just something I’ve encountered on the Internet, but in taxis and subway cars and classrooms. It didn’t feel fair to judge this woman, but I could feel my heart starting to pound. Maybe she’s a teacher or a military wife, maybe she just thinks the flag is pretty, maybe she is stuck in a time warp where it is still late 2001 and it is considered cool to have American flags everywhere and listen to Evanescence. Or maybe she thinks Jews run the world and sacrifice babies for blood libels and anybody with homosexual tendencies should be stoned to death. I had no way of knowing, and nothing is more scary than the unknown.

We didn’t say another word until we got to the office, where I thanked her as politely as I could, and got out of the car. As she drove away, I took one last look at her car, wondering if there was anything there, a bumper sticker that would confirm my suspicions. But all I saw was one other sticker, an image that stayed with me: Jack and Sally, on the curly mountain, against the moon.

Stuff I Did This Week: Oh man. So not only did I get to do an awesome episode of You Are Good, and talk about Bette Midler in a bathrobe and my multiple personal connections to Hocus Pocus, but I also got to record a podcast with one of my all-time favorite musicians and a truly incredible person, Rhett Miller, on Wheels Off! I’m in truly great company here!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Into the Bonfire With It

The Toto Problem

Or, The One Thing That Ruins a Movie

I’m about to spoil The Ring for you.

I’m not very into horror movies. I love horror comedy, like What We Do in the Shadows and Shaun of the Dead, and I usually enjoy campy horror, like Evil Dead. But straight-up horror I usually can’t do. I don’t like jump scares or other people screaming, and I can find it physically uncomfortable to watch people getting hurt or killed. Horror usually just makes me feel anxious, and often just sad. (Those poor people getting stabbed! They had hopes and dreams and families!) Still, I think I know enough to know which are the “good” horror movies and shows, the ones highly regarded by critics and audiences. I’ve seen Get Out, It Follows, Alien, Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Witch, and every episode of The Twilight Zone. But it surprises me to know that a lot of people consider The Ring right up there, too.

I watched The Ring a few years after it came out. I remember enjoying it right up until the end. At that point, something happened that I just found so stupid, I couldn’t like it anymore. That one thing ruined the whole movie for me.

The ghost crawled out of a TV.

That was just beyond me. As soon as Samara crawled out of the actor-that-looks-like-but-isn’t-David Arquette’s screen, I started to laugh. I think I had expected some kind of twist, where it wasn’t the tape or TV that were haunted at all, that the ghost was attacking people some other way, or that it wasn’t a ghost at all. TVs are TVs. They are electronic, with a hard screen. A ghost cannot climb out of one — and certainly not dripping wet. Water and electronics? Are you serious?

I’ve held this opinion for twenty years. Never once did I ask myself why it was that I could believe a ghost could climb out of a well, or maybe even use a phone, but not crawl out of a TV. Then last week Anna watched a YouTube video where someone said it was their favorite horror movie, and I had to think about it. Why did that ruin the movie for me?

Anna had an easy answer: “TVs aren’t mysterious.” At least, they aren’t to us. Our father was an electronics engineer at a TV station. (This is also why I, despite being afraid of nearly everything in modern life, am not afraid of airplanes: my dad also used to be a pilot.) My siblings and I grew up with circuit boards and old sets scattered around the house. I always knew a VCR couldn’t do anything more evil than accidentally chew up our VHS of Lady and the Tramp. Wells, on the other hand, are mysterious, you never know how far down they go. People and animals die in wells! Most people in Western society have or have owned a television, while probably far fewer have wells. TVs are hard technology, and we know all about how they work.

I do still think The Ring is a well-crafted horror movie, and Ringu, the movie it’s based on, is probably even better. But sometimes there’s just one thing you can’t get past in a movie, and it ruins it for you. We could call it “The Toto Problem”: Sure, at the end Dorothy’s back home safe, and the tornado has passed, but what’s going to happen to Toto? Almira Gulch is still going to have him killed! He’s still condemned.

“Does that ever happen to you?” I asked Anna. “One little thing ruins a movie for you?”

“Yeah, it does,” she said. “Like, I thought the background music to Insidious was hilarious. People were telling me it was ‘the scariest movie ever,’ but the music just made me laugh.”

I already knew it happens to Anna, because last year, I made her watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she was literally the only person I know who didn’t like it. The thing is, though, my sister is a painter. She’s been doing portraits since she was a child. Every time I came home from boarding school or college, there would be some new work of art of hers hanging on the wall — a Van Gogh replication, an Egon Schiele-inspired drawing. Now she’s at one of the best art schools in the country. Painters don’t see a lot of depictions of their profession in contemporary film, and when they do, it’s usually romanticized in a very stupid and dangerous way. Artists can get a little defensive about all the inaccuracies — it’s not all syphilis and opium. All the while we watched Portrait, I could hear her muttering, “Who does it like that?” and “she’s just making it more complicated for herself” and the occasional “OK, that’s actually pretty accurate.”

Then I heard her gasp. “Did she just put the turpentine down next to a candle?” Anna said, incredulous. “It’s flammable as hell! She’s going to set the whole place on fire!” I watched her watching the screen after that, expecting the worst to happen, that this would be how the titular woman caught on fire. Then her expression changed to disappointment. Maybe this was a red herring? No, it was probably just Hollywood cluelessness. I turned back to the screen. The next time I looked at Anna, she was scrolling through her phone. The movie had lost her.

“Is this just an us thing?” Anna said. “I feel like it can’t be.” Sometimes I do wonder if this is something you see more in people who have OCD. Not because we’re persnickety, but because we’re obsessive. We see something wrong or off, then we hyperfocus on that, and miss the rest of the movie. OCD varies a lot from person to person, though: Anna and I both have it, and our symptoms are completely different. Some of my friends on the autistic spectrum say “If you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum,” and I think OCD is much the same way. I agree with Anna, this can’t just be a non-neurotypical trait. My very neurotypical friend Max is notorious for disliking a movie for getting one thing wrong, whether it’s a movie that seems to be well-regarded (“Looper didn’t make sense! Why would they send him back to kill himself?”) or kind of fun and forgettable (“Fuck Warm Bodies! That movie lied to me!”).

I don’t want to be a nitpicker. I do know I can be a bit of a film snob. (Anna often makes fun of me for this, but in my opinion, she’s a bit of a music snob, so it evens out.) I went to NYU, where my peers called Martin Scorsese “Uncle Marty” and rode the elevators with Spike Lee, and I dated a film major for three years. You can’t escape that environment without a little bit of pretension. But I don’t like nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. It’s an attitude I think we see too much of on the internet — think of how annoying it was every time Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how physics meant Spider-Man actually couldn’t swing like that, or think of those godawful “Everything Wrong With” videos. Nobody wants to be that guy. (Well, maybe some people do: apparently their background is in marketing and they make a lot of money off it.) The best-known film critics, the Eberts and the Kaels and all their successors, do it because, above all, they love film.

I know a lot of people are sticklers for wardrobe errors in period pieces, particularly when it comes to mixing up eras. I watched a video last year where a designer talked about how frustrating it was for her to watch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, because the clothes were anachronistic. While I don’t know that much about clothes, I did know enough to know that the wardrobe in Little Women wasn’t entirely period-accurate — but I never cared. It didn’t matter to me, because I didn’t see Gerwig’s adaptation as an attempt at literal interpretation. It was an abstraction. This is my theater degree comes in, I think: Realism is something audiences value in film, but it’s never been much of an issue in theater. We know it’s an abstraction. In the late 19th and early 20th century, “Realism” in theater was a movement, but it’s been derided ever since. One of my favorite playwrights, John Guare, hates “kitchen-sink realism” so much that he titled a collection of his plays The War Against the Kitchen Sink.

I guess realism had a bit of a revival at the end of the last century, too. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a lot of big-budget films and plays that really paid attention to detail, trying hard to get it right, to impress their audiences with how realistic everything was. Think of the helicopter in Miss Saigon, the chandelier in Phantom, the levels of detail in Titanic and Jurassic Park or in pretty much any James Cameron or Spielberg movie. But not everyone is James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Cameron Mackintosh. Big musicals in the past fifteen years tend to be more stripped-down affairs, and even when they’re over the top (i. e., directed by Alex Timbers), they tend to be reimagined and staged in creative, but not literal ways. As for film, I’d like to think that the popularization of independent film in the past twenty years or so has made us a little less demanding of realism. Independent filmmakers often just don’t have enough money for realism.

Every theater student knows there’s a difference between being realistic and being real. That’s where the word verisimilitude comes in: it technically means “truth,” but it’s more about consistency within the world the film or theatermakers have created. (It’s also a pain in the ass to spell on a theater history quiz.) That’s not to say that my theater degree has made me more forgiving: I’ve become much more of a snob about the way people in movies walk. Anyone with any professional actor training can immediately tell when an actor in a period movie doesn’t have any classical training, because they are walking the same way they walk down a red carpet. People walked and moved differently five hundred years ago. People walked and moved differently fifty years ago. People still walk and move differently depending on their region and class and body type, today. If an actress in a period film swings her arms and touches her dress a little too much, or an actor lets his nose touch the knuckles of a hand he’s kissing, I roll my eyes. It’s usually not enough to ruin the movie for me, but it does give me pause.

When I think about movies where one thing ruined it forever, there is one that stands out more than any other, and fittingly, it’s a movie about theater. I hate Shakespeare in Love, and it’s all because of Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair.

In Shakespeare in Love, Joseph Fiennes is a bored, horny Will Shakespeare, in need of a muse. Gwyneth Paltrow is Viola, a woman about to be married off to Colin Firth (surely a fate worse than death) and sent to a colony (that didn’t actually exist at the time) in Virginia. She’s also a big fan of Shakespeare’s writing. Now, this is very important: here’s what she looks like.

Look at all that long, thick, curly blonde hair!

Anyway, she decides to audition for his theater. But this is the 16th Century, you say! Women weren’t allowed to be in the theater in those days! Well, except in Italy, in Commedia dell’arte. And in France, in the ballet de cours. And in Japan, where women sex workers were creating the art of Kabuki. Yes, but this is England, and that’s the only theater that counts! So she disguises herself as a man named “Thomas Kent,” and because straight cis writers and directors don’t understand that there’s a lot more to performing a different gender than just changing one’s hair (see also: Allison Williams as Peter Pan), she passes as a man for a long time. She’s even cast as Romeo in Shakespeare’s new play!

Here’s what she looks like as Thomas Kent.

Look at that short, short hair. And look at that completely exposed nape of the neck! She must have cut all her hair off and dyed it brown, right? Except every time we see her as Viola, she still has long, blonde hair. Huh. I guess the blonde hair must be a wig, right?

Anyway, she and Shakespeare have a pretty standard artist-muse relationship from then on, which basically means that they have a lot of sex and speak in iambic pentameter while they’re having sex, and he then uses those lines in his play Romeo and Juliet. That play, as we all know, isn’t about the quixotic and impulsive nature of youth, and how prejudice and resentment can tear people apart, but solely about true love between a full-grown man and woman. Eventually Viola is discovered to be a woman and has to marry Colin Firth, but before that, there’s a little switcheroo and she gets to play Juliet.

But it’s the discovery scene that ruined the movie for me. Gwyneth is at the theater dressed as Thomas Kent, and a boy who works at the theater and has been spying on them puts a rat in her ruff. She screams and tries to get it off, we see shocked reactions from the other members of the company, and suddenly all that long, curly blonde hair comes tumbling out. She had been hiding it under a wig the whole time!

Wait. What?

It’s true that the first time I watched this, I was a teenager studying theater, and there’s no one more insufferable than a teenage theater student. But that scene made no sense to me, and it still doesn’t. Did she use a bald cap and a wig? You can’t hide that much hair under a bald cap without looking like a Conehead. My hair is above past my chin, and the other day I put on a swim cap designed for long hair, and it was so tight I could feel my blood pressure rise. (Not the worst thing, in my case, what with my POTS and all, but still.) Besides, I’m pretty sure bald caps didn’t even exist back then: rubber was unknown to England, and far more men went bald due to syphilis, so bald actors played bald characters. OK, so then it must have just been a short wig! But when she wears her hair up, which she would need to do for us to see the nape of her neck, it still extends several inches above her head.

Any wig put over all that hair would make her look like the Martian Girl from Mars Attacks.

It’s just not possible. And that’s when the movie lost me for good.

A lot of people liked this movie, it was well-reviewed and made a lot of money, and it won far too many awards (although we know now a lot of that was Weinstein meddling). When I talk with people who also dislike this movie, they usually say they don’t like it because they don’t like the narrative of a woman being reduced to a muse, or because they didn’t like the way Shakespeare was portrayed. I can understand being annoyed by that: just like painting, writing and theater aren’t always portrayed accurately in film. It does feel a little like a writer’s self-insert fanfic: “You know who else was a bored, horny writer like me? Shakespeare!”

But I don’t know anyone who dislikes it for the same reason I do. I was willing to believe that the very feminine Gwyneth Paltrow, who doesn’t even bother to lower her speaking voice more than a quarter of an octave when dressing as Thomas Kent, could pass for a cis man. I was willing to believe that Shakespeare, already an accomplished playwright by this time, needed a muse. I was even willing to believe that he lived a life much like a horny writer in the ‘90s. I was not willing to believe that you can hide a Marge Simpson amount of hair under that short a wig.

Of course, The Toto Problem is worse in movies we don’t actually like. Did I already dislike this movie? Well, it’s pretty obvious from what I wrote above that I don’t think much of the plot of Shakespeare in Love. It holds together like a gluten free cracker. I also don’t think it’s a love story. These characters like the same things, and have good sexual chemistry, and while that’s enough to base a short relationship on when you’re maybe eighteen, it’s not quite love. Lust is easier to depict creatively than love, though, and often more entertaining. Shakespeare himself knew this: there’s a reason all his plays that don’t start with ghosts and witches start with sex, or at the very least, dirty jokes. Lust has its place.

I think I did enjoy parts of this movie. It is still well-acted and funny, with a deliberate, irreverent anachronism. Maybe a few too many meta-jokes about Hollywood, but that might have seemed fresh and funny in 1998. Geoffrey Rush and Imelda Staunton have some great scenes, Dame Judi Dench finally got her Oscar. I laughed when Joseph Fiennes tried to defend himself with a stage saber, and when Ben Affleck — at his best playing conceited buffoons, as in Dazed in Confused — was bewildered that his character dies. If I want to be generous, I could say it’s also possible Shakespeare and Viola’s relationship being short-lived, shallow, and mostly sexual was intentional, as that is also what most people think of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.

There are still a lot of movies with huge plot holes that I still like. Maybe Max was right about Looper, but I still really liked it, and I remember enjoying Warm Bodies for what it was, too. Like any film snob, I have a lot of issues with Love, Actually, but there are still parts of it I really like, and I’ll still watch it if a roommate or a friend’s mom puts it on. (It’s always a roommate or a friend’s mom.)

We don’t know what happens to Toto, but The Wizard of Oz is still great. Maybe I shouldn’t call this “The Toto Problem.” Maybe I should call it “Flipping the Wig.” Yes, it’s a dumb pun, but do you know who else loved dumb puns? Shakespeare.

Stuff I Did Recently: First of all, I was on Entertainment Tonight talking about the 25th anniversary of Matilda! Then Australia’s Today Show had me on to talk about Matilda, as well!

As a major Gilmore Girls fan, it was a thrill to do I’m All In with Scott Patterson (Luke Danes!), to talk about which characters I relate to most, why I don’t care for Max Medina, and what made me finally come around on Jess. I also had a lot of fun talking about karaoke and why disco rocks on The Greatest Song Ever Sung (Poorly).

Finally, I can’t believe I got to play a small part in the great Karina Longworth’s new project, Love is a Crime. I’ve been wanting to do a part on You Must Remember This for years now, and I’m in great company here!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: We Don’t Have Rabies Here! (It’s true, they don’t.)

The Quote That Won't Make You Cry

Sarah Kane did not say this.

I found this quote while trying to look up a quote I remembered from theater school, which I somehow associated with Sarah Kane. I had to stop for a second when I saw this. I know quotes get attributed to the wrong people all the time, but the wrongness of this overwhelmed me.

If you don’t know who Sarah Kane is, I DO NOT recommend you go looking her up. Kane was a young, talented, very controversial British playwright, who wrote some of the most explicit and brutal plays of contemporary drama. Her work is full of cruelty, violence, and pain; war and mental illness were some of her favorite subjects, and she left NO taboo unbroken. But there’s also a lot of love and empathy for humanity in her work. Still, I would not go looking for her work unless you want to be disgusted and horrified by the worst of humanity, which was kind of what she was going for.

I have only read two of her plays. But I am very sure that a queer woman who wrote plays where people get their eyeballs sucked out did not ever say anything about crying over a boy.

I don’t know how I feel about this quote, really. It’s a nice sentiment, I think, but nearly every relationship will have tears at some point. There’s a difference between someone deliberately being cruel and disregarding your feelings, and tears coming out in a fight, of course, but there’s no nuance in platitudes.

I remember my friend Maria insisting, “A girl can’t cry over a man!” when I was brokenhearted over Steven not wanting to dance with me at the sixth grade Halloween dance. It struck me as an odd thing to say, maybe a truncated version of something she’d heard her mother or sisters say. Or maybe she’d read it on the internet. In the years after that, the late ‘90s, I saw that “no man is worth your quotes” hundreds of times. There were a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque platitudes (I will definitely be writing about my complicated relationship with Chicken Soup for the Soul at some point) floating around the late-early internet. Every generation has their trite sayings that young people believe in, but I feel like this was probably the first time you could really feel them on a global level.

We were sort of the first generation of Internet Memes, when “memes” still existed in the Selfish Gene sense of the word. (Remember when Richard Dawkins died suddenly after publishing that book and never said anything about anything that wasn’t about biology, ever again?) We had just escaped the days of faxlore. Now we had AOL profiles and Away Messages! The internet was this new, cool thing, we had this sudden interconnection with the rest of the world, and how would we use it? To tell people that “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best,” “A BITCH = A Babe In Total Control of Herself!” and “Dance like nobody is watching.” They were always written in AlTeRnAtInG CaSeS, with little tildes and asterisks to make it look like a rose garden: ~*~DoN’t CrY BeCaUsE iT’s OvEr, sMiLe BeCaUsE iT hApPeNeD!~*~ (I know that’s hard to read, and I’m sorry. Honestly, just typing it nearly gave me a migraine.)

I never knew where any of the quotes came from. Many were attributed to Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, or Coco Chanel — really, anyone most young girls saw as “classy.” But where do they come from? How do platitudes become platitudes? Dorothy Parker had that bit about how she never sought credit for an epigram, because “We all assume Oscar [Wilde] said it.” But was there an actual author for this quote? There had to have been, at some point.

I didn’t find one, which is probably no surprise. But what most interests me are the people this is wrongly attributed to.

First off, we have Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is a great writer, although I’ve never actually finished one of his books. Love in the Time of Cholera is all about love and pain, but I didn’t care for it when I read it at twenty-one, newly brokenhearted and cynical about any kind of love. I know, though, that it is about love and the way it tricks and deceives people, and the way we see it versus the way it actually is. Gabriel Garcia Marquez took hundreds of pages to explain how love is complicated. He very likely did not say this. (Interesting, too, that it is not about men being worth your tears, but anyone.)

Next we have Paulo Coelho. I don’t know much about him except that he wrote The Alchemist, which I have never read, but some of my friends found it inspirational and beautiful and some of my friends found it hokey and trite. I can’t remember which friends of mine it was. (I wish I could remember which friends of mine also hated Life of Pi. Man, I really hated that book.) I do not think he said this, but he did say a lot about tears. “Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed…” seems to be a quote from his book Aleph, referenced on his actual blog. I guess it’s a bit more plausible that he could have said it, but I feel like if he had, it would have been a bit more poetic, and he probably would have taken credit for it on his blog.

Ah, yes, famously stoic Courtney Love! I have a friend who met her once when she was recording at a studio and apparently she was going through a phase where she “just didn’t wear clothes.” My friend, whose father worked at the studio, was a huge fan and was a little surprised when Courtney Love emerged fully nude and asked if she could have a slice of her pizza. Somehow, I don’t think she said this.

Google also suggested this quote came from Mary Oliver. That didn’t yield too many results, and seemed an odd fit to me, for many reasons, not the least of which is that Mary Oliver was a lesbian poet. She didn’t just write about being a lesbian, but, from what I know about her poetry, she didn’t write that much about men. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about lesbians is that they hate men. Most lesbians I know feel relatively indifferent about men. I remember asking a lesbian friend if she ever looked at men when she saw them walking down the street, and she said, “I just don’t notice them.” I’ve heard the same thing from some gay men, that women tend to blend into the background for them. It’s just not where their attention is. That said, I do feel like “No man is worth your tears,” could be a very lesbian thing to say (it’s not worth crying over something or someone you’re indifferent to), but I think “And the one who is won’t make you cry” assumes heterosexuality and gender norms in a way a lesbian poet probably wouldn’t.

Interestingly, I haven’t seen this quote attributed to any gay or bisexual men. Well, unless you count the show Merlin.

If you haven’t seen the show, you should, it’s adorable, it’s Arthurian legend told from Merlin’s point of view, Merlin as a young man working for Arthur and trying to hide his forbidden magic powers. The Merlin and Arthur of the show have a close, love-hate, often tempestuous relationship, and there’s definitely a lot of tension that could be romantic. Arthur tells Merlin “No man is worth your tears” right before he rushes off to be heroic and face certain death. The whole point of the quote, as it’s used here, is that a true friend or partner is worth your tears. Arthur has been raised to put duty above emotion… but he and Merlin do cry over each other. So it gives us a little bit of dramatic irony.

The full quote apparently appears in a heterosexual context in Jillian Dodd’s romance book, That Wedding. I haven’t read it, but since it was published in 2014, and I first encountered this in probably about 1999, I’m guessing she just borrowed it. That didn’t bother me — something borrowed for a book about a wedding, seems appropriate! — although I did find it frustrating that Goodreads also attributes “Do any human beings ever realize life, while they live it — every, every minute?” to her. This is a line from Our Town, and I am a drama nerd to the core and I will always defend Our Town, especially after seeing David Cromer’s production in 2010. Life-changing. It’s a shame so many high schools and community theaters have made it into a folksy little play when it’s actually an extremely painful and beautiful play about death and loss and being forgotten. It’s dark as hell. Anyway, I have nothing against Jillian Dodd and her book and her use of this quote, I just want to make sure Our Town gets its due credit.

To my surprise and my delight, the most common attribution of the quote, by far, is this one.


The man who made the 1950s what they were. The man who created the Interstate system and popularized the term “Military-Industrial Complex” also wanted you to know you shouldn’t cry over a man. When could he have said this? When did he have the time, between considering whether or not to use nuclear weapons to end the war in Korea, and giving the go-ahead for the Bay of Pigs invasion? Who could he have possibly said this to?

I honestly couldn’t stop laughing when I saw this. I’m sure this started as a troll, and honestly, I salute whoever did it. Congratulations, you have made your way onto thousands of Pinterest boards and Instagram posts, and what are they but the AOL Profiles and Away messages of today?

(Also, the quote I thought was from Sarah Kane was actually from a Washington Post article. So at least I got that sorted out.)

Stuff I Did Recently: I did an interview with the American Jewish Historical Society! We had a great time, and I really do hope I can go there next time I’m in New York! And here is an interview I did with BBC News’s Cut Through the Noise, talking about Britney Spears and stardom!

Fake BBC Show of the Week:
Pissed in Purley

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