Gotta get that webcam set up. How else can I watch myself blogging, and then show you me watching myself blogging? And then write the post about how it feels to blog about watching myself blogging -- you're still with me, right? Riveted. Could anything be more interesting?
Man, I wish I was just kidding around. But as this perversely amusing (or merely frightening) article from the NY Times explains, the new star of the real life series I'd like to call Narcissists in Cyberspace is one Nornna of Wausau, Wisconsin, who's got upwards of 50,000 people watching videos of her making sandwiches, watching TV, etc. posted on YouTube -- and now some of her viewers are posting videos of themselves watching her. This has led, inevitably, to the most-watched video series: pizzelle2, a sort of meta-viewer (or as we used to call them, performance artist) has made a video of herself watching a YouTube viewer watching another YouTube viewer... and onward until we arrive at a final YouTube viewer watching Nornna.
Pizelle2 has topped this with a video of Nornna watching pizzelle2 watching Nornna.
As the ghost of Mr. Warhol cackles quietly in his grave (loud enough perhaps for Mr. McLuhan to hear), what I wanna know is, 1) how much Nornna would a Nornna watch if a Nornna could watch Nornna, like 24/7? and 2) and how well do you know your navel?
One person who read my novel in manuscript (bringing it back to me, me being the primary subject of interest here) remarked that its protoganist Jordan was a bit self-absorbed. I'll note, with knee-jerk defensiveness, that this isn't a note Jordan generally gets, but it got me started thinking about the heroes of other novels and trying to gauge whether or not they could be deemed self-absorbed.
In a sense, any first-person narrator is in danger of seeming self-absorbed or self-involved, at the least. Holden Caulfield starts off Catcher in the Rye by dissing the reader's need for back story details, in his impatience to get to the "let me tell you how I feel" of it all. Any book that has a first-person narrator who's also the story's primary protagonist (versus narrator as witness to someone else's story, e.g. Gatbsy or Moby Dick) runs the risk of seeming too much into the me-me-me.
So what makes the difference? While the current reign of Nornna creates a tacit satire about our real-life voyeuristic celebrity-fixated culture, where everyone is a star on somebody's screen, I'm curious to know where the line gets drawn in fiction and film. What's the level of self-involvement or self-absorption we're willing to accept in a protagonist (i.e. a character we're identifying with who becomes, ideally, a surrogate us)?
This question came up for me last week when I did coverage on Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. In description, the book sounded almost like a nightmare parody Portrait of the Self-Involved: Liz, a woman getting over a horrific divorce and a post-marital affair, decides to take a journey of self-discovery, going to Italy to experience pleasure, to India to find spiritual truth, and finally to Indonesia, in the hopes of balancing the physical and the meta. Oh, and Liz has the means, because -- nice work if you can get it -- a publisher's footing the bill for the trip, which Liz will turn into a book.
Given that pitch, you would have to pay me to read the thing, but in truth, I volunteered because I'd heard good things about Gilbert as a writer, and because I'm the reader at Uni for a project that has some competitive overlap with Eat. And the good news is, Gilbert is good: she's such a charming, witty, insightful personality that she made the whole journey seem worthwhile.
Which is no mean feat, considering she's forced, at the midpoint, to describe what it's like to experience a moment of nirvana-like transcendance in the midst of meditation. One doesn't get much more personal than that -- it's like describing your sexual climax: here's how I had my mindgasm. Well, good for you, but reading about this stuff can induce shoot-me-now boredom.
Fortunately Gilbert is, in fact, an ideal traveling companion. No matter how deep her lows or high her highs, she somehow keeps it light, never taking herself too, too seriously, and I realized upon reflection that this is the quality that makes the difference in empathizing with a protagonist: self-awareness.
It's the wry traces of self-deprecation, in fact, the acknowledgement that we're all in this together, that the problems of say, two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, etc., that will enable us to root for a character. A leading lady who takes her self in stride will still seem attractive, even if the All About Me level in her story runs perilously high.
Eat, Pray, Love's "I" is so endearing and compelling, in her laughing-at-her-own-tears way, that I could even see the template for a romantic comedy in place (Liz finds true romance in Bali, and the scenery is like, totally widescreen). But while the project rated high on character, it didn't have that other thing that makes the difference in creating "rooting interest": a story.
Maybe it's true that your average man will listen to a major babe go on about herself (he's not listening anyway, he's got Alvy Singer's I wonder what she looks like naked? subtitle going on) and that women will listen to a guy's description of what he had for breakfast if the guy is George Clooney. But finally, looks pale if there's really no story there. When it comes to holding a reader and an audience's attention, we're all like Alice Roosevelt Longworth ("If you don't have anything nice to say about anyone, come sit down next to me"). Give us the dirt. The narrator's charms may be half of the equation, but it's only half.
The lack of intriguing plot hook is why I passed on Eat, despite its success in its natural form (memoir), and because Uni had already bought that other project I mentioned -- Around the World in 80 Dates does have a rom-com story hook amidst its travelog-ing. And it may be the reason why I'm of two minds about Friends With Money -- a good film, worth seeing, yet somehow not quite a full movie meal.
I feel unhappily snarky being hard on a film this smart, wryly amusing and deliciously acted -- it's chockful of tart-tasty moments, little shocks of recognition, small character turns that'll linger in memory. Nicole Holofcener is one smart cookie (and you can read all about her thinking re: Friends in this nice interview). But if I was into the ratings thing I'd prob'ly stamp a solid B on her excellent handiwork here.
These are amazing actresses in very good form (and the men are great, too, especially Simon McBurney as a guy everyone thinks is gay but isn't -- is he?). You gotta love seeing Jennifer Aniston play a maid in a movie whose title sounds like a gag that Leno might have made when her show went off the air ("Jen's picked the movie she's going to make after Friends. They're gonna call it Friends With Money!"). And Catherine Keener, you gotta love, period (I way heart Keener). Character-driven ensemble work is tricky, and Holofcener handles it like the pro she is (Sex in the City, Six Feet Under). I just wish there was more story for them all to play -- capital-P Plot stuff, to really rev the thing's motor.
But this is so much carping, next to what I think is the movie's considerable, provocative achievement. What links the disparate characters in Friends With Money is a subtext that really said hello to me. These are people who are all self-absorbed and self-involved -- because they have the means and the leisure to be -- and the other quality they have in common is a lack of self-awareness.
It's a testament to Holofcener's writing and her cast's prowess that we care about the whole rich crew. But the theme she's tapped into with her "haves" is actually a very contemporary one with universal application. The thing that makes this a comedy, and makes the foibles of the characters endearing, is the tension between who they think they are, and who we ultimately know them to be. It's a movie about people who, while obsessed with themselves, for the most part can't quite see themselves -- and this is a human condition that strikes me as very Nornna Now.
So much attention being paid to me, me, me! But maybe the me watching you watching me phenomenon is indicative of a secret frustration at the core of it all: you're looking at you and you're looking at you and you keep on looking... but there's still something about you that you just can't see...