I keep thinking how great a movie Juno is; for one thing, it’s one of those rare jewels that passes the Bechdel Test. Obviously it’s a meditation on motherhood, but less obviously it’s a meditation on blood and non-blood relations. Juno’s real mother has skipped out and her sole contribution to the story is an annual gift of cactus. Juno’s stepmother is the pitch-perfect Allison Janney, and while their relationship is also fairly prickly, it creates a very believable context for Juno’s choices around her pregnancy. Motherhood, as embodied by Janney’s character, is a matter of showing up and paying attention. To do which you do not need to have actually given birth to the person in question.
One thing I would have liked to see is a scene between Allison Janney and Jennifer Garner. There was a great scene between her and J. K. Simmons as Juno’s dad, but even so… Garner is also stellar, in a much more difficult and less sympathetic role than Janney’s. She connects with this character with absolute empathy and compassion. Her big scene at the end had Kathy and me clutching each others’ hands and sobbing – err, I mean, getting specks of dust in our eyes, and having allergies.
I’m often hesitant to recommend a little jewel of a film if I think that doing so might raise peoples’ expectations, only to dash them (hi, Once! Everyone rush out and see it on DVD please) but I’m going to go ahead and recommend Juno anyway. For one thing, I greatly prefer small films to big ones. I call this my “gun, what gun?” principle. As in, Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun, yada yada, but I say “What gun?”
My life has been largely gun-free; the only gun ever pointed at me was pointed at me by a young, scared British soldier in Derry. My life is small and indie and I am, as I have pointed out elsewhere, a sardonic supporting character. So while I acknowledge the technical skill and cultural cachet of (for example) heist films, I am on a practical level bored to death with most of them. I am not the demographic. Whereas Once and Juno take place in world that, if they are not recognizeably my own, are at least connected by land bridges.
(For what it’s worth I think screenwriter Diablo Cody explicitly acknowledges this by giving Juno the surname MacGuff.)
So who is the demographic, and what is the gun? Put like that the question pretty much answers itself. I’ve been thinking a lot about disability lately, partly because Liz writes about it so well, and partly because the experience of watching a friend become gradually more disabled over the course of a few months, however wittily she blogs about it, is existentially terrifying and curdles your blood. One of the side issues, though, is that her descriptions of a world optimized for the able-bodied have made me more aware that I live in a world optimized for One Standard Unit Man. Things that are too heavy or too high for me were typically packed or put there by someone four inches taller than I am, and able to lift twenty more pounds.
Take sushi! Julia just recently became capable of sitting up at the bar at Yo’s, which has greatly improved our sushi experiences. Yo just makes us whatever’s good. A few weeks ago he served maki cut to size for the children, about half the size of a normal roll. I started eating them and couldn’t stop. I could manage them in my chopsticks! I could eat them in one bite without gagging! It dawned on me that this is what eating sushi is like if sushi is designed for the size of your mouth: ie, if you are a man.
I am glad to be alive right now because this is one of the things that, over the course of my life, has slowly changed. It’s easy to get scared and distracted by newspaper headlines, and one of the best reasons to read history is to identify the movements where a small push from your small hand may combine with many others to change the world in ways that you need it to change. Sure, we are frying the atmosphere as we speak, but let me point out a few ways in which things are substantially better than they were forty years ago.
In my generation we have come from the Referendum to Bringing Them Home; from Stonewall to the winter of love; from the Cold War to the International Criminal Court; from apartheid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; from Tuskegee to the candidacy of Barack Obama. These have all been intensely difficult, fraught journeys, beset with many reversals, efforts whose work is unimaginably far from being done; but they happened. And they have all given voices to people on the periphery of the world. They help us do our most fundamental work, which is to bear witness.
It’s a matter of showing up and paying attention.
Small, perfect films like Once and Juno do the same. They assert one’s right to be in the world, even if one is not One Standard Unit Straight White Man, with a gun.