Friday, February 22, 2013

Enlightened: Making a scene

“All I Ever Wanted” doesn't look like Enlightened. Directed by Todd Haynes, he of the underground Barbie diorama/soundstage Sirkbinder/prismatic Dylanology, “All I Ever Wanted” is a work of remarkable control. No nervous handhelds that sometimes mark Amy's frenzy. No broad-brush comedy that sometimes seeps into the writing. No consumerist detritus that sometimes reduces people into stock footage. There’s nothing generic here, nothing corporate outside a brief foray into Cogentiva and a stray Perrier bottle. Instead of looking up at the black cancer-box of Abaddonn, we look down on it from a turtle's-eye-view, and the usual office Earth Day color palette gives way to a passionate red. This isn't about a powerful corporation. This is about Amy.

Behold the opening. A shadowy spy shot of the Macguffin, a dramatic streetlit high angle as Amy approaches Jeff’s apartment, a close-up of the door shut in our faces. Nobody’s going to confuse Enlightened for a thriller, but Haynes knows how big a deal this is. Amy is handing over a briefcase of her CEO’s personal e-mails to muckraking LA Times reporter Jeff Flender. This show about a whistle-blower finally, after 15 episodes, has something that looks like whistle-blowing.

Just as Mike White postpones the external fallout from Amy's actions for an internal drama about what kind of life, love, and family Amy wants, Haynes sticks with Amy. He shoots her through Jeff’s laptop as she pretends not to be anxious about his reaction—we’re not totally convinced Amy’s e-mails are worthwhile yet, either—and only cuts away when she actually gets distracted by some social justice trophy or another (in this case, a copy of A People’s History of the United States bookmarked to a page of suspicious highlighting and the marginalia, “Tyranny is Over!” which, if you ask me, protests too much). Amy's attention defines the space. After a celebration dinner, Amy explores Jeff’s records while he works out of focus on her periphery. As she walks away from him after a hazy weekend, he gradually loses focus as she takes her attention radius with her. At the end, as she and Jeff go through the motions of pre-date pleasantries, they're distanced by individual portraits. It’s as if Amy really is manifesting her reality.

“All I Ever Wanted” gives Amy a choice, and the latest Enlightened dichotomy is so neat that Amy leaves her house with a suitor twice in parallel tracking shots. Jeff inspires Amy’s fantasy future. Levi anchors her to a troubled past. Jeff drives, has no life, is alone. Levi walks, has no work, is social. Jeff’s an inside guy in a cement city. Levi walks to a park in the suburbs. Jeff is non-committal. Levi is emotional as fuck these days. On her weekend with Jeff, Amy wears one of his shirts. On her walk down memory lane with Levi, she adds a layer.

Amy believes she manifested the dream life with Jeff she doesn’t really have yet. More words vs. actions. It’s infatuation blindness, but Amy is still caught up in this idea that assertion makes something so. If she manifested anything, it’s the new Levi, and it wasn't because she just wished for it. She sent him to Open Air, and he aspired to become the man she saw in him because he couldn’t personally envision a better self. He really is Amy’s vision manifest. How Haynesian. For Levi identity is a construct, a kind of visualization technique. Jeff has no life; his identity is his work, and he has the sagging trophy shelf to prove it. Helen’s vying for a Good Housekeeping cover. Amy sees what kind of person she’s going to be as a question of what kind of life she wants.

It’s not exactly a traditional woman’s picture—what Haynes film is?—but Amy’s womanhood has never been so vital. After weeks of subordinating her sex life to her missions (first enlightenment, then burning capitalism to the ground), she sleeps with Jeff, lets herself dream of romance and partnership. It’s the male physique the camera adores, first as the Lakeview Terrace lights bathe Jeff’s back and arm in gold and then as he sleeps in a marble statue position with the sheet halfway down his hips. Later Levi, between rounds of catch with some kids, offers Amy the possibility of motherhood. She stands there in front of a banner reminding everyone to vote 4 a favorite homecoming couple, and she can barely keep it together.

When she gets home and finds Helen entertaining Jeff, she retreats to her bedroom for the real Haynes melodrama. Earlier Amy says all she needs from her mother is support, but Helen spends the episode worrying about her daughter, criticizing her hair, disapproving of her ex. Now Amy’s having an anxiety attack, and Helen shows up to see what’s wrong. It’s an episode of profound internalization—Amy reads Levi’s letter in silence and sits on a time-bomb as he pours out his heart—but Amy’s breakdown is a theatrical, presentational showcase, complete with a curtain backdrop. Haynes can’t go full Veda Pierce, but the artificiality is there in the set dressing, in Helen’s blocking, in the camera movement. Helen sits behind Amy instead of beside her or hugging her, and her hands hover around Amy’s shoulders waiting for the right moment to embrace like it’s an acting exercise. The camera—concerned, at eye level, right there with them—slowly, robotically pushes in and pans around them. And when Helen clasps Amy’s shoulders, Enlightened wrings me dry. The score drowns out the sounds, so eventually Helen is just mouthing, “It’s gonna be okay.” Talk about support. At last, skeptical Helen holds her daughter and shares her pain and tells her everything is going to be okay. It’s primal.

Amy even asking the question, “What am I gonna do?” is a step toward real self-actualization. Normally she bulldozes every moral snag, like when she dismisses Tyler’s concerns about Eileen. Eileen’s collateral damage. Justified. For the greater good. But “What am I gonna do?” is a question of responsibility. Just before the credits, Levi watches Amy ride off with Jeff, and Amy couldn’t be more conflicted. For the first time, Amy can't dance around the consequences of her actions. The car drives away into the blue dusk as Joni Mitchell sets the mood, but the camera, that instrument of Amy's attention, sticks with Levi.


  1. Great review. You've done great work with this show Brandon.