I've said it before and I'll say it again: Poor Lindsay Lohan.
Why now? Because everyone, including our own dear Huffington Post, is excoriating her recent literary endeavor -- a condolence letter to the family of Robert Altman. It was almost too easy to pick on her clunky run-ons ("I learned so much from Altman and he was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had in several years"), her incomprehensible sentence fragments ("If not only my heart but the heart of Mr. Altman's wife and family and many fellow actors/artists that admire him for his work and love him for making people laugh whenever and however he could.."), her magnetic-poetry malapropisms ("He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do"), and her atrocious grammar ("I am lucky enough to of been able to work with Robert Altman amongst the other greats on a film that I can genuinely say created a turning point in my career"). It was every English teacher's worst nightmare.
As always, America was divided -- this time between grammar Nazis and Lohan apologists. "[Ms. Lohan] is an example to the young generation who are already mired in a dumbed down society and who are constantly taking comfort from the inadequacy of their peers. Take this to an extreme and say ten years down the line grammar is considered unimportant and when you post to a blog all that matters are the feelings behindit [sic]," declared one comment on Ms. Morrison's post. Another countered: "I ONLY WISH I COULD POST TO HER DIRECTLY TO SAY HOW WONDERFUL HER WORDS ARE AND HOW MUCH THEY MOVED ME. I THINK I WILL PRETEND THAT SHE IS A READER OF HUFFINGTONPOST AND THAT SHE IS GOING TO READ MY WORDS..I WOULD TELL HER HOW DEEPLY SPIRITUAL AND INFINITELY WISE HER WORDS WERE...AND HOW THEY MUST HAVE COMFORTED THE FAMILY OF THIS MAN. AND I NEVER NOTICED HER EMAIL ETIQUETTE...JUST FELT HER SOUL SHINE THRU THE WORDS SHE WROTE." (Incidentally, few of the comments from either side were exactly Pulitzer-worthy.)
For the record, while the word "retarded" may have escaped my lips as I read it for the first time, I found Ms. Lohan's letter sweet, endearing in its earnestness. But its last sentence was dispiriting indeed. It's a reference to Altman's famous acting advice, misspelled to bitterly ironic effect:
It was like I was reading the new great American mission statement, penned by the President himself. That's right, I just compared Lindsay Lohan to George W. Bush -- and to America. When did "Be Adequite" replace "E Pluribus Unum" as our national slogan? And once again, I wished our world could be more like the world of The History Boys.
I saw Alan Bennett's play The History Boys back in July, and I loved it so profoundly that I instantly began counting down the days until the movie came out. I finally got to see it over Thanksgiving, and it was everything I'd dreamed it would be. Rarely do I find a work of art so precisely tailored to fit my own obsessions (history, poetry, high school, pederasty, motorcycles, French, vintage pop songs, Bette Davis, the British, cute boys), but I know it could be a hit if enough people saw it. (I admit I'm taking advantage of my Huffington Post bully pulpit here, but I can't help it -- I urge you all to go see it!)
The world of The History Boys is exhilarating, charged with the joy of learning. This isn't your average classroom movie; it bears no resemblance to your Dead Poets Society, your Goodbye, Mr. Chips, or your To Sir with Love. The History Boys isn't just an ode to education. Indeed, its characters would probably find that concept repugnant -- so stuffy and pretentious! Instead, they celebrate the sheer joy of being alive -- and to Alan Bennett, you aren't really alive unless you're properly educated. Thus literature, history, sex, and love are all mixed up in the wonderful dialogue: Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries and a Thomas Hardy poem are discussed with breathless anticipation, a student-teacher seduction is carried out through a conversation on World War II and the subjunctive mood, and an invitation to perform fellatio becomes a chat about gerunds. (If you know what gerunds are, you'll know that's not as dirty as it sounds.) "The transmission of knowledge," says one character (admittedly a dirty old man), "is in itself an erotic act."
Watching The History Boys is a physical and intellectual turn-on, and it makes you feel painfully inadequate, raising the question: In what the hell universe is this story set, and how do I get there? It takes place in 1983, but the student-teacher banter, the class camaraderie of sex talk and inside jokes, feel completely current. My companion and I walked out of the theater moaning, "I wish I were British" -- but even Alan Bennett admits in his written introduction to the play that no actual school, not even in England, could produce such a high proportion of brilliant scholars. The History Boys is fantasy, not ethnography -- or, at least, that's what I have to tell myself, to stave off the bitterness.
Still, it isn't just The History Boys. In another British movie, Stephen Frears's The Queen, all the characters are almost gaily historically literate. Queen Elizabeth drops a reference to "[her] grandmother Victoria" and remarks to Tony Blair that Winston Churchill once sat in his chair, and everybody knows what she means. You could argue that these characters would be expected to know these things, since they hold such political power -- but this implies that American politicians are equally sophisticated. Never mind.
And then you have your American movies. The best movie of the year, which no one saw, is Mike Judge's Idiocracy, a terrifying vision of a dystopian future in which language has deteriorated to a series of agrammatical corporate logos, the only mention of history is a vague assertion that "the dinosaurs were wiped out by the Nazis," and anyone who speaks in full sentences is derided as a "fag." Even this year's "smart" and "literary" movie, Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction, doesn't trust its audience to pick up on any references more esoteric than children's fairy tales. It ends as a celebration of mediocrity: the brilliant (and British) novelist, played by Emma Thompson, ultimately chooses to sacrifice her masterpiece in favor of an inferior version. "It's okay," she is told, and for the first time, she smiles. "I'm fine with okay," she says.
She has learned the Lindsay Lohan Lesson: BE ADEQUITE. Let's not pick on poor Lindsay Lohan. Instead, let us learn from her -- for she truly understands what it means to be American.
On second thought, maybe I'll go to England.