The show is interested in two characters only: the relationship between the girls. All the other characters are instrumental to this unfolding engagement. There is no other interiority but theirs and only a dawning interiority for Lila. The first season is done. What am I supposed to do? Episode 7 was a bit of a slog. Too much boy and not enough Lenu and Lila. Each girl picks a less violent male she doesn’t desire to fend off a more violent male who arouses rage. In the case of Lila and Marcello, the beautiful, rich-boy bully, it’s more than rage. It’s also sexual attraction. Who has not hated a person you also wanted to fuck? She tells him she will kill him if he replaces her with another attraction. At the same time, she agrees to marry her smitten boy if he promises to keep Marcello away from her. She doesn’t want to be in Marcello’s power. It would be worse than being in the power of her brother and father, who are dominating but at least afraid of her. Lenu lets a boy feel her up because she can use him to scare off the twitching mustache letch who molested her the summer before and whose son she wants. It’s confusing. It’s all confusing. The less violent males turn out to have their own agendas, and they are not really less violent, only more smitten and temporarily bendable.
It’s enjoyable and painful to see Lenu in love with the letch’s son, a surly, baby intellectual with unshaved fuzz. Her eyes grow soft and hazy. Impulsively she presses his hand to the table, wanting him to stay at the wedding party, even after he has declined to publish a piece she has written for his little journal. She has been burning to see her name in print. The boy has been told Lenu is a better writer than him, and the piece has been polished by Lila so it’s a combination of their talents. Lenu is deeply disappointed. You can see the light go out of her eyes and the air leave her chest, but when you want someone, what’s one more piece of power you let them have over you? You tell yourself they are not a jealous bastard, and you grab their hand. He walks out, anyway.
In episode 8, the season finale, Lila and Lenu are back together, and we see what we have seen from their first moments together: each for the other is the only person in the world who speaks the same langauge. Not to share a language is isolation of a deranging sort. To share a language is to share an inner and outer world of understandings. To the girls, the phrase, “normal life” translates into “male control that will block all exits or produce so much trauma the exits won’t be visible. Lila decides to go entirely underground, where she has mostly lived with the exception of Lenu, and marry a man she does not love in order to leave the home of her father and brother. It’s a conscious choice and in making it Lila sees what she is turning into. Lenu comes to see it, too. It’s spoken of by the girls in their funny, truncated bursts of dialogue and sudden avowals of belief in each other. The scene of Lenu bathing Lila before her fake happy wedding is breathtaking. “Stand up,” Lenu says to Lila, and she rises, naked, and we see the glory of youth’s body she is going to trade away. The mind that has devised the trade puts at risk the the thing in her that ticks away, the cascade of language, depositing more and more along a restless shore. The teacher who discovered the genius in the little girl thinks Lila’s great gifts have been scattered and swept away. She won’t allow her into her apartment. Benj DeMott
On November 27, film critic David Edelstein was fired from his job at “Fresh Air” for a remark he made on Facebook. I will have much more to say about this going forward. He made a joke about butter, a reference to “Last Tango in Paris,” after Bernardo Bertolucci died. I am thinking about something Edelstein said in his apology for the remark: “I . . . would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality.” This is a fair statement, but it also suggests you can’t make a joke about rape, period, and it suggests jokes and comedy “make light of” things. The joke didn’t work because the target seemed to be Maria Schneider, who had famously made public the engineered humiliation she had experienced on the set of “Last Tango” when she was 19. Jokes and comedy do not necessarily “make light of” things. Jokes and comedy can tap the most serious feelings we have about ourselves and the world. Brando, too, said in interviews he had felt humiliated by Bertolucci. It was cold during the shooting of his one, full frontal nude scene, and his parts shrunk. The scene was scrapped. Schneider said she thought Bertolucci was in love with Brando and that originally her part was supposed to be played by a boy. I think you can tell a joke about anything if you find the frame that does not beat up the people who have already been beaten up. Edelstein could have made an excellent joke involving butter about Brando’s cold-weather weenie and Bertolucci’s crush on Brando. If he had thought in these terms. It’s the not thinking in these terms that is not funny because it is so commonplace and generally unremarked upon.
As soon as we see the mustache twitching, we know Lenu is in the line of fire. Lila’s father’s sale of her to a beautiful man is a homoerotic exchange. The father is jonesing for this man from the moment he steps into his world. Maybe every exchange of this kind is two men fucking through the proxy of the girl. Maybe all male supremacy is men fucking each other in various ways. The question of male feelings about themselves as men is a blob of dullness that keeps expanding, no matter what Lila does to fend it off. It is gray goo. It is one of those giant balls that comes rolling at you in an Indiana Jones movie. You run, and you run, and there it is. If you are a male human, and you are not able to enter the story of these two girls as if the story is about you, then you are the ball in the Indiana Jones movies. This show is saying everything I am saying in every shot. It is so beautiful and so sad. Go, Lenu, ride those waves, read those books, stroke through that water, go get your friend, cry your eyes out so you know you’re alive.
I watch “My Brilliant Friend” with my hands over my mouth, ready to cover my eyes at a stroke of violence. Lila’s father. Has a word ever been more poisonous to say and feel its smoky meaning disappear in the air than the word, “man”? What is a man? No one cares. I don’t care. Lenu and Lila don’t care, and it is like not caring about Trump and his government. They could kill you, and they’re still so fucking uninteresting. I hate this episode, but I couldn’t stop watching it. I can’t stop watching a minute of this series. I worry it’s about to end, but I don’t want to look at the bar across the bottom to see how much time is left. There are too many men in this episode and things men say and do that circle women. Lila is a fly in a spider’s web. The more she buzzes, the more the silk circles her until she can’t move. She can’t move because she’s so alive, and the men want her aliveness inside them and then they want it to stop. She’s so alive and yet she can’t leave the town. She’s a kid. She’s maybe 15. Who asks a girl of 15 to get married? She is afraid of the world, and somehow Lenu is not. The thing that brought tears to my eyes is when Lenu tells Lila she is leaving for the summer. She has a chance to escape and swim in the sea, a whole summer away, and Lenu can’t think of anything but the guilt she feels in leaving Lila to fend for herself against her father, her brother, and the Marcello who has come for her. She can’t kill them all, and she knows that, and the knowledge is like dying when you are still alive. It’s pretty much what it means to be female in this town at this time and during all times and still now in many places, and there is a double consciousness always working, the thinking: This can’t be happening to me, and: This is happening to me, and I can’t find a way out because there is no way out. Lenu has been offered one, and what does Lila say? She says, “Brava.” She says, “You go, girl, go into the world I can’t venture into. Feel joy. Feel joy for the two of us.” But the thing is, it’s impossible to feel joy if you are the female who has gotten away and you know it’s a fluke, and it doesn’t change the condition the others live in, that you live in. There is no getting away because the other women are inside you, and yet you have to get away because you can only make one run for it.
I wrote this in memory of Robert Massa, who died of AIDS in 1994 and was much loved at the Voice, where we worked together for many years. It was set to music for an AIDS event by Gordon Beeferman.
The last time I saw my friend he was sleeping in his living room, and a Beethoven piano sonata was playing. He was thirty-six and dying of AIDS. I sat beside his bed and spoke into his good ear. He dove for air and huffed out words. On an alphabet board he spelled, “I don’t feel cheated.” Later he spelled, “I wish I had written more,” as if to say he had cheated himself. I said, “All writers feel that way.” He wanted ice cream, and I brought him a pop from the freezer. It dripped on his hands, and I wiped them with a cloth. I thought how alive we are until almost the last moment. I said, “You have inspired much love in your odd, shy way. How do you explain it?” He said, “I’m not demanding.”