Licorice Pizza, Coming in Hot
Some half-formed reflections on age and gender at the movies + what else I've been watching/reading/listening to.
Every time I log onto Twitter — that Godforsaken website — somebody has a new ‘take’ on Licorice Pizza. Or to put a finer point on it, every time I log onto Twitter, somebody wants to declare that their take on Licorice Pizza is the final one, and that all others have misread it and ergo, are stupid and media-illiterate.
I truly despise this kind of smug discourse…. but guys!! I have a new take on Licorice Pizza! And I think that other people have been misreading it!
LP, which I saw December 11 ahead of its Christmas release, follows the escapades of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15 year-old entrepreneur/child actor, and 25 year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), as they…. well…. I could not possibly summarise all of the hijinx that they get up to (start a water bed company? destroy a rich guy’s car? get wrongly arrested for murder?)
While the film has earned significant critical praise, a certain amount of controversy has also circled the age gap between Gary and Alana. For most of the film, the two are very squarely in the ‘friend zone’ — there are inklings of attraction, but their friendship models a different, platonic kind of love that is undeniable and unusual. In one beautifully-realised scene, the duo return to their store at night and lie down on one of the model water beds, which appears to be lit from below so that the edges of their bodies are garlanded in dramatic silhouette. Gary sidles up to Alana but stops short of touching her — he realises that that is not what this moment is about. The image is quintessential PTA in how it highlights the ways in which ordinary, even silly, objects and symbols can thrum with untapped sweetness. It’s not just about the corniness of the water bed as a concept though, but also its tenuousness, the flood that it is obediently containing. At moments like these, the suggestion and then foreclosure of a love affair is what makes Gary and Alana’s dynamic more electric, more singular and emotionally vivid — it is Romantic in a way that exceeds romance, and the film announces this in capital letters.
That, at least, was my impression, until the final 30-seconds, in which they kiss and Alana breathily exclaims, “I love you, Gary!” This gooey declaration of L-O-V-E not only brings the age gap question back into light, but it undermines what I found to be the most fundamental, structuring tension of the previous 132-minutes.
But this begs the question — why, for the majority of the film, does their relationship give us the impression of innocence?
Whereas relationships between teenagers and adults are characterised by an imbalance of power and maturity, LP’s lead duo are presented as equals, and at times, Gary even dominates Alana. Sure, she has to serve as his chaperone to New York and drive him around LA, and she reads the newspaper and can drink alcohol, but he’s usually the one calling the shots, and much of their relationship is forged in how she increasingly depends on him. In other words, in order for Gary and Alana’s relationship to appear ‘sanctionable,’ Alana cannot seem like an adult; we have to think of her like another teenager. The romantic reveal is disappointing not only because of the age gap, but because Alana has to be infantilised in order to compensate for it. For them to meet in the middle, Gary’s power must be outsized, and Alana’s diminished.
In many ways, this reduction of power is at odds with everything else the film tells us about Alana — she is a fighter, scrappy, spirited, and smarter than anyone gives her credit for. In one of PTA’s most brilliant but subtle flourishes, Alana collapses on a curb at dusk after a night of wild driving and near-death-experiences with Gary’s friends, who she watches pretend to piss on the street with gasoline cans. Exasperated by their teenage antics, Alana sees a poster for Joel Wachs, a young Mayoral candidate, and decides to go work for him instead of Gary. This is one of the few moments in the film where Alana makes her own big decisions, and it is brought on by the realisation of her age and superior ability. Yet when she throws it all away again for Gary at the end, this scene retroactively feels like a red herring.
A resistance to growing-up is of course an ironic staple of the coming-of-age genre. But age seems to matter for Alana far more acutely than it does for the men of the film. At 25, working as a photographer’s assistant and living with her sisters and parents, it is implied that she is floundering, that life has somehow already passed her by. Whereas she needs to chase down youth for another shot at relevance, Gary can shapeshift — he can act his age when he wants to book a pimple-cream commercial, or he can act 35 by running a restaurant, or a talent agency, or a water bed company. Even older men, like (61 year-old) Sean Penn’s Jack Holden, get to have adventure and be taken seriously, but Alana has to perform naivety even to hold his attention. Whether the man that she is impressing is older than her or younger, Alana needs to behave like a girl for them, and ultimately, this brings the film its closure.
One of LP’s biggest issues as a film is its internal contradictions and switchbacks — it makes us want independence for Alana, only to joyfully deny letting her have it, or to tell us that she is better off being childlike forever. This unaddressed gendered baggage encourages us to see Alana as a girl and not a woman, and this is also what enables her uncomfortable romantic entanglement with Gary to go (mostly) unquestioned.
In other ways, the film is masterfully executed. Haim and Hoffman are truly, truly, truly incredible. The rhapsodic use of music and the California sunset drench every frame — it’s a deeply-felt antidote to two years of social isolation and watching it felt exhilarating. But its limited understanding of gender — and as has been well-documented, race — definitely add a glaring asterisks to any positive feelings that I have about it. What is also frustrating is that most of these troubling moments could easily have been cut, making for a less grating, but also smarter, surprising, and more coherent film — Licorice Pizza literally already contains a superior version of itself.
Reply all / Re: “Uncertainty”
Abby Lacelle says: “Uncertainty is both what we are—to appropriate Sarah Ahmed’s language—‘up against,’ and also that which we fall back on. Though media constantly reminds us that we live in ‘uncertain times,’ uncertainty is not unprecedented and instead has long manifested as precarity as well as a theoretical and practical companion—an epistemic state of possibility. What might uncertainty engender? When, how, and by whom uncertainty (or certainty, for that matter) is deployed is paramount for distinguishing its uses and effects. I take up several of the questions Tia diligently and playfully probes in my forthcoming conference paper “‘Waver when we feels sure’: Uncertainty as Feminist Praxis” to be presented at FOOT30. Uncertainty, in any event, is a phenomenon of great intrigue and fascination that we can’t quite seem to pin down!”
Mynt Marsellus recommends: Sianna Ngai’s “Merely Interesting” in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting and “basically anything by Stanley Cavell, but particularly the last four essays in Must We Mean What We Say.”
Thank you to Maddie Weikel for giving this section its name — your genius strikes yet again!
If you’d like to respond to something that you have read in No Outlet, you can reply to this email or contact me in whatever way we tend to converse. Just let me know that you want it published. And if you don’t, that’s fine too — I have loved all of the conversations that this adventure has thus far brought about.
Just read: Adana Shibli’s Touch (a short novel about a girl growing up in Palestine, told through the sensate grain of everyday habits and divided into the sections ‘Colors,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘Movement,’ ‘Language,’ and ‘The Wall’) + Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (part auto-theory, part-scrapbook, part-philosophical drafting board) + Chromophobia by David Batchelor (my first five star book of 2022 — a delicious and rich exploration of the philosophy and history of colour, specifically examining a contemporary degradation of the colourful, based on some gorgeous, deep readings of architecture, art, cinema, and literature). Now that courses have resumed, my reading habits will likely be fairly prescribed (the latter two texts were assigned), though the booklists certainly appear to be compelling and I hope to still have good recommendations to pass along!
Just watched: I finished Search Party’s final season, which despite my enthusiasm for the series as a whole, was something of a disappointment… lots of ‘filler’ by way of people screaming, fighting, and being chased, as opposed to the dry wit and calculated performances for which it is known. The storyline of Season 5 focuses on a project to sell ‘enlightenment’ as a pill — something that the Netflix miniseries Maniac (2018) did much better. Maniac, which starred Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, and a slew of other big names, never got its flowers despite its profound creativity and great writing. I started rewatching the series last night — it is more wounding than I remembered, but also does incredible things with genre and retrofuturist aesthetics.
Currently listening: “Manhattan” by Cat Power and Sharon Van Etten’s 2019 album Remind Me Tomorrow (no skips on that one! “Seventeen” is my favourite song of all time, probably).