Thursday, August 21, 2008

Teach him he's alive before he wishes he was dead

An open letter to Andrew McCarthy:

Dear Andrew McCarthy,

I am a woman of a certain age.
No, I don't mind you asking: forty-two. That makes me the answer, ha ha.
It's from a book. Never mind.
Well, that's very nice of you, but you are mistaken. You're just confused because I don't act my age.

Andrew McCarthy, if I may make an observation? Age? is funny. It doesn't mean as much as it used to. Age no longer serves as a cultural definition. Remember when it used to? Used to be that if you knew the Speed Racer theme song, that meant that you had been in elementary school sometime between 1972 and 1981. But then MTV started showing Speed Racer, and then somebody else picked it up, and now I can get that song as a ringtone on my new phone. Because of the way stuff is archived and documented on the Internet, the merest cultural moment is always poised to make a comeback. Strawberry Shortcake. Mr. T. Transformers. Pegged jeans.

So it's actually increasingly rare that a generation, or a cohort, or a graduating class, has a movement, an icon, a trend, or even a fad that they can call their own. And this is where you come in, Andrew McCarthy. Stick with me here.

People spend a lifetime developing and modifying their mental Cute Boy Ken doll. (Unless, like, they don't, and therefore routinely fall spasmodically in love with men just like the boy who lived across the street with the long eyelashes and... god, fill in the blank yourself. I'm coming up dry. The kid who lived across the street from me growing up was obsessed with his toy lawn mower and would try to run over your feet with it if he saw you barefoot. Not a romantic figure, at least to me.) (NB: I am told that he grew up to be perfectly normal.)

Most people my age probably started with Erik Estrada as their base model, added Leif Garrett's hair and Matt Dillon's jeans, and then continued to tweak their Cute Boy ideal from there. Some went the Chachi route, and their Cute Boy is short and smartmouthed. Others discovered androgyny when they saw Robert Downey Jr. wearing eyeliner and breaking your heart in Less Than Zero. Many add a brood-and-explode component, à la Judd Nelson (ick) in Breakfast Club. Everybody adds his or her own bits and pieces: Val Kilmer's oversized Ray-Bans in Real Genius; Eric Stoltz's blue eyes from Some Kind of Wonderful. The girl who used to live in this house liked Christian Slater: when we moved in, I found pencilled graffiti in the closet of the boys' room noting that she saw Pump Up the Volume in May of 1991.

These are the movies that every suburban girl my age saw, and which by and large haven't been co-opted by subsequent cohorts. You know where I'm going with this.

Because even though most of us were rooting for Duckie, in the same situation we all would have gone for Blane, too. After all, Duckie was clearly gay, even though the movie wasn't written that way. They chickened out on that, didn't they? Ok, a few girls would have held out for Spader. But for me, that stickie-out chin? Nah.

No, it was the Andrew McCarthy take on brood-and-explode: the paper-thin, fooling-nobody offhand veneer that gave way to horrified alarm and then escalated to frantic, wild-eyed panicked outrage that became a characteristic of many of our mental Cute Boys. That shit still plays - just look at the career of David Schwimmer (Or, yeah, don't - sorry). Also, my Cute Boy has a cotton sportcoat with skinny lapels hanging in his closet, just for emergencies. I bet you were wondering where that thing got to.

Years have passed, of course, since you lusted after the likes of Jami Gertz and Molly Ringwald, and my tastes have coarsened too. I go for the more obvious now - the Clive Owen, the Daniel Craig. And of course the most requested ALA READ poster boy of all time. (Although we just saw The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I may be back on James McAvoy, who is not obvious at all. He played Tumnus the Faun all sidelong glances and conspiratorial nods: he appeared to be harboring seriously inappropriate thoughts about little Lucy Pevensey.)

So - just the other day, I heard something that sent my skull flying back to 1985. I'm kind of a voice person, I notice voices. I can pick out Mark Hamill or Brooke Shields before the words "Listening Library presents" are out of the CD player. I am insufferable during TV commercials. "Christine Lahti!" I will crow. "Listen, that's Duchovny!" Shatner, Sheen, Sutherland (
père et fils), Linda Hunt, Peter Coyote, Thomas Haden Church - their secret commercial shilling is an open book to me.

(I believe this voice thing of mine dates back to 1987, when there were two televisions in my apartment, one stacked on top of the other. Both had been trash-picked: one had sound only, and the other had something resembling a picture. It was greenish and bled offscreen at the top, and only came in when Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. Everybody looked like Beldar on that TV, especially
Picard. I think it was pointy-headed old Patrick Stewart, who, despite being bald and sort of beady-eyed, was absolutely devastating whenever he rumbled "Make it so," that made me start listening as well as looking. You know who's sexy? These guys are sexy: Campbell Scott, Stephen Fry, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Eddie Izzard. I will listen to whatever they are saying.)

But I had forgotten, until we slotted The Nixie's Song into the CD player a couple weeks ago, that Andrew McCarthy has this funny, breaky, bone-dry voice. I guess when I was a kid it was eclipsed by the sportcoat. But the moment I heard it, I thought to myself, "Oh yeah... Andrew McCarthy. Holy crap." Well done. Tired-sounding yet excited, this voice makes Holly Black's snotty characters funny and sympathetic. Creaky and quiet, yet charged with tension, this is the voice of hopeless causes, betrayed friendships, and unrequited longing for Ally Sheedy - and that shit never gets old either.

Andrew McCarthy, live in peace. Stay clear of Brooke Shields. That girl pissed off the Scientologists, she's got a target on her back.


-- Your Neighborhood Librarian