Thursday, December 31, 2009

love in all its dimensions

Writers generally stay vigilant for spotting story lines that might have a unique spin in depicting vulnerabilities of the universal condition. That's pretty highbrow for moving into a discussion of an absurd but tenderly poignant 2007 movie, watched only recently, titled "Lars and the Real Girl." The storyline depicts an emotionally damaged young man who resorts to buying a life-size inflatable doll to be his companion and ease his loneliness. When the movie was first released, the concept seemed off-the-wall, bizarre, and a bit kinky, with an unsavory connection to sex toys. Still, it seemed to garner some modestly good reviews, and there was always an interest in how the writer and director handled this material. In the age of Netflix, it was easy to find out, and rather enjoyable. One hastens to add that the acting was especially good. Well, the humans. The doll was especially weird.

Lars, a thirty-something, is living in a garage apartment next to his married brother Gus's home. Karen, Gus's attractive wife, hurries across the snow covered yard in her robe to knock at Lars' door; she wants to invite him to eat breakfast with her and Gus. Lars is too shy or something to even open the door: they carry on a one-sided conversation through the glass pane, until Karen thinks she has an agreement. But instead, Lars drives off to work. He dresses neatly, and works at a computer station in some sort of large technology firm. His cubicle mate calls him over to see the assortment of sexy, inflatable dolls he has on his monitor. Lars is disapproving of his associate's waste of company time. Another associate, Margo, a charming young woman, tom-boyish good looks, comes over to flirt with Lars. She's obviously very interested in him, but he keeps a cool distance. So far, nothing too amiss.

Days later, a crate is delivered to Lars apartment. Gus and Karen are inquisitive, and Lars is evasive. Karen again tries to get him to come to dinner at the house, and, surprising her, Lars accepts—if he can bring his girlfriend. Karen is ecstatic; of course he can. Lars tells her the girlfriend, Bianca, is from Brazil, the daughter of a missionary, and has had an injury that requires her to use a wheel chair. No problem; Karen is so happy for him. The next scene alone is worth the price of admission. Karen and Gus are seated at one side of the table staring across at something that grips them in a sort of catatonic trance. The camera pans around to show a smiling Lars at dinner, with Bianca, the life-sized, inflated doll, seated at the table in a wheel chair beside him. From time to time, Lars speaks to the doll, shares food from her plate, and carries on a conversation with Karen and Gus as if there was nothing unusual happening at all.

Getting kinky yet? Not at all. Lars explains later to Karen that since he and Bianca are not married yet, it wouldn't be right if she stayed with him in his apartment, and so could she stay in the extra bedroom in the house? Of course, yes, of course, Lars; no problem, says a shell-shocked Karen.  In what seems a good writing strategy, the back-story is unfolded after an intrigue has been built-up wondering what is Lars problem. Gus gradually pieces it together for Karen. Their mother died when they were just youngsters, and it devastated their father who remained drowned in grief and remorse afterward. As soon as he was old enough, Gus, unable to bear it, got out of the house. Lars, the younger brother, was left to live with the depressed father until years later, and it apparently had taken its toll on him.

Karen decides they have to get Lars to see a local doctor-psychologist in this small, mid-western town. The ruse is that they're going to have this woman doctor check out Bianca to be sure that everything necessary is being done for recovery from her 'injury.' Lars is persuaded, and the office visits are humorous, but more than that, it's moving to see how the doctor is actually probing into Lars' own state of mind. Exceptional acting in what could have been just comedy.

Just as compelling, it seemed believable that the whole town was pulling for Lars, accepting Bianca as an everyday reality, especially by Lars' church-going community, and his office mates. Yes, Margo stays threaded into the storyline; see the movie to appreciate just how well it was done.

The bizarre nature of the story recalls an article, "Love in 2-D," by a Japanese writer, Lisa Katayama, which was published in the NY Times last July. The phenomenon involves "a thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters. These 2-D lovers, as they are called, are a subset of otaku culture— the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and video games in Japan in the last decade." Studies have suggested the 2-D love phenomenon "may be attributed in part to the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life." The author points out that a government survey shows "more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins; 50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex."

The 2-D aspect refers to a practice of forming real, romantic relationships with a graphic image of an anime character imprinted on the slipcase of a pillow, which they carry with them on 'dates,' perhaps to a karaoke bar, a public dinner, or similar public places. These items are sold on the Internet, or can be bought or traded at public conventions. Katayama interviews several men who are a part of the subculture, and represent a broad spectrum of 2-D lovers. At one extreme there are men who have given up all expectations of ever marrying, who have a wistful, self-conscious awareness of their fetish, but are nevertheless happy and fulfilled in their 2-D love. In the middle range, some may have tried 'real' romances, but were dumped and have returned to 2-D love. At the other end, some may be happily married now, but have fond recollections of their former obsession. Katayama suggests that the majority of the 2-D lovers go to work, pay rent, have a wide circle of friends, and otherwise live normal lives. Although the paraphernalia may alarm some—the anime characters are often scantily clad prepubescent girls (cartoons; like Elsie, but unwrapped)—the interviewees mostly seemed to have pretty gentle natures. In any case, there doesn't appear to be the cases of sexual violence reported in Japan as are reported in western newspapers.

The human condition seems to endlessly amaze, and should prove an endless source of new material for writers to ponder.
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