Eggheads

Like cities at night, smoothies which include five different fruits and being able to renew your library books on a computer, two massive American companies offering to freeze the eggs of their female staff is something which make me feel like I’m living in the future. Something in me – both head and ovaries – bridled at the news from Apple and Facebook, which will take effect from next year, for their American employees. Both companies asked thousands of their respective employees what matters to them, what sorts of new large-scale policies would make their working lives better. You can just about imagine Tim Cook quickly cobbling together an employee satisfaction questionnaire for Apple employees and dashing round his offices with the documents fresh in his hand after news that Mark Zuckerberg and co. had done just that at Facebook. Silicon Valley is, naturally, a competitive place. Odd, but of course not odd at all, that both Valley boys are doing similar things at roughly the same time.

Facebook are now offering female staff up to $20,000 worth of ocyte-cryopreservation. Apple will follow suit from January 2015 – alongside employees being entitled to help with “adoption issues” as well as $4,000 payments at Facebook for new parents, and Apple’s 18 week paid maternity leave.

Whence the generous offers of Facebook and Apple? The coinciding timing of a woman’s fertile years and the stage of her life when she is likely to be establishing herself in a career seems like a horrid, Daily Maily joke. It’s not Apple or Facebook’s fault that there is disparity between female and male fertility, but if the options tacitly suggested are either to have children way before joining the staff of Apple or Facebook or to scale the corporate ladder and put one’s eggs in a freezer and worry about it later, we don’t really have options; the twin poles of doing it early in life and taking our chances with frozen eggs later on are pretty shabby. Questioning the motives of two giant corporations offering the option of egg cryogenics isn’t entirely cynical – Mother Nature, the tricky cow, makes it easier for us to mother children when we are younger; might not Facebook and Apple prefer younger and fresher women? Author and seer Douglas Coupland wrote about the youth-loving Silicon Valley in 1995 in Microserfs, where Microsoft employees were considered past it at 35.

I sincerely hope that many women find themselves on its winning side, and I don’t think the whole idea is necessarily completely terrible from beginning to end, but there are many aspects of the plan which seem to have been overlooked. Facebook and Apple seem to be presenting the plan to the world’s media as a non-problematic alternative to natural conception; in practice, this isn’t an either have children young or definitely conceive from frozen eggs deal – egg freezing involves heavy doses of hormones, a needle through the vagina and, crucially, no guarantee of conception. The issue, too, of how an older uterus might cope with its role in bringing to term a pregnancy seems to have gone unannounced. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be a consideration, and, again, all of this isn’t Apple or Facebook’s fault; but the glossing over of potential pitfalls is serious stuff.

Legal wrangles in the USA, a famously litigious land, might cause trouble in this frozen paradise; I wonder what strings are attached. Who would own the frozen eggs? If the female employee left immediately after treatment, could her eggs be “claimed” by the company, or deduct the charge from her last pay cheque?  I’m probably worrying for nothing: Apple and Facebook aren’t that daft – they’ll have the legal stuff  wrapped up, tied tight, watertight. Will tiny Apple and Facebook logos be imprinted upon our eggs?

The whole shebang seems inescapably American: the workings of a healthcare system which is not free, plus a corporate plan is supposed to equal American women rejoicing in this new gender equality. Here in Britain, criticisms might have an additional edge, given that we don’t have the merry-go-round of private healthcare. (The comments section on The Guardian practically exploded when the news was announced.) The NHS has quite strict guidelines on who can and can’t have fertility treatment, and how many rounds, but at least there’s none of this father-may-I between individual and giant corporation. Why should just employees of Apple and Facebook have this option in the USA?

Well – it’s because of money, which shifts things at macro and micro levels. And Facebook isn’t just a boys’ club: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, currently valued at $1 billion, went from Harvard to management consultant to Washington Post senior executive to Facebook profiteer. Her philosophy, and central message in her book Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead is ostensibly feminist and inclusive: women are great, there should be many, many more women in positions of leadership in big business; why is there still the continuation of the nonsense that assertive women are maligned?; women shouldn’t avoid new jobs or responsibilities when they know there is a child on the way. All good stuff, but it’s a lot easier to say when you went to an Ivy League university, and ended up being in the C.O.O. of Facebook. Personal wealth doesn’t solve the quandary of the work/child/life balance, but, especially alongside a personal partnership with an equally successful man, probably goes quite a long way to cushioning it.

Perhaps the female employees of Facebook and Apple scored something of an own goal in asking for the up-and-coming cryogenics: perhaps, even, their requests were tailored to fit something more palatable for the two companies. Facebook’s payment of $4,000 to new parents in their employ (who can spend the money in any way they choose) is great, as is Apple’s relatively generous parental leave care. Nordic countries are often cited in the new parent paid leave debate: new Icelandic fathers can currently take up to three months off from their jobs and remain on 80% of their salary, Danish parents can share a year of paid leave, and shared Swedish parental leave has been in place since 1974. Here in Britain, “a framework for shared parental leave” will be introduced in 2015. It’s taken us until now to really challenge the assumption that women would always  be the ones who stay at home with a new baby. In the USA, employers are not at all obliged to give any paid parental leave, and there is currently an across-the-board maximum of 12 weeks unpaid leave for both new parents. Demanding something like the Danish system both here and in America wouldn’t be much short of revolutionary given the current state of things on both sides of the Atlantic, but a truly civilized world is one which makes proper room for parents and children, with space to breathe both financial and time, rather than piecemeal one-time financial rewards from companies who feel like giving it.

If we took tech company CEOs seriously all the time, we women wouldn’t even ask for a raise. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, of all places, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said recently that women in technology shouldn’t ask for a raise – “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” He also said that this magical silence “…might be one of the initial “super powers” that, quite frankly, women [who] don’t ask for a raise have.” He has since apologised, and stated that there is a need to close the gender pay gap. One suspects that it might be women’s relative lack of assertiveness in the workplace – especially in the male-dominated tech sector – that sees that pay raises aren’t given, not a suppression of their innate metaphysical abilities to get rises by magical Zen means.

When anyone says that women should have children by a certain age, because we don’t have the luxury of putting it off indefinitely and having a career, it rubs us the wrong way because we know it damn well already. A man saying it comes across as an ignorant sexist, and a woman making the statement somehow seems like a head girl who is telling tales out of class. Adding money to the mix slants things even more: fairly recently, a well-known female TV presenter said this; our humphing that “it’s all right for her” might seem a bit churlish, but it’s a legitimate complaint. Sheryl Sandberg and Kirstie Allsopp’s remarkable careers and cushions of cash help them along in a way denied to most women.

We should at least be pushing for much more in the way of company-given breaks for parents, both male and female, on both sides of the Atlantic, with corporate offers to freeze eggs, at best, a sideline to real monetary and calendar-based options for parents and children. The conundrum of how and when to fit having children into one’s life isn’t an entirely female one, but is italicised for us by our biological systems, and real progress would address the fact that we often feel we are swimming against the tide, work and child-wise. The current offers from Apple and Facebook to their American female employees seem to be an alarming means of capitalising on the fertility disparity between women and men, with women not necessarily the winners.

Women are often caught up in the push-pull of problem and false solution: all sorts of media reel us out on the idea that we’re getting old and unsightly and reel us back in with some moisturiser, or shampoo, or make-up, when the problem is that we feel ugly and ashamed of feeling ugly in the first place. Corporations need to play fair, rather than play God. We can navigate using our phones, read books on computers; we’re practically living in the future. We must do our best to make sure that it doesn’t turn out like a David Cronenberg-esque dystopia. The best solution for the balance between our working and personal lives are their integration, in as far as that is possible. We must be careful not to be led a silly dance in which the only thing we go twirling after is promises of stored parts of our own bodies.

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Pooping Pigeons! Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is 10/Mood Indigo

Trying to forget about someone you have loved, slept with and touched souls with during a break up is cruelly weird in the first place, like some surreal survival-in-the-future psychic mechanism dreamt up by David Cronenberg; so when Michel Gondry directed Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, things got even weirder. Gondry is one of those directors whose work you recognise straight away. More than that, though, you could run away with the impression that he is like that all the time: in the same sort of way, you could just about believe that Wes Anderson somehow speaks in the font he uses in text panels in his films, Quentin Tarantino showboats around at the breakfast table and speaks like a character from Death Proof, and Michel Gondry sleepwalks around the house like an absent-minded professor, his whole world stop-motion animated. Probably none are true, but Gondry’s subconscious and the dream-mumble world of sleep logic are close to the surface; working with Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there emerges a dream team: Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich before Eternal Sunshine, and Synedoche, New York afterwards: his work is about the light, shade and dark of the human mind. Eternal Sunshine is a perfect crossroads where Kaufman’s imaginative script meets the stylings of Gondry’s dream-weirdness.

Mood Indigo (2013) is a slightly different kettle of fish. It is a screen adaptation of a novel by Boris Vian from 1947, L’ecume des Jours, the screenplay is by Luc Besson, known for Leon, Nikita and most recently Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as an accidental drug mule who ends up using her brain to full capacity, mucking around with the space-time continuum, and travelling through time (maybe she hadn’t been immersed in enough weirdness playing Laura in Under the Skin. ) In Mood Indigo, set in Paris, Audrey Tatou plays Chloe, a woman with a water lily growing in her lung, which causes her to fall ill. Colin, played by Romain Duris, is her eventual husband, who takes a number of odd (very odd) jobs to cover the costs of her sickness, including one which sees him in a secretarial team, marshalling hundreds of typewriters on a kind of conveyor belt. Naturellement. Gad Elmaleh does a good turn as Colin’s friend Chick, who is struggling to maintain his own relationship with Alise.
The symbolism of the water lily in Chloe’s lung is as poignant and as delicate as its leaves: would that the crazily dividing cells of a tumour show up on an X-ray as a lovely flower, an extra troubling poignance would be added to the mix, and our relationships with the flora of the fields would be questioned by an unquiet mind, desperate to understand a relationship with something so beautiful which could also kill us. Gondry is in every frame: his ideas show up in the Pianocktail, Colin’s piano/drinks machine hybrid, in the dream-bubble car driven by Chloe and Colin, in the humanised mouse running around. He literally turns up, too, playing Chloe’s doctor.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn’t exist as a spikily and remarkable film until 2004 (the title was taken from a line in an Alexander Pope poem), and so it had to be invented by Charlie Kaufman and Gondry – a super-intelligent elegy on the broken relationship, like a buggered-up Leonard Cohen song made visual. Kate Winslet is Clementine, a restless, questing free spirit who runs up against Jim Carrey’s Joel – a foil for her as an introspective soul, old before his time. Thank goodness some cinematic couples who meet on trains end up in failing relationships and have to go to a futuristic memory-deleting company to quell their pain and don’t all end up getting all Before Sunrise on us…The whole film is a glorious but very distorted arc, starting with Joel and Clementine’s “first” meeting on public transport; they have already been through a turbulent relationship with each other, and have both undergone a remarkable procedure courtesy of Lacuna, Inc., a company specialising in the neurological dark arts; they eradicate certain memories from the brains of consenting adults, with broken-hearted former sweethearts being on the top of the list.

Humans are humans, though, and the dystopian procedure is met with massive resistance as it gets underway. Joel struggles to keep his memories of his relationship with Clementine intact as the computer he is hooked up to vacuums them out. Kirsten Dunst is a Lacuna assistant with a cavalier attitude, dancing around in her underwear as Joel’s mind is altered in a domestic setting, out of office hours. Gondry seems to favour parallel stories which, in their own way, act as twisted arrows, pointing to the big picture – Dunst’s character, it turns out later, has had the memory erasure procedure done herself, to quash the painful memories of a relationship with the married Lacuna boss: another person unconvinced that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to haved loved at all. Such is love, and the Kaufman/Gondry take on it in Eternal Sunshine, that sometimes love is a chilly cul-de-sac, without threads tying up neatly – but alternative rays of sunshine can sometimes melt icy issues, and Clementine and Joel, after coming across their records from Lacuna, kick against the deletion of their memories in the end, and decide to start their relationship anew.

Human romantic relationships are a theme in the two films. There’s a heart and soul to them, stuff we can relate to: it’s not all a stop-motion, feature-length version of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. It’s now ten years since the release of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Since then, Michel Gondry has directed all sorts, including The Science of Sleep, in a similar vein to Eternal Sunshine, with bizarre-but-fits-the-film surrealism. There’s also been Be Kind, Rewind in 2008, an enjoyable romp starring Jack Black, and The We And The I (2012), a straight-shooting look at a bunch of high school kids on their last day of term – although there are quirky touches, like the annoucement of which part is which on a billboard in the background. There was also The Green Hornet, a movie about a superhero already in America’s psyche, born in 1930 and turning up in comic books and the like. A lot of critics turned their noses up; Gondry has said in interviews that the main problem was that nerds didn’t agree with his treatment of the character. There’s a cyclical feeling to the Eternal Sunshine/The Science Of Sleep to Mood Indigo journey that a lot of die-hard Gondry fans probably approve of; a lot of them must have come to love and expect the cinematic tropes in the form of things like cellophane oceans.

Time has a climatic influence on love and illness, exerting a kind of reverse greenhouse effect in Mood Indigo, and hailstones in Eternal Sunshine, where the storm sends the two lead characters running for cover as they weave in and out of real life and memory. Time is woven into the narratives of Mood Indigo and Eternal Sunshine inseparably from their stories – in Mood Indigo, the colour drains from the film as the lung-flower grows, and Chloe and Colin’s apartment shrinks (Michel Gondry moved the walls and the ceiling little by little as filming progressed, capturing that increasingly claustrophoboic, desolate atmosphere.) The intricacies of the narrative structure of Eternal Sunshine, many taking place inside the human mind, are so pronounced and dizzying that they’re not light years away from time travel.

A criticism I have seen aimed at Gondry is that surreal elements in his films turn up ex nihilo, most notably, perhaps, in Mood Indigo; where sea creatures flow from taps, and drinks pour from pianos without apparent reason.The structure and ideas behind Eternal Sunshine and 2006’s The Science of Sleep, a twisty-turny film starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane and partly set in the world inside his dreams, might lend themselves more readily to stop-motion quirkiness. But a world without such elements in cinema would be as dull and odd as an art world where nothing but figurative painting passed muster; must everything always be in service of something?

But the surrealism does connect to the hearts of the films as a less obvious artery: the pianocktail, the alarm bell which scuttles around like a beetle and the fish from taps might seem like a cinematic cul-de-sac, but if every visual device in film ended in a plot twist, we’d be dazzled by plot, or else inhabit a very dull cinematic world. Day to day, in our waking lives, our subconscious throws up flotsam and jetsam while we’re standing in the kitchen, thinking about love, or taking the rubbish out. The use of a lovely water lily as something similar to a tumour in Chloe’s lungs uses beauty in a strange, striking way, and gives us a glimpse inside a world where we are we meet our tumours in the outside world, in the flora of the fields. I’d like to think Gondry is hailed as a director of cinema verite in a not too distant parallel world which has a more panoramic view of our minds and our lives. Were things different, we would all be watching films and stuck in lives directed by Richard Curtis.

But Gondry knows he is a bit of a quirk-bag; he’s admitted it in interviews. Out walking with a friend one day, she and I saw a pigeon poo on the pavement. My friend said, “Thinking of what a city pigeon eats, goodness knows what its system thinks of as waste.” In the same sort of way, it’s hard to know what would count as a weird dream round at Michel’s house. Given his inventiveness, his obvious signature style of dream-logic (if you see an alarm bell turning into a scuttling insect in a film, the film probably isn’t directed by Michael Bay) and the interplay of that and plot and themes, it’s hard to know what would see him waking at 4am and questioning the contents of his subconscious. Hopefully he would stop-motion walk around his house, mumble to himself like an eccentric professor, and turn it into another great film which connects the dream world with life.

Pulp Fiction Is 20 Years Old

The popular cinematic climate of 1993/1994 was laden with storm clouds and ready to burst. 1993 was quite often about Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle,  so Thunderclap Quentin fired down rain and lightning, Pulp Fiction, on moviegoers in late 1994. Reservoir Dogs, his bolt from the blue in ’92, was startling in a pop-cultural climate which was looking for something else. Facing front towards my nascent teenage years, there seemed to be something like a sexy expectancy in the air; these cues were partly observational, hormonal and intuitive, but mainly gathered from my collection of music and film magazines. Britain welcomed Nirvana after a staid musical interlude, comedy was the new rock n’ roll, the toddler internet was taking its first steps, and there seemed a pop-cultural readiness for something new. These magazines I read showcased the adult world, for me, as an endless round of flatshares, sex, booze, and live music; I looked forward to a time when I shared a flat with the lead singer of Tiny Monroe and went to early screenings of the latest film by this Quentin character, without parents around to derail things.

Select, the sexiest of all these magazines, included bands and movie posters (Definitely Maybe was above my bed; I’d walked to the relatively far away Safeway to buy a copy because it had Liam Gallagher on the cover). I dared myself to stick the druggy, handgun-ny Pulp Fiction poster up beside the Oasis one, but I didn’t accept the self-bet – it was far too sexy and trashy, and my knowledge of what my Dad could be like at the dinner table and the striking fact of Uma Thurman’s obvious sexiness on the poster dovetailed, and I foresaw a lengthy parental piss-take about me being a lesbian which would have imploded on contact with my teenage embarrassment (“I’m not gay, look, I like Liam Gallagher!” “Yeah, right. My daughter the lesbian! Ha ha ha ha.”) Anyway, I saw the film a few years later, on video.

It was the talk of the lunch hour in the back concourse of high school. “The guy from Look Who’s Talking 2 is wearing a weird wig! And there’s this new guy called Samuel L. Jackson!” Self-dare failed again, and I didn’t go with the cooler kids to see it at La Scala. It knocked me out when I saw it later, though. The high rising black humour and the heavenly dialogue; the relentless hard core to it, the hellish iconic-as-soon-as-they-were-thought-of hundred and one scenes (dance, drug, dick-dread, drive). It’s a freezing cold shock of brilliance; realistic dialogue for its own sake, when Jules and Vincent are talking about what hamburgers are called in other countries; the cinematic device of tying up several stories which Tarantino streamlines, makes his own, and carries the main story with; the brilliant mistake of the props buyer who didn’t know what an Afro wig looked like and still landed in the good graces of Samuel L. Jackson; a perfect cast, including Christopher Walken’s cameo and Maria de Medeiros’ pouting girlfriend to Bruce Willis’s explosive boxer Butch. The film’s influence rippled out in the direction of fashion and, obviously, coolness; Uma Thurman’s Rouge Noir Chanel nail varnish sold out, and every bugger went as Mia, Jules or Vincent to fancy dress parties circa 1995.

I remember the word “irony” being thrown around quite a lot around that time, its resurgence, its role in everyone’s lives, its place in clothing (logo-spoofing t-shirts, retro blouses, plastic jewellery), then everyone ODing, and getting sick. Perhaps it was an mode of psychic renewal, as we emerged from the fairly earnest 1980’s. Ironic is too clunky a tag for the film, though it was bandied around in Pulp Fiction’s direction. There is irony, but it is uneasily separated from the plot, the joy Tarantino obviously took in writing the dialogue, the darkness, and the violence. To help cause despair in squeamish people who couldn’t be bothered watching the film, the violence is not easily separated from the humour – Elmore Leonard, writer noir and obvious influence on Tarantino, said that in America, violence could be humorous. Piercing stuff.

Watching Pulp Fiction twenty years after its release, it makes light work of the cliche of an older cultural artefact being newly fresh on second, third, fourth contact. Released tomorrow, it would shed any 90’s-specific coating and probably be the most striking and pleasing thing at the cinema this side of finding David Cronenberg sitting next to you in the Odeon. It is still as cold, luscious and more-ish as sub-zero ice-cream. Another time would be better to talk about later on in Tarantino’s career, when his cinematic influences were swallowed whole in the all mouth and no trousers stylings of Death Proof, Uma Thurman reappearing as a troublesome “feminist icon” in Kill Bill 1 and 2, and the too-long Django Unchained (Jackie Brown was brilliant, though). It’s been a pleasure to, in a strange way, come of age alongside a fanboy in a sweetshop film director, and I did stay fairly true to the Select image of adulthood – I would still love to share a flat with the lead singer from Tiny Monroe.