Recently I rewatched a great film by Lynn Shelton called My Effortless Brilliance. I enjoyed it so much the first time that I wanted to show it to all of my friends, ideally while I sat beside them, beaming. I began with one particular friend, and the screening was a success: we laughed, we cringed, we were quietly moved.
When it was over my friend turned to me and said, “That guy, the main character, you know who
he reminded me of?” I did, but I didn’t. It had bothered me all the way through the first time, this free-ranging recognition, so when my friend named a mutual acquaintance it was like cannonballing into a pool of bubble wrap: ridiculous, pod-popping satisfaction. He’s someone I’ve met only once, so there are no logical grounds for how deeply I felt the justice of this comparison, which was physical, but not only; it just jived, it was yar, you knew it. It was also as if, simply by way of making the match, my friend and I had become the proprietors of a secret about this person, and a wicked one at that.
Turnabout, let’s call it; secret for secret, anyway. I seem to have one of those faces, see. Perhaps you do too, and you know what I’m talking about. The kind of face people think they know, or have seen before, or can easily conflate with those they have studied more intimately in two dimensions than we can ever hope to in three. Perhaps this isn’t uncommon at all. In fact, in thinking this over, I have imagined most of you reading these words and thinking “Yeah, I get that all the time” (I actually began a random polling which was indeed invariably met with: “Yeah, I get that all the time”) and quickly had to confront the possibility that on some level and to some degree we all somehow suspect we’ve met one another before.
So I—like you, apparently—get this a lot. Only occasionally do people suggest that we went to camp, or I played on their volleyball team; too rarely have I come to them in a dream. Most often it turns out I am someone, or remind them of someone, they have seen on the big screen, someone whose image or affect or ineffable essence, having refracted and settled into some deep and murky but primordial quadrant of their memory, I have stirred and called to the fore. With strangers the conviction that attends the culmination of this process is particularly hard to overturn.
A few weeks ago I was on the subway when a jumpy man asked me if our train went to Queensborough Plaza. I told him that it did and we both relaxed a little in our seats; one more of life’s problems solved. Another issue quickly presented itself, however, and the nervous man leaned forward again, turning to me with the words that have come to fire a sort of ontological dread in my belly: “Where have I seen you before?”
Lest you think this gentleman had any sort of design on his seatmate, let me assure you that the ratio of women to men who hit me with this big one is almost equal, and in fact skews slightly female. “Have I seen you before?” he repeated, and I said, no, I didn’t think so. “Yeah, you’re that woman, you were in that movie.” “I’m not, I wasn’t, I promise,” I said. “Are you sure?” he pressed, looking truly perplexed. This time I couldn’t help him.
Am I sure? Too often, when I meet someone new, somewhere in the first few minutes they will get a sort of far-off, foggy look in their eyes while I’m discoursing on some godforsaken thing or other. I have learned to recognize this look not as crashing boredom (though I can spot that too, thank you) but the prelude to my least favorite how-do-you-do. It comes in several variations: Who do you look like? Do you know who you look like? Who do you remind me of? Do I know you? Where have I seen you before? The following details my attempt to get a grip on these questions and why they began to annoy, sadden, and then just thoroughly wig me out.
Let’s start with the Greeks; them or Larry King. “Perception is reality,” the latter is fond of saying, and under that rubric, might we in fact be the amalgams of different faces and performances people impulsively map onto us and might that not in fact be the best way we can hope to be known, if we are to be known at all? A brief equation inspired by Mr. King’s classical aphorism: the essential unknowability of other people times one of the best resorts we have found in the face of that predicament—the movies—equals the intense psychological and aesthetic intimacies we develop with the images and individuals we spend so much time watching more freely, closely, nakedly than we can ever watch each other. That is to say, without being watched back.
Film in particular has become so much a part of how we absorb and organize the world, in fact, that I would argue that the mapping/comparative impulse is not a matter of art imitating life or vice versa, but art mutating into life, then setting off a series of elaborate and ultimately inextricable counter-mutations. It was like a movie, a movie was like it–who can tell anymore? I wonder, if one were to empty out a brain and divvy up its critical, alpha chip signifiers–this is a woman, this is a man; this is repulsion, this is beauty; this is how a kiss goes, this is how you die; this is running for your life, this is walking down a city street all exhilarated and shit–how many of them would come straight from the movies, how many from lived experience, and how many from some unholy genome splicing of the two which becomes less an image or a visual phrase than a funny feeling in the old tummy. I imagine most of us would prefer the second pile to be the biggest but that’s just not the world/perception/reality we live in; the moving image changed so much more than the way we spend our rainy Sundays. Sometimes I worry that I’m actually most alive at the movies, and that that predicament is why we can’t help but see them everywhere we go, and in everyone we meet.
In Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, Jack Black’s character destroys the
inventory of a video store, then attempts to restock it with homemade versions in which he stars. His partner, played by Mos Def, says the customers will know these films are fake, they won’t be fooled, but Black doesn’t see why: “Maybe I am in Ghostbusters,” he says. Maybe we all are, Gondry suggests; maybe the act of watching a film not only completes but activates it, triggering a sort of psycho-sentient osmosis, opening a channel that allows a part of us to join the film and a part of the film to join us. Watching Before Sunrise a decade after I first saw it I was struck by the feeling of having left a part of my 20-year-old self somewhere within it, I could almost recognize her lurking between the euro-trains, behind the cobblestone alleys, in the fresh faces of the actors themselves. Maybe I am in Before Sunrise.
When someone else does the recognizing, of course, it gets trickier, by virtue of both engaging their own multi-mapped, memory-banked viewing experiences and raising one of the most critical questions one human being can ask another: What is it you see when you look at me?
Consider the overlap between the way we normals and the actual famous people field that question, and the psychic fallout it entails. Sasha Grey calls watching herself have sex onscreen surreal. “I don’t feel like it’s me,” she says, “It’s just a weird feeling that’s hard to describe.” In a scene early in Don’t Look Back, the young Bob Dylan laughs uneasily over a newspaper’s claim that he smokes 80 cigarettes a day. “I’m glad I’m not him,” he says.
Forty years later, in a 2004 interview, Dylan talked about the kind of interaction that keeps him from going out in public. “People will say, ‘Are you who I think you are?’” Dylan said. “And you’ll say, ‘Ahh, I don’t know.’ And they’ll say, ‘You’re, you’re him,’ and you’ll say, ‘Okay, yes?’ And then the next thing is, ‘Oh, no. Are you really him? I don’t think you’re him.’ And that can go on and on.”
Susan Strasberg used to tell a story about walking around New York with an incognito-in-plain-sight Marilyn Monroe. “Do you want to see me be her?” Monroe would say, and Strasberg describes the star turning on some imperceptible inner switch, then beginning to glow. Within moments the people who had been passing right by were stopping in their tracks, scrambling for pen and paper.
Of course creating distance between person and persona is common among people whose faces and bodies and voices become commodoties, if sometimes confusing for the public picking up the tab. And of course normals have personas too, themselves often in part constructed out of the personas they have watched and admired on screen, though we all want to be recognized, especially at parties where boys are present, as sovereign creations: Nobody wants to be unoriginal, or a type, or a screen of such accommodating blankness that pretty much anyone from Bea Arthur to a cartoon cat can be projected onto it. But also who needs their benign social interactions to segue without warning into not just an inappropriately intense eyeballing but a weirdly potent subordination of their individuality?
There was a point, two years ago, when I finally lost my patience. I was speaking with two gentlemen at a very civilized gathering in a lovely home where I knew only the hosts. One of them, a money guy, got the foggy look in his eyes: “Who do you…Who does she…Where have I…” I told him that I hated this game and it never ended well, but he wrangled three more people to surround me, bouncing ideas and shouting nominees like Scattergory clues. I followed what I’m pretty sure is the advised strategy for a bear attack: keep still, don’t make eye contact, and wait for it to be over. Unsatisfied, he actually left the room to seek out the host’s computer, so he might google and put his mind at ease. He gathered his team around the monitor in the other room, where they deliberated after he finally located the actress he had in mind. None of them noticed when I got my coat from the closet behind them and walked out the door.
This bothered me for a long time. I complained bitterly about it to my dad, who seems to have one of those faces as well. All while I was growing up, people told me whom my dad looked like, variations on the dark and handsome theme; he just looked like my dad to me. But then it happened: I was 13 or 14 and saw my first Jimmy Stewart movie, The Philadelphia Story. “Dad!” I said. “That’s you!” You’re crazy, he said. “Don’t you see it? Don’t people tell you that?” I recognize his bafflement now, though I’ll be damned if I’m wrong about Jimmy Stewart. Especially in profile. (It still happens: Last Christmas he got it from the checkout lady at the A&P. “Who do you look like?” she said. “You look like that actor…” “Abe Vigoda?” I volunteered. “No,” she frowned, hard.)
My dad told me not to take it so hard, that people sometimes fumble when they’re trying to make frivolous social contact. I can understand that—I am that—and this is not that. Writing such a scenario off as a clumsy attempt at connection is not a misplaced generosity but a misunderstanding. Generosity might grope for some understanding of the impulse we humans have, when confronted with something perfectly ordinary and frankly terrifying—a new human being—to “solve” them, contain them in some satisfying way, avoid looking further into yet another wild abyss. In other words it’s the avoidance of connection, which I believe, dear internet reader, you might be familiar with.
When it comes to strangers on trains and pleased-to-meet-you’s at parties, I have made the above, slightly strenuous philosophical peace with the Compare and Conquer. But those who know me well–friends, boyfriends, health professionals–aren’t much better, regularly telling me of faces and performances that sent up flags of familiarity for them. I’m still working on that one. I tried to list all of the names I have heard, and stopped at 16, with one woman by far the front-runner. The others, however, when considered in a gallery-like format, share almost no distinguishing characteristics, save their utter, abiding whiteness. I feel oppressed by the spectrum; it makes me feel lonely, the opposite of known. In any case they always seem to be telling me something important, so occasionally I have watched these unlikely women, trying to see what my friends see, but it’s impossible. It’s most impossible, in fact, when I actually do see myself, briefly, in a laugh, or a look, or a pointy nose. It’s just a weird feeling that’s hard to describe.
Last week, while perusing the Feminist Art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum I came across what I perceived to be a stone cut-out of a penis from the 3rd century BCE. The writing on the wall, however, described a figure of a seated woman, perhaps with a harp or cello propped between her legs. I pulled my friend over. “What do you see?” I asked. “A penis,” she said. “Exactly. A penis. Thank you.” Then we left and my friend cooed over a dog that I would bet money was bred for maximum ugliness per square inch. I couldn’t see it. Maybe if I had been raised with them, like her, I could. In the world of dog-owning, I hear, what owners hope to see most in their pets, consciously or unconsciously, is some part themselves. And in the context of a Feminist Exhibit, a five thousand year old icon of a penis becomes a squatting goddess.
The previous week I had left the supermarket feeling low after starting a fight between two stock boys: one was apparently defending the honor of the former child star his colleague had somehow seen in me as I was pricing strawberries. I became aware of the conflict when a shiny, gelled head peeked out from around the pasta display for a second look, then ducked back behind. “Naw, man, are you crazy? That’s my girl, that’s my chica!” he boomed. The other one stood his ground, hollering back. It was as though I wasn’t there at all.
Soon after the spaghetti aisle incident I saw The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s new film. Film critic Glenn Kenny has a small part in the film, and while I have met Glenn several times and had a few friendly exchanges, it was not until I watched him on a giant screen, in the dark, in that uniquely uninhibited way, that I realized how profoundly he reminds me of another friend, a much closer friend. They look not a bit alike, and of course Glenn was playing a character, if one that didn’t require a makeover or a funny accent; on screen he captured not the image or personality of my friend but the feeling. I can’t tell you how satisfying that two-toned ring of alarm and recognition was, that proud little thrill of affirmation: There he is! He lives!
That night I came home to an email from a different friend who said he had just seen a film whose lead actress really reminded him of me. He wouldn’t tell me her name, though, or the nature of the role, aware of my long history of being driven bananas by such things but “also because I fear that you might be like, ‘her?! me?!?! NO WAY!’ and then get mad at me.” I didn’t press, and I didn’t get mad. I don’t think I would have even if he’d told me; for the first time it actually made me feel kind of good. She lives!
Yesterday I stepped into my local library, and the security guard began to laugh when she saw me coming—not that unusual, I admit. But she was still smiling when she waved away my dutifully opened bag. “Did you forget something?” she asked, then looked me right in the face. The security guard thought she knew me—had just seen me. I winked at her and slipped inside.