Thursday, November 11, 2010


Any reader of this blog (and incidentally: are there any readers?) might have noticed that I tend to fall in love easily, pop culture-wise. The characters in films and books that I enjoy can become immediate shorthand for figures in my "real" life. People always told my father that he looked like Tom Selleck, more when he was younger.

A few years ago, however, a coworker of my father's told him he looked like Christian Bale in American Psycho. My father had never seen the film or read the Bret Easton Ellis book on which it is based (when I was fourteen, I did both of these things). I think he took the comment as a kind of compliment; Christian Bale is young and handsome, after all. And my dad does have an intense temper, which I can only imagine is magnified in the workplace.

So now, whenever I see Tom Selleck or Christian Bale, I think of my dad. But I didn't make the original association. The actor who reminds me most of my father, whose signal value is embedded with my dad, is Al Pacino. Not all eras of Al Pacino: just young Al Pacino, just Pacino playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

There is a physical resemblance, but it's slight, especially since my father has always had facial hair - I agree that Selleck is a nearer likeness. The association exists because my dad loves The Godfather, because he watches the films with tears in his eyes, because he once turned to me during the third film and said "Michael loves Mary so much," and I understood that he meant also that he loved me, so much.

So this business of who looks like who - of what emotions an actor's face excites in me - has a lot to do with image association, with memory. The German actor Daniel Brühl was on my mind the night that I met my fiancé. I had recently seen Inglourious Basterds, in which Brühl plays a young Nazi officer.

I didn’t much care for the film, which I thought was reductive and somewhat schizophrenic in its treatment of WWII, even for a candy-colored reimagining. But there was Daniel Brühl. I was reminded of the German actor’s pleasing onscreen presence, his well-ordered features and milky physicality. My negative reaction to the film as a whole probably had something to do with Tarantino’s perverse decision to cast Brühl as an entitled jerk in the same movie where real-life entitled jerk Eli Roth plays a semi-heroic figure.

Regardless, I don’t know if I would have noticed T’s resemblance to Brühl if I hadn’t just seen the Tarantino film. It wasn’t the first thing I noticed about him. We were at a BBQ in Echo Park. Aside from me, there were three men. I knew two; one was a stranger. These are the last moments I remember clearly, seemingly without affect, because from then on the memory becomes inflected with the blurry tint of repeated telling, the bronzed sense of canonization. The stranger was from Denmark. He had a tattoo on his left arm that looked at first glance like an American Indian headdress, but which I would later learn was the mechanical eagle from the cover of Judas Priest’s 1982 album Screaming for Vengeance.

Did I notice the resemblance almost immediately? Was it prompted by the fact that T and Daniel Brühl do look somewhat alike, or by T’s quiet, confident demeanor, his very slightly accented English? I can’t say for sure. But when the evening ended – oddly early, it seemed to me – I had T’s number, and I went home and changed my computer background to a photograph of Daniel Brühl in his breakout role in 2004’s Goodbye Lenin!

But now I’m not sure; did I change the background after meeting T, because of the perceived resemblance? Or had I done it before, after seeing the Tarantino movie, just because I remembered Brühl, because I liked the look of his face? The resemblance, and Daniel Brühl's association with T, had already rooted itself in my brain. For as long as I can remember, I have responded to media that I like, that I love, that touches me, that changes me, with devoted fandom. This behavior probably has something to do with my parents, who made me in their image: comic book and science fiction reader, space opera watcher, horror fetishist. Maybe fandom is chemical – maybe it is prompted by some hormone or amino acid produced by our brains when we look lovingly into the pages of a book or onto a broad, tall screen. This is the way it has always felt to me, anyway: like I am falling in love again, just a little bit. My bones still buzz when I hear one of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores at the beginning of a Lynch movie. My heart still sings when I see a favorite author give a reading. And hey, have you ever heard this never-released Rebekah Del Rio song, written by David Lynch?

(The rabbit hole goes deeper: do you recognize Del Rio from Mulholland Dr., wherein she sings Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish?

But I didn’t feel this way about Brühl before I met T. I saw Goodbye Lenin! at the small movie theatre across the street from Lincoln Center in 2004, when I was nineteen and a freshman in college. I remember that the film oddly shared parts of the score of Amelie, a film I did not like, and that it was generally enjoyable.

But Brühl didn’t strike me then. I did not, as I had so often done before and have since, go home and scour the internet for information about him, try to figure him out. At some point, before or after I saw Goodbye Lenin!, I ran into a girl from the previous fall’s writing seminar on the fifth floor of 721 Broadway, where our classes were held. Her name was Daphne, and she commuted from Queens. She was the type of girl who always carried lots of bags: grocery bags full of what looked like laundry, bookstore totes stuffed full of paper, and always a massive, overstuffed brown backpack coughing apples, water bottles, text books. Daphne and I weren’t close, and after that first year she transferred to a different school. But she and I spoke briefly in the hallway about the movie. “Yeah, it was great!” She chirped. “And Daniel Brühl is really hot!”

I remembered those words after I met T, and if I'm honest with myself, my recognition of the resemblance, my memory of the fact that Brühl, of his attractiveness, was probably simultaneous with my realization that T was attractive. Not that they were the same person, or that I was attracted to T because Daniel Brühl is handsome, but because the thoughts were adjacent in my mind. I have lived so fully through stories, through media, that I think I have begun to experience my own emotions through the directives of pop culture.

T was in the United States for only six months on a scholar’s visa. When he left and we began the complicated process of bringing him back permanently and legally, I felt like the half-year we had had together was the briefest of good dreams.T’s departure seemed to toss me back to my old status, the lives I’d lived as a single twenty-something, a young adult in a long distance relationship, a lonely teenager. I feared becoming again the celebrity obsessed hermit I had once been, the person who was quick the separate the wheat of my preoccupations from the chaff of everyone else’s, the college student writing long-form poetry about Tilda Swinton.

A favorite picture of the "Tilds," as I called her at the height of my love.

I resisted the urge to grow a new obsession to keep myself busy in T's absence. But at the very end of our nine months of separation, within the last month, when we finally knew when he would be coming back, I had the occasion to watch Inglorious Basterds again, with a visiting friend, who loved it. The strange recognition came back. Brühl really does look like T. At that point, our separation had normalized; our Skype conversations and one-line emails were predictable, comforting and frustrating. As we entered the instability of our last weeks apart, I found myself drawn to perform the rites of my adoration behavior. I took to the internet in search of Brühl. I watched several of his movies, learning in the process that he was a specific kind of young European actor, the sort regularly cast in films that Americans perceive as “very European,” stirring stories of young love and angst with sustained sex scenes, fairly ridiculous scores, and plain heroines. These are the films my mother has always loved, and taught me to love. Their titles sounded like Saturday Night Live jokes about foreign films. It was no surprise that I liked him.

In Ladies in Lavender (yes), he plays a Polish violinist who washes up on the shores of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith’s Cornwall beach house in the 1930s. Unable to speak and with a broken ankle, he must receive the ministrations of the older ladies until he heals enough to reach for a violin.

Watching the movie is like looking at the poster for two hours.

In Love in Thoughts (again, yes), he is a Weimar dandy in a stylishly homoerotic relationship with his best friend, who he accompanies home for an incomprehensible weekend of sexual tension with the friend’s sister, a jaunt that ends in two deaths. In this typical scene, young people feel sad.

And in The Edukators, he is a figure maybe closest to some past iteration of my fiance (although he will hate to read that), a hot-hearted anarchist with an eye on a class war who breaks into grand houses to rearrange the furniture. Maybe I just think this character is like T because it is in this role that Brühl bears the strongest physical resemblance to him; T even chose this picture for Facebook's "doppelganger week."

I’m not sure I like being this way, finding outlets for my affection and focus in the ephemeral world of fictional narrative. But I know no other way to be. I watched the films alone on my couch. I didn’t want to see them with anyone else, just as I didn’t want anyone to come with me when I went to the airport to gather T. Although I had seen him every day on Skype, I wasn’t sure I would know him, that my intimacy with his face would persist, until the moment he rounded the bend of the escalator and came towards me, looking like himself, and no one else.