From Polonius to American Pie, there's an aphorism out there for everyone

Popular culture is bursting with handy tips.

Erica Jong once wrote: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” Now that we have that at the forefront of our minds, what is to be the reaction to two bits of advice I came across recently? The first, in a women’s magazine, came under the title “Brilliant love advice you haven’t read before” and featured tips gathered from people in all walks of life – a barman, a nurse, a travel agent, a hotel concierge, and so on. From a member of British Airways cabin crew came this: “Want to boost your chances of chatting to a cute stranger on a flight? Ask for a seat on the aisle, somewhere near the toilet. You’ll get noticed every time people get up to stretch.”

The second bit of advice came from a counsellor in a newspaper column, in response to a woman seeking guidance on what to do with a boyfriend who found her vagina “repulsive”. She was advised to read a book on sexual and physical diversity with her boyfriend and “discuss the material as equal adults, not teacher/pupil, and reward him when he demonstrates maturity”.             

Both of these bits of advice struck me as so incredibly odd that I have been unable to stop thinking about them. Was I missing something? Were these the answers that had already occurred to the readers, as Jong might argue, or were these just two examples of seemingly absurd and incorrect advice?

Dispensing wisdom, informed or not, isn’t hard. We can all do it and often do: despite having no degree (or real interest, to be honest) in economics, I could tell you my thoughts on what we should do to turn this financial downturn around, at 20 paces.

Personally, I like to deliver my perceptive titbits of good judgement with a languid stroke of my chin and a thousand-yard stare, which gives unearned gravitas to the most idiotic utterances. The internet is a mass grave of advice – good, bad, misogynist and racist. When you have a spare few hours, I urge you to trawl the “advice” tag on Tumblr; humanity’s problems are laid bare, from the anonymous person who wants to know a noncreepy way to procure the phone number of a crush to the person looking for book recommendations for the summer. Your screen will squeak at the platitudes unironically held up as wisdom from the lips of King Solomon himself.

There is guidance on how to survive your miserable teens, your footloose twenties, your regretful but now appropriately grateful thirties. Conclusion: we’re a mess at all times and there is foolish advice to be foisted on us at every turn.

But back to popular-entertainment culture, which is what this column is all about. What instructions from the finest fictional minds out there have you squirrelled away for everyday living? Are you a fan of Polonius (a twinkly-eyed Ian Holm, for fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation), clearly destined for an Oprah-esque talk show before Hamlet puts paid to that, who advocates “To thine own self be true”? Perhaps you prefer the new age/The Apprentice contestant-style braggadocio of Yoda’s “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”? The dignity in the words of Ree in Winter’s Bone (played by the Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) – “Never ask for what ought to be offered” – is admirable but somewhat misplaced. Saddest of all, I’ve yet to utilise this gem from Vizzini, the wily Sicilian hunchback in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

And so, with best wishes, here are my current top three bits of useful, pertinent advice from the movies.

This unstintingly truthful nugget from the non-rom-com (500) Days of Summer: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

This bit of quiet, overlooked profundity, from the comedy Bridesmaids: “Make room for someone who is nice to you.”

And this useful tip for 99.9 per cent of human interactions, from American Pie: “You ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and shit.” See? Just when you thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you, there it is. My advice for you is to skip the other movies in the franchise, though – no good ever came from watching those.

Thought gross-out comedies from the late 1990s had nothing to offer you? Wrong!

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era