Trying On a New Self: On Mary Jo Bang’s “A Film in Which I Play Everyone”
By Liza Katz DuncanSeptember 10, 2023
A Film in Which I Play Everyone by Mary Jo Bang
Empathy, of course, has its limits. We all play so many different roles in the film of life, at various ages and stages, but to think it is possible to play all roles risks being presumptuous or appropriative. In the real world outside of the film, no one really gets to play everyone. Then again, the film in question was never meant to include all possible life experiences; it is only meant to be a lyrical self-portrait of the speaker. Bowie’s original remark, when asked if he had any upcoming film roles, was “I’m looking for backing for an unauthorized autobiography that I am writing. Hopefully, this will sell in such huge numbers that I will be able to sue myself for an extraordinary amount of money and finance the film version in which I will play everybody.” Obviously, Bowie’s comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it raises several questions: What if you could step into all the roles people have played in your life, both major and minor? And more importantly, why shouldn’t everyone have an equal chance to be the main character in their own life story?
About midway through A Film, readers encounter a poem called “Think of Jane and the Regency Era,” in which a character known only as “the lady” is all too willing to give up agency in the movie of her own life. The speaker describes this woman,
[…] the lady who could walk
only two ways, back and forth or up and down.
She stood at the top of the stairs and said,
“By daybreak, I’ll belong to whatever’s bent
over me.” Think of her as both a miss and as
being caught in a misunderstanding.
The speaker seems to want to step into the film and remedy the situation. The film also seems to spark a realization that the speaker is unhappy with the role she is playing in her own life: “‘Can you fix me?’ I ask the mask in the mirror.” “But,” she asserts, “not everything is possible. / You are only the heroine in your own story.” With that one word, only, the last line becomes not empowering but confining, as the speaker realizes her own limitations—she cannot be the heroine in this movie and change the course of events. Only the heroine could also be read as merely the heroine rather than the hero, implying that even the female lead isn’t quite enough.
We all try on various roles, to some extent, especially when we are young and trying to figure out who or what to be. In “I Am Already This Far,” the speaker relates an anecdote about her younger self,
the aftermath of returning and going back
to school and being sent home. Fuck that
back and forth. I cut the pages of a thick book
and put the cigarette pack in the space I’d created.
Then I insulted my sister who went and told
my mother I’d lied. What was I thinking?
The speaker explains her actions: “I was trying on / a new self.” She is also, consciously or not, pushing against the more circumscribed roles she has seen other women play; her resistance against the “back and forth” of going to school and coming home day in and day out parallels the woman in the film in “Think of Jane and the Regency Era,” whose only option is to move back and forth without ever really getting anywhere. The speaker wants to create a new self in opposition to such a character. Of course, there are limits imposed on who or what that self can be, shaped not only by individual will but also by the forces of culture and society. In “No Questions,” the speaker observes, “there you are, no longer you / but what you’ve been made into.”
Ultimately, each of us is alone in our fate. “A Set Sketched By Light and Sound” describes the loneliness and isolation of being “a church of one.” To some extent, we get the roles we are prescribed; we don’t always get to choose, and some of us have very little choice at all. The book’s epigraph comes from Hamlet, which deals enormously with the struggle between fate and free will: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Hamlet, trapped by circumstance, believes he could at least make the best of his situation and consider himself fortunate, if not for thoughts and dreams that continue to torment him until his tragic end. Playing any role, the speaker argues, requires you “to absent yourself, to lie down / and behave as if you have no agency.”
The speaker repeatedly casts herself not as the tragic protagonist but as the silenced Ophelia, along with other women throughout literature who haven’t been seen or heard the way they deserved to be. As the speaker says in “No Questions”:
[…] You know all
there is to know about lying down
and about taking it and this is because
you are a woman and this is what
you were taught women do.
As the title implies, the woman in this role is not only stripped of agency but also not even allowed to ask why “this” is happening, or if there is an alternative to “lying down / and […] taking it.” There’s a paradox of invisibility in being a woman, or holding any marginalized identity for that matter. Roles are circumscribed, limited by what one is taught, or permitted, to be—“you are a woman and this is what / you were taught women do.” If you do choose another role, the world will make it much more difficult for you. The speaker continues: there is always “someone walking behind you, / watching to see if you trip. And you will. / If not, they trip you up. It’s what they do.” But at the same time, being invisible or unrecognized by society, one can slip into and out of different roles without being noticed. It is this invisibility perhaps—the feeling of being a perpetual observer, “a church of one”—that allows the speaker the ability to see what others cannot and assume other perspectives, to “play everyone” in the film.
Many of these poems deal either directly or indirectly with outsiderness—the feeling that someone else is directing your movie, that yours is “a nonspeaking part. / You’re an extra.” In “The Experience of Being Outside,” the speaker finds herself “tossing […] mother-may-I’s // into the emptiness.” Asking permission is something only outsiders have to do. On a film set, as anywhere, those in positions of power make the rules, while those in marginalized roles have to ask, “may I?” The speaker reconciles at the end: “Whatever you were, you were now altogether / yourself, and happily one with the world.” The word “altogether” connotes unity and integrity, but there’s a break here. The speaker is not quite “altogether,” as is implied at the end of the line, but “altogether / [her]self.” She is suggesting, it seems, that being oneself, and being at peace with the world, can be a good and even necessary alternative to being in power. Then again, why should the two be mutually exclusive? Why should anyone have to choose?
To play any role in film or in life, it is often necessary to conceal crucial aspects of oneself. This can also function as a means of asserting control: in a film scene, or in any art, the artist can choose what to reveal and what to cover up. In “Eyes Open, I Process the Data,” the speaker describes “a coat / of metal I walk around wearing.” Other images in the scene reflect the speaker’s self-concealment: the night described as “a blanket”; the cover of a paperback book; a “chair wearing a pale pink slipcover.” Throughout A Film, covers function in various ways. Concealment can serve as protection, or even self-preservation: in “What I’m covering over,” the speaker relates a traumatic experience:
The touching world
kept putting its hands on me.
There is no way to replicate
what made no sense
when it happened.
In this way, covering over one’s painful past experience can be a method of survival. This can also be a burden, however. In some cases, it is impossible to hide certain aspects of identity that are likely to make one vulnerable. The speaker describes the way, in “Awake, I listened,”
[…] a tight spring was coming undone
beneath a hand holding it down. It was the self
that lived under lock and key in the netherworld
of morning, noon, and night. That’s when
I saw I would never know enough to keep a moment
in its track.
Like a hand trying to push down a spring, the speaker tries, unsuccessfully, to conceal the self. While this self “live[s] under lock and key” in the outside world, it cannot always stay coiled in private spaces. Similarly, in “Hanging the Curtain,” the speaker recognizes her younger self’s vulnerabilities while looking through a family photo album:
The curtain was meant to hide the zoo
of my petty vices, but instead
it was a coat that kept falling off
The speaker’s decades-old attempts to cover her own weaknesses, she now realizes, were futile, her “petty vices” painfully apparent to her older self and probably, by extension, to the outside world.
The last two sections of the book offer a kind of uneasy resolution by providing another role for the speaker, that of a powerful observer who controls what, and who, gets put into the scene. “Today you’re the still photographer,” the opening poem of the fourth section, presents an alternative to the male gaze by casting the speaker in an omniscient role, observing the movements of everyone around her. In “I was dreaming,” the speaker gets to decide the role of each person in the dream and the purpose or meaning each one has. The end of the collection calls back to mind the epigraph, and the earlier poem “The Doctor’s Monster Is Drowning,” where the speaker compares herself to the character of Ophelia.
In the book’s penultimate poem, “Speaking of the future, Hamlet,” however, the speaker casts herself as Hamlet—not the supporting actress or the love interest, but the lead. She asserts: “And I will want to be […] All will be want / & get. And I will be me.” The speaker is undergoing a transformation, or else she is realizing that she has been the lead in her own movie all along. No longer an Ophelia waiting to drown, the speaker now “want[s] to be,” affirming existence. It is only through this revelation that she is able to see herself, and others, as real people with real selves rather than only as the roles they play. She says: “We’ll be there. You as you. And I.”
Liza Katz Duncan is the author of Given (2023), which won the Autumn House Press Rising Writer Award.
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