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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: We Need Subtlety in the New Year

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Is it just me, or does everything and everyone seem over the top?

Maybe it was surviving three hours of Leonardo di Caprio's unceasing depiction of sex, drugs and profanity in his latest film. Maybe it was watching Miley Cyrus being celebrated by Barbara Walters. Kanya and Kim's every bump and grind?

As my wise psychologist friend Dr. Vivian Diller says, "People are asking what will get them noticed amid all the clutter out there." I certainly appreciate that in these fast-moving times, in which information is pouring out of every pore, it is hard to find your voice, let alone have it heard. This is true in our everyday lives, in which we are simply trying to get others to look up from their gadgets, as well as in the culture bombarding us with images.

In the world of books, not only is everyone over the age of 12 writing a memoir, but no one's life sounds interesting anymore if there wasn't at least abuse and alcohol in the home. On the stage (and now screen), August: Osage County tells the story of a family struggling with alcoholism and abuse, and adds drugs and incest for added pleasure. This is not meant to be a "they don't make them like they used to" lament, but watch or read a couple of Pinter plays and you will once again appreciate the seething emotions that can happen between the lines. Pausing is much missed.

I thought that again while watching the new play Domesticated, a Good Wife-like narrative at New York's Lincoln Center. Every point is repeated over and over, most having to do with the specific sex acts not being performed enough for one partner's satisfaction. Ten lines ago we got the point. Eventually, one can't shake the feeling of a dirty or frustrated man telling the tale.

One also feels that way, I am afraid, watching The Wolf of Wall Street. I revere Martin Scorsese's work, but it's hard not to feel embarrassed this time around. The details may be true -- and clearly, the main character did not live a subtle life -- but it doesn't mean every single one has to be shown. With excess eventually come not only disgust but pure exhaustion.

There is no doubt that doing away with subtlety is, if nothing else, a way to make impact. Getting noticed -- as well as radically altering her image -- was surely on Miley Cyrus' mind when she hit the stage with her infamous twerking performance. Though it reeked of desperation, it "tworked." The backlash lasted about 10 minutes, then the backlash to the backlash kicked in, and then she was on the cover of every magazine and on Barbara's Most Fascinating People list.

I have no idea how deep Miley goes, but I know for a fact that Beyonce is a class act. Yet, watching the 17 videos that go with her new album, I wondered why she too feels the need to repeatedly reveal every female part, ultimately eliciting more boredom than excitement. (Presumably young men would disagree.) She recently claimed that she is determined to follow Madonna's lead as a powerhouse. I'd like to think she meant as a constantly-reinventing creative machine, not as a woman who has to prove her sex appeal in increasingly explicit fashion.

In all this unsubtlety, there is clearly the attempt to reach through and matter. But just because you shock, it doesn't mean it has more emotional impact. In fact, I would say it has less. Josh Brolin putting his hand on Kate Winslet's shoulder in the new film Labor Day sets off more sparks than a naked di Caprio being titillated by a lit candle. (Note: I am not mentioning how a sheet between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert's beds was sexier than a seven-minute lesbian sex scene now on screen.) Watching 70-year-old Mick Jagger do his thing in concert is simpler, yet more sensual, than watching Miley click that tongue or even Beyonce writhe in fast motion. One tattoo can be alluring while an NBA-style body of them becomes a blur.

Restraint is not only missed, it should be applauded when one finds it in unexpected places. For example, director Jason Reitman shows it in Labor Day. The Broadway revival (emphasis on revival) of No Man's Land, starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, is a master class in not having to say it -- but getting the meaning loud and clear. Likewise, there is comfort in the fact that the 1965 novel Stoner by one John Williams is suddenly on many reading lists. Heralded as an unappreciated classic, it is packed with emotional resonance without one whip or overstated sentiment. This is the real 50 shades of gray.

I wish many things for the new year, but a return to subtlety would be at the top of the list. Leave us some ambiguity; don't hit us over the head; let your great music stand for itself; give us a moment to ponder.