I like Scandal (2012-present) because I can’t think of a better way than giving my brain a luscious sugary treat than sitting down to watch Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) do anything whatsoever. My only complaint: I just don’t find President Grant (Tony Goldwyn) attractive. And after two years of mulling over the problem, I’ve decided that it’s because his eyebrows aren’t thick enough.

Scandal-Olivia-Fitz-640x420

That’s right. Of all the inane, random things to write about, I’m writing about men’s eyebrows. (And it’s not just Fitz. The whole show is littered with men with light eyebrows!)

So, at the risk of embarrassing myself further, let me offer a visual history of thick brows that have titillated me throughout my personal life (in rough chronological order as I discovered them):

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ShaunCassidy

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Alan Bates, in case you don't recognize him

Alan Bates, in case you don’t recognize him

Clooney_ER

George Clooney from the ER days

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Ahh. That feels better. Back to more serious feminist work soon, I promise.

Don’t you wish this was your best friend? That slight smirk, which revealed maybe a little self-deprecation in with its pragmatism. I can’t see this face without seeing the woman in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude — because, you know, sometimes a face is perfect all the way from youth to seniority. Ruth, R.I.P.

Film history is rife with narratives about corrupt politicians, so we have plenty of models for thinking about how virtue gets corrupted along the way to political office. Think of Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972) or Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men (1949, below) — the basic trope is that politics corrupts.

But film history gives me no model by which to understand Mitt Romney’s willingness to lie during this campaign. He’s the political equivalent of Gumby: endlessly plastic, bendable. I am sickened to my bones of a man who either is willing to say anything to make himself more appealing to voters — no matter that he claimed just the opposite last week or last month — or someone with so few actual political commitments that they all seem to him to be accurate. He praised Planned Parenthood till he condemned it; now he claims to have no plans to dismantle abortion rights despite having been avidly pro-life to the point of advocating a personhood amendment. Each time he lies, his big eyes and handsome face and devout Mormonism all seem to try to reassure me that he’s at heart a good man, an honest man. It is all a lie.

In the one week since the debate with President Obama, Romney’s campaign has had to “walk back from” (i.e., deny) a number of the most crucial things he professed during that evening. His campaign has just today denied that he really meant to flip on the abortion question. What do you call a man who lies with such skill? What do you call a man who shape-shifts with such dexterity and disinterest in political commitment, yet decries his opponent for getting his position wrong. I am sick to death of it, and have a fear in my soul that a desperate American public will believe what it wants to hear — whatever little piece suits their fancy. For this man, no policy matters enough that he will not change positions depending on who’s listening.

In Romney’s America, there will be no king in Israel.

Charlotte Rampling was breathtakingly beautiful as a young woman. She is now 66, still gorgeous, and vexingly still wears same dress size, still appears in bathing suits on screen. Angelina Maccarone’s documentary explores a woman who has let us look at her onscreen for nearly 50 years.

She has never made it easy, specializing in difficult, hard characters with complicated motives. The bitch in Georgy Girl (1966), the wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee in Max (1986), or — most infamously — the concentration camp survivor who carries on a strange relationship with a Nazi guard in The Night Porter (1974); all these parts made her inscrutable, kept us from liking her. Famously, her co-star Dirk Bogarde called it “The Look”: those distinctive, hooded eyes that achieve so much without giving much away. As she’s grown older and her face acquired more character, she has acquired a capacity to convey not just disdain but a degree of self-loathing so all-encompassing that it chills.

What we see of Rampling onscreen is a mystery of minimalist emotion that nevertheless somehow smacks you in the face. About her role in the new film, The Eye of the Storm (2012), David Denby writes, “Speaking in not much more than a whisper, [Rampling] is magnetically evil, with occasional flashes of a complex sensibility and poetic invention — often just a flutter of her eyes or a strategic turn of her head.” How does she do that?

 

In Charlotte Rampling: The Look she explains that early on she learned she was exceptionally photogenic; yet she had to learn how to survive the constant appearance of the camera before her. “Exposure is huge,” she explains. “You have to find a way not to feel invaded all the time, by lenses, by people looking all the time. If you are to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”

Perversely, Maccarone’s documentary begs you to read in between the lines. It does not seek exposure but something more allusive, abstract — the passing of time, the inevitability of change. She shows Rampling in conversation with old friends and collaborators, conversations that allow Maccarone to trace those earlier appearances on screen and in photographs. At times, Rampling even revisits old sets like a staircase she rambled down in Georgy Girl or a room where she danced, bare breasted, to a Marlene Dietrich tune in The Night Porter.

 

Maccarone never asks how Rampling feels about her sister’s suicide back in the 60s, nor about her relationships with men, nor whether she is close to her children. In avoiding those gossipy realms so stereotypical of “women’s lives” as produced by Hollywood, the director clearly wants to make a point about respecting the actor’s craft, her career. This is a film about Rampling’s achievements, one of which is the flowering of her ability to play ambivalent, morally questionable, and occasionally impossible characters like Sarah Morton, above, in François Ozon’s terrific Swimming Pool (2003).

And yet I completed the documentary still feeling that the director hadn’t done justice to Rampling’s skills; I think I wanted a more explicit directorial hand in showing us, as Denby did in that great quote above, what Rampling can do with her face. But Maccarone stays out of it, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Perhaps rather than see this documentary one ought to see Under the Sand (2000) or even her small, despicable part in Melancholia (2011) instead. And yet for the unadulterated pleasure of seeing La Rampling, well, it’s streaming on Netflix.

Greetings from my cave

17 September 2012

How is it possible that this blog still gets so many hits every day? I’ve seriously fallen off the blogging wagon, what with writing all these new (or mostly new, or creatively plagiarized) lectures every week. It’s shameful. I have so many thoughts that haven’t gotten cooked yet.

Here’s the thing: lecturing is hard. It takes an enormous amount of energy, creativity (even when plagiarizing), and ball-juggling. It takes a lot of preparation. You do this and you think, someone out there seriously thinks I “only” teach two classes?

Which led me to this image from the film Wanda (1970), written and directed by — and starring — Barbara Loden, she of the beer and curlers. Shot on grainy film stock. I remember seeing women wearing their curlers and a kerchief like this out to the market when I was a kid; the curlers were necessary to poof up your hair into those bouffants. Is it the curlers that makes this scene so bittersweet? the palpable sense of trying so hard, and feeling unable to sustain it? and perhaps, too, the way her posture indicates that she has not utterly given up?

The film was shown in a single U.S. theater in 1970 — a small theater in New York — and by the time Loden had died tragically young in 1980 the film had been nearly forgotten.

Don’t mistake this for a post implying that my situation is like Wanda’s, displayed above. Don’t mistake this for a real post, with careful insights or carefully-worded snarkiness about politics. This is just a shout-out from my cave, reminding you that I exist and that I intend to return to regular blogging.

I will admit, however, that there are a few empty beer bottles in my cave. (No curlers. Thank heavens for the small blessings of different hair expectations.)

Okay, I can do this.

7 September 2012

Pam Grier, 1974: “I’m a child of the Women’s Movement. I always believed that I could do anything. That women didn’t have to be limited in any way.” (Thanks, ICPWAG,TBAWLODC)

Two weeks of school under my belt; I haven’t unpacked all my boxes yet, so my office looks a bit like an episode of Hoarders, except without the ancient boxes of cereal and rodent carcasses. And there’s manic prep for lectures, and grading, and learning all the new ways universities have discovered to torture us with ineffective/ counter-intuitive technology.

Nevertheless. There’s that moment when you stop fretting about the unpacking and you watch everything going on this week — the US Open tennis, the Democratic National Convention, the serious arrival of political signs and advocates on the streets of my city, the floating up of those amazing students who display their intelligence and hard work so early in the semester. It makes you focus not on the petty, but on the prize.

Equestrian rider from the late 1880s. I found this at Racialicious; they got it from Vintage Black Glamour. Look at that expression, would you. Watch out for her riding crop.

I promise to return to watching and discussing film at any moment now; I’ve had a Beasts of the Southern Wild post brewing for weeks and weeks; just give me a moment to catch my breath. Oh, and also — I’ve got to breathe after those DNC speeches, that Michelle Obama speech, that Bill Clinton speech, that scene of Gabby Giffords leading the Pledge of Allegiance. And oh yeah, Serena takes on Sara Errani later today. Hang with me, friends, and I’ll be back with you shortly.

Because it might be crazy, but I can do this. We can do this. Oh yes we can.

Scariest female monster ever? Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed

When I started this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies featuring Female Monsters, I was pretty sure I’d be seeing a lot of cheesy films as I explored the dirty underworld of how filmmakers associated women with monstrousness. But the subject matter has taken over — the more I explore, the more seriously I view these films’ underlying themes. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy Dance of Death to lure men to their doom. But then I uncovered this rich vein of My Mother Made Me a Monster films.

Curiously, these are undeniably better films than the aforementioned cheese. (Why? Please send answers!) Rather than imagine Sex In Space or answer questions about what would happen if you injected women with wasp venom, Mother/Monster films raise questions about whether nature is destiny — whether an evil mother inevitably produces demonic qualities in her child, and whether even a good mother is to blame for producing a monster. From Cat People (1942) to The Bad Seed (1956) and eventually Carrie (1976), a whole genre of cult horror films swirl around mother-hating or mother’s guilt to produce an exceptionally riveting set of questions.

*****

The most claustrophobic of all cult films is surely The Bad Seed, 95% of which takes place in that awful middle-class 1950s apartment inhabited by the Penmarks and their super-perfect 8-yr-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda’s pigtails are always neat, her shoes never scuffed, and her dresses always as girly as possible.

Let this be a lesson to all of you who complain that your daughters are slobs: thank your lucky stars, for it doubtless means your daughters are normal.

Is Rhoda just a nasty little piece of work? Oh no, friends. She is a bad seed (or, in the parlance of our day, a psychopath). She acts all sweet and treacly, but then get her on the topic of why she didn’t win the school medal for penmanship, and you see a little monster come through. So much of a monster, in fact, that she murders the prizewinner, takes his medal for herself, and expresses no remorse.

Told through the eyes of Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), we find ourselves trapped in that insidious, nightmare-inducing space of that apartment (yes, this was originally a stage play) — sympathizing with and yet infuriated by Christine’s passivity and mother love for a monster of epic proportions.

Christine’s suspicions about her daughter lead her to delve into her own past. She has always suspected she was adopted — and after pressing hard on her father, she learns the truth: her own mother was a psychotic murderer, and only by fluke did the 2-yr-old Christine end up with loving adoptive parents. But this means, of course, that unwittingly she has given birth to a Bad Seed (and that it’s genetic). Now that she knows she’s responsible for passing this gene along to her daughter, what will Christine do about it? If someone is to be punished, is it the mother or the psychotic, manipulative child?

Needless to say, The Bad Seed could be paired with We Need to Talk About Kevin for one of the most disturbing double features ever. (Who would come to such a double feature?) These films also seem to confirm the notion that even very young children can be psychopaths (that recent NY Times article even discusses the fact that the public inevitably blames mothers for having psychotic children).

*****

A similar set of questions undergirds Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Cat People, which might be the best horror qua noir film ever. It all starts out so innocently, with guileless Oliver flirting with that fetching girl at the zoo. She turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer who harbors an eccentric fascination for the big cats in their cages — even more eccentric than most, considering that we find out that her drawings show the panthers speared through the heart with a sword.

Fast forward to love and marriage (and I mean fast), and suddenly we have a problem: Irena fears she has inherited the evil taint of her Serbian village’s devil-worshiping past, and that she is a Cat Person. Is it possible? or is it all in her pretty little head? Naturally, Oliver is inclined to believe the latter, and signs her up for visits to psychiatrist Dr. Judd.

But Irena doubts the answer is so simple. She’s haunted by fears and dreams. What about the fact that her father died so young, so mysteriously — and that they accused her mother of being a Cat Person, responsible for his death?

She’s always kept people at a distance, but breaks down her defenses because she loves Oliver so much. Still, on their wedding night, as she sits in the restaurant with a wedding party, a strange, ominous-looking woman (with the best 1940s up-do) stares at her from across the room. “Look at that woman,” says one of her guests. “She looks like a cat,” another guest responds. The woman approaches and speaks to Irena, repeatedly, in Serbian. Irena crosses herself and looks terrified.

“What did that woman say to you, darling?” Oliver asks after the woman leaves. “She greeted me,” Irena replies. “She called me sister.”

One of the many things Irena learned growing up was that she must avoid growing angry or jealous, for those heightened emotions will bring out the evil inside her. Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in: if she gets jealous or angry, she becomes a murderous, vengeful panther who stalks and kills those responsible. This makes Bitchez From Space look mild in comparison.

So Irena determines the best response is to keep Oliver at a distance: they sleep separately. Which places such pressure on the marriage that Irena begins to suspect — correctly — that Oliver and his work pal Alice have fallen in love with each other. When Irena sees the two of them together in a restaurant late one night, she knows the truth — and thus begins some terrific horror/noir sequences in which Alice is hunted by a big cat through lonely city streets, and Irena is haunted by (animated) dreams of cats staring at her, surrounding her. It’s all so distressing that we see her, crying by herself at her alienation in the bath.

There’s so much to say about this film — about the confusion over the protagonist (Oliver is decidedly not sympathetic; both Irena and Alice are, yet they wind up in a cat-and-mouse game against one another), the beautiful filming, that terrific animated sequence of cats:

But let’s stay focused on the My Mother Made Me a Monster theme, which obtains throughout this film and becomes even more prominent in the (weak) sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is all about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. No wonder Irena fears sex and love with Oliver: it makes a woman unpredictable, dangerous, even one as sweet as Irena. No wonder that in the sequel, mothers and daughters are far more at war.

*****

And finally there’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, a film that encapsulates so much of the horror of pubescence and high school that I’m tempted to term King a genius. The opening sequence alone is a brilliant piece of horror/ porn all packaged up in a wrapper of female trouble. A pointedly anodyne musak tune plays while the opening credits move us through a high school girls’ locker room as the girls dress and horse around. As we gradually move toward more full-frontal nudity and the steam of the showers, we find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) luxuriating alone in the hot water, all soft-focus and slow motion — eyes closed, hand running a bar of soap all over herself slowly, pleasurably.

Then she starts to bleed — she’s started her period — but not knowing anything about menstruation, she starts to scream and beg the other girls for help. Being typically unsympathetic high school girls, they taunt her, smack at her, and throw tampons at her until she cowers, naked, bloody, and dripping, in a corner of the shower.

When she gets home, she tries explain to her domineering, religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), “Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma?” Her mother hits her over the head with a biblical tract and has only one thing to say:

Mamma, reading aloud: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it: the raven was called sin! 
Carrie: Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma? 
Mamma: Say it. [hits Carrie in the face with her tract] The raven was called sin. [hit her again]
Carrie: No, Mamma. [gets hit yet again, finally relents] And the raven was called sin! 
Mamma: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma. 
Mamma: Say it. [hits her again
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma! 
Mamma: The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: And the first sin was intercourse! Mamma, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mamma. 
Mamma hits her again: And Eve was weak! say it! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! Say it, woman! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Say it! 
Carrie: Eve was weak, Eve was weak. 
Mamma: And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! 
Carrie: You should have told me, Mamma! You should have told me! 
Mamma kneels down and takes Carrie’s hand: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her! 

Then, of course, her mother locks her in a closet with the most terrifying Jesus-on-the-cross figure ever. I mean, come on — is this not the creepiest horror scene you can imagine? And this is long before the pig’s blood starts flying!

The film never tells us whether having to deal with such an insane mother was the trigger that initiated Carrie’s gift of telekinesis. But it’s clear that Carrie’s extreme social withdrawal is the result of such mothering. She’s so withdrawn that the other kids at school find her an easy joke, a target. Her mother keeps her so naive that she doesn’t know about menstruation, after all.

And her mother displays a fear of men and an antipathy to sex that colors everything her daughter does. When Carrie decides to go to the prom with hunky Tommy (William Katt), her mother prays desperately, ecstatically, in that awful attic room while Carrie makes her own dress.

“I should have killed myself when he put it in me,” Carrie’s mother says late in the film, as she explains that Carrie is the product of her own sin. Does it matter that this comes from the fevered imagination of a crazy woman? What we do know is that Carrie and her mother ultimately go down together, locked in a strange reverse-maternal embrace, as the creepy eyes of the Jesus figurine look on.

*****

My mother made me a monster. It’s a theme that has been the source of much cheesier filmic material than in these three films (see for example She-Wolf of London [1946] and Cobra Woman [1944]) but isn’t this theme more interesting when done well?

I think it’s appropriate that I end this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters on this note — after watching three films that problematize femininity via that scary mother-daughter bond, via questions about nature, nurture, Jesus and the Devil. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when Hollywood created female monsters, its writers and directors tried to work out their own crazy, stereotyped and contradictory ideas about women along the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling awfully grateful for the mother I have — a woman I’m going to see tomorrow, and who’s promised yet another couple of days of relaxation in her beautiful garden. And I’m going to remind her how lucky she is to have a daughter who had a messy room for all those years.