14 August 2014
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.
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):
Ahh. That feels better. Back to more serious feminist work soon, I promise.
At first she seems like she’s going to be just another part of the kitschy Minnesota social landscape as created by the writers of Fargo — a series that uses the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film as a jumping-off point (and visual touchstone) for a different story, which they assert is true. The show tricks you: at first, the character of Molly Solverson seems neither as central nor as astute a detective as she becomes by episode 2 or 3. But by that time, you’ve sort of fallen in love with her.
Tolman is heavier than most TV actresses — by which, god knows, she probably wears a women’s size 10 (gasp!) — and prone to opening her gorgeous blue eyes just about as wide as they’ll go. She alternates observing a scene with an open mouth, and pursing that mouth in thought and perhaps a little judgment. All of which means that as you start to fall in love with her, her modesty, and her obsessive, perceptive views of the people and crimes around her, you realize that Tolman is not playing this for laughs even as she is trained as a comedian. Rather, we enter into the series via those beautiful eyes and connect to it through her combination of shyness, naïveté, and determination. She brings a soft persuasion to all her scenes, which is hard to do in a room full of Big Actors. The show is getting attention for all its male stars — Billy Bob Thornton as the riveting, mercurial hit man (really: he’s wonderful here); Martin Freeman hamming it up with an implausible Minnesota accent as the hapless Lester Nygaard; the terrific Bob Odenkirk as the dense new chief of police; Colin Hanks as a singularly unlucky Duluth police officer; and Adam Goldberg as a competing hit man who memorably delivers half his lines in American Sign Language.
What I’m saying is that our attention is — and should be — directed at Tolman, who is the real reason why the series works. Freeman’s acting is starting to grow on me, even though I still think he overacts his way through every scene; I don’t understand why Colin Hanks gets so many great roles (well, maybe I do understand); and I feel slightly peeved at the show’s insistence on getting so many yuks from Minnesota lingo and way too many characters with low IQs. But I’ll keep watching for Allison Tolman alone. She is a major discovery, and a major talent. Damn.
29 April 2014
And speaking of busy nothings, the academic conference. I returned from one, and frankly, the very best part was sharing a room with one of my besties from grad school — and watching Mansfield Park (1999) together.
Keeping this blog has allowed me to see a pattern in my life: when April rolls around and the semester gets tough, the not-so-tough (me) watch period drama. Even better if it’s Jane Austen, because she’s so playful and hopelessly romantic that it takes me out of the semester at its worst.
It’s been so long since I saw this version of Mansfield Park that I’d forgotten the ways that it finesses the original Austen novel. Mostly for the better, as far as I’m concerned. Fanny (Frances O’Connor) isn’t painfully shy, sickly, and insipid like she is in the book, and the script by director Patricia Rozema lifts extensively from Austen’s letters and papers as a way to imagine Fanny’s lifelong correspondence with her younger sister Susie as well as her wordy, playful relationship with her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller). Fanny seems all the more appealing because of her gift for words — and less moralistic, as I sometimes found her character in the book. Other aspects don’t work as well, like the film’s elaboration of a complicated slaveholding backstory for the Bertrams, but that seems less important to me.
Clearly, if you’re going to like this film, you can’t be overly dedicated to the novel. I wouldn’t put up with that nonsense if it were Pride and Prejudice, but I’m willing to let Rozema improve on the less perfect Mansfield Park.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts with an eminently appealing little-girl version of Fanny. Taken away from her impoverished family to live with wealthy cousins at a young age, she has never been treated as an equal in the family — except by her cousin Edmund, the Bertrams’ younger son. From the cold little garret the Bertrams provided for her, she busies herself with the pleasures of her own imagination — rollicking gothic tales mailed off to her sister Susie, and an irreverent “History of England” for Edmund. In this respect, this version is far superior to the 2007 BBC/ Masterpiece version.
She might be shy, but Fanny has a wonderful inner life. One wants to be friends with her. As they grow up, she and Edmund develop a bond beyond words.
And it might all have turned out differently, I suppose … until the family receives a visit from the fashionable new neighbors, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz).
The film plays the Crawfords’ appearance to great effect — everything about them screams “danger!” so I wanted to clap my hands with delight, because you know the real story is about to begin.
Mary Crawford looks just like a spider, with her self-satisfied smile and ruffled collar. This is no idle comparison; Mary is a spider, and the target for her paralyzing bite is the impressionable Edmund — to Fanny’s horror.
Henry Crawford is a beast of a different sort. If his sister appears laser-focused, his own inclination is a vaguer kind of troublemaking. Pushed by Mrs. Bertram toward her younger daughter, Julia, he keeps his options open, flirting with the newly engaged Maria Bertram instead. Maria, engaged to an idiot, is happy to reciprocate.
The Crawfords entrance the entire Bertram clan. These two seem to flaunt every ordinary social convention. Which is all well and good while Fanny can withdraw to the background and observe their machinations — but everything changes when Henry turns his attention away from Maria and fixes his gaze, for the first time in his life, like a laser on Fanny.
She knows him too well to accept his offer of marriage. She cannot trust him. She knows his rakish character too well. But Rozema’s film toys with us, leads us to second-guess Henry’s motives. Does he not, suddenly, appear sincere? Does he not appear to love her? When her uncle sends her back home to live in her parents’ squalid home in Portsmouth, Henry follows and woos her, showing little alarm at her parents’ poverty and misery.
He’s charming and wonderful. He appears completely in love with her. And in a hasty moment, she accepts his proposal of marriage.
Only to change her mind. How can she marry him, even if Edmund is due to marry Mary Crawford?
And yet the film does a lovely job of making Henry seem like a true lover. He really has fallen for her, we believe — and even after things go sour, I continue to believe it. It’s such a nice spin on the story, for it shows (perhaps) his ability to change, and Fanny’s willingness to change her mind.
My grad school bestie pointed out that Edmund is a bit overly judgmental — as a wannabe clergyman, perhaps this comes naturally. But considering how much he has fallen for the mostly-immoral Mary Crawford, the judgy sternness seems a bit out of place.
Out of curiosity, which Edmund do you prefer? I’m inclined to find both adorable, but are they too obviously adorable? As in, am I getting fed an easy pair of soulful eyes here by a crass casting director? (Ritson has particularly soulful eyes, obvs.) I’m not sure that either one is as perfectly matched with his co-star as much as he ought to be. I mean, a true Austen tale ought to have a perfectly matched heroine and swain, amiright?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If you’re wondering which is the superior production, there’s no question: the 2007 may be a teensy bit more faithful to the book, but the 1999 wins hands down for the inclusion of all those delicious bits of Austen’s writing. Besides, Frances O’Connor makes a much better Fanny than Billie Piper. Most of all, the 2007 ITv production feels a bit as if everyone is acting solo before a green screen, with no sense of chemistry or drama between characters.
Sigh. This is one of those posts that rambles around. My attention is divided — and I keep staring at that stack of papers that I ought to have finished grading a week ago.
But perhaps this is all the more an endorsement of taking a look at the film as balm for the soul in these sad days of the late semester. Especially if you find yourself blissfully sharing a room with a bestie at a tedious conference of academics.
31 March 2014
Hi. Remember me?
This is the problem with blogging: I love it, and I don’t have time to do it properly (i.e., daily/biweekly). Forgive me for being so AWOL and know well that it’s not because I’m not watching female-oriented film or foaming at the mouth about the bullshit in the media, my university, etc.
But today I have two things for you. First is a lovely, two-minute long thought-piece video on a tic in Wes Anderson’s films. Go here to Vimeo to watch “Wes Anderson | Centered” by Komogado, a video artist who also has a wonderful tribute to Ozu.
And on the subject of Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, I loved loved loved it, even though it’s not really subject matter I typically discuss here (i.e. a film about men. Anderson’s films are always really just about men).
My second link is hard to read because it’s so enraging, but it’s vital. It’s “Dear Harvard: You Win,” a letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson from a woman sexually assaulted by a friend in her university residence house and abandoned by the university that purports to respond to such abuse.
Only 25 more weeks in April before the semester ends. This is how I comfort myself.
1 February 2014
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.
If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.
If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.
Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.
Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.
In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.
Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.
In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?
I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.
But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.
I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?
I haven’t re-watched Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise since it opened in theaters, so I’d forgotten how terrible it is at the beginning. And not just the beginning. Major Plot Turns are so heavily foreshadowed that a better word might be forestomped. Men are so evil — and Thelma’s taste in them so spectacularly bad — that you feel your vagina tightening up to shut that whole thing down. In short, though I’d begun watching with the plan to celebrate Callie Khouri’s script, I quickly started to itch for something to distract me.
But that’s the thing about this film. An great film gets birthed out of the head of a more mediocre film, and it rises like Athena through some great scenes that defy all the logic imposed early on. This isn’t so much a female buddy movie as a makeover movie — a movie about before and after.
We all remember this great shot: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) posing for a selfie as they head out. This shot encapsulates the important differences between the two women: Louise’s persnickety neatness (her scarf worn like a snood, her lipstick), Thelma’s propensity to live recklessly (the blue eyeshadow, the impractical sundress).
They’re good friends, but underlying their friendship is all that stuff that makes friendships between women hard. Louise can be disapproving; Thelma can be childish, asking for permission from the stronger characters around her. The film’s first act focuses on the breakdown of this relationship.
At first it seems as if Thelma’s impetuousness and childishness will be the end of them. It’s bad enough that her cartoonishly boorish husband (Christopher McDonald, above) probably won’t give her permission to go away for the weekend with Louise, so she just runs out, taking along a handgun that she pulls, gingerly, from a bedside drawer. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she proclaims from the passenger seat, and the movie waves a Giant Red Flag at us so we know something bad’s gonna happen.
You can’t help but identify with Louise in these early scenes. When the shit starts to hit the fan, Louise is the one who takes charge, protects her friend, and finds an exit strategy. But we can also see that her solutions mask old traumas. When Thelma is nearly raped by a bubba named Harlan in a roadside honkytonk, Louise uses the gun to rescue her — but when he calls her a bitch, she whips around and nails him in the heart with a bullet, and they run away.
The film’s middle act traces a shift in the women’s relationship after they escape. Thelma still makes spectacularly bad choices — not least of which is hooking up with an adorable if oily grifter/ hitchhiker named J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money — but she also begins to transform.
There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s midpoint, as a disheveled, traumatized Louise sits in the Thunderbird convertible in a parking lot, waiting for Thelma to return from the convenience store across the street. Everything has gone wrong, and it shows on her face. But then she locks eyes with an older woman inside the restaurant, a woman with a careworn face and a big helmet of hair. The film just allows them to look at each other, sharing an indescribable connection that you can’t help but ascribe to their mutual understanding of the burdens women carry. The scene breaks when Thelma careens out of the store that she’s just robbed — using J.D.’s script for such situations — and the two go roaring back down the road.
That delicate scene of mutual recognition opens the film’s final act, which encompasses a set of emotions that are difficult to convey neatly. No longer does Louise need to carry Thelma or clean up her messes; their shared outlaw status has transformed their relationship. Even as they race for the Mexican border, their relationship has a new feeling of possibility that mirrors the open sky. I don’t quite know how to explain this mood in the film, except to say that men have been squelching and molding and constraining women for so many centuries that no one, no one, really knows what they might do if they evaded that constraint completely — and the final third of Thelma and Louise reveals one version of what might happen when women free themselves.
How perfect, then, that this part of the film takes place in Monument Valley, and part of it during a quiet night. They coast through the eerie, glowing, open space, hardly speaking.
“I know. I know just what you mean,” Louise responds.
“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” Thelma says. Moments like that — perfect filmic moments that combine spare dialogue, scenery, and movement — explain how Callie Khouri’s script earned such praise.
How can such a story end? After all this time the ending still feels precarious. On the one hand, the implausibly sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel) screams at the FBI, “How many times do they have to be fucked over?” — a line that rings as false as it did 20 years ago. On the other hand there’s that kiss, which still feels as radical as it did in 1991. As they sit in the Thunderbird knowing that there are only two (bad) options, and Thelma says, “Let’s keep going,” their kiss becomes a statement of mutual love that has gone beyond the usual worldly confines of sex or friendship.
Ultimately that’s why Thelma and Louise has the reputation it does: not for the ham-fisted opening act, or even for Brad Pitt’s abs while he wields a hair dryer like a pistol, but for the way the film sheds its skin to become something we’ve never seen before.
It’s not worth our time comparing this to other female buddy pictures because this defined one side of the field — it starts out with clichés from the domineering husband to the rape scene to the corny-funny lines (Thelma aiming a gun at a guy: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out”), but it transcends them to do something that still confounds description. Even as it gestures to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also does something that men’s Westerns never could.
Before and after. Perhaps this is not only the quintessential female buddy picture, but also the greatest makeover movie in history.
If this film’s three wildly divergent titles have you scratching your head, that’s because all three are terrible titles for a really pretty great feminist comedy. I wouldn’t have known it at all but for Wikipedia’s list of female buddy films.
The trick to Sarah Kemochan’s loosely autobiographical film is that it hides its feminism for a while behind all the usual clichés of girls’ boarding school films … particularly those set in 1963, as this one is. But when the feminism comes, it hits you in the head and the story takes a really interesting turn … and then does it again at about the 80-minute mark. (Can you just stop reading right now, watch the film on YouTube, and get back to me when you’re done?)
Every boarding school film appears contractually obligated to begin with a reluctant new student whose parents have shipped her/him off due to behavioral problems. In this case, Odette (Gaby Hoffman, center) has been caught preparing to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Off to Miss Godard’s School she goes, destined to share a room with Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), who have reputations for being a troublemaker and, well, a slut, respectively. Adding to the usual suspects are the ravenously bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo), and the studious, ambitious Momo (Merritt Wever). First cliché: once she falls in with the troublemakers, Odette starts to love her life at Miss Godard’s.
Sure, it’s not all roses. The school features a group of rules-oriented monitors, the most officious of whom is Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook, above center) who roams the halls looking for miscreants and tattling on her peers. “Miss Godard believed the girls should govern themselves, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions,” Abby chirps with those all-too-familiar evil eyes. Cliché #2: oh, those stooopid rules!
But be not afraid: things start to get more interesting. Odette finds that her four new best friends share not just a disdain for Miss Godard’s rules, but also for the trap such obedience has prepared for them: they are determined not to fall for the usual future of a husband, two children, a Colonial, and a collie. “No more white gloves!” they proclaim, dedicating themselves to far more wild and unpredictable futures: Verena wants to spearhead an international fashion magazine; Tinka plans to be an “actress/folk singer/slut,” Momo a biologist, and Tweety a child psychologist. What does Odette want? Short term: sex; long term: to be a politician.
The films takes its time getting underway, for it feels the need to introduce us to a wide array of supporting characters, not least of whom are the slightly feral town boys — the leader of whom, Snake (!), played by a very young (but no less oily) Vincent Kartheiser, immediately falls in love with the luscious Tinka. So you’d be forgiven if you arrived at this point thinking that the film would continue to take the one-adventure-at-a-time narrative path, something like the wonderful boarding school film Outside Providence (1999) — and like that film, stay focused on problems like whether Snake and Tinka will make out, and how Odette will find a way to have sex, finally, with Dennis.
That would be the wrong assumption, for it’s at this point that the No More White Gloves girls discover that the school’s board of directors wants to solve its financial problems by merging with a nearby boys’ school. And the narrative starts to cook.
When they meet to assess the situation, they find themselves deeply divided — because unlike their friends, Momo and Verena hate the idea of a co-ed school. At the most basic level for Momo it’s simply a question of logic: she knows full well she won’t get into MIT if she has to compete with boys from the same school. But she and Verena agree that the real problem is the inevitable en-stoopiding of the female students. “This is a school! we’re supposed to be getting smarter!” If the schools merge, Momo warns, “we’ll all be killing ourselves to be cute!” and all for the “hairy bird,” which is their description of boys’ genitals.
Verena’s assessment is even more damning. All the attention to cuteness and personal care will make Miss Godard’s girls too tired to think. “But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway. Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys — they don’t like that.” Going co-ed will trick everyone into falling for the white gloves and the full constricted future that goes with them. When Tinka protests that “real life is boy-girl, boy-girl,” Verena screams, “No. Real life is boy on top of girl.“
Transcribing this scene doesn’t capture how much I was taken aback by this exchange, by its sudden clarity and perfect articulation of why single-sex schools are so spectacularly good for girls. The clichés didn’t fall away completely, but I became waaaayyyy more interested … and the film ratchets things up again later with the same dramatic skill.
If the film’s central plot now turns around the question of whether — and how — our No White Gloves heroines can prevent the school from going co-ed, it might sound corny. Rather, I should say it is corny, but in a way fully in keeping with some of the overall rules of the boarding-school film genre (illicit sex, alcohol, secret passageways, revenge on evil teachers, etc.). Nor is it perfect; the film ultimately sacrifices Verena in a bizarrely implausible plot turn. But it also gains back Odette as a leader-orator in a way that made me so happy that I’m almost willing to let Verena get toasted.
As I’ve discussed already with this marathon (especially re: the tragically disappointing Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), female buddy movies often sneak in a boatload of anti-feminist crap as they throw us the bone of female friendship. The Hairy Bird tries something entirely different. This film throws us the bone of a little hairy bird in order to make a powerful, feminist argument for female friendship, ambition, single-sex educational excellence, and collective action.
In fact, I was so happy with this film that I now fret that no other female buddy picture can measure up. The only film I can imagine following up with is Thelma and Louise. Join me, won’t you — in about a week, when I’ve had the chance to watch it again for the first time since 1992. Let’s see how it measures up to its reputation as the great female buddy picture of American film history, shall we? (It certainly has a better title than this poor film.)