I’ve got to maintain my blog silence in order to finish writing this damn book, but I saw Testament of Youth last night and have been spluttering ever since.
Now, this is a very pretty and very sad film. And the first part of the film follows the real-life Vera Brittain’s memoir nicely — in which she fights her way into Oxford University against her father’s wishes, and along the way (against her own wishes) falls in love with her brother’s friend Roland — only to have war break out in 1914. As she remembered it later, the war initially “came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She spent the war’s aftermath trying to come to terms with the meaning of that war and the multiple tragedies it unleashed. Testament of Youth remains one of the most powerful and important feminist/pacifist/intellectual reckonings of that era and that generation.
But this film focuses, instead, on how pretty these people were, and how sad it is when someone dies. Other than a brief moment at the end when Brittain (Alicia Vikander) speaks up on behalf of peace and postwar reconciliation at a raucous political meeting, the film skims over or skips everything that really mattered to the real-life Brittain — her relationship with Winifred Holtby, her agonizing efforts to make sense of the war, her political and feminist work — to a postscript that assures us that she found someone else and married in 1925.
Oh, no no no, this film is all heartbreaking scenes at railway stations and all manner of men gazing at Vera longingly. That’s right: instead of a powerful political assessment, this film is simply a woman’s weeper, made for repetition on the Lifetime channel.
You can say that I was ruined for this film because I’d read the book. In fact, my very first induction into the magic of the BBC world of miniseries came in the early 80s when my mom and I sat ourselves down every Sunday night to watch the 275-minute version of Testament of Youth starring Cheryl Campbell. (Does anyone know how I can get that series on a region-1 DVD?) But even if I was a total novice to the subject matter, this film is empty of anything but aesthetic pleasure and pathos.
This should have been the movie for me: a female lead! based on a feminist text! a period drama with great clothes! But no matter how many tears I shed during the screening, I found myself increasingly exasperated during the film’s final third to the point that my jaw dropped when it ended before any of what mattered to the real-life Brittain made it in.
Okay, back to writing things that result in book contracts, promotion, etc. Apologies for going AWOL, friends, but I’ve got to get some work done!
It sounds silly now, of course. When someone starts up in ValSpeak, she sounds stupid. But let me explain how wrong and simplistic that is. (I’m going to argue that Riot Grrrl was born of Valley Girl. Just wait till you seen how I get there!)
It didn’t sound stupid if you were younger than, say, 15 in the early 80s, when the Valley Girl accent began circulating on shows like Square Pegs and the classic Moon Zappa song, and thence into schoolyards everywhere. That’s how Kathleen Hanna — revered feminist lead singer of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now The Julie Ruin — explains her adoption of the accent while a pre-teen in Maryland. “We wanted to be the kinds of girls who had credit cards,” she remembers in the terrific documentary The Punk Singer (2013), now streaming on Netflix. To her, it sounded posh, the voice of rich girls.
One of her friends adds that it just goes to show you that you be “just like some Valley Girl and you still can be smart and have feminist ideas and should be listened to.” (Another perk: watching this doc puts the song “Rebel Girl” in your head for days.)
I was never as dedicated to ValSpeak as Hanna — she still talks that way — but I can attest to its appeal back then:
It sounded smart. I know, right? But Valley Girls were fast talkers, quick-witted, opinionated; and they pronounced everything perfectly in those clipped accents. They had a lot to say. Let us not forget Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless (1995), a second-generation Valley Girl whose speeches regularly inspired applause from her classmates. If you were young, it was easy to hear this as smart — as girls figuring out what they had to say by holding forth.
It was funny. Moon Zappa’s song was a spoof on the dimwitted female mall shoppers out in the deeply suburban San Fernando Valley (much farther from LA than you might imagine if you’re not from there) — and I’m pretty sure we all understood that. But those who heard this only as mocking of the girls were missing something. To me it sounded self-mocking, with all those Ohmigod!s and I’m so sure!s. Girls talked this way in part because they knew they were being funny, and they got a charge from being part of the fun.
It was a dialect unique to girls. And therefore it became a part of girl culture — one of the many ways that girls created a world unto themselves. Sure, it had tinges of sameness and uniformity, but different girl groups innovated endlessly on its basic elements, always developing new ways to speak to each other and to cloak their girl-talk from outsiders.
(I never heard the Valley Guy version of this talk in the same way; it lacked the private club aspects of Valley Girl talk. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t a part of those clubs.)
It allowed you to do fun things with your voice. Valley girls ran the gamut of the vocal scales; just a single Ohmigod! required the speaker to cock one’s voice up a couple of octaves midway and then allow the voice to collapse back to earth of its own weight. The accent is partly so distinctive not for what girls say than for the kooky musical sound of their rambling sentences, like a bouncy New Wave pop song of that era. Doing that stuff with your voice required practice, just like learning to dance like Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos.
The documentary about Kathleen Hanna makes a point of discussing her Valley Girl accent because it seems incongruous — how is it that such a diehard feminist — a woman who scrawled INCEST on her chest, screamed into the microphone, sang about sexual abuse, and changed the masculine culture of those punk nightclubs — could speak in a way that undermines the seriousness of her words? After all, long ago I learned to stop talking that way in order to be taken seriously.
But that stereotype has been twisted by time and by the ongoing cultural sense that anything girls do must be stupid. Valspeak wasn’t just a marker of stupid girls saying stupid things. Nor was it a supreme moment of girl stupidity that had to be repudiated by the Riot Grrrls of the 90s.
Let me say something controversial: Riot Grrrl was a movement that stood on the shoulders of Valley Girl. With Valley Girl, we learned to talk — quickly, smartly, to each other. It was of a piece with the dribs and drabs of female rock music of the era (The Pretenders, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Go-Gos, Blondie, Annie Lennox, Siouxie Sioux, etc.) that had a lot to say about being female.
Could Hanna’s overt feminism have been far behind?
Sigh. The only downside of watching The Punk Singer is realizing how far we’ve fallen since the glory days of Riot Grrrl. I ♥ Hanna. Rebel girl, you’re the queen of my world.
4 June 2014
I loved Veronica Mars, that So-Cal noir series that ran between 2004 and 2007. (Especially the first two seasons.) Her bitterness was so vividly explained. The class battles between the haves and have-nots always peppered the show, even as it cynically reminded us (as good noir does) that the wealthy and privileged have the means to insulate themselves against justice no matter how much Veronica tried to fix it. The series was also funny, with wonderful characters (Vinnie Van Lowe, the comic genius of Dick Casablancas). It ended too soon, and remains worthy of re-watching even now.
Veronica (Kristen Bell) was razor-sharp — that nose, that jawline, that cutting sense of humor — but the show was always fundamentally about her sadness, her loneliness. Perfect noir. Perfect for those of us for whom high school remains weirdly mythopoeic.
Considering that sharpness, you couldn’t be surprised by Bell’s post-Veronica career as Veronica’s opposite: a privileged mean girl (Heroes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Parks and Recreation, the narrator’s voice in Gossip Girl). Which made me realize that her capacity for bitchiness always underlay her success as Veronica, too — Veronica was the girl who directed her meanness at the mean girls, overprivileged douchebags, and corrupt cops who made it so hard for the rest of us.
Now that we have a full-length feature film — made nine years later, and famously with millions of fan-driven Kickstarter dollars — does it still work?
Is this the kind of movie that anyone can enjoy, not just fans of the series?
I doubt it, especially if you’re paying for it. Wait till it’s on TV and, who knows? Maybe it’ll propel you to the series after all.
Will fans of the series be happy with this film?
Absolutely (more details below). But it feels like a TV show, not a film.
This film offers many pleasures — not least the way it managed to find every relevant actor to reprise his/her role from the series. The awful Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret), the queen mean girl; the stoner Corny (Jonathan Chesner, whose appearance made me squeal with delight); even Veronica’s temporary flame on the force, Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield) — not to mention the most crucial people, including Veronica’s father (Enrico Colantoni), Weevil (Francis Capra), and of course Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino). Lucky that the plots pivots around Neptune High’s 10-year high school reunion, because otherwise you’d shake your head at the crazy confluence of familiar faces.
But the real reason Veronica has returned to town is that once again, Logan (Jason Dohring) finds himself accused of murder. They haven’t seen each other for nine years, and Veronica has remained with her public-radio boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) ever since. On the verge of landing her first post-law school job in New York as a corporate lawyer, she agrees to help Logan find a defense lawyer. Like, for one weekend only. Like she has that kind of self-control.
To his credit, Logan seems to have changed. He claims it’s his duty in the Navy — whatever it is, he seems unusually soft-spoken and lacking in the sociopathic tendencies that peppered his long history with Veronica. He now seems so self-possessed, almost like a stand-up guy. On the other hand, because of his past, no one really doubts that he might have the capacity to murder someone.
No wonder Wallace and Mac can see trouble around the corner. “In case it slipped your mind, Piz is the one without the baggage and the drama,” Wallace tells her, while Mac chimes in: “I will say this for him, he almost never gets charged with murder.”
“Just one of the things I love about Piz: no drama,” Veronica throws back at them. No one believes her.
Sure enough, before too long she has dug out her old dark, high-school era clothing for nighttime sleuthing, has scented out good reasons to believe a conspiracy is afoot, and she finds herself in Logan’s convertible, lit by the water and the neon and the jonesing for that crazy connection — the relationship that was epic, spanning years and continents, lives ruined, bloodshed….
As she tries to resist, she likens Logan’s appeal to an addiction she has broken. Or maybe she’s still in recovery. “Do I get a chip for this? Pouring the drink, swishing it, smelling it, leaving the bar without taking a sip. Is this what getting clean feels like?”
Serious question: will this calm version of Logan still be as good a kisser? That was a primary reason to enjoy his appearance all those years ago, and I have my doubts about this one. Tag line: he may have been a sociopath, but a damn good kisser.
I have only one complaint about this film (besides the kissing question): that it is a film and not a two-hour pilot for a briefly revamped series with a clear end date (say, 12 episodes). Director Rob Thomas certainly left enough openings for future work — the corrupt police force, etc. And with her knowledge of the law, this Veronica might be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
But I also have a lingering sense that this Veronica won’t take, and the important problem is the mythopoeic nature of high school in TV series. Something about a teen detective navigating poisonous social politics and corruption works in a way that a 30-year-old who’s passed the bar will not. As much as I enjoyed every minute of this film, with its cameos and repartee and that revived thing between Veronica and Logan: maybe it’s time to let it go, to let this be our swan song, that one-night/ high school reunion return to old friends, old flames.
Seriously, though: Piz? surely she could have found someone else by now. That’s just sheer laziness, Veronica. Think about the kissing.
30 May 2014
It is 1982 in Stockholm, these girls are 13 years old, and they refuse to believe that punk is dead. What a great idea for a film.
I haven’t seen it yet, of course (foreign/independent films take approximately a month to make it to my city from movie centers in New York and LA), but today’s rave NYT review is through the roof, so I’m going to do my best to turn We are the Best! into a new cult movie about female rockers. (One of their songs is called “Hate the Sport.”)
So put it on your lists, friends.
This isn’t a terrible film. It’s basic heartwarming stuff, with great music and delicious-looking food layered on top. I, for one, appreciate a good food movie. And I like writer-director-star Jon Favreau well enough. I’m not going to tell you this is bad material.
What I am going to say that if I see one more film in which the ridiculously hot, fantastic woman is just waiting around for Señor Doofus to get his shit together — and their uniting is this badly plotted, I am going to lose it. (Spoiler alert.)
Yes, this is the woman — Sofia Vergara, for gods’ sake, she of the quickfire wit from Modern Family and improbably spectacular body — as Inez. And, that doofus-looking dude with the glasses? Yes, that’s a chef named Carl (Favreau), together with their son Percy. Not only are they now divorced, but Carl is a terrible father — perpetually late for his every-other-weekend visits, absent-minded, self-absorbed.
On some level perhaps it’s nice that the movies take pleasure in setting up spectacularly gorgeous individuals with very ordinary-looking ones; it gives all us ordinary people a chance to dream. Of course it would be nice if every once in a while the ordinary-looking partner were female rather than the reverse. Shall we review Carl’s appearance?
According to the film, Carl’s problem is the high-intensity world of first-class restaurants. So when he gets himself summarily fired because the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman, deliciously good in this role) just wants him to keep making the same old safe dishes for their customers. Long story short: Carl loses his shit on Twitter, buys a food truck, rediscovers his love of cooking, and re-bonds with his son. And oh yeah, he and Inez re-marry.
…which is my problem. That’s when my mild pleasure at the delicious food, great music, etc. came to a screeching halt. Whaddaya mean, they get remarried?
Problem #1: Inez has no personality, no character, no motivation. Hence, their remarriage doesn’t seem to serve any of her interests, because she has no interests.
Problem #2: The only hint we are given for their being re-interested in one another is that little Percy appears to desire it, at least insofar as one of those “Gee, Dad, I wish you lived at home again” lines gets thrown at Carl.
Problem #3: The only hint we are given that Carl might still love her is when he gets irrationally jealous that she may have slept with another man. This is not an attractive quality in a man.
Problem #4: The only purpose of her (gorgeous, spring-loaded) existence is to serve as a reward for Carl getting his shit together. (Why isn’t his reward just a renewed relationship with their son?)
Oh, did I forget to mention that Carl already has a kind of relationship with Scarlett Johansson, whereby he seduces her regularly with his spectacular food? So, yeah, Carl OF ALL PEOPLE seduces the hottest women in Hollywood right and left.
Ordinarily I might not pause in my crazy schedule for a film rant on this blog, except that — hello — we just witnessed yet another shooting, this one at UC Santa Barbara. And as we’ve all heard by now, this one was executed by a young man angry that women were not responding to his seduction techniques.
No wonder the UCSB shooter believed that women must either succumb or die: films like this one promise men that women are just available to them, always. There’s no reason why Carl and Inez need to re-marry at the end; his real life change consists in having bonded again with his son. Inez is just thrown in with the package, because … well, we know why, don’t we?
I’m so tired. No wonder I like North and South so much — those characters actually transform.
Oh yeah, and one other thing, from this site:
20 April 2014
Riveting. A woman prowls the streets of Glasgow in a white van, hunting for men. Gender roles are switched — she’s the predator, they the prey. She uses herbeauty, her seductiveness, to lure them.
At one point she tries out her line on a man standing near the driver’s side window, but he tries to attack her — and a crew of buddies spring out at her, too. She drives away unruffled.
You see, she’s not really a woman, even as she uses her womanliness to get them naked and erect.
I don’t have time to write a lot, lest I get bogged down and leave this in draft — I currently have 14 things in draft. Let me just say that this is worth every penny. I’m still not sure what to make of it. The arc of the story seems to take her from this womanly non-woman to a new, silent gender role; she no longer has the ammunition to be the person she becomes. Nor do we really know what she’s done with those hapless male victims along the way. But this beautifully creepy film and the blank, riveting Scarlett Johansson weave around a grim world in which they seem like only one tiny scary element.
I could say so much more, but not when I’m about to face the last week of the semester and finals and all the usual shit. Tell me what you think, though. Don’t expect to feel good, to fall in love with the protagonist, or to walk out having learned something, exactly … but you’ll want to talk.
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.