Can you please run out and read this right now, so we can talk about it?
It’s so good. This is what I wanted Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs to be, although it never quite rose to those heights. Like that book, it circles around a woman artist (why so many good books recently about women artists?)
The novel proceeds as if an editor has compiled all the relevant information about a late female artist who, after her death, has been revealed as the artistic genius behind three celebrated shows, each purportedly the work of male artists. Her journals, interviews with her friends and critics, and other documents show that Harriet Burden arranged with those male artists for them to “wear” her art as if it was theirs in order, ultimately, to show the pervasive male bias of the art world.
But Harriet is far more than your typical cranky middle-aged woman who perceives bias. This book explores all aspects of artistic celebrity to show that this isn’t just feminist bitchiness but a true uncovering of how we — as a culture — see art through the artist (or, dare we say, through the author). Harriet’s agonizing frustration at her treatment is so astute that by the time I finished the book I wanted to start all over again. She is my favorite protagonist in months and months and months — and I’ve read some great books during this time.
Take, for example, her assessment of one of the artists she uses as a mask for her own work:
It is so easy for Rune to shine. Where does that effortlessness come from? He is so light. I am earthbound, a Caliban to Ariel. And I must watch his weightless flights over my head, while I lurk underground with brown thoughts that roil my guts. “Himself is his own dungeon.”
God, I loved this book, which just shines brighter and brighter like a blazing world from beginning to end. Read it and tell me what you think.
20 January 2014
Streaming on Netflix now is the most jaw-droppingly amazing documentary I have ever seen: The Act of Killing. Co-directors Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer, and an anonymous Indonesian interviewed a series of Indonesian executioners who formed an anti-Communist death squad in 1965 and 1966, just after Suharto came to power. No — these aren’t interviews. These executioners eagerly re-create the scenes of killing, enlisting small armies of fellow Indonesians to play the roles of their victims, showing precisely how to kill without splattering yourself with blood — because they are still proud of those murders. When shown playbacks of these scenes, the men become entranced by the opportunity to make their appearances all the more theatrical — so they help to create new footage in the style of their favorite Hollywood films: gangster tales, westerns, and musicals.
A simplistic viewer of The Act of Killing might take away from the film something like, “Mental note: do not visit Indonesia.” Or, “How is it that these criminals against humanity are still walking the streets?” But after a while you simply marvel at the human capacity to see oneself as a hero — a Hollywood-style hero — no matter what. Is this film actually an indictment of what Hollywood has done to us?
You have to see it. It’s the one thing that has helped me survive the fact that Sarah Polley’s brilliant Stories We Tell wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. (Cue my annual Oscar bitchfest.)
27 October 2013
Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.
Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?
The good news is that Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.
As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.
Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.
But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.
I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.
Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)
That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.
Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.
And oh! the speed-typing contests!
Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.
Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?
If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.
Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.
1 October 2013
It’s October, folks, which means it’s time for a brief visit to horror. Or, because I don’t read horror, a high-quality novel that just happens to be creepy.
This is the creepiest noir occult novel I’ve ever read, and its background — which features a reclusive horror film director with a crazed cult following — makes it all the more pleasurable for me as a reader. Pessl writes like a house on fire, and its occasional graphic novel-y insertions of webpages, emails, scribbled notes, reports, letters, etc. have me poring over every word, savoring the creepy anticipation.
It’s the kind of thing you start up on a Sunday evening and can’t put down till 4am.
It’s the kind of novel with rich descriptions of memorably creepy scenes — like when the motley collection of investigative journalists arrives at a ramshackle house somewhere in upstate New York, only to find a creepy doll drowning in a neglected above-ground swimming pool.
Thus, rather than spend any time whatsoever thinking about a Halloween costume or planning a horror film fest, I’m just going to sneak in as many hours as possible devouring this crazy good novel. Why hello, Marisha Pessl, my new creepy awesome friend.
After agonizing a while about yesterday’s angry/ desperate post on a guerrilla response to rape culture, I opened up a new novel last night.
After reading the first five pages of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I want to kiss her on the lips. Here’s how it begins on p. 1:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone –every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.
And with that, I’m now 5 pages in and feel as if I have a new best friend who’s also a Betty Friedan version of those visionary doomsayers of days of old, who looks a little disheveled perhaps but then lapses into otherworldly trances like Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and scares the shit out of you. Just wait till you read (on pp. 4-5) what she means by The Woman Upstairs (and those of us whose first thought was Madwoman in the Attic are on the right track).
This is going to be scary and awesome, like having to run through a house on fire. I feel like I’m being tugged by the hand by my new unfiltered visionary friend, and I might have to dedicate the afternoon to her.
I can’t begin to talk about the last horrible week, with the bombings, loss of life, manhunt, and all the bad behavior along the way. The fact that this took place during a hard week of the semester — and that I teach young 19-yr-olds like Dzhokhar all the time — makes it harder.
Instead, I turn to fable and film magic. I need escape; perhaps you do, too.
Everyone is going to compare this enchanting film to The Artist (2011) — because it, too, is a neo-silent that gets part of its magic by borrowing from films of the 1920s and shot in the same 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio as films of yesteryear. Fair enough. Our heroine even has a plucky pet — not a dog but an intrepid rooster named Pepe, who blows Uggie out of the water. (And I loved Uggie.)
Rather, this film should be compared to Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), because both films sought to reinvent the Snow White story as told by Los Hermanos Grimm. Thankfully, this one gets it right.
The director Pablo Berger seems to have been paying attention to the problems posed by current-day updates of fairy tales — and has found a way around them. Blancanieves isn’t the Snow White; rather, she’s a Snow White — she really only gets that moniker after she suffers amnesia (amnesia! I love amnesia stories!) and gets adopted by a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs.
Did you fully absorb all the information in that sentence? Amnesia! Bullfighting dwarfs!
I could tell you more about the story, but there’s no point, is there? We know there are going to be some key plot points: an evil stepmother, an apple, some sleeping. Berger hits those points while also unfolding Carmencita’s story in ways that take a sidelong look at the Sleeping Beauty fable, and which make it surprising and sort of delightful.
This Snow White doesn’t live in a woodsy neverland, but rather in a very particular time and place: Andalusia during the 1910s and ’20s, where bullfighting and flamenco help to define the regional culture. (In fact, you find yourself marveling that the dance and the “sport” have a very lot in common.) Watching the hundreds of spectators gather in an early scene at a stadium to watch the great bullfighter — the as-yet unborn Carmencita’s magnificent father — is to gain access to one of those things you hunger for as a filmgoer: a ghostly shot from up high, showing the spectators as tiny figures moving toward the stadium, a shot that seems both awe-inspiring and historical at once.
When little Carmencita is born to tragedy and her new stepmother, Encarna, installs herself in the household, all seems lost. And Encarna is, indeed, very evil. Played with gusto by Maribel Verdú (well-known in the U.S. for Y tu mamá también ), she narrows her eyes, laughs demonically, and struts before mirrors and cameras like the best of the worst female vamps of old. She’s wonderful to look at: her mouth can twist with just the right kind of cinematic cruelty. She may be the least subtle thing about this film, but she makes a perfect and vivid villainess.
And as Carmencita grows up into a young woman (Macarena García) in a lovely series of shots, we know she won’t last long on Encarna’s estate. How she takes up with the dwarfs — and ultimately becomes the nation’s newest sensation in bullfighting — is a longer and more twisted tale, but continues to vacillate between the classic elements of the Snow White fable and the more specific Andalusian story that Berger has created.
I saw Blancanieves three weeks ago and have been turning it around in my mind like one sucks on an Everlasting Gobstopper. Last night we happened to catch a preview for it at our theater, and I was struck all over again by its visuals, its creativity, its memorable score, and that glowing black and white — so much so, in fact, that I whispered, “Let’s see it again!”
Having just survived a very bad week, friends, let’s do something for our souls. Let’s turn away from the worst parts of the internet, from the bad news and the fearmongering. Let’s watch, instead, a film that feeds our souls. I’m not saying that Blancanieves is a perfect film; in fact, contact me or comment here when you see it and tell me what you think of its ending. But I would watch it again this minute if I didn’t have so much work to do.
On second thought, maybe I will go see it again — just to see Carmencita’s hopeful, upturned face, Pepe running through Encarna’s terrifying estate, and the dwarfs’ caravan lit with fairy lights. I could use some mercy now. Couldn’t we all?
15 March 2013
I’m working my ass off here, folks — so let me ask how it’s possible I only just discovered this awesome comic? Why aren’t my readers turning me on to brilliance like this?
I’m going to spend the whole weekend catching up on all the issues. And y’know what? I’m going to call it “research.”