I totally get it now.

I’ve never quite understood why Keira Knightley is an A-list star, nor why she gets such good roles (like Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Never Let Me Go) – until I saw her in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). It always seemed to me she was being cast against type. Whereas those earlier films insisted she was a quintessential English rose, as Lizzie Bennet in P&P she appeared to me more likely to bite one of her co-stars than to to impress anyone with her fine eyes.

What Cronenberg gets (and I didn’t, till now) is that Knightley’s angular, toothy, twitchy affect shouldn’t be suppressed but mined instead.

Now that I’ve finally seen A Dangerous Method, I can’t imagine another actor taking on the role of the hysteric Sabina Spielrein to such effect. Jewish, Russian, fiercely intelligent and tortured by her inner demons, Sabina is the perfect dark mirror sister of Jung’s blonde and blue-eyed wife (Sarah Gadon), who always appears placid, wide-eyed and proper, and sometimes apologizes for errors such as giving birth to a daughter rather than a son. Now that’s a rose of a girl.

Maybe she seems exaggerated, but Jung’s wife embodies the self-control and physical containment of their elite class as well as their whiteness. No wonder Jung (Michael Fassbender) is so thrown by Sabina. For all her physical contortions, Sabina is also open to change, open to the darkest of insights. She opens up her mind and her memories to him with stunning willingness, revealing black thoughts associated with dark sexual urges. The more she ceases repressing those memories and associations, the more she reconciles them and begins to heal — and begins to use her quicksilver smarts in a way that shows her full embrace of the “talking cure”. No wonder she captivates Jung’s imagination, which is only the beginning of his growing disloyalty to his wife.

Knightley’s impossible skinniness only enhances her performance here. Whereas in most other films her body gets presented to us as yet another ridiculous size-00 slap in the face to the rest of us fat pigs (and don’t you forget it, Ashley Judd), in A Dangerous Method her body exemplifies a lifetime of self-punishing neurosis. There’s nothing more improbable than seeing her heavy dark eyebrows and her olive skin — and hearing about her sexual arousal via humiliation — all the while bound up in those cruel corsets and lacy, white, high-necked dresses that on any other woman would be persuasive signifiers of her chastity.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what I found most impressive about Knightley’s performance was the way she showed how the later, “healed” Spielrein — the one who no longer screams and juts out her chin — was a recognizable incarnation of the earlier hysteric. Her clenched and slightly hunched shoulders, her black looks, her tight mouth. She’s a whirlwind of intellect and energy, and the performance is brilliant. As the excellent JB writes over at The Fantom Country, “Even in relatively calmer moments, she seems trapped inside a state of ceaseless panic, caught, gasping for air, in the dragnet of some trawler that never sleeps.”

This is especially important for the contrast between her corporeal presence versus that of Jung and Freud, who exert an absurd degree of self-control and containment, like disembodied brains. When she kisses Jung for the first time, his weak response is to note, “It’s generally thought that the man should be the one to take the initiative.” When someone refers to the “darker differences” between the two, we know those differences are both racial and sexual — and that Spielrein is the dark one, the one whose vagina has needs and rages, and smells like a real woman’s vagina (thanks to Kartina Richardson’s terrific piece, “Keira Knightley’s Vagina”). It makes me wish that Knightley rather than Natalie Portman had appeared as the lead in Black Swan — again, a statement I never thought I’d make.

Spielrein and Jung’s other patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), both profess to a startling optimism about analysis: “Our job is to make our patients capable of freedom,” Gross pronounces, a sentiment Spielrein shares but cannot realize. Her own ecstasy peaks as Jung gives her erotic spankings; clearly, humiliation still retains its primary charge. The film doesn’t explore the gendered nature of hysteria, which brought so many women low during those decades a hundred years ago, but it does highlight how one’s freedom was limited by other cultural boundaries — most notably race. Spielrein looks genuinely crushed when her new interlocutor, Freud, pushes her down with the observation, “We’re Jews, Miss Spielrein — and Jews we will always be.”

We don’t very often call it hysteria anymore, but we still see manifestations of inexplicable corporeal neurosis in girls and women that defy explanation, as in the strangely infectious case in upstate New York this year. How amazing it would be to find a filmmaker to address the subject. I’ve always thought that someone could take the 1690s Salem witch hysteria as a case study, Arthur Miller-style, to try to explore some of the contributing factors behind such mass outbursts of tics, twitches, and personal misery. And I’d love to have Knightley involved again, honestly.

People love to talk about the synergy between Cronenberg and his frequent male lead, Mortensen, as being one of the great director-actor combinations of the last decade. But now that I’ve seen what Cronenberg got out of Knightley, I want him to unearth new roles for her instead so we can see more of what she can really do once she lets go of the English rose routine. I totally get it now: Knightley can act. And I’m genuinely looking forward to more of it.

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Versatile blogger award!

4 January 2012

Many thanks to the elegant SpanishProf for nominating me for The Versatile Blogger award!

Conditions of the award:

  1. Nominate 15 fellow bloggers
  2. Inform the bloggers of their nomination
  3. Share 7 random things about yourself
  4. Thank the blogger who nominated you
  5. Post the award badge.

My nominations for fantastic versatile bloggers:

  1. Angry Black Bitch. Does any blogger out there have a better blogger voice than Shark-Fu? Not when she’s talking about politics, feminism, and crazy sex scandals, which she’s been doing since 2005. Holy crap — who can do this that long? Only a genius with stamina, baby. See her take on Herman Cain’s scandal here.
  2. Comradde PhysioProffe, who holds forth on sports, food, and politics, and very occasionally academia. I drool over his illustrated recipes. And for all of it he uses the motherfucken best, creatively-spelled curse words. Want the best shitte ever? His recipe for chicken chile verde tamales here.
  3. The Delphiad, where Dominique Millette offers up on-target, biting and funny commentary on life, politics, feminism, and all the good things that keep blood running through our veins. She puts up with no shit, except when she just pretends to put up with it, like in her take on lingerie football.
  4. The Fantom Country. JB there writes about movies in a way that’s above & beyond the typical; his reviews always seem to expand outward in a way that sings to me. See for example his assessment of the movies of 2011.
  5. From a Left Wing, where Jennifer Doyle talks about sports, feminism, and the sexual politics that are inevitable when we talk about sports (and yet seem so absent from most sports pages). Here’s a great piece on women’s soccer in the 1920s (who knew?) that’ll give you a taste of this terrific topic.
  6. Historiann. Most of the time she offers up a feminist take on history and academia, and sometimes talks about great music from my era (80s, 90s), and always displays a delightful good nature and those great 1940s pinup cowgirls. If you’re an academic, this is a must-see. See here for the horrors of “smokers” at annual meetings.
  7. I Blame the Patriarchy. Surely we all read Twisty Faster’s blog while we clean our feminist weapons in the evening, drink a marg, and brush up on our blamer mouth muscles. I just wish I could come play with her animals. Read “My unique style self-expresses who I personally am” and get a taste of what you could be enjoying with more feminism, too.
  8. LadyElocutionist, where Sara writes about feminism & popular culture, a woman after my own heart. Her takes are always smart and perceptive — see for example her bit on Bridesmaids.
  9. The Lotus Notebooks, where Natasha Rosen discusses living in Turkey, teaching, becoming a mother, and the vignettes of life and memory. Beautiful. Her least serious — and most elegant — posts are stylish images from the 20th-c. past, “Elegantly Dressed Wednesday.”
  10. Lycanthropia, who writes so eloquently she takes my breath away; often about the trials and tribulations about life in grad school. What I’ve read 15 times: her poem, Operation Soul Retrieval.
  11. MeAndRichard. Now, you may say to yourself, how can an effusive fan blog about Richard Armitage be versatile? Well, friends, you have never read Servetus discuss an actor’s craft and persona. She throws everything into the effort — take, for example, her discussion of Armitage’s interviews, in which she mobilizes the whole critical arsenal from post-structuralist views of authenticity to pragmatic reasoning. Brilliant, silly, and often educational — just like the author.
  12. Mirror, the breathtakingly great film blog by Kartina Richardson, whose unexpected takes on the movies always delight me. She’s smart as shit and talks about things I wish I’d noticed. See for example her take on A Dangerous Method in which she talks about how Keira Knightley (unexpectedly) evokes race and the scent of a woman’s actual vagina, which is so clever a take on that early era of psychiatry that I wish the film would @#$%ing show up in my city already. (Richardson also has a nifty companion site showing how much she enjoys beverages. Wish I’d thought of that.)
  13. The Ms. Education of Shelby Knox. The center of the amazing documentary The Education of Shelby Knox — about the growing political/feminist consciousness of a high school girl — is in her 20s now and kicking some serious ass as a professional feminist. She’s a brilliant writer and is compiling a “radical women’s history project” to compile information about the feminist past that isn’t just about the white ladies.
  14. SisterArts, a blog about gardens, history, and poetry, and sometimes just about beauty. Lisa Moore shows that it’s possible to be an academic — a literature professor, in her case — and also just love her chosen subject of analysis. Look at these gorgeous images from Stourhead, for example.
  15. The Solipsistic Me, where Michael Hulshof-Schmidt shows absolutely no hesitation in calling out good and bad behavior during these dark days of incredibly bad public behavior. As a good progressive feminist pro-gay type, I read it every day. I especially liked his Bigot of the Year and Hero of the Year awards.

And seven random things about me:

  1. My favorite film of all time: The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed’s amazing, cynical postwar film that shifts all the ground under your feet during the course of watching it. Orson Welles has never been better; Alida Valli virtually never smiles, yet she glows; and the zither music! This is why I watch film so utterly and absolutely.
  2. The music that rocked my world (and still does): The Pretenders (1980). The drive, the sexually explicit lyrics, the stance … it’s still the album I turn to for long drives. For a long time, “Mystery Achievement” was the song that ramped me up for tennis matches.
  3. My favorite place: Fort Bragg, California. In case I ever make enough money for an expensive vacation/retirement locale. A place for those people like me who can’t choose between mountains and ocean. Nuff said:
  4. Some people I would invite to a dream dinner party if I could: Helen Mirren, Dorothy Parker, Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow, Steve Earle, and all the bloggers abovementioned. (Yes, I know Parker is no longer with us. It’s a dream dinner party, dammit.)
  5. What we should all be fighting for in 2012: women’s reproductive rights. Yes, abortion. I have a lot more to say about this — including why I think progressives have let it slip — and will hold forth shortly on the topic here.
  6. A random list of things I would eat every single day if I could: roasted brussels sprouts, sushi, kaddo bourani, guacamole, steamed BBQ pork buns, paté, garlic bread, and my sister’s roasted red pepper/walnut/smack spread. In my utopian universe, everything will come in a dumpling/ravioli/empanada/pierogi/cannoli/blintz/crèpe format.
  7. My favorite expression: “When I run the world…”, which seems to come up a lot more frequently these days, especially when I serve on university committees. And yet I have no desire to actually run universities (like being a dean or department chair or whatever). Which leads to my motto, which needs to be put on a bronze plaque: Refusing to Drink the Kool-Aid Since April 2005.

The ayes have it: the winner for Best Men’s Hair of Filmic History goes to that romantic, Byronic period of history, the Regency era!

Now, I haven’t studied the actual hair history enough to confirm that this bears strong relations to reality, but there’s at least some evidence to confirm this claim. To wit: check out this portrait of the Prince Regent himself — the Prince of Wales, who served as King of England in place of his sick father, George III until 1820, when he ascended to the throne in his own right as George IV. Now there’s a man who kicks the shit out of artfully tousled hair, pushed forward just enough onto his face. Even Lord Byron was known to enhance his considerable beauty by wearing curling-papers in his hair at night. Let’s sing out a collective “thank you” to costume dramas for keeping those styles alive.

This style is so preferable to all those 21st-century incarnations of hair pushed onto the face — the Justin Bieber, the Korean hottie, the surfer dude — and it’s being used liberally in filmic reproductions and fictionalizations of Jane Austen’s novels (published during the Regency era). To wit: James McAvoy in Becoming Jane (2007), a film I would watch again only for his hair. I find McAvoy impossibly charming in virtually all his films — even when he improbably discusses those “groovy” mutations in X-Men: First Class — but I’d venture to say that he’s never looked better than with this hair. And that forest green velvet.

Ditto all the above for Colin Firth’s hair in the BBC series Pride and Prejudice (1995). I’m still sorry this version had such a contrast between the stellar acting of the two leads and the embarrassing over-acting of every single other character. (Still: I’ll take this version over the Keira Knightley/ Matthew Macfadyen version [2005] any day. Even when you factor in the fact that in the latter version the secondary characters were terrific.) The rest of you can chirp about that scene when Firth dives into the pond, but I prefer him wrapped up, gazing with sparkling eyes at Lizzie from across the parlor at Pemberley, showing off his curls and sideburns.

Let us not overlook Alan Rickman’s version of Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility (1995), less because he’s got curls pushed forward onto his face than because, damn.

Or Dan Stevens’ version of Edward Ferrars in the BBC version of Sense and Sensibility (2008), which makes him much more attractive than when Stevens appeared in Downton Abbey (2010), if you ask me.

According to the movies’ version of history, heroes got darker as the century progressed, and their hair got less purely romantic. In the case of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in North and South (2004), the severe hair and those barbed sideburns accentuate his fiercely angular face. They also mirror his own proclivity for abrupt rage, which he always seems to regret. This delicious series shows us that we must measure his growing love for Margaret by those rare moments when he loosens his tie and unbuttons the top button of his white, white shirt rather than by the softness of his curls.

In Jane Eyre (2011), Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester sports deeper and more dangerous sideburns and, I would argue, messy hair that signifies risky and complicated emotions bubbling underneath. If Armitage portrayed a self-made man worried about losing everything, Rochester’s lack of financial concerns was a thin cover for his other worries, making him as unpredictable and changeable as that hair. Oh Jane, beware your feelings!

And isn’t it striking how little we want to reproduce the women’s hairstyles in all of these films! The puritanical buns of the Brontës’ characters, the foolish curls Elizabeth Bennet found herself wearing, the elaborate braids and hats… it was the beginning of a long, long period of bad hair news for the ladies, till they started chopping it all off in the 1920s. Which makes me appreciate the 20s all the more.

Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.