24 January 2014
Patsey has a small part in the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) compared to so many of the others. But here’s one thing the Academy Award nominations got right: Lupita Nyong’o should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
If you see a photo of Nyong’o at an awards ceremony, you’d think she was a supermodel: everything about how she carries herself and uses her eyes and face stands in sharp contrast to her acting as the enslaved Patsey.
Patsey picks twice as much cotton as any other slave in Mr. Epps’ field, and withstands his periodic rapes of her, too. (Let it also be said that, unsurprisingly, Michael Fassbender is a terror in this role.) Her face amasses scars inflicted by Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who seethes for the lack of power to change her husband. But if those actors let their acting show, Nyong’o is so good in burying herself in this role that she outshines everyone — and, to my eyes, could have stolen the film from the equally wonderful Ejiofor had it not been for her tinier part.
She starts out inscrutable. What can we make of the fact that Solomon can’t pick even two hundred pounds of cotton in a day, but Patsey regularly tops five hundred? What do we make of her face as Epps caresses it in front of everyone, showing how much he favors her — clearly above his own wife?
But my favorite scene of Nyong’o showing her acting chops is with Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the Black mistress of the neighboring plantation, who invites Patsey over for tea. The older woman sees her own success in moving from slavery to the role of mistress as a lesson for the younger girl. Patsey is a quick study: just see how she watches every move Mrs. Shaw makes. That performance of emulation becomes all the more tragic as we feel through Patsey’s quick eyes that she will never, ever, become mistress.
Every year I cry and rent my garments when the Academy Award nominations come out, and this year was no different (Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor?! but no Oscar Isaac?!) — but at least they got this one right. Nyong’o is Patsey, in a way that builds throughout the final act of the film. She tears your heart not for cheap pathos but because her experience captures the complex horror of slavery. And in a year full of terrible roles for Black women, thank you for getting this one right. Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the best film ever made about slavery in large part due to the way it captures the role of women in slavery — as mistresses as well as slaves.
I’m looking forward to seeing what else Nyong’o can do. When you see the film, you will too.
18 February 2013
There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.
Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.
Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:
- Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
- Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
- Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
- Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year: Where did all the roles for Black women go?
- Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
- Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
- Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?
Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.
Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.
And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!
Best Female-Directed Film:
This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)
Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair.
But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”
If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.
Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:
Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.
But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).
Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:
Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.
Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?
Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.
Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:
No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.
Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.
But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.
Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:
Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.
That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!
What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.
Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:
They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?
Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?
Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.
Film of the Year:
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.
Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.
My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.
So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)
17 February 2013
Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?
Oh yeah, baby!
Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed Film; Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.
Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:
Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.
Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.
Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):
The abortion scene in Prometheus. Seriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?
Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.
Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:
Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.
Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?
Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:
Where did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.
Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.
One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.
Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:
Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.
So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.
Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.
Most Feminist Film:
Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.
That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.
Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.
That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!
And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!
20 January 2013
Here’s something you don’t often see onscreen: a woman who doesn’t cover up the fact that her hair has thinned.
Lidia Bastianich is PBS’s Italian cooking maven whose show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (she also has spinoffs like Lidia’s Italy), always marks the difference between the overly personality-driven Food Channel shows and PBS. To wit: she doesn’t do anything to cover up her thinning hair. For comparison, let’s look at the Food Channel’s Giada de Laurentiis:
Any normal human might find a contrast between these two women absurd. Be assured I’m not trying to draw a conclusion about their respective talents for cooking — just their comparative screen appearance. (We could also discuss Giada’s obviously spectacular breasts and/or that alarming set of teeth, but let’s try to stay focused.) I just want to make the point that it is amazing to me that even good old PBS hasn’t forced Lidia into a wig. (What do I know? They may have tried.)
I got onto this subject originally because the subject of hair kept coming up in strange and interesting contexts. There was Callista Gingrich, Newt Gingrich’s wife, whose immovable helmet of hair preoccupied so many bloggers last year. Perhaps because I’m a big fan of natural hair for Black women, I have read several other bloggers who yearn publicly for Michelle Obama to stop relaxing/ironing her hair.
I’d been collecting a random assortment of hair moments onscreen for a while, but it was a comment over at JB’s terrific film blog, The Fantom Country, that gave my post clarity. Writing about how many times he’d noticed Andrew Garfield’s luscious hair, JB wrote wryly, “Perhaps he is a particularly expressive hair actor” — why, it’s comments like these that make my blog so resoundingly esoteric. (See also posts on noses, mouths, and teeth.) Esoteric it may be, but it’s my confirmed opinion that hair is an easy site for the downfall of a film or character.
Let’s start with a few actors who consistently make their hair work pretty goddamn well. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in just about as many different hair parts as one can imagine, and they always work for me — even (especially?) when he shaved his head for the bad-guy role in Iron Man. Bridges has this way of truly appearing to be one with his hair; whether it’s the shaggy Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) or the long-haired ex-con in American Heart (1992, below), the hair seems fully folded in with the rest of him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that an actor like Bridges, who conceals so much of his acting craft behind his prodigious modesty and naturalness, would be able to handle these hair parts so effortlessly.
Other actors, it seems, grow into their hair. I never thought much of Connie Britton as a younger woman — on the rare occasions I ever caught that Michael J. Fox show Spin City (1996-2000) I mainly thought of her as The Hair — but now that she’s in her 40s she has gotten better roles and more gravitas. I just loved what she did with her role as Mrs. Coach/Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (2006-2011); one never forgot how she rocked those strawberry waves, but it seemed so fully in keeping with the role. I still haven’t caught up with her new show Nashville (2012- ) despite the regular reports from blogger friend JustMeMike that I have to keep archiving for reading later. But Britton’s hair in the Nashville country music scene? It’s a hair marriage made in heaven.
On occasion one finds an actor whose hair was so integral to her character onscreen that they become inseparable. Surely the best example one can imagine is Judy Davis’ breakout role in My Brilliant Career (1979). As Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager yearning for something beyond marriage and motherhood in turn-of-the-century New South Wales, her hair exemplified her character. Frizzy, irrepressible, flyaway, and heavy with impossibility — it fit so perfectly with Davis’s plain, freckled face and her terrific intelligence that it’s impossible to think of that role being taken on by anyone else.
A note: I’ve been disappointed to see that Davis rarely shows that hair anymore. Like so many women, she now keeps it straightened and severely managed. I still can’t see her onscreen without wondering where her hair went.
There are occasions when an actor with forgettable hair takes on a great hair part. The best example I can think of is from last year’s Prometheus (2012): Michael Fassbender’s turn as the creepy robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s one thing to admire O’Toole’s brassy, glinty-eyed heroism; it’s another to emulate his hair. What a nice touch that was. One couldn’t look at Fassbender throughout the film without seeing the robot’s own self-consciousness of carrying that carefully coiffed hair — hair that symbolized so much.
Click on this image of Fassbender and you’ll get a nice .gif of the hair regimen.
Yes: I am speaking of Merida’s hair in Brave (2012). Yes: I loved what the illustrators did with this. But yes: it took over.
Nor is this a fault limited to animators. Why, just last week I complained about Jessica Chastain’s hair in Zero Dark Thirty — what was wrong with those hair people on set? If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s how (cough) the rigors of personal hygiene and grooming have a tendency to drop away when one is single-mindedly working on a problem and scrutinizing the evidence. Por ejemplo: I’m sitting here right now on a Sunday afternoon, furiously typing a blog post about hair and movies, having not even run a comb through my hair all day. This is how us ladies behave when we’re focused. We do not fuss with ‘dos like this:
(And honestly, the movie wasn’t about some nice lady professor who keeps a blog. Chastain’s character went to black sites to witness torture of detainees! She sat around in a dreary cubicle at a CIA outpost in Pakistan! Argh.)
I have to conclude with a big hair role that stymies me: Penelope Cruz’s mane in Nine (2009). It’s so absurdly great that, for me, it veers between unbelievable and some kind of parasitic being from another planet that has attached itself to her beautiful head. I mean, us ladies have a lot to envy when it comes to Cruz, but nowhere does her hair appear to such effect than here, teased and streaked to the point that it ought to have its own life insurance and bodyguards. Just watch this sexpot number unfolding in the imagination of Daniel Day Lewis:
See what I mean? it’s just so much hair that every time I see this scene I wonder if the hair & makeup people actually added more to her head to enhance the excess of it all as she shakes it all over Lewis’s body. No wonder so many of us fantasize about sex and hair — criminey, see here for the definition of fetish.
As with all my most esoteric pieces, I can only hope that my hair fixation rubs off on you and you start to scrutinize the hair acting of all your favorite/hated actors. And when you do, I hope you post a comment about the people I’ve forgotten, the great hair roles of yesteryear, and the Hair Aliens Attack parts that I need to watch.
Which reminds me. Jennifer Aniston: greatest or worst hair actor of all time?
11 June 2012
It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?
As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.
To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.
The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.
In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?
More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?
Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.
NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.
JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?
Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.
So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?
JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.
Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?
JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.
Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.
Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.
JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?
Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.
Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?
JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.
Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.
I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.
JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?
Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.
I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.
JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.
Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.
Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.
JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.
Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.
Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.
Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.
Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.
Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?
JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.
So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.
*** Spoilers to follow! ***
*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***
Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask!
I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?
Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.
But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:
- The film is too short to do justice to the plot
- The film becomes an action film too abruptly
- The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film
I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!
JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.
We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.
Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:
This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.
I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!
Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.
Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?
JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.
These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.
Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?
Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.
Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.
Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.
JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?
Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.
Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?
Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!
The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.
I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?
This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!
JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.
Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.
But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.
Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)
I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.
JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?
Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.
How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?
JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.
But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.
But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?
Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.
That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.
I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!
Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent
Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent
Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent
Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent
Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent
Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!
But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!
JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.
But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.
Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?
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.
You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.
Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.
- American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
- Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
- Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
- Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
- The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes!
- The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
- Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
- L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
- Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
- Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
- Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
- Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
- Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
- My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
- North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
- Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
- The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good.
- The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
- Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
- The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
- A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
- True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
- A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours.
A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)
I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.
There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.
I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.
That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?