Fragments

31 August 2011

I’ve been focusing on all manner of academic things this week, so my mind is fragmented. These thoughts don’t add up to anything, but it’s the extent of my ideas about movies and words and women and men.

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the amazing 2000 film from Ang Lee that only gets better on re-viewing except I had to watch it on a TV screen rather than on the very large screen where I saw it, twice, when it came out. Oh, Michelle Yeoh, I worship at your feet. (Stay tuned for more about this film.)

2. A lovely line from the new Tony Kushner play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, coming from the old union laborer’s mouth that expresses something beautiful about what it means to be proud of your labor and your union:

We did something utterly remarkable then, which no one now appreciates, but it was, it was working-class guys, working-class with no, no training, no politics, facing down their fear of being called bums and featherbedders and crooks and insisting not merely on the worker’s right to a wage but the worker’s right to a share in the wealth, a right to be alive, a right to control time itself! When we won the Guaranteed Income, we took hold of the logic of time and money that enriches men like then and devours men like us, and we broke its fucking back.

3. Another lovely fragment from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (overall: it was good). When Joey, the young son leaves his country college and goes to New York for the first time and sees the circus of street life taking place in the city:

every moment was like a poem that he immediately memorized.

4. Kitchen Stories (2003), a funny and sweet Norwegian film by Bent Hamer that should be imported directly into anthropology classes, since it’s a perfect expression of what happens during participant observation. To wit: to understand old Norwegian bachelors’ uses of their kitchens, the observer sets up an umpire’s chair in the corner. What could go wrong?

5. Another fragment, this from Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The teenaged Oscar is in love with a girl, and the two of them begin to talk — long, rambling phone calls that start from nowhere, building on the everyday, yet:

and off they’d gone, building another one of their word-scrapers.

(Díaz: I might’ve gone for word castles, given Oscar’s romantic nature, but I re-read that paragraph four times for the pleasure of it.)

6. Felicity Huffman. We’re watching the ’90s series Sports Night for the first time (overall: it is good) but Huffman is the kind of actress who seems so compelling, far beyond the way her character’s written. As with all of Aaron Sorkin’s women, her character is manic and neurotic. Yet there’s a way Huffman can peer through those eyes, cock an eyebrow (and nobody cocks eyebrows the way she does), and make you want to make out with her. Which reminds me, of course, of her multiple prizewinning turn in Transamerica as the transsexual Bree, during which I could not imagine that she had not once been a man. It makes me so sad that she’s been relegated to Desperate Housewives all this time.

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Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

Who knows what possessed them to do so, but when I was about ten my parents sat me down to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.  If it was cotton candy for its 1935 audiences, it was no less so for me:  I was riveted by everything from the corny jokes to those awkward segues into elegant Irving Berlin songs to that famous dress made of feathers in which Ginger dances cheek to cheek with Fred.  Even all these years later I can’t quite put my finger on why the ten-year-old me found this Depression-era relic so compelling — yet the quest to plumb what movies mean to us is irresistible.  In my case it was Fred & Ginger who began a lifelong love of film, and for some reason I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit last night.  Clearly, my tastes now run much darker than they did when I was ten, but I still find myself moved beyond easy explanation by this tale.  (And what can I say?  I’m perversely entertained by the contrast of the two films.)

There’s an awful lotta road between them, but I’ll talk your ear off over a few beers to convince you that these films are both about the joy of watching movies.  Whereas John Wayne dominated the 1969 original, the Coens people their story with much more modest actors such that the film focuses on telling a great tale.  And what a tale it is. 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to town looking for someone to track down a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed and robbed her father, and she chooses U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man later referred to as “a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn drinks too much, kills too many of the men he was supposed to pick up, and might even cheat Mattie out of the $50 she gives him to start looking — but she believes he has the true grit for the job.  Things get more complicated when a self-aggrandizing (yet oddly self-conscious) Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) shows up hunting the same guy, determined to take Chaney back for some Texas justice rather than to Mattie’s home of Yell County, Arkansas.  And we’re off.  (I could say so much more about the terrific 13-year-old actor Steinfeld, but I want to emphasize here that this is truly an ensemble cast — part of her gift is knowing that she’s part of a triumvirate.  She’s already won eight supporting actor awards for her part [sidebar: why supporting?  that’s downright insulting] and has been nominated for a pile of other prizes, so I’m hardly the first to notice.)

Maybe this sounds like it combines every Western cliché you’ve ever heard of (in a genre that loves clichés), but don’t quit on me now.  It’s got the best dialogue I’ve heard since the Coens’ last 15 movies, except without the cussin’.  The Coens wrote the screenplay without using many contractions, leading to such locutions as “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts” — conversation that only gets funnier when it’s ricocheting between the whipsmart Mattie, the growling Rooster, and the slightly out-of-his-league La Boeuf, and funnier yet again when La Boeuf’s lines are slurred due to badly biting his own tongue in a tussle.  The Coens love three-way dialogue; just remember the exchanges between Donnie, Walter, and the Dude in The Big Lebowski or between Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to remember the greatness.  But I’m not sure it’s ever been as even-handedly delicious as in True Grit.  In an early scene the two men sit on their horses, watching the indomitable Mattie charge across a roaring river on her horse with only her head and her horse’s above water; Cogburn says dryly, “By God.  She reminds me of me,” to which La Boeuf responds, “Well then, we might just not get along.”  The relations between the three are always strained, just enough to keep the barbs flying.  Except when Rooster’s drunk, anyway — then he simply resorts to long-winded retellings of past adventures.  It’s at those moments when you feel no tension between the three main characters that you get anxious that the story is about to plunge us deep into a tight spot.

Great storytelling, terrific visuals, three equally great main characters held in perfect equilibrium, and that sparkling dialogue that gives The Social Network and Aaron Sorkin a run for the money — but those aren’t the only reasons why this movie made me think so much about why I love movies.  It’s something else, a magician’s gift for sleight-of-hand.  True Grit keeps distracting you with one thing and then producing rabbits from nearby hats — plot twists, a little gruesome bloodletting, a surprise appearance by a bad guy, a shoot-off.  Whereas some films practically flag that left hand working sneakily off to one side (hello, the utterly disappointing The Ghost Writer — how did that end up on so many best-of lists?), in this one I simply settled back to let the words, scenes, characters, and conflicts wash over me.  When Cogburn stands over the bruised body of La Boeuf and curses, “Damn that Texan; when you need him, he’s dead,” we’re relieved to find out he’s wrong — but your mind gets stuck on that sweet line, wishing you’d thought of it first.

A long time ago I saw Smoke in a Cambridge theater and throughout the film some jackass behind me kept turning to his friend saying, “I’m really enjoying this, aren’t you?”  As annoyed as I was, I know what he meant.  Sometimes a film creates a whole world that you just succumb to, childlike, without trying too hard to second-guess outcomes.  The words are so great and so unusual that you run them over your tongue like hard candy, and you let yourself get swept up.  That was my experience of True Grit, and that was my experience of Top Hat all those many years ago.  Don’t get me wrong:  True Grit isn’t a cheery movie with a Fred & Ginger outcome; I could say much more about the Coens’ love of cynicism and other themes that dominate their films, but that’ll have to wait for another day.  Still, I walked out of the film feeling buttressed up, somehow.  Maybe it’s because the new school year’s beginning and I could use some true grit myself.  Maybe I just need to take a tip from Rooster, who was partial to pulling a cork for comfort.  On these gloomy early January days — dark even here in the normally sunny Texas — we could use a tale that takes us outside of ourselves.

Here’s what I’ll take for granted for the rest of this piece:  this is a tight, fascinating film about a Citizen Kane-type character capable of extraordinary brilliance, caustic wit, and whiplash-inducing revenge.  As anti-heroes go, Jesse Eisenberg’s rendition of Mark Zuckerberg ranks up at the very top with Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II.  You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard already that the writing is vintage-crisp Aaron Sorkin, the directing is vintage-creepy David Fincher, and (less discussed) the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall makes it feel like an action movie rather than what might otherwise have been a ponderous, “Rashomon”-like multiple-viewpoint meditation.  It’s great — a really good movie.  But I want to talk about its depictions of manliness and women, which are alternately profound and utterly tossed off.  Guess who gets tossed off?  To cut to the chase:  I think it’s more useful to think about this as a love story between men.

In his interview last week with Aaron Sorkin Stephen Colbert commended him on the opening scene, in which Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara), who is breaking up with him, have a conversation that’s more like a boxing match than a typical film conversation:  they’re two exceptionally sharp and flinty characters, and she can’t stand him anymore.  Yet, as Colbert noted with the kind of forthrightness we wish we’d see elsewhere, “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or [bleep]ing guys in the bathroom.  Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?”  In response, Sorkin hawed for a moment, then copped to it:  “The other women are prizes.”

Colbert and Sorkin weren’t joking.  As much as this breakup matters to the story, women in general are utterly objectified by these Harvard men, primarily serving to propel the story forward only when they prove to be crazy, underage, or appearing briefly to utter something true, as Rashida Jones’ character does near the end.  (Sidebar:  I maintain that last is more an example of the Magical Negro trope [as Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle have most brilliantly laid it out]; it’s no accident that Jones’ character is not just sexually unavailable to Zuckerberg but, famously, mixed-race:  her real-life father is Quincy Jones.)  To be clear, none of the objectification of women is criticized by the film; the fact that beautiful women throw themselves in the way of powerful men is portrayed as one of the natural by-products of a man’s arrival to popularity or status.  The way the film treats women of Asian descent is especially abhorrent, using the cheapest stereotypes in the book.  Women are forgettable, throwaway prizes, like a ribbon or a certificate or a trophy-ette one puts on a shelf.  Granted, these are prizes one can [bleep] in the bathroom; the point is, what matters is the competition between men to get those prizes.

And that’s what I love about Fincher’s movies:  as much as he often finesses his female characters, he’s brilliant when it comes to subtly tracing the alternately loving, eerie, homoerotic, or twisted aspects of men’s relationships with one another.  I still think Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999) remains one of the best analyses of 20th-century manhood we’ve got.  Okay, an easy criticism here would be, “Great — yet another elaboration of manhood.  We sure didn’t have enough of those.”  Don’t worry:  I’ll advance that criticism of a lot of those other films, but not this one.  As much as I throw up my hands at its treatment of women, “The Social Network” is punctuated with moments that reveal Zuckerberg’s complex relationships with men, relationships that could appear in Eve Sedgwick’s formative, brilliant academic work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published back in the early 90s.  Men’s relationships with each other are perhaps of primary importance, Sedgwick suggested, as it is there that men find their most likely access to both financial reward and prestige — but also to fraternal bonds that may matter just as much as material advancement.  For part of the film, the main affective relationship is between Zuckerberg and his wealthy best friend from Harvard, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); yet when Zuckerberg meets the power-prettyboy-Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a terrific casting decision), he falls just a little bit in love, and the chips fall from there.  Tenured Radical calls Parker Zuckerberg’s “soul mate,” an utterly accurate depiction.

It’s no surprise that Zuckerberg struggles with a social life, as he seems inherently antisocial in an Asperger’s way.  He wants more than anything to be “punched” to be a prospective member of one of Harvard’s prestigious final clubs; too bad he’s so unattractive on so many levels.  (“Punched”!  honestly.  No one could invent material this apt.)  Saverin, however, does get punched — prompting Zuckerberg to respond with an almost manic, nasty combination of derision and predictions of his ultimate failure to make the final cut.  Those ugly personal qualities beg the question whether Zuckerberg is driven at least partly by revenge when, asked by an elite group of finals club men to create a social network website for them, Zuckerberg steals the idea and creates what he calls at first TheFacebook.  He basically treats everyone as falling on a spectrum from stupid to objectionable; but when TheFacebook proves to be wildly popular and he’s getting pressured to find ways to make it profitable, Sean Parker appears to offer advice and direction for the young startup.  Parker is eminently cool and easy with women, both things that Zuckerberg can envy from his lonely perch; more important, Parker articulates with exceptional clarity the college kid’s vague thoughts that hadn’t yet cohered into a game plan.  It’s like a classic love story:  Saverin hates the new guy, but Zuckerberg is willing to listen to every word, even when it leads to pushing Saverin out, and it’s that breakup that ultimately becomes the central tale in this story.

So it comes down to this:  why does a film that says so many smart things about manliness and power have to rely on debasing women?  Women are never irrelevant to the dramas between men; they help to remind love stories like this one that we’re not talking about homosexuality per se, or even a homoeroticism that any of its characters would recognize as such.  “Fight Club” was much more explicit about the erotic bond between Jack (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Here, the erotic tones are covered over with triumphal uses of women as objects — affirmations of heterosexuality, yes, but affirmations that help to confirm emotional bonds between men.

On a different note, I asked my students this week if they were planning to see “The Social Network,” and one of whom exploded and said, “No way!  There’s no way I’m giving that guy any more money!”  He continued to insist, despite mild protests by his peers, that Zuckerberg would find a way to reap millions from it.  I think he’s right.