1 February 2014
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.
If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.
If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.
Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.
Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.
In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.
Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.
In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?
I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.
But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.
I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?
So far in my Female Buddy Movies mini-marathon, I’ve covered four key aspects of the genre: the wedding/bridesmaid movie (Revenge of the Bridesmaids), the Very Pink/ girlie comedy (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), the boarding school dramedy (The Hairy Bird), and the field-defining roadtrip movie (Thelma and Louise). Clearly what we need next is a female buddy picture set in the workplace.
After all, isn’t it always the workplace where we become feminists — because there we witness what horrors still await us in a man’s world?
When Nine to Five originally opened in 1980, I was too young to be fully conscious of its cultural reception, but my hazy memory recalls a lot of hubbub about this overtly feminist comedy. Sure enough, Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review calls it “a militant cry for freedom” that waves “the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming.”
That statement is so over-the-top that it makes me want someone to write a cultural history of this film to explain how anyone could describe it as “militant,” but this film is still so full of comedic satisfaction that I want to eat it.
I mean, look at Judy Bernly (Fonda), the divorcée whose husband just left her for his secretary, and who has just shown up for her first day of work at Consolidated Companies. “We’re gonna need a special locker for the hat,” says Violet (Lily Tomlin) in a sardonic aside as she shows Judy the ropes. She looks more like a 1948 working woman than one in 1980, and everyone producing this film surely knew that; her comical naïvete is meant to reassure us that she’s no strident feminist.
Nor is the curvaceous Doralee (Dolly Parton), who has put up with their boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman) and his sexual harassment for years. As he pretends to apologize, she says sweetly, “Oh Mr. Hart, you didn’t make a mistake. You see I’ll just have to remember to check, the next time I’m asked to go to work at a convention that there is a convention going on.” Little does she know that the whole office believes she really is sleeping with him, and that it’s all due to his loose lips.
Violet’s most likely to mount a militant campaign, but she’s been waiting for a promotion from Hart for weeks — and she made up her mind to be a good girl in the meantime.
But he gives the promotion to a man rather than to Violet, and she finally loses it. “The company needs a man in this position,” he explains. “Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.”
Violet is livid. “Oh, now we’re getting at it. I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice. The boys in the club are intimidated, and you’re so intimidated by any woman who doesn’t sit at the back of the bus.” Unmoved, Hart simply responds with a “Spare me the women’s lib crap, okay?” This is what the film does honestly — shows what women suffer in the workplace, with less-qualified men puffing and preening and taking credit for their work. When Violet reveals that Hart has let the whole office believe he’s sleeping with Doralee, the three women storm off to a bar.
Then they get spectacularly stoned (ah, remember the good old days, when ordinary non-stoner movies featured scenes of the characters getting baked?) and spin out fantasies about what they’d do to Hart if they could.
But that’s the thing. They only fantasize about giving Hart a taste of his own medicine, or hunting him down with a gun, or popping him out the window of his skyscraper office. If this film rises to “militant” it does so simply by showing the women’s rage alongside their helplessness to change anything. They can fantasize all they like and have achieved only a comforting, marijuana-stoked friendship — and the satisfaction of having told Hart he’s a “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” in their dreams at least.
Ultimately, of course, they take a far more aggressive revenge on Hart, but only as a result of accident, misinformation, and misadventure. Even when they finally kidnap him to keep him from sending them to jail, discover he’s guilty of embezzlement, and seek out proof, the scenes have a goofy, picaresque feel.
But the women achieve something important while they’ve got Hart strung up and away from the office nevertheless: they make their workplace more humane. With Doralee’s ability to forge his signature, they create a blanket equal pay policy, a day care center, give employees the ability to work flexible hours, and allow some workers to share a full-time job. Less radically, they also paint the place and grant everyone permission to personalize workspaces with photos.
So this is “militant,” circa 1980: a film in which none of the women becomes CEO or chops off anyone’s balls, but instead perks the place up with some cheery paint and secretly improves the office’s efficiency by 20% without getting credit for it. See what I mean? We need some kind of time capsule to go back to find how someone like Canby could find himself so alarmed by the implications of female empowerment in Nine to Five. I wonder how Canby might have responded to all the whoop-ass in Charlie’s Angels (2000)?
Don’t get me wrong: I love this film and can understand perfectly how its campy delights, like John Waters’ cult classic Hairspray (1988), gave it such a healthy revival as a Broadway musical later on. All this huffing and puffing has to do with its apparent reputation at the time as being a feminist milestone — a reputation that’s difficult to reconstruct now. Maybe in 30 years we’ll shake our heads at the hubbub over 2011’s Bridesmaids (whoa! women can be funny? and men will file out to see a film about women?) in the same way.
In the end, it’s probably a remarkable thing that a film compared to Soviet propaganda in 1980 can look so utterly restrained in 2013. For my own part, I’m going to hunt down a way to slip in “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” as a descriptor into one of my conversations over the next two or three days — simply as a tribute to Violet, Doralee, and Judy.
If this film’s three wildly divergent titles have you scratching your head, that’s because all three are terrible titles for a really pretty great feminist comedy. I wouldn’t have known it at all but for Wikipedia’s list of female buddy films.
The trick to Sarah Kemochan’s loosely autobiographical film is that it hides its feminism for a while behind all the usual clichés of girls’ boarding school films … particularly those set in 1963, as this one is. But when the feminism comes, it hits you in the head and the story takes a really interesting turn … and then does it again at about the 80-minute mark. (Can you just stop reading right now, watch the film on YouTube, and get back to me when you’re done?)
Every boarding school film appears contractually obligated to begin with a reluctant new student whose parents have shipped her/him off due to behavioral problems. In this case, Odette (Gaby Hoffman, center) has been caught preparing to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Off to Miss Godard’s School she goes, destined to share a room with Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), who have reputations for being a troublemaker and, well, a slut, respectively. Adding to the usual suspects are the ravenously bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo), and the studious, ambitious Momo (Merritt Wever). First cliché: once she falls in with the troublemakers, Odette starts to love her life at Miss Godard’s.
Sure, it’s not all roses. The school features a group of rules-oriented monitors, the most officious of whom is Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook, above center) who roams the halls looking for miscreants and tattling on her peers. “Miss Godard believed the girls should govern themselves, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions,” Abby chirps with those all-too-familiar evil eyes. Cliché #2: oh, those stooopid rules!
But be not afraid: things start to get more interesting. Odette finds that her four new best friends share not just a disdain for Miss Godard’s rules, but also for the trap such obedience has prepared for them: they are determined not to fall for the usual future of a husband, two children, a Colonial, and a collie. “No more white gloves!” they proclaim, dedicating themselves to far more wild and unpredictable futures: Verena wants to spearhead an international fashion magazine; Tinka plans to be an “actress/folk singer/slut,” Momo a biologist, and Tweety a child psychologist. What does Odette want? Short term: sex; long term: to be a politician.
The films takes its time getting underway, for it feels the need to introduce us to a wide array of supporting characters, not least of whom are the slightly feral town boys — the leader of whom, Snake (!), played by a very young (but no less oily) Vincent Kartheiser, immediately falls in love with the luscious Tinka. So you’d be forgiven if you arrived at this point thinking that the film would continue to take the one-adventure-at-a-time narrative path, something like the wonderful boarding school film Outside Providence (1999) — and like that film, stay focused on problems like whether Snake and Tinka will make out, and how Odette will find a way to have sex, finally, with Dennis.
That would be the wrong assumption, for it’s at this point that the No More White Gloves girls discover that the school’s board of directors wants to solve its financial problems by merging with a nearby boys’ school. And the narrative starts to cook.
When they meet to assess the situation, they find themselves deeply divided — because unlike their friends, Momo and Verena hate the idea of a co-ed school. At the most basic level for Momo it’s simply a question of logic: she knows full well she won’t get into MIT if she has to compete with boys from the same school. But she and Verena agree that the real problem is the inevitable en-stoopiding of the female students. “This is a school! we’re supposed to be getting smarter!” If the schools merge, Momo warns, “we’ll all be killing ourselves to be cute!” and all for the “hairy bird,” which is their description of boys’ genitals.
Verena’s assessment is even more damning. All the attention to cuteness and personal care will make Miss Godard’s girls too tired to think. “But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway. Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys — they don’t like that.” Going co-ed will trick everyone into falling for the white gloves and the full constricted future that goes with them. When Tinka protests that “real life is boy-girl, boy-girl,” Verena screams, “No. Real life is boy on top of girl.“
Transcribing this scene doesn’t capture how much I was taken aback by this exchange, by its sudden clarity and perfect articulation of why single-sex schools are so spectacularly good for girls. The clichés didn’t fall away completely, but I became waaaayyyy more interested … and the film ratchets things up again later with the same dramatic skill.
If the film’s central plot now turns around the question of whether — and how — our No White Gloves heroines can prevent the school from going co-ed, it might sound corny. Rather, I should say it is corny, but in a way fully in keeping with some of the overall rules of the boarding-school film genre (illicit sex, alcohol, secret passageways, revenge on evil teachers, etc.). Nor is it perfect; the film ultimately sacrifices Verena in a bizarrely implausible plot turn. But it also gains back Odette as a leader-orator in a way that made me so happy that I’m almost willing to let Verena get toasted.
As I’ve discussed already with this marathon (especially re: the tragically disappointing Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), female buddy movies often sneak in a boatload of anti-feminist crap as they throw us the bone of female friendship. The Hairy Bird tries something entirely different. This film throws us the bone of a little hairy bird in order to make a powerful, feminist argument for female friendship, ambition, single-sex educational excellence, and collective action.
In fact, I was so happy with this film that I now fret that no other female buddy picture can measure up. The only film I can imagine following up with is Thelma and Louise. Join me, won’t you — in about a week, when I’ve had the chance to watch it again for the first time since 1992. Let’s see how it measures up to its reputation as the great female buddy picture of American film history, shall we? (It certainly has a better title than this poor film.)
21 November 2013
The fact is that if a film starts with an image that looks like this, I’m probably going to like it. Even if the film originated on the ABC Family channel (I’m trying to repress the channel’s Pat Robertson connection).
This is Abigail (Raven-Symoné), who shares a New York apartment with her lifelong best friend Parker (Joanna Garcia). They’re trying to make it — Abigail as a novelist, Parker as an actor. But as she poses for her police booking photo, Abigail tells us in voiceover:
Something you should know about me: I have a little problem with authority. In second grade I told our music teacher, Mrs. Quarantine, that if she wanted us to sing like birds, she should get some freakin’ birds.
Parker: I laughed so hard I peed.
They’re not the nice kinds of bridesmaids. “We’re more like the avenging angels who’re gonna give you what you have coming to you kinds of bridesmaids,” Parker explains. You see? This, from the Pat Robertson channel? I loved it.
That’s the thing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids — it bucks up against virtually every taboo you might expect from a wholesome network like ABC Family (and yes, it’s streaming on Netflix). Young people have sex. They drink. They move away from their provincial, oppressive small hometown in Louisiana to go to New York, where they try improbable careers like actor and writer, even if they aren’t incredibly good at those careers.
While on a short trip back home, Parker and Abigail discover that their other great friend has had the love of her life stolen out from under her by the rich Mean Girl, Caitlyn (Virginia Williams), who literally lives in one of those creepy antebellum plantation manors. Naturally they plot revenge. Naturally we root for them, even though we know somehow they’re going to wind up at the police station getting booked.
- a plotline from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
- Parker developing a possible love interest with the local cop (handy, that)
- Caitlyn’s evil-bitch mother, who is a lot smarter than her daughter, and demands that Abigail go on a diet
- a chipper-shredder
Perhaps this is the moment to warn you of a few things. If you read the title Revenge of the Bridesmaids and thought, whew, that sounds like a lot of pink buttercream frosting, you have nailed it. No new feminist ground is forged here; maybe it’s best described as apt for fans of Drew Barrymore rom-coms. You will not finish this film and feel liberated, enlightened, or particularly intelligent. All I can say is that I watched the entire thing and enjoyed practically every minute, while my partner — whose appetite for rom-coms is usually far greater than mine — walked out. Too much frosting.
So yeah, I’ve taken a perhaps overly rosy view of a film that would probably only score about 3 stars out of 5. But that’s the thing, you see. How often do I get to see a film in which two women get to love each other like this? Sure, their love for each other also gets framed by their shared hatred for Evil Caitlyn, but who doesn’t have an Evil Caitlyn in her life somewhere? Is it so wrong that us feminists want to have a little pink buttercream every now and then?
That’s the thing about female buddy pictures: they represent the sugary crumbs that women get in a world in which male buddy pictures outnumber female ones about 100 to 1.
- They point out how often women have to survive on high-sugar content films like this in order to see women who love each other and do things together — in short, films that pass the Bechdel Test.
- Creators of such films KISS [keep it simple, stupid] by selecting super-girlie themes. As much as I liked the avenging-angel bridesmaids, I want to see more films without weddings in them.
- These films just love to drop in plenty of male love interests. After all, let’s not go too far with that whole Bechdel Test thing, you can hear them saying.
- Why is it always the skinny one who gets the boyfriend in the end?
In retrospect I realize one of the things I loved about Orange is the New Black is how much it messed with genre tropes like this. Gone was the pink frosting; in its place was women’s prison. Women were just as close to one another, but some of them also leapt over the big heterosexual wall erected in fluff like Revenge of the Bridesmaids.
Yes, I’m saying that OITNB might be the best female buddy picture I’ve seen all year.
Lest you cease to trust my judgment about film, I think it’s best that I pair this rosy view of Revenge of the Bridesmaids with a snarky feminist view of a very similar film, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), which I’ll discuss tomorrow. Stay tuned for a rant.
But I’m going to stick with my endorsement of Revenge. Films like this may pit good girls against bad, reward them with love interests, and shower everyone in frothy clothing and only slightly off-color language and situations. Only to have someone like me say, “Hey, that was a lot more off-color than one might expect from the Pat Robertson channel!” But they also show women going all-in to help one another. When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough.
1 September 2013
You sit down in the theater. The lights dim a bit while they spool up the previews, and a deep voice comes up over the black screen, as images begin to fade in. “In a world that time forgot, a new figure emerges” (or something like it), the voice intones.
99% of the time the voice is male. Until Lake Bell’s delicious romantic comedy In a World…, most viewers have never considered the the ways that this pattern that we unconsciously accept in movie theaters has ripple effects across gender behavior and expectations in our society. Nor is it just the film previews. Advertising that “counts” — i.e., airlines and cars, not laundry detergent or yogurt — pays its voiceover artists better and is virtually always a male domain.
The film pivots around the real-life fact that the “in a world…” opener cliché was retired after the death of legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine. In fact, the world depicted in In a World… is of the cutthroat competition for voiceover work in Don’s wake. Bell writes, directs, and stars as Carol Solomon, a wannabe voiceover artist who primarily works as a voice and accent coach and whose narcissistic father, Sam (real-life voiceover artist Fred Melamed), openly discourages her — believing he’s telling her the hard truth. “Dad, you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life,” she replies. “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth,” he pronounces.
The comedy moves at breakneck pace through a bunch of subplots including Carol’s lovelorn producer (the ever adorable Demetri Martin), who desperately wants to date her; Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), whose marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) is floundering on the rocks of boredom and routine; competition and old-boy networks within the voiceover industry, particularly circulating around a sleazy upcoming voiceover star named Gustav (Dan Marino); and Carol’s ongoing quest to tape the interesting voices and accents she hears in the world around her.
Indeed, the film moves so briskly and features such an array of favorite comedic actors — including Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Jeff Garlin among the many I’ve already listed — that you get a lot more punch per minute than most comedies. Just taking the scenes in which voiceover artists exercise their mouths and tongues, or sit in steam rooms to keep the chords moist gives you a nicely weird and textured view of the lives of these people.
You should go to this film for the comedy — it’s just a funny, tight film — but you’ll stay for the feminism. The central problem depicted in In a World… is not merely thwarted female ambition or a failed father-daughter relationship, even as both of those problems matter to Carol. Rather, it’s that female voices get stuck in a vicious circle: women never learn to sound authoritative because there are no models for sounding that way. Worse, women learn patterns of speech like uptalk (ending words or sentences on an up-note as if asking questions), silly filler (the surfeit of “likes”), and high-pitched sexy baby voices, all of which detract from what women say, and therefore demean women’s authority overall.
When Carol rolls her eyes at the sexy baby voices, I wanted to kiss her on the lips. It helps that she’s so gorgeous in a normal-woman way — no discernible makeup, no nose job, no caps on her teeth.
Some critics have accused Bell of “dissing women’s voices” by mocking what women cannot help: that their voices can sometimes be naturally high-pitched. I don’t see it. Bell criticizes nurture, not nature — the cultivated Valley Girl tics, falsely high sexy-baby pitches, and girlie in-talk that women learn strategically or unconsciously as part of socialization. She also indicates, correctly, that these patterns can be unlearned.
Nor is this one of those movies in which the woman realizes her ambition by being better and more hardworking than all the men in sight. Remember G.I. Jane (1997)? Demi Moore showed us there that women can be Navy SEALS, but the plot seemed to indicate that it could only be true if they could actually out-push-up every man in sight.
In a World…, in contrast, doesn’t say that Carol ought to succeed because she’s the best voice out there. Rather, it says something more profound: that we need more female voiceover artists because it will directly and subconsciously change how people think about women.
I admit, I’m probably more hyper-conscious about people’s voices than most, so may have found this film all the more enjoyable (those who know me will laugh at the understatement here). My mother has a beautiful voice. I’ve written academic pieces about voice. I form unnatural attachments to certain radio or podcast voices and regional accents — Slate’s Dana Stevens, Christiane Amanpour (now with CNN), NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, PBS/NPR’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, singer Steve Earle, and many others.
And on a personal note, can I just say that simply in casting Demetri Martin as the smitten producer, In a World… has given me a gift? Because there’s something about his sweet goofiness, helmet of hair, and fantastic schnozz that says LOVE INTEREST to me.
So what’s not to like? This is basically Feminéma’s wet dream of a film: a female-directed, female-written, feminist film about voice that stars a gorgeous but not cookie-cutter actor with a real-looking nose — AND Demetri Martin is chasing her. Maybe I need to see it again. You should see it too, even if you just like breezy rom-coms. And then tell me what you think.
14 July 2013
After hearing so many raves about the 10-episode long Danish-Swedish series, Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011), I did what most Americans are forced to do to see it: I watched it online. It was worth every minute of watching it on a laptop screen and reading sub-standard subtitles (which read a little bit like a very early and quite comical version of Google Translate). The acting was stellar; the dynamic between the Swedish detective Saga (Sofia Helin) and Danish detective Martin (Kim Bodnia) was one of the best versions of a buddy-cop relationship I’d seen in a long time; and the show’s central concept — a dead body found exactly midway on the bridge connecting the two countries — allowed for a riveting diagnosis of the social problems in those two countries.
So when I heard that the US channel FX planned to remake the series but situate it on the border between the US and Mexico, well, YES.
The story opens with a body found dead in the middle of a bridge that crosses between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The two detectives who arrive at the scene — one from each country — find that the killer sliced the body clean in half. The subsequent autopsy reveals an additional wrinkle: the top half, belonging to an xenophobic US judge, doesn’t match the bottom half.
“White arms, brown legs,” comments the El Paso detective, Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), with characteristic unemotional precision. She gradually permits the Chihuahua State Police detective Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir, the star of the wonderful A Better Life) to work with her, particularly after he explains that the “brown legs” belonged to one of the hundreds of Juárez women murdered along the border every year.
So far I have several thoughts:
The storyline follows the original religiously. Thus, viewers like me who fell in love with Saga and Martin and were riveted by certain plot elements (the reporter getting trapped in his own car) will find not much to be surprised by in the plot so far.
What’s truly original here is the view of life on the border, particularly in Juárez, which is one of the most violent places in the world. (Maybe, as some have claimed, the most violent outside of open war zones.) I’ll watch every episode as a result with the hope that this unique setting ultimately changes the narrative in fresh ways. Juárez is a site for both the border drug trade and the fabulously lucrative maquilas (factories) that offer comparatively high wages to Mexican workers, thus attracting huge numbers of people to the region and making it deeply unstable. It’s about time we gave some cultural attention to the border in this way.
One of the things I loved about the original was its treatment of Saga’s place on the autism spectrum. By treatment I mean the characters never said anything explicit. Saga’s probable Asperger syndrome revealed itself gradually over the course of the entire season without ever putting a name to it or fitting her into a tidy box. The original made Saga a true individual, not a set of symptoms or a condition described in the DSM-IV.
The original character had a delicious knack for social gaffes, but in my eyes the show didn’t play them for laughs or to claim she was a naïf. Rather, they highlighted Saga’s independence from and utter disinterest in the social niceties to which women are typically chained. (I’m curious whether any of you disagree or found her character to grate on your nerves — if so, let me know why you found it problematic.)
Whether abruptly asking men in bars, “Do you want to have sex at my place?” or equally abruptly kicking them out of bed when she’s done, Saga was the most unexpectedly wonderful character I’d seen in years. She did it all with a confident forthrightness that made me love her. The great drama of the series rested on how Saga had to stretch herself beyond her usual personal rules and patterns, largely in response to her new partner — but also how she remained utterly herself throughout, which constituted her great strength and weakness all in one. The portrayal of Saga was downright feminist, and more important she was truly three-dimensional.
You can see why I fell in love with the series.
In contrast, the American show seems to feel eager to label (and doesn’t that capture all that is unsubtle about Americans?). Here, Sonya’s awkwardness, rigid adherence to rules, and lack of empathy have already been hammered on as “different” after only a single show. Le sigh.
On the other hand, I like Kruger and Bichir a great deal in these roles, even though/ due to the fact that they’re both preposterously good-looking, even more so than the beautiful Helin in the original. Kruger’s accent works most of the time (she’s German but does well with American accent) and the far more natural actor, Bichir, flows between Spanish and English in a way that won’t alienate viewers who are allergic to reading subtitles for the Spanish bits. Whereas the Swedish actress in the original series had been wide-eyed in a way that signaled her lack of interest in others’ emotions, Kruger looks more distrustful and hostile.
The filming and cinematography of the US series is downright beautiful and infinitely more stylized than the Swedish-Danish original. The pilot was directed by Gerardo Naranjo, whose film Miss Bala I enjoyed so much earlier this spring (if anyone understands the drug war, it’s Naranjo). The shots of that rangy part of the Chihuahuan desert and the haunting scenes of street life in Juárez feel real.
So I have high hopes for the American version of The Bridge, despite the fact that my fellow fans of the Scandinavian original are not going to be surprised by these early episodes. Nevertheless, I have hope that it permits its border setting to affect the narrative even more as the series progresses. Considering that the US version has stretched out the story to 12 episodes, it would seem that the writers have plenty of room in which to develop fresh and location-specific material.
At the creepy end of this pilot episode, an anonymous voice asks, “There are five murders a year in El Paso; in Juárez, thousands. Why? Why is one dead white woman more important than so many dead just across the bridge? How long can El Paso look away?” YES. This is the question that has managed for so long to remain beyond the people most capable of addressing those inequities. How wonderful to find it on basic cable in the US.
And hey, I get to look at Bichir on a weekly basis. Sure, he plays shlubby, but we know he’s movie-star handsome right away, ‘stache or no ‘stache. All is not lost in the re-run aspects of the show. And as the always-on-target Alyssa Rosenberg put it in her review, how wonderful is it to find “a television show that presents women and men as highly effective colleagues and potentially good friends, without defaulting to conventional romantic narrative arcs”?
In the meantime, can Scandinavian friends find a way to get season 2 of Bron/Broen online for me? Please?