29 April 2014
And speaking of busy nothings, the academic conference. I returned from one, and frankly, the very best part was sharing a room with one of my besties from grad school — and watching Mansfield Park (1999) together.
Keeping this blog has allowed me to see a pattern in my life: when April rolls around and the semester gets tough, the not-so-tough (me) watch period drama. Even better if it’s Jane Austen, because she’s so playful and hopelessly romantic that it takes me out of the semester at its worst.
It’s been so long since I saw this version of Mansfield Park that I’d forgotten the ways that it finesses the original Austen novel. Mostly for the better, as far as I’m concerned. Fanny (Frances O’Connor) isn’t painfully shy, sickly, and insipid like she is in the book, and the script by director Patricia Rozema lifts extensively from Austen’s letters and papers as a way to imagine Fanny’s lifelong correspondence with her younger sister Susie as well as her wordy, playful relationship with her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller). Fanny seems all the more appealing because of her gift for words — and less moralistic, as I sometimes found her character in the book. Other aspects don’t work as well, like the film’s elaboration of a complicated slaveholding backstory for the Bertrams, but that seems less important to me.
Clearly, if you’re going to like this film, you can’t be overly dedicated to the novel. I wouldn’t put up with that nonsense if it were Pride and Prejudice, but I’m willing to let Rozema improve on the less perfect Mansfield Park.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts with an eminently appealing little-girl version of Fanny. Taken away from her impoverished family to live with wealthy cousins at a young age, she has never been treated as an equal in the family — except by her cousin Edmund, the Bertrams’ younger son. From the cold little garret the Bertrams provided for her, she busies herself with the pleasures of her own imagination — rollicking gothic tales mailed off to her sister Susie, and an irreverent “History of England” for Edmund. In this respect, this version is far superior to the 2007 BBC/ Masterpiece version.
She might be shy, but Fanny has a wonderful inner life. One wants to be friends with her. As they grow up, she and Edmund develop a bond beyond words.
And it might all have turned out differently, I suppose … until the family receives a visit from the fashionable new neighbors, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz).
The film plays the Crawfords’ appearance to great effect — everything about them screams “danger!” so I wanted to clap my hands with delight, because you know the real story is about to begin.
Mary Crawford looks just like a spider, with her self-satisfied smile and ruffled collar. This is no idle comparison; Mary is a spider, and the target for her paralyzing bite is the impressionable Edmund — to Fanny’s horror.
Henry Crawford is a beast of a different sort. If his sister appears laser-focused, his own inclination is a vaguer kind of troublemaking. Pushed by Mrs. Bertram toward her younger daughter, Julia, he keeps his options open, flirting with the newly engaged Maria Bertram instead. Maria, engaged to an idiot, is happy to reciprocate.
The Crawfords entrance the entire Bertram clan. These two seem to flaunt every ordinary social convention. Which is all well and good while Fanny can withdraw to the background and observe their machinations — but everything changes when Henry turns his attention away from Maria and fixes his gaze, for the first time in his life, like a laser on Fanny.
She knows him too well to accept his offer of marriage. She cannot trust him. She knows his rakish character too well. But Rozema’s film toys with us, leads us to second-guess Henry’s motives. Does he not, suddenly, appear sincere? Does he not appear to love her? When her uncle sends her back home to live in her parents’ squalid home in Portsmouth, Henry follows and woos her, showing little alarm at her parents’ poverty and misery.
He’s charming and wonderful. He appears completely in love with her. And in a hasty moment, she accepts his proposal of marriage.
Only to change her mind. How can she marry him, even if Edmund is due to marry Mary Crawford?
And yet the film does a lovely job of making Henry seem like a true lover. He really has fallen for her, we believe — and even after things go sour, I continue to believe it. It’s such a nice spin on the story, for it shows (perhaps) his ability to change, and Fanny’s willingness to change her mind.
My grad school bestie pointed out that Edmund is a bit overly judgmental — as a wannabe clergyman, perhaps this comes naturally. But considering how much he has fallen for the mostly-immoral Mary Crawford, the judgy sternness seems a bit out of place.
Out of curiosity, which Edmund do you prefer? I’m inclined to find both adorable, but are they too obviously adorable? As in, am I getting fed an easy pair of soulful eyes here by a crass casting director? (Ritson has particularly soulful eyes, obvs.) I’m not sure that either one is as perfectly matched with his co-star as much as he ought to be. I mean, a true Austen tale ought to have a perfectly matched heroine and swain, amiright?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If you’re wondering which is the superior production, there’s no question: the 2007 may be a teensy bit more faithful to the book, but the 1999 wins hands down for the inclusion of all those delicious bits of Austen’s writing. Besides, Frances O’Connor makes a much better Fanny than Billie Piper. Most of all, the 2007 ITv production feels a bit as if everyone is acting solo before a green screen, with no sense of chemistry or drama between characters.
Sigh. This is one of those posts that rambles around. My attention is divided — and I keep staring at that stack of papers that I ought to have finished grading a week ago.
But perhaps this is all the more an endorsement of taking a look at the film as balm for the soul in these sad days of the late semester. Especially if you find yourself blissfully sharing a room with a bestie at a tedious conference of academics.
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.)
25 October 2013
I find the films of Nicole Holofcener riveting and grating in a way I have a hard time articulating. Think of Lovely and Amazing (2001), about that family of women so crippled by their distorted views of their own bodies; or Friends with Money (2006), in which the radical differences in income between old friends function as a social poison; or her most recent Please Give (2010), which examined death and belongings. This director plays her characters’ foibles for laughs for a while, then keeps pressing on that sore spot until it bruises. I kind of love it, even when it hurts.
Enough Said is easily her funniest and most sweetly romantic film. But beware for the part when it hurts.
Aside from keeping her bickering friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) company — and serving as a kind of moderator between them — Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seems on the surface to be just fine. Her massage therapy business, which requires her to lug her collapsible massage bed from her car into clients’ homes, is doing pretty well. Even if it’s a job full of ordinary annoyances, Eva’s sense of humor functions as a nice deflection away from any real feelings she might have about it.
On the surface, anyway. Holofcener wants you to keep watching, to pay attention to Eva — because there’s more going on than it might appear. Especially on the topic of her daughter going away to college at the end of the summer, as we come to see.
It comes as a surprise, then, when we realize in the film’s second act that she is starving for someone new to help her feel more secure. Not necessarily a man, but she agrees to go out with the wry Albert (James Gandolfini) nevertheless. She’s more enthusiastic about her glamorous new client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet for chrissakes who owns the most beautifully well-appointed home Eva has ever seen.
In the meantime, she also receives surprising comfort from her daughter Ellen’s best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Whereas Ellen is starting to pull away — that inevitable period of the summer when college-bound kids start to imagine their new lives away from their parents — Chloe pulls close to Eva, almost replacing her own mother.
Not that Eva’s dates with Albert are inconsequential. Despite all the obvious reasons not to like him — he’s a really big guy, not her type at all — he genuinely makes her laugh, disarming her of the usual defenses. She grows visibly more relaxed around him, and although she’s clearly surprised to find herself liking him, those dates with him just work.
One of the things I find so beautifully romantic about this film is how Eva laughs with Albert. You can see the relief there, together with the fact that she’s disarmed by how well they get along.
But because she’s a little bit discombobulated, she can’t help but doubt how much she likes him. No matter how she feels when she’s with him, we can feel her holding herself back. Is this the fate of middle-aged divorcés, that experience triumphs over hope?
In a beautiful moment, Eva and Albert lie in bed together, ready to go to sleep contentedly, and Eva says, “I’m so tired of being funny.”
Maybe she lets herself fall so much under the spell of Marianne the poet because starting a new friendship with a woman lacks the scariness of dating a man. Marianne is just so impressive, with her mane of beautiful hair and her serious nature and the way random people come up to her and tell her how much her poetry means to them.
She’s also not funny at all. When they become confidants and learn about one another’s relationship issues, it feels so intimate. Marianne seems to want to push directly to something real. Eva just doesn’t realize yet how much it might hurt when she mimics her.
Holofcener writes funny dialogue without it seeming fake or knee-slapping high-larious; it’s the kind of humor that feels real. In fact, besides the beautiful acting job by Gandolfini as Albert, I’d say that the very best thing about this film is its dialogue and what it conveys about relationships between people.
Seeing this film makes me want to scream: this is why we need films by women writer-directors, because they often have a gift for conveying how dialogue between women is the very connective tissue of life.
So you’ll forgive me when I also say I didn’t love Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
It kills me to say it. When Seinfeld went off the air, I mourned for the loss of Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes. I still haven’t seen Veep, her HBO series, but I already know I’m going to like it.
Not that she channels Elaine here — there is no “get out!” — but in this more subtle, big-screen comedy/romance, the actress chews the scenery too much. Or, to be more precise, I liked her a great deal but she always threw her face into one more comic contortion than I could stand. I wanted her as an actress to stop it — to stop being a great small-screen comedian and let her normal face carry the scene. Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste — perhaps other viewers will find her utterly adorable — but it was almost always a shade or two too cartoonish for me, and I’m sorry (and surprised) that Holofcener didn’t edit it out.
So I was glad to have other characters to appreciate — not least was Collette’s actual Australian accent and her awful treatment of her husband and housekeeper. Collette has found a nice way of moving back and forth between TV and film work, clearly mastering the micro-expressions required for the latter while also keeping up the chops it takes to succeed in broader comedy.
In the end, this is truly an achievement for Holofcener as well as for Gandolfini. Even if he hadn’t died so recently and so much too early in life, it would be hard to watch the film without marveling at how delicately he embodies this other role far beyond the mob boss world in which we know him best. Here he’s self-conscious, almost gallant, in his appreciation for Eva, and his determination to maintain his own self-respect. The film may offer us characters whose defenses block them from moving forward in life. But it also allows them to glimpse what hope might look like, and to offer them the possibility that they can drop their defenses, their experience, and open up to something else.
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.
29 July 2013
I have tried for weeks to write this piece. Every time I vacillate between an opening like, “The Bling Ring may not be Sofia Coppola’s best effort, but …” and the more definitive “The Bling Ring is not Sofia Coppola’s best effort.” Let me cut to the chase — I’m caught exactly between those two positions for one reason:
How is it possible that such a female-oriented film ends up with a male protagonist who’s the only sympathetic character in sight? And how is it that I’m still weirdly riveted by this film?
Considering critical attacks on her that appear every time she releases a new film, I’m (unusually) reluctant to offer criticism. I’ve written before about the oddly harsh critical question marks thrown at Coppola, criticisms that seem to waive her track record and accuse her of focusing too exclusively on privileged white people’s ennui. In addition, I’ve never so many critics accuse her of benefiting from nepotism — ignoring that her films have generally earned both critical and commercial success (and the fact that Hollywood is Nepotism Central). Why Coppola and not a conversation about how Jason Reitman and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith’s children are benefiting from nepotism?
I haven’t always loved her films, but they’re invariably interesting and beautifully filmed, and this one is no exception to that rule. But compared to her earlier films, it occasionally manifests a confusion and sloppiness that surprises me, and I think part of that confusion lies in its desire to tell a “female” story with a male protagonist.
Marc (Israel Broussard) is new to the alternative high school in Calabasas, California, and with a few deft shots of Coppola’s camera we sense the many reasons for his unease, as he shuffles inside his shirt to conceal the baby fat. When he begins to develop a friendship with the glamorous Katie (Rebecca Ahn), the unease doesn’t go away — but Coppola likewise makes tiny, elegant little moves to show that Marc has become more comfortable displaying his gayness to his new friend, and ultimately to a wider circle of girls.
Broussard is great in this role as the film’s protagonist. My question is, why do all his female friends have to become such cartoons?
Katie introduces the reluctant Marc to petty theft — breaking into cars in their posh neighborhoods, lifting cash out of the purses of their fellow teens at parties, “borrowing” the Porsche that belongs to a classmate’s parents out of town on an extended trip. She also teaches him about the pleasures money can buy. They go out to pricey clubs, take well-practiced selfies to post on Facebook (as above), get spectacularly high on the drugs they find, and every once in a while they get glimpses of Paris Hilton or one of those other Hollywood stars whose glamorous, materialistic lives they envy.
Throughout, we see Marc’s unease about the stealing; Katie’s experience of it is inscrutable. Does she do it for the thrill? because she feels herself entitled to the money? because she cannot conceive that it’s wrong? because she wants to mimic the image of wealth that celebrities display? Throughout the film, the girls’ motivations and emotions are as obscure as Marc’s are clear to us.
Their stealing becomes more adventurous, springing naturally from their fixations on celebrities. It’s just too easy. Internet gossip sites tell them when, for example, Paris Hilton will be out of town for a gala, and the street address of her house; they simply drive up, find the key under the doormat, walk in and begin “shopping.” No worries if they fill up their backpacks; they can just take use some of Hilton’s many designer bags for more jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and breathtaking amounts of cash.
Marc takes a pair of pink stilettos. Back in his room at home he locks his door and puts on the shoes. It’s a lovely scene that captures the ambivalence of the stealing — the privacy he needs to enjoy the shoes, the impossibility of his wearing them anywhere. The heaviness of the fact that he has stolen them and that people will find it odd that he wants to wear stilettos.
Bragging about their haul adds more wannabe thieves — all girls — to their raids. Among them are Nicki (Emma Watson), and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) who get homeschooled by their earnest, clueless mother (Leslie Mann) in the self-help delusionalism of The Secret and its trust in “the law of attraction.”
Watson is great in this small role as Nicki. That pretty little mouth of hers is hard as iron, and her dark eyes exude thinly-disguised narcissism — she has nursed at the law of attraction long enough to believe that wanting to be a model/actress will make it happen. Her perfect California accent only adds to that veneer, to our capacity to despise her. Nicki is the perfect embodiment of a culture that privileges celebrity and materialism.
Let me repeat: Watson is scarily good. But as the film moves along she becomes so despicable — such a liar, so deluded, so absurdly willing to spout inane things in front of cameras — that her character sits uneasily alongside the more nuanced portrayals of Marc and, to a lesser extent, Katie. Coppola is ordinarily such a subtle tracer of characters and so generous even to the self-deluded that this feels … ham-fisted.
So what is Coppola saying here? What is the takeaway?
The best thing about this film is recognizing your own conflicting emotions throughout. When the thieves wander through Paris Hilton’s awful home, filled with awful things and tributes to Hilton’s own face (and indeed, these scenes were shot at Hilton’s actual awful home), you find yourself a roiling bundle of conflicting sources of anger: what kind of idiot celebrity hides her key under the mat and/or leaves windows open? clearly the kind of idiot celebrity who deserves to be robbed. Will she even notice that anything’s missing? Why doesn’t she have a security system? At the same time, you get angry at the teenagers — for not getting caught immediately, for their greed, their incredible obliviousness.
In the midst of all that anger, however, you realize all this anger is directed at the female celebrities and the female thieves, while your empathy orients to “poor” Marc.
In the end, Coppola has painted a portrait of an unusually “female” world of celebrities and materialism, but gives us a sympathetic male protagonist through whom to experience it. As a result, no matter the many vivid and inscrutable moments in it, the film upholds those associations between femininity and fripperies (read weakness, effeminacy, anti-intellectualism, unseriousness) that go back to the 18th century. Especially when Nicki uses her bling ring celebrity to become a quasi-celebrity on her own, just as the real-life Nicki, Alexis Neiers (who served as a consultant for the film), became yet one more brainless television personality and reality-show starlet.
The Bling Ring is not Coppola’s best effort. But then again there’s the long, long take of Katie and Marc breaking into yet another house — all filmed as via a long-distance security camera, following them as they move through the house and remove things from drawers. That visual distance and anxiety created by the take — a distance that belies the complicated intimacy we feel for these two, knowing they’re being watched by that camera — is a remarkable achievement and ought to be rewarded with a special kind of cinematographic prize for mini-moments in film. Not her best effort and simplistic when it comes to gender politics, but Coppola’s films are always interesting, and this is no exception. The fact that it took me weeks to write this is yet another testament to her capacity to confound.
16 June 2013
Look at those old photos of your parents, when they were young and trim and beautiful. Mysteries inhabit those images. Were they as happy as they appear, before the children came? Were they compatible back then? Were they self-conscious of the camera?
Sarah Polley’s brilliant film Stories We Tell doesn’t try to answer those questions. Rather, she lets her own family tell stories to the camera, stories full of wishful thinking and contradictions — all told by the charming members of her family, expert storytellers all, even if they’re a bit nervous and self-conscious before her camera.
This is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It might be better than everything I saw in 2012, too.
Polley specifically focuses on her mother, who died from cancer when Sarah was only eleven. Diane Polley was lovely and vivacious and is captured in an almost too perfect series of super-8 home movies (later, we learn why so many of those perfect home movies exist). Diane dances through those scenes so quickly and magically that we can hardly get a glimpse of her except to feel drawn to her like moths. No wonder Sarah, blonde like her mother, is so riveted.
But those shots are intercut with interviews with her siblings and her father, Michael Polley (a British-Canadian actor I know from the wonderful series Slings & Arrows), interviews that reveal not just contradictory views of their home life but also some secrets only half lurking in Diane Polley’s history.
In fact, Sarah lets her father tell a goodly portion of this story; knowing very little about the film, I was nevertheless surprised to see it open with him in front of a microphone, reading his own prose about his wife’s brief and complicated life.
This is surprising because (and I’m not really spoiling anything here, I promise) a goodly portion of the story ultimately revolves around the question of whether Michael really is Sarah’s father.
But let me assure you, you’re not going to see this film out of prurience. Rather, it’s because ultimately 1) Sarah’s family can tell some fucking stories; 2) her family’s history has the most wonderful, literary twists and ironic turns that it’s downright better than fiction; and 3) she ultimately crafts a film that gets at something larger than the truth of her parentage.
If it sounds pretentious to say that she’s more interested in the stories we tell, let me assure you it isn’t. Maybe because I come from a family of storytellers; maybe because my academic work is preoccupied with stories; maybe because I’m fascinated by family stories in particular — for all these reasons the film entranced me. I thought simultaneously, “I’ve got to show this to my students” and, “I’ve got to show this to my family.”
But in the end, I found Sarah Polley’s own place in the film to be the most interesting. On the one hand, the story is very much about her parents. But on the other, she removes herself as an emotional character, stepping back and appearing only to show herself crafting the film, making decisions about its narrative, and asking her father to repeat a line for emphasis, or to give it a nicer reading. That restraint (modesty? honesty?) is so beautifully conveyed that it feels like a masterful work of analysis. She even allows Michael Polley to read one of the best lines (his own prose):
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
[Updated, 8:47 pm: Aldine reminds me that this isn’t Michael’s prose — it’s lines from the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace. This is what I get when I neglect to write about a film until 2 weeks after seeing it!]
And you know in your most gut level how hard it must have been to sit in her position during the creation and telling of this story. What a smart, delicate film this is. The bar is very high.
Five documentary films were nominated for the Oscar and, as far as I can tell, the worst one won. Don’t get me wrong: I quite liked Searching for Sugar Man. But I’ve now seen 3 of the remaining films and they’re brilliant and important films. Sugar Man is a great story, for what it is.
So why didn’t one of these three films win? I suggest because they’re so hard to watch, so grueling.
Start with The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, and you’ll see what I mean. I could only watch 20 minutes or less at a time — it took me 6 separate viewings — to make it through this wrenching story about the astronomical rates of rape in the military and the institutional culture of permitting those rapists to continue, unabated. Most of the victims fighting against this institutionalized rape are women, but some men have come forward as well. I could say much more about how this film made me think about how institutions are incapable of policing themselves on all manner of ethical and legal matters.
Despite all the commanders’ own claims that they have instituted a zero tolerance policy, this documentary shows with absolute clarity that sexual assault and trauma in the military is ignored except in a tiny number of cases — not least because the victims’ commanding officers are so often either friends with the perpetrators or the perpetrators themselves.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw this film, and two days later he changed the military rule determining who gets to determine whether a rape charge gets prosecuted. Look: this film is impossible to watch — but it calls for action (from the military and from us) to change how these soldiers are treated.
Then you can move on to Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras, about a self-described “peasant” in a small Palestinian village who begins filming the Israeli encroachments onto the land of his fellow townsmen. Backed up by the Israeli military and allowed no recourse to protection, the settlements continue to come. And when the Palestinians protest, the Israelis burn their olive trees — their sole source of income. And when Burnat shows up to film the actions, they destroy his cameras, one by one.
This film is so heartbreaking because at the same time, Burnat shows his youngest son’s earliest years — a child growing up angry, watching this world closely, asking his father questions about the violence. It took me 2 viewings to finish this one; I just got so angry after the first 45 minutes that I wasn’t sure I could continue, but it gets more compelling and nuanced in its later minutes. An amazing document.
And finally there’s How to Survive a Plague, David France’s brilliantly curated trove of footage from ACT UP’s early actions and activism during the most grim years of the AIDS crisis, roughly 1987 to 1995. For most of those years, as the bodies of dead AIDS sufferers continued to pile up, the US government and international drug companies acted as if ignoring it might make it go away. “This is a plague!” Larry Kramer booms out during one particularly difficult moment in the film.
You cannot watch this film without thinking about the first time you screamed, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” at a rally — and you really believed it, and you really believed that the officials you were screaming at would believe it too. You can’t watch without remembering the first person you saw with a KS spot on his face, or the first friend who died, or the time you realized how massive the AIDS quilt would be (and hence its impact). The only thing that allowed me to watch this all in one go was the fact that this is a film about fighting back.
So yeah, Sugar Man was a film that was a pleasure to watch; these films are impossible, enraging. I totally get it: something we just want to feel good at the end of a film.
But I’m sorry, members of the Academy: the category of Best Documentary is designed to reward exceptional journalism or storytelling about real-life events. And in comparison, Sugar Man looks like a puff piece — a great central question, with weak journalism surrounding it.
These films are hard to watch. Get over it. One of them should have won for Best Documentary to acknowledge that all is not right with the world.