Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.

Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)

When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)

More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!  

A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.

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Is it feminist or not?

17 March 2011

In my professional life I happen to be writing about the question of political expediency, and it’s affecting the way I think about feminism and pop culture. To wit: I’ve become concerned that when feminists debate publicly whether something is feminist, it leads antifeminists to hold up a banner saying WHO OWNS FEMINISM?, as if us feminists are angrily policing some kind of fortress. I strongly believe that feminism is not such a plastic word that it can encompass both Audre Lorde and Sarah Palin; but here’s my question: for the sake of political expedience, should feminists restrict their public battles to decrying anti-feminism, rather than parsing what counts as feminist?

I got off on this question after watching Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Feminist Frequency video (if any of you are unaware of her terrific pop culture analysis, give yourself a treat and get up to speed NOW) about whether the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, right) from True Grit is a feminist character. In doing so, Sarkeesian responds to a number of mainstream articles claiming that Ross is feminist; she maintains “it’s a bit of a leap” to make such a designation. She advances two key reasons for disagreeing: 1) Mattie’s character doesn’t change but remains “basically the same person from the first scene to the closing credits,” and 2) Mattie’s strength, independence, and grit are all coded as male; that is, she’s accepted the rules of a male-dominated society and plays along. In contrast, Sarkeesian says,

“The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more then women and our fictional representations simply acting like men or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and the using violence as a form of conflict resolution.”

Oh, the mixed feelings. On one level I agree with Sarkeesian on all counts: it’s one thing to say it is a feminist act to place an interesting, complex female character at the center of a film and watch the events through her eyes and a far different thing to call Mattie Ross a feminist. One might even go so far as to say that the question of her feminism is irrelevant to the film, the era it describes, and the range of emotions it covers. Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood has a neat way of drawing a line between feminist movies (with female leads as well as narratives that seem to promote women’s equality) and movies that she’s “not so sure they are feminist but they are about women.”

It’s great to hold high standards, but have you noticed that most female characters onscreen aren’t just one-dimensional but so stereotypical that I want to hurt someone? Is it really important to dicker about whether Mattie Ross (or Uma Thurman in Kill Billor Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, or Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass) is a feminist? Wouldn’t it be better to complain about all those rom-coms oriented around weddings and bridesmaids — or, for that matter, Slate.com’s consistently contrarian rejections of all feminist issues? Katee, hand me that gun so I can blast some holes in Hollywood execs’ heads!

I “hear” myself write that paragraph and laugh, because as an academic I spend a lot of time on far more esoteric questions no one gives a shit about. And, frankly, I’d love to engage in a debate about the relative feminism of these characters — these discussions are fun. So why do I suddenly care about political expendiency such that I’m willing to argue we keep those arguments amongst ourselves?

Because the battle to define feminism is ultimately not just a distraction but a zero-sum game, and I’d rather leave those definitions open enough that we feminists can stay focused on denouncing anti-feminism. I would rather see writers at Slate spending their time analyzing the deeply misogynistic notions that women need to have 24-hour waiting periods and detailed explanations of sonograms before being permitted to get their legal right to an abortion — rather than read some idiotic essay about how the Tea Party is feminist simply because it has a lot of women in it. Look: women can be just as effective anti-feminists as men can be. (WHERE is that gun? Chloë?)

And because Chloë Moretz was the best part of Kick-Ass, and likewise Katee Sackhoff was one of the best parts of Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure it’s a rejection of feminist values when films depict worlds in which not all women exhibit the characteristics of cooperation, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence. I think it helps us all question whether there’s anything necessarily male about being violent, emotionally inexpressive, dominating, and competitive (can I introduce you to some of my female colleages?). More important, such characterizations offer opportunities to explore complex expressions of gender identities. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see just a bunch of gun-totin’ women in film (for gods’ sake, I live in Texas already). Besides, wasn’t True Grit just a great story with a great female lead? 

What do you think: is it useful to have these public discussions about whether something’s feminist or not, or it is more politically expedient to avoid having them publicly?

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.