I’ve got to maintain my blog silence in order to finish writing this damn book, but I saw Testament of Youth last night and have been spluttering ever since.
Now, this is a very pretty and very sad film. And the first part of the film follows the real-life Vera Brittain’s memoir nicely — in which she fights her way into Oxford University against her father’s wishes, and along the way (against her own wishes) falls in love with her brother’s friend Roland — only to have war break out in 1914. As she remembered it later, the war initially “came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She spent the war’s aftermath trying to come to terms with the meaning of that war and the multiple tragedies it unleashed. Testament of Youth remains one of the most powerful and important feminist/pacifist/intellectual reckonings of that era and that generation.
But this film focuses, instead, on how pretty these people were, and how sad it is when someone dies. Other than a brief moment at the end when Brittain (Alicia Vikander) speaks up on behalf of peace and postwar reconciliation at a raucous political meeting, the film skims over or skips everything that really mattered to the real-life Brittain — her relationship with Winifred Holtby, her agonizing efforts to make sense of the war, her political and feminist work — to a postscript that assures us that she found someone else and married in 1925.
Oh, no no no, this film is all heartbreaking scenes at railway stations and all manner of men gazing at Vera longingly. That’s right: instead of a powerful political assessment, this film is simply a woman’s weeper, made for repetition on the Lifetime channel.
You can say that I was ruined for this film because I’d read the book. In fact, my very first induction into the magic of the BBC world of miniseries came in the early 80s when my mom and I sat ourselves down every Sunday night to watch the 275-minute version of Testament of Youth starring Cheryl Campbell. (Does anyone know how I can get that series on a region-1 DVD?) But even if I was a total novice to the subject matter, this film is empty of anything but aesthetic pleasure and pathos.
This should have been the movie for me: a female lead! based on a feminist text! a period drama with great clothes! But no matter how many tears I shed during the screening, I found myself increasingly exasperated during the film’s final third to the point that my jaw dropped when it ended before any of what mattered to the real-life Brittain made it in.
Okay, back to writing things that result in book contracts, promotion, etc. Apologies for going AWOL, friends, but I’ve got to get some work done!
17 May 2012
Welcome to the Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon, designed to raise the funds to stream online three reels of the recently rediscovered 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow, for which a young Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director, wrote the title cards, edited, designed the sets, decorated the sets, and learned everything he could about how to make a film. You’ve heard me rant about access to film before; now’s your chance to put some money toward universal access. Click here to make a gift of any size toward this effort.
In addition, check out the vast outpouring of Hitchcock blogging at three sites: The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy On Film, and This Island Rod, each of which has taken a turn as blog-meister during this May 13-18 Hitchfest.
Alfred Hitchcock cast a lot of different women as leads, but oh, his blondes. He left no doubt that each was a spectacularly beautiful specimen. Perfect to a fault yet surprisingly willing to initiate sexual encounters — even aggressive. Deliciously unpredictable (and occasionally malicious) for long stretches until, suddenly, she falls in love with the hero and becomes absolutely trustworthy.
Critics have complained bitterly about these women being portrayed as ice queens, absurd male fantasies — which they most surely are. But come on. Remember Grace Kelly’s first appearance in Rear Window? (See here for a clip.)
She enters the dark apartment as Jeff (James Stewart) naps, and bends down to kiss him. Hitchcock filmed it as if we were the object of her desire: that extreme close-up of her perfect face, coming in straight for us. When Hitch transitions to a side view so we can watch her plant a perfect, luscious kiss on Jeff’s lips, all the neighborhood noise drops away, and the shot is almost perfectly silent. Watch it and tell me if you don’t hold your breath while she kisses him/us.
Tippi Hedren, Madeleine Carroll, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Grace Kelly — via Hitchcock’s lens, these women are transfixing, spectacular, maddening. One might go so far as to suggest that Hitch helped to cement an abiding ambivalence about blondes into our collective psyches.
Which made me wonder how early he manifested this fascination with blondes — so this blog-a-thon offered the perfect opportunity to scour the Hitchcock back catalogue for some of his earliest films. And thus I found Anny Ondra, a Polish/ Czech/ Hungarian actor who grew up in Prague and whose total English-language career consists of these two 1929 films for Hitch: The Manxman and Blackmail, two films bookended by a long career of European films that stretches almost forty years, concentrated most heavily between 1922 and 1938, when she was between the ages of 19 and 35.
She wasn’t Hitch’s first blonde, but she seems to be his first repeat-offender actress. And with her, the die was cast. At the risk of looking backward from his classic blondes of the 1950s to ask whether Ondra possesses some of the qualities that would become quintessential to the Kellys, Saints, and Hedrens, I nevertheless offer that from the very earliest scenes in these two pictures, we know how untrustworthy her character is, how duplicitous. In fact, we’re reluctant to like her at first.
Except that she’s so flighty and girlish we grow more lenient; we come to see that she knows not what she does.
The more we watch her, the more we need to watch her. These films both utilize what now appears to be a ham-fisted cinematographical technique: frequent shots in which the characters break the fourth wall and face the camera directly — at first as a means of introduction, but later on as a way to pause for emotional effect. Ondra flirts at the camera as she torments her two suitors in The Manxman, an operatic tragedy of a love triangle. Clumsy though this technique might be, we learn a lot about Ondra’s true charms in the process, and we suspect that our own growing softness for her character mirrors Hitchcock’s affection for the actress.
Look at those sweet little butterfly lips, that delicate little chin, that over-permed hair. Those large eyes, that could narrow to slits or widen in horror: in sum, she’s adorable. With all those close-ups of her lovely little face, we’re able to watch her flirt, weigh a decision, worry, or fool a man (transparently). She acts the pants off of all her male co-stars, who are negligible, forgettable figures (except perhaps Carl Brisson as the happy-go-lucky Pete in The Manxman, distinguishable primarily for being a Tom Hiddleston look-alike, albeit without perhaps such a massive forehead).
But therein lies the first major difference between Hitch’s later blondes and Ondra’s appearances for him in 1929: Ondra is truly a girl, utterly lacking the cool, elegant self-possession of his 1950s ice queens. No matter that, at 26, she was a year older than Grace Kelly had been when they filmed Rear Window — Hitchcock wanted women for his later films, whereas in these very early efforts he allows Ondra to charm in a different way. Put her in a room crowded with Manx fishermen, and she glows.
And charm she does. I mentioned above that she’s portrayed early on in each film as a deceiver — the thing is, she ultimately becomes the central protagonist in each film. In The Manxman (the earlier of the two films), she steals the film out from under her male co-stars. As she lives through a marriage to the wrong man, she quickly appears as a foolish yet sympathetic girl whose haste in marrying dooms her to unhappiness. Likewise, in Blackmail she simply wanted to have a nice time with a man who gives her more attention than her boring, busy detective boyfriend — only to find herself in a tight spot indeed.
Blackmail has a simplistic storyline, but the added attraction of being a very early talkie — in fact, it sometimes appears almost as if Hitchcock arranged to dub all the sound onto the film later on. Neither is this purely a guess on my part. Ondra’s voice is entirely dubbed by actress Joan Barry, after the filmmaker determined that her accent would distract from tale.
No matter. Even without hearing her true voice in that film, we have preserved via the ever-magical YouTube this delicious little moment: a sound test for Blackmail, in which Hitchcock and Ondra engage in a delightful little bit of dirty verbal sparring. You can see immediately that Ondra is a charismatic little number — and that Hitch didn’t miss an opportunity to tell a dirty joke, and run his eyes up and down his lead actress:
Now, isn’t that enough reason to donate to the Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon — the possibility of being able to see, at your leisure, a gem like this one online? Please consider making a donation to the NPFF, and visit my colleagues’ sites to enjoy the wide-ranging conversation about the many sides of Alfred Hitchcock!
28 March 2012
It’s the strangest feeling, being with this man. Her attraction to him overwhelms her, almost to the point of making her unselfconscious of her facial expressions. Hester (Rachel Weisz) catches herself every now and then, gazing at him (Tom Hiddleston) with such naked longing that she might well have drool coming out the corner of her mouth.
Women like her — educated, beautiful, refined, and let’s not forget married — aren’t supposed to act like this, feel like this. Women like her spend their lives staying under control. What you realize in watching her face is that this is precisely the state of being that women like her, like us, like me, both desire and fear with every ounce of our beings.
What started this feeling? The fact that he told her how beautiful she is, all those months ago? Or is it a chemical dynamism — his smell, his taste, all of it combines to make her so wild for him?
One night, as she spoons his sleeping, lanky naked body — her face only reaches his angular shoulder — she opens her mouth and gives that shoulder a long, satisfying lick.
It’s so telling, really, that she would try to spoon him. Ridiculous because he’s so tall; their bodies don’t fit together in that configuration. But that’s the way of their relationship: she always reaches out for more, while he only seems there with her about half the time.
That’s the fear, of course. It’s not just that Freddie doesn’t have the same passion for her, no matter how charming he can be. It’s that her own passion feels so boundless, even increasingly so as he retreats. Her passion for him, enhanced by the periods of his withdrawal, goes to dangerous places.
Whereas this relationship unearths new depths of love and sexual excitement in her, it reveals Freddie’s true shallowness. He has no idea what to do with his woman who so willingly enslaves herself to him.
That passion was nowhere to be found in her marriage to William (Simon Russell Beale), the respectable barrister and judge. No matter how much he loved her (and he tries in vain to persuade her that he loved her very much indeed), this new love of hers makes her almost disdainful of other forms.
One time her husband accuses her of feeling mere lust for Freddie. It’s a good guess, but wrong nevertheless. How could he know anything like this love?
At rare moments she regains her self-control. Not just for Freddie’s or William’s benefit, but because it helps her to see the situation more clearly. The situation is a mess. Even in her effort to draw back inside herself, we see the truth: her desire is a problem.
Isn’t that how it always is? Desire causes problems. Especially in women. Women are supposed to be the desired, not the desirers. Women are supposed to appear nicely put together, in clothes that flatter them like the deep blues she wears so often. What problems will be unleashed when she releases her self control?
Academics often speak of women’s desire as a problem that resists intellectualization. What to do with the woman who’s harassed into that affair with her boss, but she falls for him in the end? What to do with the exotic dancer who says she loves sex? It’s so embarrassing, so weak, so much what we don’t want these women to do.
Watching Weisz’s face register these emotions makes the dangers of desire as palpable as I’ve ever seen it onscreen. She has no filter left. It’s not the flashiest role in town, but it’s Oscar-worthy for its rawness. As beautiful as she is — is there another actress more beautiful than Rachel Weisz? — her face startles you with its nakedness and lack of control to the point that you realize she is all of us, she is you and me.
Except unlike the rest of us, she has committed herself to a form of love as risky as it is life-altering and intermittently fulfilling. And when we watch her wrestle with that commitment, we feel how much she wrestles with the problem of her own desire. When Freddie’s absent, her desire lingers and floats around those drab postwar rooms, like the clouds of smoke she exhales — smoke that has nowhere to go except back into the pores of her skin, into the shabby upholstered furniture, into the dark recesses of that depressing flat.
What a gorgeous, thought-provoking film, and such a rich revival of the women’s weeper/ melodrama. And what an amazing actress that Rachel Weisz has become in such short order.
23 January 2012
I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!
The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”
“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”
“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”
Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)
First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.
A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.
Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.
And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!
Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):
Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.
Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.
Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:
A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)
Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.
Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.
I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.
Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):
Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.
Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.
(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.
Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):
Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.
After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.
Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role:
Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)
Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.
Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.
C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.
I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism. Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)
And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:
- 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
- Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
- Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
- Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
- And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)
27 June 2011
Here’s my rule: I don’t want to put any movies on this list that feel like cheap manipulators. Did I cry during The Notebook? Well, of course, and the whole time I felt as if I’d been used. In fact, I have a list of films I refuse to see because I anticipate that those tearjerkers will merely make me feel jerked around (Titanic, etc. — and despite the promises of my Dear Friend I can’t bring myself to watch Love Actually).
That said, readers of Feminéma know that I emote at the movies all the time — why, only recently I’ve mentioned having unexpected outbursts during Summer Hours, Killer of Sheep, and The Beaches of Agnès. (What can I say, but that I feel movies truly, madly, deeply?) Let me explain that this list emerges not from an eagerness to weep, but rather the firm belief that some of the best films draw tears without making you feel cheap — in fact, I’d watch these movies again this minute if I had the chance — and without making you determined never to watch them again (ahem: Breaking the Waves. Never, ever again). The tears they provoke seem to spring from something honest and human. Inspired by a comment from Tam (and borrowing shamelessly from the list she offered) this is a preliminary attempt to think about when, and how, outpourings of sentiment at the movies seem authentic as well as pleasurable.
Weeping ritually with Departures (Okuribito, Yôjirô Takita, 2008). A beautiful film about a young man who finally gives up on his plans to be a musician and returns to his hometown to start working — mostly by accident — as someone who ritually prepares dead bodies for burial. It’s funny and surprising for many reasons, and you start to wish someone will display that much care with your body when you die.
Weeping for lost chances with 84, Charing Cross Road (David Hugh Jones, 1987). I’ve already discussed this film, which is oriented around the long, beautiful, eccentric correspondence between a New Yorker and the London bookstore clerk who supplies her with good reading material. Books, letters, and a quasi-romance between Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins — weeper heaven.
Weeping out of pride for your fellow humans with Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976). I have a whole post a-brewin’ about labor, but suffice it to say that this might be the most amazing documentary you’ll ever see — about a strike by coal miners in Kentucky who express eloquently their rights as workers in America. It brings tears to your eyes for what we’ve lost: a sense of pride in labor and the strikers’ certainty that employers are not always right. Oh, how far we’ve fallen as a nation since 1976.
Weeping for reality with The Return of Navajo Boy (Jeff Spitz & Bennie Klain, 2000). Another documentary. Sometimes my students make statements that reveal that they don’t think Indians exist anymore. This documentary about the most-photographed Navajo family in history — people typically photographed in “traditional” clothing, making blankets or some other goddamn “traditional” Indian thing — is about their real lives and the difficulties they face when most Americans refuse to believe they are anything but cardboard cutouts, much less a people whose history is always changing.
Weeping for love with Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990). Back to narrative film with this amazing tale of a woman missing, terribly and deeply, her dead boyfriend — when suddenly his ghost returns to her. She’s so happy to see him, except having a ghost for a boyfriend turns out to be more of a problem than it might appear at first.
Weeping for nostalgia and happiness with Up (Pixar, 2009). Criminey. Who would’ve thought, walking into a big 3-D Pixar summer release, that within 5 minutes you’d have lost weight from the weeping? Loved everything about this movie, and I’d see it again this minute, but next time I’ll have a stockpile of kleenex close by.
…and Tam also recommends The Winter Guest (Alan Rickman, 1997), which I haven’t seen yet.
Honorable mentions, for their massive tear-jerking capability primarily in the very last scenes:
- Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004).
- Three films by Ang Lee: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). What can I say but that that guy is crazy good at drawing big tears out of me.
- Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003).
- Toy Story 3 (Pixar, 2010).
Note that I’ve left off all the overdetermined tearjerkers: An Affair to Remember (1957) because of that cringe-making scene from Sleepless in Seattle (1993); all those dude weepers that I don’t quite get, like Good Will Hunting (1997), Field of Dreams (1989), and Brian’s Song (1971); and a couple of films like Dancer in the Dark that are just too goddamn much.
I know we’ve got a whole set of cheap stereotypes about women weeping at the movies. But the best films make us cry because we can’t help but feel with those characters. Admit it: you love it.
9 April 2011
Look at her posture: I know how she feels. It’s been a hard week here for a lot of the same reasons why Mildred Pierce struggles in the early episodes — grief, triumph, exhaustion, anxiety, feeling a bit used & abused. (Yes, it’s Week 11 of a long, long semester = grading hell.) All the more reason to be riveted by Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, the 4th episode of which airs tomorrow night. What would you be willing to do to survive? How would you reconcile your sense of self-worth with the indignities of taking on demeaning work to feed your children?
When you watch Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, just set aside the Joan Crawford version and pay attention to how Kate Winslet navigates the precarious waters of self-respect and the conflicts between her own desires and her self-sacrificing impulses as a mother — and all within the context of having her livelihood threatened. This isn’t noir, it’s melodrama. In the end, it revolves around the topic of class: the conflicts between her pride and her willingness to sacrifice that pride to make ends meet and allow her children to grow up more “respectable” than she is. And who could embody those contrasts better than Kate Winslet? We see throughout how beautiful she is, but she carries that cross of unhappiness so obviously … even after her dreary brown outfits in the first episodes begin to transform into lovelier shades of color, the set of her mouth changes from fear to determination, and the lines on her face don’t seem so stark.
There are important assumptions we have to make when watching this series, the most important of which is that a mother will do anything during her own financial crisis to find ways to feed her family after her husband leaves them. Although she’d been baking pies and cakes on the side to sell to well-to-do housewives, it isn’t enough anymore; she now has trouble paying for groceries. What she doesn’t realize is that her absent husband has also left her with the designation of a grass widow — a woman whose absent husband automatically puts her morality up for question. Mildred doesn’t even want to wrangle with that assumption, seeing it as stupid and beneath her; but when her father’s shady business partner, Wally, invites her out for dinner, her neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) sets her straight.
“Baby. Baby. You go out with him and he buys you dinner and you get a little tight and you come home and something happens. Of course something will happen ... eventually. And when it happens it’s sin. It’s sin because you’re a grass widow and fast. And he’s all paid up because he bought you dinner. That makes it square.”
“But if you bought his dinner and cooked it for him the way you do and just happened to look cute in that little apron and something just happened to happen … well, that’s just nature. Old Mother Nature, baby, and we all know she’s no bum. And Wally’s not paid up. Not even close.
Anyway. Last I heard you were up against it. Play your cards right and within a month he’ll be taking you shopping for a divorce.”
“Do you really think I want to be kept?” Mildred asks, shocked by the well-off Lucy knowing so much about the micro-politics of dating for divorcees, shocked by the indignities of her new life. “Yes,” Lucy responds; it’s hard to capture how pragmatic and friendly this line comes across. She’s right: something just happens to happen, and Mildred has to reconsider — again — what she’s doing. Sex isn’t a pleasure or an indulgence or an escape, but yet another burden of complex associations that she must negotiate with care lest they ruin her. When she succumbs, we feel relief and horror all at once.
I hope I’m conveying how dark and profound this show can be; it gets at a nexus of emotions I haven’t seen onscreen before, and it can be brutal. Haynes’ wonderful films are, perhaps, imperfect examples of the filmic art, but I couldn’t care less because they’re so invariably interesting. And the more I watch Mildred, the more I think Haynes is getting at someting important. She’s hopelessly boxed in between her need to protect her children’s futures and some nagging desires of her own — for sex or love, for personal success, for respect. She’s ambitious, even though everyone suggests she shouldn’t be. She’s a sexual being, though she seems to feel she shouldn’t be. Interviewed in the New York Times, Haynes highlights the class elements of this tale:
“The daughter’s ascension represents Mildred’s ultimate goals, but it guarantees that they will have nothing in common,” Mr. Haynes said. “She’s basically sacrificing her to a different class.”
God knows I’d pay to watch Kate Winslet darn a sock, and I love watching her play this role. There’s even a back story in the LA Times about how she filmed it during the darkest days of her divorce from Sam Mendes that may also color my sympathy for her in this part. It’s a very different interpretation of the role than Crawford’s (for that matter, Crawford’s own back story of growing up impoverished and under-educated in Texas and Oklahoma is affecting for very different reasons) and, knowing that earlier film a little, I struggled to reconcile the harried-looking Winslet with the determinedly elegant-looking Crawford during the earliest episodes. See what I mean? You’ve got to set Crawford aside.
It’s worth it. For me, Winslet’s great talent lies in playing women with strong emotions and unpredictable, even eccentric proclivities — I still maintain that her Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I also can’t forget her first role in the magnificent Heavenly Creatures (1994) as an alienated teenager with a dark, highly sexualized, malevolent streak; it contrasts so well with her turn as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1995) or as Rose in the ridiculous Titanic (1997). She’s revived her interest in the dark side more recently with The Reader (2008) and Little Children (2006). As Mildred, Winslet expresses her emotions by showing how hard it’s been to repress them. Those early episodes illustrate her with serious lines on her face, her hair askew. Even her voice, pitched low, seems to exemplify the effort of keeping her emotions under an artifical control. When her business begins to triumph, we can almost feel in her posture how she’s given herself just a little bit of permission to feel some pride.
The LA Times article speaks at length about Winslet’s refusal to enhance herself (Botox, a boob job, etc.), and she’s been outspoken about her refusal to drop to a stick-figure weight. It’s a bleak fact of Hollywood that 25-year-old actresses are regularly instructed to enhance. No one can watch Winslet as Mildred without noting her curves: she has a woman’s body, a real woman’s arms, and she’s breathtaking — I respond to these images not just by feeling simultaneous bursts of desire for her and extraordinary sympathy and recognition.
We know Mildred Pierce can’t end well. In the very first episode, Mildred has returned from her first day of work as a waitress in a diner, which she confesses to her neighbor Lucy. In fact, the realization of what she’d doing for money is so dispiriting that she races to the toilet to vomit. She demands this news be kept a secret from her daughter Veda — she’s just too ashamed. Lucy responds, voicing an opinion we already share about the snooty little prig of a girl: “Veda, if you ask me, has some funny ideas.” Mildred fires back, “You don’t understand her, Lucy: I know she has something in her that I thought I had and now find I don’t — pride, or nobility, or whatever it is.” Oh Mildred, that sentiment is going to bite you.
Mothers and daughters. Pride, nobility, debasement. Wow. I’m riveted — and I’m finding this melodrama deeply cathartic during this, the darkest part of the semester.
26 March 2011
Is it noir, or is it a women’s weeper? Mildred Pierce (1945) was both — or maybe all women’s weepers are also noir? No one understands the women’s film genre more implicitly than Todd Haynes, so I’m thrilled to anticipate his 5½ hour remake on HBO starting tomorrow night, starring Kate Winslet. Weepers don’t get much respect, of course, and the Lifetime Channel has done nothing to lift the genre’s reputation. But Haynes’ films explore intimate spaces of people’s family and imaginative lives in ways that are profound. You can watch all 43 mins of Haynes’ first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), told using Barbie dolls and the Carpenters’ hauntingly soft melodies, and you’ll never think about that music the same way again:
No wonder he could make Safe (1995) or Far From Heaven (2002) with such sensitivity. Haynes was quoted in Sunday’s New York Times last weekend talking about his affinity for the “women’s film,” saying:
“Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives,” he said. “They really tell what all of us experience in one way or another because they’re stories of family and love and basic relationships and disappointments.”
His films aren’t perfect, but they speak to me on an emotional level that stays with me for years afterward. (Well, not I’m Not There, but that was about the shape-shifting Bob Dylan. And Cate Blanchett was pretty amazing in her turn as Dylan.) Far From Heaven wasn’t as profound as the Douglas Sirk classic on which it was based, All That Heaven Allows (1955) with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (below), but it shows that he gets the genre on a cellular level.
I stumbled across a fascinating — and beautifully, lavishly illustrated — essay about Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) at MUBI, which sings the praises of the filmmaker’s propensity to create scenes that feel staged and even stilted for effect. Sure, you may not think of yourself as the women’s weeper type. Apparently the film critic Molly Haskell called it “the untouchable of all film genres.” But films by Sirk and Haynes are good. And, with Haynes, I think they say something intense about the emotional lives of women in houses. I can hardly wait to see Kate Winslet as the self-sacrificing mother cum self-made female entrepreneur, wrestling with a spoiled daughter, in Mildred Pierce.