At first she seems like she’s going to be just another part of the kitschy Minnesota social landscape as created by the writers of Fargo — a series that uses the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film as a jumping-off point (and visual touchstone) for a different story, which they assert is true. The show tricks you: at first, the character of Molly Solverson seems neither as central nor as astute a detective as she becomes by episode 2 or 3. But by that time, you’ve sort of fallen in love with her.
Tolman is heavier than most TV actresses — by which, god knows, she probably wears a women’s size 10 (gasp!) — and prone to opening her gorgeous blue eyes just about as wide as they’ll go. She alternates observing a scene with an open mouth, and pursing that mouth in thought and perhaps a little judgment. All of which means that as you start to fall in love with her, her modesty, and her obsessive, perceptive views of the people and crimes around her, you realize that Tolman is not playing this for laughs even as she is trained as a comedian. Rather, we enter into the series via those beautiful eyes and connect to it through her combination of shyness, naïveté, and determination. She brings a soft persuasion to all her scenes, which is hard to do in a room full of Big Actors. The show is getting attention for all its male stars — Billy Bob Thornton as the riveting, mercurial hit man (really: he’s wonderful here); Martin Freeman hamming it up with an implausible Minnesota accent as the hapless Lester Nygaard; the terrific Bob Odenkirk as the dense new chief of police; Colin Hanks as a singularly unlucky Duluth police officer; and Adam Goldberg as a competing hit man who memorably delivers half his lines in American Sign Language.
What I’m saying is that our attention is — and should be — directed at Tolman, who is the real reason why the series works. Freeman’s acting is starting to grow on me, even though I still think he overacts his way through every scene; I don’t understand why Colin Hanks gets so many great roles (well, maybe I do understand); and I feel slightly peeved at the show’s insistence on getting so many yuks from Minnesota lingo and way too many characters with low IQs. But I’ll keep watching for Allison Tolman alone. She is a major discovery, and a major talent. Damn.
1 February 2014
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.
If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.
If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.
Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.
Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.
In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.
Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.
In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?
I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.
But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.
I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?
When I watched the opening minutes of Cathryne Czubek’s documentary — the credit fall over close-ups of red-polished fingernails loading, cocking, and shooting all manner of guns, jacked up with music that sounds appropriate for a spaghetti western of of the 1960s — I fretted that this film would turn out lite. Unserious. Uninformative. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun.” This is not a quote that reassures me that I’m about to see an important doc on women and gun culture.
But my mood shifted during the course of this film. I’m still not convinced that Czubek displayed the best editorial choices in selecting her subjects and her material. Yet what I’ve found is that A Girl and a Gun amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and that the subjects it raises still rattle around in my head during our current debates on guns. In the end I feel that even though it’s far from perfect, this doc gets at something crucial about American gun culture.
Let me just speak from my own perspective here — as a politically progressive advocate of gun-control who is also a feminist and film lover. Because seeing this film forced me to wrangle with the many conflicting and contradictory views I have regarding women and guns.
Just take the spate of women interviewed for this film who bought guns after being abused or stalked. Each of them spoke about what we know: that there’s very little comfort in a restraining order if your ex is willing to ignore it, and that there’s very little help from the police until he’s already gotten caught ignoring it. Lots of women live in terror in their own homes.
We all know this. We all know that women are caught in a big gap between the law and actual security. And, I think, we probably all agree that it’s kind of great that women in this situation arm themselves.
Certainly the wider culture has taught us to appreciate this figure of the woman who, wronged by men, finds her own ways of protecting herself. My god, I enjoy this narrative so much that I have an entire category on this site entitled “women with guns.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is the only inherently feminist theme permitted in mainstream pop culture.
You see? I rationalize my appreciation for Women With Guns in film by calling it feminist. But having had this pointed out to be so baldly, I’m not sure I’m willing to stick with that characterization. Moreover, A Girl and a Gun shows that this is not the only reason actual women wield guns, nor is it a new or uncomplicated issue.
There are plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable with female gun culture, starting with how it’s marketed to women. The pink guns — lots of pink guns. The long & fascinating history of selling guns to women during the 20th century, as unfolded by the historian Laura Browder (who might be the most camera-ready and beautiful historian I’ve ever seen, although perhaps that’s not saying a lot). The consistently condescending tone industry leaders use for addressing female customers. The way the customers buy into that condescension.
“In many ways the history of women and guns is the history of American women,” Browder offers persuasively over a raft of early 20th-c. images of women with guns — a forgotten history indeed.
If anything, Czubek could have done more to clarify the ways that gun consumer culture is eager to pigeonhole women as a group. This, and the documentary’s rambling and anecdotal style, draw away from its effectiveness as a film.
Perhaps the most illustrative moment emerges in the dynamic between a Stephanie Alexander and her daughter Aishia, who was permanently disabled by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting in New Jersey. Aishia speaks openly about feeling vulnerable in her wheelchair, and her reasons for purchasing a handgun to protect herself. Her mother, however, has gone a different route: her avenue to healing after her daughter’s trauma has led her to become a victims’ rights activist, speaking eloquently at public meetings for gun control and community activism.
But Stephanie also has a more complicated history with guns herself as a drug dealer and addict back in the 70s who owned a gun — par for the course for dealers. The filmmaker asks her whether she had a gun when her daughter was shot. “No,” she says — and explains that if she had, she would have sought out the shooter’s mother and “shot her in the face” because “that mother had to feel my pain.” It’s one of the most chilling moments in the film.
I finished this film with two thoughts in mind: that my own thoughts and feelings about guns ranged all over the map (almost as much as Stephanie Alexander’s) and that I wish Czubek had done more to clarify the problems raised by these topics. My recommendation of the film is based on the sense that it evokes the right questions — and that more work needs to be done to articulate the morass of conflicting positions on women and guns.
18 March 2013
I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.
How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.
1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.
Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.
2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.
This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.
3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.
And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.
4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.
Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.
5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.
Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)
12 March 2013
From Fritz Lang’s Spies (Spione, 1928), the film Lang made immediately after Metropolis (1927) but before M (1931), and which has some of the gee-whiz gadgets and terrific action that you might expect. But best of all is conflicted bad-spy Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), whose elegant, bejeweled hands we see here. Watch out, Agent 326!
And oh, that evil Russian’s clothes. Don’t even get me started.
Nota bene: don’t watch this streaming on Netflix, as you’ll only get part of the film. Look out for the 144-min. or 178-min. versions.
7 September 2012
Two weeks of school under my belt; I haven’t unpacked all my boxes yet, so my office looks a bit like an episode of Hoarders, except without the ancient boxes of cereal and rodent carcasses. And there’s manic prep for lectures, and grading, and learning all the new ways universities have discovered to torture us with ineffective/ counter-intuitive technology.
Nevertheless. There’s that moment when you stop fretting about the unpacking and you watch everything going on this week — the US Open tennis, the Democratic National Convention, the serious arrival of political signs and advocates on the streets of my city, the floating up of those amazing students who display their intelligence and hard work so early in the semester. It makes you focus not on the petty, but on the prize.
I promise to return to watching and discussing film at any moment now; I’ve had a Beasts of the Southern Wild post brewing for weeks and weeks; just give me a moment to catch my breath. Oh, and also — I’ve got to breathe after those DNC speeches, that Michelle Obama speech, that Bill Clinton speech, that scene of Gabby Giffords leading the Pledge of Allegiance. And oh yeah, Serena takes on Sara Errani later today. Hang with me, friends, and I’ll be back with you shortly.
Because it might be crazy, but I can do this. We can do this. Oh yes we can.