…who has only severely limited access to YouTube (for which I am most sympathetic).  Here are a few videos to celebrate the pure unadulterated joy of immersing oneself in soccer during the World Cup.  First, the greatest commercial ever made for sports:

Second, because Monty Python should always be invoked in even years:

And finally, just because, The Butt Dance:

More on women, feminism, movies, etc. tomorrow.

When someone kidnaps a child — or several children, as is sometimes the case — our tendency is to respond by characterizing that person as the exception.  We tell ourselves he’s a pedophile, a psychopath, a serial killer, a freak.  He’s like the wolf of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale; this is no mere wild animal, but one who systematically sets out to trick a little girl and eat her.

The “Red Riding” trilogy produced by the UK’s Channel Four wants us to think of the wolf differently.  He is no exception; he is us, and he is eating us alive.  These films are scarily brilliant, appallingly violent, and so good I wanted to watch them again even before I’d finished watching.  Moreover, they are beautifully photographed — truly, some of the most creative and provocative cinematography I’ve seen in ages.

The first episode/film, “The Year of Our Lord 1974,” makes all other renditions of the 70s appear ersatz, like what “The Wire” did to “Law & Order.”  This is no “Life on Mars,” with its earnest fights against petty corruption in the Manchester police department of 1973, cross-cut with jumps into a groovy muscle car with the deliciously mouthy Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt.  There is no thrumping rock soundtrack, no glam anthems, not a single moment spent romanticizing the era.  The West Yorkshire of these films is filthy, perpetually raining, and unbearably claustrophobic, filled with dark tunnels, narrow stairwells, and dreary working-class 1970s homes filled with awful furniture and wallpaper.  It opens with the kidnapping of a little girl last seen wearing a red jacket and red Wellingtons, and shortly thereafter she is found dead, tortured, and with real swan’s wings sewn into her tiny back.  (All of the physical violence against children and women takes place offscreen.  This cannot be said for the violence against men — a decision that, frankly, was fine with me.)

Enter the cocksure young reporter, Eddie (Andrew Garfield), just back from starting his career in the South and feeling pretty good about himself as the local boy-made-good.  Who wouldn’t, with that terrific head of hair and his prettyboy pouty lips?  (For which we hate him immediately.)  He soon sniffs out that this is not the first little girl to go missing and pursues the serial-killer line of investigation despite the pushback he gets from the cops.  He’s right to do so — it’s a canny decision.  In contrast, his decision to pursue the little girl’s mother (Rebecca Hall, who won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress) is a bad choice, just like all his others.

Eddie wants to get to the heart of the problem, just like the well-intentioned Pete in “In the Year of Our Lord 1980” and John and Maurice in “1983,” but there is no wolf to be slaughtered, no exceptional villain, and no heroic woodsman to intervene just in time.  Eddie has no idea how much he’s bitten off.  The webs of corruption stretch everywhere, and these men will do anything to keep it that way.  Here the cinematography does its best work (and I would argue, done most effectively and exceptionally in “1974;” it’s a crime that Rob Hardy went unrecognized for it, though his colleague David Higgs won a BAFTA for his photography in “1983”).  Every single scene is shot from a slightly disorienting angle, moving our eye about these rooms and making us notice the discomfort.  At times the imagery is backed up by, of all things, some very slow and beautiful soul music, even more disconcerting given the grim and soulless world we’re watching.  View that imagery here, as Eddie is invited by the über-skeezy John Dawson (Sean Bean at his skeeziest) to enjoy the benefits of being on the take.  It’s not just the sideways views of the two men’s faces; it’s also the camera’s pauses to watch the rain as it rolls down the windows, both of which somehow don’t allow you to forget the rain after the camera returns to their faces:

By “1980” the corrupt establishment has really accomplished something, and they’re getting very rich.  “To us all!” they toast.  “And to the North! where we do what we like.”  (This line is just not effective textually without that accent.) But by now the cops among them are faced with the still-unsolved Yorkshire Ripper killings of maybe 13 prostitutes, and the Home Office sends Pete (Paddy Considine) and his two most trusted detectives to help.  Instead of helping, however, they find the West Yorkshire police resent them, lie to them, and conceal evidence — and for good reason, as it turns out.  Worst of all, we begin to suspect that a haggard-looking gay teenaged rentboy, aptly named B.J., is not just being overlooked as a source of information — his life is in serious danger for what he knows, although we’re not sure who’s going to come after him.  By “1983,” B.J. is sleeping in his garage space with a shotgun in his lap for fear of his life.

If you had recorded my brain activity while watching these films, all areas of my brain would have lit up:  it was the elements of fable juxtaposed with gritty thriller.  The swan’s wings, the little girl’s red jacket, the fantasy of escape and renewal; even near the very end, a voiceover tells us in a singsong, let me tell you a story voice, “Here is the one / that got away / and lived to tell the tale.”  It was also the perfect performances by Hall, Considine, the seriously under-used Maxine Peake, and David Morrissey (here, concealing his Hollywood handsomeness behind that uninspired ‘stache, glasses, and mousy brown hair), the unforgiving scenery, the shadowy women, the lost children.  And it was the films’ contrast with one of my favorites, “North and South,” in which sharp regional differences are assuaged by the growing understanding and love between its two protagonists.  In “Red Riding” there is no love between North and South; the North is fiercely determined, indeed, to do “whatever we want,” the South be damned.  When one character voices the old saw, “The Devil triumphs when good men do nowt” (again, think of that accent making all the words emerge from the tongue-iest part of the throat), we know that this is mere folly.

One more thought.  The second film opens with scenes of street protests against the Yorkshire Ripper and complaints against the police’s failure to catch him; but there are other signs as well.  Women are filmed carrying signs that say “No Means No,” “Men Off the Streets!”, and “All Sex is Rape,” and graffiti on a wall pronounces “Men Are the Enemy.”  The films have no room for this kind of feminist rage, except implicitly and extremely subtly.  No, this is a trilogy about men, the wolves and the woodsmen who go in search of the little girl in the red jacket and red Wellies.  Oh well.

I have dived into Dickens.  It started, of course, with the 2008 BBC miniseries a few weeks ago; now I’m reading the copy of David Copperfield I found in my summer rental apartment.  Meanwhile, I’m scouring Google Videos for a Dickens back catalogue available online — and have found a muddy copy of what is obviously an excellent four-part version of “Our Mutual Friend” (1998) on YouTube, disappointing only in that I have to ingest it in 9-minute increments.

Ordinarily this would strike me as strange — doesn’t Dickens sound more appropriate for a winter break?  All those hungry children, conniving lawyers, brittle old women, and cold garrets.  Maybe if I were in sweltering Texas I’d find this too much.  I think the appeal of Dickens right now reflects the fact that doing research makes one strange.

I’m looking around the research library right now, noting how many of them are of the same type:  disheveled (I’ve counted five with bed-head hair), shabbily dressed, poor posture — and absolutely preoccupied with their work.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am exactly the same, sans the bed head.  The woman across the desk from me has an expression on her face as if she’s simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the materials she’s reading. The woman next to me whispers unselfconsciously as she reads aloud over her magnifying glass.  The man on the other side is surely a grad student — he can’t be more than 26 — yet he already has the perceptible disappointment and self-defeat of a 50-year-old.  An atom bomb could go off and these people’s eyes wouldn’t lift from their books.

Given this cast of characters, it seems entirely appropriate that I’d be watching a show about a family that made its fortune in the dust business, and an “articulator of bones,” Mr. Venus (Timothy Spall, whose face guaranteed him a lifetime of Dickensian parts; he’s also appeared as Peter Pettigrew/ Wormtail in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and the uxorious Nathaniel in “Enchanted”).  The faces of the people in the library with me aren’t that different than those of Noddy Boffin, Betsy Trotwood, or Sloppy.

So here’s to a summer of talking to myself in the library, and then racing home to consume another couple hundred pages of social satire and condemnation of society obsessed with money and status — by an author who knew that no matter how much he criticized the world around him, the worthy man and virtuous woman would always marry in the end (and probably wind up with piles of money), and that his readers would weep as a result.

Dear Nan F., THANK YOU for sending this recommendation, because there is nothing better designed to end all of those end-of-semester pains than a 452-minute BBC mini-series (for the math-averse, that’s about 7 ½ hours. 7 ½!!).  At some point during the final episode last night, I turned to my partner and said, “I have no idea where this is going!” with utter delight.

the dastardly French murderer, Rigaud (Andy Serkis)

Ah, the Dickensian aspect, as they called it in “The Wire.”  A tangle of characters, high and low; base greed and social posturing contrasted with utter selflessness and love; fools, knaves, and murderers — oh, THANK YOU for “Little Dorrit” during what felt like the 75th week of the semester.

Charles Dickens was a master at writing diverting tales for the serials; early installments of these stories invariably introduced a crazy range of characters at all levels of society.  “Little Dorrit” tells us right away that there is a mystery surrounding the hard-on-its-luck Dorrit family:  William Dorrit has been locked in the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, for so long that his children know no other home.  Although he retains pretentions associated with his former social position, his older son and daughter have adopted the working-class accents and weak characters of the low-born.  But not his youngest, Amy, or “Little Dorrit” (Claire Foy).  One look at her enormous blue eyes and we know she’s our heroine, especially because she deals as lovingly and generously with her family’s weaknesses as with that of the snobbish Mrs. Clennam, who hires Amy to sew for her. 

Little Dorrit (Claire Foy) and her actress-sister, Fanny

We also learn right away that Mrs. Clennam has hired Amy out of some kind of misplaced guilt for her role in bringing about the Dorrits’ misfortunes.  Moreover, her son, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), back in London after twenty years in China, begins to suspect the same on seeing his bitter mother’s uncharacteristic kindness to Amy.  Arthur undertakes to learn the Dorrits’ history as a means of obeying his father’s cryptic deathbed wish:  to “make it right.”  Yet when he presses his mother for more information, she angrily shuts him out from her life.

Matthew Macfadyen as the noble Arthur Clennam

The series was directed by a team led by Emmy Award winner Dearbhla Walsh, and written by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who’s apparently never found a nineteenth-century novel too lengthy or convoluted to tackle as a miniseries.  To wit, his credits include:

  • “Middlemarch” (1994)
  • “Pride and Prejudice” (1995)
  • “Wives and Daughters” (1999)
  • “The Way We Live Now” (2001)
  • “Bleak House” (2005)
  • “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

…and he’s now reportedly taking on more Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, as well as other projects.  Davies seems to have a love for the language and narrative flow of a nineteenth-century rambling novel, and exhibits a faithfulness to them designed to please the novel’s fans as well as mere television viewers. Granted, he often opts for broadly caricaturing his secondary characters; I bristled at the gratuitous fat jokes directed at poor Flora Finching, once engaged to Arthur but now merely a comical, overweight, desperate middle-aged fool.  But let’s not be small.  Faced with a cast of dozens of important figures, each with shadowy motives and personal tics, Davies leaves no doubts in the minds of his wide audience as to who’s who and how we should feel about them.  No one who saw Francesca Annis as the excrable Hyacinth Gibson in “Wives and Daughters” can ever forget her.

And speaking of the tendency to go over the top, Amy Dorrit is one of those ridiculously selfless nineteenth-century heroines so out of fashion by the twentieth century.  She quietly and lovingly tends to her slightly mad father just as she does for anyone else who might need her, never putting her own desires ahead of another’s.  Unlike the long-suffering heroines of Jane Eyre or The Wide, Wide World — women who couldn’t resolve their own suffering because they are women — Little Dorrit is the epitome of goodness and contentment; her only source of misery is her unrequited love for Arthur.  In fact, Arthur is her perfect mate, as his motivations are similar to Amy’s: to resolve others’ unhappiness.  Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5” and the appalling recent film version of “Pride and Prejudice”) plays the role of Arthur to perfection: at middle age he is neither so slim nor so marriageable as he once was, and he finds himself drawn far more seriously to his charity work than to his occupation or love life.  I even thought during “Little Dorrit” that Macfadyen has reached that stage when he must make a switch in roles, for rather than grow in handsomeness over time like Richard Armitage or George Clooney, his face has become goofier somehow, making me hope he might take on comedic or character roles rather than persist in trying to be the handsome young lead.

So for those of you facing stacks of research papers, bluebooks, and complaints about grades, please consider indulging in a few evenings of Dickensian diversion. And once again, Nan F., thank you.

Love, Feminéma

I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism.  And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show. 

I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy.  I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist.  All of this is true.  But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!).  At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything. 

The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.”  When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job.  That attitude starts in high school.”  (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.)  Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song.  My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off:  “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”

They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.  There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise).  (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?)  Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.”  Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna. 

Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism.  I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms.  Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna.  Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers.  But let’s just call this what it is:  “Glee” is just its own thing.  We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered.  Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.

I know, I’m late to this conversation — a cursory Google search reveals a pile of comments about this subject, most of them unflattering.  Clearly, I’m not the first to notice that HBO just won’t develop shows that have equitable gender ratio or even very interesting parts for women.  Sure, they threw us the half-hour cotton-candy show “Sex and the City,” full of fashion and cocktails and girl-talk about boys (cause we girls luv that stuff), but that show ended in 2004.  Still:  if “The Wire” never could bring its female characters to the forefront, it showed us gender in a way I’ve never seen on TV before.

Yes, it fell down on getting many women onto the show, or even into prominent parts.  David Simon, the show’s main writer and creator, confessed in an interview that he often wrote his female characters as if they were men — “men with tits,” quoting Hemingway — leaving it to his actors to add gendered subtlety.  He directed his true love to fleshing out men’s roles; one need only think of Bubbles, Omar, Bunk Moreland, or Bunny Colvin to see how rich and diverse his male characters could be (and so many of them black:  when have we ever seen that before?).  A quick look at the roster shows a few vivid female characters who were consistently overshadowed by their male counterparts in number as well as vividness: 

  • detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn)
  • Ronnie Perlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), the assistant state’s attorney 
  • badass muscle Snoop (Felicia Pearson)
  • officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), who has an ill-fated relationship with McNulty
  • Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt), who keeps her brother and son in check
  • Shardene Innes (Wendy Grantham), the strip club dancer turned informant
  • De’Londa Brice (Sandi McCree), Namond’s dragon-lady mother
  • Nerese Cambell (Marlyne Afflack), the take-no-prisoners City Council prez

That’s right:  eight prominent female characters in five seasons, with almost all the rest a shadowy group of wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, junkies, foster mothers, or middle-school teachers and girls.  I can’t even begin to count the comparable men in the series, but to give you an idea:  when you look at the Imdb.com list of characters, only three of the twenty-nine names that automatically appear on the page are women.

But if they were outnumbered and overshadowed it’s still worth making the point:  what women they are.  I’ve sung the praises of Kima Greggs before, but Nerese Campbell and De’Londa Brice — to name only two — are brilliant, complex characters.  I’m watching Season 5 again right now, when Nerese comes more fully into view as the preeminent power broker during a moment of city-council shakeup.  She never smiles; although she’s one of the most conventionally beautiful women on the show, Nerese resembles the ghostlike, incomprehensible, drug-dealing Marlo more than anyone.  Like Marlo, she uses every opportunity to buttress her own position despite being already the most powerful woman in the city.  It’s a brilliant, unsung performance that shows her to be capable of any form of political maneuvering or corruption so long as it enhances her political armor. 

Take the scene in which Clay Davis (“shieeeeeeeet”) accuses her and her political machine of abandoning him during his corruption trial, and threatens to bring them all down with him.  “You can tell every last one that I do not fall alone,” he whines.  Nerese won’t let this fly.

“Just take a moment and think about what you’re saying here,” she says.  “You can have yourself a pity party, talk all kinda shit to some prosecutor.  You know where you’ll be then?  Out in the damn cold.  No connection, no allies, nowhere to hang your hat in this damn town.”  She softens her voice:   “Or you carry this for all of us.  Carry it as far as you can.  And if the worst happens—they take your seat, if you go away for a year or so to some minimum-security summer camp, so what?  You come back to a town that still knows your name.  Prosecutors come, and prosecutors go.  But win or lose, you’re still going to be back around before we know it.  Am I right, Senator Davis?” 

She’s brutal — it’s hard to capture textually the fierceness with which she delivers those lines to him, right up in his face; it’s like a school principal, a wife, a strong mother all at once.  She’s asking him to be a man in a way he’s not used to.  Davis’ face crumples, like a child’s.  It’s such a good scene because Nerese is so merciless — just like we hoped Hillary might be if she became president.  David Simon might be telling the truth about how he writes these characters, but his first-rate actors convert those lines into subtly gendered performances.  I could go on about De’Londa Brice, too, whom I feel has been wrongly attacked as an ugly portrayal of a black mother.  Come on, people:  just because we didn’t sympathize with her or see things from her perspective doesn’t mean De’Londa was a simplistic character.  Some of this feels like I’m teaching one of those graduate classes in which “but where are the women/class relations/African Americans?” suffices for useful criticism.

 

Okay, so the show couldn’t come up with many female characters.  But it endeared itself to me with its treatment of gender — its rich array of gay characters as well as its portrayal of men’s relationships with each other (and themselves).  To quote Sophie Jones’ nice turn of phrase on PopMatters, “Gay characters on TV are almost without exception stereotyped, ridiculed, or defined by their sexuality. The Wire doesn’t so much tear apart this convention as act like it never existed.”  And it wasn’t just the gay characters.  The drug dealers are obsessed with a particular kind of manliness — to be hard, to “step to,” which ultimately proved the irreconcilable difference between drug kingpins Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. 

Meanwhile, the cops throw around middle-school level dick and fag jokes — a banter that not only isn’t funny, but signals these men’s broader personal failures.  Those jokes appear so frequently as to become a theme about sorry masculinity.  Unlike similar jokes used in “bro-mances” like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” that sought to make audiences laugh, these don’t convey the sense that these guys are having a really great time together.  Instead, the stupid jokes symbolize the malaise and decay of the city — they function as a lingua franca between men who have nothing else to say to each other.

McNulty, looking at Detective Sydnor in disguise to make a drug buy:  “Where’s your mic?”
Sydnor:  “Down at my dick, man.  I figured they ain’t gonna go down there anyway, right?”
Carver:  “I don’t know, Sydnor, the way you twirl it around, it might be the first place they look.”

They’re lame, these jokes.  And they’re repeated so frequently as to constitute self-critique — and in this era of buddy movies, when do we ever see this gendered banter criticized?  The show loves those moments when the jokes no longer work — when McNulty and Bunk grow apart, when Hauk gets a new job and can’t find the right lingo to use with his new co-workers.  The jokes take the temperature of the failed personal lives of so many of the characters — McNulty’s pathetic bar pickups, the pathetic way Kima allows her relationship with Cheryl to fail, cops vomiting in the gutter outside their bar, only to go back in and drink some more.

If we want to complain about representations of women and gender on TV, start out with virtually anything else — “Saturday Night Live,” “Burn Notice,” “Two and a Half Men.”  In contrast, “The Wire” looks good for its convention-busting characters, both male and female.  Yeah, it’s mostly about men, and I’m the first to agree that’s a problem with TV overall.  Just don’t use “The Wire” as a punching bag for that larger problem.

Still, as I get ready to start watching Simon’s new HBO series, “Treme,” I wonder if I’ll start to get impatient with HBO again.  As much as I’m delighted to see actors like Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters get more work, there’s a point at which yet another show about guys becomes a problem.

Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.

    Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

    But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

    Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

    Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

    If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

    In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

    Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

    Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

    Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

    Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

    Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

    Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

    Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

    Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

    Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

    See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

    And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

    …in which I think about smart objects of desire and girls’ willingness to identify with both boys and girls.

    I used to have a crush on Jon Stewart, but for a long time now it’s been Rachel Maddow.  Exemplary of her crush-worthiness is when she interviewed J. D. Hayworth — the conservative Tea Party opponent of John McCain in the upcoming AZ Republican primary — who’s been making a lot of political hay reviving the gay marriage “problem.”  The homophobic Hayworth claims that the Massachusetts Supreme Court defines marriage as “the establishment of intimacy,” and argues that such a definition leaves open the possibility that men will marry horses:

    Maddow:  “Where in Massachusetts law or in the Supreme Court ruling does it say, ‘the establishment of intimacy?’ I read, spent the whole afternoon sort of looking for that, and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

    Haworth:  “The high court in Massachusetts defined marriage in a rather amorphous fashion, simply as, quote, ‘the establishment of intimacy.’  Now, I think we all agree there’s much more to marriage than that.”

    Maddow:  “Sir, I’m sorry, it didn’t.”  (Goes through every example of the use of “intimacy” in the decision and MA state law and shows it doesn’t appear.)

    Hayworth:  “Well, that’s fine.  You and I can have a disagreement about that.”

    Maddow:  “Well, either it’s true or it isn’t.  It’s empirical.”  (Hayworth stumbles and fumbles on his way out of the interview.)

    Me, fawning:  “Rachel, will you marry me?”

    It’s not just that Maddow speaks truth to power, like Stewart did on “Crossfire” back in 2004; it’s the brevity and lucidity of her comments like “it’s empirical” that make me go mad for Maddow.  (Plus, obviously, she takes no prisoners, likes cocktails, speaks frequently of her partner Susan, and is a geek).  But then I have a long history of wanting to be with smart girls, wanting to be them, wanting to do them, wanting to watch them.  It’s baffling to me that, according to received wisdom, men only want to watch men.  (Cheers to all those actual men out there who feel the same way I do about smart women.)

    Smart girls are hot.  Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”; Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) from “The Wire”; Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) from the “Prime Suspect” series; Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) in “My Brilliant Career.”  They’re hot because they don’t need to please men; indeed, much of the time they’re smart enough to do without them altogether.

    One of the problems I keep circling as I write this blog is that according to popular culture, men are the privileged readers/viewers:  they avoid women’s films and “chick lit.”  Women will read/watch everything, but men only read/watch stuff by/about men.  Because of this, it’s no surprise we have Harry Potter rather than Hermione Granger as the main protagonist.  I remember reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three aloud to a ten-year-old girl who unabashedly identified with both male and female characters.  When Scott O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins in the 60s, he had to fight to keep the protagonist a girl.  (Never mind that it was based on a true story, or that he won the Newbery Medal and other prizes — the important point, from a publisher’s perspective, is he didn’t sell as many copies as he might have otherwise.)

    In a different mood, this might be the opening for me to denounce the sidelining of women authors and women characters — and the concomitant emphasis on all those male buddy films, the fact that children’s shows have three male characters to every one female character (according to the new Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media), “The Frat Pack,” and all things Judd Apatow, in which men bull-headedly just don’t get women, and engage in a lot of fag and fart jokes.

    I’ll keep denouncing those things, to be sure.  But for the moment I’m struck by something else:  the fact that, in essence, female reader/viewers learn what you might call a queer view of self.  I think women learn to see the world with queer eyes, a perspective that holds the possibility of allowing women simply to enjoy looking at women in a non-male-oriented way altogether.  The problem comes when women simply channel this toward making themselves attractive to men — but I think that if we can teach them to emulate the smart girls rather than the Playboy bunnies, we might see this queer view as really pretty subversive.

    Now, Rachel:  please cover women’s issues more.

    Bite me

    5 April 2010

    This post is about food and sex, but it’s really going to be about the similarities/ differences between “Tampopo” and “True Blood” — it just takes me a while to get there.

    Can we be any more screwed up about food?  Lady Gaga recently pronounced that “pop stars don’t eat” (it may be true, though it’s a dangerous comment to make to today’s anorexic teenagers), but Americans certainly do eat, as witnessed by all our TV shows about The Biggest Losers.  The Onion has a t-shirt that says, “I Wish Someone Would Do Something About How Fat I Am.”

    Despite our screwed-upness, we still make strong associations between food and sex.  Witness how much the Food Network has sexed up its hosts.  It offers a wide range of versions of male hosts to appeal to its viewers — tending toward macho bravado in some cases (witness the debonair yet dude-like Tyler Florence), or grubby nature child/working-class Brit (Jamie Oliver, much more to my liking).  I learned today that each of these men has an enormous, rabidly attentive audience of fans.  To seal the deal, the channel now features a show with an eminently happy married couple, Pat and Gina Neely, who canoodle and engage in sexual innuendo while cooking together.  But the, em, cherry on top of the pile is Giada de Laurentiis (granddaughter of the director), who cooks Italian food — but who’s paying attention to the food when her beautiful breasts have been laid out for our viewing during most of the show.  They’re far more appetizing.

    If the marriage of food and sex on the small screen is strong, overall we’re just not in the place we were in the 80s & 90s, when a whole spate of films appeared celebrating their close connection.  “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and its American remakes, “Tortilla Soup” and “Soul Food”), “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Chocolat” all welcomed us to foodie heaven with the promise that with it came a new kind of sexual liberation.  There were other foodie films too (“Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night”) and other films that used food during sex (“9 1/2 Weeks”), but they tended to emphasize one more than the other.

    The king of the food/sex films, however, was “Tampopo” (1985), which styled itself the first Japanese noodle western — but while it riffed on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60s, it was a different beast altogether (first of all, it was actually about noodles).  It was mostly the story of a world-weary trucker and his young sidekick, Goro and Gun, who get enlisted by the timid woman owner of a sorry-ass noodle shop to teach her how to make a better bowl of ramen.  Tampopo (“Dandelion”) is distraught:  her soup is awful, the noodles flavorless, her customers are dwindling.  Goro strokes his chin philosophically (brilliant reference to Toshiro Mifune) and takes on the job, taking her to visit the masters of the art throughout Japan:  king of the noodle makers here, master of broth there, all of whom gradually transform her into a ramen queen (and along the way a sweet romance between Goro and Tampopo begins to flower).

    Interspersed with the Goro/Tampopo tale are a series of unrelated meditations on food and sex — the crazily silly sex scenes between the gangster and his moll, an etiquette class of girls who insist on slurping as noisily as possible, and best of all, the ritual instruction in how to eat a bowl of ramen.  As a result, you left the theater hungry, horny, and yet somehow utterly satisfied:

    In reviewing this film, I can’t help but think about its similarities to “True Blood” (as promised!).  That latter show, too, is a wide-ranging amalgam of genres (Southern gothic, anti-discrimination, vampire film, camp), playing perversely with each of them.  The sex in “True Blood” gets as close to porn as possible, then veers off into romance or utter absurdity, usually when Sookie Stackhouse’s brother Jason appears.  Critics make much of the show’s sex, but I think it’s profoundly about food and sex, bringing out the themes of appetite and hunger and the orality of sex (when vampires get turned on/hungry, their fangs appear like reverse erections).  It’s an odd throwback to the food/sex obsession of an earlier generation of filmmakers, and I think reflects a lot of our current-day schizophrenic attitudes toward both.  Somehow, you don’t finish an episode of “True Blood” thinking about your next meal.