Featured in this picture is the real Alice — the Looking Glass & Wonderland Alice — looking cranky and tired, like I am, after a lot of talking to rabbits and disappearing cats and mad queens. (And she’s brunette! oh, the tyranny of illustrators who insist on blonde little girls.)

Like Alice I’m mostly glad to be home, in this quiet place with the woods across the street and the comfortable bed and the novels lining the shelves. I’ve got 70 pages left of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I have a Fresh Air interview with The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn loaded up on my iPod, with the teaser that she performs some of her slam poetry from her earliest career as an artist. I have the Bialetti, which soothes all ills.

What I don’t have: a chaise lounge.

No matter how stiff and Victorian that lounge of Alice’s appears to you, doesn’t it look like a comfort to her? One of those deep-seated, low-slung pieces of furniture designed for fainting ladies in tight corsets. I could use one (a lounge, that is, not the corset) to go with all the other accoutrements of novel/ espresso/ iPod — as well as a long nap.

It’s a weirdly warm day — due to be 70 degrees, I hear — ahh, for a long nap in the sun. And perhaps a nice stretchy session on the yoga mat to rid myself of these kinks one gets after shrinking rapidly or growing to an extraordinary height. I’ll catch you on the flip side. Maybe I will have seen a film by then. Let’s hope I will have shaken off the lag of travel and petulance.

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from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At RottenTomatoes.com it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?

Tales of true crime seem to be the site where we try to assess whither our nation is tending, and it’s precisely the question, what is the new India? that drives Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica. Manish, the son of a powerful member of India’s Legislative Assembly, attends a posh party with an entourage of male friends in Delhi and when he still wants a drink after last-call he finds himself in a faceoff with the woman working the bar, Jessica Lal, who refuses. The situation escalates. Manish pulls out a gun, points it at her face, and fires a warning shot into the ceiling while the rest of them stand frozen. Jessica still refuses to serve him, so he kills her with a point-blank shot to the head. Open and shut case, right? Not in the new Delhi, where money and power can buy your not-guilty verdict. (Many thanks to Mike for recommending this film to me, which is streaming on Netflix; see his excellent review here.) Is the new India so purely corrupt?

The first half of the film is really the tale of Jessica’s sister Sabrina (Vidya Balan) and her disappearing faith in the Indian justice system. Through her eyes we see the first inklings that Manish’s father is buying and threatening witnesses, such that even his son’s confession to the police cannot be upheld in court. Other witnesses know better than to come forward. Sabrina goes so far as to give Indian Rupee ₹20,000 to one of the witnesses, a poor man, to guarantee his testimony — only to realize too late that he’s in the pocket of Manish’s family. Most alarming is the disappearance of a key witness and one of the sisters’ best friends, Vikram (Neil Bhoopalam), who stood next to Jessica as she was shot. The film uses their family’s Christianity to symbolize her faith — Christians make up only about 2% of the Indian public — and Sabrina appears almost as a novitiate with her plain-Jane glasses, unflattering t-shirts, and severe ponytail. Gupta uses striking contrasts between Sabrina’s Christianity and Manish’s family’s too-eager public expressions of Hinduism (the country’s dominant religion) — appearances at religious festivals, etc. — to show us one more way that Manish and his family are corrupt. Perhaps it’s Sabrina’s wide-eyed faith that makes it all the more distressing when evidence disappears, eyewitnesses change their testimony, virtually all of the party’s 300 guests now claim to have gone home before the shooting. After six years in the painfully slow Indian court system, Manish is declared not guilty — and the Delhi newspapers declare in big headlines, NO ONE KILLED JESSICA.

The court’s shocking decision finally animates the film’s second heroine, Meera (Rani Mukherjee, doubtless the most beautiful woman I have ever seen), a famous TV journalist, who’d also expected in a guilty verdict. But whereas Sabrina’s loss of faith has religious overtones, Meera’s is wholly secular: she’s established as a wholly modern woman who’s highly ambitious and driven, sexually liberated, and free with an admirable range of expletives. (In fact, it was somewhat quaint to hear her call someone a motherfucking bastard in English but see the Netflix subtitles translate this as you idiot.) Now that she’s utterly pissed off, she seeks secular solutions. In a series of investigative stories, Meera proves the witnesses perjured themselves in court; with the help of the angry detective who saw his case collapse, she gets an audio copy of Manish’s confession and airs it on TV. Most of all she uses social media to move the public to action, urging frustrated citizens to text their legislators and jar the Delhi High Court into action to right this wrong.

Obviously there’s a lot to like here, not least that the film centers on two female protagonists, neither of whom adheres to conventional female roles. Meera is particularly appealing, even more so for her potty mouth and frenetic bossiness to everyone around her than her stunning beauty; she drives the story for much of the film. But I was struck most of all by the linguistic hybridism of the dialogue. Characters speak in a rapid-fire amalgam of Hindi and English that really does capture The New India in a way I haven’t seen in many Indian films before. Neither is it just a throwaway element of the film — language is a prominent subject of the film, not least for Jessica’s and Sabrina’s Westernized names, their (Western) Christian faith, and Meera’s Western brassy womanhood.

So am I such a cynical American that this film leaves me caught between disbelief and envy of the film’s optimism? Its determined drive toward a happy ending reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which told such a gritty, realistic tale of the fates of poor Indian children in the first half of the film only to opt, in the second half, for a fairy tale of love, almost mystically endowed riches, and dancing. As much as No One Killed Jessica purports to offer a dark view of the new India, where the life of a young woman matters little in comparison with that of the pampered son of the political elite, the film ultimately reassures us of an innate goodness of the Indian people and a journalism dedicated to finding out the truth. This is no The Wire, which never allowed us to believe in truth and justice as core Americanisms.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Crusading Journalist Exposes Corruption narrative (ah, All the President’s Men) but this film’s lack of commitment to the darkness of “the new India” theme hobbles it. In contrast, Aravind Adiga’s magnificent novel The White Tiger did such a better job signaling a different future for the nation. As much as I cried with happiness as the entire city of Delhi attends a candlelight vigil to protest the court’s decision, I couldn’t really believe that the High Court cared in the least how many texts they received from citizens about the case — this turn in the narrative seemed desperately eager to assert the essential goodness of the Indian people and to assure audiences that their opinions matter.

At the same time, even though Manish is eventually convicted, his father doesn’t suffer in the least for his role in perverting justice during the trial; the film asks us to be satisfied that the murderer is put away for life. Yet as I see it, corruption is the real story of the film as it was in Adiga’s novel — and one leaves the film knowing that corruption will continue. Even more than Crusading Journalist narratives, I’m riveted by Whither Are We Tending tales of crime — hence my love of The Wire and films like The Good Shepherd (2006), as well as Henning Mankell’s Wallander mysteries, which ask again and again what is happening in a new Sweden beset with new levels of racism due to unprecedented immigration. Ultimately I think No One Killed Jessica ends up torn between competing narratives — Whither Are We Tending, Crusading Journalist, and The Romance Of An Earnest And Engaged Public — such that one suspects Indian film doesn’t quite yet have the stomach for true cynicism. In the end, after seeing an awful lot of cynical Western films, I think I’m envious of your faith.

This is a wholly random collection, as you’ll see — aren’t they always?  It’s partly inspired by my wish to see a wider range of female parts get handed out, but these actors have stuck in my mind for ages, and I think Hollywood needs a nudge.

  1. Shareeka Epps.  She played the watchful, thoughtful middle-school kid in “Half Nelson” (2006) alternately inspired and disturbed by her self-immolating history teacher (Ryan Gosling). I can’t imagine what it must have taken for a 15- or 16-year-old  to step up to Gosling in that film, but she did — earning piles of awards nominations and several wins, including Breakthrough Performance from the Gotham Awards.  I’ve been watching and waiting for more from her ever since — but she’s suffered like so many young black actors by a Hollywood single-mindedly focused on white dudes.
  2. Michelle Forbes.  It’s not just the time she put in earning paychecks as Ro Laren in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (or her utterly delightful turns in “Battlestar Gallactica” and as the psychopathic Maryann on “True Blood”), although any one of those performances might be enough for me to want more of this willowy, wicked-eyed, sharp-tongued, iconoclastic actor.  But it was “In Treatment” that nailed it, as the miserable wife of the psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne — her exasperating sessions with a man who’s simultaneously too smart and too deluded to change his destructive path to show her he cares.  Of everyone on my list, Forbes has gotten the most work during her career; and she might be perfectly content with her wide range of parts.  But I want more.
  3. Sandi McCree.  I’ve found myself several times defending her performance in “The Wire” as Namond Brice’s mother — some saw De’Londa as so hard-edged as to be a stereotype of the ghetto woman.  If anything, it was brave; but in truth I thought she did some of the best, quiet work of season 4.  De’Londa was dedicated to playing a particular role as the wife of a good soldier in Baltimore’s drug wars, and this wasn’t an easy role.  While her husband had sacrificed himself and was ticking away the years of a life sentence in prison on behalf of his bosses, De’Londa was left to 1) keep her husband’s memory alive in the streets; 2) enjoy the lifelong financial payouts from the bosses; and 3) raise their son to be just like his father.  Except that the payouts ended, and Namond was sort of a wuss.  No wonder De’Londa was angry a lot of the time.  I loved her then and want more of these unexpected portrayals of black women onscreen.
  4. Molly Shannon.  When she was on “Saturday Night Live” she was given a lot of the broadest comedic parts, like that of a spastic cheerleader; and she’s still used in bit parts for her knack for that style of sketch comedy.  But a few years ago she showed in “Year of the Dog” (2007) that she’s really good in bittersweet, subtly funny parts as well.  So now, whenever I catch her making a brief appearance — on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s sister; on “Glee” as a nutso teacher; and on SNL’s massive Mother’s Day/Betty White/women’s reunion extravaganza — I keep seeing the fine actor in her being blunted by the writers’ short-sighted demand for broad comedy.  There’s been an odd conversation in the media during the last year about funny women — at one point, Margaret Cho suggested that the funniest women were gender bending and/or gay, while others rationalized the lack of women writers on TV comedies by suggesting that women just aren’t as funny as men (I’m calling out Stephen Metcalf of Slate’s Culture Gabfest for an uncharacteristically bad moment).  Then there was the kerfuffle over “The Daily Show” and its dearth of female correspondants.  Anyway — my point is that there are lots of funny women and a few with the subtle talents of Molly Shannon, and that they’re under-used.

As soon as I post this I’ll probably think of more people — but I’m racing to the airport for one last short summer trip before the semester takes over my life.  Bon voyage, all!

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 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.

…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.