Greetings from my cave

17 September 2012

How is it possible that this blog still gets so many hits every day? I’ve seriously fallen off the blogging wagon, what with writing all these new (or mostly new, or creatively plagiarized) lectures every week. It’s shameful. I have so many thoughts that haven’t gotten cooked yet.

Here’s the thing: lecturing is hard. It takes an enormous amount of energy, creativity (even when plagiarizing), and ball-juggling. It takes a lot of preparation. You do this and you think, someone out there seriously thinks I “only” teach two classes?

Which led me to this image from the film Wanda (1970), written and directed by — and starring — Barbara Loden, she of the beer and curlers. Shot on grainy film stock. I remember seeing women wearing their curlers and a kerchief like this out to the market when I was a kid; the curlers were necessary to poof up your hair into those bouffants. Is it the curlers that makes this scene so bittersweet? the palpable sense of trying so hard, and feeling unable to sustain it? and perhaps, too, the way her posture indicates that she has not utterly given up?

The film was shown in a single U.S. theater in 1970 — a small theater in New York — and by the time Loden had died tragically young in 1980 the film had been nearly forgotten.

Don’t mistake this for a post implying that my situation is like Wanda’s, displayed above. Don’t mistake this for a real post, with careful insights or carefully-worded snarkiness about politics. This is just a shout-out from my cave, reminding you that I exist and that I intend to return to regular blogging.

I will admit, however, that there are a few empty beer bottles in my cave. (No curlers. Thank heavens for the small blessings of different hair expectations.)

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Here’s my first question: is Maryam Keshavarz, the Iranian-American female writer-director of Circumstance, living in hiding? Because this film is so lush and sensuous, broaching so many Iranian public taboos about same-sex sexuality and teenage rebellion all under the noses of the Iranian Morality Police that I felt an unbelievably narcotic rush of danger and excitement and fear that she’d be whisked back to Iran and thrown in jail. The tale of two 16-yr-old girls who fall in love with each other, this film throbs with music, dancing, and all the pleasures of teenage life — except that everything they do is illegal. I can’t think of another film that captures so viscerally the meaning of dancing, music, and love for young people — all the more effective because the stakes are so high. Bedecked with headscarves and modest long coats, the two schoolgirls Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri, left above) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy, right) ring the buzzer of an apartment. “We’re here for the sewing group,” they say into the intercom. But when they get in, they strip down to slinky sequined dresses, let their hair fly loose, and dance to the pulsing beat of Arabic rap. They flirt with boys, even make out a little, and hitchhike home. All of this teenaged activity feels familiar, except what it is they’re rebelling from: a state that watches their every move and ensures that not only do such parties get shut down, but the women who attend them in particular be shamed into more compliant and modest feminine behavior.

Shireen’s especially susceptible to skepticism by those in charge. Her now-dead parents were professors, and their outspokenness still tars her with a brush of dissidence. She’s lucky, then, to have Atie as her best friend: with a wealthy, respectable family, Atie moves through Tehran with a greater confidence in their rebellious schemes, protected by that wall of affluence and privilege. Until Atie’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) returns, anyway. Why was he away? Rehab seems the most likely answer, for he still sneaks a smoke of something from a piece of tin foil; but he’s so dark now, so thin, and newly prone to a heightened religiosity that one wonders whether he’d been jailed.

Don’t be fooled: that religiosity isn’t just a personal choice. Mehran seethes with demons, and maybe because he’s still recovering, he isn’t sure where all his excess energy will go — but it certainly won’t go back into music, his primary love before disappearing into the Iranian system for a while. Then he notices Shireen while on a family trip to the beach. Ironically, it’s on that very trip when Shireen and Atie confess their love for one another and fantasize about leaving the country for a more permissive one — perhaps we can change our circumstance, they imagine. In public, the family adheres to all the rules, even full headscarf dress while playing volleyball at the beach (an ungainly activity if there ever was one). But the girls sneak out at dawn to the seaside, strip down to their bras and panties, and go in for a delicious swim. This is about the time you begin to feel genuine panic, and you know they aren’t afraid enough.

Director Keshavarz opts for beautiful visuals and bold scenes — Mehran’s flirtation with Shireen at the piano, his sex dream about her later, all those shots featuring rich red carpets and textiles and elegant scarves — such that the film sometimes leaps over linear plot points. Only the most literal of viewers will mind, though. This is a bold directorial vision and seems perfectly in keeping with the the experiential moodiness of the story and the contrast between Mehran’s ominous watchfulness and his collaboration with the Morality Police, and Atie’s and Shireen’s to live free lives and express their love for one another. It’s also funny, as when they team up with a couple of male friends to dub the American film Milk into Persian, with the girls doing the voices for Harvey Milk’s male lovers. The girls aren’t the only ones eager to change Iran. And when you see full-fledged clubs full of Iranian youth, drinking and dancing and kissing and popping party drugs, you feel how vital is that need to rebel.

But with the newly ideological Mehran fixated on both Shireen and social purity, it’s only a matter of time before they get caught and dragged before the police. All the while we watch the girls’ relationship — two women so powerfully in love such that they are nearly sisters, born of the same flesh; yet also bound together by their youth, their pansexual desires, their mutual need for secrecy — it seems simplistic to term this a lesbian film. Rather, it’s a radical film, spectacularly beautiful, and one that makes the best use of the wide range of music I’ve seen in a film since the jarring Winter’s Bone (2010). Ricocheting between hip-hop, beautiful tunes sung at cocktail parties, guitar-driven punk, cheesy pop songs, lullabies — all this music, unknown to me previously, washed over me the way music does to the young. You can’t help but feel, again, what it feels like to have drunk too much at a club, with pounding music and sweaty bodies and a suspension of your sense of consequences. Atie and Shireen’s circumstances have made their love for each other as risky as possible, yet also delicious in its secrecy. Welcome, Maryam Keshavarz, to what I hope is a long career as a spectacular director with a bold vision. (And please, for my sake, can you stay out of Iran for a while??)

“Cracks” (2009)

25 July 2011

Thank you, thank you to Madeline for recommending I see Cracks, the debut feature by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley Scott) based on the novel by Sheila Kohler. If you took an unholy group of other films — say, Heavenly Creatures (1994), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), An Education (2009) and maybe even Fatal Attraction (1987) and Clueless (1995) and mixed them all in a salad bowl — you might have an inkling of what this psychological thriller seeks to achieve. Set in a gloomy, isolated English girls’ boarding school in the interwar years, this film thinks about what happens when a new student arrives cracks the surface calm. Old hierarchies are dislodged, and a teacher’s privileged position teeters to the point that she starts to crack. Do those cracks bring structures to the ground? Or do they, in Doris Lessing’s words, make “cracks where light could shine through at last”?

When we first meet anti-hero Di Radfield (Juno Temple), we know immediately from her piercing eyes that she’s fiercely competitive and intelligent and possessive. We also know that despite her lingering baby fat and unmanageable frizzy hair, she’s possessed of powerful desires — the “lustful thoughts” she admits to during confession. No wonder: she’s in a small rowboat, doing all the work with the oars while her languid teacher, Miss G (Eva Green) shows off that neat mannish outfit and models how one smokes a cigarette to sultry effect. Who wouldn’t desire such a woman? We quickly learn that although Di is the school’s master Mean Girl, the true Queen Bee is Miss G.

Of course she is. All her students are at “that awkward stage” and in various stages of clueless dumpiness, while Miss G waltzes in late to chapel, wears the best clothes, and spins tales of her exotic travels. Miss G has chosen a select group of Di and her friends to join the diving club, where she delivers her self-consciously provocative philosophies to those girls alone. “What is the most important thing in life?” she asks them. After several lame answers like “God” and “death” Di offers up “desire,” with her eyes burning for her luscious teacher. “Yes! You can achieve any thing you want,” Miss G pronounces, with approval to Di. “All you need is to desire it.” From statements like this one gets the sense that, well, Miss G is not altogether sane. Yet her madness appears in keeping with single-sex boarding school life where everyone knows their rank, their place, their scripts. It’s as if there’s no world beyond the walls of the school.

Until Fiamma (María Valverde) arrives, that is, possessed of an orange velvet coat, a pink swimsuit, an array of lovely trinkets and baubles for her bedside, and more worldliness than all the English schoolgirls put together. She’s a Spanish aristocrat, trundled off to this godforsaken school for vague reasons. She receives magical boxes full of strange cookies and wears a satin gown to bed. The headmistress (Sinéad Cusack) instructs Di to welcome Fiamma, but maddeningly the Spanish girl will not bow to Di’s social order. Suddenly, cracks appear in Di’s version of normal. Worst of all, Miss G falls under Fiamma’s spell, and suddenly Di is no longer her teacher’s favorite pupil. Fiamma even has more diving skill than everyone else.Turns out that Fiamma achieves that distance from the awful hothouse of the school because she’s actually traveled widely, read widely, and known interesting people. When Miss G sneaks in to read her confidential file, she learns that Fiamma earned her banishment to England because she nearly succumbed to a scandalous elopement with a commoner. In fact, the more this teacher pries open Fiamma’s glamor, the more we realize that Miss G has been Queen Bee at the school all her life — and that she has lied pathologically to the students about her travels and love affairs and adventures, lifting those tales from books. Who would know better how to impress a set of 15-year-olds than a woman who is still temperamentally 15? And what will such a woman do to win over that girl?

Cracks deals with power, sex, and same-sex desire in a school setting in a way that captures the bizarre dynamics of sex and learning better than any other film I’ve seen. We’ve seen girls falling for their male teachers and older men; this story, which focuses solely on women, seems fresh. Is it overheated? Well, of course. (Overheated is a primary mode of existence for 15-yr-old girls, after all.) The leads are terrific in their roles; and even if the story seems to barrel toward an inevitable conclusion, you’ll still be surprised by how it gets there.

I’m surprised this film got such limited release. I wouldn’t have known of it except for Madeline’s recommendation, and it took two years to get it on DVD in the US and available via Netflix. And this from a director who (presumably) has the power of the Ridley Scott family to help propel the film. What does a girl have to do to get a film into release?

Fairy tales are preoccupied with subjects so weird yet familiar that it’s no wonder we’re still thinking about them. At heart they capture a child’s view of the world: full of mystery, magic, and logics wholly concealed from us. The action in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête, 1946) begins, for example, when Belle’s father plucks a rose to take home to his daughter — upon which the Beast suddenly appears, all fur and aristocratic clothing and that somewhat dainty overbite, to pronounce, “You could have taken anything but my roses. You stole a rose, so you must die.” Plot twists like that don’t amount to morality tales so much as remind children of the irrationality of the universe: you never know what small act might condemn you to punishment (which is exactly what childhood often feels like). Fairy tales also love to draw stark contrasts between beautiful and ugly characters. I loved Cocteau’s beautiful, weird film — it’s among the very best films I’ve seen in the past few years — and I’m fascinated by its strange messages about beauty, ugliness, and love.

Fairy tales also tend to headline female characters. No wonder, then, that female directors in particular have turned to fairy tales recently — Sleeping Beauty has been made twice in the last year (by Catherine Breillat and Julia Leigh), Rapunzel was retold for TangledBreillat’s brilliant, weird Bluebeard appeared a couple of years ago, and then there was that unfortunate Catherine Hardwicke version of Red Riding Hood (read Stuart Heritage’s very funny response to watching the trailer at the Guardian website). Of course, these have required significant revision for modern viewers who expect their heroines to have motives beyond a willingness to suffer prettily. Fairy tale heroines are also kind — so no one watching Beauty and the Beast will be surprised when the lovely, selfless Belle (Josette Day) takes her father’s place at the Beast’s castle, with the full expectation that he will kill her for her father’s crime of plucking that rose. But don’t get too attached to Belle, because she’s not really the star of the show.

In watching this film you overlook Belle in favor of the Beast (played by French heartthrob Jean Marais, who also appears as Belle’s sort-of suitor, Avenant, and the Prince at the end). The Beast is gorgeous, tragic, and has the most beautifully expressive eyes. We understand that the film wants to contrast Belle’s beauty with the Beast’s ugliness, but one finds oneself increasingly confused by that contrast because he’s so much more compelling and beautiful — tormented by his own demons and his growing love for the slightly colorless and indecisive Belle. He asks her to marry him every night, and every night she refuses, believing she must return to her sick father. When he grants her permission to leave on a short trip home he gives her the golden key to all his riches, telling her that it proves his eternal love, and warning her that if she does not return, he will die.

The most endearing aspect of the story comes at the conclusion, which once again deals with beauty and ugliness. To cut the plot short, Belle’s good-for-nothing brother and the rejected Avenant plot to steal the Beast’s treasure and kill him. When she realizes their trickery, she races back to the castle to save the Beast — but she has discovered her true love for him too late. He lies dying for want of her. Yet at that very moment she gazes at him, heartsick, the Beast transforms into a beautiful young prince with chiseled features in a ruff collar, smiling delightedly at her. No wonder she’s disturbed:

Belle:  Where is the Beast?
Prince:  He is no more. It is I, Belle. [He explains he could only be saved by a loving look.]
Belle:  Can such miracles really happen?
Prince:  You and I are living proof. Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome. [She looks at him skeptically.] What’s wrong, Belle? it’s almost as if you miss my ugliness.

Of course she misses the Beast. This new grinning, self-important prettyboy has presented himself to her, and appears so pleased with his own attractiveness that it alters their relationship. We miss the Beast, too. The tale’s message proves elusive. Surely we were supposed to learn that looks don’t matter; but now that I think about it, the story features a character named Belle who falls in love with a beast, only to find him transformed into a French movie star. You see: it tells us that looks really matter.

I could go on — there’s so much to be said about the Beast’s castle, which Cocteau fills with disembodied arms that hold candelabras or pour one’s wine, doors that open on their own, and marble busts with eyes that open and heads that swivel. But ultimately I think it’s a film about beauty and ugliness — topics crucial to the little girls who read fairy stories and imagine undying love and princes and castles. Now, if only we had fairy tales about perfectly ordinary-looking girls.

So I got into an argument with colleague about the books he’d assigned to his graduate students.  I took the position that having them read only 2 books by women out of a list of 13 was a pretty low number (and that zero books by people of color was likewise a problem) — and argued that as our grad students are fairly evenly divided by sex and increasingly diverse by race we should show them more of the varieties of academic writing.  He got defensive.  He fired back that he’d chosen books, not authors; that he’d chosen them for high quality and subject matter; and that there weren’t enough good books by women on the subjects he wanted to change the syllabus.  His defensiveness got us nowhere:  he left the conversation utterly convinced that he’d done no wrong and that I’d accused him of sexist bias, and he is no sexist.  It seems to me that in discussing male domination of the arts — filmmaking, authorship, prizes, criticism — we need to set a few ground rules.

This attitude is all over the place, isn’t it?  There’s no problem, it’s just that women aren’t good enough.  We hear that “The Daily Show” has only one or two woman writers out of 15, and we’re assured that this isn’t so bad — and inevitably someone suggests that it’s because male writers are funnierWhen the Cannes Film Festival featured zero films by women directors this year, the author Bret Easton Ellis explained that women can’t direct — while others sidestepped and reminded us that Sofia Coppola’s new film won at Venice.  When Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained about the hyperbolic praise being heaped on Jonathan Franzen this summer to the exclusion of women writers, they were accused of being jealous and bad writers.  Suddenly Larry Summers’ famously offensive claim that women academics just aren’t as good as men in math and science — a claim that lost him the presidency of Harvard but didn’t hurt him in White House circles — seems utterly mainstream.  To respond to such charges by 1) denying male domination of the arts, or 2) insisting that it’s warranted via some kind of ahistorical, if not biological, superiority sends us back to the vicious circle.

I was delighted to see the (male) hosts of the Chicago podcast Filmspotting call out the male domination of the film industry recently.  They noted it’s not just that men dominate in directing, producing, and getting great roles; men also dominate the worlds of film criticism, film podcasting, film blogging, and film theory, thereby contributing to what we might call The Franzen Effect of limiting attention to a very few films.  (For example, who’s heard anything much recently other than hype for new movies by David Fincher and Ben Affleck?  When was the last time Richard Brody of the New Yorker said anything about a woman on his film blog, The Front Row?)  Yet in the weeks since, the Filmspotting podcast has lapsed back into its unselfconscious focus on men — celebrations of the films of Robert Duvall, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, American hit-man movies, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and so on.  Consciousness-raising is great, but it amounts only to lip service if you don’t walk the walk.  As film drawing queen Lisa Gornik puts it:

So here are my thoughts for getting out of those vicious circles and starting conversation in the right direction:

  1. The stats are clear:  stop denying that the male/female ratio in film directing, producing, and screenwriting is radically out of whack. 
  2. The fact that men dominate the criticism racket matters to the question of how more women might succeed in filmmaking.
  3. The exceptions to the rules — major attention to films by established directors like Sofia Coppola, or to a popular screenwriter like Diablo Cody — don’t necessarily signify any measurable change the statistics or in general for most women trying to get films made.
  4. Find ways to celebrate both big successes by women filmmakers (like Lisa Cholodenko’s big summer success, “The Kids are All Right”) but don’t make commercial success the sole goal. 
  5. In the end, what we all want is for women to make whatever kinds of movies they want — whether it’s films about men like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” (2009) or stereotypical rom-coms like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). 
  6. That said, with the big critical success of films this summer like Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give”  we can glimpse how having women at the helm can lead to great parts for and compelling stories about women that don’t get cordoned off as “women’s films.”

In the end, that pretty much summarizes why I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not involved in filmmaking in any way aside from being a fan.  But the problem of the radical underrepresentation of women in filmmaking is a highly visible and influential microcosm of a larger problem for women making it in creative and professional worlds.  Just as I don’t want my grad students coming of age believing that only white guys write the “best” academic books, I want to see more films in which female characters have complex thoughts and lives that don’t revolve solely around men.  The problem is, to achieve it requires pushing back at men’s defensiveness and the pugnacious claim that the creative and academic works by men are better than those by women.

Of course, I didn’t change my colleague’s mind about putting more books by women on the syllabus this fall.  But I’m enough of a chess player to see this as one play in a long-term strategy.  We’ll see about next semester.

The movies are no place for angry women.  And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either.  We’re very clear on this:  men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill.  Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though.  I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel.  Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:

The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels.  The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham.  Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image.  Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:

Mrs. Markham:  “He’s a boy, my dear.  You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”

Rev. Millward:  “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”

Gilbert Markham:  “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away.  If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”

Helen Graham:  “I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone.  I cannot trust that he will be that one man in a thousand and have that strength and virtue as a birthright.”

Gilbert, teasing her:  “You do not think very highly of us, then.”

Helen, growing exercised:  “I know nothing about you.  I speak of those I do know.”

Gilbert:  “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”

Helen, angrily:  “Would you say the same of a girl?  Must her virtue be tested in battle?”

Rev. Millward, pedantically:  “I should say not.  A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”

Gilbert, more seriously:  “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”

Helen, furiously:  “Why?  You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”

Gilbert, confused:  “Too late?”

Helen, with finality:  “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”

Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord. 

So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)?  By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance.  And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham.  He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago).  Lesson:  if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage. 

Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st?  Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger.  The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all.  Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from.  Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place.  She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward.  In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions.  Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger?  If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?

In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity.  She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes.  As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”).  Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago.  Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage?  Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives?  Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion? 

I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it.  But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end.  Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich!  The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.

What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name.  But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem.  Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger?  The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story.  I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.

Ever since his debut feature, “Man Push Cart” (2005), the writer-director Ramin Bahrani has been a hero of mine — showing what I think is an unparalleled sensitivity for those otherwise invisible members of American society, and telling unexpected and utterly compelling stories in a riveting ultra-realistic style.  My favorite remains “Chop Shop” (2007) with the amazing Alejandro Polanco as Ále, a 12-year-old uneducated kid who uses all his smarts to hustle at myriad different jobs, socking away a little money to improve his lot and that of his 16-year-old sister, Izzy.  I can’t think of another American director who makes such fine films opening up these worlds for us — the hardscrabble lives of immigrants, the unique forms of friendship amongst the poor, the Sisyphean work habits and depressing bedsits of people using every ounce of self-denial to ascend just one rung of that American dream ladder.  Just one film of Bahrani’s will make you want to vomit at the idea of a Tom Cruise vehicle.  So what’s my conundrum?  He makes yet another director who can’t create a fully-realized female character over the course of three magnificent films.

I don’t want any misunderstanding here:  each one of his films is terrific, and “Chop Shop” is a masterpiece.  Roger Ebert proclaimed Bahrani “the director of the decade,” an honor all the more poignant because his films show exactly who became society’s losers during the 2000s, as the über-rich got richer.  He takes non-actors and unknown faces like Polanco, Ahmad Razvi from “Man Push Cart,” and the Ivoirian actor Souléyman Sy Savané from “Goodbye Solo,” a choice that combines with his near-documentary style to produce tales that seem exceptionally real.  If you anticipate a cliché in the narrative, you’re likely to find yourself mistaken.  Bahrani is especially entranced by the structures of logic created by his characters; in “Goodbye Solo,” for example, the taxi driver cannot understand how an old man might not have family to take care of him because that’s a responsibility Senegalese families embrace happily.  In “Chop Shop,” Ále is willing to do anything — anything — to make a few bucks as part of his scheme to make a better life, with little attention to what’s legal.  But he’s got firm notions about what his sister Izzy should do.      

Perhaps because we’re focused on Ále, Izzy remains a mystery throughout the film — just like the female characters in his other features.  I find it exasperating that someone as eminently talented as Bahrani can’t write a female protagonist — or even a three-dimensional subsidiary character.  This conundrum was made even more clear to me after watching “Amreeka” (2009) by first-time director Cherien Dabis, a film about a Palestinian woman (Nisreen Faour) who immigrates with her teenaged son to rural Illinois in search of a better life, only to discover even more difficulties in the post-9/11 U.S.  In some ways, Dabis chose the more difficult task:  it’s hard to come up with a story about immigrants adjusting to a new life that doesn’t recycle old, familiar narratives.  As a result, despite its immensely appealing lead actor, the film struggles too hard to find a feel-good story rather than go after something less expected.  I mention “Amreeka” not to slam it (it gets a 90% good rating amongst top critics at RottenTomatoes.com, after all), since at least this first-time director is working to explore the unique experiences of brown-skinned women at the margins of American society.  Rather, I want to pressure Bahrani — himself the child of immigrants — to move beyond his comfort zone in the perpetual elaboration of male psyches.

Bahrani has enormous cultural capital to make such a move.  It’s time for someone like him to help Americans see that not all women are white and all people of color are men.  Considering the fact that the lack of women onscreen is being increasingly publicized by organizations such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, this is the right time to do it.  (What are the chances?)