populaire

Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.

Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?

The good news is that  Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.

pop-9As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.

Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.

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But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.

I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.

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Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)

That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.

populaire-photo-5050850dc4423Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.

And oh! the speed-typing contests!

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Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.

Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?

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If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.

Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.

I. “Non-consensual sex” at Yale.

Oh, Yale. You can’t even use the word rape in trying to address the “hostile sexual environment” at school? The latest report shows that what Jezebel calls “non-consensual sex-havers” are given written reprimands, and sometimes given probation, and most of the time advised to seek counseling.

Daaaammmnn! Rapists beware!

Before I speak too soon: one rapist was suspended for two whole semesters.

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II. Difficult men and women.

The pleasure I’m getting while reading Brett Martin’s Difficult Men– about the sociopathic male characters who have dominated the highbrow cable television drama for the past 15 years (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Al Swearingen, Jimmy McNulty, and on and on) and the sociopathic men who created them and portrayed them onscreen — is matched by the pleasure I got from Emily Nussbaum’s superlative reading and defense of Sex and the City (1998-2004) in last week’s New Yorker. A snippet:

The four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to slide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.

See what I mean? It’s excellent.

III. I can’t care about Anthony Weiner. 

I understand fully how sleazy he appears, but I’m having a hard time seeing why people are more exercised about him than the comebacks of Mark Warner and Eliot Spitzer, who committed actual crimes and are also guilty of moral hypocrisy. Lying and being a terrible husband seem endemic these days, but tweeting some crotch shots just seems stupid and mortifying.

anthony_weiner_huma_abedin_a_lAnd honestly, how Huma Abedin deals with this is her own @#$%ing business, not mine.

IV. I’m thinking of seeing some underrated girl comedies.

I hadn’t planned on seeing the big hit The Heat (with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy), but its remarkable staying power in the theaters and a great essay entitled “The Heat: Not Enough Peen for Critics” over at Mighty Damsels have persuaded me to check it out. Also the new film The To-Do List. More soon on that one.

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V. WHO WANTS TO TALK WITH ME ABOUT MY CRUSH ON GIANCARLO ESPOSITO FROM BREAKING BAD?

Don’t tell me what happens; still making my way through Season 3 and into Season 4. He might be the best secondary/ tertiary character I’ve ever seen.

VI. Just go read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Ridiculously enjoyable, cleanly-written, funny summer reading. And I’ve had a pretty good summer of reading, relatively speaking.

I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.

How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.

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1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.

Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.

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2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.

This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.

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3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.

And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.

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4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.

Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.

5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.

Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)

If there’s one film trope that needs to be shot in the head, it’s the one in which a lesbian switches sexual sides in order to serve as the psychological healer/ self-actualizer for a guy, then conveniently goes away. (Chasing Amy [1997]: I’m lookin’ at you. Even worse: Three of Hearts [1993].)

The good news is that writer-director Lynne Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister is not that film. The lesbian here is neither cardboard cutout nor fantasy object nor deus ex machina. She doesn’t go away. The bad news: once you peel away the tight dialogue, the great acting, and the enviable scenery, it’s not very far away from that trope.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is a mess. A year after his brother’s death, he still gets drunk at parties and insults everybody, including the memory of his brother. This behavior leads his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who used to date his brother and who seems perhaps a bit maternal toward Jack, to send him to her family’s cabin out on one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle for a solitary retreat to get his life back together.

Which reminds me to ask: why don’t my best friends have magical family cabins on islands? Do I not have need of self-actualizing retreats? Selfish friends.

But when he arrives at the house at night, the house already has a surprise inhabitant: Iris’s half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just split up with her longtime girlfriend. Having finally come to terms with serious flaws in that relationship, Hannah’s almost as much at loose ends as Jack. So, naturally, they open a bottle of tequila and, in a drink-off, confess their sins to one another — relative strangers — across the table in an ugly, self-deprecating night of catharsis.

When the ordinarily withdrawn Hannah confesses that her partner’s callousness and infidelity has left her feeling unattractive, the very drunk Jack insists she’s perfectly hot. So much so that he’s willing to tell her — in very funny detail — because he knows her gayness won’t lead them to have sex. But in an uncharacteristic moment of risk-taking, she agrees to sex. What follows is one of the most unappealing, and utterly realistic, sex scenes between drunk people in the history of film. (You’ll be relieved to hear that this scene is also realistically short.)

So far so good, eh? There’s no risk of Hannah switching sides. Their sex is so impulsive and unpleasant (especially for her) that we know this is merely something to be embarrassed about down the road. But when Iris shows up the next morning and they decide to hide it from her, the narrative takes a strange twist toward ménage à trois.

I found the tale thus far to be charming, especially considering the director’s super-low budget (would you believe $125,000? did Shelton pay these actors at all?), the great scenery, and the endless appeal of stories about screwed-up individuals accidentally helping one another. I particularly liked the moments between the two half-sisters: the endearingly sweet, enthusiastic, little-sister Iris cuddling up to her older sister to chat in late-night hours.

If the dialogue seems a bit too clever in that CW Channel vein of overly scripted repartee, the ultimate stakes of the narrative aren’t very high. In fact, the tale gets a teensy bit mired in the “will they confess their drunken night of debauchery?” question, especially after Iris confesses to her sister that she thinks she’s in love with Jack, the brother of her now-dead ex-boyfriend. But hey, low stakes can be okay with me — not all movies have to be about world-changing ideas. Hell, this film is funny and the three individuals are appealing and good in dialogue with one another. Still, at midpoint Your Sister’s Sister feels a little bit like a short story stretched out over 90 minutes.

But when Iris learns the truth it all goes south — the three of them spin far apart from one another, with Iris blaming both of them for … some kind of perfidy she can’t articulate. (Warning: spoilers to follow, in which I reveal what I find distasteful about this portrayal of a lesbian onscreen!)

Unlike the horrors of homophobic films of the 1990s (again, Chasing Amy, one of the films I hate the most), this film doesn’t make Hannah’s gayness an issue or some kind of histrionic roadblock. Neither does this film pretend that a ménage à trois featuring a lesbian is some kind of risqué, challenging theme. Thank goodness for small favors as the progress of gay rights has rendered such narratives less viable.

Instead, it does something else I find annoying: in a big plot twist, Your Sister’s Sister turns Hannah into a woman so desperate to have a child that her drunken night of sex may, in fact, have been a ploy to get pregnant — a revelation that leads Jack to express huffy outrage as if she has somehow stolen his sperm, and which makes him leave the house on his bike, a form of physical exertion clearly new to his body. Most important, any possible romance between the two straight people appears dashed. The film turns into a straight-up love story between Jack and Iris that Hannah has ruined.

My problem isn’t simply that Jack would be a reluctant potential father, nor that a gay woman would want a child. My problem is that Hannah’s contrivance to get pregnant turns into the primary narrative dynamite destroying a weak and slightly annoying love story between the two straight people. Because that’s what this film ultimately becomes: a love story with a little ménage of lesbian thrown in, insofar as the lesbian functions as a reluctant partner in the threesome.

Honestly, this is where we’ve come? Straight man creates romantic problems for himself by sleeping with the sister of his true love interest? One could sum it up with a big “yuck.”

An ancillary problem is Mark Duplass, whom I quite liked in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) as an unhinged inventor in search of a time-traveling companion (as well as Humpday [2009]). He’s good in independent comedy, as he’s capable of moments of real seriousness and has a nice talent to portray men slightly disgusted with themselves. But he doesn’t quite have what it takes to face off against actors as talented as Blunt and DeWitt. Nor does he appear capable of transforming from self-hating shlub to a man capable of responsibility or generosity.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, is the film’s real center, primarily due to her ridiculous, approachable appeal. If I were in a sloppier mood I’d say she’s Hollywood’s new Sandra Bullock — one of those crazily beautiful women with a capacity to seem available even to shlubs — except that Blunt has an actorly range that has put her on a crazy upward spiral for several years now. She has appeared to great effect in everything from in top-shelf sci-fi bits like The Adjustment Bureau and Looper to period dramas like The Young Victoria to indie comedies like The Five-Year Engagement to romantic dramas like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The minute she appears onscreen, you know the quality of the film will tick up by a good ten points.

And when will Rosemarie DeWitt get her place in the sun? She’s excelled in small roles for a long while now — in Mad Men as Don’s freewheeling artist girlfriend in Season 1; in a bit role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; and most notably as Anne Hathaway’s soon-to-be-married sister in Rachel Getting Married. As I learned from JustMeMike‘s nice review of this film, she got slotted into this role late in the project after Rachel Weisz backed out due to scheduling conflicts. DeWitt does a great job as the depressive, withdrawn Hannah. And for those of you following my obsession with bringing back real women’s noses onscreen, just look at how DeWitt’s beautiful nose helps to establish her beauty and distinctiveness. God forbid she do a Jennifer Gray and scale it back to one of those ubiquitous, indistinguishable buttons.

Ultimately, Your Sister’s Sister feels like a halfway covenant — a reassurance that we no longer live with the homophobic narratives of the 90s, and therefore a gesture of good will from straights to gays; but no clear sign that writers know how to develop stories in which gay and straight characters coexist and inform one another’s lives in ways that feel true. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a film well worth watching, particularly for its first half and the nice dialogue. But it left me sad and dissatisfied in the end, fearful that Hollywood narratives of love between straight people will only be spiced up by the addition of tertiary gay characters.

 

 

Toward the end of Season 4 (which I wrote about here), I could feel Don’s inexorable march toward Megan (Jessica Paré). No matter how much I respected his affair with the smart, charismatic Faye Miller (Cara Buono), I could see that he (Jon Hamm) doesn’t really want intelligence or self-possession from a woman. Megan is the perfect woman of her day — that sculpted face, the unusual mouth (she almost seems to try to hide it every time she speaks), the way 1966’s brashly colored, leggy clothes fit her.

In marrying the handsomest, most talented, and sphinxlike man at the agency, Megan feels like she won a lottery. But this is a lottery with rules forged during 1958, not 1966. How much do I love the way the show displays her conflict?

She’s going to have to decide, isn’t she? She’ll have to reconcile herself to the fact that her marriage is the only thing that lifted her out of the secretarial pool into copywriting, but that’s just the beginning. Does she take herself seriously enough to be a copywriter? Does she have the stomach to take risks the way Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) did? Can she work alongside that new husband of hers, that man who doesn’t take her seriously as a colleague?

It’s becoming clear that her options are terrible. If she gives up on the office, her options look bleak — most of them are reducible to the kind of wifeliness that broke Don’s first wife Betty (January Jones), and seems to have broken Roger Sterling’s ex-secretary trophy wife Jane (Peyton List).

One thing’s for certain: she can’t have it both ways. That song and dance near the end of the first episode of Season 5 — the French sexpot number that took what was merely a bad judgment call in arranging a surprise birthday party for Don, and turned it into a disaster for her ability to appear professional in the office — oh, it crystallized Megan’s naïveté and her downfall. She can’t be sexy around her co-workers anymore. She can’t be respected as an artistic talent. Don refuses to understand her need for respect and a degree of autonomy at the office. She damn well sure doesn’t want to be just a wifey.

Who knew she’d be in such a tiny box?

No wonder, when she’s furious with him, their fights would take on such histrionic, BDSM proportions — all about control and submission. It’s the one place where (sometimes) Megan can control the outcome. But at the end of one of them, as he grasps her around the waist and holds on like an abused child, the director forces us to imagine her face while we watch his. For we suspect she cannot believe she sold out her youth and promise to win a prize that’s already broken.

I’m not saying the show will cease to use Don and, to a slightly lesser degree Peggy, as its centerpieces. But Megan is perfectly drawn. Nor is her struggle only a vestige of the 60s. I’ll bet a lot of office romances today put women in similar positions unless they are (unusually) the more powerful and highly paid partner in the relationship.

I’ll bet that even some of my students face this dilemma — drawn to believe they can both find love and career advancement via that powerful man, only to find the love conflicted and their careers confined. And, as with Mad Men, that guy believes he’s the center of the story. Oh, Megan.

I didn’t hate this movie.

Granted, it’s hard not to feel slightly snarky about it. These people are just so well-heeled, with such glam Manhattan apartments and wardrobes and invisible jobs that seem to pay for all of it. Who hasn’t seen that before?

But that’s not my real problem. I wanted to like it more, because it’s written & directed by Jennifer Westfeldt and features the excellent co-star, Adam Scott (also: great supporting cast, lifted straight outta Bridesmaids). My real problem is with Westfeldt, who shouldn’t direct herself but in insisting on doing so, and empties the film of real feeling for her character.

Westfeldt is now so well known as the longtime partner of Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm that people have forgotten that she co-wrote and directed the pretty good film, Kissing Jessica Stein, back in 2001. Say what you will about the old-saw tropes of 1) Westfeldt as the pretty but neurotic woman and 2) the storyline in which straight girls “try out” lesbianism for a while but reassuringly return to men in the end. (Someday we will laugh so hard at the way Hollywood loved this narrative in the 90s.) It was still a pretty good film and I had hope for this 30-yr-old female director/screenwriter.

Eleven years later … well, let me just say I wanted artistic growth; instead this film feels like a sitcom. Everyone is perfectly pretty and likeable and edgy enough to meet some kind of minimum industry standard.

Adam Scott makes a nice leap from the small screen (he’s so good in the series Party Down, as well as Parks & Recreation) and the rest of the supporting cast (Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig) inhabit their roles with that effortless ease you’d expect from actors accustomed to being in front of the camera.

But then there’s Westfeldt. She feels so self-conscious, almost to the point of fading out of view. As a director she gives her co-star much more time to develop than she gives her own character. During a key point in the story — when she’s had a baby and is dieting/ exercising madly to get back into shape for dating, so she can find “the one” (I know, I know, just bear with me for a sec) — she seems to recede entirely into a placeholder. Like her character, Westfeldt seems so preoccupied with looking like she’s 29 rather than her real-life 42, so eager to dodge the humanizing and humbling close-up, that the film gets weaker all around. Is this what happens to a beautiful and talented woman whose male partner rises up to Sexiest Man Alive status?

Yet there are moments when she reveals a delicate presence onscreen that could blossom under the right director — such that as an actor I’d like to see her truly develop into a 40-something actress who feels comfortable in her own skin.

More important, if she took herself offscreen and focused on her writing and directing she could do something less self-consciously awkward and more weighty. Toward the end of the film she directs Adam Scott in a nice series of scenes toward a building passion that feels real and moving. But she doesn’t give herself the same generosity. It’s as if she can’t see herself onscreen as a character — she only sees herself in the mirror, and she’s anxious to make us believe she’s still wrinkle-free.

Jennifer Westfeldt: be your own woman, either as an actor or director. We need you to do something more than fluffy rom-coms; but if that’s your métier, you’ve got to be committed to the genre. Don’t make me write another review that begins, “I didn’t hate this movie” — because I think I really will hate the next one.

You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

According to Maureen Dowd’s NY Times column today, the fall TV lineup ricochets back and forth between a group of shows featuring strong women (because female viewers flock to these shows) and a bunch of shows that learned only one thing from Mad Men: that it must’ve been awesome in the 1960s before feminism. No fewer than three new shows are set in those glorious earlier times — including one called Playboy Club (gawd) and another about stewardesses in 1960 (because we’ve never seen that before). Dowd quotes a top producer who calls it “Hendricks Syndrome”:

“All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on Mad Men and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”

That’s not all the 60s had going on. So, attention, HBO/AMC/Showtime/TNT: have I got a pitch for you! It’s about the 60s, and it’s the most original show idea in years featuring two perennially popular female stars! It’s a mashup of Nine to Five and Glee and Mad Men! It has Broadway and show tunes and history and workplace conflict, and I’ll entertain all offers for the rights to this fantastic plot!

My dramedyical will star Dolly Parton and Kristin Chenoweth (the musical theater star of Wicked; how has Hollywood missed these women’s striking resemblance, considering their shared singing talents?). They are mother and daughter, both divorced, living in New York in 1965 in a small rent-controlled apartment. More precisely, they live in Chelsea in a neighborhood full of gay men before Stonewall made it popular to talk about gay rights, and both women have large circles of gay male friends spanning several generations.

Chenoweth is trying to make it as a singer like her mother used to be, but Broadway finds her too blonde and too 1950s for the moment. The biggest play that year is the multiple award-winning Fiddler on the Roof; despite her cringe-making attempts, Chenoweth has not persuaded anyone she can “play Jewish.” Moreover, Broadway producers already have their favorite daughter-of-a-star: Liza Minnelli, the 19-year-old daughter of Judy Garland, who has just won a best-actress Tony for Flora the Red Menace (sparking just a little jealousy from our heroines). To make it worse, her gay friends have no sympathy for her kvetching about Minnelli, as many of them have adopted Garland as an idol.

With rent monies dwindling, mother and daughter both take nine-to-five jobs as secretaries — but these wannabe divas have a hard time with the easy sexism of the office workplace. Unlike the character she played in Nine to Five (1980), Parton is no sweetie-pie pushover with a sugary accent; she’s pissed off that she’s 65 years old and working in a demeaning job. She’s accustomed to receiving unquestioning adoration from men instead of this “take my hat and get me a cup of coffee” bullshit.

In addition, after years in musical theater, Parton has never spent much time around straight men — she assumes all men are gay until proven straight. This offers innumerable opportunities to tell her boss that “your ‘wife’ is on the phone.” Moreover, even two years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963, secretaries’ wages are lame, noticed especially by our two stars who make multiple references to how much Minnelli is making for a not-so-successful play. Their paychecks give them the opportunity for a little righteous indignation … and perhaps proto-feminist collective anger.

This isn’t just a story about women — it’s also a story about gays and lesbians. Parton and Chenoweth get locked up by the cops one night after belting out show tunes with their friends at their favorite bar because the bar owner had missed a “protection” payment to the local precinct. Parton has former lover, Elizabeth Peña (who’s so beautiful I don’t understand why she doesn’t get more parts), who now works with Cuban immigrants and gets a little bored with the esoteric musical theater mindset of Parton’s Chelsea world. One of Chenoweth’s best friends, Sal (Bryan Batt, above, who played Salvatore Romano in Mad Men) is trying to balance a closeted office identity with an increasingly confident role in a neighborhood “homophile” group, a splinter of the defunct Mattachine Society. The real-life figure of Harvey Milk appears in several episodes before he moves to San Francisco.

I don’t know about you, but I’d watch every episode of this show. Looking at the world of the 1960s through the eyes of women who didn’t accept the ugliest effects of sexism is an awesome idea. Contact me today with your offers and lucrative contracts!

Mark Harris has a piece in GQ right now that offers a dark explanation of why Hollywood makes such a lot of garbage — you know, all those sequels and superheroes — but I’ve gotten stuck on a passage midway through. Hollywood makes movies for one group of viewers: men under 25, he explains. Moreover:

In Hollywood [if you] have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 … well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.

In short, as writer-producer Vince Gilligan explains, “Hollywood has become like Logan’s Run: You turn 30, and they kill you.”

Except hang on, that doesn’t make sense vis-à-vis the actual numbers of moviegoers. As the blogger Melissa Silverstein shows in her roundup at Women & Hollywood, women buy tickets and attend films in exactly the same numbers as men, and it’s viewers over 25 who see vastly more movies — over 60%. In short, Hollywood is still putting all its eggs into that basket made up of 23% of the moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24. Hell, it’d make more sense to market to the whopping 15% of the moviegoing populace between the ages of 2 and 11 — and to their parents.

Nor does it make sense when you look at the trends with big-budget cable TV series. Suddenly it’s not just HBO making quality series; it’s also TNT and AMC and USA (and Showtime, natch), all of which seem to be targeting a population in its 30s & 40s. From Justified to The Closer, Saving Grace, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie, these shows feature a surprising number of great women actors in their 40s, for gods’ sake. Hollywood could sell more tickets to me if my choices weren’t limited to the appalling The Green Hornet and Justin Bieber Never Say Never; but now that you mention it, I’d rather stay home with Edie Falco.

Oh, did I forget that Hollywood has thrown to us ladies movies like Just Go With It (the Jennifer Aniston vehicle) and No Strings Attached (Natalie Portman’s poorly-considered followup to Black Swan)? Can you feel your intelligence being insulted?

A long time ago I remember hearing a news story about the brilliance of McDonald’s, which varied its menu to suit local populations. In Hong Kong it sells fried rice; in India it sells the McAloo Tikki burger; in Turkey you can get a Kofteburger. McDONALD’S DIVERSIFIES TO SELL FOOD. Why can’t Hollywood?

Viewers of “Mad Men” are a tetchy lot, quick to express outrage at the show’s hairpin plot curves or that odd episode that didn’t seem to scale the heights one expects.  Not me.  This show sings to me — and I found this season especially riveting, with its emphasis on an emerging proto-feminist anger — especially by Peggy and Joan in the agency’s offices, and an even more deep-seated anger expressed by little Sally Draper suffering back home with her mother, Betty.  Which leads me to address two (related) kinds of criticism:  those who say the show glamorizes rather than observes the easy sexism of the 60s, and those who say it displays a fetishistic concern with period detail — detail that emphasizes style over cultural criticism.  SPOILER ALERT:  I’ll discuss details from Season 4 — and I’ll warn you again when I get to the season’s final episode.  

The show has only one true protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the brilliant ad man who exhibits fleeting attractions to smart women but ultimately opts for far less challenging game.  Yet the story of Don helping to elevate Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) from secretary to copywriter is mirrored in the show by the growing emphasis on Peggy’s interior life, such that she’s become the show’s full-fledged Number Two.  This season Peggy has taken on new degrees of responsibility, even oversight of other male copywriters.  Moss shows extraordinary acting gifts in tracing that transformation:  for the first time this season we see her begin to feel comfortable in her own skin (and clothes:  she finally seems to be able to afford outfits she actually likes), and we find her navigating her career with far more physical assertion than in earlier seasons.  Sure, she’s still stuck with inferior men, but no one’s surprised by that scenario.  When she arrives at Don’s office to argue about a pitch, she’ll put her hands on her hips in a way that indicates how much effort it takes to challenge him, and how important it is that she do so.  More than any other woman on the show, Peggy Olson explores what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, and it’s never easy.

It’s not easy because she’s surrounded by utter jackasses on her team of writers, who posture their male fraternity before her with alternate fun and aggression.  (This post is hereby dedicated to Anita Hill, who’s still being harassed 19 years later.)  One of them, Stan, insists that she’s repressed and ashamed of her body, so she strips down to her awful 1960s bra-and-slip set — and then down to nothing — to prove herself and get the upper hand in their work relationship.  But if Stan is an obvious boor, the cutie-pie freelancer Joey is an even more insidious problem.  Joey resents it when the fantastically curvacious executive secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) displays her managerial power over these boys, so he sketches a cartoon of Joan giving a blow job to a male employee — and he posts it on the wall for Joan and Peggy to find.  Joan dresses them down unforgivingly, but Peggy is still incensed.

Despite a chorus of whiney male pleas that “it’s a joke!” Peggy fires Joey, who spits back at her, “Y’see, this is why I don’t like working with women.  You have no sense of humor.”  Nevertheless, firing him feels like justice to her and a triumph for both women, such that at the end of the day when she enters the elevator with Joan, she looks up hopefully and says, “I don’t know if you heard, but I fired Joey.”

Joan, patronizingly:  “I did.  Good for you.”

Peggy, shocked:  “Excuse me?”

Joan:  “Now everybody in the office will know that you solved my problem and that you must be really important, I guess.”

Peggy, shaking her head:  “What’s wrong with you?  I defended you!”

Joan:  “You defended yourself.”

Peggy:  “Fine.  That cartoon was disgusting.”

Joan:  “I’d already handled it.  And if I’d wanted to go further, one dinner with Mr. Kreutzer from Sugarberry Ham and Joey would have been off [the account], and out of my hair.”

Peggy:  “So it’s the same result.”

Joan:  “You want to be a big shot.  Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.  So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re a humorless bitch.” 

Moments like that make it all the harder for me to understand the criticism by some that the show glamorizes the sexism of the 60s.  The show doesn’t make sexism sexy (except to some, um, throwbacks); rather, as Stephanie Coontz claimed recently, it looks unflinchingly at the sexism of the era and shows how it affected real-life women without losing its subtlety or getting preachy.  In fact, I don’t see how any working woman today could watch that scene between Peggy and Joan without thinking, “I’ve been there.  Wait:  what year is it?”   Journalists have written about how the sexist world of “Mad Men” is still alive and well in some business worlds, and not just due to the gender pay gap.  It’s also worth noting that the show has a relatively high number of female writers, producers, and directors, especially after Season 1.  This record is not without highly notable glitches, as when creator Matthew Wiener fired the Emmy-Award winning, Peggy Olson-esque writer Kater Gordon a year ago, claiming patronizingly (and obscurely) that she had “reached her full potential.”  Still, the record is impressive:

  • Season 1:  5 of its 13 episodes were written or co-written by women; 1 episode was directed by a woman.
  • Season 2:  9 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 3 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 3:  10 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 6 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 4:  6 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 4 episodes directed by women.  

The show isn’t just a workplace drama, of course.  Even though Betty Draper’s role was diminished this season, the show revealed chillingly how angry and dissatisfied she is, and how much she has replaced Don with a paternalistic new husband who chastizes her and demands that she behave.  In fact, when Betty (January Jones) confesses to her friend Francine that they’d had a fight the night before, she says, “I misbehaved.”  Her deep-seated childishness and awful petulance have roused bitter hatred among fans, but I can only express my admiration for Jones’ pitch-perfect, icy performance.  Betty is trapped inside the hell of her own small-minded expectations; to get out of it would mean jettisoning everything she ever learned as a child, everything she witnessed at her mother’s knee, every lesson that taught her that sulking gets you what you want.  Of course she’s not a sympathetic character — in that respect she’s much like Sandi McCree’s perfect performance as De’Londa Brice in “The Wire.”  Things are not going as Betty had been led to expect, so heads must roll — as in this horrific scene only available at AMC.com.  You can just imagine what it’d be like to have such a woman as your mother.  Or, rather, we don’t have to imagine, because 10-year-old Sally Draper emerges as a complicated character in her own right this season via extended conflicts with her mother.  And what an actor Kiernan Shipka proves to be in that role.

These are hardly the only ugly things shown by “Mad Men.”  We see the execrable Pete Campbell rape an au pair in his apartment building, yet he experiences no consequences.  In a parallel moment, Joan’s husband rapes her to remind us that there was no such thing as “marital rape” in the 60s.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I’m coming close to discussing the season finale now!]  Viewers are made irate by these scenes, but they seem to feel that by showing them the series is endorsing such violence.  (Which reminds me of a story I heard recently:  a university professor is getting hate mail from parents because she teaches a class on the history of witchcraft — which, parents believe, amounts to advocating witchcraft.  Remind me never to teach a class on the history of slavery — and just imagine a world in which no one teaches students about the Holocaust for fear of appearing to endorse violent anti-Semitism.)  During the final episode of this season, Don abandons the first worthy girlfriend he’s had since the divorce — the lovely, savvy consultant, Dr. Faye Miller, who had seemed to be a true partner for him — and he gets himself engaged to his secretary instead.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences of scenes they’ve ever shown:  after several episodes of finally coming to grips with his lies and self-deceptions, Don makes one of those 180° turns back toward self-delusion, just like Roger Sterling (John Slattery).  Heartbreakingly, a critic at my beloved Bitch website decries this as an endorsement of Don’s choice.

So how can anyone mistake the show’s darkness for glamor, you ask?  I’ve decided after much scholarly consideration (hem hem!) that it’s not the show’s obsession with getting every single detail right, though I know some complain that that obsession is overly distracting.  Rather, it’s the way the show is filmed.  Every shot establishes a scene that seems so stilted, so self-consciously staged, that it attains an air of surreality and demands close attention as if it’s being shot via microscope.  This is as far from neo-realism as you can get:  it’s a kind of theatricality we don’t see elsewhere on TV.  A scene in the back of a cab erases all New York City street noise to focus up-close on the micropolitics of the end of a date; a scene of Don alone drinking in his perfect office evokes the quiet desperation of those men in grey flannel suits.  After four seasons, we’ve grown accustomed to the show’s visual style, but we shouldn’t overlook it:  it’s so important as to nearly constitute a character on the show.  The show’s filming should remind us, constantly, that we are being asked to look on these scenes with a particular set of eyes; it should remind us to see every scene as a subtle, and often horrible, analysis of a world of men and women that lacked the language of feminism.  These scenes emphasize deep divides between people, a profound loneliness, and the way certain kinds of architecture and design might make the world cold rather than warm and homey.  “It’s lonely in the modern world,” the blog Unhappy Hipsters reminds us — “Mad Men” is doing the same in narrative form.

In this positive review don’t accuse me of abandoning my blamer credentials, for I most certainly aspire to the wicked keyboard stylings of Twisty Faster — and it’s not that I don’t have my own criticisms of the show.  But it deserves quick and firm defense against the most facile interpretations.  Even after four seasons, I’ve never seen anything like “Mad Men” for its subtle writing and dead-on historical accuracy.  Now I just need to teach a class on it.