Just do yourself a favor and read Lindy West’s “I Re-Watched Garden State and Will Never Feel Again” over at Jezebel. You will laugh. You will never watch Garden State again.

A snippet:

Natalie Portman’s character claims to be a human being but is actually a genie that exists entirely within the mind of Zach Braff’s dreaming penis. Much has already been written about this, so I will not rehash it in great detail. She tap-dances. She lies, puckishly. She emcees somber hamster funerals. She introduces strangers to her blankie. She figure-skates in a crushed-velvet alligator costume. She wears an epilepsy helmet just long enough to facilitate a wise and bittersweet moment and then never wears it again. She walks over to her record player and opens the lid but doesn’t put a record on just to make VERY SURE you know she has one.

Here are some words that Zach Braff wrote down for Natalie Portman to say throughout the course of the movie:

“My hair’s blowin’ in the wind.”

“Can we have code names?”

“You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal? [WORST THING EVER HAPPENS] I make a noise, or do something that no one has ever done before. Then I can feel unique again, even if it’s only for a second.”

“If you can’t laugh at yourself, life’s going to seem a whole lot longer than you’d like.”

“I’m weird, man.”

OH, ARE YOU? TELL ME MORE.

If I were, say, 15 years younger I would aspire to such writing, but at my advanced age I think it would be unseemly. Still, I envy her final two sentences with a passion that rivals what I feel for a certain pair of boots that cost an amount I am not allowed to spend on anything whatsoever. 

Blecch, Garden State.

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from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

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

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

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

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

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

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

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

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

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

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

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

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

How does Black Swan lose Best Film Editing to The Social Network? Did you voters see these films? Do you understand what editing is? The editing of Black Swan was extraordinary — it made the film. Those claustrophobic shots quick-cut in rapid succession with the sounds of Natalie Portman’s ballet shoes hitting the floor and her breathing edited on top such that the film became a visceral experience. In contrast, The Social Network’s editing could have been done in any number of other ways without changing the terrific acting, dialogue, and directing.

One other note: the dresses were great this year. But on seeing Halle Berry’s gorgeous dress I couldn’t help but remember this great story in The Onion on the widening gap between best dressed and worst dressed from a few years ago. It explains that the Oscars show “in recent years a high concentration of couture in the hands of a few, with Halle Berry alone commanding over 57 percent of the nation’s supply of sexy yet exquisitely tasteful gowns.”

“I just want to be perfect,” Natalie Portman’s character Nina explains to her director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), when she defends her gifts as a dancer. Perfect, but she’s not good enough. Honestly, I think that in 100 years when historians look back at the condition of women at the turn of the 21st century, they will use “I just want to be perfect” as the most cutting, accurate articulation of our culture’s contradictions. And when I say this, don’t focus solely on the word perfect — think about the word just as well. It’s a statement that begs for approval from others, assumes an impossible standard, and modestly begs not to be seen as unattractively ambitious. Viewers of Black Swan: get ready to enter our world.

Am I exaggerating? Certainly not for young women like Nina (Portman). Back in 2003 Duke University was rocked by an anonymous letter to the editor of the campus paper that described a woman’s slow loss of confidence during her undergraduate years at Duke. She explained that women undergrads adhered to the ideal of “effortless perfection” — the notion that they should have perfect hair, clothes, weight, grades, and success — demands made all the more impossible because girls must never display the crushing effort required to achieve any of it. They exercised on treadmills for hours to be able to eat pizza later on. They just had to be perfect. The letter led to the usual results (hand-wringing by the Women’s Studies department, denials that there might be a problem) but here’s the thing: this is hardly limited to Duke. The New York Times featured a story in 2007 about high school girls who do everything — and likewise strive to be “perfect” — and still get rejected, crushingly, from colleges. We’ve been bemoaning the diseases of anorexia, bulimia, and other distorted body image issues for more than a generation now; it doesn’t take much to see that thinness is part and parcel of a broader set of demands that likewise have overwhelming psychological effects on girls. Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s the disease of our time. Is this movie an elaborate metaphor for the experience of girls and young women?

Who’d be more susceptible to this psychic burden than a ballet dancer? The competition, the necessary precision, the need to be beautiful as well as freakishly talented, the toll on one’s body. Portman has famously discussed losing a whopping twenty-plus pounds from her tiny body for the role (“I thought I was going to die,” she explained), a statement that has elicited little sympathy on the part of journalists, who write callous headlines like, “Does Natalie Portman weight loss mean Oscar gold?” No wonder there are so many scenes of her alone, picking at a loose piece of skin or afraid to look in a bathroom mirror, all of it taking place in cold, hard rooms. Want to read a brilliant, almost prose-poem piece on this film? Take a look at Kartina Richardson’s essay at Mirror on Black Swan, women, and bathroom mirrors (I can only admire the flow of good writing). As much as I watched this film with true amazement at what Portman achieved as a dancer for this role, I have a hard time thinking of this as simply a role; it sounds as if the actress herself spiraled down into a kind of method-acting hell. Thank you, Natalie Portman, for speaking candidly about the part’s difficulties, rather than pretend her physical perfection in the part came without effort. We would do well to follow her lead rather than focus on the post-production fact that she gained back the weight and got pregnant with her fiancé, also a dancer.

With all the conflicting expectations, no wonder Portman’s character starts to split in two. Is this because she’s unhealthy or too emotionally fragile, placing too many demands on herself? No, it’s because other people do, too. She’s perfect — the perfect daughter, a perfect dancer — but she’s not sexy enough to be the Black Swan. “When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan,” her director Tomas tells her. “Yes, you’re beautiful, restrained, graceful. Perfect casting. But the Black Swan … it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” He patronizingly advises her to masturbate — to loosen up, to seduce him and the audience as the Black Swan. Yet when she does, she falls from grace as a perfect daughter; she looks with new eyes at her little-girl bedroom, all pink and white and stuffed animals and a ballerina music box. In the process she starts to see another version of herself on the sidewalk, on the train, in the mirror. It goes without saying that the demands of heightened sexuality don’t loosen her up at all; they start to destroy her. I find it apt and poetic that if you google “perfect girls,” you get a whole list of porn sites.

For all of these reasons I find it impossible to view Black Swan as just a film, or a thriller, or a psycho-sexual melodrama, or as any of the other tidy descriptors used to characterize it. In fact, I find it impossible to view it as a critic — I can’t tell you whether this is a good film or whether Portman deserves the best-actress Oscar because it hits too many of my nerves. I can’t help seeing it as a fractured fairy tale with ingredients stirred in by Carl Jung, the modern modeling industry, and feminists given to telling cautionary tales. Did I “enjoy” watching it? Not in the least. Do I think it’s a historic visual testament to the tolls of Effortless Perfectionism? Oh my god, yes. It’s the return of the repressed, this film. Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene, and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical. But just you wait: 100 years down the line, this’ll be the film that appears in all those women’s history classes — I can only hope those future female undergrads have found a way out of the psychic prison their forebears experienced.

Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.