Normally I focus on movies as if I’m having sex with them:  I open up all my perceptive faculties and focus intently.  But during Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg I had to sit with my laptop and send a few angry emails.  And in retrospect I am even angrier that this is on anyone’s Top Ten list (and it is); it’s an exercise in female self-degradation akin to watching Chasing Amy (1997) or In the Company of Men (also 1997). I’m especially angry because Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) is such a good film, and because Greta Gerwig (below) is so talented in contrast to Ben Stiller, whose main contribution is that he allows himself to be neither as attractive nor as slap-your-knee funny as in all his other vehicles.

When the movie just focuses on Gerwig’s face, it sings.  In a number of shots we simply watch her character, Florence, in a series of un-selfconscious moments — driving, for example, and looking expectedly at other drivers as she waits for them to let her merge — scenes she handles with such utter charm that we get to know her even without dialogue.  In fact, she spends much of her time driving, as she works as a personal assistant for the wealthy Greenberg family.  But then the narrative takes her down into the pit of hell via a semi-relationship with the vile, much older Roger Greenberg (Stiller), her employer’s brother visiting from New York, who wants her but doesn’t want her.  She doesn’t even want him, yet she makes herself available to him time and time again in scenes that truly rank among the most unpleasant sex scenes of the year.  I find this film all the more disturbing because it was co-written by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actor I’ve always loved and followed, and who has a very small role here.

Please don’t tell me I just didn’t get it — that Baumbach was trying to make me angry, that he’s trying to make us ask questions about why young, insecure women might subject themselves to relationships with fucked-up, middle-aged assholes.  No, this film wants us to care about Roger’s rehabilitation by the end of the movie, and to see Florence merely as one part of that process.  Roger may be a complicated and unlikeable character, but the minute he shows up he supplants Florence as protagonist and anti-hero.  This is nothing like Nicole Holofcener’s brilliant and much-misunderstood Friends With Money (2006), which begged questions about women who feel the need to be nice.  No, this is just a mean-spirited opportunity to trace a man’s personal crisis.  Get it off your Top Ten lists and nominations rosters.  I can’t believe Winter’s Bone has to compete with this.

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.

Just two days ago I speculated that Nicole Holofcener’s directorial modesty might be one reason why American critics feel the need to tell us that her films aren’t just “women’s films.”  After watching Lucrecia Martel’s debut film, “La Ciénaga,” I’m convinced.  Compared with Holofcener’s quiet gaze, Martel has an extraordinary vision that appears from the film’s very earliest moments, as in her third film, “The Headless Woman” that I liked so much last month.  It’s no surprise to find that all three of Martel’s film were recently voted to be in the top 10 of all Latin American films made in the 2000s.  “La Ciénaga” (“The Bog” or “The Swamp”) was #1.

This film would never, ever, be voted the best film of the decade by U.S. critics, simply because of its subject matter:  laissez-faire parents, children run amok, racist bile spewed against the family’s Indian servants, and languid sexuality within and amongst this extended family.  It opens in a steamy Argentinian summer, with dark clouds overhead; thunder seems to threaten in the distance throughout most of the film.  Inside the family’s country house, children and teenagers lie together in beds, napping agitatedly in the heat.  Outside, the adults sleep on chaise lounges next to a fetid, dirty pool (one of the several “swamps” of the title); they’ve been drinking all day.  We see one woman’s hands shakily pouring herself yet another glass; it’s a notably bloody red wine.  As she slowly moves around to collect everyone’s glasses, we hear them crash and break on the cement beside the pool.  The middle-aged Mecha (Graciela Borges) has drunkenly fallen on the broken glass and is covered with blood, yet no one seems to notice.  This is not the vision of family that Americans prefer to see.

Yet what we see through Martel’s eyes is the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie satirized as masterfully as Buñuel did.  She has said that she based the film on memories of her own family’s summers together.  It has the dreamy, disconnected, aural feel of a family gathering, to be sure; but there is no nostalgia here.  Those dark clouds, that thunder in the distance:  the film almost feels like a horror flick, with danger always just around the corner.  All the male cousins under the age of eleven roam through the mountains with rifles, always coming as close as possible to shooting one another; they’re covered with old scars and fresh gashes, and one of the boys is missing an eye from an earlier accident.  (“When Joaquin goes to the mountains, I’m frightened for his other eye,” his mother Mecha says fecklessly, unconvincingly, to no one in particular.)  The littlest girls perpetually appear with makeup smeared all over their faces, having been doing who knows what, and the older girls drive cars without licenses at the express wish of their drunken parents.  While the adults accuse their Indian servant Isabel of stealing (and being dirty, refusing to answer the phone for them, living like animals, eating dirty fish…), their daughter Momi seeks from Isabel all manner of attention — maternal, physical, vaguely sexual love.  It’s the same dark humor that Holofcener displays in her films, and it’s directed at many of the same targets:  the boredom, banalities, and transparent hypocrisies of the privileged.

Martel eschews background music or a soundtrack in favor of developing a layering of sound, glances, and conversation, all brilliantly edited together in her scenes.  Take the one in which the heavily bandaged Mecha lounges in her bed, sunglasses on as she nurses another hangover, while her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) sits and chats with her; slowly the bed fills with girls.  This was so believably one of those idle conversations amongst middle-aged women that I almost felt its rhythms from memories of family reunions during my childhood.  The two older women chat about the appearance of the Virgin of Carmen on a water tank in town.  “She said it was incredible,” Tali reports about another cousin.  “She was transformed.  She phoned me in tears. ‘You have to see it to understand, Tali,’ she said.”  As the younger girls watch their mothers with that mix of curiosity and boredom, throughout this conversation Mecha’s handsome teenaged son José (Joan Cruz Bordeu) skirts the room after his shower, standing shirtless before the bathroom mirror as his pubescent cousins sneak long looks at his lean, tattooed torso.  As the older women talk about the Virgin, José takes advantage of being the only man in the room by hamming it up a bit for the girls’ benefit, appearing as a kind of male god to them.  He clearly enjoys their admiration, and will continue to enhance it almost to the point of impropriety — sneaking into one cousin’s shower, or dancing seductively with Isabel, the servant, at a club.  Only later, on reflection, does the viewer recognize what a brilliantly complex scene this is, with the meandering chit-chat, the girls’ searching looks at their mothers or the beautiful José, the tangle of subjects and themes, the sense of risk.

And then there’s the loneliness.  Despite the perpetual tangle of bodies, they each feel adrift; think of the scene of the bleeding Mecha lying in glass surrounded by her unwitting husband and friends, or the deludedly hopeful faces of people on TV who have flocked to glimpse the image of the Virgin of Carmen on the side of a water tower.  Tali’s youngest son frets that he will be attacked by the urban legend of an “African rat” his cousins have described to him — a huge doglike creature with two rows of teeth — none of the adults bothers to disabuse him of this fear.  No wonder that Martel has indicated that, for her, the film is about abandonment.

It is Martel’s mastery in storytelling and editing (and this done with only a modicum of film-school training) that turns a lazy family summer into a metaphor for the corruptions of Argentine society; she has explained in interviews that despite its highly naturalistic, almost blasé conversational rhythm, the film was tightly scripted. (Even before it was complete, the film won Best Screenplay at Sundance back in 1999, which permitted her to complete the film and obtain further funding.)  Asked at a recent forum in the San Francisco area how she does this, Martel used the example of long phone conversations with her mother as a source for the oral structure of her films:

After 40 minutes of talking on the phone — in which she and her mother discuss everything — Martel still doesn’t know what her mother is trying to tell her.  But when the conversation is over and Martel asks herself what it was about, she comes to a gradual understanding of how all that has been said ties together.

Considering the worldwide successes of other Latin American directors — most notably Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (who directed the very best of the Harry Potter films, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — the writer-director Martel can’t be far from similar recognition.  She’s already received virtually every Latin American film award, as well as prominent nominations and awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival.  The Academy Awards is one of the only major institutions to stiff her for a nomination.  Nothing about her filmmaking indicates a modesty that will keep it hovering around the dreaded “woman’s” ghetto.  Martel is a force to be reckoned with.

The fifteen-year-old Abby (Sarah Steele) is at what is called that awkward stage, but watching her in “Please Give” underscores the inadequacies of the euphemism.  Her acne is so bad that “it looks like it’s eating my face;” she spends part of one dinner with a pair of panties on her head.  She cannot — cannot! — find a pair of jeans that don’t make her look like a sausage.  Her mother, Kate (Catherine Keener) is not just woefully incapable of understanding, but preoccupied with her own demons.  So Abby determines to fix her acne by having a facial at one of those ubiquitous New York day spas, believably called Skinology.  The spa technician, who also happens to be the granddaughter of the bitter old woman who lives next door, begins to work away on her, removing zits from her forehead as the girl squirms and flinches under her probing fingers.  “This is a deep one,” the technician warns her, and the audience begins to squirm too.  Talk about cringe humor.

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for creating funny, excruciating moments like this onscreen that achieve something beyond the literal contours of the story.  No one who has seen “Lovely and Amazing” (2001) can forget that primal scene in which the neurotic, unhappy actress (Emily Mortimer), asks Dermot Mulroney to “be honest” in critiquing her body; she stands before him naked, skinny, awkward, hopeful.  “Please Give” is preoccupied with concerns exemplified by the pimple-squeezing scene:  just as places like Skinology feed off the deluded hopes of those with disposable incomes, Abby’s mother and father feed off dead people:  they buy mid-20th century furniture from the middle-aged children of the recently-deceased, people eager to jettison the awful stuff their parents sat on all those years.  It is precisely their furniture store’s profitability that has produced Kate’s profound, aimless sense of guilt.  But lacking any real outlet for it, she mostly atones by pressing sums of money on the homeless people outside their apartment.  Framing the boundaries of the story are questions of self-worth, the specters of death and selfishness, the possibility of joy, and our responsibility to others.  Like so many great French films, this one ricochets between these matters without offering simplistic messages or easy resolutions, leaving you to meditate on what you begin to see as profound matters.

The film is nearly stolen by the unapologetically self-centered Andra (Ann Guilbert), who at 90-something still lives as if everyone shares her pre-war ethos.  When she opens her birthday present, one of those old-lady pink embroidered sateen nightgowns, she refuses to wear it — or express thanks — because it’s “too nice.”  In a moment of one-upsmanship with another grandmother, she brags that people were often jealous of her because she was so smart, trumpeting that “people thought I was a schoolteacher.”  Almost immediately thereafter, she pronounces that her granddaughter’s (Rebecca Hall) new boyfriend is very handsome, but too short.  (This was such a vivid reminder of my own grandmother’s ugly manner of conversation that I found myself wondering whether everyone knows such a woman, or if I was the only person in the audience who found this dead-on.)  Embarrassing, stingy, imperious: she poses nothing but problems for her plain-faced, unhappy granddaughter as well as Kate and Alex next door, who have purchased her apartment and are waiting for her to die before they punch through the wall and create a luxurious en-suite master bedroom.  How should they — and we — feel about her?  Is Andra a mirror for the unhappy teenaged Abby?  A dose of reality for the guilt-ridden Kate?  A cross to bear for her granddaughter?

Because Holofcener’s films invariably feature prominent female characters they have often been characterized as “women’s films”; critics occasionally congratulate themselves for proclaiming that she “delves deeper than ‘chick flicks,'” as if she treads the same ground as “Sex and the City 2” (which, hello, was written and directed by a man).  For me, critics’ need to mark this distinction — “not just for girls!” — illuminates one of the problems with women in American film today.  It’s true that she punctuates her films with set-piece scenes that will hit deep nerves in female viewers, like Abby and Kate having one of those horrible mother-daughter fights as they shop for jeans — of course it’s while they shop for jeans.  But I maintain that “Please Give” is fundamentally concerned with profound issues that can’t be tidily dismissed as gender-specific, and if it had been directed by Bergman, Rohmer, or Woody Allen, no one would suggest otherwise.  In fact, I think it’s only due to Holofcener’s deep-seated directorial modesty that anyone feels the need to proclaim this “not just” a chick flick.  Because she is not willing to swagger her gifts — like so many women who, in Clay Shirky’s terms, refuse to behave as “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks,” “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so” — apparently critics feel the need to question whether her films should be relegated to the Lifetime Channel.

It seems apt that I’m also reading Doris Lessing’s Diary of a Good Neighbour right now, a riveting tale likewise concerned with selfishness, moneyed privilege, and caregiving.  As in “Please Give,” so many of the novel’s most emotionally fraught scenes occur in the claustrophobic spaces of apartments littered with the material signifiers of our selves.  The film and the book pair perfectly, with characters spewing awful statements at one another, interspersed with raw moments in which they try to offer one another something more true and generous.  Both ask, does our guilt cancel out our attempts at selflessness?  Are there costs in our efforts to create beautiful lives for ourselves — have we become unwilling to see human ugliness and comprehend death?

But Holofcener also wants us to laugh at ourselves and the innate ridiculousness of the Skinologies, our searches for good jeans, our battles with our mothers, and those moments in vintage stores when one says things like, “This is so bad it’s almost good. How much is it?”