brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

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I’ve been trying to write about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild for weeks. Here’s my problem: I have read other people’s reviews, and I keep wanting to respond to them rather than to the film itself.

It’s not that I doubt my own response to the film. I found it a riveting story about the kind of childhood we never seen onscreen. It shows the world through the eyes of 6-yr-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), complete with ugliness, fantasy, and flickering glimpses of adult concerns. But other reviewers have focused on the film’s political stance in placing it in an overlooked Louisiana world that evokes but never mentions Hurricane Katrina, and in telling the story of a child who sometimes appears dangerously unprotected by the adults around her. These perspectives make me want to defend the film for what it is, not for what it might have been if someone else had made it.

Granted, criticism is tricky business, and I would be the first to defend the right to express one’s response to a film, even if that response deals more with the film’s role in the zeitgeist than its artistic merit. It goes without saying that I’d defend a critic’s right to express an unpopular opinion, perhaps even more so after the weird exchange last summer between the NY Times‘ David Carr and A. O. Scott about the role of criticism. In it, Carr attacks Scott for offering up unpopular opinions about film that Carr depicts as elitist; Scott tries to explain why that’s not the case. (For particular pleasure, see Jim Emerson’s great breakdown of all the logical fallacies Carr commits during the course of this exchange.)

In some ways I see film criticism in the same vein as I see my academic scholarship: as an honest attempt to further a longer conversation among people jointly concerned with finding something meaningful, something true about humanity.

I’d heard enough about Beasts of the Southern Wild to expect that it would be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on those people most abandoned by the social safety net — a community so far on the margins that it seems almost post-apocalyptic. And yet what I found was different. Rather, I marveled at its imaginative view of childhood. I never expected to walk out and think, “This is a film about America through a child’s eyes” — which was exactly how I felt.

I especially loved the way the film doesn’t try to offer an adult’s reality, but privileges Hushpuppy’s idiosyncratic perspective. Through her eyes, we spin a fantasy in our minds about her long-gone mother, thanks to a tale told by her father. We get angry with her father when he just disappears for a while, leaving her alone, only to return with evidence of a hospital stay about him (which she neither asks about nor understands). When she condenses all her fears and creates in her imagination a herd of giant boar-beasts, racing closer and closer to up-end and destroy her life and that of her community, we remember our own crystallized fears all too well from our own childhoods.

But then I started reading about people who walked out of theaters because they felt it displayed something damn near close to child abuse. (What?! I wondered.) Or because it romanticized poverty. (How is that degree of filth and poverty romantic?) Or a fantasy of racial harmony amongst whites and Blacks.

Most heartbreaking to me was the extensive takedown by superstar cultural critic bell hooks over at NewBlackMan (In Exile), who felt the film to be a “continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl.” hooks finds nothing to admire here; she likens it to The Help (2011) for its racist and sexist stereotypes of Blacks. She even argues that “the camera toys with the child’s body pornographically eroticizing the image,” which I don’t see at all.

hooks’ takedown is so all-encompassing that I have a hard time knowing where to start in defending the film. I’ve been in her place before — having seen a film (like Greenberg) that everyone seemed to admire, yet which I found so resolutely misogynistic that I could not, would not, see any redeeming qualities.

But criticism is a conversation, yes? I cannot stop myself from insisting that hooks is just wrong. Of course I believe that everyone has different responses to a film’s artistic merit, political commitment, social context. hooks has ever right to hate the movie, to find it lacking. And I can argue that in both her vehemence and the substance of her specific criticisms, she has refused to see the film’s many virtues.

Beasts seems so significant to me because it tells a story about childhood (and America) through the eyes of a tiny Black girl — insisting that we see it on her terms. I didn’t see the film as being primarily about race; perhaps hooks’ true complaint is that it should have been. Instead, it’s about childhood, poverty, and self-determination — aspects of the lives of the characters which are inextricable from race, to be sure, yet in this case are more central to the story. True, Hushpuppy is not sensitive to the ways that race divides, perhaps because of her extreme youth (and perhaps because the director and writer didn’t want to tell the story that way). No matter the reason, this is not a story about a girl focused on the subject of race, and it seems unfair to demand that it be otherwise. Rather, Hushpuppy knows perfectly well that her community is threatened and that other, richer people are responsible.

If her worldview is not primarily oriented to race, it nevertheless seems vital to me that Zeitlin asks us to consider these matters via the person of a 6-yr-old Black girl, to see her as our heroine — which we do, effortlessly. I can’t help but feel this is sort of remarkable. I complain every single week about the fact that film offers so few opportunities for women, especially women of color, to get interesting parts. Well, here’s the best role for a Black female of the past five years — goddamn if I’m going to let it pass when someone says this character offends them, or that Hushpuppy is a mere cardboard cutout or racial type.

Stepping back, it occurs to me that my frustration with hooks’ full metal jacket bullet fired at this lovely film is related to my ongoing concerns about cultural criticism more broadly — both within and without the academy. I read too many critiques that are beautifully written, fervent and learned, yet which fail to understand as honestly as possible an artist’s actual work, to weigh fairly its successes and shortcomings, and attempt to place it in contexts that help us understand it better. hooks’ long piece certainly inflicts a wound on this film, but rather than hit the center of the target it has only done some damage to one of the film’s extremities — an arm, perhaps, or an ankle.

I must admit, however, in working up a righteous response to her vehement piece, I feel my critical juices flowing, my muscles tensing. Sometimes criticism really is about the back-and-forth. It’s all about the conversation. I do love the conversation, the way that criticism gives people the chance to debate.

So before I forget, let me note: what a find is Quvenzhané Wallis. Has any child actor ever inhabited her role so fully and with such genuine intensity as this one, from listening to the heartbeats of chicks and turtles to having an imaginary conversation with her long-gone mother? Wallis is now 8 and next year will appear in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). I can only hope she continues to have good luck with roles and directors and scripts, for she has a gift that could make her a truly great new child star.

I’m sorry she didn’t win, but I have to pause for a moment to gaze at her approvingly — because watching her on the red carpet at the Academy Awards last night was one of those “one of these things is not like the others” moments.

The Help was dogged by controversy, spearheaded by a number of academics and intellectuals who decried the fact that black actresses were still appearing onscreen as maids. One academic wrote recently, “Really?” and pointed out the following:

  • 1940: Hattie McDaniel Best Supporting Actress, as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind
  • 1950, Ethel Waters, nominee, Best Supporting Actress category as Granny, a washer woman and domestic in Pinky.
  • 1960, Juanita Moore, nominee Best Supporting Actress as maid Annie, in Imitation of Life 
  • 2012: Octavia Spencer wins BAFTA Best Supporting Actress as maid Minnie, in The Help, Academy Award nominee Best Supporting Actress
  • 2012: Viola Davis, nominee Best Actress as maid Abileen in The Help.

Davis got an earful of these complaints about her acting choice from the radio host Tavis Smiley; the wonderful Melissa Harris-Perry also held forth on the topic of how bad the film was.

So when Davis appeared at the Awards last night with red hair and this green dress that shows off her gorgeous dark skin so brilliantly, I did a double take. As I should have. As I hope everyone did. With this look she sang out not only that she is not a fucking maid, but that she’s going to make her own decisions about her career and her self.

In that sea of skinny white girls all wearing whites or reds or blacks, Davis wore kelly green. She looks like the actress she is, hitting her mid-40s and possibly a terrifically productive period of her career; this look ignores the doubters who questioned her decision to take this role. This look screams, I am my own actress, and I have my own beauty; when I played a maid that one time I hit that role out of the park. I can hardly wait to see her again on both screens and red carpets.

My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.

****

There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.