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This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

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Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

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Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

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Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

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So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

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Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

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It’s ironic that, during this film of all films, I’d be sitting in front of loud talkers. It was two 60-something women, women who looked immaculately put together. I asked them to please stop talking; they didn’t. I tried turning around and glaring at them; I shushed them. Other people shushed them. One of them seemed to get louder, as if to spite us. Who does this? Who feels self-righteous about talking in a theater after being shushed?

Talking in a theater may be one of the smallest of rudenesses, but it’s ironic because Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret treats such a tangle of related topics I almost wondered whether the women had been planted behind me as a form of performance art. This film is a poem about guilt and self-righteousness, childishness and alienation, bad behavior and misplaced blame in a chaotic universe. Its subject matter is so apt for our world, encompassing everything from spats between mothers and teenage daughters to the very largest questions about 9/11 or Israel/Palestine, that I feel gutted upon leaving it.Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a teenage asshole in the vein of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, whose lawyers recently tried to argue in court that he wasn’t homophobic when he set up a webcam to catch his gay roommate inflagrante with another man; rather, they argued, Ravi was only guilty of being a typical college-age asshole. That defense didn’t save Ravi from being declared guilty of bias intimidation. In Lisa’s case, being a typical teenage asshole means she’s accustomed to such mundane thoughtlessness that she has no idea what to do with the consequences of her own actions when they are shown, uncontrovertibly, to make her guilty of the most serious crimes.

It won’t spoil anything to tell you that very early on in the film, she witnesses — and is partly responsible for — the gruesome death of a woman crossing an ordinary street in New York. Like any typical teen, Lisa tries to suppress the event, returning to the usual business of an overprivileged private-school kid: lazy performances on tests and in her debate class, boys, snapping at her mother. But gradually that business takes on an edge it didn’t have before. She jerks around one boy by messing with a different one; her sharp-tongued takedowns of her mother have a bitterness she can’t control; her debates in class turn vicious. Lisa becomes the human manifestation of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi pullyu, simultaneously grasping for and pushing back at everyone around her. It’s so frantic, this pushing and pulling, that it starts to look almost sociopathic.

That neurotic quality of her own behavior is not lost on her. So she belatedly decides to mourn the woman who died in her arms, and those feelings ultimately morph into something more complicated — feelings Lisa clearly cannot handle. Does she want some kind of retribution? Is it enough to drag other people along with her on these emotional highs and lows? Will she feel better if she just wins a few arguments with her mother or in her debate class?

You can’t help but fret when she forms an attachment to the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) — a beautiful woman about the age of Lisa’s mother with an appealing, deliberate pattern of speech that contrasts sharply to Lisa’s patter. Is it the woman’s grief that draws the teenager, or is it the illusion of calmness in her carefully-chosen sentences?

One of her teachers asks her early on whether she’s ever found herself suddenly fascinated by something she’d never shown an interest in before. “No,” she says, like the asshole she is, like the teenager who feels bound and determined to be contrary, independent. Yet something eats away at her edges. When her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall/ To a young child,” we see a glimpse of something — is it interest, or is it recognition?

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Does she hear that poem, its warning words about mortality, about self-recognition, about the cruel side of such understanding? When her teacher asks her to comment, she snaps back at him that she has nothing to say.

Between Anna Paquin’s talent and Kenneth Lonergan’s perfect dialogue — this man has reproduced teenager talk like no one I’ve ever heard — you find yourself spending 150 minutes with a person who is, unlike Hopkins’ Margaret, neither truly a child nor very likeable, yet still somehow riveting to watch. She’s so reckless with that force of will, so angry. No one escapes her lash, least of all herself. You can’t watch this film without decrying the fact that Paquin has settled in for wallowing in all that campy True Blood TV nonsense (and let’s not forget the blonde dye job and the nasty tan), because in this role she shows a crazy genius for being way too smart and mean and unhinged, so much so that she comes close to despising herself.

Perhaps the most famous thing about this film (and the reason for its stingy limited release to only a few theaters in the U.S.) is the battle between director Lonergan and the distributors at Fox Searchlight. After completing the film in 2006, Lonergan embarked on a years-long battle with the distributor over its length. Whereas the director’s cut was nearly 3 hours long, the distributor demanded that it be cut by at least 30 minutes. Only after the intervention of Martin Scorcese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who together produced a 150-minute version that the director signed off on, did the film finally get released late last year — and then only in a tiny number of theaters. A grassroots movement of critics quickly grew up to keep the film in theaters and earn it a wider release (to limited success).

Even if I hadn’t known this back story, I would have noticed the film’s choppiness. I opened by calling this film a poem about guilt, and I mean it seriously — but it is a broken, choppy poem whose breaks and abrupt transitions feel increasingly messy as the film moves along. Anyone who knows and loves Lonergan’s perfectYou Can Count On Me(2000) knows that he is capable of laser-like poetic focus, unity, and subtlety, perhaps more than any other director you can think of. This is a broken poem, one that forces you to see its jumps and awkwardnesses.

But how is it possible that the film’s editorial choppiness nevertheless has a poetry of its own? It somehow nails down the film’s overall themes, and underlines them. Someday I want to see Lonergan’s own director’s cut; I can only hope he finds a way to release it on DVD when the time comes. But no matter how beautifully that version might flow from scene to scene, I won’t forget the way this version told me something else about the emotional pinball engendered by traumatic events, and the way a person might intermittently compartmentalize her own responses to the world around her.

My greatest fear is that Lonergan’s fight with Fox will embitter him to the screenwriting and directing he’s so extraordinarily good at. And if there’s anything I learned from watching Margaret, it’s that we need Kenneth Lonergan to help us through our ugly world. The film’s conclusion (resolution?) is so real, so simple, that it cut through the loud, rude chatter of those women behind me, such that I couldn’t muster much more anger toward them. Life is too short; as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder.

Bite me

5 April 2010

This post is about food and sex, but it’s really going to be about the similarities/ differences between “Tampopo” and “True Blood” — it just takes me a while to get there.

Can we be any more screwed up about food?  Lady Gaga recently pronounced that “pop stars don’t eat” (it may be true, though it’s a dangerous comment to make to today’s anorexic teenagers), but Americans certainly do eat, as witnessed by all our TV shows about The Biggest Losers.  The Onion has a t-shirt that says, “I Wish Someone Would Do Something About How Fat I Am.”

Despite our screwed-upness, we still make strong associations between food and sex.  Witness how much the Food Network has sexed up its hosts.  It offers a wide range of versions of male hosts to appeal to its viewers — tending toward macho bravado in some cases (witness the debonair yet dude-like Tyler Florence), or grubby nature child/working-class Brit (Jamie Oliver, much more to my liking).  I learned today that each of these men has an enormous, rabidly attentive audience of fans.  To seal the deal, the channel now features a show with an eminently happy married couple, Pat and Gina Neely, who canoodle and engage in sexual innuendo while cooking together.  But the, em, cherry on top of the pile is Giada de Laurentiis (granddaughter of the director), who cooks Italian food — but who’s paying attention to the food when her beautiful breasts have been laid out for our viewing during most of the show.  They’re far more appetizing.

If the marriage of food and sex on the small screen is strong, overall we’re just not in the place we were in the 80s & 90s, when a whole spate of films appeared celebrating their close connection.  “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and its American remakes, “Tortilla Soup” and “Soul Food”), “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Chocolat” all welcomed us to foodie heaven with the promise that with it came a new kind of sexual liberation.  There were other foodie films too (“Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night”) and other films that used food during sex (“9 1/2 Weeks”), but they tended to emphasize one more than the other.

The king of the food/sex films, however, was “Tampopo” (1985), which styled itself the first Japanese noodle western — but while it riffed on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60s, it was a different beast altogether (first of all, it was actually about noodles).  It was mostly the story of a world-weary trucker and his young sidekick, Goro and Gun, who get enlisted by the timid woman owner of a sorry-ass noodle shop to teach her how to make a better bowl of ramen.  Tampopo (“Dandelion”) is distraught:  her soup is awful, the noodles flavorless, her customers are dwindling.  Goro strokes his chin philosophically (brilliant reference to Toshiro Mifune) and takes on the job, taking her to visit the masters of the art throughout Japan:  king of the noodle makers here, master of broth there, all of whom gradually transform her into a ramen queen (and along the way a sweet romance between Goro and Tampopo begins to flower).

Interspersed with the Goro/Tampopo tale are a series of unrelated meditations on food and sex — the crazily silly sex scenes between the gangster and his moll, an etiquette class of girls who insist on slurping as noisily as possible, and best of all, the ritual instruction in how to eat a bowl of ramen.  As a result, you left the theater hungry, horny, and yet somehow utterly satisfied:

In reviewing this film, I can’t help but think about its similarities to “True Blood” (as promised!).  That latter show, too, is a wide-ranging amalgam of genres (Southern gothic, anti-discrimination, vampire film, camp), playing perversely with each of them.  The sex in “True Blood” gets as close to porn as possible, then veers off into romance or utter absurdity, usually when Sookie Stackhouse’s brother Jason appears.  Critics make much of the show’s sex, but I think it’s profoundly about food and sex, bringing out the themes of appetite and hunger and the orality of sex (when vampires get turned on/hungry, their fangs appear like reverse erections).  It’s an odd throwback to the food/sex obsession of an earlier generation of filmmakers, and I think reflects a lot of our current-day schizophrenic attitudes toward both.  Somehow, you don’t finish an episode of “True Blood” thinking about your next meal.

“Slings & Arrows”

29 March 2010

For a moment, let me sing a song about the magical moment we enjoy in history:  not only are we fully in the middle of a renaissance for television shows, but we don’t have to pay attention to their schedule.  Between DVRs (I don’t have one, but I envy those of you who do), Netflix sending us DVDs by mail and streaming over the internet, and Hulu and all its cousins, we’re free to partake of the wonder and glory that is television today — and on our own schedule.

Give me the chance and I’ll be one of those people who gets derailed from all normal human conversation at dinner to insist, without blinking, that you should watch “The Wire.”  This is not a short conversation.  Discovering a great new show that’s already available on DVD can be dangerous, as it leads to the binge.  After my first, horrible year of teaching I watched the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” in about four days, only slowed down by the drive back and forth to the video store; I described the show as akin to crack cocaine.  Last summer, with my partner away for a few days, I swallowed the first season of “True Blood” in about a day and a half.  Steven Johnson tells us that watching these kinds of complex shows makes us smarter, but I don’t think he meant watching an entire season in one crazed, unwashed lost weekend.

Almost every night we have a routine:  we finally stop working, we drink a glass of wine and have a late dinner, and we settle down to watch something to cleanse our brains so we can sleep without having dreams about sentences, paragraphs, or teaching anxieties.  About half the time we watch a film, but the problem with film is you have no idea where it’s going to take you.  It feels like a big emotional commitment (and can haunt your dreams, as my previous post showed).  Television shows, in contrast, have a snappy pace and severely delimited structure.  Even if you’re sitting down to a couple of episodes of something dark, complex, or full of cliffhangers (“Lost,” for example, or the Shakespearean “Deadwood”), you know it’s merely a part of something longer.  It’s tidy, like a Lean Cuisine.

The problem is, we occasionally run out of shows — and we were in precisely that condition until we remembered the Canadian comedy, “Slings & Arrows.”  It’s a terrific comedy about a somewhat hopeless theater troupe trying to stage “Hamlet” after its artistic director dies and is replaced by one of his old protege/enemies, played by Paul Gross — a less malevolent Ray Liotta with Dionysian hair and raw sexuality, who’s still nursing himself back to mental health after a breakdown while acting in “Hamlet” seven years earlier.  Gross’s character is promptly haunted by the ghost of the old artistic director, and the show is off and running with Shakespearean jokes, swordfights, jealousies, young romance, and overblown theatrical egos.  We were hooked immediately.  (It doesn’t hurt that Gross can be funny, eminently watchable, and ridiculously sexy all at once.)

There’s no laugh track.  The cast is having fun, but they’re not just playing for yuks — I don’t quite know how the show does it, but it feels substantial.  It’s punctuated with some stock characters, but are they stock for Shakespeare or for modern television comedy?  There are two old queens who offer chorus-like eye-rolling and one-liners for the viewer’s benefit; an aging leading lady who sleeps with a series of hot young delivery boys; a pretentious director in leather pants who announces that the production’s unifying ethic will be “rottenness”; and the uxorious financial director (played by the great Mark McKinney from “Kids in the Hall”) and his new girlfriend, the aggressive Texas transplant determined to replace Shakespeare with productions of “Mamma Mia.”

Oh, to discover a new show — heaven.  My only regret is that it’s only three short seasons long — only six DVDs.  So I’m accepting recommendations for future viewing.