Thursday, April 26, 2012

MAD MEN--"Far Away Places"

Ah, Howard Johnsons.  A weirdo orange and turquoise chalet, with a troubled Don Draper in the foreground.  Gorgeous.  "It's not a destination, but on the way to something," and certainly not a very good way-station for Don and Meghan.  In fact, much of "Far Away Places" is about love troubles and literal "trips" taken, as the episode explores these relationship in a Rashomon fashion, with little overlaps to personalize the stories from the characters' distinctive perspectives.  For me, the most significant struggles this week were about women dealing with work/life balance issues, with a little LSD humor thrown in for comic relief from the show's pervasive bleakness.

The show opens with Peggy and Abe fighting at her apartment, as Peggy pulls herself together for work, gearing up for a major presentation she's giving for Heinz beans.  She's nervous and stressed, and Abe chooses this moment to build her insecurities about "behaving like a man" by comparing her to his dad, and claiming that she just uses him (while still withholding sex from him).  After telling her to have a shitty day, she proceeds to have a doozy.

Peggy finds her lucky "violet candy" before the presentation, but Don and Meghan bail on her for a boondoggle at an upstate Howard Johnsons.  Presenting without Don seems to give clients free license to hassle Peggy and her pitch, and she completely loses it with Heinz, claiming that he just likes to fight (with her).  The Heinz exec turns to Ken Cosgrove and says "Can you believe this girl?"  Ken smoothly navigates the conflict, suggesting that they are all frustrated, but the damage is done.  Peggy's booted from the account.  The telling moment is when Stan compliments her on such a suicidal confrontation with Heinz and remarks, "Women usually want to please."  Thankfully, Peggy's far more complicated than that expectation.

In a huff, she takes off to see a movie by herself.  Earlier, before their fight, Abe suggests they see a film starring Cornel Wilde, that takes place in Africa.  Further investigation reveals this film to be The Naked Prey (1966), where Wilde and a bunch of men on safari offend a local tribe, who proceed to kill them off, one-by-one.  The last survivor, Wilde, is stripped naked and hunted by the tribe in a life or death struggle for survival.  Fun!  Instead, Peggy goes to see Born Free (1966), a very different film that also takes place in Africa.  Her experience at this film is not just about moving moments watching cute baby lions.  Oh No!

As Peggy watches the film, a gentleman behind her lights up a joint.  When she chastises him about it, he offers her some, and she accepts.  Assuming an invitation, he comes and joins her in an adjoining seat.  Now pretty stoned, he makes a move, but instead of letting his hands wander, she moves them out of the way.  He then places her hand on his groin, and she's willing.  He moves to kiss her, but instead she commands him to watch the film while she gives him a hand job.  I found this scene to encapsulate so many of the tensions surrounding Peggy.  She's aware of the feminine expectation that women be "pleasing," but she wants to negotiate that expectation on her own terms.  She may be "pleasing" this guy, but she's controlling the narrative.

Back at work after a quick hand washing, Peggy witnesses Michael Ginsberg and his "father" bickering in the hallway.  MG's finding it hard to maintain his "unencumbered boy genius" persona when his personal life is so often on display for Peggy (earlier she overheard a personal phone call of his).  Later, Peggy's discussion with MG regarding his origin story serves to humanize them both, and I found myself actually warming to his character.  Initially, he claims that he's from Mars, but then divulges to Peggy that he was born in a concentration camp, and that his "father" rescued him from a Swedish orphanage when he was 5 years old.  The way the scene is shot, with MG's back to Peggy while he recounts this story through his reflection in the office window, speaks to the truthfulness and honesty of his story.  Peggy (as a surrogate for the viewer) is undeniably moved.

This scene compels her to reach out and try to make an emotional connection with Abe when she returns to her apartment later that night..  The show implies that when she awakens Abe with a phone call and asks him to come to her, relating MG's story, that she and Abe share something meaningful, fulfilling beyond their sexual needs.  She realizes that telling Abe that she needs him is something he needs to hear, but she comes to say this to him honestly, rather than as a means to an end.  Of all the couples explored in this week's episode, Peggy and Abe seem to be able to actually listen to and hear each other.  While she may have blown the Heinz account, Peggy has not screwed up her relationship beyond repair, and she at least tries to balance her work and personal lives with thoughtfulness.

Unfortunately, Meghan's negotiation of this balance is far less satisfying, and I felt for her far more this episode than I ever have in the past.  As this season reveals episode by episode, Meghan likes her job and wants to be good at it.  She continuously wants to move beyond being acknowledged as "Don's wife," and feels pride in being part of SCDP's creative team.  When Don strong arms her into driving upstate to Hojo's, she apologizes repeatedly for abandoning them.  Whereas Peggy in many ways feels beholden to Don for her position at the agency, Meghan knows that she would only be a secretary if not for Don.  In the first few episodes of the season, I felt, in identifying with Peggy, that Meghan wielded unfair advantage over her.  Now I see that Meghan's not entirely happy with the power dynamics involved, although she's not above using that power when necessary; it just feels hollow to her.  Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the creative staff room, where Meghan makes a comment about casting the Heinz commercial.  When she's called away by Don, Stan makes a remark about Meghan's role on the team, and Peggy defends her, albeit ambivalently.  Stan's circle of respect has widened to include Peggy, but he's just not there yet with Meghan.  That attitude seems fair; she simply hasn't proven herself yet.  With Don controlling her every move, though, she's hardly had a chance.

While Don has undeniably been on "love leave" since his marriage to Meghan, she does not feel as besotted or satisfied with their dynamic.  When it comes to a woman being "pleasing," Meghan seems a little tired of this role, especially at work.  Yet during their sex play, her role is to not be pleasing; unsurprisingly, she has a hard time delineating which role she's playing and when.  Don continues to order her around, and does not listen to her; he's more uncomfortable than admiring of Meghan's perspective, especially when it disagrees with his views.  Don is so focused on his fantasy of an upstate getaway, that he repeatedly dismisses Meghan's concerns about the Heinz presentation, emphasizing that she should take advantage of her position as his wife and just relax and enjoy herself.  Later, when sitting in Hojo's restaurant, he starts to jot notes about the place, riffing on some pitch ideas.  She rightly states, "You like to work, but I can't like to work."  He's allowed to have a "working" vacation, whereas Meghan's only allowed a vacation, expected to be "pleasing" eye candy.  Don prefers to see her only as his "wife," not as an intellectual equal.

After sampling the restaurant's wares, Meghan asks for pie, but Don immediately cancels the order and demands three scoops of orange sherbet and two spoons.  He fully expects her to love this dessert as much as he does, and after one bite, she pushes the offensive neon stuff away, asking for chocolate instead.  Don subsequently accuses Meghan of trying to spite him, and she responds by gorging herself on huge mounds of orange sherbet, moaning with fake pleasure all the while.  This moment is hilarious, but precipitates a blow-up between the two, where Meghan calls Don on their troubled negotiation of their work/life balance, sarcastically claiming that he should tell her when she should be a worker and when she should be his wife.  He stalks off to the car, and then demands that she get in the car.  When she refuses, wanting to talk, he drives off and leaves her there.  After he cools off, he drives back to find her gone.  We are then left with a guilty, panicky Don who imagines the worst until he drives home in defeat.

I would have far preferred the perspective to have been Meghan's, but I understand that she's not as central a character as Don at this point.  He arrives home to find the door locked and chained, with Meghan petulantly refusing his entrance, screaming at him to "Go Away!"  Here the two characters slip into their previous roles, with Don turning neanderthal, breaking down the door, and chasing Meghan around the apartment, eventually hurling her and himself to the floor in a flying tackle.  This scene mirrors one in "A Little Kiss," where Meghan peevishly rebuffs Don while cleaning in her underwear, and he forcefully role-plays domineering manliness into a bout of make-up sex.  My sense is that these roles in their sex play are part of their dynamic, but here they don't fit as well as they have in the past.

Don wants to chalk this episode up to a mere fight, but Meghan cries that "every time we fight it just diminishes this a bit."  No make-up sex this time; Meghan's on her way to work.  Don, in turn, clings to her in abject and needy desperation.

I'm conflicted over this scene, because it feels as if Meghan has power over Don, but this power seems primarily sexual.  I also did not feel like Meghan was in any real danger from Don, despite his incredibly violent fake murder during "The Mystery Date" episode.  This episode's chase seemed like another one of their power games to me, rather than a possible hint of domestic violence.  Nevertheless, violence doesn't have to be physical for Don to be abusive, and his leaving Meghan behind is pretty damn indicative of what he's capable of doing.  Is this season about Don learning to be different, learning to be a better husband and co-worker, a better friend?  Or is Don on a crash course to f*#@ing up this relationship as well?  At work, he grabs Meghan's arm and they exchange a warm smile, but the cool tension between them is still there, rippling under the surface.

Thankfully, this dark and painful Mad Men episode is balanced by the hilarious trip Roger and his wife, Jane, go on after taking LSD at a pretentious dinner party thrown by Jane's therapist.  As dinner ends and the blowhard academic in the group tells them to be ready to "turn on," Roger takes this comment as an excuse to "turn in," and tries to steer Jane home.  She points out that he truly doesn't listen to her; the whole point of the evening was for them to "trip" together.  Roger grudgingly goes along with the downing of laced sugar cubes, and wrongly assumes that he's unaffected by the drugs until he opens some Russian vodka and hears Russian Opera blasting through the room.  He lights a cigarette, and it deflates in his mouth like a New Year's party favor.  Upon looking in the mirror, he sees his hair as neatly white on one side, with the other half dyed black. Love the hallucinations.  Other party guests are crawling around the floor or listening to Beach Boys songs with incredibly significant lyrics.

After they return home, Roger loses himself in the giggles, and then outright guffaws, as he believes he's literally attending the 1919 World Series.  All this lightness paves the way for the two to have a deeply probing talk about their problematic marriage, and the fact that Roger doesn't even "like" Jane, even though he once "really did."  When Jane wakes the next morning, Roger has come to terms with their relationship ending and has personally grown from their adventure; Jane's not as pleased.  Whereas she hoped that their "trip" would bring them together, Roger's relieved that they will now amicably be able to leave each other, despite how expensive it will be for him.  This move clearly leaves the door open for him to start bothering Joan again, who booted Greg out two episodes ago.  Heavy Sigh.

Roger's last words are a great ending to the episode, and I'm really glad that Matthew Weiner and crew gave him a bit more to work with this week.  As Don stands alone in the conference room, reeling from Bert Cooper's scathing cut down implying that he's "hardly working" at SCDP, Roger throws open the door and proclaims, "It's going to be a beautiful day!"  Indeed, Roger, it is.  Thank you LSD.

GIRLS wins mortification sweepstakes

Ah yes, this scene is the moment where Hannah, after rambling on about the "stuff that gets up in the sides of condoms" decides that she may actually want to have AIDS.  Really.  Her OB/GYN doctor succinctly tells her that she's being incredibly silly, and explains some of the current statistics surrounding women contracting HIV.  Hannah proceeds to freak out some more, and the intrepid doctor comments, "You couldn't pay me enough to be 24 again."  Immediately, I thought, "Yes, you could," and then, "you might have to pay me to continue to watch this really annoying program."  Yep, Girls episode 2, "Vagina Panic," disappointed.

The lack of racial, class, and sexual diversity is a significant part of what's wrong with this show, and has been discussed intelligently in places such as The HairpinJezebel and Racialicious. The show has also been commended by some for its apparent realism, and as I mentioned in an early post, I haven't seen my mid-twenties for a while now.  Still, I do not find watching a sex scene where Hannah's sex partner orders her around repeatedly, using her like some kind of f*#@ toy, and spewing a plethora of pathetic fantasies in order to get off (you're a dirty little girl, you're eleven, you're a junkie and I found you on the street).  Adam then throws in some Fifty Shades of Grey and informs her that she cannot come until he gives her permission.  Hannah's friend Marnie tells her that she shouldn't let Adam treat her that way, because he's not her boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Marnie's bored to death with her nice guy boyfriend, Charlie, and tries to convince him to be a dick to her.

I get it.  These young hetero women are confused about sex and desire, and they are muddling through the dating and relationship minefield.  Their world is full of really bad sex and uncertainty, but do all four of these young women have to be such flaming idiots?  Even the one who has some kind of reasonable intelligence and sense of responsibility, Marnie, has some kind of bizarre epiphany at the OB/GYN office, and decides "I want to be a Mom.  I've been put on this planet to be a mother."  This declaration occurs out of the blue as a supposed reaction to Jessa's missed abortion appointment.  Jessa avoids her abortion, even though everyone else shows up (Hannah, Marnie and Shoshana) for moral support.  Instead, she has sex with some guy she picks up in a bar.

Jessa is the foreign accented, long-haired hottie, a pot-smoking bohemian crashing at her cousin Shoshona's flat.  In an earlier discussion, Jessa grows angry at a self-help dating guide that makes assumptions about what "LADIES" want sexually.  She points out that her desires don't fit neatly into some lady box.  At the bar, she aggressively makes out with this guy, and demands that he stick his hands down her pants.  When he does, he finds her bleeding.  This discovery only increases her ardor, as she realizes that she's no longer pregnant.  I love the fact that she's not mortified, but turned on by the blood.

The problem with Girls is the MILES OF STUPID before and after this one moment.  After Jessa decries to Hannah the rigidity of dating rules toward young women, she declares that "dates are for lesbians," and that "she wants to have children from multiple fathers of different races."  Not only does she slam the queer community, but she's so ignorant, she thinks that being a mother is like shopping at United Colors of Benetton.  Furthermore, was Jessa actually ever pregnant, or was her period late?  Did she take a pregnancy test, or is the abortion issue wiped out by a miscarriage?  The show's supposedly a comedy, so maybe Dunham didn't want to get into the aftermath of Jessa having a successful procedure, but this deus ex machina is a cop-out.

The only other scene that I kind of liked was Shoshana's abashed admission that she's a virgin, and has never given anyone a blow job either.  Marnie's response, based on her own narrow experience, is that sex is "really, really overrated," to which Shoshana replies "What?!?" in abject horror.  This exchange is the best moment in the whole episode, and it is so fleeting.  I quickly surmised that Zosia Mamet (who plays the lesbian Joyce on Mad Men) is actually quite talented, and that she's more than a narrow virgin caricature if she's given the dialogue to highlight her abilities.  That's a big "if" since Dunham is the show's writer/director on these first two episodes, and she has the most screen time so far.

Which brings me to the truly mortifying scene on the show--the one that puts all other moments in high relief, it's so incredibly awful.  I had to press pause on my TIVO and just yell OMG WTF!  As a staunch gender sympathizer, I want things to work out for Hannah, even though I find her both dumb and unlikeable.  Her "average girl" appearance is the only thing that endears me to her, and her passive, doltish sex scenes are even starting to qualify that small pleasure.  In this scene, Hannah is at a job interview, and it's going smashingly well.  She and her employer (at a publishing company?) are laughing and swapping jokes, clearly meeting on a personal level.  I thought, "Finally, this show will broaden Hannah's circle beyond her three friends!"  Yet Girls is about constant mortification and humiliation, so Hannah has to sabotage herself by sneaking in an un-funny date rape joke into the conversation.  When she realizes that her "joke" did not land well, she tries to explain it, burying herself further.  The look on her interviewer's face was, I'm certain, mirrored on viewers faces the world over.  Disbelief combined with incredulity, with a dash of disgust.

So I've acquired more "get-off-my-lawn" curmudgeon points this week by not digging the "realism" of Girls.  Hannah's one moment of possible triumph and success is demolished by her opening her mouth and uttering something stupid, which she does again, and again, and again.  As a feminist who encourages women her age to articulate their desires, imagine their possibilities, and fight for their dreams, Hannah's representation just pisses me off.  A television show is doing an immense disservice to women if it makes viewers just want a female character to shut the f*#@ up.  Weekly mortification and female humiliation does not give me pleasure; if it did, I'd watch a lot more "reality" television.  As someone who believes that popular cultural creators should be held responsible for the types of representations they disseminate, the fact that Lena Dunham is a woman in an enormously male-dominated industry just does not feel like enough reason to let her crappy representations slide.

The bumbling female character is a mainstay of the rom-com genre, so this type of representation is well tread ground, but watching four of these characters every week is borderline excruciating.  (Unsurprisingly, I'm not a fan of the rom-com, but studying the genre is important for understanding cultural constructions of normative femininity).  I understand awkward, and experience that state pretty regularly, but I recommend Issa Rae's Awkward Black Girl series as a series of vignettes far more funny and relateable.

I'll give Girls another week, mostly because the series is becoming such an important talking point, and it might prove really useful for my Women Directors course.  It's a slog, though.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

GAME OF THRONES and scary ladyparts

I try to convey to my students, and firmly believe that, one can be a passionate feminist and still enjoy things that are not necessarily feminist.  Really, if feminists ONLY supported feminist things, feminists would spend most of their time avoiding most of U.S. and U.K. popular culture.  First of all, "feminism"--as a movement, a political stance, a set of ideas, an identity, or an attitude--is not a fixed category.  "Feminism" is constantly changing and mutating, and most feminists recognize that as the world changes, so do ideas.  Feminism's commitment to intersectionality and engagement with new technologies are just two important shifts in thought that have occurred over the last twenty years.

Still, not all things are feminist, and just because you are a feminist and like something, does not make "object X" feminist.  This flawed logic has been used by plenty of feminists and postfeminists to justify the celebration of a whole variety of texts.  I understand the desire to maintain one's principles and consistency in one's beliefs, but cultural critics and consumers need to thoughtfully understand and examine their own contradictions.  I'm not saying that some pleasures should be guilt-free either, but guilt can be a useful tool when examined more closely.  The conflicts that feminists feel about their own pleasures can be extremely productive.

For instance, here's an example of a pop cultural mash-up that I recently enjoyed, and I STILL feel terrible about enjoying it, and have yet to stop talking about the problems this particular representation raises.  In episode 3 of this season's Mad Men, entitled "Tea Leaves," viewers finally got a glimpse of the unfairly reviled Better Francis (formerly Draper), and the icy blonde January Jones is shown wearing a fat suit.  Her weight is an issue in this episode, since during a doctor's visit to acquire diet pills, Betty finds out that she has a lump near her thyroid and that she might have cancer.  This episode explores issues of aging femininity and beauty culture while simultaneously positioning Jones's body as no longer ideal and pathological.  Like Pete, over the last four seasons Betty has been situated as a villain, albeit a more nuanced one, and the reaction to her changed appearance in the blogosphere was fairly venomous at times.  At first, I avoided the Fat Betty video that was making the rounds, worried that it reeked of fat hatred.  Then I watched it.  Then I showed the video to my partner, with much contextualizing and caveats.  Let's just say that every once in a while, one of us will utter a "bam-a-lam" and then laugh guiltily.  Here I'm disseminating it:


I still have problems with this video, and I think that my discomfort is a good thing.  Examining the pleasures and pains that this video brings to me is important for my continuing evolution as a feminist.  After this week's episode where Meghan gobbles up some orange sherbet (in "Far Away Places"), I'm certain that more ice cream eating is on the video horizon.

Now to address Game of Thrones and that intense picture of fan art that heads up the post (of Lady Melisandre of Asshai, a priestess of R'hllor in service to Stannis Baratheon from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire). I am really enjoying this HBO series this season (two).  I thought it had its moments last season, but this season the show's women seem to be taking a more central role to balance out all the annoying male posturing and power plays common to the "fantasy" genre.  Characters such as Daenerys, Melisandre, Brienne, Arya, Cersei, and Sansa are often strong and powerful.  Yet having a "strong woman" in a popular cultural product DOES NOT make it feminist, especially when that strength is coupled with victimization or dependent on sexual power.  I'm not a fan of the sword and sandal/chain mail fantasy genre, mostly because I'm not interested in a bunch a guys running around fighting each other over a universe-ending piece of jewelry.

GOT can be really surprising, and those moments, when they pop up, make the show really worthwhile.  (SPOILERS as I ruin those surprises).  When that evil little incest twerp, Joffrey, orders Ned Stark's head chopping, or when Daenerys Targaryen walks into her husband's fiery funeral pyre, and emerges from the ashes the next day, unscathed, with 3 baby dragons on her person, I thought WOW.  These images are iconic and thought-provoking.  Still, with all the beheadings, incest, and sexual hijinks, I was still utterly unprepared for GOT's last five minutes of "Garden of Bones."  Watching the suddenly pregnant Melisandre give birth to a crazy smoke monster in that dark cave was a classic WTF moment, and one I'm not likely to forget for a while.

I'm not even clear on what is happening in this scene, especially because I have not read any of Martin's books.  Sir Davos takes Melisandre to where Stannis's brother, Renly, is camped, in order to assassinate him or cause some general mayhem.  Melisandre is some weird witchy priestess who claims that Stannis is divinely chosen to be king of the seven kingdoms because he is supported by the Lord of the Light. (This description is truly ridiculous, but run with it).  Melisandre has just had sex with Stannis on his strategic war table (where one plans battles, a la Risk), and now she's giving birth to this crazy smoke monster demon.  After my partner and I stopped exclaiming, I commented that these types of acute sexual fears unsurprisingly come from a fantasy genre that is championed by a bunch of nerdy, heterosexual 14 year old boys who have never gotten laid.  Granted, my response was a little dismissive, but does connect to a television show rife with gender trouble and scary ladyparts.  Here's some more problematic evidence beyond Melisandre:

Daenerys Targaryen is the Mother of Dragons, and this title itself is enough to make everyone afraid of her, and for her to lay claim to the Iron Throne.  In season one, Daenerys is used as chattel by her a-hole brother in order to gain the support and muscle of the Dothraki, some nomadic warrior tribe led by the New Khal Drogo.  Inititally, Khal manhandles the virginal Daenerys, but over time his Khaleesi, with the help of some tribal women, learns how to experience her own sexual pleasure, and she and Drogo grow to love each other in their own odd way.  Fast forward to season's end, Khal's dead, and Daenerys survives a devastating fire because she's part dragon, and now has three dragon babies (that are kind of cute).  How did this event occur?  Who knows?  Ladyparts are scary and mysterious.

Cersei Lannister, now the Queen Regent at King's Landing after the death of her stupid, drunk husband Robert (who was gored by a boar, heh), is certainly powerful, but she has a couple of huge weaknesses.  Her second biggest problem is her incestuous lust and love for her brother, Jamie.  BTW, his nickname is "kingslayer."

In the first episode of season one of GOT, when these two visit the Starks at Winterfell, they sneak off and have sex in some tower room of the castle.  Ned Stark's son, Bram, is a bit of a climber, and he shimmies up the side of the castle in order to peek in a window or two, and catches the siblings Lannister in the act.  Jamie proceeds to push the kid of the building, crippling and nearly killing him.  Nice family.  They also manage to produce Cersei's and EVERYONE'S biggest problem:

Joffrey, Cersei's eldest child, and the current King of the Seven Kingdoms--Incest spawn.  From day one, this kid has been evil, and he continues to be a sadistic, power-hungry brat who likes to watch and inflict pain.  In the latest GOT episode, his uncle, Tyrion, decides to give him a couple of prostitutes in order to acclimate him toward how women are traditionally used on this show.  This gift arrives after Tyrion witnesses the beating he gives his fiancee, Sansa Stark, who has shown distinct inklings that she's going to be the one to kill this Joffrey.  Fingers crossed.  Maybe the jerk needs some educating in the sexual arts.  Instead of some rowdy sex, Joffrey forces one prostitute, by crossbow arrow, to beat the other one with a nasty scepter until he's satisfied.  Early in season 2, upon hearing the incest rumors surrounding his lineage, Joffrey orders all possible bastards of the former king to be butchered, so there won't be any competition to his claim to the throne.  Bloody baby killing commences.  All this really bad behavior is allowed because this cretin is king and that's how he rolls.  Cersei continues to support him and defend him because he's her son, and she really doesn't have much choice.  She should have controlled her ladyparts better.

Now GOT has the potential to create complex female characters who do not gain all their power from what they do with their scary ladyparts.  Lady Brienne of Barth is one of the fiercest knights out there, and she fights for Renly Baratheon on and off  the battlefield.  Similarly, Yara Greyjoy is in command of her father's sailing fleet, with her prodigal brother only getting to captain a lone boat.  Meanwhile, Arya Stark, who has been on the run from King's Landing since her father was labeled a traitor and beheaded, is masquerading as a boy, and fighting for her survival.  She's also a mean touch with a sword.  Hopefully, great events are part of her future, although her outing as a "girl" by head patriarch Tywin Lannister could be a problem.  I'll have to wait and see, and I'm willing.  Still, the male-written fantasy genre tends to limit women's possibilities (whereas one cannot say the same about Octavia Butler or Ursula Le Guin).

The issue is not whether Game of Thrones is a feminist show.  Or Mad Men, Lost Girl, or any of the other shows that I watch or have watched.  The fact is, I'm a feminist who is watching, and I'm not letting popular culture off the hook, even if the show has things that I like in it.  For now I'm still watching, but always with a slightly raised eyebrow.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bill Cunninham, New York

"Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life"--Bill Cunningham

Photographer and former milliner Bill Cunningham cares about clothes, and he's still zipping around NYC on his bicycle, taking shots of women on the streets of Manhattan.  He's also 80+ years old, which doesn't make him any less of a wonderful, eccentric spirit full of energy and insight into contemporary style.  Richard Press's documentary, Bill Cunningham New York (2010) is an absolute gem of a film, a love letter to NYC and the vibrant creative forces that reside there.  And if you like hats at all, this film is a must-see.  Expert hat wearer Patrick McDonald makes numerous appearances in the film, and he even demonstrates how to change hats seamlessly.  Bill's neighbor, Editta Sherman, is a 93 year old photographer and style maven, and she models some of Bill's old chapeaus.  As you can see from some of his designs (above), he clearly is an inspiration to artists such as Philip Treacy.

I lived in NYC for several years, and despite living in other cities and places for longer periods of time, something about this city always feels like home.  The area has changed dramatically since my heyday, twenty years ago, but there's still no place like it anywhere else on the planet.  Cunningham is a fixture of NY, and guys like "The Sartorialist" clearly rip off his street photography, even though Cunningham's images are less posed, more captured.  He's not impressed by celebrity or wealth, and rather shyly accepts accolades for his contributions.  His belief that photographers should be "quiet, discreet, and invisible" speaks volumes about his approach to capturing everyday New Yorkers at their most fashionably expressive moments.  This film is simply wonderful and highly recommended.

Sorry, ABC's MISSING, but I tried

After watching 5 1/2 episodes of ABC's action series, Missing, I finally had to throw in the towel, give up the ghost, throw out the baby with the bathwater, and all the other hoary cliches I can think of right now.  I deleted it from my TIVO season pass after about twenty minutes through episode six.  I'm not sure what drove me to it.  Was it the fact that only Becca (Judd's character) knew how to disarm all the booby traps in what used to be her and her husband Paul's love shack?  Or when bitchy young CIA agent Violet started snooping around and accidentally set off a hidden bomb that blew the cabin to bits?  Or how about when Violet takes the blame for destroying ALL the evidence, and Becca says, "That's the first thing you've gotten right, princess."  No, I think what broke me was the umpteenth flashback of Becca and Paul in happier days (before she thought he was killed with a car bomb--oh, he's alive! And evil), when she was either getting married or pregnant with the missing kid, Michael.  In this episode/flashback, they are "painting the nursery" in said cabin, and have a playful paint fight.  Really?  That ship has sailed circa John Hughes and She's Having a Baby from 1988 (with incredible Kate Bush accompaniment during moving montage).

Sorry, Ashley Judd.  You are a terrific actress and an outspoken feminist, and I am still hoping that all the hubbub regarding your rebuttal to dozens of discussions about your face seeming PUFFY focuses more attention on your series.  I cannot watch this show anymore.  I only have so much room and time for bad shows that could be useful for discussions about gender (I'm looking at you Revenge).  Granted a show where a woman hero more than competently handles herself in the male-dominated world of action and espionage deserves some kudos.  Still, it seems that in the world of action heroines, we've got limited choices.
  • Action Babe: sexy clothing and hair, often uses sexiness as way to fool bad guys before she kicks their butt, because looks belie competency.  Should be young, thin, and gorgeous, but now even Helen Mirren is in on the fun.  Sexiness is required at any age now.
  • Little Girl Killing Machine:  often raised by psycho ex-spy Dad, is trained in all the ways to kill and does not have normal kid "affect."  Not sexualized (yet), but plays little girl trope to fool bad guys, because looks belie competency.
  • Traumatized Victim/Hero:  almost every horror film Final Girl and rape avenger.  Must live or re-live graphic and protracted trauma before getting righteously angry and fighting back.  Almost always broken or crazy in some fundamental way.
  • Bad Ass Grizzly Mama:  the most acceptable motivation for a woman enacting violence, this Mom is either a retired or amnesiac bad ass who is forced back into the game because of her kid, or a lady with deep nurturing instincts that accompany her fighting skills.  If you do not support her quest, you obviously hate children.
Exceptions exist to all of these types, and some action heroines have a combination of these tropes.  My favorite recent exception is Gina Carano's character, Mallory, in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire (2011).  I look forward to discussing this film in more detail once the DVD is released.  Alas, Missing goes with candidate #4, introduced to us by "King of the World" James Cameron in the late eighties/early nineties in Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Both of these films "maternalized" rather than "sexualized" their female protagonists, and Missing follows their lead.  Judd is still very attractive, but her skills, and her devotion to family are emphasized over her appearance, even though the "puffy face" fiasco reminds us that for women, looks always matter.  Heavy Sigh.

Quick plot synopsis:  Floral shop owner Becca Winstone (Ashley Judd) bravely sends her 18 year old son, Michael, off to Rome to study architecture on a summer fellowship, even though she hasn't let him out of her sight for the last decade, when her husband, Paul (Sean Bean, head still attached), was killed by a car bomb when he and Michael were on vacation.  Turns out that both Becca and Paul were CIA operatives, and she turned away from all that after her husband's death.  A couple of days after her son stops sending her constant texts, she becomes suspicious, jets off to Italy, and finds out that Michael has been kidnapped, although she does not know by whom or why.  As episodes unfold, Michael's kidnappers appear to be connected to Russian intelligence, and one immediately wonders if this show takes place in the eighties (nope--lots of Ipads & Iphones).  Oh, also Paul is actually alive, or someone's been surgically made over to look like him (episode 4).

The show initially had such potential.  Becca Winstone has mad skills, including hand-to-hand fighting, driving cars, boats, and motorcycles, shooting a variety of guns, and breaking into French intelligence by scaling some support pillars in an office building.

Actually, in this shot she's climbing a different structural support.  The scene that I admired in episode 2 has her back against a wall and a column, and she shimmies up the wall in a completely believable manner. She is tough, resourceful, and talented.  In episode 3, Becca's involved in this awesome speedboat chase scene, and she's shooting while driving.  In episode 5, she and her ex-lover, Interpol buddy Giancarlo, break into a bank in Prague, just to prove that they can do it right under the CIA's noses.  Everyone else on the show just basically follows Becca around while she solves all the puzzles, collects all the clues, fights all the bad guys, and outshines EVERYONE, young or old, male or female.  She's beat up and shot in Paris, and bounces back from these wounds quickly enough to continue fighting some more.  Really, in describing these moments, the show sounds pretty exciting and fun!  If only the show had no dialogue and no one every talked.

Throughout the series, characters repeatedly overstate ham-fisted dialogue.  I wanted to start a drinking game where every time Becca announced, declared, or shouted that "I'm not CIA, I'm a mother looking for her son!" I would drink, but I would have died of alcohol poisoning mid-way through episode 2.  Random characters from Becca's past tell her that "motherhood looks good on her," and everyone is impressed by her skills more than a decade out of the field.  Fierce mamas always fight when their family is harmed.

She also is very handy at crying and wailing, and collapses into a sobbing heap when she misses saving her son by mere seconds.  She also cries quite a bit when she finds out that Paul is alive.  I know that these events would be upsetting for anyone, but her reactions are not really consistent with her overall character.  Numerous flashbacks indicate that Becca is the tough, pragmatic one in her romantic relationship.  At the same time, some of the flashbacks are so acutely sentimental, and triggered by Becca's consciousness, that perhaps she is far mushier than she appears.  Only during flashbacks of her wedding, or during memories of Paul and Michael, does Becca smile.  When she does, the world shifts on its axis; Judd's beauty and charisma are truly luminous.  The rest of the time she's firmly focused on "finding her son!"

Of course, the show's entire raison d'etre is that Becca's son is missing, so he cannot be found too quickly.  Bring on the ridiculous subplots and flashbacks to give the show's characters more depth.  Michael, once kidnapped, is repeatedly moved just far enough from Mom's grasp.  As of episode 6, he's hanging out in a "castle," and has befriended some diabetic ex-model from Eastern Europe who is being used to keep him in check.  He is just about to escape, but then changes his mind and goes back for her, because he must love her already.  About ten days have elapsed, BTW.

Another problem with the show is how the other female characters are handled.  Violet, a younger, sexier, CIA operative is sleeping with her boss, Dax (pictured below).  He's divorced with a couple of kids, so he's much more attached to Becca and her needs, than Violet's, for he understands what it means to love your children.  Violet acts out in typically jealous and childish ways, and by episode 6, Becca and she are undeniably pitted against each other (see earlier "princess" comment).  She does have a really awesome tattoo on her back (because we see her naked).

Becca's friend and fellow flower shop employee, Mary, shows up out of the blue in Italy, because Becca's not returning her calls, and she is promptly used as a bargaining tool by some bad guys in episode 4.  Becca explains everything--kidnapped son, ex-CIA operative--and Mary gets sent back to the states in order to make random phone calls to Becca in future episodes (including 5).  She's also one of the only people of color in the entire series. One of the bad "guys" in episode 4 is a woman.  Sloane is an icy, blonde type with a British accent, and she's promptly shot in the head at the end of the episode.  One of the heads of the CIA is a woman, but we only see her on the phone with Dax, throwing a wrench into any plans he has to help Becca.  So she's bad.  And finally there's Oksana, Michael's new diabetic girlfriend, who will surely have a long career playing victims after this gig.  Even if Becca is super-competent, ever other woman in her diegetic world is out to get her, or exists as some kind of obstacle in her mission to "save her son!"  Ugh.

Five and a half episodes at least suggests some kind of commitment on my part to give Ashley Judd's action series a chance.  I do wish her many successes, because I believe that she is talented and is loaded with good intentions.  Unfortunately, her show is just unwatchable.  If it does get canceled, maybe she'll have more time to do worthwhile work such as this video.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exhibit celebrates 20th Anniversary of TWIN PEAKS--FIRE WALK WITH ME

David Lynch's Twin Peaks television series, and his "prequel" film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), epitomize some of the most indelible nightmares witnessed on screens big and small.  I actually did not watch the series in its entirety in the early 90s--no cable then, but I did have two VCRs.  Not much later I purchased the series box set on VHS and became utterly addicted.  Television series such as The X Files and Fringe, or anything created by Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller, are certainly influenced by Lynch's groundbreaking, twisted world.  We watch the pilot and first five episodes of the television series in my cult and camp class, and they never, ever get dated.  I feel proud whenever I hook a curious young student to this stuff!

I'm not a huge fan of Los Angeles.  I like my cities walkable and easily traversed using public transportation.  Still, the art scene in L.A. right now is mind-blowing, and the galleries and museums sprawled around the city make it an incredible destination.  The above image is "An Old Woman and Her Grandson" by SHAG, one of my favorite Pop Surrealist artists.  This work is part of a larger exhibit influenced by the 20th anniversary of Fire Walk with Me now showing at the Copro Gallery in Santa Monica, CA from April 21st-May 2nd, 2012.  You can check out articles on the show here, and here.

Jessica Joslin's "Waldo" is the most gorgeous clockwork bird.  Alas, remember what happened to Waldo.

"The Rifle's Spiral"--The Shins

This stunning image of a lone magician girl, created through stop-motion animation, is from the new video by The Shins, entitled "The Rifle's Spiral," directed by Jamie Caliri.  This director has done the credit sequence for the Lemony Snicket film (very cool), and some other short form animated commercials and music videos, which you can watch on his site.  His work is reminiscent of The Quay Brothers films crossed with Czech animator Jiri Trnka, with a dash of steampunk thrown in for good measure.  He would be great at bringing Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to the screen.  Beautiful and unsettling work.  Check out the video here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cabin in the Woods vs. Girls--first impressions

I just got back from seeing Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's film Cabin in the Woods, which has received tons of hype and enthusiasm since it premiered at SXSW.  The type of furor this film elicited is similar to another popular cultural product that premiered at the same festival--Lena Dunham's Girls.  I watched the first episode of that show last night (I love my TIVO).

I'm not going to say too much about Cabin just yet, because it's the type of film that spoilers could seriously affect.  I loved this film, and immediately looked forward to seeing it again.  I'll write a more detailed discussion once the film is a little less fresh.  I had held off on reading Entertainment Weekly's review of the film, but I did notice that Lisa Schwarzbaum gave the film a stinging "B-" grade.  On returning home, I grabbed the review, read her take, and felt it was equivalent to a "those damn kids better get off my lawn" fist shake.  I felt the same way when I read her review of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire a few months ago.  I have no idea how old Ms. Schwarzbaum is, and I likely may be her age or older, but I believe that her take on both of these films is a bit curmudgeonly.  My perception is all the more ironic given my take on the first episode of Dunham's new series Girls.

" I want a Lake House!  I want to sit by a lake!"  This mournful cry comes from Hannah's mother when Hannah good-naturedly requests a $1100 per month "stipend" from her parents to subsidize her life in NYC while she finishes her memoir.  For the next two years.  Hannah considers this proposal pretty thrifty considering, and she's partially right--no one can live on that little money in the City anymore.  Still, her parents are college professors, and just cannot afford to bankroll her anymore without giving up on some of their dreams (aka Lake House).  Dad's the softy here, not being able to bear seeing his little girl suffer, even though she's really laying on the floor because she's high off tea laced with opium pods.  I do admire Hannah's gumption here, and clearly Dunham's making fun of kids of privilege like herself (she plays Hannah), but the most horrible part of this scene is that I found myself IDENTIFYING WITH HER PARENTS.  Yep.  I felt like a complete old fart after seeing this first episode, and I'm not too happy about it.  Am I too old to really get Girls?

I hope not.  I teach a Women Directors class, and I am looking forward to spending a week on her and talking about her work with students that are around her age.  I think she might really resonate with them.  I've only seen one episode, and after perusing some of the reviews of the show, I get the sense that everyone else has seen at least three episodes before formulating an opinion.  I'm cautiously optimistic that these four young women will grow on me over time, but my first encounter with them left me a bit disappointed.  Still, some things I really liked:
  • Loved the scene with Hannah's boss at the publishing company.  I haven't seen Chris Eigeman in anything remotely meaty since The Gilmore Girls and I've sorely missed him.  He's a worthy adversary to Hannah's tart intelligence, and does not give her a paid internship just because she wants one.  Still, internships that exploit young people's labor is a pretty big problem, and I'm glad the show addresses it, albeit humorously.
  • Marnie's ambivalence toward her solicitous boyfriend.  Sometimes "love" is just not enough to make it worth staying with someone.
  • Hannah's beau, Adam, is clearly a complete loser, and he is represented very realistically.  Some people are a bit up in arms over the sex scene in the pilot.  This scene is awkward and horrible, and I think it is meant to be.  Sex on television does not have to be all rainbows and unicorns, damn it.  Dunham emphasizes how confusing sex can be.  I hope in future episodes Hannah gets to explore what she likes.
  • Hannah has a normal looking body.  She's not some overly made up, model-thin beauty.  Jessa seems to be fulfilling the gorgeous, hipper-than-thou role, accent and all.  But...
  • Jessa's pregnant.  Good.  I'd like to see a television show handle abortion intelligently.  The previews for next week suggested that Hannah's concerned about Adam's cavalier attitude toward condoms.  I look forward to seeing where things go...
To me, this show is a "dramedy," heavier on the drama than the comedy.  I didn't find myself laughing out loud, which I do, often, when watching Parks and Recreation or Community.  I found the show's tone more along the lines of a Nicole Holofcener comedy, and I think I saw a poster of Walking and Talking in relation to this show.  Too bad Dunham didn't include this director when she programmed her "Hey Girlfriend" screenings at BAM

I realize that this over-hyped show had an uphill battle due to massive over exposure (see earlier post).  The problem is, I just do not care about these "girls." Yet.  I want to, I really do. A half-hour is not a long time to get acquainted, so I haven't given up yet.  And I learned what G-chat is, based on an interesting discussion of Dunham's show on The Huffington Post here.

Oh, and Cabin in the Woods is one Lake House I can definitely get behind!
More to come.

MAD MEN--"Signal 30"

Please Lane, give Pete Campbell a proper beatdown.  I completely condone this act of violence.  Although this awkward "fight" reminds me of another series of films where the male characters reveal themselves as ineffectual fighters.

Thankfully, in Mad Men, these two men are not fighting over some woman.  No.  Pete just told Lane Price in his ham-fisted, self-pitying, sniveling way that Lane is useless at SCDP in front of the three other named partners.  I would have liked to see some glove slapping and then some rapiers.  Pistols at dawn  No such luck.

The problem with this week's episode was that it was almost all about Pete, a character for whom I have virtually no sympathy or empathy.  The series seems to be reminding us this week who the true villains of the show are, just in case viewers have trouble forgetting that last episode Don Draper had sex with a woman, strangled her to death, and then kicked her under the bed like a broken toy.  But it was all "just a dream!"  Not one I will easily forget.  This week Don fixes a sink in the suburbs and abstains from sleeping with some prostitutes at a Manhattan brothel, so he's clearly on the road to redemption.

Here are what I consider some of this week's highlights in a relatively lackluster episode that gave short shrift to the series' female characters:

Having Meghan and Don visit Pete and Trudy in the suburbs helped to remind viewers of "Old Don" while comparing him to "New Don."  Don now sneers at the bridge and tunnel crowd, even though just a few short years ago he was a denizen, taking that commuter train home to the wife and kids, when he wasn't hooking up with one of his lady friends.  Meghan's motivations are more interesting to me than Don's here.  She seems to want to try out the suburbs like a new sweater, and see if it itches as much as she thinks it will.  She even purchased this abysmal "sports jacket" for Don to wear on his sojourns to the country--I guess in order to fit in with these other horrible "blazers."  I immediately asked my partner if his Dad ever wore anything like that, but if so, he cannot remember.  (He has an incredible memory, so I chalked this reaction up to a justified blocking out of a traumatic event).

The drapes are hideous as well.  I get it, though.  Living in the suburbs turns you into a tasteless, pretentious oldster.  Certainly Betty and Henry's "Haunted Mansion" attests to this crisis of style.  Maybe that's why Pete chases some 18 year old cheerleader while taking his driver's education class (hence the title of this episode, a classic auto safety film).  He is living in hell, especially in comparison to Don and Meghan's swinging cool pad in the City.

Although, if we're going to have mid-60s apartment envy, this pad is more like it!  I want a fire pit in my living room.

Still, more interesting to me is Meghan's curiosity toward this other suburban world.  Everyone else acts like they've been served tasty shards of glass, and continue to treat each other with courtesy, even if they are bleeding internally.  She seems to be sincerely interested in her fellow guests, asking questions at dinner and uncovering Ken Cosgrove's "secret" life.  When Ken's wife outs his moonlighting as a science fiction author, Meghan eagerly asks for more details about Ken's creative side.  The most hilarious scene occurs when Ken tries to get his wife to stop praising him by begging "Cynthia" to stop.  Meghan then joyously shouts "CYNTHIA!," who politely answers "what?" not realizing that Don and Meghan have been trying to remember her name the entire night.  That moment of triumph is the funniest minute in the whole episode by far.

When Cynthia, in turn, asks how Meaghan got interested in advertising, she remarks that she became intrigued watching Don and Peggy at work (rather than sleeping with and marrying her boss).  Everyone exchanges a series of uncomfortable glances at this point to emphasize that Meghan's connection to Don is always in the forefront of their minds.  Meghan's past as an "actress" is brought up yet again, and I cannot help but think that she has some intriguing secrets of her own.  Here's hoping that she rises above her reputation and reveals some of her talents without usurping Peggy's position at SCDP. 

As the women start cleaning up, there are sudden shrieks and laughter heard from the kitchen, and the menfolk run in to see the fuss.  Turns out that Pete's "fix-it" of the dripping faucet from the night before only made matters worse, and water is now spraying throughout the kitchen.

How Trudy has managed to throw a dinner party without turning on the sink before this moment is besides the point.  Thankfully, ex-suburbanite Don Draper is at hand, and quickly strips down to his t-shirt and shuts the water off, while Pete fumbles for the right "tool."  Ha.

On the ride home from this fun Saturday night, Don gets amorous while Meghan drives, and asks her to pull over, suggesting that they "make a baby."  Meghan responds "that does it for you?" or something along those lines, and tells him "that's impossible."  Huh?  What?  And why is Don even saying this?  Does he miss his old life, or just want a do-over with a different lady?  Let's hope this little exchange is foreshadowing something messy and complicated further down the line.  Could Meghan not be able to have children?  Or not want them?  She does pull over for a little vanilla necking, but only because his sink fix turned her on.  She likes to dip her toe in the suburbs, but is definitely not interested in diving in.  Babies=Suburbs during this time period.

Later, when the men of SCDP, sans Lane, visit the brothel, everyone partakes but Don, who is at the bar watching all the shenanigans.

Earlier, Don's comment about having experience with "outhouses" seemed to fall on deaf ears, so as another reminder of his humble beginnings, he tells the Madam of the brothel that he grew up in a "whorehouse."  Luckily all his colleagues are getting busy, so this remark is not overheard by them, but said for the sake of the audience still recovering from last week's Don Draper debacle.  Don's escaped a tragic past, in case you forgot!  Last week was a nightmare brought on by a fever!  Oh, and the scene where Pete has sex with his prostitute is especially telling.  After running through some standard sexual roles and scripts, she finds the only one that turns Pete on is when she calls him "her king."  Nice detail.

When the boys go home after their fun, Pete and Don are the last ones sitting in the cab, squished in the back with Pete's oppressive guilt.  He complains that Don is judging him, but Don tells him that he's a different man because of Meghan.  Don states that if he would have met Meghan first, he may not have screwed his last marriage up so badly (that's right, blame Betty, the other villain).  Ah, Don's next step toward redemption.  He's learned from his mistakes.  The show is willing to drum up sympathy for Don at every turn, even after he "fake" murders someone.  Pete is always a jerk, no matter what happens to him, because he's never painted as a victim, and he's always bitterly unhappy with his lot.  He causes his own problems, and that makes him even more loathsome.  Now that Pete's been lecherous toward the cheerleader, cheated on Trudy, and insulted Lane, on top of all his past sins, he's once again seated firmly in the villain chair.  Don's off the hook.

Which makes Lane successfully knocking Pete flat all the more satisfying.  If you want to see this entertaining .gif, visit here.  Here's hoping that next week Peggy, Joan, and Dawn get their due, because I don't want to sit through such a whiny sausage-fest again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

GIRLS--it better be ***&$%^ Brilliant

Feminist media scholars, and seemingly every other woman who watches television, have been bombarded with discussions and ads regarding Lena Dunham's new HBO show Girls, which premieres Sunday night.  I have my concerns regarding how four young straight privileged white women are being heralded as the great WHITE hope of women-created and focused programming.  And yet, Dunham has a smart and distinctive voice, and I want her to be successful so that she can open doors for other women.  I'm trying to not be cynical and say something like, "Yeah look at all the doors Kathryn Bigelow opened with her Best Director Oscar win."  Oh.  I just said it.

Also, I was never one of these people enamored by Bridesmaids (2011), another Judd Apatow produced concoction.  Don't get me wrong.  I loved Freaks and Geeks, and really liked Undeclared, but somewhere along the way, Apatow went terribly wrong with Knocked Up (2007), and since then I look at everything he does with a suspicious cocked eyebrow and squint. 

Still, I'm excited about this show, even though I'm swimming in a giant ocean of Hype right now, and I JUST WANT THE DAMN SHOW TO START ALREADY!  Jeez.

If you do not know what I'm talking about, and then, one wonders, how in the world you found this blog, you can find out more from these sources, currently unread, but holding their own separate windows on my browser.'s coverage: here, here, here, and here .
The New York Times has some coverage: here and here.
Huff post: here.
and Women in Hollywood: here.

These posts are just ones that have popped up in the last week.  I have been reading about this show for ages, even before all the hoopla at SXSW where the creators premiered the series, red carpet and all.  We'll see how Dunham handles it all.  Will she become a hip commercial muse, schilling for every one from Luis Vuitton to Marc Jacobs (hello Sophia Coppola).  Or will she make her ubiquitous presence over-known by having her own pop culture column in Entertainment Weekly, and then complain about her over-exposure later (hello Diablo Cody).  I'm hoping neither, but synergistic media and the powers of white heterosexual patriarchy create a hungry monster and I'm sure Dunham is so very yummy!!

I'm purposefully NOT reading these articles until after I see this show, and I'll try to weigh in afterward.  Here's hoping it's as good as the hype.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Double Hour/La Doppia Hora (Giuseppe Capotondi, 2009)

The Double Hour is one of those insidious films that, somewhere around the mid-way point TWISTS.  If you're a spectator like me who is especially interested in culpable heroines whose subjectivity is called into question--is she being haunted or is she crazy??--then this film serves up multiple satisfactions.  I'm not saying that the equation of female subjectivity with pathology is not troubling; this cultural trope has been around for centuries as a way of representing longstanding cultural anxieties regarding women.  Yet this film uses techniques that truly align the spectator with its main female protagonist, Sonia (Kseniya Rappaport), which renders the film's main male character, Guido (Filippo Timi) almost beside the point.  He could be "Guy X."  This film is all about Sonia, and not as your garden-variety femme fatale.  Spoilers ahead.

Much of the film takes place in a hotel in Turin where Sonia works as a chambermaid.  Early on, one of the hotel's guests appears to jump from a hotel balcony to her death while Sonia's cleaning her bathroom.  The image of her body, lying many stories below, is framed poignantly from Sonia's POV (point-of view) as she looks from above; in fact, most of the film is through her viewpoint.  She appears quiet, hardworking, and a little shy.  As her fellow maid, Margherita, points out, Sonia seldom smiles.  When we get glimpses of her spartan apartment, the space is as minimalist and impersonal as Sonia's demeanor, and the spectator receives little insight into her inner world.  For now.

Sonia tries to open up her social life by attending a speed dating event run by the domineering matchmaker Marisa. 

**I've never participated in speed dating, but it seems like it might be fun or utterly annoying.  Fun because you meet a ton of people in a brief amount of time, and you have to rely on your first impressions or gut when it comes to an interest or attraction to one of them.  Really annoying because you basically have to pitch your personal self quickly to someone else with a degree of sincerity, and that does not seem like an easy task.

Anyway, back to the film.  Like so many representations of singles dating in films, this scenario is initially represented as pretty horrible.  The film tosses blowhard, mama's boy, and creeper stereotypes at Sonia, who looks a little more defeated after every encounter.  By the time Guido sits down at her table, she seems grateful that he's not some kind of total weirdo.  He seems a little brusque, but admits that he's a long standing veteran of Marisa's events--just not a successful one unless you count cheap hook-ups.  Sonia and he have one of those, and he kind of tosses her out afterward without giving her his number.  The film stays with him after Sonia leaves, but only for a moment as he has a mini-tantrum and throws a bottle at the door after she departs.  Why??  Not so sure.  He's even more of a mystery than Sonia, but not in a very compelling way.  Still, Marisa calls soon after to say that he's requested Sonia's number.  She's psyched, and Margherita notices that Sonia's smiling more at work.  Yippee (sarcastic undertone).  Unfortunately, the tone of the film makes it clear that she will not be smiling for long.

On one of Sonia's days off, Guido picks her up at her apartment, and they zip off while "In Between Days" from The Cure's The Head on the Door album plays in the background.

**Suddenly I wondered, is this film taking place in the 80s?  Then I realized, nah.  Cellphones.

Turns out that Guido's a former cop who is now a security guard for a rich guy's uber-mansion in the middle of the woods somewhere in the Italian countryside.  He takes his new girl to the manor, lets her listen to some nature sounds, and then turns off electronic security for the place so that they can walk, hand-in-hand, in the woods, unencumbered.  Just as the two are settling down on a nice little leaf-covered knell, a gunman shows up and threatens both of them.  They are captured by balaclava-wearing guys robbing the mansion, and they do a fine job of stripping it of its luxury accoutrements.  The two of them are tied to columns while the robbers empty the place, and one's feverish mind starts to work overtime.  Is Sonia in on it with these robbers?  Is Guido?  In classic cop-show fashion, Guido works to free his hands while one of the robbers threatens to sexually assault Sonia (yes, that tired cliche), and when he goes to save her, Guido's shot.  Dead.

Now the film gets interesting, and not just because "Guy X" is no longer in the picture.  Tragically, Sonia appears pretty devastated by this harrowing experience, and can barely function at her chambermaid job.  She has a slight scar on her forehead (a la Harry Potter) where the bullet went through Guido and hit her.  Still this physical scar is minor compared to the mental one she is carrying with her.  She is more than haunted by her near death experience; she seems to be haunted by Guido as well.  While she's preparing for a workday at the hotel, she sees Guido on a security monitor at the hotel's security station.  She quickly runs to the place where he appeared, but no one's there.  This investigation entails fantastic frenzied camerawork down a variety of hallways and stairwells.  Another evening, while she's home alone, in the bath, every time she submerges her head underwater, she hears that pesky Cure song.  She receives a phone call from Guido repeating her name. Is he alive?  Yet she attended his funeral, the mass headed by this same damn priest that keeps popping up.  Meanwhile, a cop friend of Guido's, Dante, is suspicious of Sonia's involvement in the earlier robbery, and harasses her at every turn.  Is someone trying to gaslight her, or is Guido's spirit truly haunting her?

Events in the film continue to get weirder and weirder.  Dante shows her a picture of her and Guido taken in Buenos Aires, yet Sonia has never been there and definitely not with Guido.  Like the "surveillance footage" from before, and despite the film taking place at a time where technology can lie, Sonia holds this photographic image as evidence of some kind of truth.  At home, the lights mysteriously flicker on and off, and her flashlight momentarily reveals Guido standing in the hallway.  Freaked out, she runs to fellow chambermaid Margherita's home to stay the night.  When she returns the following day, all the lights are blazing in her apartment and her flashlight is dead.  Meanwhile, just to up the creepy quotient, a frequent guest at the hotel, Bruno, keeps following her around, defending her from rude guests and trying to finagle a date with her.  Some kind of traveling salesman, Margherita makes an earlier suggestion that he's carrying around his dead wife in his ever present suitcase.  One does not ever feel confident regarding what events are really happening, and what might be manifestations of Sonia's unraveling psyche.

Sonia's gaze and subjectivity are what truly gives the film narrative momentum and meaning.  Even though her perceptions are confused and unreliable, the film assiduously keeps the spectator within Sonia's perspective, and so one identifies and sympathizes with her struggles, even when (SPOILER alert) it turns out that Sonia was involved in the robbery at the country mansion.  Still, this piece of information does not arrive until the film's 49 minute mark, a little more than half way through the film.  She ends up following one of the trucks she recalls seeing at the time of the robbery, with the film's narration suggesting that her curious investigation could be dangerous to her (since it's accompanied by tense music and framing).  She thrusts open the door of the moving truck where one of the robbers sits, but instead of a violent showdown, the two passionately embrace.  Nevertheless, Sonia exhibits hesitancy and remorse regarding this interaction, especially when her boyfriend, Riccardo, plans their escape to Argentina.  Now, what initially seemed like incipient madness turns into a portrait of a woman haunted by guilt.  Sonia has been punishing herself for what ostensibly became a robbery gone wrong, but the film implies that she had/has feelings for Guido, and is distinctly unwilling to let him go.

Her mental self-punishment culminates in two more acts of violence that are as unsettling as they are confusing, and speak to the film's disordered timeline.  After a night on the town with Margherita, including shots and some drunk driving, Sonia returns to work to find her friend missing.  Shortly afterward, her manager reveals that Margherita committed suicide by jumping to her death--oddly echoing the film's suicide at the beginning.  Both characters tell Sonia, right before their deaths, that she looks better with her hair down (she wears it up for her chambermaid job).  Yet, the film never gives any inkling that Sonia's feisty friend is remotely suicidal.  Did Sonia kill her friend in some drunken bout of madness??  Sonia attends the funeral with Bruno, the creepy hotel guest, and overhears the priest say Sonia's name instead of Margherita's.  Stranger and stranger.  Bruno insists that she calm down, and offers her a ride home and a sip from his flask.  He then tells her that funerals put him in a good mood!  This line of dialogue, in almost any film, is a VERY BAD SIGN.  And he whistles.  Also a VERY BAD SIGN.

Sonia awakens in his car, alone, drugged and paralyzed.  Taking its cues from an entirely different film, 1988's The Vanishing, Margherita's earlier suspicions regarding Bruno are validated, and he shows up with a giant plastic sheet--the better to wrap Sonia with...He drags her through the woods to a nice bucolic spot, visually similar to the one where Guido and Sonia had their fated "last date," drops her into a nice grave, and buries her alive.  The last images one sees are of clumps of dirt falling from above from Sonia's POV.  This scene, and those that came before, really highlight the type of force that guilt can become.  Indeed, guilt can kill you.  Except when it doesn't.

To jump to a side or related topic, before I get to my ultimate SPOILER, I've been watching a rather interesting show on NBC, entitled Awake.  The show stars Jason Isaacs, who you might recognize from  that terrific Masterpiece Mystery/British series "Case Histories" based on the Kate Atkinson mystery novels.  He is a phenomenal actor, and has to be to carry off the series' cockamamie premise week after week.  In summary, after hurtling down a ravine with his wife and teenage son in their car, police detective Michael Britten awakens to find himself living in two different realities. In one warmly-hued, golden one, his wife is alive and his son is dead; in the blue-tinted other reality, his son's alive and his wife's dead.  Every time he goes to sleep he wakes up in the other reality.  Helpfully, he has two different shrinks in each world who he is forced to meet with week after week, and who do not take kindly to his believing in the other respective reality.  Oh, and the show's a police procedural, so the crimes he solves every week provide clues for each other in the alternate worlds.  CRAZY!!!  Granted, the British just do this kind of thing so much better and in smaller doses:  See Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.  (OMG, I just found out that the latter had 3 seasons! Must hunt them down!)

The main concern with Awake is how in the world the show can keep up this back and forth for an entire television season (12-24 episodes).  Connected to that concern is the idea that the show's main character, Michael, might actually be in a COMA, and might be trying to work out how this accident happened (there are inklings that his female chief superintendent might be involved), and that BOTH his wife and son might still be alive.  Ugh.  My wish is that if this COMA is the case, then he awakes from it to find them both dead, and then really loses it, but my tastes run dark, dark, dark.  These predilections also mean that I preferred The Double Hour to end with Sonia's completely random, dark, and twisted burial.  I find those kinds of WTF endings immensely satisfying.

Instead, SPOILER, the next scene shows Sonia awakening from a COMA!  And Guido's at her side.  Yep, I know.  Everything that happened, post-robbery, occurred in Sonia's delicate and deranged coma-state.  While in most cases, this kind of plot twist would come off as so insulting, the fact that the entire film so far has been filtered through Sonia's perspective tempers that shift, and gives the rest of the film a degree of subtlety and nuance.  Thankfully, unlike that ridiculous Regarding Henry from 1991, where getting shot in the head magically turns jerks into nice people, Sonia does not become a magical girlfriend who just loves Guido happily-ever-after, The End.  In fact, my one qualm with the film is that during this final section of the film, viewers are forced into Guido's perspective for the first time, and this shift turns Sonia into the mysterious femme fatale that she was never meant to be.  The fact that critics compare this film to Body Heat at all really emphasizes how much more comfortable (mostly male) critics are with identifying with male protagonists, even if they experience that subjectivity for barely twenty minutes of screen time.

Spectators still get insight and time with Sonia at film's end, but after spending so much time with her psychically, to suddenly see her through Guido's suspicious gaze is a bit of a let down.  Especially since he is such a thin, one-dimensional character--Guy X.  When she ultimately chooses to leave him behind and run off with her robber boyfriend, Riccardo, Guido witnesses her deception at the airport, and she sees Guido see her.  He almost turns her in to the cops, but changes his mind, going back to his crappy job as a supermarket security guard, and attending Marisa's speed dating events once again.  The film's final image is of Sonia and Riccardo in a photo identical to the one Dante presented to her earlier of Sonia and Guido in Buenos Aires, happy and smiling.  Guy X has just been replaced with Guy Y, suggesting that this story was Sonia's all along.  Sure, the film's twisty timeline and blurring of reality with coma "reality" beg for repeat viewings, but despite the film's noir-ish stylings, I believe our identification with and sympathy for Sonia never waver.  This film is definitely worth checking out, even if I give away some of its twists.