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Captain Marvel, Judith, and the Power of Two

In feminism, Film, gender, girl culture on April 25, 2019 at 4:14 pm

Just hours before Avengers: Endgame opens nationwide, I finally have a few things to say about its immediate (but not chronological) predecessor Captain Marvel. As I walked out of the theatre after watching Brie Larson’s depiction of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, all I could think of was – hang with me here – the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Judith.” This is a retelling of the biblical “Book of Judith” in which Judith, an Israelite who, along with her people, has been attacked and had their town plundered by the Assyrians, slays their ferocious general with the help of God. Without question the most dramatic scene in the poem is the one in which Judith, after a drunk and lascivious Holofernes passes out pre-fornication attempt, prays to God for assistance and then decapitates the Assyrian general. This is what sprang to mind for me as I was watching Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel relive her own childhood and young adult “failings” at the reminder of her erstwhile mentor and superior officer Yon-Rogg.

Obviously this post is full of spoilers for the movie; I’m sure you’re caught up considering Endgame is on the western horizon, but just in case: I’m going to talk about one of the final scenes so continue at your own risk…

Image result for captain marvel poster

Key to the “Judith” scene, both for the poem and for Captain Marvel, is the detail that it takes Judith two strokes of a sword to decapitate her foe. As I tell my students in my British Literature course, this accomplishes two things simultaneously. Since this poem has biblical source material, the anonymous 10th century poet couldn’t change it too much – that is, we still have to have a female hero. As God’s agent and vessel, Judith can’t be changed to a man. But this is the Anglo-Saxon era, in which being a warrior, being strong and having the ability to defeat one’s foe, is a man’s role. Women, despite their strength and authority in the co-existing Viking world, are not Anglo-Saxon warriors. A woman powerful enough to lop off Holofernes’ head in one stroke is a tremendous threat: even in literature, that’s too much power. Thus Judith needing two even after appealing to God for help and being inspired – literally in-spirit-ed by him – limits her strength and reminds us that she’s still “just a woman.”

But Judith’s two strokes, and her limitation by virtue of her femaleness, does something else as well. If she were able to perform on a godlike level, she would be too close to God. She can garner divine help, but even with the spirit of God to help her, she is just a human. And there is no better way of emphasizing human weakness than by choosing as the representative a category of human generally thought of as weak. That is, if with the help of the Christian God even a woman can defeat a monstrous foe – even if it does take her two strokes – what a powerful God that must be! So Judith’s “weakness” does three things:

  • it establishes her femaleness as a limitation (or as a defining quality that entails her power must remain below a certain limit)
  • it reminds us that to be human is to be only human – we are only capable of so much
  • it makes central the difference between one and two.

Here’s where Captain Marvel comes in. At once, it operates as a mirror and as a sharp contrast to “Judith.” As Carol Danvers prepares for what we think will be her final showdown against Yon-Rogg, he taunts her and knocks her down, telling her that without what his civilization gave her – without the superpower the Kree Supreme Intelligence supposedly controls and can take back – she is only human. A series of scenes we have witnessed before flash before her and the audience: Carol as a young child falling down on the beach. Carol as a slightly older child striking out at softball and crashing in a Go-Kart. Carol as a young woman swinging, flailing, and falling during military training. These images are meant to quell her. They are meant to remind us that since she is just human. And we know from seeing them earlier in the movie, when with every one her gender is overtly or implicitly referenced, that not only is she just a human, she is just a female human. Her power has limitations. Here, we see the mirror of “Judith”: being just a woman, the weakest kind of human, means you cannot succeed on your own.

But Danvers, drawing on the strength required to be not just human, but a female human, especially one who has been told time and time again that it is because she is female that she will continually fail, now shows us the immediate aftermath of these scenes of defeat: an immediate aftermath we had not previously been allowed to see. Child Carol on the beach tumbles, but gets up again. Child Carol regrips the bat, ready to swing again. Child Carol emerges from the Go-Kart dirty but otherwise unscathed. Trainee Carol stands up after hitting the ground underneath the ropes course. We see, as Danvers tells Yon-Rogg, that she is powerful because she is human. All through their interactions, we have seen Yon-Rogg tell Danvers that she cannot reach her full potential because she is too affected by her emotions. She cannot turn them off. He and his people, it would seem, shut down emotion and fight coldly, objectively, for the good of the collective. Early in the movie he tells her to “fight with this,” pointing to her forehead, “not with this,” pointing to her heart.

But Danvers is all heart. Throughout the movie, Larson-as-Danvers exhibits wry humor, sass, and true feeling. She jokes with Nick Fury, she encourages her best friend and former fellow pilot’s daughter, and she deeply, deeply feels and needs to redeem the unfairness of how she is treated as a child: “you let him drive,” she tells her father accusingly.

In so many superhero films, heart is what defines humanity. We fail, yes, but we succeed because we feel. Our emotions lead us. Sometimes they lead us into trouble, but our ability to feel and to fight for what we believe is what pulls us out and helps us win. And even from the time of the Anglo-Saxons and “Judith,” emotions have been the province not just of humans, but of one particular category of humans: women. So here, rather than femaleness standing in as a representation for humanity’s physical and mortal weakness, women as holders of emotion stand in for what makes humans as a species great.

Just as Captain Marvel flips the script on the idea in “Judith” that female weakness stands in for human weakness, it similarly u-turns the concept of two as lesser than one.* Whereas Judith’s two strokes are meant to show the limits of her power, for Danvers, two is about full accessibility of her power. Shortly after we see Danvers remember how each of her “failures” led to her determination to press on, she tells Yon-Rogg fiercely that, using the “powers” granted by the Kree, she has been fighting with only one hand. She reaches to her neck, pulls off the bionic implant that she – and we – are realizing was actually a restraining bolt, and casually flicks it aside. Why fight with one hand when we have two? Use our heads and our hearts. Use all of that power. And so when Yon-Rogg encourages her to resist and “control” her power, to fight him with her mere human strength to show she’s good enough, rather than calling on an external force for help, she can tell him with feeling, “I don’t need to prove anything to you” and blast him with her full strength: the power of her humanness and her supercharged core.

Here, then, is what twoness tells us: first isn’t everything. It’s not weak to fail and then get up and try again – the second time can be better. We don’t have to be just one thing – in fact, being both is more powerful. Danvers can call on her Kree training and her human heart and be more than she was as just one. And finally, and what an apt lead-in to Endgame itself, doing everything alone isn’t always the right choice. It’s okay to depend on others: two (or three, or even more) is not weakness. It is strength.



* I’m not saying here that Captain Marvel is conscious of or trying to make reference in any way to “Judith.” I sincerely doubt it. The movie-makers might not even know about the poem. I’m just looking at them in conversation based on the weird constellations my brain made to see what such a comparison might tell us.

Grief, Trauma, and Terror: The Babadook

In Film, parenthood, spoilers on January 12, 2015 at 6:00 am


Sarah S.

The Babadook is one of those excellent little horror films that reminds how much scaring can be done with good acting and a competent director. It’s delightfully spooky and eerie, with interesting sound choices and great cinematography and scene setting.

Plus, it’s a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman—Jennifer Kent. In the first half, The Babadook offers up a moving portrait of a profoundly ordinary woman parenting a troubled child. In the second half, well, things take a turn for the terrifying. Essie Davis’s performance as the mother, Amelia, blows the roof off, proving once again that the bias against genre films by those who give out awards and accolades is entirely misplaced.

In this Australian horror-thriller, Amelia is a single mother who struggles to manage her emotionally-disturbed, monster-obsessed son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), only to find that one of his monstrosities might be real. The Babadook, a sinister figure with a black trenchcoat and talon-like fingers, first shows up in a strange pop-up book that appears in Amelia and Samuel’s gloomy house. As Amelia’s isolation grows so does the power of the Babadook to terrorize her and Samuel.

The Babadook is essentially a haunted house story, albeit one where the “ghost” seems to be deliberately tormenting these people (rather than being attached to the house itself). Haunted house narratives are often about the dark side of family life (think The Conjuring or the first season of American Horror Story). These stories may be interested in infidelity or children’s maturation or even  the common challenges of marriage and parenting. The message is that something sinister (mental illness, homosexuality, pick your symbolic menace) is always lying just under the floorboards, wanting to tear the nuclear family apart.

The Babadook toys with this genre. It’s a haunted family story, but in The Babadook the nuclear family has already been destroyed. Amelia is a single mother because her husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. It’s been seven years and even if Amelia no longer talks about her husband, her grief lingers. Amelia and Samuel live in his house, a house that should be idyllic and instead feels oppressive. Amelia has relegated his belongs to the basement, ostensibly an attempt to put her grief away that is belied by how she blocks these items and her husband’s memory from Samuel.

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The Unobvious Charms of Obvious Child

In body politics, feminism, Film, reproductive health on July 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm


Sarah S.

Obvious Child, directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate (of SNL and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On fame), has been touted as a romantic comedy about abortion. But as with most “toutings” this depiction crumbles if you push on it very hard. Because Obvious Child is a film about a woman in her late 20s, Donna Stern, and focuses on a period in her messy, human life. Donna’s unintended pregnancy and decision to abort constitute one aspect of her story but calling Obvious Child a “romantic comedy about abortion” detracts from the film’s charms.

Let’s break it down. Obvious Child is entirely aware of its genre, hitting several of the requirements for contemporary romantic comedies. Donna, the protagonist, works in an independent bookstore by day and performs stand-up comedy by night. She is messy and quirky and not afraid to discuss bodily functions (her own and others’) either on stage or in general. She has an equally quirky father and, in contrast, a completely with it, type-A mother. She also has two best friends to use as sounding boards: an outspoken roommate, Nellie, and a supportive “gay BFF,” Joey (delightfully played by Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman, respectively). In hitting these notes, Obvious Child grounds the audience in familiar terrain in order to expand the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre.


Even as it honors romantic comedy tropes, Obvious Child also subverts them. For one, Donna actually seems like a real woman rather than a “real woman” played with messy hair or funky clothes by Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore. As Monika Bartyzel states in her discussion of Obvious Child and the limits of embodied women on film: “The film is set in the bone-chilling cold of a New York City winter, and its heroine wears layers of knits, doesn’t obsess about makeup, and has many important conversations in a graffiti-ridden co-ed bar bathroom.”


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Adapting Austen: Revisiting Mansfield Park (1999)

In adaptation, books, Film, Uncategorized on May 22, 2014 at 8:13 am


Sarah S.

For the last several years we’ve lived in the Ladies Republic of Austentonia. (I’ve given up trying to pitch Jane Austen’s merits to dudes; if you don’t like her or won’t try her, it’s your loss.) From books and movies reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’ DiaryPride and Prejudice and Zombies) to explorations of fandom itself (The Jane Austen Book ClubAustenland) it seems that the original narrator of middle class morality has never been so popular.

Despite Austen’s sky high stock, only a couple of her offerings get the perennial treatment: EmmaSense and Sensibility, and, in particular, Pride and Prejudice. Film adaptations reflect this ranking, with no fewer than ten versions of P&P alone. The popularity of the Big Three makes sense because they best epitomize Austen’s plot of a plucky heroine surrounded by odd relatives who thrives despite constrained circumstancesThey’re the PowerPoint, Excel, and Word that offset Austen’s versions of Bing, Surface, and Windows Vista: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Persuasion? Too dreary.

Northanger? Too gothic.

And Mansfield? Too preachy.

Mansfield Park is particularly irritating, with a prudish prig for a heroine whose only hobby seems to be passing silent judgment on those around her and pining for her equally self-righteous cousin. By the time we get to the inevitable “happy ending” we can at least feel relief that Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram—those intolerable, intolerant jerk faces—aren’t going to spoil anyone else’s marital bliss (and that we don’t have to spend any more time with them). Mansfield Park clunks through moral quandaries and odd personalities without the combination of humor and empathy that make Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility so successful.

But say you’re a filmmaker who rejects creating yet another iteration of the Big Three. Shall you venture into the stolid world of Persuasion‘s Ann Elliot or the weirdness of Northanger Abbey? Read the rest of this entry »

On Patsey and the Amazing Lupita Nyong’o

In adaptation, fashion, Film, gender, race, violence on November 19, 2013 at 7:43 am

Sarah S.

I recently saw 12 Years a Slave and it’s phenomenal in all the ways you’ve heard. The movie focuses on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician and family man kidnapped and sold into slavery. But it also lends its precise gaze to others, including the white slaveowners—male and female—corrupted by the act of owning human beings, and the enslaved women, often forced to endure unique losses and abuses.

This particular brand of horror is most visible in Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who works alongside Solomon on the plantation of the sadistic, perhaps even mad Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Solomon’s tale contains evils enough but it was the powerlessness of Patsey, selected for extra abuse without rhyme or reason, that most touched me.

She spends her days picking more cotton than any of her counterparts, then endures confused, cruel rape by her master at night. She is systematically raped by Epps, who is violently obsessed with her. His obsession with Patsey is at the very core of his cruelty to her and the horrors to which he subjects her to.

She then suffers extra abuse from Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), jealous of her husband’s infatuation. Here the white woman is not only complicit in the violence against Patsey, but actively perpetuates and embraces it.

Patsey begs Solomon to do the human mercy of helping her to kill yourself, only to have him refuse on principle. She is trapped in that—believing in Christian doctrine—she cannot kill herself, but insists that were Solomon to kill her it would be a mercy killing, an act of valor. For Patsey, death is the only foreseeable freedom from the violence of the plantation.

She sneaks away to get soap since Mistress Epps will not give her any, only to return and be whipped to unconsciousness—an act in which Solomon must partake (emphasizing not only Patsey’s abuse but the emasculation through forced complicity and inability to protect that Solomon experiences).

These are just a few of the inescapable horrors she suffers within a system that denies her humanity and subjects her to consistent and ongoing violence. In sum, the ongoing victim of a chattel system forces her to be the screen on which both the Epps project their irrational jealousies.

Switching gears a bit, I just wanted to end on how fantastic Lupita Nyong’o is as Patsey. A few notes then on Nyong’o’s break-out role:

-She is entirely accomplished and worldly. Nyong’o studied in Yale’s acting program and has lived in Mexico, Kenya, and the US. Oh, and she made a documentary about albinism in Kenya.

-She rocks the red carpet. During the film, I kept feeling as if I’d seen Nyong’o somewhere before. Then I realized it had been on the fashion commentary blog Go Fug Yourself, where the Fug Girls have described her as “nailing it.” Thrust onto the circuit by the success of 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has been making an impressive debut.

-She works alongside some of the finest actors today and more than holds her own. In addition to the mesmerizing Ejiofor, 12 Years boasts Fassbender, Paulsen, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Brad Pitt. Most of these performances, big and small, are excellent examples of acting in an excellent film. But as Patsey, newcomer Nyong’o carries one of the biggest roles and gives her character impressive depths and nuances.

(With thanks to Phoebe for feedback and edits!)

Frances Ha: A Fresh Kind of Fairy Tale

In Film on August 19, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Sarah T.

I was walking through a parking lot about a year ago when I passed two women in their late 60s. One was telling the other about her plan to submit a book review to the Boston Globe. “Hopefully they’ll like it,” she said.

“It sounds perfect for them,” her friend said. She had tortoise-shell glasses that made her look at once sophisticated and slightly goggle-eyed.

“I hope so,” the first woman said, and broke into a short, hard sob. “I just feel like I’ve spent the last thirty years messing everything up.”

Her friend wrapped her into a hug and offered to go chat over drinks–a solid response and a capital pal. Meanwhile I hurried into my car, feeling stricken. I like to imagine that people naturally accumulate more confidence as they get older, like the interest they’re supposed to earn on their 401(k)s. It’s reassuring to think that all the worrying about career trajectories and romantic partners and weird things you say at parties fades away with age. But here was a woman in her golden years, still scared she’d leave a lifetime of regrets behind her. “It’s never over,” I muttered, channeling Jeff Buckley, fumbling for my keys.


At the other end of my personal heartening spectrum is Frances–the unaffected goof played by Greta Gerwig in the movie Frances Ha. When the film, which Gerwig co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, came out this summer, some critics responded with predictable think-pieces about the merits and drawbacks of movies featuring unlikable female characters. But by my lights, Frances is enormously likable. Bumbling, ambitious, and impulsive, she wards off unwanted advances by making a noise like a wrong-answer game show buzzer. In one scene, she starts running down the sidewalk, book bag slapping at her back, because the joy of being young in New York City has just washed over her. Who hasn’t felt that way once in a while, or wanted to?

Frances somersaults through her 27th year over the course of the film, losing friends and apartments and jobs, bleeding money, sleeping in too late, frequently sticking her foot in her mouth. What makes the movie remarkable is that Frances never lets any of these bad turns get her down for long. The movie is a fairy tale for women, which I mean in the best possible sense. Read the rest of this entry »

A Survivor is (re-) Born, Or, Playing Tomb Raider after Anita Sarkeesian.

In feminism, Film, games, gender, misogyny, Uncategorized on June 26, 2013 at 7:36 am

brian psi

In 1985, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For inaugurated what has come to be known as The Bechdel Test, a three-point checklist for evaluating how a film represents women. Does it have at least two? Do they have a scene together? Do they talk about something other than men? The fact that so few films pass all of these—even 30 years later—means that many filmgoers keep this checklist in the front of our minds, as part of the internal HUDs that we screen all of our media through.

It is difficult now, at least for me, to play a game without my own internal interface simultaneously replaying bits of Anita Sarkeesian’s ongoing series of videos for Feminist Frequency, “Tropes vs. Women.” The first three (two of which are complete) are about the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. In part 1, she lays out the history of the trope, and some of its earlier incarnations; in the second part she demonstrates how it has been used more recently, including such horrifying variations as the ‘damsel in the refrigerator,’ the ‘disposable’ damsel, and the ‘euthanized’ damsel. The collection of cutscenes and gameplay clips she has amassed in support of these classifications is staggering and frankly, not seriously refutable. So it would not be at all surprising if, in the not too distant future, players and critics evaluate their games by some kind of Sarkeesian test, which might get at whether there are women present in the game, and importantly, whether they are protagonists or allies rather than prisoners or corpses used to drive the stories of stubble-sporting, dark-haired white dudes.

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How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.


Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

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Fearing The Future

In Film on February 4, 2013 at 5:48 am

Sarah T.


One neat way to cope with fears of aging and mortality is to freak out preemptively. I started panicking about turning 30 when I turned 28. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be the kind of 30-year-old I’d once imagined. I definitely wasn’t going to have a book deal. I hadn’t even written a book. Theoretically it was possible that I would meet a wonderful guy, fall in love, and establish a stable yet adventure-loving relationship in the span of two years, but I had no reason to count on it. I wouldn’t live in a shabby chic apartment near Prospect Park with a typewriter and a shaggy dog and bouquets of daffodils at the kitchen table, because first of all I couldn’t afford it and second of all I was living in Oregon. My life at 30 would be less bohemian-bright, more Annie from Bridesmaids. And even Annie had once had her own bakery, even if it went under. Really she was miles ahead.

It wasn’t the actual age of 30 that bothered me. I don’t think 30 is old; I think our culture wants very much to persuade us that it is, so that we will feel bad about ourselves until we conform to a conservative model of adulthood that ensures we behave like good obedient capitalists, keep quiet, and buy more stuff. Still, I’d had certain hopes about where my life would be when I left my twenties behind. They were not going to come true. At least, not in time.

All of which is to say that I could relate to Miranda July’s The Future, in which the prospect of official, real-deal adulthood sends the movie’s central couple spinning. Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are two gentle hipsters in their mid-30s with matching mops of dark brown curls. When we first see them, they’re working on their Macbooks at opposite ends of the corduroy couch, legs tangled up with one another. They’ve been together a long time. Sophie teaches dance to tiny girls in tutus. Jason has a nondescript customer support job with Verizon. As they prepare to adopt an ailing cat named Paw Paw, the veterinarian tells them that if they take good care of the cat, he might last another half-decade.

This strikes them as a kind of responsible-person jail sentence.

“We’ll be 40 in five years,” Sophie tells Jason.

“40 is basically 50,” Jason says. “And then after 50, the rest is just loose change… Not quite enough to get anything you really want.”

Together, they decide to seize the month before Paw Paw comes to live with them—turn off the Internet, quit their jobs, and start exploring. They believe it’s their last shot at making the lives they want for themselves, as opposed to the ones they’ve drifted into. The problem is, neither of them knows exactly what they’re aiming for. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Your Favorite Movie to Watch Over and Over Again?

In Film on February 2, 2013 at 8:00 am

He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.

Sarah T:

Today is the most important holiday of the year: Groundhog Day. And with it comes an excellent excuse to re-watch Groundhog Day, the classic 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a bitter weatherman who gets stuck repeating one day of his life over and over again. In tribute to the movie’s theme of repetition, I have seen it over a dozen times. Sometimes I watch it back-to-back on TBS.

What is it about watching Murray struggle through one February day in Punxsuatawney, PA that I never get tired of? Partly it’s that Groundhog Day has a pitch-perfect ear for silly, nihilistic humor, from Murray surprise-punching the annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson to his wild ride after he kidnaps a squat, furry rodent in an attempt to end Groundhog Day once and for all. But the real reason I’m in love with this movie—like many people the world over—is that I relate to Phil’s predicament. Phil sucks as a human, which makes him experience the world as a stupid place populated exclusively by people to use, people to ignore, and people to try to bed. It takes him years–30 or40 of them, according to the movie’s director—just to stop hating life. I love watching Phil slowly slough away at his frustration and anger and despair, until finally he gets it. For all he knows, it’ll never stop being Groundhog Day. All he can do is make himself useful. He starts helping people, catching ungrateful brats when they fall out of trees, learning everybody’s names, playing the piano while they dance. Because he does all that, he gets happy. Watching the movie always reminds me to stop feeling sorry for myself and start taking action–and that sometimes, anything different is good.

Kids don’t like eating at school, but if they have a Remains of the Day lunchbox they’re a lot happier.


My favorite movie to watch again-and-again-and-again is Waiting for Guffman. The cast of this mockumentary is classic Christopher Guest, of course, and filled with some of the most talented comedic actors around: Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, and Fred Willard. Despite some of the most quotably hilarious one-liners (“I’m gonna BITE MY PILLOW is what I’m gonna do!” “People used to say, you must have been the class clown. And I said, no I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown and…I studied him.”), what I love most about this movie is the tenacious and totally misplaced hope that endures in Blaine, Missouri, “a little town with a big heart in the heart of a big country.” Like most of my own misplaced dreams, their hope (to bring their show to Broadway) is laughably destined to fail. But they believe in it–they believe in each other, and work to create something despite their lack of talent, their lack of funding (In response to the director’s request for $100,000 to put on the show: “The town budget for the whole year is $10,000 and that includes swimming!”), and their lack, really, of any clue about how such things work. There’s something inspiring in still trying, despite all that–and probably a lesson about the benefits of a little bit of self-delusion sometimes. Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical? With a song called “Stool Boom”? Definitely worth watching over and over. We all could use a little more Corky in our lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Date, Marry, Dump: Hobbit Edition

In Film on December 17, 2012 at 7:01 am

Sarah T.

As a Tolkien ignoramus, I watched The Hobbit in a haze of appreciative semi-confusion. I thought the goblins were orcs. I thought Thorin was the same person as Thrain in the flashbacks. I couldn’t follow what-all Elron and Galadriel were going on about, although whether that was because they were being ethereally boring or because I was distracted by hair-envy on both counts is up for debate. “What do dragons want with gold anyway?” I whispered to my friend S., who explained that they liked to bathe in it, which: with that kind of conspicuous consumption, no wonder they went the way of Marie Antoinette.

I emerged from the movie certain of only two things. First, I want a pet hedgehog and I will call it Sebastian. Second, I know exactly who I would date, who I would marry, and who I would dump.


Dwarves are short, grumbly types who are very good at choreographing rowdy “Be Our Guest”-style kitchen clean-ups, rocking that 80s hair band look, and eating entire wheels of cheese–men after my own heart. (Also, are there any girl dwarves? Is there just one, Smurfette style?) But while they are very cuddly, it became clear, watching them barge into poor Bilbo’s round-doored cottage one by one, that most of them are not ultra-romantically-attractive in the conventional sense. Attractive to me, I mean! A lid for every pot, etc.

But then The Hobbit threw me a curveball. Two curveballs, as a matter of fact, by the names of Fili and Kili:

Well hello there.

Come and knock on my door, I’ll be waiting for you.

“There are the cute dwarves,” I whispered to my neighbor, who agreed, particularly about the skinny dark-haired one on the right. But then. THEN! There’s a last knock at the door. “He is here,” Gandalf says dramatically. And a moment later we all understand why Gandalf was being all OMG-my-crush-just-walked-into-the-high-school-dance, because look at this face: Read the rest of this entry »

Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Problem with Biopics

In Film on December 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Sarah T.

Y So Srs, Though.

Y So Srs, Though.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a movie for squares, which means that it’s going to be swimming in Oscars like Scrooge McDuck (also kind of a square, incidentally). Everyone at the Academy Awards will be excited to see Daniel Day-Lewis, because if low-information memory serves he’s a Belgian shoe cobbler who only emerges from his boot-house once every seven years to remind everybody how long his legs are. Remember Gangs of New York? The man was like a daddy long legs on stilts.

As Lincoln, he’s kind of wheezy and stooped and noble like a chipped ceramic lion. I can’t say I got much feel for the inner workings of our nation’s 16th president, which probably isn’t Day-Lewis’s fault. At this point in American history, we’ve canonized Lincoln so much that I can’t imagine any mainstream filmmaker daring to bring him down to earth. This is a movie that, I kid you not, ends with a close-up of the dead president as seen through a candle, and then a tiny ghost version of Lincoln shows up inside the candle flame, giving a speech, which is very distracting. Nobody reacts onscreen, because in the 19th century this was just one of the hazards of home decor. Napoleon Bonaparte’s poltergeist hung out in snuffbox for years and nobody could snuff anything. Then the candle dissolves so that tiny ghost Lincoln becomes Lincoln in a flashback, completing his speech, but I couldn’t pay any attention to what he was saying because I was too busy being shocked by the most over-the-top ending since ET flew away in a Skittles rainbow. No knocks to ET. It’s an okay move when you’re making the world’s most perfect alien fairy tale. But the Hall of Presidents has more grit than this movie.

Pretty much the only fun parts of Lincoln are listening to Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens) relish calling the guy from Pushing Daisies inventively mean names and thinking about the historical role of hairpieces in the legislative process. The only moving part of Lincoln also involves Tommy Lee Jones. I found myself wishing that the whole movie was about him, though then I’m sure his character would have just had to shoulder Spielberg’s earnest self-seriousness.

The movie got me thinking: When was the last time I saw a biopic that wasn’t a snoozefest? I think I might hate this genre. The Queen, The King’s Speech, Walk the Line, Ray, Capote, A Beautiful Mind: I call these critically acclaimed films Safety Ambien. Filmmakers seem to lose their powers of imagination–and any impulse toward risk–when they’re confronted with larger-than-life historical figures. Instead they want to be respectable, which is a lovely quality in a headmaster or a piece of toast but less desirable in arts and entertainment. Also, maybe most people’s lives just aren’t interesting enough to make into movies. Even the most fascinating parts take like 15 minutes and then they’re over, which would be helpful for me to remember the next time I’m getting resentful about how boring it is to clean the bathtub.

I just made a quick mental list of all the biopics I have ever liked, and it is three items long:




Obviously, though, I haven’t seen All the Biopics there are. (If I had, I guess I would have died of boredom and I’d be talking to you from inside a candle.) Are there less staid and stately ones out there? And do you think we just shouldn’t be allowed to make movies about real people unless those movies involve time travel? At least Bill and Ted knew how to make history come alive.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: There Are Quite a Few

In Film on November 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Sarah T.

My love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower was inevitable as mason jars at a hipster wedding. Blend adolescent longing with puppy love, transformations, wild nights, and the passionate loyalty particular to friendships forged on the battlegrounds of high school, and you bet I will drink that milkshake. I’LL DRINK IT UP. Ten years out of my own teenage wasteland, I remain a sucker for coming-of-age stories because at bottom they’re about change–which means they tend to resonate with anyone who’s still in the (apparently endless?) process of Figuring Stuff Out.

But even given my predisposition to adore any film that features SATs and Sadie Hawkins dances, Perks is a winner, at times a little corny but brimming with heart. The movie tracks the freshman year of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy, eager-to-please innocent with a troubled past. After a few lonely weeks at school, Charlie befriends a pair of senior step-siblings, each radiating life-force. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is a warm, charismatic joker who’s forced to hide his relationship with a popular football player from their closed-minded community. Sam (Emma Watson) is an equally compassionate former party girl who’s gotten her act together–but she’s worried that college admissions boards won’t be able to see past her sub-par GPA. They take young Charlie under their wing, and before he knows it the three of them are flying through a tunnel in Patrick’s pickup truck, Sam clambering out the cab to ride in the open air while David Bowie’s “Heroes” flares. They  don’t know who’s singing; they’re still young enough to be discovering classics for the first time. “I feel infinite,” Charlie tells Patrick, quietly, like a confession. It’s a hopelessly cheesy line, but it’s also exactly the right way to describe the way you feel when, for the first time, you stumble upon people who crack your life open.

[spoilers after the jump] Read the rest of this entry »

To Make Fit Again: C.K. Mak’s “The World’s Most Fashionable Prison”

In Documentary, Film on November 13, 2012 at 7:22 am

Guest Contributor Paul B.

Given the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival’s historic penchant for extreme sport videos, the screening of Singaporean C. K. Mak’s recent documentary The World’s Most Fashionable Prison was a pleasant surprise. Even more surprising was that a queer prison-film should turn up in Arizona, a state infamous for its privatized, for-profit prisons and merciless lawmen such as Maricopa County Sheriff Arapaio, whose treatment of inmates has been roundly criticized.

Today, “rehabilitation” has shed its Latin coifs for the much hipper “rehab,” but its migration from penal discourse to addiction says less about a change in alcoholism than in prison policy. Not only are almost 1% of US citizens imprisoned (.78%, to be precise), but purgatorial sentencing, privatized prisons, and a greater than 50% recidivism rate each conspire to keep them there. With few exceptions, rehabilitation has low priority with both public and policy-maker discourse where the bottom line is prison costs.

Though The World’s Most Fashionable Prison doesn’t explicitly address US prison issues, its title invites comparison and discussion of global incarceration, of which the U.S. leads the charge. What does it mean, then, to claim that New Billibid, the largest maximum-security prison in the Phillipines, infamous for its gang wars and violence, is “fashionable”? In an obvious sense, the title refers to the plot. The film follows the flamboyant Filipino fashion designer Puey Quiñones as he teaches inmates how to sew and design clothes for their own fashion show. “Fashionable,” however, also conjures up the innovative, trendy, and unprecedented, and in this sense, the film praises Quiñones’ collaboration with the prison and prisoners as a pioneering exchange that demonstrates the potential of rehabilitation. Read the rest of this entry »

Brave New World: Skyfall

In body politics, Film, gender, spoilers, Uncategorized on November 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Bob Mondello at NPR opens his review of Skyfall with an important point about these newest editions to the James Bond franchise. Any Jason Bourne can engage in stunningly athletic chases and fist fights. But only Bond will use a backhoe to open the roof of a train car, jump in, and…check his cufflinks before continuing the pursuit. Mondello’s key argument is that the people behind Daniel Craig’s star turn as the quintessential super spy get it, that magic that makes Bond Bond and not Bourne.

But having said that, this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s James Bond. From the “beginning,” with Casino Royale, this Bond seemed grittier, younger, able to kill a man with his bare hands and then visibly squelch his emotions. It helped that the folks behind the reboot hired quality actors and turned the focus off of gadgets and onto characters while maintaining Bond’s swagger and style. But a focus on characters forces another change, pushing our hero and those who surround him into something like actual humans in this modern world. These creators embrace a female “M,” using the talented Judy Dench as a believable figure not a politically correct giggle. Skyfall builds on this trend, proving this character-driven Bond is not a fluke. And while Skyfall does interesting things with its women, particularly M, it is in the redefinition of modern masculinity that the reboot makes it greatest contribution.

***Spoilers after the jump***

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They Are Never Ever Getting Back Together: Movies and Breakups

In Film on September 25, 2012 at 11:44 am

Sarah T.

Love means never having to say you’re sorry you turned the Ikea dresser into an art robot.

Love is weird. Yet in romantic comedies, the hurdles to happiness are simple. Bets, bad guys, misunderstandings, and cases of mistaken identity stand in the way of romantic bliss, rather than more mundane issues like hoarding, fear of commitment, addiction, depression, and people suddenly deciding to move to Germany.

This is meant to be comforting. Since romantic comedy obstacles are straightforward, you can usually count on the couple ending up together before the lights come on. Sometimes these happy endings feel deserved (When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, Definitely, Maybe). Sometimes they’re so formulaic and clichéd they’re actually cynical. Like a grumpy gangster forced to play Barbies with his granddaughter, movies like New Year’s Eve are just smashing their dolls’ faces together to get things over with.

And every once in a while, romantic comedies refuse traditional happy endings altogether. Woody Allen’s perfect Annie Hall is a valentine to a neurotic, warm-hearted girlfriend he’s bound to lose. The Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle The Breakup stays true to its title. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts plays a selfish, scheming, secretly vulnerable restaurant critic who ultimately doesn’t get the guy. Instead, she ends the movie cutting a rug on the dance floor with her other best friend, played by a scene-stealing Rupert Everett. Fittingly, he gets the last word. “What the hell,” he says. “Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage, maybe there won’t be sex. But, by God, there’ll be dancing.”

Two new movies, Sleepwalk with Me and Celeste and Jesse Forever, cut their romantic stories from this same heartache cloth. The relationships at the center of these films are doomed from the start, which makes for some melancholy laughs. Both movies try to say something harder, and truer, about love than Hollywood’s usual celluloid song-and-dance routine allows.

[Spoilers after the jump!] Read the rest of this entry »

Hollywood Rape and the Foreclosure of Empathic Activism; or Musings on the Limits of “Body Genres”

In Film, Uncategorized on August 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

Sarah S.

Before we begin, I want to thank Phoebe and Sarah for their insightful comments on a first draft of this piece. Also, these are preliminary thoughts on a complicated, difficult subject. I welcome other comments and thoughts that expand the conversation.


Much has been said about the general bad-assness of Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo of the Millennium Trilogy. Larsson claimed that the novel reflected his feminist politics by drawing attention to institutional violence against women. In 2011, Rooney Mara received a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for her performance as Lisbeth in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Eight years earlier, critics praised the 2003 film Monster for its sympathetic portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, a working class woman, sex-worker, and lesbian. The story takes an overtly feminist perspective, showing how systemic patriarchal violence and disenfranchisement can drive a woman to murder and then to madness. However, it stops just short of claiming that serial murderer Wuornos was justified in her killing spree. Charlize Theron won a “Best Actress” Oscar for her portrayal.

The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry also drew from real events, this time the life and death of Brandon Teena, a trans person. Following close upon the hate-based murder of Matthew Shepherd, the film was hailed for bringing attention to the rights, inequalities, and lives of GLBTQ people. Stars Hillary Swank and Chlöe Sevigny even appeared together on the cover of The Advocate magazine. The relatively unknown Swank seemingly came out of nowhere to win a “Best Actress” Oscar for her depiction of Brandon.

Each of these seemingly feminist films includes a graphic scene of violent rape. Viewers are not meant to find these scenes sexy, titillating, or pornographic. Rather, the films quite consciously depict rape as grotesque, unjust, and unequivocally unwelcome. Brandon is gang-raped by a group of “friends” when they discover he is anatomically female. Aileen is abducted and horribly abused by a trick who she ultimately kills in self-defense—her first murder. Lisbeth is first compelled to perform oral sex on her social worker in order to access her trust fund. Later, the same man convinces her to come over to his house where he ties her up and anally rapes her.

Bracketing the horror of these scenes for a moment, each movie led to an Oscar nomination or win for the lead actress. This pattern suggests that performing rape may be right up there with accents, period pieces, Holocaust pictures, and bodily transformations for tugging on the Academy’s voting heartstrings.1

Upon pondering these films, I began to see them as constituting an actual genre with recurring conventions and themes. But what to call it? Oscar-baiting rape films? Anti-violent Hollywood feminism? And what are its purposes—intended and unintended? I suspect that makers of these films, similarly to Larsson, believe they are drawing attention to violence against women and/or queer people and that, by showing rape as unequivocally horrible, they may elicit empathy and/or action on the part of the audience. However, given that components of these films—most notably their scenes of rape—fit what critics call “body genres,” I’m not sure they are successful anti-violence treatises.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mythologizing Katrina in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

In environment, Film on August 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

Sarah T.

Sometimes loss feels like a stampede of aurochs storming at your back. That’s how it looks, too, in Benh Zeitlein’s lyrical Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Having survived a cataclysmic storm and a forced evacuation, the film’s six-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is coming home to her Gulf Coast town, the Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s an innocent, but she knows what she’s coming back to: a sick father and a ravaged town. So when she wheels around to face the auroch, she’s not scared. There’s nothing it could do to hurt her. “I’ve gotta take care of mine,” she instructs the animal. Until she’s through, the apocalypse–whether it comes in the form of extinct beasts or the melting ice caps she also envisions–is going to have to wait.

Facing down the beast

That apocalypse is closely linked to Hurricane Katrina and the inequalities its devastating aftermath exposed. The Bathtub takes the brunt of the storm, thanks to a levee that divides the rural town from a city where a remote factory looms. Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) ride out the battering rain and wind in their patched-together home, then spend the next few days in a boat, pulling neighbors from their rooftops. Official rescuers are nowhere to be seen. When the authorities finally do show up, it’s to force the citizens of the Bathtub into a sterile evacuation center that appears galaxies apart from their lush, shambling hometown.

The music and imagery in Beasts of the Southern Wild push Katrina into the realm of myth. A sweeping score plays over scenes of the town’s last festival before the storm, radiant with sparklers. When Wink and his friends decide to bomb the levee to save the Bathtub, they plant the explosives in an alligator’s corpse. An island brothel is transformed into an offering of temporary mothers. They slow dance with Hushpuppy and other young girls while “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” plays on loop.

But though the film often looks fantastical, it avoids idealizing the Bathtub. Wink is a volatile caretaker, alternately neglectful, angry, and protective. Many of the other adults in town seem to be alcoholics, with the exception of a soothing medicine woman. These problems are implicitly linked with the characters’ poverty, visible in their tumble-down homes. However, the adults are also resourceful, spirited, and determined to survive by staying together. Beasts encourages the audience to empathize with Hushpuppy and her neighbors, but it doesn’t romanticize them or the hardships they’ve endured–a problem common to well-intentioned representations of Katrina’s survivors.

The politics of representation lie at the heart of Beasts, particularly for Hushpuppy. Because she’s aware of the instability and impermanence of her world, she frames her life in terms of its historical and anthropological importance. “I’m recording my story for the scientists of the future,” she announces, drawing a picture of herself and her father on the side of a cardboard box. Later, she says, “Millions of years from now when kids go to school, they’ll know that once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” Hushpuppy knows that a day will come when the Bathtub, which lies below sea level, won’t be around any longer. She’s seen firsthand how easily her community can be ignored or displaced. And she’s experienced loss that’s less preventable, though no less tragic. So she balances her desire to be remembered with an awareness of a large and unknowable world beyond the Bathtub. “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces,” she says. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.”

Everybody’s a little piece of a big universe, of course. But some people live as if they’re much bigger, all while trying to make the rest of the world small enough to control or dismiss. Hushpuppy’s destiny is largely influenced by such types: the brute officials who barrel into her home, the distant doctors and snappish workers at the evacuation center, the government that approved a levee that appears designed to protect the privileged at the expense of the poor.

That’s why mythologizing Hushpuppy’s story is a political move. Aurochs, ice caps, and magical islands give her narrative the shape of a hero’s journey. She gets the legendary scope and largeness she hungers for–though not, despite the soaring soundtrack and her own resolute optimism, the happy ending she deserves.

Catwoman’s Class

In Film on July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Sarah T.

* spoilers ahead *

Cat burglars are the Condé Nast editors of the criminal underworld. Sleek and sharp and clad in black, they’re surrounded by riches but too cool to be fazed by them. They don’t come much classier than Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle: from her blowout and pearl choker to the four-inch gold stilettos that double as daggers, this Catwoman positively oozes swank.

But at the end of the day, after she’s backflipped out her last mansion window, she returns to a modest walkup in an unfashionable neighborhood. She even has a roommate: a petite, scraggly blonde who appears to be some combination of friend and lover. Kyle grew up with nothing, in and out of juvenile detention, and today even jewel thievery can’t help her work her way up the ladder. After she’s finished distributing profits from her stolen goods to all the criminals with whom she’s in deep, Kyle barely has enough dough left over to form a cracker.

That’s the triple class tension at the heart of the best character in The Dark Knight Rises. Kyle must maintain the appearance of class in order to gain access to the homes and pockets of Gotham’s self-satisfied fat cats. But her economic reality is far from posh. Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that she’s pro-class warfare. Her speech to billionaire Bruce Wayne is so Occupy, she might as well be delivering it via the people’s mic:

“You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Read the rest of this entry »

DARK SECRETS, Genre, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

In adaptation, dystopian literature, Film, spoilers, technology, Uncategorized on July 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Sarah S.

If you have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I recommend that you go out, pick it up, and read it immediately. Better still, if you do not know the underlying premise or “twist” of the novel, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now. Which is to say, this post contains spoilers and, while I acknowledge that anxiety over “spoiling” may be overrated in many circumstances, I really believe that Ishiguro designed his exquisite novel so that the twist be revealed with agonizing slowness and that you’ll enjoy the novel more if you don’t know. I didn’t know. I knew that the novel focused on three students who had grown up in a seemingly idyllic, British boarding school that had a DARK SECRET but I had no inkling what said DARK SECRET was. If you are similarly ignorant, please, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Phew. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

Never Let Me Go features Ishiguro’s achingly beautiful and slow style as likewise exhibited in The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World (one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read). But what particularly fascinated me about Never Let Me Go was its mingling of genres. On one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, about growing up and accepting one’s place in the order of things—albeit with a bleak, postmodern twist. On the other hand, and much to my surprise, Never Let Me Go is science fiction of the dystopian/utopian variety (see footnote below).* Or, if you prefer the more literary term, “speculative fiction” that asks “what if?” in order to question our current cultural trajectory.

The narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy H, is a clone—born and bred for her vital organs and other relevant parts, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy and every student at their boarding school, Hailsham. The clones’ existence creates a disease-free golden age for all of the world’s “normal” people. In the book, however, the reader only discovers this fact in bits and pieces scattered throughout the novel; indeed, Ishiguro forces us to work for the information, to read into and around what scraps Kathy gives us as she relates her story.

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Wes Anderson’s Nostalgia

In Film on July 18, 2012 at 6:08 am

Sarah T.

Nostalgia seems like one of the more self-indulgent emotions. That’s not to say I never feel it. Sometimes I miss north Michigan’s woods so much I could eat a pine tree-shaped air freshener. But in the face of the myriad other problems a person could possibly have, getting sentimental about the past feels kind of ridiculous. The drill sergeant from Forrest Gump who occupies my brain tells me that nostalgia is an ache you invent for yourself when there aren’t any other bruises looming. Then he tells me to give him twenty.

Based on Wes Anderson’s wistful body of work, I do not think he has met the drill sergeant. Anderson’s films are populated by dreamers disappointed by the present: Max Fischer and Herman Blume, all the Tenenbaums and associates, the three sons of The Darjeeling Limited. His characters are misfits among their peers and lonely in the midst of family. They imagine they were happier in the past, primarily because at least back then wasn’t now. Therefore his movies possess extremely precise visual articulations of nostalgia. All three adult siblings in The Royal Tenenbaums dress to evoke the promise of their youths. Richie wears the tennis outfit that calls back to his glory days on the courts, Chas picks the track suit that’s an emblem of his businessman’s vigor, and Margot stays faithful to an ensemble that reflects a twelve-year-old girl’s fantasy of literary sophistication: long fur coat, heavy eyeliner, blond hair in a simple bob held in place by a plastic barrette.

Nowhere is Anderson’s penchant for nostalgia more apparent than in his new film Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place on a New England island in 1965. Whether or not audiences were alive to witness the artifacts of mid-century Americana firsthand, they can recognize the movie’s graphic-patterned shift dresses, saddle shoes, and portable record player as shorthand for a dreamy, supposedly simpler innocence—and they can feel a sense of loss looking at a world long gone. Read the rest of this entry »

Wizarding Squibbs Have More Magic than “Magic Mike”

In feminism, Film, gender, Uncategorized on July 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

Sarah S.

Magic Mike may be the first mainstream (and critically-acclaimed, no less) movie about male strippers (of the Chippendales variety) but this is a story you’ve seen before. However, last time you saw it the protagonist was female. You know the kind: small town, down-on-her-luck girl gets seduced by the glamor and easy money of [insert your disreputable activity here] only to crash into its seedy underbelly and either escape her problematic position to pursue her “real” dream (acting, singing, marriage+babies, etc.) or b. serve as a cautionary tale as she falls into her doom (i.e. see Burlesque [2011] and Showgirls [1995]).

*spoilers warning* (And no, I don’t mean that there’s lots of abs. You already knew that).

Magic Mike shares many features of this plot. First, we have  the “dream” component; Mike, played by Channing Tatum, tells everyone he meets that he’s an “entrepreneur” because he ultimately wants to be a furniture designer. Second, there is the older, world-weary, semi-reputable mentor, in this case played by Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the owner of the club where Mike works. Third, we have the oft-seen love triangle between a creep who fails to respect (an important point) the protagonist and the “tough love” person the protagonist is clearly meant to be with; Mike has a casual relationship with a bisexual psychology student (Olivia Munn) but discovers that she only wants him for his body and has no interest in him as a person. When Mike discovers she has a fiancé, he becomes open to the possibility of a relationship with no nonsense Brooke (Cody Horn). Last, we have both of this plot’s endings represented, first in Mike—who escapes the club world, regains his self-respect, and gets the girl—and “the Kid” (Alex Pettyfer)—who Mike brings into the world of stripping and who falls down the rabbit hole of promiscuity, drugs, and easy money.  See what I’m saying? You’ve seen this movie before.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Magic Mike—certainly more than the shirtlessness or even the plot itself—is the switching of this generic plot from a female protagonist to a male one. We’ve seen this done the other way around. Sigourney Weaver usurps the action hero’s place in the Alien franchise and Thelma and Louise and Boys on the Side riff on the buddy travel flick. But it’s less common to see a male protagonist inserted (ahem) into the female plot. Thus, even though Magic Mike is entirely generic in all but its dancing scenes it still feels significant in the history of cinema.

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Merida’s “Brave.” Pixar, Not So Much.

In Film on June 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Sarah T.

[Spoilers dot the article to follow like so many will-o’-the-wisps!]

Early on in Brave, rebellious Merida–she of 1,500 fiery curls–leaps on her Clydesdale and gallops out into the woods. The movie’s vision of its heroine at home in the Scottish countryside is breathtaking, despite the generic spread-your-wings-and-fly soundtrack that accompanies it.

Slinging arrows and mounting craggy rocks to duck under waterfalls, Merida is strong, fast, and physically fearless. Like another archery-loving 2012 movie heroine, Katniss Everdeen, she’s easy and knowledgeable in the wilderness. But while Katniss depends on the woods for her survival, Merida takes to the trees in order to escape stifling expectations about how a princess is supposed to behave.

In a pop culture landscape over-saturated with Disney princesses, Merida stands out from the pack to some extent. Not only is she utterly uninterested in getting married (or even falling in love at this particular moment in time), the movie doesn’t try to change her mind. Instead, Brave centers on her fight to choose her own destiny — romantic and otherwise — and on her troubled relationship with her mother, Queen Elinor. Elinor’s ideas about femininity, manners, and tradition are as oppressive as the wimple she uses to hide Merinda’s unruly mane.

With her slightly gap-toothed smile, round face, and freewheeling curls, Merida is also physically distinct from the usual Disney bunch. However, her appearance is perhaps most remarkable for the modesty of its deviation from the doe-eyed, bobble-headed norm. Her body may be more athletic than Cinderella’s, her features less delicate than Belle’s–but she’s still white, slender, and conventionally pretty. It’s great to see beauty standards expand, but the minuteness of the subversion feels a bit like a lost opportunity.

Sadly, the same could be said of Brave as a whole. I get excited just thinking about the possibilities of a movie that uses the word “brave” to sum up a girl. It’s a descriptor that’s been associated with masculinity for far too long. But oddly enough, after that first scene in the countryside, the movie doesn’t give Merida many opportunities to demonstrate how courageous she can be. She’s good at standing up for herself, as when she enters a tournament in order to win her own hand in marriage. And certainly she’s not timid or fearful. But because she’s never far from home or from her mother’s watch, the audience never gets to see her really test her mettle.

It’s true that Brave flips the script on the usual parent-child dynamic. Once a spell accidentally turns Elinor into a bear, Merida assumes responsibility for protecting her mother and reversing the magic before it’s too late. But it’s a bit disappointing that Pixar’s first female protagonist is so closely tied to her mom that she can’t just get into trouble solo for a little while. Finding Nemo centered on the relationship between a parent and child too, but it allowed Nemo to have adventures on his own. Merida, on the other hand, never appears to be more than an hour’s horseback ride or so away from the family castle.

Escaping your family, even temporarily, isn’t a prerequisite for independence. It can definitely help, though — particularly for women, who have historically been tethered to hearth and home by patriarchal ideas that keep domesticity, marriage, and motherhood sacrosanct. Family bonds can be wonderful, of course. But sometimes they weigh a good story down.

Outfitting the Consumer Feminist in “Sex and the City 2”

In fashion, feminism, Film on June 22, 2012 at 9:14 am

Phoebe B.

I recently had the desire to hate-watch my way through a parade of Manolo Blahniks, fancy bags, and bad acting—otherwise known as Sex and the City 2 (word to the wise: don’t watch SATC 2! It is terrible. It is almost too bad for hate watching.). The movie takes Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda out of Manhattan and into Abu Dhabi for a girls vacation, where they cause quite a lot of trouble with their American ways.

Amidst the recession and two wars in the Middle East the film proclaims a clear pro-America stance that figures the Middle East as repressive and oppressive. The ladies, on the other hand, are supposedly the picture of liberated white womanhood—defined per SATC 2 by super expensive fashion and sexual liberation. SATC 2 seems to imagine itself as on the progressive edge of feminism. But in fact, it trades in some of the worst stereotypes about both Middle Eastern cultures and Western, white feminists in the name of progressive politics.

The ladies on their way to ride camels

Samantha, the leader of the trip to Abu Dhabi, is certain that her American way is the right way. She refuses to cover her shoulders or legs, behaves inappropriately, and flouts the rules. For example, Samantha and her architect date kiss on the beach after some overly sexual hookah smoking, despite prohibitions against public displays of affection and the clear discomfort they cause a nearby couple. Then she is arrested and quite miffed and surprised that she’s punished for her behavior. Not to fear though, back in America at the end of the film, she and her architect can have sex on a beach (not the drink) without legal interference. Oh freedom, how great you are!

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Date, Marry, Dump: The Avengers Edition

In Film on May 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Sarah T.

In all the hubbub about The Avengers, I haven’t yet seen an article addressing one very important, age-old question. Who would you date, who would you marry, and who would you toss in the garbage can? Let us consider together.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, is a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. And he does stand out from the superhero crowd. He’s an alcoholic with shrapnel constantly trying to work its way into his heart, the perfect metaphor for just how close to the edge he lives. There’s good anti-hero potential there, but Stark’s always irked me with his self-congratulatory torturedness.

The problem for me isn’t that he’s flawed, it’s that he seems so proud of himself for being a callous, self-destructive narcissist who enjoys belittling the people around him. He uses his torment as a selling point, a tactic that reeks of manipulation and a deep-set need for ego-stroking. Basically, his entire persona is “Pay attention to me, I have issues!”

Who makes their facial hair go like that, even?

But Pepper Potts of the world, there’s hope! This rich, tragic rebel might just change for the right girl, if she happens to be perfect enough. Yikes: Don’t fall for this one, prospective Potts. Messed-up people change if and when they want to. Put down the motorcycle jacket and get out while you can.

Perhaps unfairly, as an actor Downey sets off the same warning signals as Stark on my personal jerk-o-meter. And through no fault of his own, that meter really gets into the red zone when I read critics fawning all over him and ignoring  Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. (More on her in a bit.)

Well. As you may have guessed by now, I’m dumping Stark! I’m going to tesseract him into some other dimension far, far away from me. And worst of all, in that dimension, there are no mirrors for him to preen in. WHAT NOW, IRON MAN? Read the rest of this entry »

“Are you ready to go back to Titanic?”

In Film, gender, Melodrama, Oscars, Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Sarah S.

Confession: When Titanic first came out I saw it 8 times in the theater. I had a poster on my wall. I not only listened the soundtrack but I bought the album of Gaelic Storm, the band playing at the film’s third class after-party. I was 18 years old and I loooooved it. And I never fully rejected it as the years passed. When friends made fun of my affection, I noted that I had the weight of the Academy behind me. (Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars, tying All About Eve, and won 11, tying Ben Hur and getting tied itself by LOTR: The Return of the King.) I also found Titanic-hating passé; one didn’t have to love it to acknowledged its solid acting, gorgeous sets and costumes, and stunning effects.

Age certainly tempered my enthusiasm, so I met with trepidation the news that not only was director James Cameron re-releasing the movie (15 years after its debut and right before the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking) but also that it was going to be coming right at you in 3-D. I tend to be as blasé about 3-D as Rose Dewitt Bukater is about the ship Titanic, so I fully expected to roll my eyes at this pointless spectacle. Well, I went, I saw, and I’m here to report back not only how Titanic holds up under 3-D technology, but also how my perspective on the underlying symbolism of the story has significantly shifted.

First off, the good: 3-D and Titanic actually work together. Cameron’s obsessive attention to set design and historical detail fit well with the layered look of 3-D cinema. 3-D often lessens lushness but in Titanic it works to emphasize the impressive look of the thing. Speaking of that obsessive attention to detail, the film’s one changed scene, courtesy of Neil deGrasse Tyson, diverges from its predecessor in its emphasis of the milky-way if nothing else. And the things you liked about the movie beyond its beauty, namely the acting and the romance between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) hold up.

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Watching Parenthood in “The Descendants”

In Film, Oscars, parenthood on April 9, 2012 at 8:53 am

Phoebe B.

When I was a kid, which alas I only now am in spirit, I spent a decent amount of time looking at adults and presuming, sometimes rightly so, that they knew best. I believed that they understood things I was not quite capable of grasping yet; that their decisions inherently made sense and should be followed, even if I didn’t like them. I suspected that my own parents just knew what to do with some sort of parent-specific magic. It seemed to me that their rules, whatever they were, were preordained, and that bedtimes were of course always at nine, or ten, or eventually maybe even eleven.

As an adult, I have come to realize that my parents—like many other parents I imagine—are just people trying to do a good job taking care of their kids. This may sound silly, but it was quite the serious revelation for me. Even the best parents are not martyrs like Harry Potter’s parents. They’re probably more like the Weasleys, with their crazy house and messy kitchen and cluttered garage. The Weasleys do their best, but their best doesn’t always work out as well as planned. Or parents might be more like the less-magical but awesome Tami and Eric Taylor, or even MTV’s teen mothers, trying under difficult circumstances to do a good job despite being kids themselves.

Parenting is work. Fun work most of the time (according to my folks), but work nonetheless—which perhaps is why my mom quite smartly developed a system to pay herself for the work she did around the house and taking care of me when I was really little. And because I am at a point in my life where parenting is not quite on the table and but definitely up for discussion fairly often these days—not because I’m planning on being a parent anytime soon, but because many of my friends have started having children—I am all the more intrigued by representations of it.

That’s why The Descendants stood out to me. The Descendants begins with the near-fatal boating accident of Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth. It becomes clear early on that Elizabeth will not survive. The film follows Matt and his daughters as they come to terms with her sudden death. Amidst his mourning, Matt learns from his eldest daughter, Alexandra, that Elizabeth was having an affair. The rest of the film follows Matt and his daughter’s search for his wife’s lover, including a Kaui vacation, to track him down. While this narrative does not laud Matt’s parenting skills, it suggests that there is no model or manual for good parenting and that everyone, including each of the family members, copes differently with grief, loss, and life.

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