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Posts Tagged ‘film’

Lit Nerd Paradise: Review of Night Film

In books on October 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Sarah S.

The enigma at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film, is a dark, mysterious movie director. Stanislav Cordova seems part Kubrick, part Godard, part Hitchcock, part Herzog. The suicide of Cordova’s daughter becomes the catalyst that plunges disgraced journalist Scott McGrath deep into Cordova’s orbit. In trying to understand the girl’s death, McGrath and his sidekicks (a wannabe actress named Nora and a pretty-boy, drug dealer named Hopper) descend into Cordova’s world and much of the novel’s tension comes from wondering if they’ll solve the mystery and, even if they do, will they ever escape Cordova’s dark world. But for all that the novel explores film as an art form, and the troubling genius of the auteur, Night Film revels in literary references, jokes, and twists. As such, the novel embraces its Post-Modern bridging of genres (including insets of photographs, news articles, and webpages, as well as an app that reveals hidden content) while remaining deeply, playfully literary.

Rather than detail all the literary jokes and references (many of which I’m sure I missed), here are a few presented for your consideration:

Ashley Brett Cordova: The mysterious director’s daughter is beautiful, bold, a musical prodigy, a potential vessel of evil, and/or a victim of her father’s dark vision. Her name also inverts that of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most challenging heroines, Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises. Both women are burdened by their beauty and both defy the limitations put on them by a restrictive society. And depending on your perspective, both ruin the men who swarm to them like moths to a flame becoming “Circes who turn men into swine.” Are both women witches (literally? metaphorically?) or victims of patriarchal systems?

“Do I Dare?” (*mild spoilers*): As the director’s personal motto, one which he forces on his children and acolytes alike, this phrase asks the individual how far she is willing to go to experience life and break out of social norms and expectations. It reminds the individual to avoid being safe, to ask when presented with any possibility, “Do I dare?”.

However, this phrase “Do I dare?” comes from the T. S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which the novel informs the reader straight away). And “Prufrock” is no “suck out all the marrow of life” poem. Instead, it’s a modernist, anti-heroic examination of a person who lives perpetually by the rules, a weak man who doesn’t “dare” do much of anything. One of his final pleas comes down to “Do I dare eat a peach?”, even this simple act of sensual pleasure seeming beyond his abilities. Thus, Pessl’s use of “Do I dare?” as the Cordova motto might be a gross misstep on her part or, more compellingly, an intriguing ambiguity or misreading at the core of Cordova’s worldview.

The Heart of Darkness (*proper spoilers*): In significant ways, Night Film‘s Scott McGrath mirrors Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (with Cordova as the enigmatic Kurtz). Both McGrath and Marlow narrate his story, and each details his fascination with a man who seems equal parts compelling and disturbing. Conrad’s Africa becomes Pessl’s world of Cordova cinema, not only the movies but also the estate in which Cordova lives and makes his films, The Peak. Both novels also comment on their historical moment, seeking to explore the savagery underneath society’s veneer of restraint, control, and respectability. And, of course, Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Copolla’s masterful film Apocalypse Now, lending further credence between the literary-filmic connections in Night Film. Heart of Darkness ultimately seems Pessl’s greatest inspiration, her novel a post-modern retelling of Marlow’s tale.

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“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 »

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 »

Re-visiting “The Hunger Games:” Beauty, Mourning, and Resistance

In girl culture, Hunger Games, violence on September 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

Phoebe B.

Much has already been written on GLG about The Hunger Games movie. (For example: here, here, here, here, and here. Also, here.) But re-watching The Hunger Games, I began thinking about how the film connects mourning, beauty, and resistance. I was particularly struck by the care both Katniss and the camera take in the scene of Rue’s death and subsequent funeral, which comes amidst the violence, fear, and speed with which the games happen. The close-ups of both Rue and Katniss’ faces showcase the tragedy of Rue’s death. And the mourning, which follows, creates space within the film to see the horrifying and devastating consequences of the games.

Up until the moment Rue is killed by the Careers, everything in the games is fast and fraught with anxiety, from the fireballs and crashing trees that lead Katniss directly into the path of the Careers to the moment she releases the tracker jackers onto her pursuers. But when Rue suffers a devastating death, everything slows down. The series of close-ups that alternate between Rue and Katniss let us in and move us from merely being objective viewers, like those in the Capitol, to caring participants. The silence that surrounds them further emphasizes the discomfort and sadness, as it suggests the very real consequences of these violently constructed games.

The care Katniss takes in arranging Rue’s funeral and the odd space given to her to mourn by the gamekeepers (potentially also entranced by her and Rue’s narrative) feels out of place amidst the violence of the games. The sequence is beautiful: the camera lingers on the small delicate white flowers that cover Rue’s body, cuts to different angles of Rue lying in the forest, and then stays for a while with them. In this moment, the speed and terror of the games is trumped by Katniss’s grief over Rue and her enacting a ritual of mourning. It is an act that defies the logic and narrative of the games in that it relays a human connection and relationship forged amidst terror. Their alliance, unlike the Careers or even Katniss’ romance with Peeta, is a real rather than strategic and so unexpected.

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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.”

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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 »

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In activism, gender, race, Weekly Round-Up on June 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

Here are some fun and interesting things the GLG folks read this week. What did you read this week? Let us know in the comments!

From the Racialicious Tumblr, debunking the Kumbaya myth.

Check out the awesome trailer for the upcoming Dear White People movie here and their Tumblr here.

What pop culture items do academics study most? Buffy? The Matrix? Find out the answer this week at Slate.

A recap of the misogynistic backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarted project about video games and misogyny, on Feminist Philosophers. And another post from Slate on this same topic.

Lastly: Going on a date this weekend? And looking for a perfume? Smell like Labyrinth! Check out Labyrinth-inspired perfumes over at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

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 »

An Ideological Mess or: How I Learned to Not Stop Worrying and Still Love Rock Climbing

In class, gender, race, Rock Climbing on May 11, 2012 at 6:54 am

Guest Contributor Narinda Heng

Iíve been climbing fences, balconies, and trees for years, but it wasnít until January of 2011, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I went rock climbing for the first time at Malibu Creek State Park. It’s funny that instead of participating in a Day of Service, I went rock climbing. I guess that could be seen as one of the very first moments when I had to grapple with feeling a contradiction between pursuing rock climbing and the many other ideals and identities that I hold dear. And now here I am–here we are– discussing race, gender, and class in rock climbing.

And it feels good. Really good. Even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult. Because I don’t feel like I need to ignore or hide the fact that I think about and experience these contradictions, and what’s more, I’m seeing that there are so many people out there who are supportive of talking about it. And my partner, who has been climbing and dealing with this for much longer than I have, gets to heal a bit from her earlier discouragement with discussions like this in the online climbing community.

I submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing community who were ready and willing to talk about it. I was also ready to see people be defensive and assert that there’s no race/gender/class on the rock, and I actually agree with that–those delicious moments of just climbing are part of why I love it. So I understand why Guidoprincess said this:

I think the reason many people, including myself, find this offensive is that we turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this ìracial landscape navigationî nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f*ck out.

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“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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Chattering Good Stories: The Hunger Games and Other Revisitations

In Hunger Games, Melodrama, spoilers, YA on April 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Guest Contributor Taylor D.

There are times when, if you flicker your attention in its direction, your body will respond. You have to keep your mind OFF your nausea in order not to vomit. You must not allow yourself to recognize that your teeth could chatter or they WILL.

The other night, I went to see The Hunger Games. It was a long, wet end-of-March walk to the theater, and since the movie was at 6:30, I was planning on eating dinner afterwards. Throughout the film, I was aware of that strange bodily phenomenon. At any point during those two-plus hours, my teeth were clenched on the edge of chattering. Why this physical response? Here are some options:

1. I was cold.

2. I was hungry.

3. I was incredibly amped about seeing the performances.

4. I have no imagination and can only respond when movies show me how.

5. ???

All of these are a little bit true. I was cold and hungry, and I was very excited to see Jennifer Lawrence’s newest star turn. And although I DO have imagination, and books move me all the time – I’ll quote Nabokov on this in a minute – movies use music to ratchet up the emotional response, and this added value cannot be overstated. But I want to try to put some words inside those question marks. I think the question is this: WHY AM I TENSE WHEN I KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN? That’s where the chattering really lives, and it has to do with the consumption of stories.

Lots of movies are meant to provoke physical responses, possibly all of them. Linda Williams has named horror, melodrama, and pornography as the “body genres,” the forms of story most designed to get viewers’ bodies to respond, largely by featuring bodily excesses – terror, grief, orgasm – themselves. But laughter is a physical response too, so we should add comedy to the list; and tension, so we should add suspense, action, and thrillers; and gasps of wonder, so we should add epics and good animation; and so on. (Williams notes that “melodrama” is actually a broad category, one we could possibly expand to include some of these other genres, but her analysis focuses on tears rather than on tension, and I want to talk about tension.) The only movies that aren’t in some way bodily are the ones that are totally boring and do nothing to you (except maybe make you yawn – and yawning too is a physical response). Read the rest of this entry »

The Care-taking Women of “50/50”

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2012 at 4:54 am

Sarah T.

All the characters in 50/50 are defined by their relationships with Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a  crinkly-eyed 27-year-old diagnosed with spinal cancer.  Adam’s mom Diane, his increasingly unreliable girlfriend Rachel, his therapist Katherine, and his best friend Kyle orbit him like concerned planets, only rarely coming into contact with each other or anyone else.

The care-taking methods of Diane, Rachel, Katherine, and Kyle are all intertwined with their gender roles: the mom, the bad girlfriend, the love interest-as-therapist, the best buddy. It’s no surprise that Kyle (Seth Rogen) emerges as Adam’s MVP. The women must contend with such a host of expectations about care-taking that they’re bound to pale by comparison.

As a failed caretaker and bad girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is easily the most reviled character in the film. First of all, she’s an abstract painter (we know how Hollywood feels about people who like abstract painting!), so she’s supposed to be pretentious and untalented. She won’t go down on Adam, which is a big strike against her. More seriously, she flakes out more and more after he gets sick, arriving an hour late to pick him up from chemo and refusing to accompany him inside the hospital. When Adam explains that she’s scared of hospitals, his fellow chemo patients reasonably point out that nobody actually wants to pad around among IV drips and paper-thin gowns–family and friends suck it up out of love. Finally, when Kyle catches Rachel cheating on Adam with another guy, the film lets loose its fury. Kyle calls her a whore, and later he and Adam destroy one of her paintings with much fire and brimstone.

The audience is supposed to find this revenge as cathartic as Adam and Kyle do — the shrew gets what she deserves! But perhaps thanks to Howard’s complex acting, I had some sympathy for Rachel. Yes, she was a bad care-taker and a sub-par girlfriend. Yet it’s possible to understand how she got so overwhelmed. Read the rest of this entry »

Do What You Love: Bill Cunningham New York

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2012 at 6:48 am

My graduate school advisor had a lot of very good advice, true to her title. Most of it boiled down to a quote from philosopher and civil rights activist Howard Thurman that she’d hung on her office door:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

That quote–and my advisor–kept running through my mind as I watched Bill Cunningham New York, a 2010 documentary on the 80-year-old New York Times on-the-street fashion photographer.

Style, and the people who have it, make Cunningham come alive. During a Paris awards ceremony at which he is slated to receive a prize, Cunningham wanders around snapping pictures. “I just think it’s so funny that you’re working at your own party,” a guest remarks. “My darling,” Cunningham says, “it’s not work, it’s pleasure.”

What fascinates the gentle, stubborn journalist is fashion alchemy: how the right combination of shoes and hats and scarves and coats can produce a look that’s at once unique and expressive of a larger cultural moment. As his fondness for Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue makes clear, Cunningham is particularly delighted by people who aren’t afraid to stand out in a crowd. It’s telling that he calls Piaggi a “poet of clothes” and that he frequently describes the fashions he sees on the streets in terms of classical paintings and symphonies. In clothing, Cunningham sees beauty, art, democracy, history, travel, community, and self-expression. His gift is to show everyone else how to see those things too.

Watching the film, I kept taking mental notes on how Cunningham has located, and preserved, real joy in his work. Two of the key elements, I think, are his egalitarianism and humility. Not only does he protect those qualities in himself, he infuses them into his corners of realms famed for their elitism–New York society, the Times, and fashion.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Allure of Ryan Gosling: Drive

In gender, Uncategorized on February 16, 2012 at 11:29 am

Sarah S.

Where did Ryan Gosling come from? I mean, I know he was a Mouseketeer and that he turned a couple heads in The United States of Leland and The Notebook. Even still, he seemed to come out of nowhere with Half Nelson, having undergone a foggy transformation from burgeoning boy-wonder to serious thespian. He has since been cultivating a persona built upon a precious (pretentious?) commitment to avant-garde idealism, a dryly humorous willingness to mock Hollywood, and an outrageous-yet-dapper personal style. Also, abs. His counterparts are James Franco and the late Heath Ledger. Yet while Franco’s antics seem more and more annoying (and Ledger’s death more and more tragic) Gosling’s star continues to rise and rise and rise. So, again, where did Ryan Gosling come from? Wherefore lies his particular allure?

Gosling has been slowly perfecting a unique filmic masculinity that hearkens back to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne while feeling entirely fresh and new at the same time. His characters are usually reticent, incapable of or unwilling to be expressive, to share their inner souls. He specializes in blank, enigmatic looks that make you want to swoon-scream: “What are you thinking?” Even his extraordinarily verbose husband in Blue Valentine seemed to speak only because he desperately wanted to know what his wife was feeling and yet equally desperately could not hear what she said. He seems untouchable, un-get-at-able. He’s the opposite of the tortured, emo, vampire boys, the Louises and Edwards and Bills and Stefans, with their obsession with endlessly reporting their tortured, eternal angst. Yet like them he also seems out of time, specializing in films that look set in an earlier time but aren’t (Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, Drive). Gosling’s filmic masculinity hits its apex in Drive, with a character so mysterious he does not even have a name; he’s only know as Driver. Read the rest of this entry »

Puppy Love: Remembering Celebrity Crushes

In Uncategorized on February 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Well friends, it’s that time of the year again: the one-and-only Anna Howard Shaw Day, when we break out the champagne and Marvin Gaye tunes to honor one of the top women’s suffrage leaders ever to be born on Feburary 14.

And of course, it’s not too late to dig into some waffles in honor of Galentine’s Day, the February 13 holiday in which we appreciate our dearest friends over delicious breakfast foods.  (Guy friends can totally celebrate Galentine’s Day too.)

But what of our first loves? When do we set aside the time to celebrate everything they’ve given us and tell them how we really feel? I refer, of course, to the celebrities and film and television characters who first made us go all moon-eyed. Just because we’re busy sharing our love with suffragists and chums (and maybe with our special gentleman- and lady-friends too) doesn’t mean it’s all right to neglect the stars who taught our pulses how to race. Read the rest of this entry »

A Rock Explains the 2012 Oscar Nominations

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Sarah Todd and Rock

Like many humans, I live under a rock. But it’s a small rock with spotty but nonetheless existent wi-fi. I saw 2 of the 9 movies nominated for best picture this year. By hardcore rock-living standards, that is 2 too many. For an authentically stone-faced appraisal of this year’s Oscar nominations, I turned to an actual rock to help explain what these movies are all about, based strictly on their titles and geological intuition. Ladies and gentleman, Rose Byrne.

(No, I’m kidding! I love Rose Byrne forever because of Bridesmaids, I’m just still thinking about Damages and how she doesn’t have any facial expressions on that show. But you know what, that’s her acting choice to make and her hair is so shiny.)

Here is just a regular rock to tell you what’s what. Rock is a million years old and it likes sitting and it’s scared of chisels. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-up

In gender, Weekly Round-Up on December 12, 2011 at 9:11 am

From last week, just a few posts from xoJane, Crunk Feminist Collective, and Tiger Beatdown that were pretty great.

s.e. smith on blogging threats and breaking the silence on blogging threats and breaking the silence on Tiger Beatdown

And xoJane asks Maragaret Cho some questions wherein she confesses to online shopping without buying (also, one of my favorite online activities).

More from xoJane on FDA and recent contraceptives ruling

Ending fall term with a great post on teaching & accountability from Crunk Feminist Collective. And another great post from CFC on a new film: It Gest Messy in Here

And lastly, as it is the season for gift giving, a few thoughts from CFC on different kinds of gifts

I’m Going to See Breaking Dawn OR How A Smart, Independent, Educated Woman Learned to Love Twilight

In gender, girl culture on November 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

Melissa Sexton

The first time I went to visit my sister in her new home in Seattle, I needed something to occupy my time during the long days she spent working. I was a 2nd year PhD student in a literature department, so the last thing I wanted to do on my downtime days was read anything serious. Still, my sister made a full disclaimer when she handed me her roommate’s copy of Twilight. “It’s not great literature,” she said with a shrug. “But I bet you’ll be entertained.”

Such a disclaimer was more than warranted given my lit snob past. I had spent my teenage years aspiring to an elite aestheticism, sneering at my younger sisters for their fantasy novels and their mainstream movies. Like many a wanna-be intellectual before me, I wanted to like the right things. I wanted to read philosophy and great literature; I watched old movies, not blockbusters, with my boyfriend. I didn’t watch TV; I backpacked, hello. Before I ever even thought about drinking, I started going to “shows.”  I was relentlessly and, to be honest, baselessly opposed to anything that could be construed as popular. Luckily for me, I was already outgrowing what I still think should never be more than an an adolescent phase: the conviction that, just because we don’t like something, this makes the object of our disdain inherently and objectively bad; that there are good and bad things to like, and your aesthetic preferences say something meaningful about your character; that there were things not just that I hadn’t read but that I wouldn’t read, that I shouldn’t watch. Read the rest of this entry »

“Melancholia”: Depression and Going Big

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Sarah Todd

Birds drifting down from the sky. Small bolts of lightning emerging from a woman’s fingertips. A mother carrying her child across a darkened golf course, sinking further into the green with each step. Wagner, of course.

In Lars von Trier’s stunning new movie “Melancholia,” this is one strangely beautiful way the world could end.

I never would have guessed that I would call any von Trier movie stunning, except in the bludgeoned sense. I hate the way his movies victimize women, the way the camera and director seem to revel in their suffering and assume that audiences will do the same. I hate that his movies suggest everyone is either weak or evil at the core. I hate his films’ violence and coldness. It’s more than disagreeing with his worldview: in the past, his world has not been a place that I recognized. Read the rest of this entry »

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin). Read the rest of this entry »

Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?

In gender, race on October 14, 2011 at 12:31 am

Melissa Sexton

If you had asked me what film would have been most likely to get my mind seriously cranking on issues of race, class, and gender, I would not have thought it was going to be the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour.  A yearly redux of climbing films, heavily sponsored by gear vendors and climbing organizations, the Reel Rock Tour has a kind of anti-establishment, counter-cultural appeal, but not necessarily the kind to bend gender expectations or advocate for class consciousness.  I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of climbing culture, so I can hardly speak with great knowledge; but climbing seems like a no-nonsense, do-or-die realm that would like to pretend it doesn’t care about race, class, or gender. Those who know me are not surprised to see that I’ve toyed with climbing – it appeals to all my gender insecurities and issues with toughness.  Climbing rewards strength, endurance, and the ability to fight through pain. Climbing is one of those weird, ambiguously gendered spaces…because, to a certain extent, there is no gender in climbing. If you can send a climb, you’re awesome, and your gender doesn’t matter. Elite women climbers exist and can outclimb many a man.  But…if you hang out near the bouldering wall in your local rock gym, you’ll probably see what a boys’ club the climbing world can still be.  And often it’s a white boys’ club. To pretend that there is no race or gender in climbing is naive. And indeed, while I really enjoyed a lot of the films in the 2011 Tour, most of them would reinforce gender stereotypes about the climbing world: nary a woman to be seen, except a few that hang around the camps of the kooky guys – guys that oscillate between, on the one hand, sentimental visions of home while they’re on death’s doorstep atop some mountain in Pakistan – and, on the other hand, a perpetual adolescent desire to defy death through flat-out stupidly risky behavior. There are uber-competitive guys racing for climbing speed records, ripping their skin to shreds and throwing safety out the window, posing for bare-chested photos before El Capitan and veiling their competitiveness between platitudes about peace and wilderness escape. Like I said – I loved and enjoyed these films, the way I love and enjoy Moby-Dick and Walden and William Faulkner. Because the wilderness enthusiast and wanna-be climber in me can outweigh the gender critic, and I can revel in physical performance, wild landscape, intellectual quandaries…I love these places because I can embrace the fantasy they provide, a realm where you’re judged solely based on your mettle.  Yet I can also see the holes in these visions, the way even the “pure” realm of the rock is a constructed space that favors certain people, relies on certain resources for access, rewards certain kinds of attitudes about ability and embodiment.

But then, halfway through the line-up, there was the film “Origins: Obe and Ashima,” which might be one of the most interesting commentaries I”ve seen on athleticism, race, and gender ever…because it hardly makes these things an issue, while featuring them front and center. It tells the intertwined story of two elite climbers – Ashima Shiraishi, a 10-year old Japanese climber from New York who can finesse her way up bouldering problems that would make the bare-chested boy-climbers at the bouldering wall blanche…and her coach Obe Carrion,  once a teenage kid from the bad part of Allentown, PA who got out and made a name for himself through climbing. I can’t figure out exactly what his ethnic background is, but in an interview with he identifies as a minority, though only to mention that it’s “cool” with him to be a minority in the climbing world. I point out this race issue to highlight just how much the climbing world downplays issues of race and gender. What is remarkable for both of these climbers is not their race – in what I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – my evidence is entirely anecdotal) is a predominantly white sport in the United States. Instead, Obe is revered for helping to make bouldering a legitimate sport, and this short film further applauds him (and rightly so) for taking all his competitive spirit and climbing passion and using it to help kids learn to climb at an elite level. What is remarkable in Ashima’s case is not solely gender, nor race – it is, instead, that she is (at the time of the filming) a nine-year old girl. Her youth is her most remarkable attribute.

Ashima and her coach Obe at Hueco Tanks, a bouldering proving ground in Texas

Problem solving. Ashima took a V12 that trip. I can do V1's on a good day.

(Both photos thanks to Climbing magazine).

Both Obe and Ashima are incredible athletes – and even if you don’t climb, you can’t help but be blown away by the amazing things they can do with their bodies.  And as a culture critic, I can’t help but be blown away by their sudden appearance, sandwiched in between testosterone fueled speed races up the Nose of El Capitan, brutal winter brushes with avalanches up Gasherbrum II, and crazy stunt slacklining, basejumping, and high-lining that pushes safety to the side and “the rush” to the forefront:

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the world of Ashimi and Obe escapes the competitiveness or odd relationships between one’s self and one’s body that appear in the rest of the climbing films.  It’s still a tangled ideological web, as it always is. But I’m just saying it’s startling to see a break in the constant stream of young, toned, white male bodies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Psych 101: Doppelgangers and Depictions of Disorders in “The Roommate”

In gender on October 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Sarah Todd

This past weekend, my friend Christine and I watched The Roommate, a deeply baffling movie about a pretty young stalker who stalks other pretty people who look just like her, for no reason the film cares to clarify.

Like 99% of people who saw the movie (rough estimate), we were watching mostly because Leighton Meester—aka our Lady of Headbands and Bon Mots, Blair Waldorf—plays the lovely stalker Rebecca. Hilariously, early on the movie hints that Rebecca is evil in the following ways:

•    She does not like going out to clubs
•    She would like to be called Rebecca, not Becky

Truly chilling stuff. Why Sarah (Minka Kelly) doesn’t realize that her college roommate is bad news from the get-go is a mystery.

Lurkers Love Abstract Paintings

But The Roommate has plenty of other mysteries as well, most of them unintentional. For one thing, according to The Roommate, mental and emotional disorders are nefarious and unknowable, not unlike Mordor. When Rebecca’s mother asks Sarah if her daughter has been “taking her medication,” alarm bells immediately go off for Sarah. Pills are scary, like modern art and full names. Sarah googles the name of the medication and it turns out that Rebecca has… something. (Schizophrenia? Manic-depression? Lisztomania? It could be anything.)  This vague approach is patently ridiculous, but it’s also part of a long tradition of demonizing and mystifying such disorders in film. (Check out Bitch Media’s excellent “We’re All Mad Here” series for much more on this subject.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

In gender on October 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

Sarah Todd

There are three things I have to say about Melissa McCarthy right off the bat. First, she is hilarious. Second, she is beautiful. Third, I am very glad that she is riding a huge wave of success, from critical raves for her Bridesmaids turn to an Emmy award for Mike and Molly (which by general consensus was really for her work in Bridesmaids, but fine, since it’s unlikely the stuffy old Oscars will toss a nod in Bridesmaids’ direction) to her recent gig as the host of Saturday Night Live. The more often McCarthy shows up on screens large and small, the more the world gets to bask in her charismatic, goofy presence—and that’s an excellent thing.

However, I also think it is important to take a close look at the types of roles that have thus far been available to McCarthy as a plus-size female comedian. Some people, with good reason, have raised concerns that these roles—in particular, her part in Bridesmaids as a tough, sexually aggressive, not-very-ladylike member of the wedding party—rely on fat jokes and stereotypes about overweight women. (On a sidenote, I use the word “fat” in this article either in the reclaimed sense or in order to convey cultural tropes and prejudices regarding overweight people; by no means is it meant as an insult.)

In order to take a close look at these concerns, let’s check out McCarthy in three screen appearances: as Sookie in Gilmore Girls, Megan in Bridesmaids, and in multiple sketches on last week’s SNL. (I haven’t seen Mike and Molly and I have a (perhaps unjust) bias against laugh-track sitcoms, but I’d love to hear from readers about how her role on that show fits into this analysis).

In retrospect, I wonder if Melissa McCarthy was a little bored in her seven seasons as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. As Sookie, she got to be cute and high-energy and quirky and neurotic. But the part didn’t really call for much of a wild side or for physical humor, and it’s now clear that these are two of McCarthy’s strengths. However, one great thing about the way the show depicted Sookie was that her weight was never an issue. I can’t recall a single episode that mentions anything about her body type, or that plays on any stereotypes related to overweight people. Sookie was supposed to be funny and pretty, a great chef, a loyal friend, and a devoted wife and mother, and she was indeed all of those things. Her weight never entered into the discussion of her abilities or happiness. Nor did the show suggest that her weight was a problem to be overcome or a personal failing. Read the rest of this entry »

I Spy a Mom: Motherhood and Femininity in “The Debt”

In gender on September 16, 2011 at 8:06 am

Sarah Todd

Secret agents are people too, as spy movies like to remind us. The gun-toting, building-leaping, parachute-plunging protagonists of espionage movies often have spouses, children, parents, friends, pets, and partners. They make scrambled eggs for breakfast (foreboding scrambled eggs), take their dogs for runs in the park, and drop their kids off at school. Even James Bond falls in love sometimes, for a while. These personal details remind audiences of our heroes’ humanity, and of what they have to lose.

There are three spies in The Debt—Mossad agents Rachel, David, and Stephan. But only Rachel, played by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren in her younger and older incarnations, serves as the film’s emotional anchor and moral compass. As a young agent, she’s incredibly courageous, but her expressive face reveals every moment of self-doubt, fear, fury, and sadness. As an older woman, she’s more reserved and composed, but no less central to the film’s exploration of the ethics of espionage. Her fellow agents are interesting and appealing—David a tragic, thoughtful figure, Stephan all swarthiness and ambition (Marton Csokas, what are you doing later?). But their primary functions are as angles in The Debt’s love triangle. The film’s story is told through Rachel’s eyes, and crucially her perspective is repeatedly characterized as a distinctly feminine one.

More specifically, the film distinguishes Rachel as a sexually desirable woman, mother, and daughter. Each of these roles relate both to her work as a spy and to her personal life. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Such an Easy A: A few thoughts on the Scarlett Letter  update

In race on September 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I finally watched Easy A last night and it was fairly hilarious. That said, I have a few issues with the film, which I will elaborate on shortly.

Easy A is a modern day teen adaptation of The Scarlett Letter with Emma Stone (as Olive) and Penn Badgly (ie Dan from Gossip Girl), and a plethora of delightful and awesome supporting cast members. These include, but are not limited to, Lisa Kudrow as an adultering guidance counselor, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s father and mother respectively, and Amanda Bynes as Marianne, Olive’s bible thumping nemesis. Truth be told, I kind of have a soft spot for Amanda Bynes, which developed somewhere around the time I saw What a Girl Wants and Sydney White. Plus her performance is oddly reminiscent of Mandy Moore in Saved. But moving on.

Easy A is a fun romp through the traumas of the high school rumor mill. Here’s what happens: Olive (Stone) lies to her BFF and tells her that she has lost her virginity, a conversation that is overheard by Marianne (Bynes). Marianne then spreads the rumor all over the school. Next thing we know, nerdy boys want to pay Olive (usually in gift cards and coupons) to pretend that she kissed, went to second base, had sex with them—an endeavor that begins when she agrees to help Brandon (Dan Byrd), who is gay, pretend he is straight by having loud fake sex at a party. The film humorously details the consequences of this lie (ie Olive starts showing a little more skin and then sews an A to all her clothing), which (to fast-forward for a moment) ends with a guy getting the wrong idea and actually trying to pay her for real sex with a Home Depot gift card. Not to worry, she makes a tell-all web cast after a sexy performance with her longtime crush (Penn Badgley), and then they ride off into the sunset on a tractor.

All in all, the movie is quite funny and I found myself enjoying it a great deal. I mean, how can you go wrong with this puritanical plot? However, I was left with a few things that made me both uncomfortable and confused and feel less laudatory, mostly surrounding issues about race.

Firstly, Olive’s family who are white have adopted an adorable second child, Chip (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), who is African American. Perhaps this role was blind cast, but either way, Chip’s difference is constantly asserted in the film. It feels at times as if he is there as a means to show how progressive this particular white family is. Further, in the film his blackness is used to signal that he is adopted. Although his character has very few lines (although is in almost all the family scenes), his presence is always punctuated by dialogue, like “but I’m adopted,” or Stanley Tucci jokingly asking him, “where are you from?” At once, the film signals that Chip would notice that he looks different than the rest of his family and so it does not erase that difference, which seems like a good idea. However, it also uses that difference to signal both the family’s whiteness, but also that they are not the average white family from Ojai, California. But rather, Chip is used to indicate that they are just a little offbeat, in line with Madonna and perhaps Angelina Jolie.

Secondly, the storyline involving Brandon feels oddly frustrating for a variety of reasons. Granted the film takes on bullying, reminiscent of Glee (remember Kurt attempts a day or two as straight and wears a trucker hat to signal it), but the solution Easy A proposes feels strange. Either pretend you are straight to avoid bullying or run away with an older tall black man. Brandon attempts the first, but then decides on the latter, which is accompanied by a plethora of references to Huck Finn (also we see the couple watching an old Huck Finn film together). To me, this feels like a problem. This choice seems to mock stereotypes of the oversexed black buck or at least unsuccessfully try to (for more on this see Donald Bogle’s work). However, by pairing Brandon and his unnamed lover’s story with that of Huck Finn, the film evokes some problematic parallels between these two white and black couplings. By evoking the Twain novel, the film unexpectedly presents a parallel between Jim, who is a slave, and Brandon’s unnamed lover, one which suggests a reading of Jim and Brandon’s lover perhaps as predatory (particularly given the age difference).

Taken together, I think these two instances both function to produce whiteness in the film, at the expense of the black characters. Whereas Chip’s presence signals the whiteness of the family via the reiteration of his difference, so too does Brandon’s unnamed African American lover and his parallel with Huck Finn, suggest both Brandon’s whiteness and a relationship between a white boy and an escaped slave. In both these instances, difference is forcibly asserted, which in and of itself is perhaps not a bad thing, but it is when African American bodies are used seemingly for the sake of producing whiteness. Safe to say, this is nothing new in filmic representations of race, but the casual use of black bodies in Easy A to suggest various things about the white cast seems worthy of pointing out.

Within the scope of the film, the use of Huck Finn fits into the genre of updating and mocking a classic novel. But for the previously mentioned reasons I don’t think it works. I imagine there is much more to say here, but I would be delighted by any or all feedback, as these are just my initial thoughts. Easy A is fine when the plot sticks to the white characters (after all it is the Puritans they are mocking), but its treatment of bodies of color, specifically African American men, is worrisome perhaps at best.

Love and Work in “One Day”

In Uncategorized on September 1, 2011 at 11:38 am

Sarah Todd

(This post is an outgrowth of a conversation begun with the wonderful Jeni and Bethany—shout-out to you two!)

Do you love your work? Does love sometimes feel like work? Does work interfere with loving your life? The Anne Hathaway-Jim Sturgess film One Day prompts such questions, particularly if you attend a showing at a work-focused personal moment.

One Day is a love story, but because that story covers twenty years in the lives of Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess), the movie is also necessarily about their careers. The two meet on the day of their college graduation, and meet again most July 15ths thereafter. They’re best friends, with a current of mutual attraction that occasionally surges forth only to be clobbered back by fear or circumstance or plot demands. Emma is a sarcastic, self-deprecating writer whose mad bangs and owlish specs can’t hide her radiance. (Why oh why does dowdy in the movies equal Anne Hathaway with poofy hair? She’d be a knockout with Marge Simpson hair, no?) Dexter, by contrast, is a charismatic, wealthy, dashing ladies’ man. Things come easily to him, which is more of a problem than it first appears, because then what do you do when things start getting hard?

If you have seen any romantic movie ever, you can guess whether or not they eventually get together. Correct: they do not! They each marry elephants. No, that’s Water for Elephants. Maybe. I don’t actually know what Water for Elephants is about because I haven’t read it or seen the movie, because ever since I read this article about elephants I get really sad and worried whenever I think about them. Anyway, yes, love is in the stars here, but stars are really far away. The careers of Emma and Dexter, much like their romantic lives, follow a winding trajectory. Read the rest of this entry »

Under Any Sun at All: On Fancies of Finding Yourself

In gender, Uncategorized on August 24, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Last night, I popped in Under the Tuscan Sun, because I wanted a dose of sunflowers and yellow colors and Italian charm.  Also, while I may only be in my late-twenties and have never been divorced, I have lately found the idea of films about older women rediscovering their autonomous lives compelling.  I say the idea of such films because…well, frankly, I often feel more inspired by watching the trailer than I do the entire film; what we’re promised is self-discovery, but what we often get are recycled cliches mixed into travelogues.  Take the recent Eat, Pray, Love.  Remember the awesome trailers with Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days of Summer” and pictures of a somewhat wan Julia Roberts fighting to find herself, not just a reflection of herself in a relationship?

There are a lot of really great lines in that trailer, but they’re pretty much the greatest lines of the film – the insistence on needing to find a self outside of a series of relationships; the encouragement to open the mind and become more receptive to the world.  A similar formula clearly guides Under the Tuscan Sun.   Recently ended relationship + middle life –> exotic adventure –> DISCOVERY OF TRUER SELF FULL OF HAPPINESS!

I really love this movie, for a number of random reasons – the wry humor that disarms potentially cheesy moments; Sandra Oh; did I mention yellow colors?  But watching the film last night, I was also troubled.  One thing I could definitely talk about (but that I’m sure has been dissected to death) is that the women can’t help falling in love – they go out to “find themselves” – Julia Roberts’s character Liz even explicitly explains that she needs to escape the string of relationships she’s been in since 15 – but for women, “finding yourself” inevitably means getting rid of whatever blocked you from being in a happy relationship before and then falling in love.  Don’t get me wrong – I like love – I like like love, you know?  But I also think it’s troubling that the only way we can imagine women being happy – in Tuscany!  Or Bali!  Or all these amazing places! – is if they just modify the old pattern.  Keep having lovers, just take better lovers and in better places.  What I really want to talk about today is that second bit – place, or, more specifically, the relationship between women’s selves and place as figured in these middle-aged-self-quest stories.

So, big reveal, I am not primarily a scholar of gender or race, nor am I a scholar of film, new media, television, or pop culture.  I am actually a 19th century Americanist with a focus on environmental literature, and today I’m hoping to bring my ecocritical training to the table to talk about place and identity.  Because (here’s the not-so-hidden-thesis) I don’t buy the way that these films ultimately suggest that finding yourself requires you to go on a very specific kind of international adventure – to “romantic” Tuscany, to places where “you can marvel at something” – in order to escape the confines of your past self.  Under the Tuscan Sun thinks about relationships and gender in occasionally provocative ways, but it never questions the central notion that finding yourself means running in the form of sight-seeing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Luna In Space

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Sarah Todd

I’ve never understood why spaciness is supposed to be a bad thing. In high school and college, my French teachers (for some reason it was always the French teachers) complained about my spaciness all the time–to me, to my parents, to the rest of the class. “Sarah est comme Le Petit Prince,” a professor announced mid-lesson during my freshman year of college. “Sa tête est toujours dans le ciel.” I was taking the class with a few other girls from my hall, and as we exchanged bemused looks, I knew I would hear this phrase repeated to me at parties for the next four years. And so it was.

Petit Prince references aside, my French teachers’ frustration didn’t make much sense to me. I wasn’t being disruptive; I was still doing all of my work, still getting As and high Bs. An occasional daydream didn’t really interfere with my learning or with the class. What they found so annoying, I think, was that they could tell I wasn’t paying attention, which they interpreted as a sign of disrespect. But shouldn’t people be allowed to be in charge of their own thoughts? Does the authority of the teacher extend inside students’ brains? Many schools and offices ask people to restrict their thoughts to very specific topics for eight-hour stretches, but this seems like a flaw of the system, not a problem with people whose minds are prone to wandering.

To me, being spacey is like being stubborn; both are qualities that may bug others, but can be positive forces too. If you’re spacey, you’re thinking about stuff that’s not right in front of you. You’re using your imagination, and you’re not afraid to say or do things that other people may find strange.

The wonderful Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter is the best ambassador of spaciness I could ask for. She wears radishes for earrings and expresses her school pride with enormous lion hats. She professes her belief in creatures like Crumple-Horned Snorkacks in a wispy, reedy voice. People call her “Loony Luna,” but if you actually stop to listen to her, everything she says is smart or funny or kind—most often all three, all at once. Take, for example, this scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Luna’s star turn):

Harry Potter: How come you’re not at the feast?
Luna Lovegood: I’ve lost all my possessions. Apparently people have been hiding them.
Harry Potter: That’s awful!
Luna Lovegood: Oh, it’s all good fun. But as this is the last night, I really do need them back.
Harry Potter: Do you want any help finding them?
Luna Lovegood: I’m sorry about your godfather, Harry.
[clasps his hand comfortingly]
Harry Potter: Are you sure you don’t want any help looking?
Luna Lovegood: That’s all right. Anyway, my mum always said things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end.
[they look up and see a pair of her shoes hanging from the ceiling arch]
Luna Lovegood: If not always in the way we expect.

For me, the scene encapsulates everything that’s great about Luna, and all the possibilities that spaciness can open up. Because Luna is naturally kind of vague and far-off, she’s able to shift gears mid-conversation without worrying about whether or not their talk is following a deliberate line. She doesn’t let the tricks other students play on her ruffle her feathers, because she already knows she’s different, and it’s her difference that lets her brush off bullies. She can talk about her missing shoes while telling Harry something else. And she can do it all so gently, and so easily, that Harry finds comfort with her in his grief. Read the rest of this entry »