Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning role in “Blue Jasmine” was the grittiest and most econo-socially relevant of the season. There was the sweetest Dame Judi Dench in “Philomena”, the raspiest, most frightening Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”, a sultry, mysterious, and brilliant yet cracked Amy Adams in “American Hustle”, and of course Sandra Bullock’s space heroine of the collective psyche in “Gravity”.
Blanchett’s performance, though…it rocked the foundation upon which viewers judge their guides- the protagonist symbol. Blanchett played a mentally unstable, self-medicated, aging beauty queen, and a liar, a cheat, disloyal: the cause of all ruin. This shocking, shaking, whispering poseur led thousands of movie-goers through a tale of a woman who makes very little sense and a lot of trouble.
Defenseless, and hopelessly defensive, bitter, and yet self-preserving, she mumbles to herself of her troubles, on level amidst a crowd of those whom she would’ve previously considered poor folks who weren’t worth her presence (she still does, but she needs them, just then). Struggling nobodys. Jasmine is viciously exposed, but we don’t see her fall. She is still spiraling when the credits roll; still lost when it hits us that we thought it was one of those for-granted kind of classist films that, at the end, absent-mindedly kicks up dust in the eyes of the average viewer for the sake of pleasing their vision of grandeur or criticizing the same vision. But no, this is different, and Cate Blanchett made the difference. She cried and bled. She made Jasmine as tangibly bitter and helpless as a screen actress could mold her leading lady. She did it in a way, with a heart, which exposed the raw beauty of getting another chance, and the self-defeat that follows characters who are unwell.
Go for Sisters
How many dramatic or crime-centered movies have you seen in your lifetime that had not just one but two female protagonists of color who weren’t maimed or killed halfway through the film and who got what they desired in the final scenes? “Go for Sisters” is the only movie I’ve seen that fits this basic description, one which, hopefully, audiences will barely notice as something out-of-the-ordinary in coming years.
Bernice (LisaGay Brown) enlists her old friend Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) to help her find her missing son across the border in Tijuana after meeting her again by chance in her parole office. Fontayne and Bernice were like sisters in high school, but went their separate ways thereafter. Fontayne met trouble in the form of substance abuse and landed in jail. Their reunion comes at a time when Bernice is willing to do anything -even twist the rules she helps enforce- to find her son. She needs Fontayne’s help because she knows the streets better than her friend. There is a telling moment when Fontayne comments that Bernice was always doing things she wanted but never got in trouble, pointing out that she isn’t allowed to be on her cellphone while driving. We quickly understand that Bernice was privileged and used it, while Fontayne had little help growing up. She’s stuck, but decides to help Bernice, loyal to the end.
During the course of the film, the two represent different sides of the same path, one paved with the best of intentions, but made coarse by their individual difficulties. In the end, they meet at the center, putting a certain kind of classism aside. They are still like sisters, after all.
Another notable feature of the film is it’s lack of violence. We hear that Bernice’s son had his ear cut off, that the Chinese gang who has him is mailing pieces of him across the border as a warning for his ransom. And Bernice carries a gun for their guide and colleague in TJ, Ex-Detective Freddy Suarez (Edward James Almos). As for the only male co-star, detective Suarez’s most aggressive actions are logical and include attaching a tracking device on a van and playing mind-games with a professional rival who kidnaps him. There is very little jumping out of one’s seat over the content of this film.
The most crime film style scene in the film is when the two friends are threatened by local thugs in a shop, she pulls the pistol out of her bag and shoots one of the aggressors in the leg. Having shed some (but very little) blood for very good reasons (self defense in a lawless town), Bernice and Fontayne score points for playing a mindful pair of cops on a very personal mission. The crime and drama genres rarely see such tender and thoughtful activity when it comes to the use of firearms and the treatment of women- particularly attractive women who knowingly walk among treacherous villains. They would normally be punished, in one way of another, for daring to tempt danger with their desires- whatever kind they are, and not just from the vantage point of a misogynist lens, but also the usual logicians who assume enough to portray women in the same positions because it happens in life: a woman in a dark ally meets a sorry fate.
Well, it is with deep happiness that I’ll hereby assess that these women characters are treated very well by the much respected, devoted filmmaker, Indie film pioneer John Sayles. Having self-financed the feature, it’s clear that Sayles was determined to manifest his vision of these women and both their plight and destiny in a noble way, a building block for others to follow with their visions of women in film.
Having previously written about the very ….how should I put it? well-documented Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I’ve also been ruminating on the truly fantastical collection of work on display in the same museum, but with no cameras allowed, by Wangechi Mutu. The exhibit is quiet, so that you can feel the air between the pieces in the gallery. The title “The Fantastic Journey” refers to the exhibits span of Mutu’s work from 1990’s to present. These stunning large scale collages, installations, and videos are full of twisted, taunting roots, earth and creatures that look somewhat human, but are actually much more than that. They are history, global suffering, deliriously excitable, and possibly, beneath the surface suffering and downtrodden. They are feminine forms filled out with glitter, cutouts that look like they’re from magazines, the smoothest surface with the grittiest implications. The textures are strong. The bodies are ready for a bloody fight; as willing to dance as they are to protect. With their claws, talons, tendrils, and other quite luscious features, they excite and repel all at once; paired together, an attractive curve sweeps into an unearthly bump, scales bedeck breasts, and darkness beckons between spread thighs. The creatures conjure images of confident, striding, lustful, determined women with their open kneeling, back-bending, and spread arms. Mutu’s work makes the viewer reconsider their vision of what it means to be a woman, by shadowing beauty with a strength of spirit that Mutu manifests as fierce, hungry -for what they want and need- female bodies. Meeting those forms in the quiet was a soul-rending experience.
Wangechi Mutu’s “The Fantastic Journey” is on display at the Brooklyn Museum until this Saturday, March 9, 2014. Go experience the journey!
The magnificent Jean Paul Gaultier show at the Brooklyn Museum ended with a swarming salute from the last round of art-lovers and fashion queens, who filled the lavishly adorned + spectacularly curated 5th floor gallery space last Sunday. Upon entering into the gallery, I the first thing I realized was that cameras were allowed in. Not only was it fine to take pictures, those who simply chose to view the work sans momento seemed out of place, as if they were missing out on some powerful, nearly-necessary (only no one remembered why) form of adoration or just plain popular cell stimulation. My phone was powered off, but the energy of all the other admirer’s eventually overpowered my initial minimalist attitude, and I began snapping pictures of my lush surroundings. Then came the collective part of the experience: due to the thickness of the crowds and the fact that everyone but I knew that this was their last chance to see the work up close —I stumbled upon the exhibit after coming to see the work of the brilliant, earth goddess multi-media artist Wengechi Mutu— I basically had to squeeze my way through packs of enchanted “loiterers” (anyone standing before a piece for more than an in-out breath- -exchange three photo clicks). When I couldn’t, I was quietly fighting to get a shot that didn’t have someone else’s arm/iphone in the frame. There I had it. The art and the experience of the art was as divisional as it was claustrophobic, combined the hostility could have sunken the pleasure or be holding such skillfully crafted and curated works of art, but thankfully it did not. I’ll get to the brilliance in a separate piece. The photos above are both ironic (as per my story) and telling about how we see art in this era, especially when we are busy, late, struck with admiration, or just plain proud to be seeing what’s before our eyes…they just aren’t as good as the lens in our palm.
Romantic period films and longing through my ages
It seems to me that there are not many films that portray longing in all its greatness these days. As our overloaded brains tap out under the pressures of keeping “must-do’s” in order, our patience for creative work grows shorter in span. We want what we see to move into focus faster. We get busier, heavier, and less creative, in most instances, than we start off. This affects the way we watch movies, which ones we choose to see, and how we remember and relate to them. For my purposes, I’ll take three period films I saw at a very young age, then again years later, and describe the effects I experienced under their magical, time-traveling powers. The bottom line is that the repeated screenings, at different periods in my life, didn’t combine as just an experience of growing up as an audience member or seeing the same thing twice with more knowledge; to watch a film from another time is to watch and react to a piece of historic art, something that was clearly made with a different or at least modified set of commercial and societal values. Twenty years ago, there was just as much action, but everything moved a bit slower. I recognize, now, that that was only due to necessity, since speed is forceful, and we make more of the usual decisions under pressure. Here, I’ll describe my viewing at a personal period where I was without pressure, during an era when pressure was perceivable less than it is today: the era, the filmmaking of the time, myself at the time, and the factors which changed over time- speed.=
As a kid with a surprising amount of focus, I saw pieces of movies on TV which I would later try to recall by name, but rarely could. This mystified me, especially because, before Netflix it was difficult to skim through dozens of scenes of films looking for memories to strike: “Aha! This is the movie!” My first memorable example is from “Like Water for Chocolate”, when I was six years old. I caught the scene in which sister Gertrudis rides away naked on the lap of a strange man on horseback. I had no idea what the movie was about, but it was not of my time, place, language, or circumstances, and the image of a beautiful, naked red-haired woman galloping off with a stranger down a dusty road into the sunset stayed with me until I found the film again, at which time I reviewed the content of the story and decided that it was still very romantic in spite of the extraordinary melodrama of the script. Seeing the film at six and then again years later, the difference became about having more on my mind to relate to the film: ideas about emotional attachment, an interest in the language the film was made in, which made the acting warmer to me. And I had begun to feel the longing for experiences that Tita felt, I just couldn’t imagine cooking with rose petals to quell the passion. First curiosity, then remembering, then recognition. I realized that time brought things together, and I was still patient (I still had time to wander and wonder).
My second most memorable incomplete screening was of Robert Downey Jr in one of his finer roles, as a foolish doctor who experiences a major character arc during the course of the Black Death in “Restoration”. His love scene with the damaged and very sweet Meg Ryan inspired my interest in grubbier and less informed yet seemingly more romantic periods in history than the one I was living through. The characters are clearly living in filth cloaked in velvet, coming together under threats of all kinds of contagion, and still they persist in attempting to satisfy their sexual appetites and having families. Was this ignorance or was it hope? We must live on! Eh. I began to question history the second time I saw this film. The first time it came before my eyes, I was enveloped in the otherworldliness of subtle yearning and submitted to this clearly bygone era. My child brain was focused on that longing, not relating, but absorbing it for all it could be worth. I considered Meg Ryan’s characters mental state secondary to the love she inspired in the protagonist. I studied their hope, which existed in spite of terrifying, deadly forces. They had me in their time and place, pondering what good progress had brought us, aside from health. Did we love better, then, in filth?
As a teen I became fascinated by the versatility of Gary Oldman’s quiet, settled, pallid simplicity on screen. Nobody could play an erratic, antisocial mastermind, with or without a heart, like he could. In three parts, I came to understand “Immortal Beloved”. At 7, when I first caught glimpses of the film, I was scared of old Ludwig, amorous over his girlfriends, and remembered most the music and scenes of monstrous expressions of determination that had, in reality, made history. At 14 when I got to see the film in full, it broke my complex teenage art student heart to pieces. I felt sadness over the misunderstood artist Beethoven was. I liked him because I, too, was misunderstood, and I t was a pain. Ha. I held onto it. Years later, I revisited the movie because a friend handed me the DVD saying “It’s historical. You’ll like it.” I did like it, again, for the same reasons, but, strangely enough, with less passion. I had less time.
I still teared up for the lost loves of young Beethoven and what I had come to understand was his experience of untreated mental illness. What had, a decade before, been achingly romantic and even erotic in my book was now tinged with my own experience of social injustice. He should have been understood, respected for his art with greater mercy when it went wrong, encouraged, and removed from his abusive father’s home as a child. What I had previously viewed as romanticism of this long lost era gave way to new imaginings -since this was a film biopic, not an actual historical account- of longing. Perhaps all of this longing that I soaked up as a child watching these period pieces on the TV screen was built up by the difficulties of the time before convenience. My own longing for this experience stemmed from needing, wanting, knowing it was impossible to go back to a time full of that much waiting, wondering, and, unfulfilled desire. I felt that I had been granted a life of conveniences for a few generations who gave up the qualified value of longing for things. I understood my nature from this new angle- that some things were truly cheap, and I couldn’t know more than these romantic accounts of old-world characters gave me. As a child, I was attracted to the vision of a valuable order to the world, which included love and pleasure. I knew it. A lack of time, a strained well of passion, and memories of excitement over old visions of the world combined to keep me looking at movies from a time that was a little less convenient, a time in which I was present. I still think that if I keep looking, I’ll find pieces of who I was when I started watching, and thoughts long left behind will reemerge. The thoughts if long ago might mean something to me today, but I’ll never know if I don’t remember them, and the movies help. There’s a greater drama to movie habits: personal connection, and there you have it- a piece of my world.
"In A World…" is perhaps the only successful feminist critique of the entertainment industry to ever have been brought forward in the form of a romantic comedy.
The story: an eccentric and graceless yet very attractive female protagonist named Carol Solomon lives under her glaringly misogynistic VoiceOver artist father’s (the big-wig Sam Sotto) reluctant wing, obsessively studying voices and trying to find her way in the shadow of the industry’s notoriously unshakable boys club while barely paying her bills as a vocal coach.
A few minutes in, her dad decides that his new girlfriend is moving into his home and casually asks Carol to relocate within the next twenty-four hours. This pinch lands her at her disillusioned, bored older sister’s apartment, which she shares with her kind and caring stay-at-home husband. Though they have very little in common, these sisters seem to care for and understand each other without much nagging or rivalry, which is very refreshing.
When the major voice of the VoiceOver industry dies, there’s a wave of male voices ready to take his place. Carol auditions for the heck of it and snags the gig. Then another, then another. She takes the gold: hurrah! It’s great. But she doesn’t get to tell the one person she wants to -her father- because he is so extremely busy telling her that she can’t be as big a deal in the VoiceOver industry as he is, because she’s a woman. And because she’s a regular voice…nothing special.
Hurt but determined, she brushes him off and trudges onward, straight into the path of the powerful woman (Geena Davis) who chose her voice over so many others. In a moment of truth, this female executive tells Carol that she didn’t choose her because she was the best voice, because she wasn’t, but because she knew her voice would bolster up a generation of girls to join the creative fields in the entertainment industry, thereby changing the game in the ranks filled to that point solely by self-assured men. Carol is understandably taken aback by this revelation, but embraces her role as the only female voice with a reel to match Sam Sotto, and with no help from him.
The film ends with Carol presenting her reel to a group of female students in a vocal class. She’s in her element, not the best, but certainly the first, and therefore she has made her mark.
The film is not only feminist but a special kind of critique of misogyny for the following reasons:
1. Carol is not strictly independent. She grows out of an immature state as a very late bloomer. She isn’t simply a perfect image of what a woman should be if she’s got feminist values, she gets there through her experiences of success and loss, as we do in life.
2. We are presented with, as was mentioned earlier, a lovely klutz who is not averse to being considered either of those things. She just does her job. She has sex when she decides to. She says what she likes and it doesn’t define her. These qualities make Carol an admirable female protagonist, which is pretty delightful to see on-screen.
3. Watch this film and you’ll see that writer/producer/lead actress used the rom-com + chick flick structure to her absolute benefit. Easy to catch and follow, the plot thickens and flows in a satisfying way, whilst being cleverly injected with self-critical humor: an unconsciously malicious misogynist father tells his protege to “do” the nobody woman who took his big gig from him and “give it to her” for him, too. Whoops…it turns out to be his daughter. Twisted it is, but the blame is finally put on the right party- the jerk who says it (!) and not the writer (for thinking such things) or the character at the center of the verbal abuse. That example of “what if it was your daughter?” is used for all it’s worth and illustrates powerfully the nature of gender hierarchy in power struggles that go on in different industries that are dominated by men.
4. Carol tells a guy she likes him. No biggie…This is actually big for the movies. Movie girls still don’t break the cycle very often, and when they do, they don’t do it wearing overalls and run away to do something more important directly after the ice is smashed. Carol does all of these things and it’s performed very appropriately: she prioritizes her goals and puts love in it’s place, where she wants it. This is reassuring.