Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? The Lessons of 'Tootsie'

Long before Tootsie, I think Rex Harrison said it better, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

In My Fair Lady, two men battle to remake a woman in their own image. Not to make her a man, of course, but to reassert their rightful control over femininity, for woman's own good.

In Tootsie, a failed (but brilliant) New York City actor becomes a woman in order to become a better man. At least, that's what he says at the end of the movie. Michael Dorsey (the Dustin Hoffman character) isn't exactly a reliable narrator, though.  After all, he's selfish and uncompromising with delusions of great sensitivity. He actually kind of reminds me of Brian Griffin on Family Guy. His excruciating standards seem to get in the way of him shutting up and working.

Indeed, Brian may have an analysis of the sexism of the culture he participates in, but when it comes down to it, Brian reproduces all the worst parts of that culture.

Anyway, back to Tootsie. Which I still love. But upon approaching it this time, I had to grapple with my expectations that this was a feminist film. Aderabe. Tootsie is a story of a man who goes slumming for his own benefit (he experiences his only commercial success in drag) and pretends to some transformative insight through his solidarity with women.  For example, shopping for lady's clothing, Michael complains to roommate Jeff (a terrific Bill Murray performance) "See this lingerie, you know what it cost? and this makeup? I don't know how a woman can keep herself attractive and not starve these days."

But Michael's entire story undermines solidarity as his dramatic through line. Michael/Dorothy's narrative is one in which, rather than listening to and being in solidarity with women, he becomes a woman in order to lead women to be better, which, in turn, means being more like him.

We see this even before Michael transforms himself into Dorothy. His friend (and soon to be lover, Sandy, played by the wonderful Teri Garr) is anxious about an upcoming audition for a soap opera. Sandy is sure she won't get it. Why not, what's the part? "They want a woman!" Sandy is so incompetent that she can't even play the role she was born for. Michael coaches Sandy for her audition, and Sandy, and the viewer, have to admit that Michael is a better woman than Sandy.

Sandy blows the audition (even with Michael's support) but the dramatic wheels start turning and Michael decides that he should audition for the role of Emily Kimberly, hospital administrator.

We already saw that Michael was a better woman than Sandy, now he gets to prove it to Dabney Coleman's character, the womanizing director of the soap opera. (By the way, Dabney Coleman was the awesome go-to shithead of a certain kind of 80s movie. Love that guy. You must see 9-to-5 if you haven't already.)

Coleman gives Dorothy/Michael a quick up and down and rejects her for the role: "You're a little bit too soft and genteel, you're not threatening enough."

Having escaped 39 years of socialization, Dorothy/Michael is not used to being assessed and dismissed like a damaged girdle at a Lower East Side lingerie shop. He responds like the man he is, not the woman he presents as: "Not threatening enough? How's this? You take your hands off me or I'll knee your balls right through the roof of your mouth. Is that enough of a threat? Yes, I think I know what y'all really want. You want some gross caricature of a woman, to prove some idiotic point, like, like. power makes women masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on the woman who lets you do that, on any woman that lets you do that. that mean you, dear.... shame on you, you macho shithead." All it's missing is a couple of exit snaps to make this one of the truly epic exits in a movie. You're already cheering for Dorothy against Dabney's vile 'macho shithead.' Yay, women getting theirs. Woo!

Except not.

The key to understanding Tootsie comes in the scene where Michael/Dorothy's soap opera character Emily Kimberly consoles a woman who's been beaten by her abusive husband. As usual, Michael/Dorothy goes off script where he feels appropriate: "Don't lie there cringing and telling me your husband beat you but you can't move out Mrs Valerie, why should you move out? It's your house, too. You know what I'd do if somebody did this to me? Why if they came around again, I'd pick up the biggest thing around I'd take it and I'd  [smashes large flower pot against wall] bash their brains right through the top of their skulls before I let them beat me up again."

Why'd she go off script? Michael/Dorothy complains that the advice in script, to move out into a shelter and get therapy is horseshit. But telling an abused woman, who may fear for her life, may be psychologically under the control of her abuser, may not have the financial resources to leave her abuser, yeah, that's not horseshit.

The kicker, though, is that the woman playing the abused wife looks up and says (of Michael/Dorothy's inappropriate script revisions) "I can't act with this." To which Michael/Dorothy replies "Oh shut up."

HAHA- Michael/Dorothy knows better than these dumb women, knows how to respond better to domestic abuse, knows how to write a better female character, knows how to be a  better woman. And if it involves silencing actual women, well, ya gotta break a few eggs to make a revolution, right?

We're meant to identify with Dorothy, to cheer her on as an emblem of 80s lady liberation. George the agent complains that his secretary is obsessed with her and creating problems. Julie (the angelic love interest played by Jessica Lange) tells Dorothy how much she's inspired and empowered her in the few weeks they know each other. Dorothy is called into the producer's office and told that though she's a pain in the ass, they're now getting 2,000 letters a week and picked up 3 share points, all because the women of America love Emily Kimberly. This is where the confusion comes in, at least for me, about whether Tootsie is a feminist movie. Just because a lot of women like someone doesn't mean that person is a feminist. Look, millions of women idolize Kim Kardashian. <shudder> Doesn't make her a feminist, or a role model. The question is, how does this person see their actions? What is their analysis? Where do they see themselves in terms of the power dynamic? With whom are they in solidarity?

At one point Michael pitches his agent on a special where he can sing and dance as Dorothy.  "I have plenty to say to women, I've been an unemployed actor for twenty years, George, I know what it's like to sit  by the phone, waiting for it to ring and when I finally get a job, I have no control, everyone else has the power and I got zip. If I could impart that experience to other women like me...."

Michael/Dorothy has mistaken his temporary, voluntary loss of privilege for actual disenfranchisement. He's chosen to play a woman and can walk away at any moment, an option most women don't have. His obliviousness to the power dynamic is what leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Which is fine, the movie is by men, about a man. And it's about a deeply flawed man, one whose own perfectionism and self-involvement prevents him from artistic actualization. But the filmmakers want it both ways- Michael's vision of a more perfect woman is never really challenged, even as it's acknowledged to be a story about a guy who's kind of a jerk as a man.

Oh, the 80s. At least they tried.  Seriously, have you seen 9-to-5?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

He's Just Not That Into You ... Also He's a Terrible, Degenerate, Aristocratic Reptile Monster

So, I just watched Martin Scorsese's 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and WOW! I really loved it. Though I haven't read the novel, it's now at the top of my 'To Read' list.

The story is one of 1870s New York high society. Instead of fox hunts and quail shoots, the best families in the city police each other for sport. The game is played via dinners, balls and the intricate networks of business and family that connect the gilded class. Every alliance is parsed for its ability to elevate or enhance one's status. In the New World, marrying into actual European aristocracy, and acquiring a title, is the equivalent of a killer jump shot in the sport of high society. Total game changer.

But when such an alliance fails, the repercussions are devastating. And that's what The Age of Innocence explores, the price of publicly failing to uphold the values of one's class. The Countess Olenska/Cousin Ellen returns from Europe, leaving behind her marriage to the Count, and scandalizing everyone with her desire for a divorce. It's not that her people are shocked that her marriage was a sham or that she wants independence, but that she would do something so gauche as to admit to it.

I don't want to say too much more about the movie, you should really put it in your Netflix queue immediately. The story is brought to life by Scorsese, with an emphasis on light and setting and an exquisite empathy for these people and the genteel fragility of their world.

I must admit, I was hesitant about the Age of Innocence. I'm not that interested in #WASPProbz. But it was that good. And it made me think a little deeper about another movie I want to talk about. On the surface The Maze, a little known 50s B horror flick, and The Age of Innocence wouldn't appear to have much in common. But in its own way, The Maze is also about the encounter between American New Money and decaying European aristocracy and what those two worlds want (and expect to gain) from each other.

The Maze opens with Aunt Edith and her young charge Kitty on vacation in Cannes, with Kitty's fiance, Gerald. Their vacation is interrupted by the news that Gerald's Scottish uncle is ill. Gerald is soon off to attend to the dear, sick Baronet at his home in the Scottish Highlands, Craven Castle. This is the first time that Kitty learns she will be marrying the heir to an aristocratic title.

Aunt Edith and Kitty remain at the hotel in Cannes, waiting for word from Scotland on the ailing Baronet. A week passes and no word from Gerald. Edith and Kitty learn of the Baronet's passing in the newspaper. Still no news from dear Gerald. Kitty makes excuses for Gerald's silence. Oh, he's probably busy with funeral arrangements, you know how hard it can be to find a kosher caterer in the Scottish highlands, etc.

Yeah, sure. And that guy who said he'd call and never did? I'm sure he got really busy at work and then his phone got lost with all his phone numbers and then Somali pirates hijacked the Circle Line ferry hosting his office's Christmas party.

Shit happens, right?

Oh honey; this is only the first of many points in this strange little film where you want to slip Miss Kitty a copy of He's Just Not That Into You.

It turns out all their cables to Gerald in Scotland have been received, and none of them were answered. Eesh.

Sample convo between sensible Aunt Edith and eyes on the prize Kitty:

Aunt Edith: Gerald's silence is his answer, how long does it take to scribble an answer? No, my dear, I'm afraid it's obvious now, Gerald does not intend to see you again.
Kitty: If that were true he would've said so! He would've written some sort of explanation.
Aunt Edith: Forget him, Kitty.
Kitty: I can't, I won't.
Aunt Edith: [visibly trying not to smack her niece] It's all very well to be brave and hopeful, but how long are you going to wait?
Kitty: As long as it takes, I love Gerald and I know him. Something's happened, some sort of trouble. whatever it is he'll work it out and then we'll hear from him.

Jump ahead six weeks. Six fucking weeks.


Anyhoo, Gerald has gotten his shit together long enough to have his manservant find a quill and a scrap of parchment so he can write a suitably enraging and vague letter to Kitty. If you're hoping for closure you're obviously watching the wrong movie.

In the letter Gerald writes that he releases Kitty from their engagement but that he will always be faithful to her "unless something happens that he hasn't the right to hope for.. for it would be a death."

Tha fuck? What does that even mean?

As Kitty lives in 1950s B Movie Land, she hasn't had the benefit of watching all six seasons of Sex and the City. Instead of taking Gerald's bullshit letter and burning it at midnight along with some well defaced pictures of him, she doubles down.

Kitty: I'm not going to let a crumbling old castle ruin Gerald's life and mine too... I don't care if it's full of skeletons and ghosts. I'm going there.

Well, I guess if she didn't go there we wouldn't have a movie.

So...because someone decided this movie would happen, Aunt Edith and Kitty arrive at a foggy castle where no one expects or wants them. "We're friends of Gerald McTeam," Kitty chirps.

Though the butler tells them that Sir Gerald is indisposed, Kitty barges in anyway and runs to meet Gerald.  "You shouldn't have come here" he says.To which she replies, of course: "You're wrong, we should've come earlier." Girl's got balls, you gotta admit. She's got a bit of Countess Olenska in her and you have to admire that. She don't give a damn about propriety or expectations or the demands of the men around her.

If you were wondering when we'd get to the maze part of The Maze, well, we're there. Gerald tells Kitty and Edith that the tower and the maze are OFF LIMITS, castle rules.

Guess where Kitty immediately goes?

If you said The Maze you'd be right.

Anyhoo, Gerald tries to get Edith and Kitty to leave about 10 more times. Instead of leaving, Kitty writes to a bunch of their friends to come by and pretend like they were just "motoring through Scotland." The old motoring through Scotland gambit. Just like that time you happened to show up at your ex-boyfriend's birthday party. Smooth. Very smooth, Kitty. This chick is a trainwreck, but at this point you really can't turn off the movie. You really start to think that if anyone can will a man to love her again, maybe she can. Maybe there's hope for all of us dumbasses in love with some shmuck with a castle?

Kitty is warned off a bunch more times, including once by Groundskeeper Willie's grandfather. He tells her to leave and she says "Sir Gerald and I are engaged to be married!" "I'll pray for you" he replies.


Moving on.... Kitty makes a whole bunch more excuses for Gerald, including that he's sick and not responsible for his actions. Sigh.

(Can you tell I related a little too much to this movie?)

Even though it wasn't true that that guy lost his phone and then had his office Christmas party hijacked by Somali pirates, it turns out that Craven Castle's maze IS hiding a dark, decaying, aristocratic secret. I don't want to give away too much... not when you can watch The Maze on Netflix Instant right now.

But I did love this take on the encounter between girlish American optimism and the gothic rot of European aristocracy. It goes to show you that no matter how boring/gross/hideous you find yourself, someone out there finds you exotic, and desirable, even, ESPECIALLY, when you let your freak flag fly....

Sunday, June 2, 2013

John Landis: Part One of Many

Will I watch any documentary featuring John Landis? So far the answer is yes. He was the best part of the otherwise meh The Man Off Screen, a doc about Edgar G. Ulmer, I saw a while back.

Every time I see Landis talk about film, I think how I would love to either take a film class with him or just have him as a neighbor so we could watch movies together all the time. Of course, he's not the only film scholar-director out there. Peter Bogdanovich comes to mind immediately. But Landis has such a boyish, uncynical passion for film, all the while remaining utterly unimpressed with Hollywood hackery. He has the kind of giddy gravitas which makes me swoon.

Anyway, Landis appears as a talking head in American Grindhouse, a new-ish doc about the history of American 'exploitation' film, itself a term that is somewhat contentious- film scholars themselves don't agree on what exactly makes a film exploitation.

American Grindhouse takes us all the way from the pre-code era, when sex, violence and drugs were commonplace in American film, to the time of Deep Throat, when hard core porn stole the turf out from under 'exploitation' films as a commercially viable genre. Once you could show it all, there wasn't as much need for the sublimations and work arounds (ie: extreme violence and sadism performed on women as a substitute for intercourse) which were the standard tropes of exploitation films.

In between the pre-code days and Deep Throat lie some pretty interesting, and frankly, repulsive, corners of American popular culture. What makes these exploitation films all the more interesting is that because much of the genre was disposable and ephemeral, it's mostly disappeared from the cultural radar. In the digital era of Netflix and Hulu+ Criterion, we fool ourselves into thinking we've got everything at our fingertips. And though I'm not crying over the inaccessibility of so much sadistic crap. American Grindhouse was an interesting reminder of how much of American cinema history is now inaccessible so much so as to be lost. 

Did I Tell You About The Movie I Saw Last Night?

I spend a lot of time watching movies, mostly at home via Netflix or Hulu Plus. To be sure, I'd rather be at Film Forum or Lincoln Center, smugly finding myself the youngest in the audience by a fair sight, while merely supplementing my movie consumption with the occasional at-home viewing. Alas, I'm not a lady of leisure with the time (or means) to be at the actual cinema more than once or twice a month... not yet, anyway. So, my couch and big screen TV furnish my movie palace and it's definitely one of my favorite places to be.

I'd go so far as to say that cinema is my favorite art form, above literature and dance and maybe on par with music. But I'm a lot better at writing (and thinking) about movies than I am at writing about music. (Not coincidentally, I've had a lot more formal education in film theory and practice than in music, something I'd like to change some day.)

And yet, for a cine-snob, I watch a lot of what people with less (more?) refined sensibilities might call crap, drek, or garbage. Of course not everything I watch is crap, but enough that I don't often share a lot of common ground with others pretending to cine-snobbery. I've never seen The Godfather (any part), I don't like westerns or violent movies or holocaust movies or anything with a lot of hype around it. For me a movie need not be good to be of interest, indeed, often it's the not-good ones which hold the most interest to me. And that's where this blog comes in. After hearing me go on about the genius of John Landis one too many times, my friends have insisted I have an outlet for my movie madness.

What do I hope to cover? Pretty much anything that comes across my screen. I do watch some TV on DVD (like True Blood and Deadwood) but I doubt I'd ever write about that. More likely I'll be writing about the syllabus for my fantasy feminist film theory class. And yes, there will be A LOT of John Landis (I just watched Spies Like Us and loved its sly jabs at our then make-believer-in-chief, Ronald Reagan.) Also, horror films, with an emphasis on classic Hammer and 1950s B movies. And whatever else strikes my fancy.

I'd like to have a mix of brief impressions and some more in-depth pieces. Not every piece of drek really deserves that much attention.

So.... dem's my goals. Now, turn off your cellphones and wait for the credits to roll...