Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dustin Hoffman, male privilege, and Hollywood sexism

Being the proven internet geek that I am, I'm often surprised when a video, photo, or article I saw "ages ago" becomes popular quite a bit later. It's the obnoxious curse of blog addiction, and it is my burden. But I was surprised, annoyed, and just over it when this Dustin Hoffman interview blew up a few days ago. 

tl;dr - By dressing up as Tootsie, Hoffman suddenly realized how difficult it was to be a woman, to be judged - in this case, judged harshly - almost exclusively by one's appearance. He realized that he had been "brainwashed" to ignore unattractive women. 

First of all, it's bizarre that Hoffman claims he didn't understand the struggle of the unattractive woman before. This is a man who is very frank about the fact that he didn't get roles because he wasn't handsome enough, or did get certain roles because no classically handsome man (his example is usually Robert Redford) would take them. Seriously, he talks about it ALL the time. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just a self-centered, passively sexist man who just expected the women around him to be either stunningly beautiful or not worthwhile. That's fine. 

But why are we so excited that he figured out that this was a shitty way to think? Why congratulate him for realizing that sexism exists, and that it hurts? Probably for the same reason that he got to spend all those pre-Tootsie years never thinking about it - his male privilege. When women point out pernicious, everyday sexism, they're either ignored or berated for being too bitter. When men do it, they're hailed as appropriately sensitive soldiers for gender equality. Apparently sexism doesn't exist until men say it does. 

Also, I would just love it if famous people - men and women - would stop assuming they understand someone else's life after they dress up like them. You can't put on a lifetime of experience like a costume. Dustin Hoffman does not know what it's like to live as an ugly woman. Gwyneth Paltrow does not know what it's like to live as a fat person. Zoe Saldana does not understand Hollywood's racism against dark-skinned women because she played Nina Simone. They all get to take their costumes off and go back to being successful, powerful people. 

By conflating a few weeks in drag with real life, they cheapen the real experiences and struggles they pretend to understand. And by congratulating these actors for their new "understanding," we diminish those real experiences and struggles right along with them. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Bling Ring vs. Pain & Gain: Gender and excess

I chose to watch The Bling Ring this weekend over World War Z. I think a big part of me wanted to absolve myself of an earlier cinematic sin - paying to see Pain & Gain, an off-putting piece of rancid popcorn from Michael Bay. Unfortunately, the two movies wound up being pretty similar. For starters, I left hating both of them. 

Plot-wise, the movies are very similar - a group of kinda dumb people decide they deserve a different, more opulent lifestyle, and take a coo coo bananas route to achieve it. (They also snort an alarming amount of cocaine.) Eventually, they make enough dumb mistakes to get caught, one of them turns on the others, and everybody goes to jail. 

Aesthetically, the movies are only similar in that they each showcase their directors' singular visual style. As you'd expect, Bay's movie is full of lurid colours, loving shots of men's muscles, and leering shots of women's asses. It's all very exhausting. Coppola's movie is just the opposite - washed out colours, lingering shots of jewelry and shoes, and a metric goatload of women doing very little in slow-motion. 

I don't really get who these movies were meant for, and I don't think the directors did either. I think they both started out to satirize their subjects' vapidity, but just fell victim to it. Brainless tough guy wannabes are Michael Bay's bread and butter; the same goes for Sofia Coppola and trendy young aesthetes. Making fun of your target audience - especially when you're kind of a member of that audience yourself - is very tricky business, and neither filmmaker pulls it off.

But it is interesting to look at these two movies next to each other. They create hyper-gendered worlds, and their characters pursue goals that almost parody gender norms. 

In Pain & Gain, the men want to be strong, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and become respected leaders in their community. When they feel stressed out or need to think, they often grab dumbbells and start pumping away. Meanwhile, the young women in The Bling Ring aspire to be beautiful and own beautiful luxury items. When they're stressed, they pop Adderall and smoke.

And ask their gay friend to accessorize them flawlessly.
The women want to inspire envy; the men want to inspire respect. Both movies take the ideals each gender is supposed to aspire to - strength for men, beauty for women - to their grotesque extremes. They turn their protagonists into unsympathetic cartoons of manhood and womanhood. 

The movies' gendered natures provoke different responses as well. When the trio of idiots in Pain & Gain do or say moronic things, for the most part you laugh at them without hating them. Their warped view of the American dream, even though it includes the same obsession with wealth as the Bling Ring girls have, is still more relatable than wanting to be stylish. Mark Wahlberg's character is particularly fixated on having a deluxe lawn mower, which is way more "middle America" than a pair of Louboutins. Stereotypically male pursuits just seem more admirable, and it's easier to hate entitled teenage girls than entitled male bodybuilders. 

Also, it's impossible to hate The Rock, because...The Rock. 
It doesn't help that the female characters in The Bling Ring are totally opaque. Near the end, ringleader Rebecca tries to negotiate with the police, offering to give them information in exchange for leniency (which she never gets). The movie never shows her friends reacting to her betrayal. Nor does it investigate why the group never rats on the one girl who gets off scot-free because her face never appeared on any security footage. The shifting loyalties between a group of friends makes for interesting drama, so it's particularly annoying that Coppola chose to ignore it altogether. As the audience, we're forced to project any negative stereotypes we have about fame-obsessed teenage girls. 

Pain & Gain goes in the opposite direction - each male lead gets his own narration, so we're never unclear on what each one is thinking. Of course, the narrative is so jumbled that their thoughts are not really consistent, and there's such a thing as too many narrators. Where The Bling Ring undershares, Pain & Gain overshares about everything its vain, self-obsessed 'heroes' think and feel.

What makes self-aggrandizing vanity so much more appealing when men do it? Whatever it is, Bay worked it well enough to sell his trio of lunkheads way more successfully than Coppola. Moviegoers helped Pain & Gain earn back almost all of its $26 million budget in one weekend. The Bling Ring? One tenth of its $20 million budget with its wide release. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mad Men, Megan Draper, and the Skyler White Effect

Mad Men is back in a week, and I am extremely excited. (Big surprise - I think I write more about this show than anything else.) The promotional pictures are just opulently sexy - Megan's hair! Pete'! Joan's dress! But I'm also apprehensive, particularly about what's going to happen to the latest woman in Don's life. 

Things don't look good for her.
The Skyler White effect takes its name from Breaking Bad's lead female character. It goes like this: a female character judges the male protagonist's bad behavior in a completely rational way, and the audience hates her for it. Walter White is a murderous meth dealer whose ultimate goal is meth underworld domination. There's nothing actually appealing or noble about that. But when Skyler does anything in response to his behavior, she's labeled as the worst. If she tells Walter to stop dealing drugs, she's a nagging harpy; if she decides to support Walter's drug kingpin aspirations, she's a hypocritical gold digger. The same thing happened to Carmela in The Sopranos and Alison in Knocked Up, and it's still happening to the past and future Mrs. Drapers. 

Let's quickly lay out Don's horribleness. He's an army deserter and fraud. He is a constant and flagrant adulterer. He's an alcoholic with a history of sexual and domestic abuse threats. Finally, he's an occasional plagiarist. But, because he's great at his job and thinks his kids are ok, he's still fine as a flawed hero. 

Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, on the other hand, is a bitch. Betty, who tried to seek psychiatric help only to discover that her shrink was giving Don reports on what she had said. Who suffered through and then was blamed for sexual harassment from Don's boss. Who told Don she was unhappy, and got yelled at on a bad day and dismissed on a good day. 

Honestly, I don't think the writing teams are immune to the Skyler White effect. The female characters who aren't married to Don get rich, easy character development, but Betty's is much more subtle. You have to pay close attention to throwaway lines like "Mommy doesn't like to eat" to get that she had an eating disorder for the first few seasons, or to pick up on the fact that she's a textbook child abuse survivor. Almost every story she tells about her mother speaks to severe emotional abuse, which informs her increasingly horrible relationship with Sally. She was raised by one bully and married another, a man who flaunted his infidelity and made her feel inadequate, then turned around and called her a whore for buying a bikini. 

The woman is trying so hard, Don. Jesus. 
When she finally freed herself from that terrible marriage, she spent an entire year letting her anger boil over at everyone. Finally in a position of (relative) power, she began abusing everyone she could. Unfortunately for Betty, the writers made her the one thing audiences will never forgive - a bad mother. So she's stuck in Skyler White hell. 

Now former receptionist and copywriter/future actress Megan Calvet has assumed the dreaded "Mrs. Draper" role. She's already done such detestable things as ask Don to be emotionally available, tell him to take her job seriously, and use his connections to land a national commercial. (The fact that he balked at that last one, when he had no qualms about creating a copywriter job despite her lack of qualifications, speaks volumes about how stingy Don gets when women reject his image of them.) Meanwhile, at one point Don abandons Megan at some pokey rest stop motel because she doesn't like orange sherbet. He then kicks their front door in, chases her around their apartment, and tackles her to the ground. 

She is tiny. He is a monster. 
If Megan reacts to his bullying in a relatively independent and well-adjusted way - in other words, not like a meek doormat - she's a bitch. 

The Skyler White effect is a pretty warped set-up. It speaks to the overwhelming preference for a male perspective over a female one, and for a male hero free from any woman's "interference." I hope the Mad Men writers don't yield to whatever negative feedback they do get about Megan, the way they clearly did with Betty. Don needs someone to stand up to his array of bullshit, and Megan is his strongest partner yet. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: House of Cards

I had to take a couple of weeks after I finished House of Cards before I could write about it. It sucked me in so completely, even as it grew increasingly absurd, that by the end I was just overwhelmed. Plus, with an intricately plotted show like this, it takes a while to pull the narrative strings apart.

But I'm already making House of Cards sound better than it is. What it is is a sleek, manipulative, and very good show that thinks it's great. Its confidence is probably one of its most compelling features, actually. Every performance and every frame is sure-footed and self-assured, and they can wrap you up in their conviction that you're watching something groundbreaking. Kate Mara, Robin Wright, and Corey Stoll (who I last saw with way more hair as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) do especially notable work. Their performances elevate their characters - the spunky cub reporter, the frosty Lady Macbeth, the rags-to-riches Congressman with powerful demons - above their cliches.

But seriously, where is his hair? AND HIS MUSTACHE?

There is something odd about all of these roles, though. For roughly the first six chapters (episodes are listed as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc, as though you're watching a novel unfold) they are all most interesting when they're in lead character Frank Underwood's orbit. I didn't care about Claire's non-profit or relationship with a "sexy" British photographer, and I didn't want to see Zoe the reporter's ascension or watch her deal with office politics (more on that later). I really wanted to know how they would affect or interact with Frank. But about halfway through, that began to change for me. The more Zoe, Claire, and Stoll's Peter Russo spiraled away from Frank, the more dynamic they became.

Kevin Spacey's performance as Frank, the world-class manipulator/House Majority Whip, is partly to blame. He practically assaults you with his charisma, dominating all of his scenes and making florid asides straight to the camera. A performance like his makes it hard for other characters to breathe alongside him. And after a certain point, his linguistic pyrotechnics become exhausting. I might feel differently if I hadn't binge-watched this show, so I'd only get one hour of exposure rather than...more than a time. But as I watched, I tired of his constant barbs, elaborate metaphors, and ultimately empty turns of phrase. His conversations weren't conversations so much as competing mini-monologues. It wasn't until well into the season - maybe even Chapter 13 - that I felt a real dynamism and connection between Frank and Claire. You only get one chapter in which Frank is at all vulnerable, and I think it was after that chapter that things began to fall apart for me and Frank. Seeing him tear up at the memories of his old school, which was NOT the Citadel at ALL, made everything else he did before and after that episode feel too slick to be interesting.

Also he keeps making this face at me. Yeesh.

But I think the plotting also has a lot to do with my pivoting interests. For a huge chunk of the show, solutions to most problems, and Frank's in particular, are frustratingly easy. House of Cards paints a strange picture of the Hill, where over-the-top manipulation rules, but only a handful of people are doing it to a network of unsuspecting dummies. Frank somehow manages to be ruthless and cruel to people's faces, but still maintain his reputation as a trustworthy gentleman who can get stuff done. After Peter lets a shipyard close in his district, destroying 12,000 jobs in the process, he manages to win the unemployed shipyard workers over by  giving an inspiring speech about a new bill. This same superficiality plagues almost every political drama there is, and I have a feeling it's because these dramas are written by writers. That sounds stupid, but who else in the world believes in the transformative power of words than professional writers? They believe that the right speech can convince people whose jobs will never come back that a water purification bill (or something?) is the new great hope. It's childish, and really does the whole political process a disservice.

Zoe's entire narrative also desperately needed to change in order for me to enjoy it, so that her office nemesis Janine stopped being an office nemesis. The disappointing "jealous crone versus hot young thing in the office" trope really marred the season's first half. In my experience, older female co-workers aren't resentful jerks who try to stymie their young counterparts and call them fiercely gendered slurs like "twat" in the office. Those older women tend to reach out to serve as role models, especially in a male-dominated filed like journalism. Automatically putting two women in violent opposition is just anti-feminist. Fortunately, Janine and Zoe eventually put their feud to rest, and Janine ends up being the mentor that Zoe needed - someone who can teach her the merits of investigative journalism over being fed information by an anonymous and morally compromised source.

But while I'm complaining about the way Hollywood portrays journalism, can we stop assuming that all journalists over the age of 24 just HATE bloggers? The division is really not that severe - probably hasn't been for at least 10 years now - and it's fueled more by middle-aged confusion about the internet than anything else. People don't spit the word "blog" at 20-something-year-old upstarts like the word itself is drenched in acid. Again, this is the problem with letting writers write things! All of them probably have an axe to grind against some horrible editor from their past, and he gets written into a lot of newspaper offices. (One of the most egregious examples of this from an otherwise excellent show was Season 5 of The Wire, so it's especially hilarious to me that the House of Cards version is played by The Wire's horrible Lt. Marimow, who was named after David Simon's horrible editor from the Baltimore Sun. Round and round it goes!)

And now I've managed to make the show sound worse than it is. It really is terrifically acted, and compelling all the way through. I think I'm in favour of Netflix's idea here, releasing a new show all at once so that people can watch it in big chunks. And I'm very excited for the second (and final!) season, whenever that will happen. I just hope they're wise enough to give the most interesting characters some space from Frank, and give Frank the human some space from Frank the Machiavellian overlord.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Email addresses I got spam from this week

Masquerading as:

MAGIC by Magic Johnson
Saffron Slim
Christian Mingle
Provide Auto Insurance
Tire Coupons

There is one really upset Qui-Gon Jinn fan out there, and s/he is taking his/her rage out on any email address s/he can find. You've been warned, internet. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Django Unchained - Review

Synopsis: Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys Django (Jamie Foxx) from two slavers so he (Django) can eyeball three men with a bounty on their heads. Eventually, Schultz frees Django and promotes him to partner in bounty hunting, promising to help him find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) when the winter ends. About halfway through the film, Django and Schulz find Broomhilda's new owner, the ostentatious, criminally self-absorbed, and brutal Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). At that point, our buddies concoct an unnecessarily complicated plan to trick Candie, whose favourite hobby is Mandingo fighting*, into selling Broomhilda. Further complicating matters is Candie's head of house Stephen, played with toxic ferocity by Samuel Jackson.

The main performances, while extremely varied, are tremendous across the board. Waltz is as twinkling and delightful as he was in Inglourious Basterds, taking an almost sensual pleasure in his dialogue. Jamie Foxx necessarily has to play things much closer to the vest. As a slave living and travelling in unfriendly territory, Django can't allow any of his real emotions to come to the surface. Still, Foxx does an excellent job of showing Django's constant fear and growing sense of self. Meanwhile, DiCaprio seems to be having fun playing someone who isn't suffering from some sort of inner torment for the first time in years. (That doesn't mean he doesn't get angry - at one point, he slams his hand down on a table so hard his hand starts bleeding.)

He also gets to hold a jaunty coconut.

Django Unchained almost seems like it could be a good two-parter, since the two halves of the film - pre- and post-Candie - are so tonally different. The first half is funnier and more playful, and since Christoph Waltz dominates that half it makes sense. The second half moves a lot slower and is generally darker, as Waltz cedes the ground to darker characters like Candie and Stephen. Instead of hilariously inept Klansmen bumbling around, we get Francophile dandies explaining the finer points of phrenology. The second half is also much more violent, starting with the gruesome Mandingo fight and building to an epic Grand Guignol slaughterfest. I don't usually do this in graphic movies, but I found myself covering my eyes at several scenes.

As always, Tarantino's desire to tell a story is in fierce competition with his obsession with reminding his audience of the awesomeness of cinema. So, the powerful narrative gets interrupted and distracted from by masturbatory flourishes and ostentatious casting choices. One of the funnier and more ridiculous scenes involves a proto-KKK gang with some problems with their badly constructed hoods. On its own, the scene already distracts from the story we care about, but it becomes even more distracting when Jonah Hill pulls off his hood. We're no longer watching an unexpectedly funny interaction between characters, but a funny scene with Jonah Hill. His presence is totally unnecessary. On a similar vein, the less said about Tarantino's offensively unnecessary cameo as an Australian slave trader (??), the better. He should feel really shitty for bringing his own movie to a screeching halt like that. 

But the story he's telling is so interesting, and so necessarily complex, that even with the film's numerous Tarantino-related problems it's still terrific. Naturally, the most compelling and complicated aspect was the way racism affected each character. Stephen has clearly internalized his society's racism to a severe degree, to the point that he is legitimately outraged at Django sleeping in a bed meant for white guests, and hated to see a free black man anyway. The courtly Big Daddy may call his slaves "sugar," but he still a) keeps slaves, b) insists that while Django isn't a slave, he shouldn't be treated like a white man (he finally settles on treating Django like white trash), and c) was apparently a founding member of the KKK. Unlike in Gone with the Wind, there is no such thing as a benevolent slaveowner. 

Not even ones who are Colonel Sanders impersonators.

But Django himself has clearly internalized slavery's racial hierarchy as well. He tells Dr. Schultz that his wife is too pretty (and, he leaves out, light-skinned) to be a field slave. Meanwhile, Dr. Schultz clearly thinks of himself as a racially tolerant man, but his objection to slavery seems to be largely intellectual. He refers to slavery offhandedly as "this slavery malarkey," and appears genuinely baffled at the resentment engendered when he lets Django ride a horse or drink beer in a saloon. When Django first tells Schultz about his wife, he responds "I didn't know slaves believed in marriage," as though it was a personal choice on the slaves' part rather than a right denied them by their status as slaves. His position doesn't really change until he meets Candie and gets introduced to Mandingo fighting. It seems that seeing the real horrors of slavery up close - seeing a slave torn apart by dogs because Candie can't use him anymore, for instance - makes him realize that slavery isn't just a silly or misguided idea, but is truly evil.

I also have a problem with Kerry Washington's role as Broomhilda. As usual with Tarantino films that aren't starring badass women (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill), Broomhilda is tragically underwritten. She fills a pretty traditional role, the beautiful damsel in distress whose distress is that much more affecting because she's beautiful. On the other hand, it's incredibly rare to see a black woman in the beautiful damsel in distress role. I know it's weird to say, but black women are rarely allowed to be the decorative subject of a chivalrous quest. Even in the realm of the Disney princesses, the white princesses are whisked away by their princes charming while the colored princesses learn the value of hard work. Having a black man go through hell for an angelic black woman sure does diversify our on-screen representation. 

Django Unchained is simultaneously awkward and elegant, superficial and complicated, disturbing and entertaining. If nothing else, I'm glad that Tarantino hasn't lost his intense ambition to make something challenging and important. 

*The myth of Mandingo fighting persists because it's such a vivid distillation of what racism and slavery do to black men. It reduces them to nothing more than bodies, sets them in competition with each other, and rewards them with a substantially diminished life and sometimes a paltry recognition. The Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained illustrates all of that with breathtaking brutality and a fair bit of elegance.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Brief musings on Tarantino and "the n-word"

After I've had some time to really digest it, I'll speak with a lot more detail and (hopefully) insight about Django Unchained, which I thought was excellent and deeply flawed. But right now I just want to talk about Quentin Tarantino and the word nigger. 

('Nigger' will come up a lot in this post. I won't be going in to how the word itself makes me feel as a black woman, because I don't have energy for that conversation. But you've been warned.) 

I crunched some numbers and tallied the uses of 'nigger' in all of Tarantino's movies (not including Four Rooms, which he only directed part of). I split the usage up by the actor's race.

No real surprises here.

Tarantino's liberal use of the word has always bothered me, especially (really, almost exclusively) when his white characters use it. It tells us something when the white criminals in Reservoir Dogs refer to niggers when they're talking to each other - we know we're dealing with men who use it when black people aren't around, and who absolutely mean it as an epithet - but is this really something we need to know about them? Why do we need to know something so racially charged? Same goes for Pulp Fiction's Lance - we already know this is a skeezy dude who sells heroin and (worse) lives his life in a mildewed bathrobe. I don't feel particularly enlightened, nor do I think his character is at all enriched, by him also being a racist who thinks only 'niggers' in Inglewood sell shitty heroin and don't know the difference. 

A more troubling example is Pulp Fiction's Jimmy, played with his usual surplus of conviction and debit of acting skill by Tarantino himself. This is a man with a black wife, talking to his black friend/ly acquaintance Jules (Samuel Jackson) about 'dead nigger storage'? Why? What is this man's deal? 

Tarantino has never given a satisfactory answer. Honestly, he only seems to respond to people's understandable aggravation when either only black actors are saying it or the entire point of the movie is racism. (See his interview with Henry Louis Gates, which touches on the subject.) White people saying 'nigger' is completely justified when your movie is set in 1858. It's much less so in 1992 and 1994. The man still has some 'splainin to do. 

This is what happens when I try to make tally marks in the dark.