Tuesday, September 11, 2012

According to Ben: Hollywood's Summer Fare

At first glance, this year’s mainstream American summer movies seem predictably dominated by male superheroes and other archetypes meant to appeal to teenage boys:  Abraham Lincoln resurrected as a vampire hunter, Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis as competing politician buffoons, Mark Wahlberg as a slacker with a beloved talking teddy bear and a long suffering girlfriend.  It was exciting to see that Christopher Nolan emboldened his female characters in The Dark Knight Rises, but still slightly frustrating that its deliciously cast female characters (Anne Hathaway’s Selina/Catwoman and Marion Cotillard’s Miranda), described by many as the highlights of the film, were relegated to the sidelines.  But I’ll try to avoid the knee-jerk griping. What films did this summer provide that were made for, about, or by women, and how did they hold up? 

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows adapts a soap opera that has some of my favorite strong female characters in television history: company head/matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the hard-edged and mysterious Dr. Julia Hoffman, and vengeful diva witch Angelique.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, and Eva Green do justice to these great characters (originally played by Joan Bennett, Grayson Hall, and Lara Parker).  I can’t say the same about the screenplay.  In particular, Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose manipulative face-offs with Barnabus Collins were essential to the series’ delicious drama, is pushed in the background and reduced to a few punch lines and a last minute plot twist that seem rushed and somewhat inexplicable.

I did not see Snow White and the Huntsman, although I heard that Charlize Theron gives the most over-the-top, operatic insecure evil mother performance since Faye Dunaway snarled “And I hear them say she’s getting old!” in 1981’s Mommie Dearest.  Is this the kind of female representation I want in the only truly femme-centric, live action summer blockbuster?  Not really.   But between Snow White and the Huntsman and Prometheus, I’m glad to see that Theron is back.  I also loved the praise heaped on the documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me (co-directed by Jane Lipsitz) by people ranging from film critics to Jane Fonda!  Finally, Madonna: Truth or Dare for our times.

Many have said that women and gay men made Magic Mike a hit, and you can count me as one of them.  I completely agree with Manohla Dargis, who pointed out that the film reverses “the old cinematic divide between the sexes that finds so-called passive women who are looked at by so-called active [heterosexual] men.” I have to admit that I found it pleasurable to see men gleefully objectified.  When Channing Tatum dances, there is no question that he’s a movie star.  He’s even pretty charming when he speaks.  That said, I found the movie’s reverse fallen-woman plot less engaging than its scenes of spectacle.  I know that two wrongs don’t make a right.  But it seems unfair that Paul Verhoeven’s fallen-woman picture about contemporary stripping (dancing!), 1996’s Showgirls, is a bitchy, backstabbing blast, while Magic Mike (which has practically the same plot structure) insists that we wallow in Mike’s nobility.  Joanna, Adam’s tough, realistic sister (played by Olivia Nunn), who tries to balance her own career while dealing with Adam’s drama, was, for me, the most compelling aspect of the film’s narrative.

The summer’s animated films brought with them many thrilling surprises.  Brave (co-written and co-directed by Brenda Chapman) introduced Pixar’s first female protagonist after 10 male-dominated films.  The story of Merida, who must rely on her archery skills to undo a beastly curse, continues in the happy tradition begun with the success of Spring’s blockbuster The Hunger Games.  I will never tire of movies geared towards young people that feature women utilizing their archery skills to survive and potentially overthrow patriarchal villainy.  Paranorman, about a boy whose best friends are horror movies, ghosts, and Elaine Stritch, finally, after 29 long years, gave me a character whose life directly resembles my own. The story’s plot revolves around Norman’s efforts to mollify a witch who has placed a curse on his small town.  He seeks help from, among others, an openly gay jock and a fabulously feminist, confident, bookish classmate who questions why witches must always be portrayed as ugly.  The movie’s gender dynamics, its complication of “good” and “evil,” and its powerful portrayal of mainstream society’s fierce efforts to crush difference are exhilarating and delightful to behold.  For me, Paranorman was the must see movie of the summer.  It is that rare animal in Hollywood: a feel -good film that tells the truth about life’s darkness.  I saw it twice in one weekend.

Watching Paranorman, I kept thinking something that I almost never think while watching contemporary Hollywood fare: “This is such a sane movie.”  Miraculously, I felt the same way watching Hope Springs, the ceremonial Meryl Streep summer vehicle.  She and Tommy Lee Jones play a middle aged, middle class couple who try to revivify their marriage and their sex-life with help from therapist Steve Carrell.  Hope Springs, written by Vanessa Taylor, is a mid-budget Hollywood dramedy that takes the issues of middle aged people seriously while still inspiring genuine, smart, laughs.  It’s a romantic comedy that dares to explore what happens long after the couple meets and gets together.  In other words, it’s a unicorn.  I haven’t seen such beautifully acted, uncomfortably realistic therapy sequences since the 1970s.  Speaking of which, I am so delighted that this film rectifies one of my pet peeves by making the bold and shocking suggestion that therapy can actually help people deal with their problems.  Usually it seems (to me, anyway) like films only offer romantic attachment or violence as possible solutions.

It was with some trepidation that I attended Sparkle, a remake of the 1975 film of the same name.  I had to see it because I am in love with girl groups, 1970s cinema, and, of course, Whitney Houston.  I could not miss the opportunity to see her doing something new one more time, even though I knew that it would depress me.  Sparkle (written by Mara Brock Akil) is depressing because Houston still had the intense charisma, screen presence, and vocal power (if not vocal range) that made us love her.  It confronted me, once again, with all that I miss.  However, it’s even more depressing because its most engaging, forceful sequences fetishize the self-destruction of Sister (electrifying Carmen Ejogo), a beautiful, talented, ambitious singer who is punished for her confidence and quick (somewhat unrealistic) rise to fame with drug addiction and a viciously abusive husband.   The movie preys on what it perceives (accurately, perhaps) as the audience’s craving for the destruction of the beautiful and talented.  A deliriously stylized, visually graceful sequence in which Sister’s husband (Mike Epps) beats her with a belt is as odd and confounding as it is disturbing.   I’ve seen Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Rose (1979), and What’s Love Got to do With It (1993), and I feel like I have seen this story enough.  Like the original, Sparkle offers an alternative option for talented black women in the wholesome rise of its title character, played by the very charming (if hardly electrifying) Jordin Sparks.  But why do movies like Dreamgirls (2006) and Sparkle insist that in order for one talented woman to rise, another must fall?  I know that these movies are, more and less, based on real stories: Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston.  I suppose that I want our culture, and the movies, to come up with different scenarios for its most brilliant performers.  

-- Ben Sher

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Contributing to the Cultural Capital of Mauritius

Françoise Lionnet, professor in the Department of Comparative Literaturedirector of the African Studies Center, and faculty affiliate at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, has recently published two books in the small island nation of Mauritius in Africa.

"Being able to publish in Mauritius was important for me because it was a chance to actually put my work in front of people who know best what I’m talking about. If I’m going to get constructive or useful reactions, I need to get it from there more so than from my colleagues in the U.S.," says Professor Lionnet.

These books, "The Known and the Uncertain: Creole Cosmopolitans" and "Writing Women and Critical Dialogues: Subjectivity, Gender and Irony" are also recognized by their French titles, "Le su et l’incertain: Cosmopolitiques créoles de l’océan Indien" and "Ecritures féminines et dialogues critiques."

For more information about Professor Lionnet and her work, see the UCLA Today article Scholar raises profile of life and literature of little-known island nation.