Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Inside Out

Imagine this scene: a woman in her thirties is standing in her apartment with her boyfriend of four years. She's leaning against the wall and turns toward the mirror and says, apropos of nothing, "I wish I could just be just one notch more beautiful."

Here are some things this scene is not. It is not the start of an argument between this woman and her boyfriend.  It is not a calculated moment of self-deprecation designed to make a flawless heroine more "relatable." It is not a part of a film "about" body image. It is not part of a film that will impart any lessons about lovable imperfections or self-acceptence.

Here is one thing the scene is: it is a moment in a film that creates and explores one woman's subjectivity. After she expresses this wish, she thinks aloud about something no character from a "body image" movie ever thinks or talks about: the actual experience of living in the in-between space where most women live, of feeling attractive some of the time, and thinking about it sometimes, in the course of a day when you're also trying to think about other things. . It's like I'm always on the border, she says. Like I have to make my case to every new person.

The scene is from Miranda July's second movie, The Future, which came out last yearAnd despite everything you might think about July, here are some things the film is not: it is not quirky, twee, ironic, or whatever they're calling it.  July's dancer character Sophie is no one's manic pixie and she's no one's dream girl.  But neither is the film a "response to" or "deconstruction" of manic pixies.  (Although this also a very worthy project!) Nor it is a "response" to irony or an embrace of neo-sincerity or what have you. As Andrew O'Hehir points out in an interview with her,  she's the rare indie auteur who doesn't seem to be responding to other films or to some theme or some aesthetic.  She's not "responding" to anything except the experience of being alive.

July wrote what is possibly my favorite short story, "Roy Spivey." The narrator of that story has an encounter with a famous person on a plane.  They build a connection but he explains that they won't be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say "Do you work here" and she will say, "no." But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. I work here, she says. I will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to describe: the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside.

I heard "Roy Spivey" read at a benefit for 826. I was there with someone I was interested in, and it wasn't really going anywhere, and I'd done the lame "I have two tickets" thing.  Before it started I went on about how it was my favorite story, and how it perfectly described the experience I'd recently had during a brief encounter with a famous person. Maggie Gyllenhaal introduced the story and said it was something we didn't hear enough of, that it was about a woman's body from the inside out, not about how it looked but how it felt to be in it. That was the first time I realized exactly what July was doing in her stories and in her movies, and why the twee thing she gets tagged with is so wrong.  Like Mary Gaitskill, July is the opposite of an ironist. She's making a movie about artistic types in their thirties and the apartment looks like something out of Portlandia but she never makes fun of them for being what they are. If you think about it, that satirical impulse - making fun of hipsters, academics, what have you - is just another way of asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their (ok, our) lives and fears are fundamentally different from anyone else's.

As in Gaitskill, there's some very interesting, very un-twee sex in "The Future." I imagine that a lot of people probably looked at it and said, that came from nowhere or, why would she do that.  You can look at it and say, she's anxious in her relationship, or afraid of commitment, or afraid of growing older, or you can look and say she's narcissistic or masochistic or what have you. All of these things make sense, or none of them do. In a commentary to Three Women, Robert Altman talks about how strange it is when actors say, oh, my character does this because so and so. But people, unlike scripted characters, don't know why we do what we do. We don't act, he said, we behave. To the extent that July's character has a "motivation," it's a kind of poetic one. She and her boyfriend make the decision to "open themselves up" to new experiences and for Sophie that means that the boundaries between inside and outside start to dissolve. Women who "act out" sexually in movies or television are usually shown as lightweight and stupid or as vicious man-eaters or beautiful fuckups. With Sophie it's any or all of the reasons anyone might, or at least have the impulse to - and that's a different kind of psychological motivation to explore, that what ifs - restlessness, curiosity, transgression for the sake of transgression, not in the sense of shocking anyone but in the way that Brenda explained it on Six Feet Under: that your cross a line, and then you realize the lines are all in your head. (Brenda was one of the best-written female characters on TV, although they sadly pushed her a little too much towards the fuckup category and saddled her with shade-by-numbers Freudian motivations. Her parents were shrinks! And swingers!)

After we heard that story at that benefit, the guy I was with said, "yeah, it was ok, not really my thing." I remember feeling that thing I identify with being a kid, when you're all enthusiastic about something and try to explain it someone and they try to humor you but you can tell what they mean is, yeah, whatever, kid. It's why it's sometimes better to go on a date to a movie you only like so much, or not to try to teach your favorite texts. It was why I was glad to watch The Future at home with my baby sleeping on my lap. He slept through the whole thing, and so I had the rare treat of watching the whole thing without interruptions. At certain points I found myself thinking that that guy from the benefit or this person or that would hate it, and all their reasons, and just where it would lose them. But the film is all about indeterminacy and perspective. Unlike the ironists, July never distances herself from what she's doing. She risks being seen as pretentious. And you can choose to see it that way. Or you can let the boundaries dissolve, and think, maybe this has something to do with me, just a little bit.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

10 Plus Great, Interesting, or Favorite Movies Directed by Women

Inspired by this amazingly comprehensive website and this interesting thread at Shakesville, I've been mulling over some of my favorite movies directed by women. After Nora Ephron's death, a lot of people were quoting her list of things she wouldn't miss which included "panels on women in film," and it's easy to see how such discussions (and perhaps lists like this one) can be wearying. But it is interesting to think about the way that, despite all the auteur theory and fan-crushing on the next hot indie whatever, most people don't really internalize the sense of a film as having a voice or something that could be filtered through gender along with so many other factors. So we don't really think of the missing stories that an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry gives us they way we would if 90% of novels and memoirs were by men. And we don't really think of movies directed by women as a "canon" the way people think about classics of women's literature. This may well be for the best, given how the canon construction, even in its alternative modes, tends towards a reification that prevents people from forming their own individualized, subjective, complex relationships to texts. And god knows The Hurt Locker is like the Maggie Thatcher of films, existing to keep feminists honest. No, women don't have to make films about women, but they should probably come close to passing the Bechtel test. Yes, it was well done. But Thatcher was also a good politician. And the fact that it wasn't some kind of fire-breathing wignuttery made it all the more insidious as pro-war propaganda. Oh, and she's got one coming out this year about killing Bin Laden. So yeah.

But still, it's good to know that despite all the obstacles this stuff is out there. So in that spirit, this is in no ways definitive, and there are tons of candidates I want and need to see, especially non-American stuff, and it's not necessarily "the best," just great, interesting or important to me for different reasons.   Also in no particular order: 

- Winter's Bone, Debra Granik
Best movie I saw the year I saw it. Tight, perfectly shot and paced, with a great and classic story. It does a wonderful job depicting a young woman being tough and courageous and not in some ridiculous "kick ass" cartoonish way.

- Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Pierce
Like Brokeback Mountain, it works because it's a classic tragic love story, told in a classic and straightforward way. I didn't want to see it for a long time because I'd heard the rape scene was hard to watch. It was, but here's the thing: a "hard to watch" rape scene is ultimately less upsetting to me than one that's actually tittilating, which is to say, most of them. Of course, it was threatened with an X rating not because of that but because of the great love scenes between Hilary Swank's Brandon and Chloe Sevigny's Lana. Fun fact: in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Pierce recalls that the complaint from the ratings board was that Brandon goes down on Lana for too long. Ladies, isn't it that just the worst?

- Julie and Julia, Nora Ephron
My grandmother, an undying optimist, who kept asking me why so many "great" books were so depressing, called this the best thing she'd seen since Singing in the Rain. She had a point: it's really hard to show someone finding the thing they love and just doing it, and to make this dramatic. Yes, the Julie side is kind of hum, but Meryl and Stanley and Paris and the food more than make up for it. As Sady Doyle pointed out, Nora Ephron was underestimated by a lot of sophisticated types for a lot of reasons, but at least in part because people really, really underestimate how hard it is to make funny, strong, popular entertainment. It kind of should be obvious, given how few people do it. As Sady said, we should have listened to Mom, or to Baubie. 

- Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond), Agnes Varda
In the spirit of a lot of French New Wave with its young outcast heroine, but with a tight formal twist that resists psychological probing of its heroine. She's not letting us in anymore than anyone else. Tight, haunting, all that jazz.

- Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko
Not as well know as The Kids are All Right, but more interesting to me in its fluid approach to family, sex and creativity, with less contrived conflict as well as the sublime Frances McDormand getting a too-rare opportunity to cut loose. And not to get all essentialist but the wonderful sex scenes definitely feel like they're directed by a woman, or "queer" even the straight ones, which is probably not really an essentialist claim so much as a commentary on the sad predictability of sex scenes in most movies, at least in the U.S., which seems to have another ratings board rule that sex must be super super romantic or super super violent and that humor is in no cases allowed.

Friends with Money, Nicole Holofcener
Not to be confused with those friends who have kids or benefits. Holofcener seems to be pretty polarizing, and this film especially, mostly for her willingness to show her characters' self-pity. Viewers are funny people. We'll accept murderers and sociopaths as quirky and compelling looks at the human condition and congratulate ourselves for the ruthless self-examination we're putting ourselves through. Then, the minute a character gets in a funk about a gray hair we're all, BEGONE! Your humanity has not to do with mine!! When people say, it makes you uncomfortable, but in a good way, I usually run, but here it's really true. Plus, more Frances McDormand.

Harlan County, Barbara Kopple
A classic for a reason. Straightforward great documentary storytelling, without grandstanding but without pseudo-objectivity.

Orlando, Sally Potter
A suitably weird take on Woolf's weirdest book (ok, except maybe Flush). The weirdness of being born one thing at one time wrapped up in Woolf's ultimate topic, the weirdness of being alive.

Clueless, Amy Heckerling
Really. So much closer to the subversive spirit of Jane Austen than a dozen bloodless period pieces put together. "You're a virgin who can't drive." RIP, Tai.

I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron 
What happens if you're a misfit and you run away to be with the other misfits, but they're the new cool kids and you're still a misfit and just as much of an outsider as ever? Lily Taylor's Valerie Solanas is a rare complex but legitimately totally fucked up female anti-hero. Also, "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex" is a totally awesome first sentence. Especially the "at best." (As a piece of writing!)  

Some honorable mentions: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)Wild Man Blues (Kopple again)Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)Humpday (Lynn Shelton)2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy)Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair)The Piano (Jane Campion)  

A list of all the episodes of current TV shows directed by women on this list would also be fascinating.