Femme Originale: “The Wolf of Wall Street” vs. “American Hustle”

The MPAA story with Wolf of Wall Street keeps extending into this bigger conversation. One of the things that occurred to me recently around this as well as American Hustle is that we have so few movies about charismatic but monstrous women. We are so far behind in storytelling that we’re still begging for heroic stories about women. Before long we may even get the right to tell epic stories about colossal anti-heroines.
– Jill Soloway

This is what one of my favorite writers had to say about the current state of affairs in U.S. cinema. Go read her interview about the MPAA double standard in cases of extreme vulgarity – in this case, between Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Soloway made a much quieter film about gross, foul-mouthed, powerful, human women called Afternoon Delight and she had to jump through giant flaming hoops of sexist fire to avoid an NC-17 rating. Obviously Soloway’s no Scorsese, doesn’t have his clout or his supernatural status, but that’s part of it too. What female does? When will she?

New year, new hopes, my friends. I want to open a conversation about gender and movie magic, and two 2013 films that might look the same at first glance.

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After I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, I discussed it with a friend who’s a huge Scorsese fan. We came to the conclusion that this isn’t really a Scorsese movie. Not only because it’s not very good, but because it’s unoriginal and bloodless. Scorsese is a MAN who knows MEN; in the 1970s and 1980s, his work had a big-dick-swagger, style, and a loud pain that makes it timeless to me even as it offends my feminist sensibilities. Back then, Scorsese’s biggest sin was ignoring women. I can live with that. He had things to say about masculinity, flesh, war, desire, living and dying, and made art.

Not the case in TWoWS. Protagonist Jordan Belfort is no Henry Hill or Travis Bickle. He has no history. He has nothing to say. He’s a boy and the most complicated thing about him is his addictive personality, an issue treated with peculiar kid gloves. This film is inconsequential, juvenile, and muddled. There are so many women that they’re impossible to ignore, and none of them are remotely important or watchable.

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I’m not saying that this film has nothing going for it. It’s really funny. It’s funny for guys, about guys, by guys, and women will laugh at it too because we’ve all learned to ridicule ourselves and identify with the patriarchial complex. I’m really not trying to get all liberal arts college on this either. There’s something so delicious and addictive about identifying with the male gaze. The roots of that yumminess are quite sinister, but I’ll take it anyway. If I stop trying to LOVE MYSELF SO MUCH, if I stop SEARCHING FOR FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, I can let go and admire Leo’s surprising physical comedy:

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And I can cheer for newly-minted serious actor Jonah Hill, who finally broke through the Superbad ceiling this year, proved his chops, and kind of stole the show:

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And I can feel Matthew McConaughey’s Texan warmth spread out from somewhere underneath my sternum and give thanks for his mere minutes of screen time. He’s like, the best part of this movie! Cue Dazed and Confused voice: “I love my female fans, man. I get older and they stay the same age.”

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But the laughs feel icky in my chest, because they usually come at the expense of stupid sluts with impossible boobs (NO ONE’S AREOLAS ARE EVENLY MATCHED AND TAN). And when they don’t, they come from vicarious pleasures, easy pleasures: a spectacularly photographed yacht, a beautiful suit, a manic pep talk fueled by Quaaludes and a hungry pack of stockbrokers with white teeth and shoulder pads. There’s no ending or resolution, either. There’s no comeuppance. And I don’t mind if a film has no moral center, as long as it has a POINT. And TWoWS doesn’t. This film is nonstop entertaining, it is stunning and fast-paced, and it’s a total nothing. A lazy concept and a surefire crowd-pleaser.

So when I get into the “movie headspace,” that transcendent mental leaning-in, I feel so guilty because I’m loving what they want me to love. I’m loving to hate myself. I’m learning to accept myself as a side character, comic relief, sexual relief, decoration, the weak emotional blind spot of the hero upon which I should be concentrating my attention.

And what I should really be thinking is:

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American Hustle came out around the same time as TWoWS, and for all intents and purposes they appear to come from the same tried-and-true POV (and are meant for the same demographic). I suggest that AH is a better film that actually belongs in, and to, 2014. It’s not without its problems: AH is populated with a small cast of male and female quirk factories, and the women tend to be a smidge crazier than the men, with more predictable repressed trauma. But the characterization of these protagonists – indeed, even the fact that this film has four equal protagonists, evenly divided amongst the genders, and they’re all anti-heroes – makes me feel much better about laugh-choking on Sour Patch Kids in front of this screen.

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Director David O. Russell, unlike Scorsese, is of the moment. He needs new, he is new. Although he can fall into the familiar trap of “broken man who just needs the love of a complicated woman” (side-eye, Silver Linings Playbook), I think he cares more about the human soul than the male ego. He just loves weirdos. And for this reason, I love American Hustle. Everyone’s weird and no one is an idiot. Like TWoWS, this isa story of loose morals, sex, and American crime, but the audience is not talked down to. I don’t need glittering, vapid vaginas or bumbling cops to remind me that I need to keep my eye on the slick main man. I need nuanced characters everywhere, I need interlacing stories and confused sympathies. AH is never dumbed-down to keep us invested, especially at the expense of its women. It is a complete story, not simply an attraction starring another Man We Wish We Could Be.

What I like most about this film are the infinite neuroses. Everyone has deep-seated social nausea, but they desperately yearn to be cool and to be loved. Like Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn, whose beauty and youth do nothing to abate her misanthropy:

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But she’s not the butt of the joke. She’s funny and ridiculous, but we don’t think she’s a lame pair of tits as opposed to Bradley Cooper’s effortless cool or Christian Bale’s molten sexy. These are real emotions. These are fearful, sweaty, private emotions, and a girl’s allowed to have them. Where AH‘s women are flawed and awkward, their male counterparts rise (or fall?) to meet them:

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What a dweeb! There’s nothing automatically desirable about the men in this film, any more than there is about the women. Sure, J-Law and Amy Adams look sexy, but not frighteningly sexy. Not smooth like reanimated Barbie corpses. And I swear to you, I’m not taking some tired tack like THERE’S WOMEN IN THIS FILM AND SOMETIMES THEY DON’T WEAR MAKEUP, THEY ARE REEEAL WOMEN. I know that skin-sans-foundation does not a feminist movie make. But the fact that these two female protagonists are fucked up personally, not stylized, sometimes messy, oddly charming, is a non-negotiable GOOD THING. And the best GOOD THING about this movie is that it succeeds without taking the easy way out and demonizing, victimizing, side-lining, or otherwise bullshitting its women.

Again, don’t let it off the hook entirely. This is still a mainstream pop film made to sell. When there’s sex, we still have the old trope of Unsure guy With Voluptuous Prize. It may be consensual but our gaze still wanders to the Amazing Adams Ass:

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But this ass is not magic. It doesn’t save Hero/Anti-Hero from himself; it doesn’t distract him to the point of failure, it doesn’t make us like him better. It’s not his ass to own; it’s hers to give. Feminine wiles don’t magically rescue the day, and then fall back into irrelevancy. The visual appeal of American Hustle doesn’t even lie with its women; when my senses were delighted, they were drinking in sumptuous ’70s colors and costumes and deep disco grooves. I was laughing at Bradley Cooper’s elaborate perm and reveling in the period-piece silliness without feeling bad about the souls the filmmaker crushed to get there.

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I love to lose myself in a movie. We all do, that’s why we spend the equivalent of three meals on a ticket and deal with the politics of battling strangers for the spare space on an armchair rest. A film consumes. It’s a virtual reality. Almost an out-of-body experience, because in the dark, when the 25-foot moving image of the human being is all you have, you become that character and you live that story. It’s pretty much exactly like the best psychotropic drug (or so I’m told, she chirped innocently). And even though there are many things I love about being female and negotiating that subjectivity, I also love to be a man. And when I pay for that privilege for 2 hours, it better make me think and feel something I don’t already know. Why make a movie if it isn’t new in some small way? Why invent histories and lives for the express purpose of feeding reality back to us?

tumblr_myn19qc2QS1rfaqfjo2_500To come full circle: that’s what I love about Jill Soloway’s quote, way back up there before you involved yourself in my written thought-barf. She wants what I want and what you want – a female anti-hero, larger than life, full and bursting with complexity, none of which has to do with her tan areolas. She can love sex, she can want babies, and she can fall in love, but we should treat those facets of her personality with the same wanton dismissal that we’re taught to treat female characters with now. And this is a serious, urgent problem to be solved by today’s filmmaker. If this anti-heroine is successfully written and performed into fruition, then we’ll all finally get The Woman We Wish We Could Be.

I want a bad woman. Not badass, but bad. Rotten in some way, but wonderful. Maybe beautiful. Or some version of it. Mouthy, mean, miserable, too much, all of the above. And I want her many feet high, filling a screen, thousands of frames, hours of her. I just want a new story. And we are at the cusp, I feel it. The only thing we need now is the courage to tell it back to ourselves.

Labor Day Watchlist! Forgotten Comedies for Lazy Days

I just found out that not only can you not wear white after Labor Day…you also cannot wear seersucker. SEERSUCKER. I mean, what kind of country is this?? Who are you to tell me I can’t let the September leaves fall upon a perfectly tailored, pastel suit that’s delightfully textured to the touch?

Labor Day can be a tough weekend because it supposedly symbolizes the end of sweet summer. Some people have “plans,” but most of us just want to lounge around for an extra day and watch movies. I’m here to help you make the most of the last lazy weekend. Time to take on the fun project of expanding your comedy horizons.

Here’s a list of my favorite funny films you may not have seen or heard of. Take a gamble!

On the record, I do not advocate illegal downloading. Off the record…I dunno. It’s yo thang, do what ya wanna do.

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Scotland, P.A.
2002

Nutshell: Macbeth, set in a 1970s diner, with a darkly comedic tone and a scorching-cool Bad Company soundtrack.
Why it’s a treat: The three fates are played by stoners who hang out on a Ferris wheel (including Andy Dick!). James LeGros (who would later play a chunky creepy dad on Girls) is a sensitive and tasty Macbeth. King Duncan is murdered by hot french fry oil (SPOILER!) Also, Christopher Walken.

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Empire Records
1995

Nutshell: A bunch of high school seniors sort out their emotions, love lives, and indie-rock persuasions over one summer day in their place of work, a hip but failing record store.
Why it’s a treat: It’s an alternative spin on teenage movie fun at its finest. Liv Taylor is simply SMOKIN’ as a Harvard-bound girl next door, and Renee Zellweger is a punky slut who sings a riot-grrl musical number titled “Sugar High.” It’s so endearingly 90s. There are also pot brownies and a hilarious subplot involving a British pop star.

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Girls Will Be Girls
2003

Nutshell: A searingly inappropriate spoof of All About Eve, with every female part (including the extras) played by drag queens. Need I say more.
Why it’s a treat: First, re-read the above. If you can handle abortion humor and general line-crossing, take the plunge. The script is a work of dry, bitchy genius. “My mother always said, ‘Feelings are like treasures, so bury them.'”

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It Happened One Night
1934

Nutshell: Prissy heiress runs away from home and is abetted by a dashing reporter. He starts out just looking for a scoop, but they end up falling in love. D’AWWWWW.
Why it’s a treat: You’d never know this film was made in the ’30s. It’s a clever and fast-paced script, and the chemistry between Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable is both adorable and comedically electric. An absolute classic. If you love a good rom-com, watch this movie; it defined the genre.

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Stripes
1981

Nutshell: After he loses his job, girlfriend, and apartment, a depressed city schlub convinces his best friend to join the army with him. Their penchant for sarcasm and hijinks get them both way in over their heads in matters of national security.
Why it’s a treat: I firmly defend this movie as the funniest thing Bill Murray has ever made. He is NOTE-PERFECT here, all skeptical eyes and deadpan mumbles. Also, Harold Ramis is a national treasure, one of the most gifted comedic writers and directors you’ve never heard of, and this film proves that he is a flawless foil. The basic training dance routine is timeless gold. Watch for John Candy and Judge Reinhold, too!

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Bullets Over Broadway
1994

Nutshell: An arrogant young playwright, forced to cast a mobster’s girlfriend in his new play, discovers to his chagrin that the mobster has better ideas than his own. He struggles with theater politics while trying to pass off the plagiarized work.
Why it’s a treat: One of Woody Allen’s forgotten gems. It’s such a unique and rich concept, mined to perfection by a stellar cast: John Cusack! Dianne Wiest! Chazz Palmintieri! Jennifer Tilly! The list goes on. It’s lightning-fast, a heady mix of highbrow and lowbrow jokes, with some of the most committed physical comedy I’ve ever seen. A period film that never, ever gets old, with so many innuendos it’s almost impossible to watch once.

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Let me know if you explore any of these obscure delights! And if you have some of your own, let me know. Always willing to take some chances. Especially when it’s mimosa-o-clock for 3 days straight. Happy long weekend, everyone!

Hip-Hoppelgangers: Trailer Debuts for “CrazySexyCool”

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Release: October 2013

PRAISE! Behold the wildly uncanny likenesses of T-Boz, Chilli, and Left-Eye, for the CrazySexyCool trailer has come!

God bless you, VH1 executives, in your pure vision. For you did not just film a biopic starring actors who don’t quite fit into their wigs (I see you, Jacksons). You inserted these three into your magic TLC bone-restructuring machine, and created a trio of frighteningly accurate skinwalkers. Save for the subtle tell of Lil’ Mama’s overwrought biceps, this is the most successful resurrection since Jeebus himself.

(Also, speaking of Lil’ Mama, how perfect is she as Left Eye? This girl is on FIRE! Pause for effect. Too soon?)

I mean…God, this looks good. Like it actually doesn’t look that bad. Those “Waterfalls” shoulder pops are so on point I’m jealous. I don’t think I’ve heaped praise on a VH1 original movie like this EVER. I’m actually not used to their films looking good, so paradoxically my expectations are lower. I don’t know how to feel. Since when was quality a watchword on this network??

So obviously I’m going to be lacing up my hi-tops and breaking out the lone-eye war paint this fall, and enjoying this movie in the comfort of my 90s nostalgia. Won’t you join me? It’s MTB! MTB! MEANT 2 BE!

Coming* Soon: Lovelace!

*See what I did there? PUNOGRAPHIC!

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Release: August 2013

Things I love: the 1970s. Character actors. Backdoor feminism. Biopics. Seminal moments in porn history. LOL. Seminal.

Who else is glad that Lindsay Lohan was dumped from the title role? I must’ve read Linda Lovelace’s Wikipedia entry like a thousand times, and I took this college class on censorship where we all watched Deep Throat and pretended it was for book-larnin’ purposes. I have been so obsessed with this film since I found out it was going to be an actual thing. And it’s really happening! Without Lindsay Lohan! Did you hear that, Boogie Nights? Your legacy shall never die!

Point taken, Rollergirl.

Point taken, Rollergirl.

Amanda Seyfried surprised me in this trailer. She obviously has the chops to play Linda’s wholesome and vulnerable side, but Linda also had a very hard edge. She was impetuous and entitled, and if you read a little bit about her life, you’ll see how quickly her status as porn’s “It Girl” turned on her. Seyfried has a charming brashness here that should temper her doe eyes really well.

It looks like the film is taking a sympathetic view of her whole queen-of-porn and fall-from-grace saga. This I understand for sales purposes, but to be honest, I’d rather see an anti-heroine gradually unmaking herself a la The Wrestler. If this is going to be some victim-pitying bullshit, I’ll be sad. Side note, poor Peter Saarsgard, whose beautiful dead eyes have condemned him to a life of playing domestic abusers.

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Saarsgard-eyes aside, the cast seems completely stellar (welcome back, Hank Azaria!) and I have high hopes. I just simply love movies about porn and the mechanics of monetized sex. I hope at least some small part of this film celebrates the ebullient inventiveness of 1970s erotica, not just the icky parts. There’s drugs but there’s also fun and sideburns!

Who else out there is excited for Lovelace? Any other female actresses you would have thought to cast as Linda?

Throwing 50 Shades

Lately I’ve been thinking that I really should read Fifty Shades of Grey. WAIT. DON’T GO. It’s not because I have any great love for syrupy sexist fanfiction (because I don’t [I do]). It’s just that I really don’t want to miss the boat. The film’s cast is going to be announced at this year’s Comic-Con, and hysteria is going to ensue, and when that movie comes out I need to be part of the zeitgeist. Zeitgeist FOMO is worse than any other FOMO. When 50 Shades shade is being thrown on my newsfeed, I need to be able to holla like a schola, or else what am I worth on the internet, really?

But it’s hard because I know it’s shit and I’m going to get angry about genders. I like to get my id tickled, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer it when the tickling says something powerful about sex and relationships, something that leaves me with a “take charge” glow rather than the terrible guilt that comes with complacency. What I mean is, it’s alright if a female character feels weakness, or submits to a male. That’s what I and many of my peers were raised to believe is normal. I don’t mind if those roles (however insane and unfair) are acknowledged and performed. But it’s not alright if that subordination is connected neatly and squarely with desire. Like, it’s sexy because it’s an extreme form of the status quo. Fanfic Girl loves to be tortured and dominated and silenced because it’s the only way to please Christian Grey, who is sewwwww manly and complex. So lazy, so boldly condescending. I mean, did you read it? Am I wrong? I don’t know if I’m pissed because it’s offensive to my vagina, or pissed because my vagina is so fucking bored.

I watched Secretary a few days ago. In many ways, it’s everything 50 Shades could have been, should have been, and by virtue of its popularity, will never be. It centers on a very complicated relationship between a lawyer (James Spader) and his secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who eventually create an S&M dynamic that teaches them both more about human connection than any of their “normal” relationships. Coincidentally, Spader’s character is also named “Mr. Grey.” But he’s not just a thinly drawn fantasy; he’s a person of many contradictions, struggling to just be a man. And Gyllenhaal just wants to be a girl. Neither of them can get it quite right, and the film kinda implies that none of us can, because “normal” is dull and counter-intuitive.

This here is a dominant/submissive situation that is pointedly feminist; both characters find power in their own non-gendered weirdness. Spader is anguished in his own skin, ashamed by the fact that he craves control and inflicting pain. He actually seems to blame his penis for his propensity for sexual dominance, and as a result, he withdraws into himself and plays the soft-spoken gentleman. He doesn’t know how to love and be sexual at the same time, because the line is too tricky to walk and the rejection hurts so bad. When his lovers see what turns him on, they not only dump him, they imply that he’s sick and irreparable.

And Gyllenhaal is another ball of contradictions and neuroses. She’s painfully shy, sensitive, wishes for only simple pleasures and comforting routine. She cuts herself because the pain is an outlet, one of the only things that make her feel alive and engaged with the earth. She needs praise. She needs to feel safe. When she and Spader begin to build a trust, each of them sees that their strange needs (both emotional and sexual) can finally be met. And the fact that such happiness and synchronicity can exist OUTSIDE the realm of the normal scares the shit out of both of them. They take a long time to fall into their routine, not because it feels wrong, but because it feels too right.

Most people have seen the famous scene where Spader loses himself in the utter joy of spankery as Gyllenhaal sweetly shouts, “I’m your SECRETARY!” I do love when they finally reach an understanding; it’s nice to see the devotion and strength she cultivates even with a ball-gag in her mouth. And Spader gets so cute as his defenses fall. But this scene is one of the best, I think; it’s one of their first meetings and says volumes about how such a relationship can begin.

Check Spader out around the 1-minute mark. I love the way he observes that Gyllenhaal is “closed tight. A wall.” He starts out the conversation weary and cold because he’s used to keeping his bizarre brand of masculinity a secret. He’s tired of restraining himself, and this girl seems like an innocent rube who’s going to quit in her first week. But Gyllenhaal has secrets. Secrets of her own. She’s hesitant but curious. She hates herself almost as much as he hates himself. Who the fuck is this girl, and can I save her? That’s what Spader is thinking. And maybe he’s never felt that kind of spontaneous affection before for a normal girl. She’s a woman with sexual needs so specific and aberrant that maybe she could be the one.

Both of their performances are masterful. Gyllenhaal plays the perfect mixture of shy and straightforward, and her sexual evolution in this movie is a delight to watch. Spader is so alluring, so awkward and so wounded. This scene is great because you can watch his breath catch as he realizes how helpless this girl makes him feel. That push-and-pull of power and weakness between them makes for one of the most insightful heterosexual romances you’ll ever ever watch unfold.

So I’m going to read 50 Shades, but just know I’m going to hate every minute of it. Having experienced a story like Secretary, how can I dumb myself down again and go back to feeling such manufactured normalized pleasure? I dunno, you tell me. Did you get through 50 Shades? Does it have merits that I’ve missed in my scathing pre-judgment? Is it even possible to reach feminist conclusions in a work of fiction that fetishizes female submissiveness? Comments please.