Monday, February 02, 2015

Finding Stephanie and fearing uncanny Lammily

After the passing of the late great Mr. Ebert, I was left with only Peter Travers of Rolling Stone as one of the film critics I can turn to for guidance on films when I'm looking for one to watch.  (FWIW, I've always used critics to talk me into watching/reading/listening to something, but almost never to talk me out of it.  Only when most of the critic planet is aligned against something as a terrible entertainment do I let them persuade me to change my mind, and even then in might be worth a visit to see if it's so bad it's good.)

But, glory be, I happily rediscovered where Stephanie Zacharek now writes this week (Village Voice), as she was one of the only other critics I like.  She used to write for Entertainment Weekly, which was snarky fun when it started out (I think they even invented the word "snakry" as I had not seen it before then), but became just another version of People or Us, so when she no longer worked for them, I only bothered to hunt them up for Stephen King's article, which he no longer writes.

It was like catching up with an old friend, especially since the series of articles I found (on were a running conversation between her and several other movie critics and aficionados.  And then I came across this (emphasis mine, though the whole quote is good):
And in answer to your question to me about Under the Skin, as to how the film’s having been directed by a man complicates my take on it: It doesn’t. Like all of us, I’d like to see more films directed by women, because widening the pool of voices will get us better movies overall. And I’m thrilled to be able to praise the work of Prince-Bythewood or Selma’s Ava DuVernay, because it’s terrific work. I’ll also note that women do look at things differently: Beyond the Lights’ director of photography is a woman, Tami Reiker, and I couldn’t help noticing something a little different about the way the movie’s sex scenes are shot and composed—chiefly that Reiker and Prince-Bythewood revel in the beauty of Mbatha-Raw’s and co-star Nate Parker’s bodies equally. There’s an exuberant sensual audacity to those scenes.

All that said: I can only look at movies with my eyes, and they glaze over when I see terms like “gender roles” and “female sexuality as a construct.” I find it so restrictive to look at movies through that lens. I know some people write their dissertations on these sorts of things or base their whole lives’ work on them, but it’s just not for me. I remain silent, sometimes conspicuously so, in most conversations about the need for “more women’s stories,” because I’m more interested in the gloriously wide spectrum of human experience, which of course women are a part of.

Also: Men are fascinating to me, chiefly because I’m not one. They are the extraordinary and often maddening Other. I do love it when movies illuminate an angle of “women’s experience”—whatever that is—in a fresh or vital way. But, God help me, I’m already damnably familiar with the experience of being a woman, whereas I’m nothing like J.M.W. Turner. (At least, I hope not.) And so to see him in Mike Leigh’s quietly sensational Mr. Turner waving away his impossibly cherubic baby granddaughter (only to succumb to her charms, in his grouchy way, a few minutes later), or to watch him add that one necessary daub of red to a painting that already seems perfect—I love that beyond words. As for Scarlett Johansson, I see her, to some degree I am her, I am a man looking at her: When I watch Under the Skin, the No. 1 movie on my top 10 list, I can do and be all of those things at once. For me, the greatest experience is to look at the screen and say not “That’s me,” but “That’s us.” It’s all I ask of movies—I guess it’s a lot!
I love this quiet, almost shy, rebuff of Identity Politics (henceforth acronymed as eIP, the little "e" standing for "evil").

eIP has been on my mind a lot lately because my eldest daughter is headed to college in the fall, and as I have feared for these many years, the curriculum is laced with it.  I've gone through it with her and highlighted them so she can avoid them (and it appears she can, none appear to be mandatory).  She, herself, is already allergic to the eIP concepts as I have worked to inoculate both her and her sister for years (as has their mother, who had her own nearly disastrous, GPA-crushing encounter with it in her college days). 

Alas, my favorite liberal rag,, is beginning to drink waaaay too much of the eIP koolaid, though "koolaid" is too sweet a term for the hydrochloric acid cocktail that is eIP.  I'm down to about one article a day that intrigues, and half the time it's some entertainment thing and not politics or society. Here, as example, are the titles of just two recent articles: 
1. The “Manspreading” scourge isn’t just for subways -- a screed about men taking up too much space in public transportation, which one wonders why it's one gender's fault.
2. “Listen when I talk to you!”: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in -- a screech-fest about how offended the author (an eIP PhD. who is black) was when a (white) man moved her bags off the seat next to her on the bus after she didn't see or hear him when he asked her to move them because she was on her iPod looking out the window, and her subsequent attempt to bitch him out went ignored, because he's a racist honky cis of course. (If you're not aware, "cis" is the eIP pejorative for someone who's heterosexual. And we can be reasonably sure the dude was not gay because the article wouldn't exist if he were.)

Now, I'm not entirely against modern criticism of actual bad behavior; I'm opposed only when it's based on the assumptions and bent reasoning of eIP rather than generally accepted principles of common courtesy. 

When I started reading the article "The Problem With Ed Sheeran And 'Nice Guys' Like Him", I thought it was a product of eIP, but after hanging with it, I realized it not only didn't come from an eIP perspective, I found myself whole-heartedly agreeing with it.  Like the author, I went through a period as a young man where I thought I was a "nice guy" until I got to know myself a bit better and realized I am as much of a schmuck as anyone else (though in my case, I did not blame that self-misperception for any difficulties I had with dating, I (rightly) blamed just being a general clod in my dating techniques, and/or lack thereof).

So, I will keep up the good fight in my fight against eIP, rejoice in reading Ms. Zacharek, and do my best to prepare my daughters for the big, bad world.

Which reminds me, we had a fun Christmas moment.  My eldest asked for the new Lammily doll, as she collects dolls and believes (as I do) that the first editions at least will be collector's items in the future.  I knew that if I got a doll for her and not my nine-year-old, the young one would protest her grown sister getting a doll, but not her, so I got her one, too. 

When she opened it, my youngest looked at me with alarm and asked, "She's not going to come to life, is she?" because, as advertised, Lammily looks very real because she's shaped like a real girl. The goal of the doll is to make young girls feel comfortable with themselves, and her realistic appearance is the very thing that unnerved my daughter.  Much laughter.

She still hasn't played with it.


Anonymous said...

Identity Politics, for all its awful abuses, does serve one useful purpose: it focuses people's attention on the problem of cloistered groupthink. I remember some years ago watching a panel discussion about abortion on Fox News. The panel was five old rich white guys, who unsurprisingly concluded that women should and probably would cheerfully accept the loss of abortion rights in all cases except life-threatening illness.

Corporate executives are overwhelmingly white men with Ivy League degrees. That things got this way in the 1950's is not surprising. It's also unsurprising that this situation perpetuates itself, since hiring committees, which consist of existing executives, pretty much look favorably on people like themselves.

I don't know how to fix the problem at Fox News. Their culture is the result of resolute opposition to anything that smacks of Identity Politics.

Nor do I know how to fix executive boardrooms, though I suspect they would at least be slightly open to considering the benefits of diversity, and it is slowly becoming easier to find examples of highly successful female and non-white people in business.

Barriers don't remove themselves. Female cinematographers have a different style, as critics have noted - but no one would ever have seen that style unless someone in Hollywood said, "Hey, we don't have any women here. Maybe we should hire a couple?"


Yahmdallah said...

I couldn't agree more.

To me ID muddies the conversation. There are ways to address bigotry and inequality that have better results because they're more honest about the causes and solutions. Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers are two examples.

Since ID has so many odd assumptions in its architecture, it doesn't prove useful in combating what it should.

It's the same thing when the folks on Fox discuss something and half of their assumptions and perspectives are ridiculous. You can't debate with them because you first have to spend so much time clearing away the horseshit.

As always Joel, thanks for your comments!

Whisky Prajer said...

I say, make 'em laugh. If you have an ideological point to get across, come up with the yuks. Otherwise you're just another funda-yokel-ist whipping up the choir. Case in point, Lenny Bruce and every stand-up he begat. Someone like that Bechdel gal and her "Test" -- brilliant, and of a piece with Bruce's line of inquiry.

Yahmdallah said...

Whisky, also a very good point. Probably one *I* needed to read/hear most of all.