Film Club: Out of Africa


What a surprising movie, dearest fellow travelers! When the film started up, and Meryl Streep started in with yet another perfectly practiced accent telling tales from long-ago days while the camera swept over idyllic African vistas, I rolled my eyes and wondered why I’d let Netflix talk me into this. But it turned out to be an impressive film, a romance that investigates what it means to be a relationship, and a historical drama that doesn’t completely romanticize the rich white people’s experiences and their influence on the native black people.

one of many sweeping vistas

Image from

Karen von Blixen-Finecke lived a pretty amazing life, marrying twice, growing coffee in the highlands of Kenya, building a school for Kikuyu children, writing a famous memoir, and making sweet, sweet love to Robert Redford. Okay, that last part is just what Meryl Streep gets to do in the film adaptation, but it’s based on real events with Karen’s lover Denys Finch Hatton. The movie’s PG, so we don’t see so much as a boob, but the steaminess of the romance is easily conveyed nonetheless.

My favorite part of the romance was how it was allowed to be a little rough-edged. Sure, there were plenty of scenes in which Karen and Denys share tender moments, or gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, but the conflict between the characters was never resolved to either party’s satisfaction. They were deeply in love, but Karen needed him to be home more often, creating a joint life with her on the farm and not jetting off to do safaris for months at a time, and Denys clung to his independence and his ideal of being able to love someone without possessing them or their time. The movie shows just a couple arguments about their differing needs, but they’re well-written and fair to each character. Karen could easily come across as a needy nag, and Denys could easily be a commitment-phobic cad, but we get to see the validity of both their positions, and the pain it causes them to be unable to compromise on their deeply held beliefs.

How often do you get a romance like that in the movies, one that doesn’t work out (not a big spoiler there; when the movie starts with a voiceover telling us that a man “gave the greatest gift” it’s no big leap to surmise that it ain’t gonna last and probably someone dies), but not because of outside forces like other lovers or an inconvenient death? One that doesn’t work out because love isn’t enough to sustain a relationship if other factors don’t line up like shared ideas about how relationships work and how to balance independence with commitment.

Karen's wedding outfit in "Out of Africa" -- 1913 fashion, yes please!

Image from

The other major part of the movie, of course, is that this is a film set in colonial Kenya, a place ruled by a small group of upper-class British men who hardly considered their African “subjects” as anything more than servants and hunting guides. Now I know that Pollack was a sentimentalist, and there is definitely some unfortunate romanticizing and simplifying going on here, but there’s also a surprising amount of complexity and sensitivity. For example, Nairobi in 1913 was far from a homogeneous place but was rather  a multicultural hub, with Somalis, Indians, Kikuyu, and Europeans all interacting, and the movie shows that in tracking shots across the marketplace as well as in the background of many tête-a-têtes between main characters. Also, Karen’s  connection to the Kikuyu in her life is genuine, and her interest in improving their lives (treating wounds and illnesses in an informal hospital, securing land for her tenants when her farm fails) is real, and appreciated by the beneficiaries. The fact that she says she must get land for “her” Kikuyu, well, that’s paternalism for ya. (Ugh.)

Denys, unlike most of his fellow white men, admires the native Masai and Kikuyu people for having their own traditions, stories, and lifestyles. He still feels totally entitled to hire a local man to be his servant as he wanders the country shooting all the wildlife, of course, and that is an entitlement the film does not address. His admiration also too often veers into Noble Savage territory, but he still provides a welcome contrast to the boorish paternalism of the other members of the ruling elite in the film.

Malick Bowens, yes please

Image from

He also provides a great moment of real moral conflict for the audience to participate in, when he argues with Karen over whether the local children should be educated. Her view is that of course the children should learn how to read, as it will undoubtedly improve their lives and it is unfair to deprive them of it. Hard to argue with, except Denys points out that this will just create little Englishmen out of the children, and since they already have their own culture, do they really need the European one imposed on them? It’s hard to separate out the good of educating people from the harm of doing it by a colonial master’s mandate. Not to mention that it’s not like the Kikuyu children weren’t receiving an education already; it just wasn’t a traditionally European one involving books and schools. And all this swirled about in my head after watching a Hollywood romance! Not bad.

By the end of the (very long) film, I was totally engrossed in the life of this complicated, strong woman and the many people she comes to know and love during her time in Kenya. Apparently, the title for Blixen’s book came from a Latin saying, “Out of Africa, always something new,” and a few inevitable Hollywood clichés aside, this movie delivers on providing a few new ways of portraying love and colonialism on the silver screen.

Also, the cinematography makes me want to visit Kenya, like, yesterday.

The Headly Surprise: Up in the Air

Welcome back to another round of The Headly Surprise! Today’s honoree is Vera Farmiga as Alex in Up in the Air. This 2009 film follows middle-aged Ryan (George Clooney) as he crisscrosses the country firing people for companies too chicken to do the firing themselves. It’s a bleak premise, and the movie carries that feeling throughout, not least because Ryan is, by nature and by habit, kind of a dick. He gives lectures on how to stay emotionally disconnected from others, and he has a trunkful of reasons why his job is helping people rather than devastating them. Of course, Ryan is played by the puppy-dog eyes and aww-whatever-I-did-I-promise-not-to-do-it-again-baby half-smile of George Clooney, so we can’t totally hate him.

Vera Farmiga Up in the Air

I ain't lookin' for love, but I am looking at you. (photo from

Our wayward hero meets Alex in a VIP airline lounge, and they bond over car rental discounts and credit card miles before having a passionate night in Ryan’s hotel room. They sync their calendars to meet up again in various cities around the country, as both their jobs keep them almost perpetually on the move. All goes well until Ryan’s young colleague Natalie lectures him on using Alex instead of committing to her. [**SPOILER ALERT**] Ryan feels inspired to ditch his emotionally stunted viewpoint, and he surprises Alex at her Chicago home in one of those grand romantic gestures that the movies have primed us to receive for decades. But uh oh! Alex is furious that he’s shown up, since she’s married with two kids, and he could ruin her home life with any displays of affection. Ryan returns to Omaha and his previous life a bit sadder and, of course, a bit wiser.

Alex’s Headly Surprise status rests in the way the movie handles this big reveal. There’s no commentary on how her cheating is immoral, or how it makes her a bad mother. In fact, the movie does a neat job of setting Alex up to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, there to help Ryan find himself without having her own personality, needs, or desires; it then inverts those expectations by showing that this part of her life, which is so central to Ryan and the movie, is merely in her periphery. Her real life is with her family, and Ryan, fond as she is of him, is just an escape.

And she made no bones about that. Sure, she never told Ryan she was married, but from their first encounter, she sets up their boundaries so they’re both on the same page; she wants a no-strings-attached, uncomplicated, passionate affair. This is what Ryan wants too, and it’s why they work so well together, at least until he starts to fall in love with her. Then Natalie gives him that push over the edge into acknowledging his feelings and suddenly he doesn’t just want a passionate affair anymore.

About Natalie’s speech: she’s not wrong to tell a grown man to stop leading a woman on and tell her how he really feels and take steps toward building a life with her. She just happens to be wrong in this instance because she doesn’t know what Ryan does, namely, that Alex explicitly said what she did and did not want. Alex even expresses this at the end of the movie, saying how surprised she is at Ryan’s hurt, since she never said she wanted more than what they had and she’d thought they were on the same page with that.

This is a wonderful example of listening to what a woman says instead of listening to what you think she means, or what you want to hear. We are far too ready in these United States to dismiss a woman’s words as game playing or indecisiveness, rather than her actual thoughts and feelings. This has very real and dangerous consequences, of course–see all the men who stalk women who have told them they aren’t interested, or the men who rape women who say no, or the legislators who tell women that they don’t really want an abortion no matter what they say. There are other, less physically harmful, consequences to this line of thinking, too, like assuming a woman must be coyly angling for a commitment when she says she needs no such thing. This robs women of their agency and reinforces the idea that they’re untrustworthy, scheming beings instead of autonomous individuals fully capable of making their own decisions and expressing their own desires. If our needs and wants aren’t heard when we plainly state them, it’s no wonder some women start speaking in the code that’s expected of us, just to eventually get the desired result one way or another.

Anyway, Ryan is clearly upset by what he sees as Alex’s betrayal, but he doesn’t argue with her that she was anything but upfront about their relationship. The film honors her character as a three-dimensional person who makes the possibly ill-advised decision to cheat on her husband without punishing her explicitly. It hurts her to lose Ryan, but we get the sense that her life will carry on without him pretty well, and she’ll maybe think of him wistfully in a hotel here and there. That kind of complex characterization is rarely afforded to women who cheat in film; they’re usually shown as sluts or too simpleminded to make up their minds about which man to love more. Alex knows which man she loves and builds a life with, but she’s not above finding some good times on the side as she travels for one-third of the year. She’s not perfect, but she’s not a devil, and for that, she earns The Headly Surprise.

The Headley Surprise: Before Sunrise

Ladies and gents, it’s time for that occasionally recurring Stowaway feature — The Headley Surprise! Today we welcome Julie Delpy and her Before Sunrise character Celine to the canon, and I tell you, I was so pleased with her. In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, French college student Celine (Julie Delpy) meets American post-grad Jesse (Ethan Hawke) on the train from Budapest, and soon they’re disembarking in Vienna and spending the whole night talking, kissing, and watching the morning arrive, before parting ways with promises to meet again in six months. This movie is 15 years old, so I knew the basic story before ever putting it in my Netflix queue, but the execution of that story was more beautiful than I’d expected.

julie delpy before sunrise looks at Ethan Hawke in the train

Julie Delpy, another Headley Surprise

Linklater’s favorite technique is to take a movie consisting entirely of long monologues and philosophical debates, shoot it in an interesting locale or format, and hope that the speeches are good enough to carry the plotless film. (This strategy even mostly worked in Waking Life.) In Before Sunrise, it works magnificently, due in no small part to the magnetic performance of Delpy, who is instantly likeable and entirely believable as a young woman trying to figure out how to move away from her loving parents into a life of her own.

Before Sunrise is often described as a romantic comedy, although it’s more of a straight romance. Either way, Celine defies genre convention. If this were a normal romantic comedy of the last thirty years, Celine would be desperate for a man, but too uptight to get one (in adult rom coms) OR she’d be too strange or superficially unattractive and in need of a makeover in order to realize she wants a man and can win one (in teen rom coms).

Some of it is a function of the age of the characters; in adult rom coms, it is all about MARRIAGE and BABIES and THAT BLAND POTTERY BARN FURNITURE SET THAT PROVES OUR ETERNAL LOVE,

The Proposal Sandra Bullock

"I am telling you for the last time, I have a very busy career -- oh all right, if you're going to insult me like that, I give in. Kisses!"


Rachel Leigh Cook in She's All That wears glasses

"Wait, did you just glance my way? I never thought to brush my hair before now! All my artistic dreams seem silly compared to being your prom date!"

Celine is in her last year of university at the Sorbonne,  so she’s in that particular place of in-betweenness and uncertainty, as you start to realize that you are not as worldly as you thought you were at age eighteen, and that actually the world is kind of terrifying if you have to navigate it totally on your own. She’s not in any popularity contests anymore, and people haven’t started asking when she’s going to settle down yet.

Ages 21-24 are pretty scary territory to navigate, but they’re also a time of great freedom in Western society, when it’s ok to not be just like everyone else. You were expected to toe the party line in high school, and you’d better start cultivating domesticity soon, but for right now, you can try other things, maybe even see who you are without all those expectations. So age is definitely a factor.

But Celine could still be desperate for Jesse to find her attractive and do whatever he liked to get that attention. She could find herself in a dangerous situation with this strange man and be told she asked for it by not being more careful. She could laugh at all his jokes and agree with whatever he said so as not to appear too smart or threatening. But she does none of these things (ok, she does laugh at his jokes, but fair enough, she seems quick to laugh in general). She has her own opinions and she states them. She is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t seem at all concerned by wearing her rumpled traveling clothes while flirting with Jesse. Here’s the other factor – she’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl (damn Nathan Rabin for coining a term I’ve been trying to define for years).

MPDGs are women with childlike interests and worldviews who spontaneously attach themselves to the mopey hero of the tale, who is in serious need of some life-altering sex and full-fledged adoration from a woman with no discernible personality other than “quirky helpmeet.” (See Garden State, Along Came Polly, half the cast of Love Actually.) MPDGs are usually assigned to comedies, but they can be found in dramas and romances, too, especially in death dramas like (Sweet November, Love Story, etc.).  Jesse is clearly a mopey man in need of some life altering, but Celine doesn’t exist just for that purpose; you can see the story equally as that of an energetic woman in need of some conversation and life affirmation. (Hint: if you can switch the focus of the story fairly easily from one major character to another, you have two fully developed characters.)

Celine and Jesse do eventually have sex, but not until two important things are said: 1) Celine goes back and forth a bit on the issue, but not as a tease; she’s genuinely trying to figure out if this will ruin or perfect a lovely night. She expresses her concerns to Jesse, saying something along the lines of, “I think I wanted to sleep with you as soon as we got off the train, but now I don’t know.” She tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him just so he can go home and brag to all his buddies about banging a French girl in Europe. 2) Jesse responds by saying that it’s not that important that they have sex, and even though he clearly really wants to, there’s no implication that he thinks she’s a frigid bitch for not doing it, and it’s clear that she is a person he cares about and so she wouldn’t just become bragging rights.

How often do we hear these kinds of conversations take place in the movies? These are real concerns in the real world, and they have a lot of dramatic potential, too, from an artistic perspective. They humanize the characters so much, and when they do start kissing and roll over into the dark to begin undressing, it is sexy and sweet at the same time, and not a boring inevitability or titillating display.

julie and ethan stare deeply into one another's eyes

Oh yeah, they totally do it later

A palm reader appears at one point and tells Celine that she will grow into a great woman. She then gestures to Jesse and says “he’s learning,” which Jesse finds insulting, as if he doesn’t matter, but it’s true that his outlook is much less mature than Celine’s. We get no sense that Celine is settling, though, when she spends the night with him. She’s figuring out what she wants in life, and for this night, she wanted him. There’s no slut-shaming and she didn’t do what he wanted to do without regard for her own wishes. She really is growing into a great woman, and this lovely film captures one of the days on that journey.

Of course, there’s a sequel (Before Sunset), and I’m apprehensive about seeing it, but probably I will. I hope Linklater keeps Celine’s intelligence and independence, because these really made her a terrific Headley Surprise.


Post Script:

Another Richard Linklater film that really surprises me with its occasional tip of the hat to strong women characters is Dazed and Confused. In his best-known work, the Parker Posey character is the female version of the Ben Affleck character; both of them take gender roles at their crudest and harshest and make those their rules to live by, which, if not easy to watch, is interesting to see portrayed. And the movie has other teenage girls with their own personalities, thoughts, and dreams; maybe not as many as the boys, since they’re not the main focus, but they’re not all relegated to being just props, either. (Some are – the sophomore who spends the night with the freshman, among others.)  Sure, the boys talk about them the ways teenage boys talk about girls, as sexual conquests to be made, T&A to check out, and girlfriends to be avoided. But we get to see the girls as themselves, by themselves, too, whether it’s having feminist lite conversations about the gender politics of Gilligan’s Island or worrying over whether other girls like them.

I find the movie as a whole too unpleasant to watch anymore, with its relentless focus on vicious “initiation” scenes that are cast in the same nostalgic glow as the pool hall or the Aerosmith concert, but the last time I watched it, I was struck by how many of the female characters were as fully realized as the male characters.

Total Recall: Totally Badass Heroine

This weekend I watched Total Recall for the first time, and while it’s not my most favorite action movie, it features what I’m going to call The Headly Surprise. Remember that review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote a while back? (If not, go read and enjoy.) The happy surprise in that movie was that a pretty woman (Glenne Headly) deceived the male leads and was not punished for it, but rather was celebrated. It’s so rare to see that happen in mainstream culture, including Hollywood movies. So rare, in fact, that I think we should point it out when it happens and jump up and down a little with excitement.

And so I bring you a sporadic feature, The Headly Surprise. Whenever I see a movie that features a woman not punished by the film for something women usually get punished for, I’ll mention it here. This doesn’t necessarily mean a physical punishment, but can include the way the woman is talked about or the way the movie frames her. A Headly Surprise movie may include: a woman is smart but isn’t labeled uppity, a bitch, or cold-hearted; a woman is not white but survives the end of the film (if it’s an action film) or isn’t the sassy best friend (if it’s a comedy with a white protagonist); a woman is pretty but there are no nude shots or lingering shots of her body; a woman is fat but her desire for sex isn’t laughed at; a woman has no desire to have sex with men and isn’t derisively called a lesbian or a bitch; a woman saves her own damn self from the villain; etc. The Headly Surprise is usually a movie showing love for, instead of fear of, a badass woman.

Glenne Headley

Glenne Headly, Hollywood badass (image via

Which brings us to today’s entry in the canon of The Headly Surprise: Rachel Ticotin as Melina in Total Recall. The basic plot of the movie (which is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story I haven’t read called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) is thus: After a bad trip to the implanted-memory doctor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Quaid) realizes that he is not the married construction worker he thinks he is, but instead is some type of government agent whose memory was erased because he knew too much. He travels to Mars, where he first learned the dangerous information that he can now no longer remember, and sorts out the twists and turns of who he is and who he’s fighting as he meets up with a former flame (Ticotin) and journeys into the underground world of a planet so corrupt that its rulers sell air.

Rachel Ticotin

Rachel Ticotin, inaugural Headly Surprise honoree (image via

It is not necessary to tell you how it ends to tell you that Melina is awesome. First, Quaid starts out “married” to Lori (Sharon Stone), who is, as we all know, a gorgeous blond, but even brain surgery can’t make him forget the woman he truly loves — Melina, who is a gorgeous woman of color. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #1, right there. #2 arrives when we are introduced to Melina in the shitty bar/brothel she works at. We see right away that Melina is a prostitute, but we don’t get lingering shots of her body or even revealing clothing. We also don’t see any condemnation that she works as a prostitute; that’s just her job and there’s nothing titillating or sad or morally wrong with it, according to the film. Love it.

But my favorite Unexpected Hollywood Moment is #3, when Quaid is dragged to an elevator by Lori and some thugs to be delivered to the big boss for even more of an ass-kicking. The elevator door opens and BAM! It’s Melina, and she came prepared. She mows down all the thugs without missing a beat, then gets into a mighty brawl with Lori. Unexpected Hollywood Moment #4 — this ain’t no catfight. There is no hair pulling, nail scratching, or (always a favorite) accidental-ripping-of-clothing-in-curvaceous-places. These women are fighting to the death, and it shows; there’s punching, kicking, and general ass-kicking by both.

Not only does Melina save Quaid’s life at the elevator, [MILD SPOILER] she also saves his life at the very end of the film, when he’s face to face with the bad guy. This time Quaid is about to be killed, and Melina shows up armed and ready, and BAM! takes out the bad guy. Love it! Now teeeechnically Quaid still saves the day just after that, by pushing an all-important button, so technically the man still saves the world, but it is still a big deal for the woman to save the man from the villain instead of the other way around.

The best part is that it’s an ambiguous ending — did this movie really happen or is it another false memory or fantasy of Quaid’s? — because if it is Quaid’s fantasy, then it is his fantasy that a kickass woman kicks ass and saves his! Fantastic.

I don’t know how many of these elements of the film were drawn from the Dick story, how many were the ideas of the three writers credited with the screenplay, and how many were director Paul Verhoeven’s, but kudos to Verhoeven for producing a Hollywood blockbuster with a Headly Surprise.

Do you have any Headly Surprise suggestions?

Film Club: Whale Rider

Dearest fellow travelers, come with me to the beautiful coastline of New Zealand, where we’ll cover some Film Club and some A Country a Month at the same time. Whale Rider is a 2002 film directed by Niki Caro, from a screenplay by Caro and Witi Ihimaera (who authored the book it’s based off of). Several people recommended this film to me, telling me how much I would enjoy the story of a young girl overcoming a thousand years of patriarchal rule to become the next leader of her tribe. This was an accurate prediction on your part. Whale Rider is a lovely movie.

Whale Rider movie poster

Whale Rider movie poster

Paikea is named after the legendary Maori figure who rode on the back of a whale from the homeland of Hawaiki to reach Aotearoa (the islands of New Zealand). Pai is a delightful 11-year-old who adores her crotchety old grandfather, Koro, the chief of the tribe. Yes, there is some of that well-worn gruff old man with a soft spot for a precocious young child — a tiresome cliché that flattens out both characters in many films — but it’s kept from getting too sentimental because Koro really does resent Pai for being a girl instead of a boy and thus unable to assume leadership of the tribe. Throughout the movie, he has many opportunities to relent and acknowledge her as his heir, but he refuses right up until the end. He does love Pai but says several cruel things about her and actively keeps her from learning the rites of chieftainship. She loves Koro but consistently disobeys his orders to keep her place as a girl. It’s more painful to watch a film like this, because the characters are acting more like real people than characters in other movies, and real people can be pretty awful to each other, but that’s what makes it so great, and also what makes the eventual reconciliation much more meaningful.

Another thing I liked about the movie is the film’s and Pai’s refusal to make her a saint or ideal. Koro is searching for a prophet to lead his people out of the troubled times they find themselves in (encroaching crime and drug use). Pai knows she is the next leader of the tribe, but she also knows she is no prophet. She is a gifted, sensitive girl, with a strong link to her ancestors and the natural world that her community lives in, but she is not superhuman. She doesn’t want to be a savior; she wants her whole community to come together and bring themselves out of the bad times and into a brighter future. How rarely do films, books, or even real life leaders express this wish? We are so accustomed to looking for saviors (and that’s not even counting religious figures) who will make everything right that we miss countless opportunities to fix our own problems and improve our own communities. Pai knows that the only way to be a strong group is to work as a group, and we see a beautiful illustration of that communal effort at the end of the film, when she leads a giant waka (Maori canoe) full of her neighbors into the sea as part of a celebratory ceremony. We need leaders who know how to bring out the best in us, not saviors who bring the best to us.

And yes, that happens to be my political philosophy. Heroes and saviors make great action figures and film stars, but they rarely make great history without a strong community to build on their vision. Whale Rider shows that truly humble people can also be compelling on the screen, and the numerous regular people in our lives working for a better world show how compelling they are in making history.

Pretty Awesome Scoundrels

I recently watched a movie about a smart, lying, double-crossing, two-faced woman, and she was not called a bitch. This is such an incredible thing that it merits its own post.

The movie is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Michael Caine/Steve Martin vehicle that plays to each of their strengths perfectly. Michael Caine gets to be a genteel know-it-all, and Steve Martin gets to be an obnoxious loudmouth. They are both con men, although Caine works only among the upper crust and does very well for himself, whereas Martin considers himself well off when he cons a woman out of twenty bucks. The entire movie consists of Caine trying to get Martin out of his small French Riviera town, so he can go back to working it by himself, conning rich women out of their jewels and pocketbooks by pretending to be a prince in need of funds to battle communists in his home country. Hilarity ensues. (No, really, it’s very funny.) The main plot unfolds when they bet that the first one to get $50,000 out of Glenne Headly, an American heiress, wins the rights to stay in Beaumont-sur-Mer, and the loser leaves town.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Hide your valuables, ladies, the charm offensive is on

*SPOILER ALERT* The problem is, the heiress turns out not to be an heiress, but rather a woman who is touring Europe as the winner of a contest for a detergent company. She’s promised both men the $50,000, but has to bankrupt herself in order to get it. Caine turns out to have scruples and calls off the bet. Martin, unsurprisingly, has no scruples and wants to continue the bet, or at least amend it — the first man to bed her wins. Caine shows even more character when he says that he won’t try to woo her himself, but he’ll bet against Martin’s success. *NO REALLY, THIS IS THE FINAL TWIST OF THE FILM* Headly declares herself in love with Martin, and visits his bedroom. Caine hears of this and is ready to admit defeat, but then Headly shows up at his house, crying that Martin took her $50,000 and she has nothing now. Caine gives her $50,000 of his own money and takes her to the airport, where she thrusts the bag of his money back in his hands, declaring she can’t take it and running onto the plane. Only then does Martin appear, screaming that Headly took HIS money, and when Caine opens the bag, he finds instead a note from Headly that reveals she knew their con all along and played them the whole time.

Martin’s reaction: “Of all the lousy… She is disgusting! She is lying, deceitful, two-faced. She is conniving and she is dishonest!” Caine’s response: “Yes. Isn’t she wonderful?”

Now, in just about any other Hollywood film from the last fifty years, Martin’s reaction would’ve included “That bitch!” in there somewhere — we’d need to know that she is not just another player in the game, but that her gender makes her a particularly despicable one. She would not be a worthy opponent with individual skills to assess and combat, but a generic enemy in need of crushing. We would have had lingering shots of her legs and chest throughout the film. We probably would’ve seen her get naked in preparation for sleeping with Martin.

Not only that, but the other women Caine and Martin con would be bimbos, sluts, easy marks not just for being rich and stupid but for being rich and stupid in a gendered way. Instead, they are easy marks because, in Caine’s words, they’re “screened. They’re wealthy and corrupt.” His scams always involve women, yes, and they hinge on the need of these particular women for flattery, romance, and a distraction from the stultifying boredom of extreme wealth. But the scams don’t involve sexual humiliation, or dick-waving bragging afterward, or even stripping the women of all their material wealth. Caine takes a large amount of money, possibly after a mutually satisfying sexual liaison, and then slips away. And when things go badly, say, for example, when he is robbed of $50,000, he does not blame the woman who played him, or call her a bitch for outsmarting him, or plot revenge. No, he calls her wonderful, seeing her as an equal, a great challenger to his title as master con artist of the Riviera.

The movie even ends with Martin put firmly in place. Unlike Caine, he did try to degrade Headly by betting on his ability to conquer her sexually. The I-bet-I-can-screw-her-oh-wait-now-I-love-her-so-I-will-be-honorable-and-at-the-last-minute-not-continue-in-my-lie-and-take-her-clothes-off-but-it’s-cool-because-that-one-moment-of-restraint-is-enough-to-convince-her-of-my-love-so-she’ll-totally-screw-me-later-so-the-moral-of-the-story-is-I-get-laid-either-way trope is so tired, and it was refreshing to see it turned inside out here. Not only does Martin not get with Headly, and not only does she not fall in love with him, but she steals his money and leaves him naked in a hotel room. And at the end of the film, when she returns to the two men to pull them into working a con with her, she introduces Caine by name and has him talk as an integral part of the con, but then introduces Martin — “he’s a mute.” Caine was going to dupe her out of her money but not her dignity. Martin was going for whatever he could get, and what he got was shut the hell up. Fantastic.

The remarkable thing about Headly’s deception is that the movie is clear that she does this not because all women are evil, or cold-hearted, or only in it for the money, but because she is the same creature as these men, a brilliant liar who lives for the con. I don’t know how you feel about movies based on crooks swindling hard-earned money out of honest folks, but I love them. Con movies — Trouble in Paradise, The Sting, etc. — are delightful works of sparkling wit, fine-tuned plot, and great reaction shots. Morals shmorals, give me Paul Newman’s nose-scratching signal any day. This is one of the few films I know of that is so devoted to the wonder of the con that it lets women play too. And that’s pretty awesome.

I Propose We Revamp the True Romantic Comedy: An Evisceration of “The Proposal”

Dearest fellow travelers, in the words of Gob Bluth, I’ve made a huge mistake. Not quite on par with selling out my brother or denying parentage of my son, but still scarring — I watched The Proposal. It was a slow Wednesday night, it showed up in my Netflix On Demand queue, and I like Sandra Bullock, so I thought, “Why not?” OH MY GOODNESS, SO MANY REASONS WHY NOT.

I should have turned it off within the first three minutes, when it became apparent the movie is not grounded in any version of reality I’m aware of. Sandra Bullock’s character, Margaret, is the top editor at some fancy book publishing house. In the opening scenes, we follow her as she barrels through the streets of New York on her way to the office; she spends the whole walk arguing on her cell with one of her best-selling authors. The argument? She got him a slot on Oprah to talk about his book, and he doesn’t want to do it. JUMP BACK. There is no author in the history of ever who would pass up the opportunity to appear on Oprah’s show to promote their book. Austen wanted on Oprah. Dickens owes half his popularity to his delightful Oprah appearances. Poe never got an Oprah interview, and he ended up roaming the streets of Baltimore, raving mad and hours from death. The only author to have not gone on Oprah after originally offered a slot is Jonathan Franzen, and even that was a rejection of Oprah’s Book Club and not a TV appearance (she pulled the interview after he revealed he didn’t want the book club sticker because men might find it off-putting (which, ew, men, get it together)). Every writer, published or unpublished, believes that their book is just the right one to fit between a celebrity interview and a spa package giveaway on the Queen of Talk’s show. Every  newly signed author eagerly sits down with the publicist assigned to them and says, “I’ve got a great idea for publicity. I should go on Oprah!” The publicist then groans inwardly, because the percentage of authors who make it on Oprah is minuscule, and out of that, the percentage of new authors who get to sit in Harpo Studios is infinitesimal. So you’d better believe that when an editor finagles an Oprah appearance (and by the way, I bet the publicist is a little pissed at being shoved out of their job on this one), the only response she’s going to receive is hysterical screaming, tears of joy, and possibly the offer to name their firstborn after her. When one of the plot points of your movie centers around something so deeply misguided as an author refusing to appear on Oprah, you know your movie is already in serious trouble.

But I didn’t turn it off, much to the detriment of my psyche. Apparently, when The Proposal first came out in June, critics didn’t think the movie was anything to write home about, but they didn’t think it was the worst of the breed. Oh my word are they wrong. It’s heavy-handed where it should be lighthearted, mean-spirited where it should be heartwarming, and dull where it should be lively. Not to mention, it’s a feminist’s nightmare.

The Proposal poster

source of severe psychic damage

First, the form. I am a fan of romantic comedies; they are, at their best, vehicles for rapier wit, brilliantly timed physical humor, and genuine warmth between two likable leads gamely playing out gender politics and societal tensions on their way to the altar. It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Trouble in Paradise, Bringing Up Baby — all fantastic romantic comedies. Also all pre-WWII. Way back in 1999, Stephanie Zacharek at Salon wrote a great piece on what is wrong with the rom coms of the ’90s. Things haven’t improved since then. Think Valentine’s Day, Sex and the City, 27 Dresses, He’s Just Not That Into You — all films that seem to revel in women as catty, desperate, pathetic creatures, and men as clueless, boorish, and somehow just right for you. Many feminist sites comment regularly on the dearth of decent rom coms — Feministing even has a regular series about it, which I recommend. So I’m just joining these highly intelligent and perceptive women when I say romantic comedies ain’t what they used to be.

Generally, romantic comedies follow a predictable formula — boy and girl meet (ok, in Hollywood, heteronormative movies, it’s always boy and girl), boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl spend the rest of the movie figuring out that they love each other, usually with the help of some quirky friends. In the best ones, the obstacles are there for real character development, not just as haphazard roadblocks against the inevitable conclusion.

In The Proposal, however, the main obstacle is the slimmest of excuses — Margaret is a Canadian citizen who violated the terms of her visa and will be deported if she can’t come up with a legitimate reason she should stay in the country, so she pretends she and her assistant, Ryan Reynolds’ Andrew, are engaged. But they have to fool the evil USCIS agent who doesn’t believe their story! And they have to fly to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and fool them into thinking it’s a real engagement, too! And Andrew has to learn how to be a man again! And Margaret needs to learn over and over and over again that what she really wants is the love of a good man!

Right. About that. Aside from the glaring publishing industry inaccuracies (throwing in a reference to the Frankfurt Book Fair does not make you up on your game, screenwriters), the movie’s main problem is its obsessive focus on taking the most extreme elements of Taming of the Shrew and applying them to the modern age. Margaret is a successful businesswoman, therefore she must be bitter, alone, and a total domineering bitch. We know this because the office underlings call her “it” (gee, that’s not unnecessarily dehumanizing), she doesn’t smile, and she fires someone when he doesn’t do his job. She must be stopped. Placing her in Alaska gives her lots of opportunities to learn the valuable lesson of humility — or rather, humiliation, which is not the same thing. Andrew grabs her ass on two different occasions, both in front of people; a stripper brings her onstage against her will to gyrate on top of her and stick his junk in her face, much to her discomfort; she takes a huge spill off a bike only to find herself in the middle of some faux-Native American spirit dance whose main purpose seems to be allowing Andrew to see her jump about and grunt so he can call her weird; she gets self-conscious around Andrew in the morning and puts on makeup in bed so he won’t notice what she actually looks like when she wakes up; he sticks his erection in her ass as they try to snuggle for the benefit of his family; she reveals secrets about herself in an attempt to bond with Andrew and show him her softer side, and he laughs at the fact that she hasn’t been laid in a year and a half; and finally, she falls out of a boat into the ocean, and flails about in panic because she can’t swim, and Andrew must save her. Literally save her. The gods of subtlety were not with these screenwriters.

In contrast, the only lesson Andrew seems to need to learn is to turn his sarcasm meter up to “high” every time he talks to Margaret and get into arguments with his father that he can stomp away from so he can do some good wood chopping (not a euphemism). We’re supposed to believe that he’s nothing but belittled by Margaret, and so not only does she have what’s coming to her, but he has to be the one to give it to her. And how is he belittled? He wakes up late (not her fault, as far as I can see) and  runs with two hot coffees and slams into the mail guy, who he then berates (not the mail guy’s fault, as far as I can see). She makes fun of him for ordering the same coffee as she does, tells him she won’t buy the manuscript he’s selected from the slush pile, and makes him accompany her to the firing of another editor. She does force him to be fake engaged to her so that she doesn’t get deported. Except, well, he could just not do that. She counter-argues that he has to because he needs this job and he won’t be able to move up in the publishing world if he doesn’t make her happy, but one of the main markers of publishing is that people change companies all the time. Even if it were another industry, I’m pretty sure he’d make it. So that’s it. Those are the many, many ways she emasculates him, and those are the moments he makes up for by continually mocking and molesting her throughout the film. I call foul.

One of the great hallmarks of terrific romantic comedies is that both main characters grow and become more suited for one another. It Happened One Night is another kind of Taming of the Shrew, and there’s some ass-slapping and “shut up”s that are a little jarring, but even those instances are part of both characters letting go of stereotypes and learning how to be kinder toward one another — and that was made in 1934, not 2009. In Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn’s character is a bit MPDG, with the key difference being that she actually has her own wants and needs. But those wants and needs, while pursued to ridiculous ends, aren’t portrayed as totally unreasonable or the province of an overly demanding or pathetically desperate woman. Rather, she’s a bubbly young woman who falls for Cary Grant (who wouldn’t?) and enacts several schemes to win his heart. This proves successful, and while he becomes a little more adventurous, she isn’t knocked down a peg or two. There’s no sense that she has to give up an essential part of herself to be worthy of love.

Bringing Up Baby poster

this is how it's done

In The Proposal, there wasn’t much to define Margaret’s character to begin with, but at least we knew that she was good at her job, appeared to enjoy it, and had built herself up after the devastating loss of both her parents when she was only a teenager. That all gets broken down as she is shown to be hopeless at the Internet (really? she didn’t recognize the sound of a modem connecting?), so her very competence is brought into question; scared of Andrew’s family’s dog, which makes her even more of a weak woman because it’s a tiny dog and who’s scared of those?; and ultimately sacrificing herself for the well-being of Andrew (which wouldn’t at all be a bad thing if he’d sacrificed anything for her, or if she’d learned a lesson other than “I’m not worth a family’s love and will go cry in Canada now”). She gives up every part of herself, he gives up no part of himself, and it’s supposed to be a happy ending. I’ve rarely been more depressed when a movie ended.

There was no chemistry between the leads, we had only Betty White to carry all the comedic relief, and the dialogue was wretched. The Proposal is a failure purely from a basic cinematic point of view. But its failure as a romantic comedy — and one directed and produced by women, no less — is what really upsets me. I think the term “feminist’s nightmare” might be a bit overused, but in this case, it’s true. The lessons we learn are thus: Women shouldn’t be in charge, women should find a man and settle down, men should be jerks to women if they want their respect and love, and we should pervert love so that this is all done in love’s name. Pretty nightmarish.

At the very end of the film, as Margaret and Andrew kiss in an office full of coworkers, someone yells out, “Show her who’s boss, Andrew!” As if we were in any danger of forgetting.

Film Club: Holiday

Hello and welcome! Let’s talk about my most favorite movie, Holiday. Not only is it a delightful romantic comedy in the best sense, but it’s also a whole movie based on the premise that in order to know what you’re working for your whole life, you should take some time off and figure out who you are and what’s important to you. This message didn’t play very well with audiences struggling to find their own jobs (this came out in 1938), despite the person taking the time off, Cary Grant as Johnny Case, being a young man who’s worked since the age of 12 and is just now taking his first break ever. And I get that; it is a particularly bourgeois notion, that you need to travel to far-off places to figure out who you are and what you want to do with yourself. Only people with a fair chunk of change and time see this as an actual possibility, not to mention a valid use of precious resources like time, money, and energy. I’m not unaware of this fact. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an invalid use of those resources, if you have them to use, and if you’re a conscientious traveler. At least, that’s what I’m hoping, for my own purposes.

Anyway, the premise is enough for me to be intrigued, but the pairing of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn clinches it. They work their way through the movie to their inevitable pairing at the end with charm, wit, and acrobatics. (Grant started out in vaudeville, and he shows off some impressive tumbling in this film. Hepburn was a noted athlete who always did her own stunts.) Johnny starts the movie engaged to Julia, but when he meets her lovely, directionless sister Linda (Hepburn), it’s clear who he should be with. The film addresses issues of class, gender, and familial relationships, all delivered in a brilliant script and serviceable if unexciting cinematography. I also relate to just about every one of the characters and feel close to it personally.

I’m generally wary when people base their evaluation of the QUALITY of an artwork solely on how well they are able to relate to that artwork on a personal level, whereas it’s entirely reasonable to base your ENJOYMENT of an artwork on such a personal connection. Think of the woman in your sophomore English class who loves The Secret Life of Bees because OMG, she is totally like the main character and really felt like she could relate to her, and all the supporting characters are such good friends, just like her friends. Or your ex-boyfriend who totally dug The Matrix because, like, he’s smarter than everyone too and really good at computers and stuff and would so be Neo if anyone just gave him the red pill already. Those are two examples of artworks that definitely have their merits and their problems, but for these readers/viewers, none of that matters, because they just liked it. They conflate their enjoyment of the work with the quality of the work, and that’s where shitty New York Times bestsellers and unearned Oscars come from.

(Similarly, I can APPRECIATE a work of art for its merits without actually ENJOYING it. For example, I can see how Reservoir Dogs is an important film in cinema history, what with its introduction of mainstream fun into the indie art film scene, its legitimization of pop culture obsession, its stylized dialogue and spare setpieces, and of course that infamous ear scene, so perfectly done. I also hated every minute of watching it. If I never see another gratuitously violent, indulgently macho, thoughtlessly nihilistic film again, it will be too soon. Feminist defenses of Tarantino’s later films notwithstanding.)

But anyway, back to the personal connection thing. Holiday is a great film by film standards, including wonderful acting, a sharp script, and a strong story, so I’m not worried that enjoyment of the film is hindering my ability to evaluate it for the great work of art it is. But I sure do enjoy it in large part because I feel so close to the characters. I find my wanderlust in Johnny, my restlessness in Linda, my romanticism in both of them, my desire for security and comfort in Julia, and my fears of change and being in charge of my own life in Ned. I sympathize with all the characters and understand why they do what they do, but of course we’re meant to root for Johnny and Linda and their happy ending, and it’s so easy to do that. Their love for each other and their love for adventure and the way they combine the two–well, it’s enough to make this traveler look around for her own Johnny. Every time I see Johnny do a belly-flop backflip as Linda comes running onto the ship for their trip around the world, my heart does a flip of its own.

A YouTube user’s collection of favorite moments from Holiday