Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gossip Girl of the Gilded Age

Lily Bart assumed the role of Mrs. Lloyd in 
the painting "Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd"
(1775) by Joshua Reynolds (pictured above) 
in the tableaux scene described in  
The House of Mirth.
I am re-reading The House of Mirth (1905), one of my favorite books. I was reminded of the book when a friend said that her book club had chosen it recently.

Lily Bart... Perhaps of all the heroines that I have read about and dreamed about, she is the one whom I most identify with. I realize that this is a horrifying admission considering Lily's fate but still she strikes a deep chord within me.

And I had a strange thought the other day. Why am I so mesmerized by the antics of the very rich in New York...I am as fascinated by Edith Wharton's world in the late 19th c. as I am by today's Gossip Girl one hundred years later, traveling the same streets of Manhattan, attending debutante balls, inter-marrying amongst the great clans of New York.

Wharton, brave, gifted and without peer during her time, was a sort of precursor to the Gossip Girl of today.

Gossip Girl, for the uninitiated, is a mysteriously "omniscient yet unseen" blogger on the popular TV series, who writes a kiss and tell blog on the young, rich and foolish who inhabit the Upper East Side of New York. We only know her through her sexy voice overs (Kristen Bell) as she oversees the antics of a group of oversexed, over-privileged teenagers (now young adults).

Stay with me. Think of it.

Wharton was a keen observer of the Manhattan elite in the late 19th and early 20th c. Born Edith Jones, she belonged to the eminently rich Jones family of whom the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" was said to be the inspiration. She belonged to the upper crust and knew where all the dirty laundry was hidden and had no fears about revealing its whereabouts.

Gossip Girl is a mysterious figure whose identity is unknown but who must be, if not rich, then have exclusive access to the foibles of the rich and frivolous on whom she mercilessly comments and reveals their secret travails via texts to a wide and ever growing circle of delighted young New Yorkers via their cellphones.

Wharton specialized in a particular kind of "fallen" feminine ideal - the girl or woman who operates outside the rules of high society and is, or is nearly to a greater or lesser degree, crushed by its approbation (Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence, Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, and in more humbler circumstances Mattie in Ethan Frome).  I cannot help but think that she looked upon the fate of the women she lived amongst and used their personal histories to tell her own stories.

The Gossip Girl series focuses primarily on the beautiful Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively), "It girl" and Manhattan socialite who has struggled with drug addiction, bad boyfriends, promiscuity, daddy issues, falling in love with her step-brother (before he became her step-brother) and a host of other travails all before reaching college age. Her friends Blair, Chuck, Nate, Dan and Jenny similarly cavort, commingle and connive into each other's beds.

Wharton struggled with a bad marriage to Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, an unstable if kindly husband, to whom she was tied to for decades until she finally divorced him in 1913. She knew about keeping up appearances beneath a beautiful veneer and the pressures of conforming to society's idea of what a dutiful girl and woman should be. She knew about struggling with mental illness and aberrant behavior that was impossible to discuss with family and friends for fear of the secret spreading and jeopardizing the fate and finances of your family.

She knew the sleazy games that were played by high society to keep up the appearances of wealth, of stability and marriageability for young women and the sacrifices that women had to make for security.

But the main difference in these two worlds separated by a mere century is this: in Wharton's world, failure to conform leads women to isolation (Undine Spragg), ostracization (Ellen Olenska), disablement (Mattie) and possibly death (Lily Bart). In Gossip Girl's world it pretty much leads to page six and TMZ.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Women Art Revolution

Women Art Revolution: A Secret History (U.S., 2010) directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, 83 minutes at AMC 7

The film opens with a challenge: can you name three female artists?  I was stumped as were the persons asked on film. This phenomenon, I think, is very disturbing. The artist and film director Lynn Hershman Leeson wants to rectify this.

Maybe I am exhausted by the festival and writing these posts. Or perhaps I feel inadequate to the task of writing about art history so I will let the director describe the film as taken from her website:

"For over forty years, Director Lynn Hershman Leeson has collected hundreds of hours of interviews with visionary artists, historians, curators and critics who shaped the beliefs and values of the Feminist Art Movement and reveal previously undocumented strategies used to politicize female artists and integrate women into art structures.

Women Art Revolution elaborates the relationship of the Feminist Art Movement to the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements and explains how historical events, such as the all-male protest exhibition against the invasion of Cambodia, sparked the first of many feminist actions against major cultural institutions. The film details major developments in women’s art of the 1970s, including the first feminist art education programs, political organizations and protests, alternative art spaces such as the A.I.R. Gallery and Franklin Furnace in New York and the Los Angeles Women’s Building, publications such as Chrysalis and Heresies, and landmark exhibitions, performances, and installations of public art that changed the entire direction of art.

New ways of thinking about the complexities of gender, race, class, and sexuality evolved. The Guerrilla Girls emerged as the conscience of the art world and held academic institutions, galleries, and museums accountable for discrimination practices. Over time, the tenacity and courage of these pioneering women artists resulted in what many historians now feel is the most significant art movement of the late 20th century."

So this might be a tough sell but I urge you take a look if you ever come across this doc. 

Eight films, one interview with Ken Loach and fabulous weather. All in all, the festival was quite enjoyable. Can't wait for next year!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Luca Marinelli and Alba Rohrwacher as Mattia and Alice
The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Italy, 2010) directed by Saverio Costanzo, 116 minutes at Isabel Bader Theatre 

Completely won over by Paulo Giordano’s (pictured below) phenomenal book of the same name, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which we read for our book club this year, I was anxious to see this film at the festival. Both the director and the lead actress, Alba Rohrwacher, were present to introduce the film but, alas, they had to leave for flight and couldn't stay for a Q&A.

Prime numbers, we learn in the film, can only be divided by one and themselves. Thus the singularity of the lives of Alice, pronounced A-lee-che (Alba Rohrwacher), and Mattia (Luca Marinelli), two damaged individuals who forge an unlikely connection as teenagers. Both harbor secret histories. The two are played by three sets of actors representing the characters at the ages of eight, as teenagers and as adults. All are excellent.

In the book, the action happens chronologically. Here, in the film, time travels between the three stages of their lives: child, teenager and adult. Urged on by her father's competitiveness, Alice has a disfiguring ski accident as a child when she gets lost in a snow storm and gets left behind by her skiing party. Eight year old Mattia abandons his mentally-challenged twin Michela, whom he secretly despises, in a park to avoid taking her to a birthday party and loses Michela forever. 

The parents are clearly seen to be culpable. Mattia's are seen as smothering and neurotic including a surprising appearance by the very maternal Isabella Rossellini as Mattia's mother looking appropriately unglamorous and careworn. Alice's father is demanding and harsh, her mother completely aloof and detached.

The teenage Alice (Arianna Nastro) singles Mattia out in highschool where he has developed a frightening reputation among the other kids for harming himself - his body a testimony to the self-abuse, riddled with cuts. She is known as "Gimpy", taunted for her damaged leg and for her social awkwardness by the popular girls. When they are thrown together at a party by the resident mean girl Viola Bai, presumably to humiliate the two awkward teenagers, they disappoint her by achieving a sort of tentative intimacy even though they have no physical contact in one of the best scenes of the film. 

Costanzo shoots a near wordless scene in which the only sound is the pounding disco beat of the party which heightens the tension between both Mattia and Alice, when they are alone, and then between Viola and Alice when Alice rushes to assure Viola that she has indeed struck up a romantic relationship with Mattia. This intimacy enrages Viola who likely only befriended Alice so that she might continue to humiliate her. The scenes with the girls tormenting Alice are the most affecting. Saverio Costanzo  captures the malicious glee of Alice's tormentors perfectly.

The relationship between Mattia and Alice can't seem to sustain itself. Mattia is morose and nearly cataonic in his social responses to other human beings. Mattia moves to Germany to do his Ph.D. and becomes a brilliant and acclaimed mathematician. Alice, more modestly, becomes a photographer of weddings. We see very little of the two as adults. Mattia is successful but isolated, slovenly and seemingly depressed. There is a hint of Alice's other relationship with Fabio her husband but not the details. We merely see them as unhappy individuals.

At almost two hours, I heard a couple of other filmgoers complain of the length but missing from the film are a few key scenes in the book which might further explain the state of mind of the adults. Most pertinently missing is the scene where Alice wreaks revenge on Viola as an adult - she runs a bewildered Viola ragged taking photos of her at her wedding then destroys the photos. Alice is no shrinking violet as an adult but can be mean-spirited and cruel too. Mattia is set up with woman who shows an interest in him but he appears incapable of connecting with her or anyone else. Also missing from the film is the troubled relationship between Alice and her husband Fabio which becomes violent and self destructive.

Isolated and alone and appearing to be starving herself, Alice has an anxiety episode in a grocery store and sees a girl whom she is convinced is Michela, Mattia's twin. The girl disappears and Alice cryptically summons Mattia who comes immediately from Germany. She says nothing of what she saw but Mattia is immediately drawn to the last place that Michela was seen as if to atone for his transgression. 

The film ends on a note of hope. They re-forge a bond, fragile but hopeful. This was definitely the best film I have seen at the festival.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Peep World

Peep World (U.S., 2010) directed by Barry Blaustein, 89 minutes @ the Elgin Theatre

By far, the funniest film I have seen so far ... quite an irresistible cast too!

As the film opens, four squabbling siblings and their partners gather on the seventieth birthday of their immensely successful father Henry Meyerwitz (Ron Rifkin), a formidable real estate baron. The film then leaps backward eighteen hours prior to the dinner.

The youngest, Nathan Meyerwitz (Ben Schwartz), has just published a revealing novel entitled Peep World whose thinly veiled characters are based on his horrified siblings and his father. Suffering from an enormous ego and from premature ejaculation, he seeks the services of doctor who provides a too successful solution just prior to a book reading the day of the birthday dinner. He shows up at the reading regardless and tears ensue.

The eldest Jack (Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame) is a struggling architect whose business is faltering and appears to be dreading the birth of his first child. He relieves his anxiety by surreptitiously viewing porn at a shabby establishment called Peep World on the sly only to be caught out by his eight month pregnant wife (Judy Greer)

The third brother Joel (The Office's Rainn Wilson) is perceived as the perennial loser among the sibs whose perpetual mooching from older brother Jack and his mounting debts occasion the visit of loan sharks. He has promised them that his father will provide the $12,000 he owes them at the forthcoming dinner (or his $50,000 car).

Sister Cheri (Sarah Silverman) is a neurotic, bitter mess and devotee of Jews for Jesus who has tried her hand at acting/singing/song writing/whatever and has failed to make her mark in any craft. She carries a burning resentment against Nathan for his mean-spirited novel and his commercial success.

Dad, ever the sensitive mensch, shows up at the dinner with a new girlfriend (Alicia Witt) who appears to be even younger than his children and just has been cast in the role of Cheri in the film, based on Nathan's book, to the chagrin of all involved. The ex-wife (Lesley Ann Warren) is not impressed and neither are we when dad starts to abuse all of the children for their various failings. But he does get his comeuppance.

The pace is brisk and each role is charmingly played. Perhaps Silverman's character is too vituperative to be called charming. When Nathan finally apologizes for using his family as the template for his fictional characters at the end of the film, she touches her hand to her heart with emotion then whispers to him, "But I'm still going to sue ..."

Director Barry Blaustein, who is primarily known as a screenwriter, spoke with warmth and passion at the Q&A after the film. Still the best part of the festival to hear directors talk about their craft!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Amazon Falls

Amazon Falls (Canada, 2010) directed by Katrin Bowen, 80 minutes at AMC 9

It's a fine line between gritty/real and ugly/depressing. I'm afraid that this film crosses over into the latter category.

Aspiring actress Jenna (April Telek), complete with a brassy blonde weave, french tips, blowsy too tight attire, bad skin and inadequate dental work, is working it for all she's worth in the Valley.

Jenna, trying to move from B (or possibly lower) movies into more sophisticated fare, is sadly too real as one of those wannabes doomed to fail in Hollywood after, literally, decades of striving. At forty, Jenna goes from fruitless auditions with single lines as a "sexy robot" to working in a sleazy cocktail bar where customers get to rub up against the waitresses for extra tips.

Jenna is fixated on a previous role she had had twenty years before - a blonde amazon who kicks ass and pulls her rivals' hair - and she obsessively watches and re-watches the movie as if summoning up her courage to forge on from the fact that she was the "star" of this girl cat-fight film fest.

Jenna auditions for a low budget indie movie that she has been told she is being considered for as the lead by a little cockroach of a director named Derek (Benjamin Ratner). But said director has his eye on her sidekick and protege Li (Anna Mae Routledge) who fares a little better in the film but not because she is more talented or prettier, she is merely younger and more naive.

Unable to withstand a series of failures and losses - a devious, using boyfriend (Zak Santiago), the loss of her agent and a potential part which she initially rejected, being fired from her waitressing job, lying to her parents about her on-going successes - Jenna has her Norma Desmond moment of madness. She clothes herself in her best dress and beseeches the director for an opportunity, any opportunity, only to be unceremoniously shoved off the lot.

She finally accepts the advances of a wealthy, much older admirer from her past with whom she had worked years ago.

The film is utterly depressing and serves as a strong tonic for those with mediocre talent and a fitful eye on Hollywood stardom.

At one point after interaction with some bar patrons Li mutters, "I need a shower." Don't we all just?

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (U.S., 2010) directed by Alex Gibney, 117 minutes at the Winter Garden Theatre

Eliot Spitzer, once the mighty "The Sheriff of Wall Street" and potentially America’s first Jewish President, now elicits smirks and lewd jokes where it once elicited fear on Wall Street and admiration on Main Street. He was a straight arrow with a pristine reputation, a career of continuous corporate and political successes, a beautiful wife and three lovely daughters.

The most revealing thing about this Spitzer documentary isn't sexual in nature; it's the confluence of massive financial powerhouses and right wing politicians which brought down the eminently fallible Spitzer whose relentless cavorting with high end prostitutes proved to be his political demise.

He demonstrated absolute steeliness at prosecuting firms such as AIG and Bank of America.

Gibney, the director, suggests that his alienation of financial bigwigs like AIG's Hank Greenberg and investment banker and co-founder of Home Depot Ken Langone, Republican Senator Frank Bruno and Michael Garcia, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, all appear to have played a part in his downfall just when his proposed reforms were coming to fruition as Governor of New York State. In March 2008, the FBI prosecuted the Emperors Club escort agency and focused particular attention on "Client #9" which was revealed by the media to be Spitzer.

Another surprise is that Ashley Dupré (more commonly known as Victoria or Kristen in escort circles), the girl whose face was splashed over every tabloid as the "Guv Luv", only spent one night with Spitzer although she has milked the association for every possible marketing opportunity and has even landed a spot as a columnist with the right wing New York Post.

Gibney also uncovered the governor’s true escort companion, here named “Angelina,” and played by an actress speaking Angelina's words.

Although I was as shocked and disappointed as anyone else when the news broke, it seems a tragedy that what Spitzer will be most remembered for is not his war on greed and corruption but his own inner struggles with certain darker elements of his personality.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Conspirator

Director Robert Redford instructing my boy James McAvoy
The Conspirator (U.S., 2010) directed by Robert Redford, 122 minutes at Ryerson Theatre, September 12, 2010

Director Robert Redford has tackled the true story of the lone woman charged in the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln during the final days of the American Civil War. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) was the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged accomplices and ran a boarding house in which the small circle of assassins gathered. Perhaps unknown to some (I certainly did not know), several acts were committed that day against senior officials of Lincoln's administration. It would most definitely have appeared as if a small band was trying to bring down the whole government.

The public temper was understandably volatile and vindictive in the days following the assassination 

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero and lawyer, is tapped against his own wishes by his mentor, former attorney general Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to represent Mary Surratt. Surratt is a Southerner, a Confederate sympathizer and determined to protect her son who is one of the few alleged conspirators who has escaped the massive manhunt conducted in the aftermath.

As a former Union soldier who has seen his colleagues and friends mown down by the Rebels, McAvoy moves from icy disdain and indifference towards Surratt’s fate to an absolutely committed defense of her rights regardless of her real or perceived involvement. James McAvoy never disappoints – I have enjoyed his work ever since my first glimpse of him in The Last King of Scotland then Becoming Jane, Atonement and more recently The Last Station. Intelligence and passion emanate from him in every role – as diverse as they may be.

It’s not a great stretch to see that the ever civic-minded Redford has tackled a topical issue: how does a nation respond in times of perceived attack and national grief? Do we protect the rights of the accused and those suspected of assisting the accused? Post-9-11 hysteria immediately comes to mind and the attack and incarceration of Muslims with some arguing that rights should be abrogated due to the horrific nature of the circumstances surrounding 9-11, that America is in a state of war and should not be concerned with the rights of the accused while under attack.

Even now the debate rages on with the controversy surrounding the building of mosque near Ground Zero - implying all Muslims are suspect and must still be accountable for the acts of a few extremists nine years almost exactly to this very day on 9-11.

Robin Wright, a beautiful woman who is almost unrecognizable here, strikes the perfect note as a common woman, widowed, somewhat impoverished and beleaguered, embroiled in an ugly national mood where her daughter is held hostage in the family home, the family home is repeatedly attacked and Wright feels she must withhold the little she knows of the truth to protect her son.

The women are particularly strong: Alexis Bledel as Aiken’s genteel love interest and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Surratt’s embittered daughter. Well worth a look.

In a Tiff: Today's whiner (winner) of the day award goes to a wild-haired, bad tempered TIFF patron with a broken foot who stood in line to see this movie, whined continually about her pain and yelled instructions to her unfortunate partner across the street as in "I DON'T WANT A HOT DOG!!" And yes, she was standing right behind me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Liana Liberato and Catherine Keener in Trust
Trust (U.S., 2009) directed by David Schwimmer, 104 minutes @ Visa Screening Room, Elgin, September 11, 2010

It is an unbearable cliche to say that this is a parent's worst nightmare. A cliche but true nonetheless. This film is a sensitively done portrayal of a pedophile's on-line seduction of a 14 year old Chicago girl. The screenwriters were careful not to tie things up too neatly at the end which does not avoid the reality of these disturbing and all too often tragedies. There are few angels here and quite a few conflicted and tormented souls.

Will and Lynn Cameron (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener), smart, loving and involved parents of three children, gradually learn that their fourteen-year-old daughter, Annie (Liana Liberato), has made a new friend on-line – supposedly a very attractive, sixteen-year-old blond boy named Charlie who lives in California and loves volleyball as much as Annie does. This raises no red flags. The whole family treats the relationship like a charming but innocuous aspect of Annie's on-line life.

In reality, "Charlie" (Chris Henry Coffey) is a forty-year-old serial pedophile who lures Annie to a mall, then a motel, rapes her then disappears from her life both in real life and on-line. Annie's seduction is slow and realistically portrayed even when Annie is told by Charlie that he is in reality 20 then 25. Annie is angry and suspicious in their telephone conversations but is eventually wooed back by Charlie's charm before their fateful meeting at the mall when she sees, with considerable shock, that he is actually 40. 

The details of the assault are not (thankfully) graphic but elicits a terrible emotional response from the audience - the tension was palpable - as all of the actors are utterly convincing particularly the young Liberato.

Annie appears almost shell-shocked by the experience, going through the paces of a police investigation, medical procedures, FBI questioning and psychological counseling with a numb facade which belies the real horror and sense of ruin she comes to feel. She is by turns sullen, delusional about Charlie's "true" love for her, frightened, petulant towards her parents and the FBI agent who is working on her case and horrified at what has transpired. 

The film is as much about Will's emotional disintegration as it is about how Annie deals with the aftermath of the rape. Will is tormented by imagined images of Annie being violated and becomes even more so when he reads the FBI's transcripts of telephone conversations between the two which Will has stolen. Will becomes obsessed with the dialogue between the two, hysterically claiming to wife Lynn that Annie is talking like a "porn actress" in the transcripts.

I was impressed with how the script clearly links Will's job in advertising as the creator of a campaign for a popular but sleazy clothing line called Academic Apparel (with a clear nod to American Apparel). In one particularly affecting scene, Will hallucinates that he sees a large blown up photo of Annie, semi-clad, in one of the monstrous ads he has created for the clothing company. He nearly passes out from the anxiety this induces in him. In the film, Will is complicit in the creation of a hyper-sexualized environment which promotes and exploits teenage sexuality. The on-line predator that attacks his daughter is just one manifestation of this. 

Will lashes out unable to purge his mind of the images, trailing suspected predators, attacking men whom he thinks have designs on young girls. He seemingly cannot entirely exculpate Annie against whom he harbors a not so secret anger for falling into the pedophile's trap.

In a deft touch, the true identity of the pedophile is revealed at the end of the film through a home movie taken by the man's young son: "Charlie" is an attractive, charming married man who teaches physics at a highschool with a lovely wife and a son. The banality of evil is like a stab into one's solar plexus. 

Time to cut the director David Schwimmer some slack for his commercial success as one of the six "Friends" which made such an impact on television back in the 1990s. The series brought success, wealth and popularity but also created a sort of golden cage from which all six actors have struggled to escape. Let him out, he has done a credible job here on a difficult and upsetting issue.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's here ...

Cool weather. Cool films. And a week off to enjoy them! I love this time of year.

I will be attending the Toronto International Film Festival this year (September 9-19th) so I will be posting reviews daily, sometimes twice a day...hence a bit of break until I see my first film. A presto!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

When a tornado meets a volcano

Maybe our relationship isn't as crazy as it seems

Maybe that's what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
Love the Way You Lie

I don't know if Eminem is a misogynist or a recovering wife batterer or a man struggling with the vestiges of misogyny and a troubled, volatile relationship with his ex-wife Kim Mathers. I do know that he has precipitated a number of arguments about his body of work between myself and my husband R. It may surprise you to learn that R is not particularly an Eminem fan and that I (largely and in most instances) count myself as one.

Is Eminem exploiting images of domestic violence in a sexy way, condoning it, advocating it in his new video "Love the Way You Lie"? By using Rihanna in this song does he exploit the well known details of singer Rihanna's own history of domestic violence with the singer Chris Brown? Male anger towards women exists. It's very real and extremely dangerous. But it does exist. Does Eminem have the right to talk about this anger? To write about it? To depict it in video? What are his obligations as an artist? And I do consider him to be an artist.

I can't tell you what it really is I can only tell you what it feels like... he begins. Against a background of a burning house - an apt description for the destruction of the relationship and the family home - Eminem and Rihanna trade lyrics but never looks, never direct physical or visual contact, as if to emphasize the enormous gulf between men and women in this situation.

Eminem's graphic lyrics provide the exposition for the troubled relationship between Megan Fox, the female lead in the video, and her lover, the Lost actor Dominic Monaghan. Fox is shown both in passionate embrace with Monaghan and then in violent altercations. Monaghan also assaults a man who appears to be wooing Fox in a bar. I think critics are most disturbed by the alternating images of passion and violence - as if it is saying these situations are sexy, exciting. Why does she return to him after the violence? Why does she not leave? She tries but she never succeeds in doing so.

Rihanna offers a conflicted and disturbing chorus to Eminem's lyrics and the images we see:
Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that's alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that's alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie
The female character (lyrics spoken by Rhianna but written by Eminem) is on to him, on to his lies...she knows he can no longer be trusted and she possibly mocks him with her words "But that's alright because I like the way it hurts". Or possibly she means it - perhaps that is part of the excitement that their relationship provides for her as disturbing as that sounds. At first her attitude is almost sneering, petulant, but she seems to melt under the weight of the song, actually crumpling to the ground at the end as if she can't bear what she has experienced.

I think these relationships are more complicated than we admit as men and women. The singer (or Eminem as the first person narrator in the song) is clearly conflicted by both his feelings of desire for her and violent anger against his partner. He talks about being ashamed ("... when it's bad it's awful. I feel so ashamed." and "You don't get another chance. Life is no Nintendo game.") He demonstrates that he is troubled by what has happened ("I'll never stoop so low again" and feels "Drunk from the hate").

But the video and its lyrics can be problematic and ugly. At its climax, Eminem says that if she tries to leave again he will tie her to the bed and burn the house down. In the video Eminem, Monaghan and the Fox character are all shown burning in flames. They are consumed by desire or hate or violence or all three. At the end of the video, the two singers face the house, backs to the camera, for the first time as if recognizing what they have done, what they have wrought.

It's a frightening and thought provoking video. And I simply can't believe it's as simple as Eminem hating women which may or may not be the truth. It is too carefully constructed, too layered and conflicted in meaning.

As my husband R astutely pointed out to me, this is a virtually impossible position for him to take as a progressive male. It's true, it's an utter minefield. Most men I know have had the same reaction to the video: repulsion, anger, distaste, a healthy skepticism towards the motivation for its creation. Unequivocally, they have condemned the video to me and perceived it as, if not an endorsement of domestic violence, a calculated and cynical move by both singers to exploit their troubled pasts.

Try this exercise...Would you say that I have the right as a feminist and as a writer to write/sing/create artistic work about a domestic abuse situation where the female character has a great deal of anger towards her partner? Has complicated feelings of love/desire for her abuser? Has murderous impulses towards him and perhaps acts on them? I'm fairly sure that most artists and writers that I know would not deny me that right. 

Obviously, I do not support violence against women. Obviously, like every right-minded person, I vehemently oppose it. But do I oppose talking about it? Writing about the complexity of those relationships and feelings? No, I don't, even if it is written from the viewpoint of the transgressor.

On Eminem's website, it indicates that Fox had foregone her fee and donated it to a women's shelter. Despite this, viewers of the video may still insist that it promotes or glamorizes violence. Is it merely the fact that we are captivated by the vivid images, remain unconvinced based on his prior history of domestic violence and are not hearing the lyrics.

I can't honestly construe this video as pro-domestic violence but they could have chosen a less "sexy" actress and scenarios because we, the viewers, then possibly become fixated on Fox, her beauty, the revealing nature of her clothing, rather than what is portrayed. And the choice of the Eminem's T-shirt in the video (sometimes referred to by the more offensive term "wife beater") was either an unfortunate or a very cynical choice. I don't think it's a mistake.

The reservoir of Eminem's hostility towards his mother and ex-wife appears bottomless at times which is evidenced by his music lyrics in numerous other songs and public statements, ill-conceived diatribes against both of them. By all accounts his mother Debbie Mathers Briggs would not have won any mother of the year awards and Kim Mathers has been no shrinking violet in the drama and violence department.

Does this mean that he had the right to batter Kim, threaten her, demean her? No, absolutely not.

Does Eminem have the right to talk about it, write about it, create a fictional scenario surrounding these events? I would say unequivocally, as a feminist, as a sometime writer of disturbing and complex fictions...yes. I don't take this position lightly. I have been threatened with physical violence by a partner in the past and have known real fear that he would act on it.

But... you can't create anything of value if your primary consideration is that your art may be misconstrued and reviled.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Hornet's Nest

"When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it."

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larrson (Penguin Group, 2009) 563 pages

Larrson brilliantly conceived Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of this trilogy, as a sort of feminist avenging angel/superhero who taps into many female revenge fantasies about punishing and destroying those who have inflicted violence on them.

But cleverly for Larrson's male demographic, the physical aspects of Lisbeth engage the male libido as well - a waif-like, undersized dynamo who conveniently gets breast implants in book 2. Visually she is something straight out of a comic book catering to teenage boys: phenomenal physical powers, busty and an appealing anti-social mean streak manifesting itself in kicking ass whenever she is mightily pissed off (which is often).

The third book of the Millennium trilogy begins where the second left off: Lisbeth Salander has been shot in the head, buried and has survived rescued by the crusading journalist and middle-aged babe magnet Mikael Blomquist. Zalachenko, a former Russian spy who is also her father, has also survived being attacked by Salander with an axe ... okay, it's absurd but it wouldn't be a story without our heroine Salander and Zalachenko is the perfect villain here.

Noomi Rapace as Salander in the first Swedish film
As a young girl, Salander was targeted by the Säkerhetspolisen (abbreviated to Säpo) or the Swedish Security Service, and locked her away in a psychiatric hospital to protect Zalachenko's secret identity - a brutal wife beater whose abuse landed his wife in an institution with brain damage. A Dr. Peter Teleborian, working with government forces, faked a disturbing psychiatric report which permitted the authorities to lock up and repeatedly restrain the twelve year old Salander and... she ain't very happy about it. 

As Salander recovers from her attack in hospital, Blomquist works feverishly to avenge Salander by researching the workings of the Säpo. Government forces are determined to shut Zalachenko up. Zalachenko still seeks revenge against his daughter. Neidermann, the hulking menace who serves as Zalachenko's assistant (and who is also his son and Salander's half-brother), is still free...Salander is clearly in jeopardy.

Whomever, or whatever, had decided to destroy Salander isn't quite finished: they tap Blomquist's phone and have him followed; attack Annika Gianinni, Salander's lawyer; steal a secret report on Salander; and try to eliminate Zalachenko when he threatens to talk.

A good portion of the middle section of the book is devoted to Blomquist's attempts to unravel this tangled web within the government and, frankly, Larsson almost loses us as readers here. The Swedish names (Larsson refers to characters usually by their last names - male and female) and the long list of characters and convoluted  plot sometime make for confusing reading. In my mind I was trying to distinguish Niedermann, Salander's half brother, from Nieminen, another particularly evil bad guy or trying to keep straight the names of Ekström (lead prosecutor in Salander's trial) from Edklinth (director of Constitutional Protection at Säpo). Then there is Anders Jonasson, Salander's doctor, but also Jonas Sandberg, one of the bad guys. Admittedly, it is a challenge...

But about 150 pages from the end things start to pick up again as Lisbeth plots her revenge firstly from her hospital bed and then from prison awaiting trial after being charged with trying to kill Zalachenko (among other things).

Larsson writes with enthusiasm about the mythical Amazons - inserting snippets of their history, real or imagined in between chapters - and clearly he is fascinated with the image of the physically powerful female avenger represented by Salander.

He undercuts the potential threat of Salander's image by making her small, "doll-like", frail looking, her dangerousness is always underestimated by the men she encounters...yet she is able to outwit and overpower men many times larger than she is. Larrson has tapped into a very powerful undercurrent in the female psyche. We, too, are fascinated as readers.

How satisfying is it when Susanne Linder, another powerful female and the Milton security operative in the book who guards over the editor Erika Berger, brutalizes Erika's stalker? I confess, I enjoyed a disturbing frisson of pleasure in observing him being rendered powerless and humiliated.

Or similarly, in another scene, Monica Figuerola, an operative at Constitutional Protection and Blomkvist's sometime lover, comes in at the last moment and saves Blomquist from the bad guys in a pivotal scene, guns ablazing ...

The thing that does perturb me about the series is that we can't seem to be introduced to a female character without an element of danger or sexual threat surrounding her: there is the obvious example of Lisbeth who represents this idea in its most extreme form with her history of sexual and physical abuse. Annika Gianinni, Lisbeth's lawyer and Mikael's sister, is physically attacked because she possesses some valuable information about Lisbeth; Erika Berger, the Millenium/SMP editor and Mikael's sometime lover, is stalked and harassed with sexually explicit insults by e-mail and messages strewn about her home; Miriam Wu, Lisbeth's lover, is assaulted and nearly killed in an earlier book; Lisbeth's mother is beaten so badly by Zalachenko that she is brain-damaged and ends up in an institution. And there is the initial mystery surrounding the allegedly murdered, missing Harriet Vanger in book 1.

You know, if you are a reader of the past two books, that Salander must have her revenge: will she wreak havoc on Teleborian the psychiatrist who institutionalized her? On her half-brother Niedermann who tried to kill her at her father's behest? On one of the government operatives who helped set her up? It's a graphic and violent denouement but we expect no less from Salander (and Larsson) here.

If you focus on the obvious flaws in the plot you won't be able to buy into the whole...Why would they leave two patients - each of whom are alleged to have tried to kill each other (one has a bullet in her brain, the other was attacked with an axe) virtually side by side in the hospital unprotected? They are the objects of intense media, government and police scrutiny and they have no one to protect them? How can Salander recover so quickly (intellectually, physically) from the wound in her head and mastermind the violent and satisfying demise of her enemies?

Why do the authorities keep claiming that Salander is basically mentally challenged, or deranged, when she has held a job for years with Milton Security and worked with Blomquist as a researcher in book 1? Would not the testimony of her employers refute this bizarre categorization? Is it merely because she rarely speaks and is anti-social? Is it because she has piercings and tattoos?

There are a few intriguing loose ends which suggest that more was to come before Larsson's untimely death in 2005: for instance, what becomes of Lisbeth's sister whom we hear of but never see?

The translator's haphazard English still slips through as when Berger threatens that she will "get rid of dead meat and recruit new blood" at her new newspaper. Other small instances abound.

But the immense draw is Salander who is an almost omnipotent enemy - phenomenally talented as a computer hacker, able to outwit and kill the greatest foe - all contained in a 100 pounds of pure fury. If you are going to enjoy the series, one must simply let go and go with the fantasy...