Academic Writing

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron, Remembered

Had you asked me last week if I was a Nora Ephron fan I likely wouldn’t have been overly enthusiastic about it but I would have said something like, “Sure why not? I liked her movies and her characters.  She’s pretty funny.  So yeah, I’m a fan.” 

In less than 24 hours since her passing as the internet has become a frenzy of clips from her movies, quotes from her books and general laments over her passing it’s become clear just the extent of her impact on both cinema and women in cinema.  Her female characters were at the same time feminine and strong.  Self-assured yet vulnerable.  In a word: relatable.   Additionally, Ephron was a lover of “the movies” and her characters conveyed that to us, the audience.  From the way Rita Wilson in Sleepless in Seattle sobs over the love story in An Affair to Remember to her creative reimagining of Shop Around the Corner in You’ve Got Mail she brings the movies to life in a new and invigorated way.  When Harry Met Sally, while now almost 25 years old, remains a touchstone for examining the dynamics in male/female relationships.  

Her films are inexorably linked to modern pop culture:  When Harry Met Sally is ranked #6 as the all-time best Romantic Comedy by AFI's 10 Top 10.  In fact it’s ranked in almost all of their top 100 lists:  2000: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - #23, 2002: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions - #25,     2004: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Songs - #60, "It Had to Be You,"    2005: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes - #33, "I'll have what she's having.”   In Sleepless in Seattle she connected with a generation of children that so desperately wanted to be back in a stable family, with men and women seeking love despite logistical barriers.  You’ve got Mail told the love story of two people who were and should be at odds with one another while also taking the internet, while still in its fledgling state and predicted just how integral it would become in both building and destroying relationships.  She bridged generations of women with Julie and Julia by placing significance on their passions.  Another important hallmark of her work is that she never demonized men.  So many romantic comedies want their male leads to be bumbling idiots that women are drawn to because of their charm or good looks.  Her men are smart, encouraging and positive forces in the lives of the women at the center of the narrative.  Modern day writers should take a cue from her and understand it’s not a mutually exclusive relationship. 

Now that she’s gone and the information superhighway has been bubbling over with her work I’ve had a chance to reflect not only on her films but her legacy as well and her impact on the depiction of women in film.  She wrote women the more like women actually are than almost any other writer is offering.  She writes relationships as complex and multidimensional.  She understand that men and women are different, but can still be equal and neither has to be demonizing to the other.   So would I say I’m a Nora Ephron fan?  Now I’d offer an emphatic “Yes.”

Here are some of her great scenes:

This one from When Harry Met Sally is probably her most famous:
This one from Sleepless in Seattle gets me every time: 
Here's the one from Sleepless in Seattle that I mentioned with an homage to An Affair to Remember:  
This had to get posted because eating is one of my favorite pastimes too :) 
This one from You've Got Mail here, is one of the sweetest scenes in a movie: 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman

Here we have yet another iteration of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs story.  I've already written about it here and here, but after seeing Snow White and The Huntsman, I thought it deserved some more real estate on this blog.  This film is very much an updated version created for the modern day.  None of the characters fit into the rather one dimensional frameworks that Disney had put them in nearly 80 years ago.  In this version, soon after The King’s beloved wife dies, he marries another in hopes of alleviating his pain and forgetting his past.  This new wife, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), turns out to be a man-hater who goes from kingdom to kingdom destroying the men there and feasting on the beauty of young virgins to maintain her youthfulness.  During her reign, The King’s daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), is locked in the north tower, never seeing the light of day (maybe that’s why her skin is so fair) and waiting for the chance to escape. 

When she gets that chance and she runs away into the Dark Forest, a mysterious place filled with dangerous magical flora and fauna and from which only one man is known to have survived.  Ravenna sends that man, The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), to seek her out and return her so she can steal her beauty and reach immortality.  Rather than bringing her back, however, The Huntsman is taken with Snow and seeks to protect her as they navigate their way back to Snow’s childhood friend, William, and his father The Duke so they can seek vengeance on The Queen.  Along the way they encounter the seven dwarfs (originally 8, but one is lost in battle), who, while don’t hi-ho their way through the wilderness, do teach Snow the power of her inner beauty and become an integral force in their army.

Kristen Stewart does an ok job in this role.  I am generally underwhelmed by her performances and find her expressions blank and uninteresting.  She has moments of more depth in this film, but they are generally fleeting.  It's hard to understand why she even landed this role.  Additionally, audiences are supposed to believe that she is the fairest of the land, not only because of her beauty, but because of her heart.  Yet, other than a moment of compassion for an injured crow in the first scenes of the film, it is unclear why she is so wonderful.  Her character is rather one-dimensional, and in the hands of a stronger actress she could have been more interesting.  The male characters also do not provide much depth as they are mostly there to help and mentor Snow (and, let’s be honest, to provide some very much appreciated eye candy!).

Contrasted with Stewart’s lackluster performance was Charlize Theron.  Theron brought so much emotion and depth to this role; you’re almost exhausted watching her.  Most of all, I found myself often paying attention to her eyes.  Her eyes reflected her every emotion and feeling throughout the course of the film.  The bright blueness of them were in stark contrast the dark and gray world her evil brought to the kingdom.   I very well might be reading too much into it, because in fact she just has blue eyes, but , if the eyes are a window to the soul, at times they seemed to be saying that she’s really a good person deep down, but her unfortunate circumstances let her to this very dark place. 

The visual effects are impressive and in addition to the depiction of magic that they provide, it also allows viewers the opportunity to be transported into different worlds.  The film has three main locales – the palace where the queen does her bidding, the Dark Forest, where no one other than spirits or demons are known to survive, and the Enchanted Forest, which is a clear nod to the 1937 Disney film and allows Snow an opportunity to frolic with fairies and bunnies. 

It’s interesting to me that the title of the film is Snow White and The Huntsman, which would make it seem that the central and most compelling relationship is between the titular characters.   Rather, while they have very little screen time together, the most thought-provoking relationship is in fact between Ravenna and Snow.  Moreover, that central relationship is strengthened as there is never an outward struggle between William and The Huntsman as they vie for Snow’s affection.  The film is about women battling it out between themselves and to throw that love triangle into the mix would water down its message.

The film is about the relationship women have with each other, especially regarding power struggles, and how beauty plays into their societal role.  Further, the ultimate message is not that women don’t need men to survive.  It’s just the opposite.  Snow needed men throughout the entire course of the film. She needed her father.  She needed William.  They both, for reasons out of their control could not be there for her.  Then enters The Huntsman, who is there for her and who helps her survive and teaches her survival skills.  The Dwarfs also prove vital to her survival.  It’s OK for women to need men, that doesn’t make them weak.  Different people bring different skill sets to the table and that’s ok to acknowledge.

The Queen is obsessed with maintaining her beauty as she believes that will determine her place in society.  The mirror encourages this and tells Ravenna that her beauty is the source of her power so she must do all that she can to maintain her beauty.  In this case, it’s very obviously her physical beauty.  She literally feeds off of the beauty of others to keep herself physically beautiful.  While obviously dramatized, to some regard this is something women do all the time.  We live in a society where it’s very hard for women to support other women without feeling as though their power is at stake.  Often they must demean other women to assert their power.  Snow’s beauty is really about her inner splendor.  It just so happens she’s beautiful on the outside, but throughout the course of the film – both by her mother and then again by The Huntsman, she is praised for her purity of heart.  It is what inspires other around her and what Ravenna really despises about her.  Snow is everything the queen cannot be. 

Something else interesting in this line of thought is that the beauty that the queen seeks is partially about her own vanity, but also about her need to have others, mainly men, find her beautiful.  Her evil is initiated when she was stolen from her mother by soldiers.  When she stabs The King she tells him that it is men who bring the destruction of women and therefore he must be killed.  Yet, she seeks the approval of men while also destroying other women.  Her brother (with whom she has a disturbing psycho-sexual relationship with) feeds her ego, reminding her of her beauty.  Her mirror, the one who she seeks out to reassure her of her status of fairest of them all, is a male voice who consoles her and who tells her she must kill Snow White to maintain her status.  The Queen, like so many women, needs the reassurance of men to feel good about herself.  Additionally, in this story it is the queen’s sycophantic men who feed this female on female power struggle.

While they are positioned as ultimate foes and in direct contrast to one another, there is a link between Ravenna and Snow.  This is manifested through the reoccurring visual theme and use of birds.  Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, masses of birds represent anxiety and Snow White and The Huntsman plays off of that theme.  Snow saves a crow at the beginning of the film, and later one they return to her to lead her to safety in another number of instances.  The Queen herself, Snow’s direct juxtaposition, is also aligned with birds as not only feasts on their hearts, but also summons them to aid in her dark magic.  Her name, Ravenna, conjures thoughts of Ravens, her bird of choice, and a clear image of death and darkness.  This creates a connection between Snow and The Queen.  Yes, they are vastly different, but they are also similar.  They are both considered “the fairest,” they are both torn from their families and seek vengeance.  They just go about it in different ways, offering two perspectives on how to handle a given situation.

In the original fairy tale, The Huntsman was a real danger and threat to Snow White.  In 2012, the real story is about how The Queen was her ultimate adversary.  The original Disney film portrayed a weak, victimized Snow White who solely relies on the good deeds of others and her one true love, prince charming, to save her.  This Snow White does need the help of others to teach and guide her, but she develops over the course of the film and learns that she must fight to defend herself.  She laments to William that she could never be queen because she does not know how to inspire people and yet, by the end of the film has found her voice and manages to stand up for what she believes in and be the powerful force she must be.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Are Strong Women Just Things of Fairy Tales?

America is having a hard time with women these days.  Current politics would have us believe that women are either helpless or slutty and need to be put in their places.  You want birth control pills so you can have just as much sex as men?  Well then you’re a slut.  You want to have an abortion because, for whatever reason, you don’t want to have the child you’re carrying?  Well, then you’re a murderer.  I can go on.  Jon Stewart is doing all that he can to point out the ridiculousness of the situation, but politicians have chosen their sides and are sticking to them.  Those supporting the bills often cite the bible and religion as reasons why they are justified in proposing them.  Those who oppose it have morality, compassion and reason on their side (but that’s just my totally unbiased opinion).   The policies against women’s reproductive health that are being brought to congress are made by men.  Their female counterparts in the government are doing all they can to counterbalance what they are introducing, but have yet been not been overwhelmingly successful.

Television and pop-culture, however, would have us believe that women are, in fact, anything but helpless to the whim of men and have control of their own destinies.  They don’t need the support of men to care for themselves, and without the control of men keeping them down they are stronger and stick up for themselves more.  But maybe it’s all one and the same.  Women are getting stronger and more independent and those who are imposing these offensive policy changes are trying to bring us back down to a more manageable state.  The media has picked up on this desire for women to take control of their lives despite (the often right wing) policies that are trying to keep them down.

Just a few examples to make my point:

1. Once Upon a Time:  This show is essentially about three women jockeying for power in different realms – Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) and Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) in the non-magical world and The Queen (Lana Parrilla) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin).   These women are strong and powerful in different ways – and need men in different ways, but none of the men in their lives effect their power.  Regina comes off as though she doesn’t need any male figures in her life.  She claims to love her son, but uses him more as a bargaining chip to assert power over Emma than a child.  She casts aside any man who shows affection or sympathy for her.  It’s only close to the end of the season when she allows herself to be vulnerable and show romantic affection for a man.  All of her actions are predicated on her lust for power and to overcome anyone who gets in her way.  Emma, as we find out, was saved from death in the magical world and then again in the non-magical world because of the help from men.  She has always been a loner, taking care of only herself and only learned to love anyone through her newly found biological son.  Then there’s Snow White, who in both worlds is a hopeless romantic but is able to cast that aside and take care of herself when need be.

Additionally, it's interesting that this show has taken a classic Fairy Tale and turned it upside down to make it relevant to today's viewers.  You can read more about that here.

2. Mad Men: In a time that is historically known for being chauvinistic and when women were just starting to find their voices, this show, especially in the current season, has highlighted the different ways women have found their voice.  For instance, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), is sick and tired of Don (Jon Hamm) excluding her from business meetings and career growth opportunities because she is a woman.  Ultimately, she finds a bargaining chip and sought out to impact her own future despite Don’s controlling nature.  She knows her talent and seeks out other career opportunities that won’t take advantage of her as Don has done time and again.  The implicit irony, of course, is that she only can do so with the help of other men.  

In direct contrast to the asexual Peggy, there’s the voluptuous, practically oozing with sex, Joan (Christina Hendricks) who knows her power lies in her sexuality.  As much as it disgusts her to do so, she knows she must use that asset to her advantage.  She knows that since she cannot rely on her husband to care for her and her son, she agrees to sleep with a sleazy car salesman her to ensure the company lands the Jaguar account.  Again though, similar to Peggy, her available power is brokered by men, in this case the male partners of SCDP, that knew it would be good for business not taking into consideration how it would make her feel.  So while ultimately her decision was made for herself and she negotiated her terms, it was not something initially posed by her for her own good.  But she does recognize the power she has over the men in the company and uses it to the best of her ability.

3. Snow White and the Huntsman: In yet another iteration of the Snow White fairy tale, this film takes on a very different perspective of Snow’s ability to defend herself from the evils of The Queen.  Unlike the timid and helpless Disney version of Snow White and more similar to Once Upon a Time, Snow is perfectly capable of fending for herself and picking up a sword for her own protection. What is interesting here is that ultimately she does need the help of men to survive her journey to reclaim her royal birthright, but when it comes to the final showdown between her and the queen, that is a battle Snow must face on her own.   

Additionally, the relationship they have with men is also particularly interesting.  Snow needs men at every stage of her life - be it her father, The Huntsman, The Dwarfs.  They support and defend her.  The Queen on the other hand surrounds herself with men who perpetuate her lust for beauty and who propagate her need to destroy other women.  The duality is striking as the ultimate message is NOT that women do not need men, it's just the opposite, but it also comments on both the positive and negative effects of reliance on them that can bring. (For a full review of Snow White and The Huntsman, click here.)

These are just some examples, I could go on and on about how the media portrays women as self-sufficient and strong characters able to take care of themselves and won’t allow men to simply dictate how their futures will pan out .  If you want to do some research on your own, check out the women of Game of Thrones, VEEP, Law & Order: SVU, Sons of Anarchy and so on.  While these examples are from very recent memory, there have been strong female characters available on television and cinema for years.  Yet, given a seemingly overwhelming surge in these characters recently, we seem to be in somewhat of a renaissance.  More often than not women are self-sufficient and take on a strong role in popular culture and when they don’t it’s almost jarring.  Take HBO’s new series Girls.  Many critics have taken issue with the all-white character landscape of the show, but one of my issues with it is how much is seems to be sending young women back into the dark ages of relationships.  I don’t need to watch neurotic girls making the same mistakes that they’ve been making for decades.  We’re past that as a culture and a society and let’s have role models on television that while yes, do make some mistakes now and again, don’t base their entire lives on their interactions with men, asshole men, I should add.  The only guys who aren’t assholes on that show are painted as weak and lame in contrast to their female partners – Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) father and Charlie (Christopher Abbott), Marnie’s (Allison Williams) boyfriend.  Why does it have to be either/or.  Why can’t strong, positive, women exist with strong, positive, men?  And, when men are the weaker sex, why are their female partners domineering women?  Further, when a show or film are centered around just men, why are they immature man-boys?  Although I haven’t seen an episode of it yet, the new TBS series Men at Work seems as though it will fulfill that prophecy based on the promos alone. 

Bringing it back into reality, I often wonder if it’s these conflicting images of women and men that has helped contribute to the higher rates of unmarried men and women as the proposed gender roles in media are unrealistic.   Women are portrayed as strong and not needing a man.  If these strong women were to seek out a man they’d likely be stuck with some weakling.  Any man who finds a strong women would assume that that makes him weak, and what guy wants to be seen as a weakling?  Ironically, one of the most evenly matched relationships on television is between Don and Megan on Mad Men.  As misogynistic as he is, she stands up to him time and again asserting her independence.  While in other instances her loyalty to a man might come off as needy, Megan is faithful to him without giving up any part of herself and what she wants out of life.

In a world where women are becoming stronger, getting more higher degrees, earning more money and starting to put a real break in that glass ceiling, men seem to feel the need to push them down, at least on an institutional level.  Further, while the media is portraying women as strong, positive role models for other women, the representations of men have been suffering.  Why does one party have to suffer while another one thrives?