Long Take: In Defense of Ruby Sparks

Viewed July 26, 2012

For months, I’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby Sparks (2012), a quirky romantic comedy by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their first film since 2006’s runaway indie success Little Miss Sunshine. But on the eve of its release, I became slightly less interested after I read a surprisingly spoiler-less interview with the film’s screenwriter and titular star Zoe Kazan. In it, not only does she dismiss the label Manic Pixie Dream Girl from any talk about her character, she also, in my opinion, makes a bone-headed argument about why the term “should die.” I can appreciate that Kazan finds the term misogynistic, that it smacks of men failing to see women (or, in this case, female film characters) as fully fledged people with rich, inner lives who shouldn’t be reduced to their tastes in music and clothes. However, it’s misguided for her to believe that because a random “blogger” (she means the film critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club) coined the term, it has no creative clout. Surely she must understand that critics and creatives are in constant dialogue with each other, if not explicitly, then implicitly. (She is, after all, relating her views to an entertainment reporter.) Ultimately, though, Kazan’s argument falls apart because even she acknowledges that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.” Yes, that’s what Rabin lamented, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (herein MPDG) persists as an archetype in film production and criticism, especially on the webpages of Vulture, with whom she granted the interview, despite critics’ and audiences’ frustration with repeatedly seeing this kind of female character. (Pop culture website Flavorwire recently posted a supercut montage purporting to capture, with mock enthusiasm, 75 years of cinema’s MPDGs.)

Having now seen Ruby Sparks, I am disappointed that, when asked by Vulture if she sees Ruby as a MPDG, Kazan did not say that, yes, in fact she is one because this film is a deconstruction of this archetype and thus explores why this kind of male fantasy is not only degrading and realistically implausible but also potentially dangerous. But just what is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and how does Ruby Sparks tackle it as a subject? I’ll warn you now: there are spoilers aplenty ahead.

According to The A.V. Club’s Rabin, who first used the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2007), the MPDG is a polarizing figure, inducing film spectators to either want to marry them (for real) or murder them because they are so annoying (not for real). These happy-go-lucky, good-looking, kooky young women are never the main protagonists in films and “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As Rabin rightly points out, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State (2004) neatly conforms to this supposed ideal, bouncing across the screen all carefree, her love bringing Braff’s depressive TV actor out of a personal and professional rut. Because she’s cute. And the love of a cute woman is really all you need to solve your problems.

Well, Kazan takes a different approach in her first produced screenplay, which she admits she only started writing as a vehicle for herself and her boyfriend, the actor Paul Dano, after he suggested, upon reading the first pages she produced, that it would be a good idea for them to collaborate on their own film project. In Ruby Sparks, Dano stars as the novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, a prodigious “genius” who hasn’t been able to follow up his remarkable debut from ten years ago. Spurred on by a writing task that his psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) assigns him, he finally harnesses some inspiration and begins writing about a twenty-six-year-old high-school drop-out from Dayton, Ohio, who doesn’t drive. He finds all of these tiny details hopelessly romantic; I find them alarmingly sexist, as he fantasizes about a helpless girl. Calvin confesses to Dr. Rosenthal that he has fallen in love with her, which Rosenthal encourages so that his patient might finally finish a novel. Then, one day, after finding women’s intimates strewn all throughout his modern bachelor pad, Ruby (Kazan) suddenly appears in his kitchen, behaving as if they are in a serious, long-term relationship. Is this Pygmalion crazy or just plain lucky?

At first, Calvin is convinced he’s going insane. But once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s less concerned about his sanity, and he begins to question the ethics of the situation. Can he date his creation, a woman who has inhabited his dreams, sprung from his spilled ink? Calvin’s older brother and only friend, Harry (Chris Messina), had originally admonished him for writing a one-dimensional character, asserting that real women aren’t like Ruby Sparks because they have problems and ambitions, changing moods and opinions. They don’t exist to stroke your ego, to love you unconditionally. Harry, as a stand-in for the audience, speaks from his own experience with his wife, which has its ups and downs. He hasn’t so much settled as he has learned to compromise. This is not to say that Harry doesn’t embrace fantasy as a natural, healthy expression of desire; he wants to live vicariously through whatever sexual encounters—real or imaginary—that Calvin has to speak of. However, when he meets Ruby and helps Calvin innocuously manipulate her to comic effect, inserting Ruby’s French fluency into his little brother’s manuscript, Harry thinks Calvin is the luckiest man alive because, as her author, he can make her do anything… especially in bed. This scene is in the trailer, which, when I first saw it, rubbed me the wrong way. Harry’s sexist sense of wonder offended me to no end, but once I saw it in context, I understood that screenwriter Kazan includes his juvenile reaction to Calvin’s magical realist luck simply to subvert it. In other words, that Ruby Sparks is a film written about a man by a woman shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Calvin gets to know his Galatea before they take a dip in the pool fully clothed, a quintessential first date for Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their beaus. Image courtesy of http://www.laweekly.com.

Like (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), Ruby Sparks is a heterosexual romance focalized through the man’s point-of-view. In both movies, the woman is a MPDG and exists as something of an enigma to the man in her life. In the earlier film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt reflects on his now-defunct relationship with a spunky co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel, an actress most associated with the controversial archetype, having appeared as a MPDG in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2007), and Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008) to name but a few. (It should be noted that she stars opposite Paul Dano in Gigantic as an eccentric, mystery woman named Happy Lolly. I kid you not.) As Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen goes through his sunny memories of their time together, he sees things he never noticed before, such as early signs of Summer’s emotional withdrawal from him. Due to the fragmented, non-chronological storytelling structure ofthe film, the viewer really only knows Summer through what Tom remembers and shows us. Summer‘s scribes are two men, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they purposely keep her at a distance, but characterizing her so that she conforms to all of the MPDG’s contours is arguably lazy writing. In an interview with Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club, screenwriter Kazan mentions that Neustadter and Weber’s keeping Summer’s interior life outside of the margins of their narrow focus partly inspired her to examine the process by which men imagine and write idealized women, making “it textual, rather than subtextual” in Ruby Sparks. Thus, in her script, there are shades of Summer in Ruby: as part of a montage, Ruby rides around on her bicycle much like Summer does, and she’s sexually adventurous, tempting Calvin into public sex with her confession on the dance floor that she took off her underwear (Summer persuades Tom to try a difficult sexual position in the shower).

Ruby is the girl of Calvin’s dreams. But why does he fantasize about someone like her? He’s looking for someone to draw him out of his shell, now that his new terrier Scotty has disappointed him so. (He had pinned all his hopes on using Scotty to meet people in the park, but he’s embarrassed that his male pooch squats to pee and wonders aloud who could like such a dog. In his dream, Ruby, of course, does, as would any mature human being.) Calvin’s an old fuddy-duddy, resistant to change. For a man of twenty-nine years, he has some strange affectations. For instance, he shuns working on a computer, opting for a typewriter instead. He appears to have rummaged through Woody Allen’s closet. And just look how at odds he is with his own environment: he lives in a sleek, modern open-plan house in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The indoor staircase railings mimic the one leading down to the outdoor swimming pool, and vice versa. He is so socially inept that it’s as if he could never take advantage of turning his house inside out before Ruby’s magical appearance.

I am always drawn to a film’s set design, interested in how a character’s living quarters reflect his or her personality (or not) and how other personages respond to it, too, and the filmmakers behind Ruby Sparks didn’t disappoint here. Nor when Calvin begrudgingly takes Ruby to meet his mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur. Gertrude and Mort live in a kind of Eden, a sprawling estate overtaken by all types of vegetation and built with recycled materials. Mort, a sculptor who works with wood, has designed the house himself, much to Gertrude’s delight. Ruby gets along with everyone attendant for the weekend, but Calvin retreats to the tree-house and seems withdrawn during dinner. He treats the hosts’ shared lifestyle with contempt because he sees his mother’s radical change from preppy subservient housewife to outspoken hippie artist as a betrayal against his deceased father. He refuses to see how happy his mother is. As a man literally in control of his girlfriend’s actions and emotions, it’s safe to assume he just doesn’t care.

Ruby Sparks takes a dark turn after the improbable lovers’ Big Sur getaway. Ruby asks for more space between them, to which he reluctantly agrees. Missing her on nights that she spends at an art class or with friends, Calvin breaks his own rule and begins rewriting her. First, he casts her as “miserable without him,” but when her clinginess proves too depressing, too suffocating, he adds another line that puts her in a constant state of ecstatic joy, which is unbearable, too. Eventually, he writes for her to be herself, to act and feel as she would on her own. Later, at a book party, the lecherous author Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, typecast again!), who is also Calvin’s mentor, hits on Ruby and talks her into stripping down to her underwear and getting in the pool. Catching her before she dipped her toe in the water, Calvin blows up. At home, he reveals that he can control her with his printed words. The fight that ensues is truly upsetting, as Calvin maniacally sits at his desk, pounding away humiliating scenarios that Ruby has no choice but to act out. The ominous score, as if plucked from a super-serious sci-fi picture and thus so out of place in a romantic comedy, melodramatically highlights the torture of this scene. It’s in this moment that, if you have not already begun to dislike Calvin’s manipulative mean-streak, then you might totally turn against him. Ruby is no longer his creation or a MPDG; by the time this scene rolls around, you sympathize with her and what she is going through. When the bombast finally settles, she locks herself in his room, and he rewrites the ending, releasing her from his influence and his life. I was so worried that something magical would happen overnight and she would instead choose to stay with him because she loves him. I was relieved that in the morning, Calvin awoke to find her gone.

The film inches toward its conclusion as Calvin buys a computer and begins work on a novel based on his magical realist romance with Ruby, published to great success as The Girlfriend. He returns to Dr. Rosenthal and pleads with the doctor to understand that he doesn’t need to believe his nutty story and that he, Calvin, doesn’t need to comprehend how it happened in order to move on with his life. At first, what happens next, in the last scene, ruined the film for me. Like Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, I argue that “Kazan winds up indulging in the very wish-fulfillment she initially sets out to deconstruct” when, walking in the park with Scotty, Calvin bumps into a young woman who is Ruby’s spitting image. She’s ditzy like her, wondering aloud how she might know him since he looks strangely familiar; after listening to her wishy washy evaluation of The Girlfriend, which she is reading when Scotty runs over to her, he opens the back of the hardcover book and points to his picture on the flap. Palm-face! They hit it off, and we’re meant to believe that they have a future together.

Calvin meets a girl who uncannily resembles his creation Ruby Sparks. Image courtesy of http://www.vulture.com.

This is the wrong ending to an otherwise acute examination of fantasy, control, and wish-fulfillment. For starters, Calvin isn’t deserving of a woman’s love. Not yet. He hasn’t fully redeemed himself, in my eyes, after constricting Ruby’s independence. He may have let her go because he loves her, but he may easily have done so because their relationship was no longer tenable. Writing The Girlfriend barely atones for his maltreatment of Ruby; he’s still using her for inspiration and is now actually profiting from it. Plus, this conclusion bears too close a resemblance to the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). In it, the one-time lovers Jim Carrey and MPDG Kate Winslet independently undergo a procedure that erases his or her memories of the other. In the end, however, they meet again as new strangers, and we’re led to believe that they’re both fated to be together and to repeatedly break each other’s heart. I’m sure that Hornaday had Eternal Sunshine in mind when she griped that Kazan isn’t brave enough to follow through with her otherwise biting critique. Funnily enough, though, Calvin’s new romance with a Ruby lookalike also echoes the ending of (500) Days of Summer. At the close of that film, Tom has finally gotten over Summer and meets an attractive, interested brunette at a job interview. Sure, she doesn’t look like Summer, but her name is Autumn, representative of a new cyclical beginning.

In fact, the more I thought about the last scene of Ruby Sparks, the more I became convinced that Kazan is really hinting that a union sprouts between Calvin and the Ruby lookalike along the lines of the one in Summer rather than a reconciliation between Calvin and Ruby, her memory of him swiped clean because of his last words about her. Specifically, there is some ambiguity as to whether Calvin and Ruby’s love story ever happened to begin with. Calvin’s conviction that he doesn’t need his psychologist to understand that it was real to him or necessarily comprehend how it could have ever possibly occurred suggests Calvin is either in denial, crazy, or imaginative. I like to think it’s the last option, for The Girlfriend represents the novelization of the film story we have, until that moment, seen unfold on-screen. In this way, it’s possible that Calvin’s relationship with Ruby as we have seen it is actually confined to the page. The fact that the redhead in the park never introduces herself—and certainly not as Ruby—encourages the interpretation that she is someone new a la Autumn from (500) Days of Summer. Contrary to what we’re initially led to believe, Calvin’s only just met in the flesh the girl of his dreams/book. While this reading of the end is ultimately more satisfying than my first reactions, it’s still problematic because it means that his immature fantasy comes true after all. This mystery woman stuns Calvin when she says that she likes Scotty just as he is, neutered urinating position and all. Really, Calvin? That remains a sticking point with you? Your dream girl must not only look and act like the Ruby of your book, she must also shower affection on the dog you’re so ashamed to own?

David Edelstein of New York rejects Ruby Sparks on the grounds that it’s merely “a thesis film, with one joke and one variation” (he’s referring to Gertrude’s happy co-dependence with Mort here). First of all, Stephen Holden of The New York Times definitely disagrees, cooing as he does about how the film is “a sleek, beautifully written and acted romantic comedy that glides down to earth in a gently satisfying soft landing.” But I have to ask, what’s wrong with a thesis film? Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining and emotionally and intellectually involving. It is more than, in Edelstein’s words, “a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self.” It is a necessary deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a woman-powered corrective to the prevalent on-screen desire for, as Harry puts it in the movie, “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing [and who] are not real.” More than this, Calvin’s experience with Ruby demonstrates how such a dream girl becoming a real-life partner is not only an unsustainable situation but ultimately an undesirable one, too (he may not tire of her completely, but at least he recognizes that her resistance to his power makes him unfit to be with her and that’s why he lets her go). You should want a real person, not an archetype or fantasy. Ruby Sparks is about how, when your wildest dreams come true, your reality and fantasy lives become unfulfilling.

When Nick Pinkerton writes in LA Weekly that Ruby Sparks “aspires to” “the sort of middle-of-the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy” that is Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want (2000), in which a sexist pig played by none other than Mel Gibson miraculously gains access to women’s unexpressed thoughts, it’s clear that he, like Edelstein, has failed to grasp Kazan’s message. Is this because these critics, but perhaps men in general, may not like being told that even fantasizing about a one-dimensional woman who represents a panacea to all their problems is wrong, especially when they probably are mature enough to never really want such a woman? I couldn’t help sensing Edelstein’s and Pinkerton’s underlying sexism when they each referred to the four-year relationship screenwriter and star Kazan shares with leading man Paul Dano. Edelstein begins his review describing Ruby Sparks as “Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano…,” circumstances which suggest that it was all the more easy for him to brush the movie off as “not a great movie.” (Remember, he called it a “thesis film.”) Pinkerton is worse, coming across as skeptical of Kazan and Dano’s off-screen connection when he writes that they are “apparently ‘romantically linked.'” It should be added, too, that he thinks that, since Kazan wrote the script, which he accuses of having “missed opportunities and withholdings,” it “begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women—that is, for maximum convenience.” The first missed opportunity he mentions? Potentially hilarious sex scenes. This reminds me of directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s grumbling that (older) male critics just couldn’t understand and appreciate their newest film, Lola Versus (2012), about a young woman confronting her messy life.

It’s true that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s direction isn’t anything to write home about. I can agree with Edelstein and Pinkerton on that front. But are the expectations that the whiz kids behind Little Miss Sunshine will deliver a masterpiece too damn high for some? I prefer Ruby Sparks to that not-so-original comedic family melodrama. I like to think that Calvin’s struggle to pen another book in the same league as his stunning debut imitates Dayton and Faris’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Apparently, they’re really picky when choosing projects and love working with first-time screenwriters. So take that!

Jump Cut: Doppelgängers

Having seen so many movies, made note of your favorite directors, and developed crushes on certain actors and actresses, do you ever watch a movie convinced that one of the performers on-screen is—contrary to the credits you’ve just read—another actor entirely? You’re not alone. What follows is a completely subjective list of acting doppelgängers, people who, to my eyes, bear more than a passing resemblance to one of their cohorts. I call some sets “twins,” and it’s been a bit of a struggle finding photos that can accurately show you how I could ever mistake them for each other. Admittedly, though, I’m so familiar with some of these performers that it’s impossible for me to confuse them with anyone else. Most of the pairs below represent struggles I had in my childhood identifying who’s who. Please feel free to sound out in the comments section below the pairs who regularly confuse you, too. (For the record, I extracted these photos from Google Images after conducting basic searches.)

Let’s start things off with a pair of actresses whose heydays were in the 1980s. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for better photos to bring out the physical similarities between Kathleen Turner (left) and Kelly McGillis, as she hangs on Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) co-star Tom Cruise. They’re both sporting off-the-shoulder tops, accentuating their wavy hair. Both stars were sex symbols in their day. Turner made her big-screen debut as a femme fatale in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and later embodied the curvaceous cartoon Jessica Rabbit with just her husky voice in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). Besides Top Gun, McGillis was in Witness (Peter Weir, 1985), as Harrison Ford’s Amish love interest, and in The Accused (Jonathan Kapaln, 1988), as the attorney for Jodie Foster’s brutal rape victim, a decidedly less sexy role. I should note that I only think they look alike when they were younger, as today the women couldn’t look any more different. Presently, we don’t see either actress much, particularly McGillis since she came out of the closet in 2009. Turner, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, has been busy walking the floorboards, notably starring in a theatrical production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005.

Next we have the British actor Ben Miller—not to be confused with Ben Miles of Coupling fame—and his lookalike the Welsh comic Rob Brydon (right). I first spotted Miller in Johnny English (Peter Howitt, 2003) as Rowan Atkinson’s sidekick Bough, and since he’s made a name for himself playing super-serious corporate or governmental honchos, including James Lester on the silly BBC sci-fi series Primeval (2007-2011). Rob Brydon, on the other hand, I’m much more familiar with. He starred in the 2000-2003 series Marion & Geoff as a taxi driver who records confessional monologues while stalking outside the residence his ex-wife, Marion, shares with the man she left him for, Geoff, of course. You might know Brydon as “Himself” in the Michael Winterbottom classics Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and The Trip (2010), opposite Steve Coogan, who also plays a version of himself in those movies. It may not be easy to tell from these thumbnail photos (the only way I could publish images of all the doppelgängers), but Miller and Brydon look so much alike that when you search Google Images for pictures of either one, “Ben Miller Rob Brydon” is a suggested search term. Hell, even I needed to look multiple times to identify who’s who in this image that I found online with the actors already juxtaposed:

Ben Miller (left) and Rob Brydon, or so I believe.

Speaking of Steve Coogan, I think he looks a lot like Jack Davenport (right), from the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. He played Commodore Norrington who so wanted Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan but lost out to Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp’s swashbucklers. He’s currently on the NBC backstage musical soap opera Smash (2011-present), which I’ve never seen. As a fan of Steve Coogan’s work, including I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) and Saxondale (2006-2007) to name but a few, I should make it clear that I don’t actually mistake these actors for each other. Searching for comparable photos was tricky, as Coogan typically has long, wavy hair these days, and Davenport has short and spiky hair. There’s something about the way they play pompous or clueless that makes me sense a closeness. At right, Davenport appears in character as the immature Steve from the British comedy series Coupling (2000-2004), and Coogan, at left, is the arrogant TV presenter Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002), which is my favorite film.

My sister is going to shake her head when she reads this: I continually mistake two actresses who are on the rise, Rachel McAdams (left) and Elizabeth Banks. My sister thinks I’m crazy, but hear me out. It has to do with their toothy grins, broad jawlines, and wide foreheads. It doesn’t help any that they regularly appear as blondes (I believe they’re both natural brunettes) and balance their filmographies with pretty much equal helpings of comedy and drama these days. In other words, when I watch a film that stars either one of them, I imagine that the other may have also been on the casting director’s list of actresses for the same role. For example, despite writer-director Woody Allen’s more pointed search for actors to fill parts in his almost yearly produced movies, I can see Elizabeth Banks as Inez, Owen Wilson’s shrill and obnoxious fiancee in Midnight in Paris (2011), a role that McAdams played. Similarly, isn’t it possible to see McAdams in Man on a Ledge (Asger Leth, 2012) or People Like Us (Alex Kurtzman, 2012) instead of Banks? Or is my sister right; am I crazy?

Let’s move Down Under and take a look at Noah Taylor (left) and Ben Mendelsohn. These Aussie actors are hardly ever up for the same parts nowadays, their physiognomies seemingly worlds apart. Mendelsohn makes for a much more imposing presence now, having played baddies in the superb 2010 Australian crime family drama Animal Kingdom (David Michôd) and the straight-to-DVD Nicolas Cage-Nicole Kidman starrer Trespass (Joel Shumacher, 2011), whereas Taylor looks like he’s withering away nowadays, as evidenced in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Richard Ayoade’s fun directorial debut Submarine (2010), movies in which he played each of the teen protagonists’ withdrawn dad. When I was younger, I used to mistake them for each other all the time (it’s in their mouths and speech!), but now they probably couldn’t be any more different. By the way, to add to the confusion, they have both appeared in the same films, including The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) and The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005).

In much the same way that time has made Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn look less and less alike, so too has it placed the doppelgängers Henry Thomas and Jeremy Davies on opposite ends of the spectrum. I guess what I’m trying to say is that today, the skinny child-star Thomas (left) has put on weight, particularly in his face, while Davies seems only to have gotten thinner and thinner. But look at them in these old photos; don’t they at least look like brothers? At least grant me that Thomas looks more like Davies than he does Brad Pitt or Aidan Quinn, who both played his older siblings in the classic melodrama Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994). We haven’t seen much of Thomas lately, but Davies plays the sniveling snake Dickie Bennett on FX’s Justified (2010-present), a show whose just-aired third season I tried several times to watch but just couldn’t get into. I think these guys resemble each other because they have the same face shapes and they have been in films where they weren’t, shall we say, the manliest of men. See how soft-spoken Thomas is in I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003) and Davies is in CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001).

The next pairing arrives courtesy of my dad, who hit the nail on the head when he said that the English actresses Gabrielle Anwar (left) and Emily Blunt look an awful lot alike. It’s impossible to mistake them, really, as there are more than thirteen years between them, but the similarities in their features are striking. It all hinges on their mouths, though Anwar may have a greater overbite than Blunt (sorry, there’s no nicer way of putting it!). If you do a Google image search for each woman, you will see how they both prefer to pout when posing on the red carpet, and neither likes to give big, toothy smiles (yes, these stills are something of a rarity on Google). Anwar had a bigger film career in the 1990s, appearing in such hits as Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992) and The Three Musketeers (Stephen Herek, 1993), which was beloved in my childhood. She has since re-found fame on the USA TV series Burn Notice (2007-present). Blunt, on the other hand, has been on the ascendant since her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006).

A few nights ago, I caught, again, Dutch writer-director Marleen Gorris’s Oscar-winning Antonia, better known in English as Antonia’s Line (1995). Watching Jan Decleir, the famous Dutch actor (left), I couldn’t believe how much he looks like the beloved English actor Jim Carter, probably best known as Mr. Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey (2010-present), ITV and PBS’s pop culture phenomenon about the fading British aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century. But oh, how do I love Jim Carter! He’s in everything: Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998); Cranford (2007, 2009), which is one of my favorite British miniseries; and Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, 2003), where he makes a hilarious cameo. I haven’t seen even the smallest percentage of Decleir’s many credits, but I remember him especially from Character (Mike van Diem, 1997), which also took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (for the Netherlands). The actors are roughly the same age (Decleir is two years older); isn’t their resemblance uncanny?!

So far, all of these acting doppelgängers have been contemporaries. They have all lived in the same era (our current time). But now I want to offer a different kind of comparison. Turner Classic Movies has featured Englishman Leslie Howard in marathons of his movies every Tuesday night this month. Although his credits span from the 1910s up to 1942 (his last movie was the Howard-directed R.J. Mitchell biopic The First of the Few aka Spitfire, which premiered in the U.S. less than two weeks after he died, his plane shot down by Germans), I see a lot of the actor Michael Fassbender in him. Catching the hilarious comedy Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937) on TCM, I was struck by how Howard’s uptight New York-based banker, out of his element as the head of a struggling movie studio in Hollywood, reminded me of Fassbender’s suave British Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). They’re very different characters, but the way they carry themselves seemed very similar to me. And the more I studied Howard, who I might add, is probably most recognizable as Ashley in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, et. al, 1939), the more I could discern Fassbender’s affinities to him: they both have very long, narrow visages with tall foreheads; extra slim, long, and narrow torsos; and when Fassbender plays posh Englishmen (or androids), as in Basterds or Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), he sounds a lot like Howard, who also directed and starred in Pygmalion (1938) as the condescending Professor Henry Higgins. My DVR is virtually full of Howard movies; I’m as drawn to him as I am to the magnetic Fassbender.

Since I’m in an historical mood, I thought I would point out that I have actually confused the younger versions of Karen Allen (left) and Brooke Adams. Allen is probably most known for playing Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), a role she later reprised in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008), and Jeff Bridges’s alarmed wife in Starman (John Carpenter, 1984). Adams is two years older and has more credits from the 1970s, including her starring role in Terrence Malick’s debut Days of Heaven (1978). I could never remember that it was Adams in Heaven and not Allen, Allen in Starman and not Adams. Both actresses have widely spaced eyes, wide faces with high cheekbones, and dimples in their chins. Not to mention, they both have pretty low voices. They don’t look so alike these days, and they haven’t been productive in recent years.

This last pair of celebrity lookalikes aren’t actors. Well, one is: Robert Carlyle (left), the prolific Scottish thesp best known for his stunning turn as Begbie in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), which is incidentally one of my favorite films of all time. His doppelgänger? Hockey great Wayne Gretzky! From 1979 to 1999, he played with one of the four following teams: the Edmonton Oilers, LA Kings, St. Louis Blues, and NY Rangers. If you cannot see the resemblance, I don’t know what to say. But a little back-story is in order. I really should credit my dad with this comparison because he refers to Carlyle, jokingly, as “Wayne Gretzky.” He learned of Carlyle when the actor starred in the 1997 British sleeper hit The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo), where he wore his hair blond, thereby more closely resembling a young Gretzky. So whenever he catches a glimpse of him today, usually on my TV screen, he’ll ask, “Who’s in this? Oh, Wayne Gretzky!” even though Carlyle, to my knowledge, hasn’t been blond since. You can currently check him out on ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011-present), where he looks like the ghost of his former self. Whereas Carlyle has turned hauntingly thin, Gretzky, who’s less than four months older, has filled out more in middle age.

Quick Edit: The Moving Tail of Big Miracle

Viewed July 22, 2012

The heartwarming family drama Big Miracle (Ken Kwapis, 2012), about a heroic whale rescue, is the last movie in which I suspected I would find virtually no glaring flaws. It’s certainly not perfect—it has an unnecessary romantic ending and it is a little slow—but I was definitely impressed with its expansive yet tight script. Here’s a quick rundown of its attributes; there are some spoilers ahead.

It’s a stupid title (the original, working title is the equally bad Everybody Loves Whales), but it teaches a valuable lesson for everyone, children and adults alike: not only is it possible to do the impossible, but it’s best if you try through collaboration, even with people whose ideologies you don’t share. Big Miracle is a dramatization of Operation Breakthrough, the 1988 exercise in international relations that saw the United States and the Soviet Union team up to break free a family of three California gray whales who found themselves trapped in a hole in the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, five miles away from the open ocean.

Actually, what impressed me most about Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay (based on Tom Rose’s nonfiction book Freeing the Whales) was how they managed to incorporate so many perspectives on the event. If I’m not mistaken, these voices include those of the native Inupiat people who worship, eat, and communicate with whales; an incredibly determined but arrogant Greenpeace worker; an evil capitalist from a large oil-drilling company who joins the effort in pursuit of some good PR; the parasitic TV news media in search of a good story and to further their own careers on a temporary national stage; a pair of well-meaning Midwestern inventor-opportunists; a member of President Reagan’s staff, who hopes the story will ensure a favorable legacy for the President as well as an effective quick-start for Vice President George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign; a colonel from the National Guard, who aims to crack hundreds of miles of ice by pulling the oil-man’s barge with helicopters, but soon gets stuck; and a Soviet-manned icebreaker ship that swoops in to save the day—just in time.

A diverse group of indistinguishable volunteers approach the site where the Soviet icebreaker ship crushed a thick wall of ice, setting the whales free. Image courtesy of Rhythm & Hues Studios, the visual effects company attached to the film project.

Phew! Did you get all that? It’s ambitious, and it works. It might even cohere better than all the narrative strands of Steven Soderbergh’s apocalyptic horror story Contagion (2011). However, I wish the filmmakers hadn’t inserted a subplot involving the former lovers Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), the local TV news reporter who breaks the story, and Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), the dogmatic “pain-in-the-ass” from Greenpeace. So much of their interaction throughout the film is absent of romantic yearning and desire (they have more pressing concerns) that their reconciliation in the end seems forced.

The script and the performances convincingly relate the isolation of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States, as well as the inhospitable climate for the many outsiders who descend upon the small town, including the gray whales, affectionately named Fred, Wilma, and Bamm Bamm after the animated, prehistoric Flintstones family. (Since the baby whale is a male, they opt not to dub him Pebbles and look to the Rubbles clan for inspiration.) Despite this chilly environment, Point Barrow is warmly rendered, its representation hinging on the connection that Adam has with a young Inupiat boy, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), who longs to leave the community but through this experience learns the value of his culture, thanks to his intuitive grandfather Malik (John Pingayak), who’s also a community elder. More than this, Point Barrow is kinda quirky, a spiritual twin city of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, featured in the splendid Parks and Recreation (2009-present). For instance, the only restaurant in town is called Amigos, a Mexican cantina that serves as the base of operations for many different interest groups when they are away from the site. It’s touching that its name reminds people of the importance of friendship.

Big Miracle is ostensibly a family film in the vein of Dolphin Tale (Charles Martin Smith, 2011). While there isn’t anything really objectionable (although, I’m sorry to report, Bamm Bamm doesn’t survive, and Sarah Palin makes a “cameo” at the end in some portentous archive footage), the film may be too heady for some children. Since it focuses so much on the seemingly impossible political and bureaucratic maneuvering everyone engages in, I imagine that some youngsters may get bored or frustrated. Not to mention, it also sports an appropriately cynical view of the media, as Los Angeles reporter-on-the-rise Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) seizes the opportunity to climb the broadcast news ladder to the top by sensationalizing people’s emotions. It’s also upsetting that Adam, smitten with Jill, doesn’t fight to continue reporting on the story he broke nationwide and submits to playing cameraman for Jill before he eventually rejects her editorial style.

The special effects, specifically in the underwater scenes, are definitely more than acceptable, but I am embarrassed to say that I have no idea how they shot those scenes of the whales with their heads above water. In other words, did the filmmakers use real whales? Or did they use mechanical ones, evidently ignoring the lessons Steven Spielberg and co. learned on the set of 1975’s Jaws? (I kid, I kid. I’m sure technologies have advanced so much in the last thirty-seven years that special effects artists know how to work with or around the challenges that water poses to giant synthetic props.)

Rachel gets up-close and personal with a trapped gray whale. I have no idea which one it is: Fred, Wilma, or Bamm Bamm. Image courtesy of The Playlist, hosted by http://www.Indiewire.com.

Well, I’m pleasantly surprised that I haven’t spoiled the entire movie. I recommend Big Miracle in spite of its ridiculous title. It’s funny and sad—perhaps a little too precious—but it’s altogether human.

Long Take: What’s It All About, Marty?

Viewed July 20, 2012

On Sunday, July 8, beloved character actor Ernest Borgnine died. He was 95. For years, I have been drawn to his toothy, grandfatherly smile, and I was initially upset that The New York Times only published a short obituary. (Compare it to the one they gave Andy Griffith.) I felt that it betrayed his legacy on film and television, everything including From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) to The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) and McHale’s Navy, which aired from 1962 to 1966. But I have since moved on, and I watched for the first time the film for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor: Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). I don’t speak in exclamations, but I have to say that some of the interjections featured at left on the original theatrical poster ring true for me, too. Marty is wonderful, superb, warm, and rich. (It’s a shame the poster design isn’t any of these things, though.)

For much of my childhood, I only knew of Marty as the answer to the question that longtime Twenty One game show champ Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro) fails to deliver at the turning point of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Stempel knows the title of 1955’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, but he throws the game, for the benefit of his opponent, the dashing literature professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), and accepts a payout from the producers, who wish to capitalize on Van Doren’s pedigree and good looks. But this really has nothing to do with Marty.

Marty, in fact, is about a thirty-four-year-old Bronx butcher (Borgnine) who lives with his widowed Italian mother. All of his younger siblings have been married off and left the nest, and he resigns himself to believing he’ll die single, convinced no woman could be interested in an overweight butcher. He’s painfully shy and incredibly sweet. In this way, Marty turned out to be just what I was looking for since I already find Borgnine an always appealing presence (even when he’s playing the bad guy). Desperate to please his mother, Teresa (Esther Minciotti), he agrees to go out to the Stardust Ballroom to meet other singles, alongside his buddy Angie (Joe Mantell). And, of course, he does, but it’s not easy. Be warned: I’m going to spoil all now.

Clara (Betsy Blair) has also come to the Stardust Ballroom, on a blind double date with a doctor who quickly ditches her because she’s a “dog.” He trawls the dance floor looking for a man to take his place so he can run off with another girl. At first he propositions Marty, who despondently looks on as couples dance around him, but he rejects the man’s offer of $5, admonishing him for wanting to treat a woman in such a way. One of the best scenes is virtually wordless, shot from Marty’s perspective, as he watches the doctor introduce Clara to his replacement. From across the room, Marty sees a mortified Clara run out of the dance hall, and he follows her. He’s gotten nowhere with other women tonight, so he may as well try to comfort her. Perhaps part of him also figures that he’ll be able to relate to her because he’s been rejected, too. (Actually, another great preceding scene takes place earlier that day when he comes home from work and, with Angie’s prodding, calls a woman he’d met last month. In one shot, the camera moves in on his face, closer and closer, while he tries to ask her out, his desperation and despondency becoming more and more suffocating. We can’t hear her voice, only his many attempts describing himself to her and guiding the conversation. It’s impossible for the viewer not to empathize with him. When he hangs up, the camera slowly pulls out. Dejected.)

Marty desperately rings for a date.

Maybe it’s presentism, but I couldn’t help feeling that the romance between Marty and Clara is rather modern for its time. And no, it’s not because the film, itself based on a 1953 teleplay starring Rod Steiger, was remade in 1991 by Chris Columbus as Only the Lonely, with the great John Candy. Marty plays out across two consecutive days, with a good chunk of its running time devoted to the night that Marty and Clara meet and get to know each other as they wander from place to place. Structurally, it reminds me of Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), which is also about strangers falling in love over the course of one night together, albeit in Vienna.

Furthermore, Marty seems to be a new kind of male character in 1955 and one who has left an indelible impression on filmmaking today. Strangely enough, while watching Marty I thought about some Judd Apatow productions. Freaks and Geeks (created by Paul Feig), which ran from 1999 to 2000, is similarly about social outcasts but follows adolescent rather than stunted adults’ growing pains. Obviously the titular anti-heroes of the seminal TV show are numerous and varied, and not all of them had love on their minds. However, I do sense a spirit in Freaks and Geeks derived from Marty through its treatment of the characters’ struggles for individuality, independence, and acceptance. Both triumphantly reverse the trend of nice guys finishing last. Perhaps the connection between Marty and Apatow is even more pronounced in the mega-producer’s first directorial effort, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Although there is nothing to suggest that Marty is a virgin, he and Andy are alike in that they each overcome their sexual immaturity when they meet the right woman. Their journeys are sympathetically portrayed, but Marty’s is much more sensitively drawn and even includes a back-story involving suicidal thoughts (which Clara implies through her body language that she also has had). Marty is more than a Mama’s Boy, a trait easy to ridicule, but that’s not the only reason he’s romantically challenged. Feeling crippled by his heavyset frame and working-class occupation (more on that in a bit), Marty may be one of the earliest versions of a romantic anti-hero, and without him I don’t think Andy’s predicament, however raunchy, would be so endearing.

But Marty isn’t the only character who complicates archetypes. His mother, who speaks ungrammatically with a thick Italian accent, sounds like the women who frequent his neighborhood butcher shop. In the opening scene, they chastise him for being as old as he is and unmarried. And though his mother pushes him to go to the Stardust Ballroom, awkwardly using slang she picked up from her nephew and promising the place will be “loaded with tomatoes,” she is not nearly as opinionated as these women. Maureen O’Hara’s cruel and overbearing mother in Only the Lonely barely resembles Teresa. Teresa instead is a caring woman who accepts her nephew Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia’s (Karen Steele) plea to ask her sister, Marty’s Aunt Caterina (Augusta Ciolli), to come and live with her and Marty. To cut a long story short, Caterina just won’t let Virginia run her own household, especially now that she is a new mom. It’s only after Teresa spends time with Caterina, a depressed widow who feels abandoned, without a purpose because all she wants to do is cook and clean for her loved ones (yeah, some things about Marty seem a little outdated), that she begins to behave differently, out of character. Suddenly, it dawns on her that Marty’s finding a wife would render her obsolete (except it’s safe to assume that his big heart would preclude this from ever happening). And so she’s civil around Clara when she meets the young, plain science teacher late at night, before Marty accompanies her home, but the next day Teresa pooh-poohs his choice because she’s not, well, Italian. Her protestations aren’t convincing; she’s clearly reaching for any excuse to dismiss Marty’s attraction to Clara. Thus, at first glance, it might appear as if Teresa is a contradictory character, a victim of underdevelopment. But on the contrary, I think she’s a finely drawn and complex character, given the short screen-time she’s granted, for these same reasons. It’s a shame about that horrible Caterina-I-want-chew-ta-comeh-live-in-mya-house accent of hers, though.

Marty and Clara bond over their histories of rejection (he tries to build them up as not nearly as repulsive to the opposite sex as they feel they are), their social alienation (their aforementioned suicidal tendencies), and their stunted maturity, as Clara also lives at home. Hearing about Marty’s dream of buying the butcher shop where he works (thereby rendering him as aspiring to overcome his working class roots) helps convince Clara to take an administrative education job in Port Chester, which would force her to finally move out. My other favorite scene features a lovestruck Clara, newly returned home, recounting her evening to her parents, who are already tucked into their Ozzie and Harriet beds. It’s a virtuosic monologue by actress Betsy Blair, running through several emotions and offering fragmentary thoughts. Her new hopeful outlook on life and love stuns them, and this scene is the cornerstone of a quiet, touching performance.

Marty and Clara.

Marty promises to phone Clara the next afternoon, after church and lunch, to make plans for that Sunday evening. Unfortunately, he lets everyone around him—his friends, cousin, and mother—influence him to banish the thought of pursuing his burgeoning romance with Clara. It’s heart-breaking that he doesn’t come to his senses until night-time, fed up with standing around with his gang of friends, only ever talking in the round about what they’d like to do. Hey! That’s another Apatow comparison: Marty’s friends hold him back from maturing in much the same way that Ben’s (Seth Rogen) stoner roommates in Knocked Up (2007) wish that he would just wallow in irresponsibility with them. But like Ben, he breaks through and stands up for himself, for his desires. Marty phones Clara because it is stupid to let a good thing with her slip through his fingers. His final monologue, delivered to Angie, is terrific, and sums up what it’s all about:

[…] What, am I crazy or something? I got something good here. What am I hanging around with you guys for? You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog, and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is, I had a good time last night. I’m going to have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees, I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her, that’s too bad. [He rings her on the public phone at the bar. He waits for her to pick up.] Ange, when are you gonna get married? You’re thirty-three years old, your kid brothers are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself. [Into the phone] Hello? [To his friend] Excuse me, Ange. [Closes phone booth door.] Hello, Clara?

What a glorious, optimistic, and open-ended final scene. Again, I feel this is rather sophisticated storytelling, too, thanks to Paddy Chayefsky of Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) fame (he also won an Oscar for adapting his earlier Marty teleplay). Any filmmaker today probably wouldn’t be able to resist the idea of concluding the story so that the lovers are without-a-doubt fully reconciled, opting instead to film the scene so that they meet in person. I suspect that Marty’s calling Clara on the phone may have been boundary-pushing, since Clara acknowledges to her parents that waiting for a phone call from Marty rather than an in-person visit is not exactly ideal or proper. Or maybe the phone call, which is represented on the movie poster above, signifies more than just a change in social mores. Perhaps it is also about class; for when Clara brings up having to wait for his phone call, during her aforementioned monologue, she alerts her parents to Marty’s insecurity with being a butcher, a profession that, after all, he never desired to pursue. Therefore, their union signals not only their growth as individuals finally coming into adulthood, as they embark on new, upwardly mobile occupational trajectories, but also a transgressive bridging over a class-based and cultural divide. (Clara may not be Italian, but she is Catholic, so that’s should shush Marty’s mother.)

Marty is a sweet little movie, funny and dark in places. I regret I didn’t discover it until after its star Ernest Borgnine died.

Why I’m Not Seeing The Dark Knight Rises This Weekend

This being a movie blog, I thought it necessary to address the mass shooting that took place Thursday night at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) in suburban Denver, Colorado. A lone twenty-four-year-old gunman named James Holmes shot and killed twelve people, wounding at least 58 others, including people as young as only a few months old. In the rush of news updates, these estimates are subject to change, and soon I suspect we’ll learn more about the movie-going victims.*

My nightly ritual consists of watching ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and each news program dedicated last night’s episode to coverage of the horrific event and its aftermath. They were both hard to watch for a number of reasons, chief among them the featured amateur cellphone video of blood-soaked people exiting the multiplex and the repetition of terrifying eyewitness accounts. Tears welled up in my eyes, and sometimes I angrily shouted at the TV. Why did you bring your little children to a midnight movie screening? Why this movie in particular? I feel ashamed for so harshly judging people I don’t know personally, and I am thankful that Holmes’s attack didn’t produce even more casualties. I also couldn’t help but wonder, how could his mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, reportedly say, upon first hearing that her son has been arrested, that the authorities indeed have the right man? She possibly knew he was capable of such an atrocity and never thought to alert anyone that her son is a potential threat to society?

It has been widely reported that Holmes either dyed his hair red or wore a red wig to mimic Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), that he even announced—to the unassuming crowd watching the movie in Theater 9 before he started gunning people down and/or to the arresting police officers—that he was The Joker. Again, we won’t know the truth behind these details as everyone is still corroborating testimonials and processing exactly what happened. So it remains unclear what the relationship is between this hotly anticipated movie and Holmes’s intentions to massacre people. I agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote yesterday in The New York Times that Holmes more likely perpetrated his deadly actions in order to garner fame, infamy, or some twisted recognition rather than act out a movie-inspired fantasy. Seeing how the TV news media responded, devoting whole programs to “Tragedy in Colorado: Movie Theater Massacre,” makes me cringe, too. They’re just giving him what he wants, and they’re sensationalizing, I thought.

But I know one thing for sure, and it took me a while to make this realization: I won’t be going to see The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and in fact, I’m not sure when I will feel comfortable going to the theater to do so.

I’m not a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy; his movies are long, pretentious, and moralizing. However, I had thought I was going to see it because, as I have previously stated, I am interested in what people go to see. I do want to be part of a larger conversation. How could I justify standing on the sidelines, lambasting so-called mainstream audiences’ tastes in movies, if I don’t watch them, too, to form my own informed opinions? (The Dark Knight Rise‘s first controversy this week involved movie aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes having to shut down their comments section because fans who hadn’t even seen the film yet were bullying or threatening film critics who published negative reviews.) A dear friend of mine tried unsuccessfully to convince me to go to a midnight screening; I had no desire to see a 164-minute-long movie at that hour in a packed, claustrophobic theater. Besides, I told him, so many special screenings are sold-out or nearly sold-out, making it more difficult to secure tickets. Despite the Colorado tragedy, the movie has grossed over $30 million from midnight screenings alone, and it remains to be seen how its grosses will eventually be made public since its distributor, Warner Bros., and other movie studios have pledged not to report the numbers out of respect for the victims and their families.

The main reason I’m not going to see the movie is because I think it will be too traumatic an experience. I cannot imagine what the people in Theater 9 have gone through, but I am certain that I won’t be able to concentrate on the film unspooling on-screen because I will be thinking about how all those innocent people eagerly attended a movie they’d been waiting months—maybe years—to see, at first perplexed that one cinemagoer seemed to perform a movie stunt tie-in at the front until it became clear what his true intentions were. I echo the film director’s sentiment, released as a public statement: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” I have even written a short essay about my love of going to the movies, getting lost in the dark amid celluloid shadows and strangers. The piece is for a humor writing contest, and I have yet to submit it. I’m a little apprehensive to turn it in without mentioning what happened in Colorado, even if my memories of movie-going are overwhelmingly positive—funny even—and have nothing to do with the violence of the theater.

Truth is, I don’t know when I will be ready to go to the theater to see any movie. It’s all still so raw.

Some have expressed concern that this will negatively impact The Movies (Rebecca Macatee of E! Online is already labeling the newest Batman sequel a “would-be blockbuster,” given what’s transpired). I don’t think most people who have really wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises will stay away. All the power to them, I say. We cannot let one crazed man’s fatal attacks deter us from doing the things we love. We cannot live our lives in fear, to paraphrase Barry Otto in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992). We should pressure President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to address the issue of gun control while on the campaign trail, as their tepid expressions of sorrow and compassion are not enough. (Their track records on the issue are not comforting if we’re looking for change, either.)

When it comes to Hollywood and cinema more generally, I do hope that studios, producers, and filmmakers reflect on their storytelling practices and recognize that they could make some changes, too, beyond re-editing the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and yanking TV spots and trailers for it and the upcoming Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, 2012), which features a scene involving men powering machine guns through a movie screen, firing on the audience. I am not blaming anyone for what happened in Theater 9 other than James Holmes, but the fact that violence is so permissible in movies, often glamorized or sensationalized, is a cultural problem. Many of us have become anesthetized to graphic representations of violence, accustomed to watching people, buildings, cities, and even the world blow up on-screen. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of us know that this is not real, but there are those who might fetishize these images and seek to replicate them in the real world because the consequences of violence are barely ever the subject of sustained cinematic inquiry. One recent example of this more desirable filmic exploration comes to mind, though: Lynne Ramsay’s stark, impressionistic portrait of a mother coming to terms with the attack her teenage son perpetrated at school in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). It is a challenging, beautiful movie, and I guarantee it will stick with you. If more films addressed the viscerality and destructiveness of violence, perhaps they would remind us all that it is never cool, never something we should wish to emulate.

* The New York Times has just published (circa 10.30 pm on Saturday, July 21st ) the names of the twelve victims as well as the first in-depth attempt to get a handle on James Holmes’s character.

Long Take: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Comes Up With an Easy Catch

Viewed July 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)

Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.

The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.

But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.

But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.

Sheikh Muhammad, Fred, and Harriet go over their plans—for salmon fishing in the desert and, implicitly, for romance. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com

More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)

Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.

Sheikh Muhammad and Harriet supervise the construction of a Yemeni river for salmon fishing. He comes prepared with a sheathed dagger at his waist. Image courtesy of http://www.pinkjulepabroad.com

In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?

This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!

Patricia, Malcolm, and Sheikh Muhammad pass a line of Yemeni guards in kilts. Image courtesy of http://www.allmoviephoto.com

My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?

I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.

As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.

A Teachable Moment: “Old Movies” and “Millennials”

Sherlock Jr., directed by Buster Keaton (1924). Image courtesy of Not Just Movies, accessible at http://www.armchairc.blogspot.com

My sister just brought to my attention a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by the film scholar and cultural critic Neal Gabler entitled “Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies.” In the essay, Gabler argues that with the popularity of new technologies such as social networking sites and the capability of streaming movies on smartphones and iPads, young Americans only focus their attention on movies of “the here-and-now.” While I don’t disagree with the author’s over-arching commentary, I do take issue with some of Gabler’s points, both major and minor.

First of all, no matter how much I hate the term, I am a “millennial.” Or so I have been told. But because print journalists, TV news anchors and reporters, marketers, and others rampantly use this word to signify a generation, as if “millennial” is self-explanatory, it’s less clear who really belongs to the group. According to that trusty old Internet repository of information known as Wikipedia, those born between 1983 and as late as 2000 or 2004 are by-and-large considered “millennials.” However, to suggest that my coming-of-age is the same as an eight-year-old’s is just plain insulting. We don’t have the same frames of political and historical reference, and we certainly do not share the same taste in movies, music, books, and information sources. Although Gabler uses that nebulous term somewhat reluctantly (“so-called millennials”), he never seeks to define it for his argument beyond implying that “millennials” are students in high school and graduate school, as he quotes instructors from each setting who lament that their students find “old movies” obsolete.

In fact, I was stunned to read one such person’s observation. According to Gabler,

“A friend of mine who teaches in the New York University Cinema Studies graduate program told me he was appalled at how little interest his students—future critics and film scholars, no less—had in old movies. For them, ‘classics’ are movies made in the last five years, and Scorsese is like Washington or Lincoln: ancient.”

I am a 2011 graduate of this very program, and so naturally I am curious as to who Gabler’s curiously anonymous friend is. But more importantly, based on my experience, this description of the Cinema Studies culture at NYU could not be further from the truth. Understandably, it is one man’s opinion, but I can tell you that an overwhelming number of my cohorts were only interested in “old movies.” For example, a friend of mine, a lover of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy star vehicles, pretty much looked no later than 1967 for motion picture entertainments. I can’t even talk about movies that I watch with an even closer friend because movies in color barely register with her. She has no idea what is playing in theaters, and she is happy to repeatedly screen and discover lesser known gems from the silent era and Japan.

I like to consider myself a film historian of the contemporary moment because I am interested in how people—critics and audiences—respond to what is produced today. However, the education I received at NYU certainly deepened my appreciation for Classical Hollywood Cinema, or movies made during the studio era from roughly 1915 to 1965. That includes silent features, B&W pictures, and genres such as the film noir, western, melodrama, and musical. Now that I live at home, equipped with some premium movie channels, I can supplement what I have learned by enjoying Turner Classic Movies all day, every day. (Wow, that sounds like an advertisement!) For instance, a couple of nights ago, I caught my favorite “classic” leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in My Reputation (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), and I recommend it for her performance as a widow tentatively embarking on a new romance, family and friends be damned! Who says young people, particularly future film critics and professors, don’t like “old movies”?

According to Gabler, “rank-and-file millennials… find old movies hopelessly passe—technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned.” Does this mean that he thinks those who go on for advanced degrees in film history and theory are “rank-and-file millennials” since such students are apparently disinterested in “old movies,” too? Besides, he’s also forgetting one of the golden rules about film production and consumption: it’s the story that counts. I, for one, will watch anything so long as the story interests me. It doesn’t matter if it’s in B&W, with actors I don’t recognize, or in a language I don’t comprehend. The way I see it is, every film presents an opportunity to broaden your horizons, and so closing yourself off to what is “old” limits your interaction with history as well as the present moment. After all, we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the storytellers who made films about us before. Thus, I shake my head in disbelief when Gabler writes that another university professor told him that his students found Orson Welles’s 1941 game-changer Citizen Kane “antiquated.” Perhaps it’s not the films so much as the instructors’ teaching methods that students can’t relate to. How can you fail to impart upon a willing audience how important Citizen Kane is within the history of film? Keywords for that lesson might include “deep-focus long-takes,” “Rosebud” as “MacGuffin,” “William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies,” and Welles’s anti-fascist theater troupe.

I love hyperbole as much as the next girl, but it is ridiculous to suggest, as Gabler does, that young people think that any movie not of the current moment is “classic” or “old-fashioned.” I don’t think social mores and aesthetics change so rapidly that young people can no longer relate to movies that came out five years prior. Perhaps Gabler would do well to direct his ire at movie studio executives and their resistance to changing their out-dated business model rather than the young people who see the movies that are aggressively marketed to them. Since his whole argument is premised on the fact that this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012) is a reboot of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, which began no less than ten years ago and wrapped up in 2007, I would recommend that he read Claude Brodesser-Akner’s matter-of-fact account of how rebooting superhero movie franchises works. It is as cynical as you think.

And what is with Gabler’s insistence that young people today “don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did”? How can he know this, especially when he acknowledges there are no known studies that “examine the relationship of millennials to old movies”? Instead, he suffices to argue that films are thought of as fashion since what is new captures people’s attention more anything that is even just a little bit behind the times. What he calls “cinematic ageism” here I would label “presentism,” which is really no different than the biased, time-sensitive perspectives on any medium, which, to Gabler’s credit, he also points out is “the natural cycle of culture.” Combating presentism isn’t easy, but last year offered two high-profile attempts: both Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) sought to educate modern-day audiences on the pleasures of silent cinema by using unconventional storytelling methods (3D projection in the case of the former and the silent, B&W form of the latter). Remember, a good number of Hugo‘s theatrical spectators had to have been families, considering its built-in audience were fans of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Switching gears: toward the end of Gabler’s editorial, he argues that the immediacy of social networking updates precludes old movies from making a lasting impression on millennials since even new movies may become quickly passe through the form’s emphasis on what it is now. While it doesn’t seem that he is hostile to the idea of movies—however new—being part of an “ongoing conversation” on sites like Facebook and Twitter, Gabler is wrong to assume that it is impossible for an “old movie” to have a presence in these online avenues of communication. Obviously, examining these constantly updated “news” feeds is damn near impossible, but I am positive that at least some young Americans regularly evaluate, dissect, and debate with their online (and real!) friends what they have seen and what they will see, “old movies” included. Moreover, I’m hardly the only movie blog author who casts her gaze on pictures that are not of the current moment. But if I’m writing about them, how are they not part of the contemporary conversation, even if I publish on the margins?

Furthermore, Gabler has a point that our culture’s predilection for viewing films on screens that do little to enhance their narrative or architectural scope is problematic, but I don’t think this practice means that old movies are doomed to extinction. After all, so long as film studies programs endure at the university level and expand for high school students, “old movies” will always be a part of the curriculum for reasons I’ve already elaborated. Motion pictures are little over a century old, and they have been considered an art-form for even less time. Even the most cinephiliac among us have in no way seen more than the tip of the iceberg. The biggest threat to the legacy of “old movies” is the lack of compassion and funds for films that are in need of preservation. Of course, instilling a love for movies—particularly “old” ones—among “millennials” will help ensure our continued fascination with these pieces of (film) history. But how can we tackle this dilemma?

Right now, the future of film appreciation rests on the knowledge and talents of those who educate on topics related to film. I truly believe that if you are passionate about something and you can make even the most distant part of life, whether in terms of time, culture, or geography, relevant to someone else, then you are at a distinct advantage to effect change in that person’s thinking. In other words, if film scholars, critics, and historians can impart to students the significance of movies old and new, then these pupils will be empowered to turn on others with their own enthusiasm. Film, as an art and a business (just like fashion), marches on because there are always those who take notice and direct other people’s attention.

P.S. Happy Birthday to Barbara Stanwyck! She’d be 105 today.

Long Take: Dreaming of Joseph Lees Has Many Pleasures

Viewed July 9, 2012

Thank goodness for friends who have access to an HBO Go account. Without such a person I wouldn’t have been able to see the very hard-to-find Dreaming of Joseph Lees (Eric Styles, 1999). I had once seen a teeny bit of the film many years ago when it aired on a cable channel in the middle of the night. Since then, I have never forgotten about it. So when my sister announced its temporary availability (through July 15) on the subscriber-only online streaming service, I jumped at the chance. Boy, am I glad that I did! Given its scarcity on the DVD (and even VHS) market, I kind of regret that I must spoil the film’s story in my analysis, but I hope that my enthusiasm for its representation of female desire and pleasure will convince you to put it on the top of your must-see list, if it’s not already there. (Amazon.com allows you to rent or buy a digital copy.)

A British production shot on the Isle of Man and distributed in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight Pictures in 1999, Dreaming of Joseph Lees is actually all about desire: the act and emotional and mental states of wanting as well as the wish to be wanted right back. Samantha Morton, in one of her early film roles, plays Eva, a young woman living in rural Somerset, England, in 1958 with her aloof father (Frank Finlay) and much-younger siblings Janie (Lauren Richardson) and Robert (Felix Billson). As her voice-over narration states from the get-go, she has been in love with her second cousin, the geologist Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves), since she was fourteen years old. Presumably, WWII and the subsequent reconstruction of displaced or otherwise ravaged lives have a lot to do with separating them. However, thirteen years out, the war is never so much implied. Instead, Joseph loses one of his legs in a marble quarry accident while doing research in Italy, a tragic event that delays his return home and his re-entrance into distant family affairs. Having given up the hope of ever reuniting with her childhood crush, Eva allows local pig farmer Harry (Lee Ross) to aggressively pursue her. Defying the expectations of her family, she even moves in with her possessive paramour. And that’s when Joseph re-emerges, to shake up her life.

The story is divided into two sections, pre- and post-Joseph’s reappearance. The first chronicles Eva’s day-to-day existence, working as a clerk in a sawmill, looking after her family, attending a life-drawing class some evenings, and even helping Harry’s adult sister, Maria (Holly Aird), learn to read and write. Anytime someone at home mentions Joseph, his injury, or his whereabouts, Eva is overcome with emotion. Morton uses her characteristically expressive face to relate Eva’s all-consuming infatuation, her eyes looking as if they’re on the verge of tears at just the mention of his name. Father doesn’t quite understand her fascination with a distant cousin whose name he can barely remember, but Janie knows all about Eva’s private longing. In fact, demonstrating the pleasures of sharing a secret with someone close is part and parcel of the film’s overall representation of female desire. Not to mention its affecting portrait of the intimate friendship between sisters.

During the first (approximate) half, Eva explores her passionate yet pent-up sexuality in the absence of her beloved. Eva accompanies Maria, who encourages her lovesick brother to seduce her friend, to the boxing gym where Harry and Maria’s own crush train. In a reversal of the male gaze, so dominant in mainstream narrative cinema, the women peek through the window to ogle the male nude bodies in repose following arduous physical exercises. Although eventually caught, Eva feels no shame. If anything, glimpsing the affable and unpretentious Harry in this space may comfort her in her subsequent decision to date him. After all, he had previously tried wooing her outside the sawmill by suggesting he “take [her] to heaven and back,” a proposition she first rejected because she not only views his euphemism for sex as immature, but she also would rather take Joseph as her first lover.

However, Harry and Eva’s first official date to watch a boxing match foreshadows their incompatibility. At the sporting event, Eva, goaded on by Maria, attempts to get close to the action, to be nearer the “blood and gore.” I have interpreted this to mean that she is interested in the male form in masculine settings, but the violence of the sparring and the encroaching crowd prove too much for her. Harry may come to her rescue, but not much can be helped. The fact that Harry’s nose bleeds whenever he’s nervous around Eva, spontaneously echoing the brutality of the fight, suggests that their burgeoning romance is unstable and unsustainable.

Despite this, their relationship intensifies. Later, she reflects that, even though she moved to his nearby farm and entered into a fully sexual relationship with Harry, she knew that she would never marry him. For the film spectator, this probably constitutes the most confusing decision Eva makes; why move in with him, in 1958, if you never wanted to marry him? It’s equally surprising that her father, who initially protested, allows her “to follow [her] heart,” perhaps believing that their cohabitation would later lead to marriage. However, it is clear that, at the beginning of their new living arrangements, Eva feels a sense of freedom, unbound by social restrictions and familial commitments. This release is no better expressed than through Harry’s masturbating Eva on the bed, under the frill of her skirt. This is the first of a few sex scenes in which Eva’s pleasure is highlighted—almost to the exclusion of her individual partners’.

Soon, things are far from tranquil on the farm. Harry’s possessiveness and emotional instability are too much for Eva to handle, but whenever he threatens violence against her or himself, she feels she cannot abandon him. (Late in the film, he kills his three dogs when, out of frustration, she pleads for him to get rid of them, meaning to shoo them out of the house. His misinterpretation of her feelings convinces her to leave, but she stays because he threatens suicide.) Thankfully, Janie arrives with good news that changes Eva’s life: the whole family’s been invited to a cousin’s wedding where she is sure to bump into Joseph, finally. The sisters embrace, Eva kissing Janie’s forehead in a tacit acknowledgment of their shared secret.

Although the audience has glimpsed Joseph before in scenes establishing his rehabilitation in Italy as well as through Eva’s memories of him, the wedding presents the first instance he appears contemporaneously. Sitting in the church pews, Eva looks over her shoulder as he enters the building, and at the wedding reception, she and Janie watch him from across the room, the camera assuming their perspective. Inter-cut with shots of Joseph are shots of Eva fidgeting with her earring, looking longingly and deep in thought. Janie is so desperate to see her older sister end up with Joseph that she rejects a man’s dance invitation to Eva and nudges her to go over to Joseph. If not now, when? is the thinking. You might expect a clumsy exchange, with Eva making an ass of herself. But that’s not the case. She skips greetings, and at first Joseph turns down her request to dance, citing his physical disability, but when she persists, he agrees. A tinkling lullaby-like score replaces the up-tempo song that the live band plays as they slow-dance on the floor with other couples bouncing around them. It is as if they are of another time and place, but the audience is made privy to their instant (re)connection. The melodramatic change on the sound track emphasizes the granting of Eva’s—and by extension, our—wish fulfillment.

In the next scene, my fear that Joseph would not remember Eva proves unfounded; they strike up an easy rapport, reminiscing about the past, and they both resent Eva’s father for tearing her away, as the party wears down. Their attraction extends beyond the event, with Janie mailing a postcard inviting him to the family home and his sending Eva coffee-table books on Italian art that she later pours over, as if looking for Joseph within their pages. Of course, Harry becomes jealous, throwing her book in the mud. He makes amends the next morning by cleaning and returning the book to its proper owner, but not without attaching a guilt-inducing line about how he would die if she didn’t love him.

Thus, even after we have met Joseph, he remains at a distance. An unnamed film reviewer in The Hollywood Reporter is frustrated that Joseph “remains an enigma” throughout the film. The supposed underdevelopment of his character is beside the point because we know Joseph as Eva’s Obscure Object of Desire. The pleasure of seeing him on-screen is bound up in the realization that Eva’s fantasy is finally made real and he is made flesh. For example, in the sex scenes between Eva and Joseph (which take place after she temporarily leaves Harry and surprises Joseph on his doorstep), Eva never appears naked on-screen, but Joseph’s skin is regularly exposed. The camera objectifies his body as Eva caresses it with kisses, particularly when, in bed with her straddling his torso, Joseph tells Eva the harrowing story of how he lost his leg. His vulnerability turns her on. So, although the short scene following the wedding party demonstrates his own sentimental attachment to his distant cousin (he rummages through photo albums and scrapbooks), it may not even be required. For it is enough that Joseph exists to reciprocate her feelings and want her as much as she wants him. Then again, I may be biased: I have enjoyed watching the actor Rupert Graves perform on-screen ever since 1996’s Different for Girls (Richard Spence), and I find him very attractive.

The thorn in their side, though, is Harry, who becomes increasingly more manipulative. His dangerous behavior lures a concerned Eva back home, a measure that Joseph understands and supports. To cut a long story short, Harry, who, I might add, had cheated on Eva before she ever left, disappears and worries his sister. Using Eva’s guilt over having wanted someone else, Harry traps her into staying with him because he breaks into the sawmill where she works and cuts off his left leg below the knee. Superficially, his act of mutilation suggests that he believes Eva will only love him if he is (anatomically) more like Joseph, but it more accurately recalls the disorder of his bleeding nose.

One might argue that the film isn’t feminist (enough) because Eva suffers for having desires and for seeking out their attendant pleasures, consigned to the position of Harry’s caregiver. I would argue, however, that it is feminist because the whole film is an exercise in fantasy-building. In other words, following feminist film theorist Elizabeth Cowie’s influential reasoning in “Fantasia,” the ending is satisfying for the (female) spectator of this romantic melodrama because identifying with and watching Eva’s desire unfold may actually be more pleasurable than the desire itself. It does not matter whether or not Eva and Joseph live happily ever after. The fact that she even had a desire (which Joseph reciprocated) is enough is please or “makes it all worthwhile.” Better to have loved and suffered than never to have loved at all.

But who is to say that our hope-against-hope lovers won’t end up together after all? The film closes with Joseph paying a surprise visit at the farm, which obviously stirs up a whirlwind of emotions in Eva. She still wants Joseph; he knows this. He has come to take her away, but she refuses to budge for the sake of Harry’s well-being. Her sacrificing their happiness wounds both lovers. And when Joseph loiters outside the house after their exchange, Eva, sensing his presence but assuring Harry she’s not leaving, steps outside. The camera lingers on their hearty embrace, which suggests that they are trying to savor each other’s presence, fearing a long-term and potentially permanent separation. (He’s going to Italy again for work.) Janie steps out of the house, smiling as she looks on. It is in this moment that her role as a stand-in for the film viewer comes full-circle. Throughout the film, we the audience have lived somewhat vicariously through Eva’s dreaming of Joseph Lees, which Janie has played an instrumental part in shaping.

Despite Janie’s approving smile, I still think the filmmakers leave their future open-ended. Maybe that’s just me. After all, I prefer romantic dramas to romantic comedies because I like being reminded that loving someone is, for lack of a better word, hard. Emotionally draining. Conflicting. Perhaps even dangerous. My sister, a rom-com connoisseur, thinks the hug between Eva and Joseph at the end means they do wind up together. I just don’t think it’s that easy. Besides, believing that their longing for each other will persist in perpetuity may actually be more pleasurable than seeing or imagining them, say, cutting into a wedding cake.

Long Take: The Decoy Bride Charms a Rom-Com Skeptic

Viewed July 7, 2012

It is not yet apparent—but it soon will be—that I am not one for romantic comedies. While I can enjoy some of them, I much prefer romantic dramas, particularly those set in a bygone era. We tend to think of such narrative dramas as more plausible than their comedic counterparts. And with good reason. Comic writer, essayist, and actress Mindy Kaling put it best in The New Yorker, back in October of last year:

I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

I felt a sense of enlightenment upon first reading her observation about the romantic comedy. It is with her outlook on her favorite movie genre that I am able to approach—and even appreciate—examples from it. For this reason, I was able to enjoy Sheree Folkson’s The Decoy Bride (2011), though I admit that the setting and actors were the main draws. Spoilers ahead!

Kelly Macdonald stars as Katie NicAoidh, a thirty-two-year-old who gives up her dreams of making it in the big city (Edinburgh!) and returns home to Hegg, a fictional island located way out there in the Outer Hebrides. She leaves her cheating musician of a fiance behind, along with a soul-sucking job writing for an online men’s trousers catalogue (laying it on thick, eh?), to wallow in self-pity at her mother’s bed & breakfast establishment. Her romantic future looks bleak (she’s turned “vegan” when it comes to men), as she is the youngest of 75 island residents and the only single woman among them. Cue the arrival of her soul-mate! James Arber (a flappable David Tennant) is an up-and-coming “serious author” who is engaged to the superstar American actress Lara Tyler (Alice Eve). When the pestering cameras of paparazzi make it impossible for the couple to get married in private, Lara and her handlers (agent Michael Urie and his assistant Sally Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay) arrange their super-secret nuptials on Hegg. Having glimpsed her arch-enemy, the paparazzo Marco (Federico Castelluccio), trawling the chapel, Lara runs away the morning of her wedding, leaving her agent, Steve (Urie), to devise a dubious plan: he hires Katie to pose as Lara during the ceremony, hoping to pass off the event as the couple’s wedding to the press (he doesn’t even let James in on it). Steve believes that if the press and public already think they’re married, then they will be able to wed privately, for real. Don’t you see why it’s best to think of the romantic comedy as a sub-genre of sci-fi?

Complications arise when Katie accidentally signs the register with her own name, rendering her marriage to James official. (Seriously, she thought Steve’s offer of £5000 was worth the trouble of breaking the law?) It’s worth mentioning here that they had met each other the day before: James, under an assumed name (to keep his wedding secret from the islanders), bumped into her while Katie was researching the definitive guidebook to Hegg that she is writing. After she makes a disastrous pass at him, they both decide that they don’t like each other. Later, when James discovers what Steve has orchestrated, the verbal sparring matches between James and Katie really begin.

Steve locks the fighting newlyweds in the tower of the castle that he has had renovated for the secret, romantic destination wedding. James and Katie’s being locked up in the honeymoon suite and their subsequent determined escape from it subvert the setting’s fairytale ending connotations. But this is just the beginning of their love story. Like in the seminal romantic comedy Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists must offend each other before they fall deeply in love. This process begins shortly after James saves Katie from drowning in the castle’s moat, a heroic gesture that is clearly a reference to legends of chivalry. Astonishingly, his rescue surprises both of them—but not the spectator. Besides, how could anyone let someone else drown, no matter how irritating the person is?!

The Decoy Bride utilizes many tropes of the romantic comedy genre, especially the wedding theme, which is so prevalent that it warrants its own sub-genre. The “wedding film” has proliferated in the 2000s, counting among its ranks such films as The Wedding Planner (Adam Shankman, 2001), The Wedding Date (Clare Kilner, 2005), 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008), Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009) and even the “manly” antidotes Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005) and American Wedding (Jesse Dylan, 2003). Last year’s hugely successful Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) injected a feminine-inspired cynicism into all the stages of planning a wedding. Feminist film scholar Diane Negra, in What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, estimates that the American bridal industry is worth about $161 billion today (52). Along with magazines and news stories, these films contribute to pop culture’s fascination with the wedding event and stress the importance of the heteronormative rite-of-passage that getting married supposedly is for young women. As a wedding film, The Decoy Bride both makes fun of marriage and reaffirms its significance. On the one hand, the film upends the notion that marriage is a sacramental testament to everlasting love because James and Katie, who despise each other, accidentally wed. But on the other, since the mismatched couple fall in love while trying to get divorced, the spirit with which they were married turns out not to have been a fluke after all.

Although The Decoy Bride belongs with other wedding films, it has more in common with Pride and Prejudice than it does, say, Bride Wars. An English-language classic, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is a telling portrait of the life options available to the women of her time: marry for money, for the betterment of your family, or face poor spinsterhood. The strength of Austen’s story lies in its form as a comedy of manners, the whole time poking fun at the institution of marriage and the people who endeavor to strike up the deals. While there is much more at stake pending Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s eventual union as opposed to whether or not Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson will each secure the same overbooked wedding venue, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s early nineteenth century love story is thoroughly modern. Perhaps that is because our Anglo-American culture continues to recycle it. The (im)probable lovers have been immortalized in book and screen adaptations numerous times, often with funny sounding titles like Bridget Jones’s Diary (written by Helen Fielding in 1996 and directed by Sharon Maguire in 2001) or You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998). In fact, Katie resembles Bridget Jones’s version of Lizzie Bennet in that she is often publicly shamed for being over thirty and single. As struggling authors, James, who suffers from writer’s block, and Katie, who is just coming into her own as an author of a Hegg travel guide, lunge their daggers into each other’s literary egos in much the same way that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail spar over carving out their respective book-selling niches on the Upper West Side. The Decoy Bride goes one step further in its homage to romantic comedies, pretty much all borne of Pride and Prejudice, with a scene in which James and Katie strip out of their wet clothes in her mother’s kitchen, a thin linen separating them—and tempting them to look at each other—as if they are in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

My sister, an unabashed aficionado of romantic comedies, insists that the films work so long as the leads have chemistry. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant do set off some romantic fireworks, but I’m afraid that James is not as appealing or likeable a character as Katie is. Mindy Kaling would be happy to learn that Katie is not so broadly drawn as to fit any of the archetypes for romantic comedies’ leading ladies that Kaling identifies in the piece I quoted from earlier. Katie is not an adorable klutz, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a humorless and ambitious workaholic, or a gluttonous slob with a six-pack of abs. She is self-aware (she knows that James is her type, an emotionally stunted “arty” guy, which means trouble) and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Casting Macdonald in this role is actually refreshing. An “indie” actress who made her debut in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), one of my all-time favorite films, she is usually cast in dark pictures, namely the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and HBO’s Prohibition-set gangster epic Boardwalk Empire (2010-present). She brings to her character more nuance than we are used to seeing in other rom-com’s heroines. The look on her face when she decides to turn the ferry traveling away from Hegg back around, to reunite with James at the very end, is a prime example of this.

The problem with James as a male lead, an object of desire that we’re meant to want Katie to want and obtain, is that he never gets over himself or overcomes his charlatan ways. Lara chooses Hegg as the destination for their would-be super-secret wedding because it is the setting of his one and only book, The Ornithologist’s Wife, a heavy tome that the locals, including Katie, resent because it misrepresents the place. Using James’s book as a guide for planning their wedding, Steve soon discovers that James had never been to Hegg, because the lavish, bird-decorated castle doesn’t already exist there. Steve must invent it to appease his client. James’s dirty little secret remains buried vis-a-vis his fiancee, who, contrary to her lifestyle, is actually a down-to-earth, if a little naive, woman. Lara loves James because she believes he is a genius, regularly quoting his words back to him. On the occasion she says something stupidly romantic, he says he can’t believe he wrote that. In fact, it was her own original sentiment. Not only is he cruel, James has nothing in common with Lara, and it seems as if he wants to marry her because her desirability to others is a feather in his cap. He thinks that in addition to stroking his ego, she will also prove to be a fruitful muse and ensure his own fledgling fame lasts.

Despite the journey he takes with Katie all over the island, falling in love while trying to get divorced, it is revealed in the end, following the improbable lovers’ separation, that James and Lara never corrected the press and public’s shared impression that they wed. In other words, everyone thinks they’re still married. Thus, the dedication in his second book (“To my wife”), which is based on his experience with Katie, is directed not at Lara but at our heroine. While it may be a comfort that James and Katie share a private romance that is made public through his new novel, the fact that James would wish to deceive everyone, especially Katie, about being married to someone he does not love means he hasn’t learned his lesson. He may have started to write what he knows, at Katie’s insistence, but he hasn’t fully understood how to own up to it. Some romantic prize to be won.

Of course, embedded in all of this is a slight critique of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Lara is sympathetic in her desire for privacy, as is her hiding out in the village once the world’s press descends on Hegg. Since Steve has barred anyone from entering the castle, in trying to maintain the so-called integrity of the sham wedding, Lara applies her own makeup (quaint!) and takes up a disguise as an old village lady so that she may wander around the press camp undetected. In doing so, she chats with Marco, the paparazzo who has made her life a living hell and who redeems himself because he shows off candid photos of Lara that he never sold. In a pre-end credits scene, Lara attends Marco’s gallery opening, their suggestive smiles captured on film by a hovering paparazzo for the glossy tabloid Stars Today.

Back in Hegg, Lara also meets Katie’s mother, Iseabail (Maureen Beattie), who sold the wedding story to the press. Given the fact that Iseabail is terminally ill with an unnamed disease (this constitutes the weakest part of the film story), Lara’s threatening to push Iseabail, in her wheelchair, over a cliff if she doesn’t throw her huge wad of cash into the sea is unbelievably harsh. Lara then mistakes Iseabail as the inspiration for the titular character in James’s novel, a move that Iseabail encourages and in the end influences the actress to fund the dying woman’s trip around the world with Katie. (Having stayed put in Hegg all her life, Iseabail is itching to leave, her bucket list dreams recalling those of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano [John Patrick Shanley, 1990].)

An opportunist and busybody, Iseabail is but one of the eccentric villagers. Others include elder citizens who hawk cookies and tea as well as expensive pet rocks to the deluge of visitors. Stranger still, there is Angus (Hamish Clark), a former boyfriend of Katie’s who weds someone he does not evidently love on the very day that Katie comes back to town. He later attempts to fight James for Katie’s hand. This is a ridiculous plot contrivance to prove to James and the audience that Katie is desirable. Then again, Katie is uneasy when it comes to the attention that Angus and William (James Fleet), Katie’s boss at the general store, regularly pay her. This probably has more to do with her unwillingness to stay in Hegg and her professional ambitions to travel and write. In the end, while she succeeds as the published author of a definitive if little-read history of Hegg, it is unclear if she and James will stay in Hegg. Or whether they will get married again—for real.

The Decoy Bride, a Scottish and Manx co-production, was shot on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and while Hegg by no means represents a mythical Scotland a la the villages in Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) or Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), the film does tread on all-too-familiar territory. The script calls for Katie and James to seek out Reverend McDonough (Tony Roper) because, as Katie assures, “he’ll know what to do.” Apparently in tune with island superstitions, he officiates their ceremonial divorce, which he rushes to perform before the first sunset as if he is breaking a spell. In fact, you might say that James and Katie’s determination to reverse their vows is not too dissimilar from Princess Merida and Queen Elinor’s race to lift the bear curse on the latter woman in Brave, which coincidentally stars Kelly Macdonald as the fiercely independent princess.

According to the film’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, many scenes and characters were struck from the shooting script because the budget was much lower than the screenplay’s earliest appraisal. This handicap is most noticeable toward the end of the film, leading up to the lovers’ inevitable reunion. I have no idea what changes would have been made if the filmmakers had the full £7 million as intended, but The Decoy Bride is a cute little movie nonetheless. Especially if you suspend your disbelief.

Long Take: Reclaiming Brave

Viewed June 27, 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth feature, Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), may not be the best of the studio’s output. While it doesn’t reach the narrative heights of Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), The Incredibles (Bird, 2004), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), or Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), the film certainly doesn’t belong with the drudgery that is Cars (John Lasseter, 2006) or Cars 2 (Lasseter, 2011). Set in medieval Scotland, Brave is a solid piece of Pixar animation and an affecting story that anyone would be proud to produce. Unlike most critics, who have contributed to the film’s middling score on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s middling for a movie by Pixar, whose works are almost always universally praised), I didn’t find Brave disappointing. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. Originally conceived by director Brenda Chapman, Brave is a welcome woman-centric entry into the Pixar canon. But it really should be celebrated for what it gets right: its overwhelmingly feminist story. You know the drill by now: I’m going to spoil the movie below.

During its opening weekend, Brave racked up $147 million in worldwide box office receipts ($66 million of which was gained in the US alone), thereby quelling fears that audiences wouldn’t turn out for the first Pixar movie to have a female protagonist. There is such a thing as brand loyalty, and when the film’s studio is synonymous with quality (in terms of story, characters, and art), who really could have thought that Brave wouldn’t bring audiences in, anyway? Still, it is refreshing to reflect that, provided the little ones weren’t bored with the emotional story, spectators of all ages were treated to a poignant film about mother-daughter relationships. In other words, Brave is not just another fairytale.

The mother-daughter relationships in fairytales historically pit good against evil, generally in the form of a young, beautiful, and sweet-natured “princess” overcoming the emotional and physical torture inflicted upon her by her stepmother. For example, Cinderella’s stepmother punishes her with menial labor around the house because her now deceased husband loved his daughter more than he loved her, and Cinderella is rewarded in the end for her moral goodness when the prince chooses her for his bride and not one of her stepsisters. More tellingly, one of the most enduring fairytales, which is coincidentally the first full-length animated feature (by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, no less), is about a witch’s murderous envy of her stepdaughter’s beauty. According to Maria Tatar, the Grimm brothers’ early version of “Snow White” reflects “children’s fears about the cruelty of stepmothers, at a time when mortality rates for child-bearing women were exceptionally high.” However, Monica Hesse is quick to point out that the original Grimm story was about a mother’s desire to kill her own daughter for the same reason. In this sense, Brave breaks with the fairytale tradition because the generational conflict is about compromise forged out of love.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) don’t see eye-to-eye on how the princess should comport herself. The teenaged Merida has taken after her warrior father, the fun-loving and rough-housing King Fergus (Billy Connolly). She prefers to fill the hours horseback riding through the nearby forest, climbing steep rock-faces to enjoy the view from the top, and practicing her already accomplished archery skills. Elinor is trying to make a lady out of her daughter, insisting she perfect her enunciation, needlepoint, and hospitality. Even though Merida is nowhere near ready to assume queenly duties (and nor does she want to), the queen has gone behind her daughter’s back to invite the first-born sons of three neighboring clans to compete in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida tries what she can to deter her mother’s plans, even going so far as to compete in—and win—the archery contest for her own hand. Watch this scene and get the chills:

So, Brave is a universal story about wanting to choose your own path in life. Following Merida’s embarrassing commandeering of the Games, mother and daughter get into a heated fight. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who acted first, but I know that Merida takes a knife to Elinor’s tapestry-in-progress, a portrait of the family, separating Elinor from the rest, and Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fireplace, immediately regretting such an impulsive move. Although Merida’s desires are decidedly different from Ariel’s, the generational conflict in Brave reminds me of the one central to The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989). Merida even enlists the transformative powers of a witch (Julie Walters), only, unlike Ariel, she selfishly wishes to change her mother rather than herself. (Recall how, in striking a deal with Ursula in order to meet and woo a land-bound prince, Ariel gained legs in exchange for her beautiful singing voice.) In Brave, the witch, who so desperately wants to work in peace as a wood-carver (“too many dissatisfied customers”), forgets to give Merida special instructions for serving Elinor the magic cake, and that is when the action really takes off.

The working title of Brave was The Bear and the Bow, and it is a good thing that the filmmakers made the switch. For the title would have given away the narrative twist, which Brave‘s marketing materials have done so well to keep under wraps: consuming Merida’s peace offering, the witch’s cake, transforms Elinor into a bear! A wacky Freaky Friday of sorts ensues with mother and daughter teaming up to reverse the spell while dodging the riotous clansmen in the castle. King Fergus in particular has a bear on his hit list; in the pre-title sequence, set when Merida received her first bow as a little girl, the giant, legendary bear Mor’du attacks the family’s picnic and eats Fergus’s left leg below the knee (off-“camera,” of course).

I’m not sure that the bear carries any special significance in Scottish culture, especially since neither Scotland nor the whole island of Great Britain has been home to wild bears for thousands of years. However, the bear metaphor is apt because we tend to anthropomorphize the wild animal due to the mother bear’s fierce protection of her cubs. Just this week, Good Morning America reported that three bear cubs broke into a car near Denver searching for food, their mother initially scared off by police officers who snapped photos of the bandits red-handed. The only other mention of animals in Brave are of the mythical sort. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but someone mentions to Fergus the impossible existence of dragons, which I have interpreted to be a slight against How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, 2010), perhaps the first and only near-Pixar quality DreamWorks Animation film about a viking community that, oddly enough, has a character or two with a Scottish accent.

In any case, Brave has received a lot of attention because animating Merida’s untamed orange curls pixel-by-pixel is an impressive feat. However, just as the filmmakers successfully infused children’s toys with life and a rat with excellent culinary skills, the animators of Brave wonderfully imbue the bear with Elinor’s prim-and-proper personality. We still see Elinor in the bear as she proudly wears her crown and insists that Merida keep her bow off the table. Though they’re both despondent, things calm down between them once the duo have learned, via a potion-controlled automated message from the now-absent witch, that if they do not mend their bond by the second sunrise, Elinor’s metamorphosis will become permanent. Frustrated that she can no longer speak, mother and daughter gradually develop a language based on non-verbal sounds, hand (or paw) gestures, and facial expressions. The first steps toward reconciliation occur on the banks of a river, where Merida teaches her mother how to fish. The irony is not lost on me: a young woman teaches a bear to fish with just its bare claws. Later, when they happen upon Mor’du’s pit and must run away to save themselves from his wrath, Merida rides on her mother bear’s back. Merida’s horse Angus may prove valuable in the end, but this earlier scene is poignant because it shows how connected mother and daughter are, despite (or because of) Elinor’s change.

In fact, one of the aspects I like best about Brave is how active both Merida and Elinor are. Their daring escape from Mor’du’s lair is just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, after Fergus finally discovers the broken furniture in Elinor’s bedroom and attributes the mess to Elinor the bear, believing she is Mor’du and therefore responsible for taking his leg and killing his beloved wife, he locks a protesting Merida in her room and chases Elinor out of the castle. With the manpower of the three visiting clans behind him, Fergus follows Elinor to a mystical Druid circle. Eventually, Merida gets out of her temporary prison, stitching up her mother’s tapestry while bouncing along on Angus’s back. She arrives just in time for the real Mor’du to show up and attack the humans. Fergus withdraws his fight, and everyone watches as Elinor the bear defends Merida, ingeniously wearing down one of the stones so that when Mor’du slams into it, it crushes and kills him. This resolution is satisfying because it defies expectations laid out at the beginning. Not only has the queen come to respect her daughter’s rough-and-tumble talents, she has also exhibited them herself. It is Elinor, after all, a woman bear of action, who defeats her husband’s wild foe—and not Fergus himself who does the deed. It is also important to note that Mor’du isn’t a villain; he is the way he is because he was once a human prince who broke with tradition and sought the witch’s magic in order to rule the kingdom on his own. His curse became permanent because he was too stubborn to right his wrongs. So, when Elinor kills him, his soul gratefully finds peace.

The maternal melodrama reaches its tearful conclusion when Merida, having practiced the womanly needlepoint skills her mother desperately grilled into her, wraps the tapestry around Elinor the bear. With a humble apology and a profession of love, Merida manages to bring back her mother’s human form, just as the sun rises. As much as I like New York magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, I am not willing to ignore its faults. Contributor Kyle Buchanan misunderstands a lot about the witch’s spell, believing that she casts it “[j]ust for cruel kicks.” First of all, Merida asks for the witch to “change” her mom, not for one to more accurately change her mother’s mind about her future, so we can hardly blame the witch for Merida’s confusing choice of words. Buchanan also takes the witch’s explanation of the spell’s conditions too literally, incredulous as to how the witch could have known that Elinor’s tapestry needed mending. That’s not actually the case, Kyle. The witch’s “answering service antidote” refers to the mother-daughter bond in a metaphorical way. It is Merida who conjures the idea to stitch the tapestry back together. Just think of how pleasing it would be to her mom!

Originally, I rolled my eyes at the the plot contrivance that the spell’s effects are only temporary for the first two days, but in hindsight I realize that it is enough time for the mother and daughter to reconnect. After all, they used to be close because of their shared belief in magic, and they do know each other very well. Through their adventure, they arrive at a compromise, which technically lies heavily in Merida’s favor. For even before Merida breaks the spell in the Druid circle, the princess’s agility outdoors and heartwarming speech in front of the fighting clansmen who have convened for the Highland Games inspires Elinor, still a bear, to sign the rest of her daughter’s speech, announcing that Queen Elinor has decided to suspend the Games. In witnessing Merida’s full appreciation for tradition, Elinor insists that the three suitors who have competed for her hand, along with everyone else throughout the kingdom, should have the right to choose whomever they want to marry. Talk about a change of heart.

This resolution complements the film’s overarching feminist representation of power. Fergus may be the king of all four clans, which are each headed by men, but it is Elinor who effectively rules. She organizes the Highland Games and arranges Merida’s marriage. When fighting breaks out among the clans upon their arrival, she brings it to an end with a stern turn about the room, silencing even her brawling husband. Most importantly, Queen Elinor stops Merida, who speaks passionately about the importance of tradition, before her daughter chooses who among the sons of Lords Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), will be her husband. In this way, through her influence over her mother, Merida becomes the most powerful DunBroch in the kingdom. In the future, she may remember to keep her bow off the dining room table to please her mother, but she will not have to hang it up completely.

Brave is violent in parts, such as whenever Mor’du appears on-screen. But perhaps more shocking than this is the prevalence of nudity. For example, Merida locks Fergus and his men outside on the tower in order to get Elinor, newly transformed into a bear, out of the castle. The men tie their kilts together and climb down, and as they walk out of the frame, the spectator glimpses their bare asses. Later in the film, after Merida breaks the spell, her mischievous little brothers, the triplets Hamish, Hubert, and Harris, run over to the naked Queen Elinor, their bare asses also visible (they had eaten from the magic cake at one point, too). It is an interesting choice to feature comic nudity in an animated family film. Pixar had never gone this route before. But I am glad that the filmmakers included a sexualized instance of the female gaze. When Lord Dingwall introduces his son before the royal family, a gigantic Schwarzenegger-like figure with bulging muscles and an unreal tan stands in front of them. Elinor leans forward in her throne to watch the expression on Merida’s face as she registers the man’s appearance. It’s not clear whether or not the denouement that he is not Lord Dingwall’s son disappoints either woman, but their looking at his body suggests that the filmmakers have a keen sense of irony when it comes to fairytale desires.

As a lover of all things Scottish, I admit that I was originally trepidatious going in to see Brave because the film circulates many stereotypes, including a mystical highland setting, jokes about kilts (Lord Dingwall moons Lord MacGuffin), and anachronistic blue face paint. In fact, I didn’t even like the title because it resembles too closely Mel Gibson’s rape of Scottish and English history also known as Braveheart (1995). Thankfully, the film is neither Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) nor Braveheart, and these small quibbles do not detract from the emotional pull of the story. In sum, I appreciate that the film reclaims the adjective “brave,” which typically connotes masculine courage, by attaching it to a young woman’s adventure of self-discovery.