A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hatedPrometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.
I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.
My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.
Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.
On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):
… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)
I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.
That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.
In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.
In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m not one for inspirational teacher/coach movies. For starters, these films usually revolve around a coach searching for redemption, beginning with Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986). As the Ur-text of this kind of film, Hoosiers popularized the subgenre. Other notable entries in the canon include The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992), Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993), We Are Marshall (McG, 2006), and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006). There are some exceptions to the trope of the white male savior coach, though: Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000), starring Denzel Washington, who later went on to direct himself as an inspirational college professor in The Great Debaters (2007), and Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) both cast African-American actors as the students’ tough but fair role models. Even though a sports backdrop predominates in this field, there are films that are about teachers effecting change in the classroom, some more successfully than others. Thanks to Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), we all learned to quote Walt Whitman and seize the day. The Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman, 2002), also set at a tony boarding school, is a bit of an outlier, for it exposes how an honorable classics teacher failed to impart the importance of living a life with integrity on one of his most difficult students. Then, of course, there are the two most recognizable woman-centered inspirational teacher films: Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995) and its apparent remake Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007). Remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”?
However, I’d like to recommend a new and welcome entry in the subgenre: this year’s Spare Parts, directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. (Did you think I was going to say McFarland, USA?) Based on Joshua Davis’s 2005 WIRED magazine article, “La Vida Robot,” it tells the story of four Mexican-American teenagers living in Phoenix who, with a little guidance from their teacher, enter a prestigious underwater engineering competition and blow everyone away with their expertly designed ROV (remote-operated vehicle), constructed for only $800—a tenth of their competitors’ average operating budget. Fronted by funnyman George Lopez, Spare Parts resembles Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988) in that a Mexican-American teacher guides the at-risk students in developing practical STEM-related skills. However, Spare Parts also recalls Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996) and October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999), simply because of its emphasis on the students’ coming-of-age while learning to work as a team to build mechanical vehicles or rockets. (It is also worth mentioning that in Spare Parts’s closest antecedents, the inspiring teachers were both women.)
Here, the real-life robotics club mentors Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, both science teachers at Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, combine to form Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), an engineer who has difficulty keeping a job longer than three months due to some emotional trauma that he experienced years ago (I won’t spoil what it is, though you can probably already guess). Desperate, he takes a long-term substitute-teaching job, and the persistent Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), a member of the local ROTC, convinces him to sponsor the school’s robotics club. Having been denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces based on his undocumented immigration status, Oscar believes competing in the underwater robotics competition is his ticket to college. Rounding out the group are Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the bullied brainiac; Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián), the trouble-making mechanics-whizz; and Luis Aranda (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II), the muscle. Mild-to-major spoilers follow.
I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects of their project, but it doesn’t matter. Spare Parts is a winning underdog story because of its characters, whose development eschews caricature and stereotypes. Each member of the group has his own set of challenges that make for compelling drama, especially since there aren’t many films about the lived experiences of undocumented child immigrants. Oscar is so ashamed that his path to serving in the US Armed Forces hasn’t panned out that he keeps his rejection from the program and his participation in the club secrets from his mother (Alessandra Rosaldo). When she learns the truth from Oscar’s math teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei), she confronts Oscar and rightfully points out that, even if the competition grants him opportunities in engineering, no company will hire him without his “papers.” Throughout the film, Oscar lives in fear that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain and deport him and his family. After receiving a tip from the recruiter, he avoids returning to his family’s house, afraid that he will never be able to go home again. He also breaks up with his girlfriend, Karla (Alexis PenaVega), believing that his undocumented status is a burden, an impediment to their living peacefully.
Cristian appears to be the only man in his house, and he longs to attend a father-son science program with Dr. Cameron. It’s heartbreaking when Dr. Cameron declines, unsure of himself as a father figure. The greatest obstacle to Cristian achieving success, however, is poverty. His family is dirt poor, and he lives alone in an unheated shed outside of the family’s trailer. We do not glimpse his living situation until halfway through the film, because the home lives of Oscar and Lorenzo take precedence.
As the older brother of a budding juvenile delinquent born in the United States, it is Lorenzo’s responsibility, per his stern father’s request, to always look out for Ramiro (Ray Aguayo) or to take the blame for any of Ramiro’s misdeeds. The message that Señor Santillan (Esai Morales) is sending to his son is that his own life doesn’t matter—he’s not meant for anything else. The father would rather have Lorenzo deported—separated from the family—than an American-born son with a police record. Dr. Cameron steps in to mediate the conflict growing between Lorenzo and his father after Lorenzo stops Ramiro from robbing a convenience store. When he hears of what has happened, Señor Santillan only cares if Ramiro was arrested (he wasn’t) and resents that Dr. Cameron tried to meddle in his family’s affairs. Like Oscar, Lorenzo must now fend for himself, in fear of deportation (cops or ICE agents saw him leave the scene of the attempted crime) and kicked out of the house for not looking after Ramiro properly. Why Señor Santillan never thinks that it is his responsibility to keep his son out of trouble is beyond me, and why doesn’t Ramiro ever consider that his actions have severe consequences on his father and brother?
Luis, the only US citizen of the four, is the least developed character. A gentle giant, the rest of the group admittedly uses his stature and strength to lift and set down their 100-pound rover into the pool. Luis struggles to understand how people perceive him. He asks his mother if he is stupid or just quiet, and she answers that only he can reveal who he is. Her encouraging riddle flummoxes him, but it is apparent that the group project and the competition’s requirement that all members present on the technology that they used to make their ROV certainly lift Luis’s confidence, thereby proving to himself and everyone else that he is a capable team member.
Spare Parts is smart and poignant, dramatizing certain elements of the true story for socio-political effect. For example, while Cristian and Lorenzo design the proof-of-concept model using the spare parts found in Dr. Cameron’s science lab, Oscar sets out to raise money for critical missing pieces. He solicits funds from local businesses and banks and is repeatedly turned down. Upon witnessing the ease with which servicemen receive a loan, Oscar astutely pulls his uniform out of the closet and successfully obtains $100 to help with the project. This demonstrates that, given individual prejudice and institutionalized racism, sometimes people of color are not taken seriously, as citizens deserving of respect, unless he or she is in uniform. Later in the film, the team drives to a motel where they can test the rover in the pool. But before they begin, fun hijinks ensue as they push Dr. Cameron into the pool. Eventually everyone is in the water, splashing away, being the kids that they really don’t have the privilege of being at home. While no character’s life situation is representative of every undocumented immigrant who arrived in this country as a child, Spare Parts effectively draws out the inherent drama of their situations in order to instill empathy in the audience.
It should be no surprise that Spare Parts is also very funny, given George Lopez’s headlining presence. Once the team arrives in Santa Barbara for the competition, where they enter the college-level contest (Dr. Cameron thinks that if they lose, it’ll be a greater accomplishment to come in last among the likes of MIT and Stanford), they discover that their waterproof case leaks and resolve to find a quick, absorbent solution. Lorenzo suggests using tampons, and watching him build up the courage to ask a woman in the grocery store for help in choosing the right one (no applicator!) is hilarious. According to Davis’s article, this really happened, despite its seeming provenance from a teenage sex comedy.
In fact, Spare Parts ends triumphantly, but not without suspense. Like I said, I don’t really understand all of their techno-speak, but watching them complete the rover’s underwater obstacle course was a nail-biting ordeal. The team impresses the judges with their oral presentation, self-evident mastery of the material, and innovative and spendthrift design. I don’t want to spoil everything for you, so I urge you to check out the film. It may have taken some liberties with the original story, but as an inspirational teacher/coach movie, Spare Parts blazes a new trail and winningly focuses on the realistic trials and tribulations of the students.
I’m not really one for documentaries, and I almost never run out to see them in the theater. However, this week I made a rare exception for The Salt of the Earth (2014), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In it, German director Wim Wenders explores the life and work of social documentary and environmental photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black-and-white images have bridged cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers for over four decades. Trained as an economist, Salgado first made the switch to photography after commandeering his wife’s camera. He started as a photojournalist, but The Salt of the Earth focuses on the self-assigned projects Salgado undertakes for years at a time. He’s been a witness to the human condition everywhere: photographing the Rwandan genocide, the end of the Persian Gulf War, Sudan, and all around South America.
The subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (who shares the director’s credit with Wenders), shot the scenes of the photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the field—in the Russian Arctic capturing polar bears and walruses with his camera or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, getting to know the isolated native people and their way of life. In voiceover, Juliano narrates that journeying with him to the Arctic was the first time that Juliano had ever gone on assignment with his father. Although the color landscape photography is starkly beautiful, the more plentiful sections of Salgado the Elder reflecting on individual photographs from his oeuvre were more engrossing. (It’s also curious that beyond seeing Salgado at work or discussing it in hindsight, we don’t ever learn much about his process, aesthetic choices, or the nature of his collaboration with his wife Lélia. Why does he shoot in B&W? Who are his artistic influences?)
The Salt of the Earth is captivating in the same way that Salgado’s images are similarly evocative, painful, and compassionate. They demand your attention, but they also picture deeply private and traumatic events in the lives of Salgado’s multifaceted subjects. At just under two hours long, the film documents a good chunk of Salgado’s portfolio. His Portuguese-accented French makes it easy to get swept up in the photographer’s stories, which animate a film that is largely a slideshow of the pictures he has made over the years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then he poetically fills his images with details about the people he met, the horrors he saw, the work of humanitarian aid workers he observed. He confesses that what he witnessed in Rwanda and in the neighboring Congo (where thousands of survivors fled before being forced to return home) affected him so deeply that he began exploring nature and wildlife photography as a way to move on from the trauma.
The documentary, like Salgado’s work, is both very subtle and deeply profound. I had no idea that his greatest achievement may be what he and his family have created in their corner of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Having grown up on his father’s farm, set in a lush subtropical paradise, Salgado was devastated in the 1990s that his childhood home had turned into a dry wasteland, unable to maintain life due to advanced natural degradation, rampant deforestation, and unchecked exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore. Lélia innocently suggested that they simply plant trees to rejuvenate the land. Seventeen years after establishing the Instituto Terra, the land is green again, populated with millions of trees, numerous animal species once threatened with extinction, and vibrant, free-flowing natural springs. It is remarkable what they accomplished in just fifteen years, and it is extremely touching that the Salgado family gifted the land to Brazil’s national parks service so that everyone may enjoy the family’s Private Natural Heritage Reserve.
I broke out in tears when, at the end of the film, Salgado reminisces about the transformation that his father’s Fazenda Bulcão (or Bulcão Farm) underwent, at peace with the notion that the land has returned to its robust natural state and should remain that way long after he is gone. What a beautiful way to accept the transiency of our existence. And what a legacy.
Considering that Salgado has seen—and shown us—the best and worst that people have to offer, The Salt of the Earth ends on a hard-won, optimistic note. The coda is also poignant because it was virtually the only scene in which Salgado speaks his native language. In the beginning, it had puzzled me as to why he was always speaking French. (He and Lélia moved to Paris in the late 60s or early 70s, and they are still based in the city where they raised their sons.) Eventually, it dawned on me that he likely spoke French so that his interviewer, Wim Wenders, could understand him. This delighted me to no end, for I have a tremendous soft spot for scenes and/or whole relationships played out between two or more people who are speaking a language that isn’t the mother tongue to either one of them. So, it was startling but oh-so poetic that Salgado should speak in Portuguese at the end, signaling a homecoming after decades abroad, circumnavigating the globe in search of humanity.
Emma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.
Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of Bataan, Strangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.
When the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.
Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.
A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.
On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.
Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.
At the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.
While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.
A Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.
In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.
The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.
Months later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.
Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”
Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and
somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”
Just when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.
What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.
Rounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.
A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.
But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.
Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.
Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.