Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Early on in my academic study of film history and theory, I realized that the best way to understand the impact that the Movies have on our lives, to investigate these “popular entertainments,” is to watch what is and once was popular. I’ve seen a great number of films that never interested me as a filmgoer (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3), but I feel a professional obligation to see them nevertheless. This doesn’t mean that I see everything. (Who has the time, anyway?) For instance, I draw the line at certain kinds of horror movies, like torture porn or possession flicks. Limits. We all have our limits.

But when I examine popular films (by which I mean unequivocal blockbusters or cult classics), whether I am a self-professed fan or not, I tap into another world. Or at least I try. I want to know all the angles: all the controversies, all the gripes, all the pleasures that audiences have and share with one another. I have to see what all the fuss is about.

There was a lot of fuss about the Movies in 2015. Even though comic book superhero movies, studio tentpoles based on YA literature, and reboots of long-dormant franchises still dominated the box office this year, as they almost always do, to paraphrase New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the major studios pulled off the unthinkable: they gave us stuff that we largely wanted and liked, and thank god their original flicks with mid-size budgets did well, too. Maybe this means that film isn’t dying.

Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started in Fifty Shades of Grey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As I actively participated in the hullabaloo surrounding the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), the whole world of fandom was thrown into sharp relief. “Fan-made,” which generally connotes those cultural products that are made by amateurs, created in the spirit of or in homage to well known works, suddenly landed on a much bigger stage, with more money attached, in 2015. Now, I’m not suggesting that J.J. Abrams isn’t a professional—even if I do think he’s famous for aping Spielberg and for re-imagining other creators’ properties. He tried his best with Star Trek; he improved upon George Lucas. I also do not mean to diminish Taylor-Johnson’s talents; she elevated her source material (the poorly imagined fan-fiction/erotica drivel written by E.L. James) by focusing on the ridiculousness of what ultimately amounted to no more than the protracted business negotiations of a sexual contract between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson won’t be returning for the next installments, and Universal has allowed James, who objected to Taylor-Johnson’s choices, to pass her husband, Niall Leonard, control over the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley, 2017).

However, while we’re on the topic of credibility, it is worth mentioning again that Trevorrow only had a low-budget romantic comedy to his name (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) before Spielberg handed him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise and World‘s estimated $150 million budget. He foundered a few times while promoting his monstrosity, unable to convince us that the relationship between onscreen leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t reek of sexism and that the reason women are not called upon to direct giant studio tentpoles is because they simply don’t want to. And to top it all off, Trevorrow delivered a cynical CGI-laden horror show, without any of the thrills, wonder, or charm of the 1993 original. Can you tell that I am a huge Jurassic Park fan?

Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together in Jurassic World? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It is well established that I am not a fan of Star Wars. But I knew that I was going to see the biggest film of the year in the theater. For a while, I just didn’t know when. Originally, I decided that I would wait a couple of weeks, allow the crowds to thin out. Then I decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the fan culture, I had to see it opening weekend. I had my heart set on seeing filmgoers dressed as their favorite characters, maybe even turned away because they forgot to read the theater’s weapons policy and misguidedly brought that plastic lightsaber from home. I attended a sold-out show on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. There were no Chewbaccas or Luke Skywalkers in the audience. Hell, we didn’t even have to stand in line before entering the auditorium. There were no hoots or hollers when the film franchise’s logo flashed across the screen. But I had tears in my eyes then, because I knew that I was sharing an experience with a larger, more enthusiastic community of film fans, even if they weren’t sitting in that darkened room with me. (They went at 8 pm Thursday night, right?) All in all, though, it was kind of like seeing any other movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is predicated on the idea that familiarity will sell. That is, it will fill nostalgic hearts and minds and also sell a shit ton of toys. I also understand that most diehard fans of the epic space fantasy series resent mastermind George Lucas’s three prequels, not only for introducing the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks but also for boring audiences to tears. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the last two prequels, inelegantly referred to as Episodes II and III.) So it seems only logical that a Star Wars superfan like J.J. Abrams would be able to bring back for his fellow fans what I imagine is the wonder and excitement of the early films. As I like to say, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise, but that isn’t saying much.” It is a loving pastiche of the original trilogy, only it is well made. Its racially and sexually diverse cast is new and more than welcome, especially since the unequivocal lead is a resourceful young woman named Rey, who, throughout her (mis)adventures with former Storm-Trooper Finn, father figure Han Solo, and furry sidekick Chewbacca, gradually learns the source of all her magical abilities. (It’s the Force, duh.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the ultimate fan movie experience that everyone wanted this year or any year, for that matter (just look at how its box-office haul continues to grow and grow, beating all kinds of records), but it left me with nothing more than a newfound interest in why it is so important and life-defining to so many people.

OK, I didn't go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.
OK, I didn’t go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.

Instead, I received the superfan experience that I had hoped to witness at Star Wars while attending a special presentation of The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Though I initially balked at the price for a ticket to the film’s limited Roadshow Edition ($20!), I reasoned that the promise of receiving a souvenir program and watching the shadow and light show of actual celluloid—and of a rare, large format, no less—unspooling through a projector had enough value for me. Well, that, and because I wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest. His cinema of indulgence, as I like to think of it, is an acquired taste, but I love how he wears his ecstatic cinephilia on his sleeve. In the case of what is billed as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino,” this indulgence extends to amplifying the moviegoing experience for spectators to a new extreme, even for him.

Previously, Tarantino and best friend Robert Rodriguez put on a Grindhouse program in 2007, double billing their unapologetically trashy B-movies Death Proof and Planet Terror, respectively. Just as with Grindhouse, the auteur and his co-conspirators (historically, the Weinstein brothers Bob and Harvey) have injected a film history lesson about bygone exhibition practices back into contemporary pop culture, reminding today’s audiences that going to the Movies used to be a special, spectacular event. The limited Roadshow Edition of The Hateful Eight, complete with an instrumental overture, twelve-minute intermission, a handful of minutes not included on the digital prints of the film, and, not to mention, an earlier release date, subverts current film presentation trends such as surcharging tickets for movies screened in 3D and IMAX formats. You could even make the argument that the real star of the picture was the tangible film itself. Theaters had to be retrofitted with the right technology to screen 70mm, and transporting the heavy reels of film also proved a herculean task (the film is three hours long, mind you). Just read Adam Witmer’s account of what it is like to run the unfamiliar platter system of the 70mm projector at movie theaters in Los Angeles, with Tarantino sitting in the audience, to boot. It is mighty thrilling stuff.

Two of The Hateful Eight, being... hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Two of The Hateful Eight, being… hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

I enjoyed The Hateful Eight as a film story, right up until the end, anyway. But what I will most appreciate about it is the experience that I had going to the Movies on this occasion. Unlike at Star Wars, I had to wait in line to be let into the theater showing The Hateful Eight. Before the presentation began, I watched loving couples, movie nerd guys, and families with teenage or young adult children snap photos of themselves holding up the souvenir program. It was clear that I was a part of something big, something made for fans of Tarantino and for fans of cinema. I was glad that I had plunked down the $20 to attend a film event that hadn’t been replicated in fifty years. Would I do it again? Well, not every film gets or deserves this treatment, so that’s a moot point.

The plethora of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings of popular films—or, in the case of The Hateful Eight, the reconstruction of 1950s and 60s film exhibition practices—not only allowed fan culture to come to the fore in 2015, it damn near took control of our moviegoing habits. They were everywhere, and more are even coming to the small screens. Netflix will drop all episodes of its original series Fuller House next month, and fans of the family sitcom have already proposed new (sinister) ways of looking at the story of DJ Tanner raising her own kids with the help of friends and family in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is not definitely returning, this time to the cable channel Showtime. These TV shows help prove that “fan-made” doesn’t just mean a low budget, quirky reinterpretation of known properties by pop culture consumers. It also means “for the fans.”

Returning to the realm of the Big Screen, I found myself going to movies this year that I never would have imagined wanting to see if not for the perception that they would be special opportunities for me to participate in fan culture. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was one of them, but so was Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Now, maybe it was because I had begun to appreciate the action film in all of its tense glory through repeated and ecstatic viewings of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)—more on that in part four—that I had wanted to see what one of my favorite film critics, Bilge Ebiri, had dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”

If I had ever seen the three original films by George Miller—1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—I didn’t remember them. They mostly resonated with me through their influence on my childhood favorites Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) and Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993). In any case, I loved Fury Road. All at once, it was a recycling bin filled with iconography from every corner of cinema, refashioning elements of the modern vampire myth and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the process, but it also felt so incredibly fresh. I had never seen a setting like that, simultaneously warm and inviting but also austere and unforgiving. Still, before its release, I never could have predicted that Fury Road, a frenetic road war movie with a preponderance of supposed practical effects and real stuntwork, would go on to top so many critics associations’ lists of the best films from 2015, including that of the National Board of Review. And a nomination for Best Picture? Who would have thunk it, indeed?

Donnie accepts that he's a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Donnie accepts that he’s a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not one for sports movies. I rented Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) out of boredom and quickly lost interest. However, I rushed at the chance to see Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) in the theater, finding it my economic, political, and social obligation to support minority filmmakers. It didn’t matter that the only Rocky movie I had ever seen was the fourth installment in the franchise. On second thought, it probably helped that I had seen Drago bludgeon Apollo Creed to death in the ring in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). For Creed is about a young black boxer’s coming to terms with his identity as the illegitimate son of the late world heavyweight champion. Aside from the stellar performances—especially by lead Michael B. Jordan—and an amazing single take that approximates what a real-life boxing match is like, I loved the call-backs to the original film, snippets that I recognized because I am a pop culture junkie and know Rocky iconography without ever having seen the movie. I loved the early scene where Adonis “Donnie” Johnson shadowboxes his father, taking Rocky’s place in one of their bouts, footage of which Donnie projects onto a wall, streaming the video from YouTube. Later, his running through the street while neighborhood kids on bikes roll alongside him reminded me of Rocky’s triumphal climb up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an exhilarating cinematic moment; it may have been like what film audiences experienced in 1976. I don’t remember how enthusiastic the crowd was when I saw Creed, but I couldn’t stop grinning from how well co-writer/director Coogler had rebooted, remade, and re-imagined a cultural touchstone that had run out of gas in recent years, how he had made it relevant to today’s audiences. With every day bringing us news of another unarmed African American being gunned down by excessive police force, Creed is a celebration of a strong black body, a multifaceted character with a complex inner life. In other words, it is a reminder that Black Lives Matter and are full of underestimated and untapped potential. Shame the Academy couldn’t see it.

But not everything produced with a strong fanbase in mind succeeded financially or critically. No one really cared to see Terminator: Genysis (Alan Taylor, 2015), probably turned off by its confusing story. Is it a sequel, a prequel, or what? And the remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic about a group of bank robbers who spend most days catching some waves off the Los Angeles coast, Point Break, crashed and burned. Like many people who grew up loving the campy original, I was at first hostile to the idea that Warner Bros. was going to distribute a remake of my beloved romance between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. But I learned that it is possible to appreciate both versions. In fact, it is possible to watch them both at the same time.

Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Having seen the trailer a couple of times, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers (including director/cinematographer Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) had made a case for a new Point Break in 2015. It’s a Point Break set within the world of extreme sports, a picture about the forces of nature and economic inequality. In this version, Johnny Utah is an FBI cadet who, based on his previous experience as a poly-athlete (I’d never heard that term before!) hypothesizes that a series of crimes performed through gravity-defying stunts on separate continents are all the work of the same daring team. They’re chasing what he calls the Osaki Eight, a series of physically demanding stunts that bring one closer to Nature. In other words, this legendary philosophy (the progenitor of it died while attempting his third challenge) is kind of like The Force: it is meant to do good. But the group, led by Bodhi (who else?), commits criminal acts in order to give back, including hijacking millions of dollars being transported by a plane. Releasing the bills miles high to the Mexican villagers below, they also accomplish their goal of strategically falling through the sky and opening their parachutes inside a cave, effectively going from above to below the earth’s surface in one fell swoop. This is not your childhood’s Point Break. In addition to highlighting what was wrong with the original (the surfer gang wasn’t a band of Robin Hoods), the film is a showcase for the striking photography of beautiful natural landscapes and the real stunts performed by professional athletes that are littered throughout.

C'mon, Bodhi, why don't you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna... Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
C’mon, Bodhi, why don’t you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna… Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I watched the new Point Break with the original, so ingrained in my memory, playing at the same time in the back of my mind. I could giddily anticipate some gestures and exchanges, such as the moment when Utah fires his gun into the air in a blaze of bullets after just having it trained on Bodhi, thereby allowing his friend/object of desire to get away before the feds arrive. I was the only one in the theater who yelped when she saw James Le Gros cameo as an FBI director (Roach lives!). Despite these call-backs to the original, I can assure you that this Point Break is its own campy thing. It is less a remake and more a re-imagining. And I couldn’t help thinking that an early scene set in a dilapidated Parisian train station (if memory serves) is the closest either film comes to shooting a love scene between the men. Here, Bodhi and his gang hang out, fighting each other for no apparent reason. Although couched as a test of Utah’s character and mettle, the fisticuffs between he and Bodhi signal a love and brutalism that binds them together. I just hope that in twenty-four years, if they even wait that long to remake Point Break, Bodhi and Utah consummate this desire to turn the other into himself. To fuck, as it were.

Fargo Season Two
Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (center) confronts Gerhardt scion Dodd in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

However, the most immersive and rewarding fan experience that I had in 2015—and which carried into 2016—didn’t even involve going to the movie theater. I became obsessed with the FX original series Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I initially eschewed the first season of the mock true crime anthology series because Billy Bob Thornton starred. I hold a grudge against the man for having won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the year that John Hodge’s script for Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was nominated in the same category. (More on that film in part four.) However, I had read that the show was amazing, and when I spotted the first season on DVD at my public library, I snatched up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about Fargo.

Set in 2006, it follows Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a stunning debut), a sheriff’s deputy in a small Minnesota town who is the only one who can see what is really going on: perennial schlemiel Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, putting on his best north Midwestern accent) is in cahoots with the mysterious assassin Lorne Malvo (a charismatic Thornton). Malvo’s not-quite-solicited murder of Lester’s high school bully sets off a dangerous and absurd chain of events, transforming Lester from a mild-mannered underachiever into a successful insurance salesman with a murderous streak. A suitcase buried in the snow even figures prominently in a second narrative thread concerning Malvo’s manipulation of a grocery store king (Oliver Platt) who hired him to find his blackmailer. That reminds me: I really ought to check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014).

Anyway, I fell under Fargo’s spell immediately. I devoured episodes, reveling in the show’s intricate plotting, nuanced performances, and references not just to the Coens’ film but their whole cinematic universe. I finished in time to watch the second season as it aired, but I waited until my DVR had recorded all ten episodes before diving in. I wanted to go at my own (delayed but faster) pace.

For the second outing, Noah Hawley and his new writer’s room set the story in 1979, during the so-called Sioux Falls Massacre, which Molly’s retired sheriff of a father (Keith Carradine) referenced on a regular basis throughout season one. Going in, I already knew that at least two characters would survive: Molly, now played as a young girl by Raven Stewart, and her father Lou (played as a young state trooper by Patrick Wilson). All bets were off regarding everyone and everything else. The second season is more ambitious in style, story, and setting, incorporating a Midwestern turf war between a German-American crime family in Fargo, the Gerhardts, and a bigger, more streamlined operation in Kansas City that wishes to absorb the former’s drugs distribution business. Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a Minnesota beautician with a dream, accidentally runs over the youngest brother of the Gerhardt clan while he (Kieran Culkin, who knows a thing or two about family dynasties himself) tries to flee the scene of his triple homicide inside a remote diner. Peggy enlists the help of her dim-witted but well-meaning husband, the apprentice butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), to get rid of Rye Gerhardt’s body. A call-back to the memorable woodchipper scene in the film Fargo ensues, as Ed disposes of Rye’s body the only way he knows how: with a meat grinder.

 

Fargo meat grinder
Ed prepares Rye Gerhardt for the woodchipper meat grinder in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

Although the characters and storylines are different between the film and each season of the TV show, a cottage industry exists in which viewers spot references to the film in the new series. Originally, this activity maddened Adam Sternbergh, novelist and contributing editor of New York magazine, whose favorite film is Fargo. Writing for Vulture, he recounts the process of coming to terms with the TV show, whose announcement in 2014 made him feel “something between doubt and existential despair,” by being “able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched.” The widening of the show’s scope in season two to include references to the larger Coen “mythology” has influenced Sternbergh to see Fargo as “the ultimate tribute” to the filmmakers, continuing:

The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

My favorite reference in season two to the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes at the end of the seventh episode. With the eldest Gerhardt brother in his possession, Ed Blumquist phones low-level KC mob enforcer Mike Milligan (a transfixing Bokeem Woodbine) to make a deal: he’ll give him Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in exchange for help in getting the Gerhardts off his back. The song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” made famous by the Dude’s dream sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998), plays out the scene before the end credits roll. But rather than lift Mickey Newbury’s original 1967 track from the film, Hawley and Co. do something extra geeky: they put on an anachronistic funky cover of the song by the pop-synth band White Denim. I’d never heard of this musical group before, but I can only imagine that they probably first heard the song as I did in 1998: while watching The Big Lebowski. In this way, Hawley and his collaborators have taken their Coen fandom to new intertextual heights. Like White Denim, Hawley and his colleagues have taken a text (almost) exclusively associated with the Coen Brothers film genre, to use Sternbergh’s taxonomy, and created something new. Placing the cover of the song inside the playful homage that is Fargo the TV series emphasizes the fan culture from which both the cover song and the TV program were born and which they continue to stimulate.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

Long Take: Unraveling the Psychosexual Trauma of It Follows

Viewed March 28, 2015

It Follows movie posterI had never heard of the indie horror film It Follows until I spotted its poster hanging in the hallway of a local art-house cinema here in Kansas City, announcing its imminent showcase. Using familiar iconography of American teenage rebellion, the minimalist printed advertisement poses two attractive young people in the midst of a backseat tryst in a classic car parked in the middle of the woods. A smoky footlight from within illuminates the interior of the car parked on this Lovers’ Lane. Without a tagline, the poster for It Follows relies on a quote from The Dissolve to entice spectators: “One of the Most Striking American Horror Films in Years,” which isn’t quite the same as saying it is the most striking American horror film in years. However, the beguiling film title is the viewer’s most helpful guide to interpreting the poster scene (and, by extension, the film it represents): what is “It?” Could “It” be me, as I look at this intimate moment between two people? The voyeuristic film poster perfectly encapsulates the dueling yet complementary senses of dread and yearning that the 2014 film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, instills in the audience.

Given the film’s strong word-of-mouth marketing campaign and sizable box office gross, distributors RADiUS-TWC scrapped plans to release the film via video-on-demand and instead rushed it to more theaters around the country. Even though I routinely eschew horror films (unless there are vampires; don’t ask why!), I determined that I had better see this thing, to judge for myself how “striking” it is. I couldn’t see It Follows at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport now; when the film’s distribution widened ahead of the theater’s advertised opening day, Tivoli put on alternate programming instead. Wishing video-on-demand was still an option, I entered into an agreement at an AMC multiplex, voluntarily giving away control, allowing myself to be scared out of my mind. After all, if New York film critic and self-proclaimed “horror-movie freak” David Edelstein could barely handle It Follows, how was I ever going to walk away un-traumatized? Apparently, the film had frightened him so much that he left with a “so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread.” Yikes.

And here is where I must insert my common refrain: there be spoilers ahead. But if you are like me and avoid torture porn, slasher movies, and possession flicks, then you should know—if you’re even considering seeing It Follows—that the film is not scary! That’s right: to my pleasant surprise, It Follows isn’t scary in the least. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jump scares (there are a few) or that the plotting doesn’t create and alleviate some violent tension. The sole “hideously gory image” that Edelstein can’t wipe from his memory arrives early, but it is no more traumatizing to look at than any of the so-called elegant murderous tableaux featured on the network drama Hannibal. (I admit: I watch that, but never before or after eating and only during daylight hours.)

By now, you probably know the premise of It Follows. A pretty but nice girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), has sex with a quiet but nice boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). Afterwards, he chloroforms her face, and she wakes up in her underwear, bound in a wheelchair. In an abandoned parking garage somewhere in the suburbs of Detroit, Hugh explains to her that, through intercourse, he has just passed a “thing” onto her, a monster that only she can see and that will take different forms, usually people she knows and loves. It will never stop haunting her, Hugh warns Jay (and by extension, the audience). It will follow her everywhere on foot, but she mustn’t let it kill her. If she succumbs to its evil force, then it will come after him.

Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

In the introduction to the interview she conducted with David Robert Mitchell, Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi hints at the parallels that Jay’s newfound diagnosis shares with venereal disease (prognosis: not good!). She writes, “Jay’s sexually transmitted haunting evokes the film’s theme of the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” (emphasis mine). In other words, despite coming of age well after the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the subsequent “safe sex” movement of the 1990s, teenagers today approach sex with some trepidation regarding infection. But in the film, the teenagers don’t so much internalize the idea that intercourse is more than just physically and emotionally laying yourself bare. Instead, sex is a means of, to borrow Nastasi’s words, “surrendering a part of yourself to someone else” whose sexual history weighs heavily on your own. The “interconnectivity” inherent in the sexual act renders Jay vulnerable to the aftereffects of one of Hugh’s earlier assignations and winds up controlling her destiny. Despite the support that she receives from her sister and friends, the visions of stalkers are too much for Jay to bear, and the burden of having to pass on this “sexually transmitted haunting” constitutes not only cruel and unusual punishment for all involved but also her only means of escape from imminent death.

But what does it all add up to? While Mitchell is open to various interpretations of what It Follows means, in talking with Nastasi, he resolutely denies that viewers should walk out of the theater believing that Jay’s “sexually transmitted haunting,” to use that phrase again, is a result of her sexuality. He also disagrees with the notion that the film purports a “sex-negative” message, specifically about women losing something during the act and that they should therefore be afraid of sex. Jay is not being punished for sleeping with someone, and casual sex isn’t something to fear. Watching the movie, I purposefully looked beyond the STI connection and about midway through decided that It Follows is about the collision of the real and the imaginary and how convincing someone of your truth binds you both together. I thought that what Jay suffers from isn’t a real physical threat but rather the psychological torment that Hugh first puts into her head. Can she trust him? Is this “thing” real? Will anyone believe that she is not crazy?

Young adults commonly struggle to make sense of the world and their place within it. What do I want to be when I grow up? Will my best friend and I always be close? How can I be cool? I don’t want to be anything like my parents! One of the elements I like best about It Follows is the companionship that Jay enjoys with Kelly (Jay’s sister, played by Lili Sepe), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Eventually, a classmate and former high school paramour, played by a young Johnny Depp lookalike named Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins the crew. They all trust that Jay is seeing some pretty disturbing visions and that she isn’t crazy. Their teenage clique demonstrates that even if they cannot see or identify with the viral bullying that Jay endures, they can relate to it and desire to put a stop to it. In this way, It Follows turns the average teenager’s general desire to fit in (and the complementary fear of rejection) on its head. Jay’s supernatural condition infects everyone around her, thereby producing a cohesive social unit that doesn’t label her an outcast or social pariah. This is the silver lining to “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety,” as Nastasi labels the film’s overarching theme. In the end, the group relies on Jay’s vision to extinguish the monster once and for all.

In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he'd given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he’d given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It Follows does showcase the interplay between Jay’s supernatural condition and the awkwardness of teenagehood in some poignant ways. Paul is in love with Jay, his best friend’s older sister. Years ago, they shared each other’s first kiss. When Paul finds out that Jay slept with Greg in order to pass on the haunting, he behaves somewhat like a petulant child. Why Greg? Paul wants to know. Because Jay thought that Greg could handle it. For days, Greg is unfazed, insisting that the monster has yet to visit him. Its absence leads him to believe that it is all in Jay’s mind. What happens next in the film rendered incorrect my observation about the slippage between what is real and what is imagined. One night, Jay watches a zombie-like stalker in the shape of Greg break into Greg’s house across the street. Jay realizes that her transmission, however successful, hasn’t freed her from the visions. So she runs across the street to warn him. Once in the house, it takes the form of Greg’s mother (Leisa Pulido), naked but for an untied silk robe, and pounds on Greg’s door. Jay yells for him to stay locked in his room. He doesn’t heed Jay’s warning, and for the first time the film audience catches a glimpse of what happens when the monster kills someone in the chain: it literally fucks the victim to death, their skin gelling together. That’s when it dawned on me that It Follows is simply about the fear of death—by incest.

In an interview with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, writer-director David Robert Mitchell discusses many of the film’s plot twists and turns. I think he’s being particularly cagey about why the monster takes the form of the victim’s loved ones, limiting his remarks to just the following: “So why did I make it the mom, other than just saying it was one of the more fucked-up things that I could think of? [Laughs.] It’s also that within the film, we’re sort of avoiding the influence of the adult world, and so I thought it was interesting to only enter into that space through the trope of the monster.” Without revealing much, this quote pinpoints exactly what the film is about: the anxiety over growing up and becoming an adult, and the film story uses incest as a metaphor for the teenagers to confront their own mortality, by becoming “one” with their parent.

Whereas my sister sees the teenagers’ mission to extinguish the monster on their own (that is, without adult supervision) as evidence of their self-sufficiency, I view it as an expression of the horror genre’s conventions. In these films, parents often don’t interact much with their teenagers—unless they are part of the problem. Just look at The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy 1973) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), two seminal entries in the genre. In the former, orgiastic villagers use their children to lure a virginal fool to their Hebridean island in order to sacrifice him as part of their pagan May Day celebration. The titular nightmare(s) in the latter film also refer to a slippage between the real and the imaginary, and the adults are similarly of little use to solve the teens’ horrific ordeal. The adults’ attempt to murder Freddy Krueger, who now stalks the teens’ dreams, is the reason for their children’s torment today. It Follows even recalls the work of cult director David Lynch, specifically Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Writing for Slate, and without elaborating on the specifics, Mark Binelli claims that “Mitchell is clearly indebted to Blue Velvet,” probably because teenagers also investigate the psychosexual crimes of the adults in that voyeuristic picture. The highly influential Twin Peaks presents a more apt comparison; Leland Palmer killed his daughter but claims to have been possessed throughout his life by a demon, which led him to rape and murder her. The “influence of the adult world,” to use Mitchell’s phrase, is certainly something to avoid in these films and TV series, but since we only catch glimpses of the adults in It Follows, what makes them so sinister that copulation with your parent is deadly?

If the hallmark of teenage rebellion is not wanting to be anything like your parents, then, according to Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical theory, the Oedipal and Electra complexes should be the death of you. It Follows realizes this destiny for those who contract the sexually transmitted haunting, but Mitchell goes one step further. Rather than merely promoting the fear of incest as the victim’s undoing, he combines these metaphors for psychosexual conflict with another Freudian theory: the interplay between the sexual and death instincts. While the former drives the individual to seek (sexual) pleasure and live life to the fullest, the latter binds the individual in a series of repetitious traumas that subconsciously influence the individual to seek solace in the space before his or her birth. In other words, life is about negotiating the libido and the death drive, which underpins the unconscious desire of the individual to cease to exist. In It Follows, the sexually transmitted haunting forces the infected to face his or her fear of death through violent confrontation with a monster that resembles the literal beginning of the victim’s being. For example, Greg’s pursuit of pleasure (his sexual instinct or libido) ends as his death drive brings him back to the place before he existed, in his mother’s loins. If the chain of victims haunted by the monster represents a series of repeated traumas, then the monster’s killing one victim and then going after another illustrates our inability to escape the death drive.

In the film's prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS/TWC.
In the film’s prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems somehow involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Evidence that It Follows is an exploration of (Neo-)Freudian psychoanalytical theory abounds throughout the picture. In fact, one of the most ominous aspects of the film’s prologue, shot in an extended long take, foreshadows what is to come. A young woman named Annie (Bailey Spry) runs out of her house dressed in a rather grown-up lingerie ensemble and high heels. Her father (Loren Bass) calls out to her as she circles around the stationary camera several times, afraid of whatever is in the house. The audience never sees what haunts her, so her father is the sole person (or even thing) that we can associate with the house. If you didn’t know the premise of the film, you might think that there is a history of sexual abuse between Annie and her father. She eventually gets into a car and drives far away to a secluded lakefront. She calls home and, fearing that the monster will soon reach her, insists that she loves her dad. Although we do not know who or what defiled and contorted Annie’s body (this is the gory image critic David Edelstein couldn’t erase from his memory), I think it is safe to assume that the monster probably took the form of her father in that unseen moment.

Jay's first vision appears while she's in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay’s first vision appears while she’s in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Once Jay contracts the haunting, the fear of sexual misconduct with her loved ones becomes more obvious. In conversation with Kyle Buchanan, Mitchell comments on the first form that Jay’s iteration of the monster takes: “And I think what you’re saying is true, it’s about the contrast of this [old] woman in its location [the campus of Jay’s community college]. Instantly, you realize that something is not quite right. And people are not paying attention to her, although in any other situation, they would be.” I recognized the old woman in her nightgown as the old woman from a photograph on the wall that Jay studies earlier in the film. The implication is that this woman is Jay’s grandmother. When Mitchell refers in the same interview to his method of keeping a distance between what the protagonists see from their perspective on the ground and what may be haunting Jay from any other vantage point, I believe he is referring specifically to the moment when Jay sees an old naked man standing atop her roof. Even though Mitchell and co. didn’t put on a longer lens to capture the menace’s visage in more detail, I still recognized that he is probably Jay’s grandfather, from the same photo.

The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Although the monster assumes more unfamiliar personages, including a young peeping tom from next door and an extraordinarily tall man (whom I couldn’t place), a majority of its reflections are familiar. When Jay and her friends track Hugh down and visit him at his real address, his mother answers the door, her wide smile in deep contrast to the emotionless face she had on while coming after Hugh (real name Jeff), completely naked, in the parking garage following his successful transmission of the haunting onto Jay. Furthermore, the violent climax at an indoor community pool not only resembles the end of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), it further illustrates my argument. The group (minus Greg, of course) plugs in various household appliances, hoping to use Jay to lure the monster into the pool so that they may electrocute it. Mitchell admits to Buchanan that the group’s plan is “the stupidest plan ever!” Paul has brought a gun and depends on Jay’s description of where it is in order to shoot it. Yara gets injured in the process, but it eventually falls into the pool, attempting to drown Jay. She gets away and watches as the pool fills up with blood. Crucially, however, throughout the whole scene the monster appears to Jay as her absent father, whom I also previously glimpsed in a family photograph. Besides wanting to keep these familiar connections as opaque as possible, I don’t understand why Jay, especially in this scene, never calls out whom it resembles. For that matter, after so many close calls, she never tells anyone whose appearance the monster adopts. Either I am completely off base as to why the monster threatens to kill the teenagers while in the form of their parents, or Mitchell is just one cagey guy.

Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He's no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He’s no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Despite the bloodbath, Jay and her friends are not out of the woods. Inexplicably, Jay sleeps with Paul. It Follows is not funny, but Paul’s asking Jay if she feels any different after they have sex cleverly corrupts the trope of (teenage) virginity. Next we see Paul troll for a prostitute. Meanwhile, Jay curls up on her bed in a familiar fetal position, her mother (Debbie Williams, whose face is never in focus—if it is even in the frame—throughout the film) stroking her naked back. This may be the most haunting image of It Follows. It demonstrates that the threat of death, expressed through her parent’s sexual menace, is ever near and ever present. The final shot of Jay and Paul, holding hands while walking down the street, may hint that the person following them in the distance is also haunting them. In this way, “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” is defeated: these friends have become lovers and can now face the monster/death together. Although the film ends on an ambiguous but still upbeat note (in spite of everything that has happened, anyway), the image of Jay’s mother suggestively touching her daughter is creepier and more foreboding than the couple’s maybe-stalker.


Below is the lyric video for “From the Night,” the first song off the 2014 album No One is Lost by Stars. The Canadian band’s dreamy soundscapes complement the electronic synth score by Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace), which borrows heavily from the horror-film themes of the 1970s and 80s, such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). More than that, the newest record by the prolific band, which I only recently got into thanks to a live studio-session they performed on the CBC radio show Q, thematically and stylistically dovetails with one of It Follows’ themes: the average teenager’s desire to fit in and have fun. The cover of the album, which you can glimpse in the video, showcases a similar youthful yearning for connection and social acceptance that It Follows deconstructs. Most notably, listen to the lyrics after the bridge (at the 3.40 mark in the video). They could be telling Jay and Paul’s story.

To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Behind the Gingham Altar: The Great British Baking Show Whets the Appetite for More Episodes

the Great British Baking Show BannerFor weeks, I have been lamenting the end of The Great British Baking Show. And now here I am, on the other end of the finale. The very deserving Nancy has been crowned champion, even though my sister and I were rooting for Luis. (The teenaged Martha was my favorite all along—so much potential!) I have been so emotionally invested in this reality competition television program that I cried. To put this in perspective, I did not cry during the series finale of Parks and Recreation earlier in the week. Don’t get me wrong: Leslie and co. received the heartwarming send-off we all wanted. The difference is that I wanted Parks to end, whereas I have no idea what I am going to without The Great British Baking Show.

Nancy, the Best British Amateur Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Nancy, the Best British Amateur Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

I am not a baker; I don’t really know my way around the kitchen. My domain is restricted to the sink, where I do the washing up while the cook puts his/her feet up after dinner. But I do love bread, cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts, etc. Whenever a judge, whether Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry, gave an amateur baking contestant negative feedback, I liked to say, with a bit of a shrug, “I’d eat it.” When the design of a cake or the flavor of a tart didn’t come off quite as intended: “I’d still eat it.” Every week, I was in awe of the twelve contestants’ talent—well, if I’m being completely honest, it was more like the top six bakers. They were the ones who impressed the most with their skill and creativity.

Richard, Five-Time Star Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Richard, Five-Time Star Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

In fact, when you think about it, that’s what this baking competition has been about: balancing skill and creativity in equal proportions. Richard, a builder from London, won the coveted title Star Baker an unprecedented five times throughout the season, mainly because his precision and balance of flavors hit the mark. On the other hand, Luis’s background in graphic design gave our beloved Mancunian an advantage when it came to crafting stunning personal artworks made of food. Sometimes the bakes were bang on; sometimes they were overdone. A retired office manager for a general medical practice, Nancy-of-Lincolnshire won because, as she displayed on the final weekend in the tent, she produced more technically accurate bakes with the right amount of visual flair. As much as I wanted Luis to win, I would have accepted anyone. But it does tickle the belly that the sole woman in the top three triumphed over the men.

Luis, my favorite to win The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Luis, my favorite to win The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

What made The Great British Baking Show so watchable, so satisfying, was the representation of friendly competition. No one was a diva, a trouble-maker, or a back-stabber. Everyone, at least from how the makers edited it together, seemed to get along. They were supportive of each other in times of doubt or after receiving stinging critiques. There was a kerfuffle midway through, when it was debatable whether or not Diana purposefully forgot to put Iain’s baked Alaska back in the freezer. But it was Iain’s decision to throw away everything that he was working on that cost him a place in the tent the next week. Emotions, I learned, do run high in the kitchen, and if you don’t control them, they can burn you.

That’s another thing. As the hosts for the PBS pledge drive accompanying (or is it obstructing?) the finale made clear, over and over and over again, The Great British Baking Show is very educational. I have learned more about baking than I could ever have imagined. For instance, British English favors “sponge” for what we Americans call “cake,” cake as opposed to frosting. I now have a lot of respect for those brave enough to bake, and I recognize that I have no business messing with the oven nobs or toying with the stand mixer. My place is behind the gingham altar. Next time someone brings me something sweet and doughy to eat, I will try not to eat everything on display before me.

Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma 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.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

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 BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen 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.

The Paradise Lost; or How I Failed To Register the News

Here is a perfect example of how, in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle, whether on television, Twitter, or, you know, newspapers’ websites, something as important as a TV show cancellation can escape me. Twice.

Last night was the season two finale of The Paradise. This BBC series airs as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic program, and although I am usually indoors on Sunday nights at 8, I ritualistically DVR the show. I store the collection of episodes until they become streamable on another platform, say, Netflix. I learned to take these extra precautions when I failed to catch the first season as it unfolded last year. Back then, I had to resort to watching each of the eight installments online after they premiered but before they were yanked off PBS’s website. I know it’s not much of an accomplishment–for many have watched whole seasons of TV shows in one sitting–but it was a big deal when I watched the entirety of The Paradise season one in two days. (I did the same thing last week with the miniseries Olive Kitteridge, but that is how the HBO programmers intended.)

I recount my dedicated work ethic to TV viewing (I had to contend with buffering and commercials for river cruises I’ll never be able to afford) as a way to get across my overall pleasure in watching this show. Admittedly, I was skeptical of its raison d’etre because it premiered months after Mr Selfridge took its initial bow as part of Masterpiece Classic. Who needs two period shows about British department stores? Sure, The Paradise is loosely based on Au bonheur des dames, the eleventh installment of Emile Zola’s twenty-novel indictment of the social and political mores of the bourgeoisie in Second Empire France (1852-70), Les Rougon-Macquart, whereas Mr Selfridge is loosely based on the life of the real-life American businessman–a student of Marshall Field in Chicago–who opened his namesake department store in 1909. Although set roughly thirty years apart, The Paradise and Mr Selfridge are strikingly similar. A pretty young woman with ambitions to make a name for herself in business and/or design serves as the audience’s entree into each establishment–no, each milieu. In each program, the concept of a storewide sale springs forth from the mind of the risky but enigmatic store owner, whether John Moray in The Paradise or Harry Gordon Selfridge in you-know-what, so as to lead viewers to believe that each entrepreneur invented the idea. More than this, since each show is a primetime soap opera, there is a fair amount of gossiping behind people’s backs, securing investments with regrettable strings attached, and love triangle wrangling.

After a superb first season, one that helped me forget the wretchedness of Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge went downhill. It revolved around Selfridge’s political entanglements and a devious member of the House of Lords trying to undo him to spite the intimate-but-platonic friendship that the politician’s wife shares with Selfridge. It also got bogged down in the espionage-tinged mystery surrounding a supporting character and brought it to a rather unfascinating conclusion through solving an uncompelling love triangle.

The Paradise, by contrast, is more emotionally and intellectually complex. It can get a little hokey, like Call the Midwife, but at least it’s not afraid to engage more overtly with the feminist struggle. The protagonist, Denise, proves herself a capable salesgirl in ladies’ wear (as well as a formidable rival in the love department), but more crucially, she is an innovative storyteller and pragmatic entrepreneur. Throughout, however, Denise’s position is tenuous because she is an ambitious woman. First it is because the store’s owner, Moray, takes a much-too-obvious liking to her, thereby triggering a guilt- and shame-laced struggle for his affections between Denise and Moray’s fiancee, the gentlewoman Katherine Glendenning who isn’t so much gentle as she is… spiteful. Then, in the second season, once Denise becomes the head of her department, Moray and Katherine use her as a pawn in their individual attempts to take over creative as well as financial control of the store. Moray may have sacrificed The Paradise when he rejected Katherine on their wedding day (through investments on Moray’s behalf, Katherine’s father owned the deeds to every store on the street where Moray was hoping to expand his store, including The Paradise itself), choosing true love with the shopgirl Denise instead, but throughout the second season of The Paradise, she starts to wonder whether they are politically and therefore romantically compatible. Most memorably, the two lovers, who by now work for Katherine and her sadistic husband, confront a rather touchy subject: Denise expresses her disgust with his longtime term of endearment for her, “my little champion,” with a vigorous slap across the face. I will not be your possession! While he pines for her, he eventually realizes that what he loves most about her is that she is her own person, whose imagination and ambition are greater than his own. Thank goodness he recognized that he believes in gender equality, too, because that is how The Paradise ends.

I didn’t know this when I watched it, but last night’s episode was the series finale. It was hours later, when I read a poorly written and minimally researched news flash from the UK’s Daily Mail that it hit me. But I didn’t register what this really meant until this morning, when I noticed that it was made public as early as February that the BBC hadn’t commissioned another season of The Paradise, the lesser rated of the media-contrived war between Mr Selfridge and The Paradise. This is when, confronted with the news a second time, I finally understood that not only did I miss news of the TV show’s cancellation before its finale aired in the US, I was also blissfully unaware of its being pulled from further production for nine months.

This morning, I wondered whether knowing this ahead of watching the finale would have affected my viewing of it. I surely would have been on the lookout for how to best summarize its impact, if any, or its legacy, if any, had I known about the show’s premature cancellation. The makers weren’t aware that this would be the last episode of The Paradise, either. It’s not a bad ending: as I pointed out before, Moray and Denise come to some common ground. Again, by sheer wit and ingenuity, Denise secures a future for herself wherein she will be her own boss. In the very last moments of the show, she pitches a millionaire acquaintance who has been interested in doing business with her on the prospect of a new beauty and cosmetics shop which will occupy her kindly uncle’s abandoned drapery storefront across the street. This way, she doesn’t need to leave the unnamed northern town, but she can be her own success alongside Moray. Wish fulfillment never looked so appealing, right? Well, until Moray realized that his calling Denise his “little champion” diminished her  potential, I was ready to write him off. Moray annoyed me to no end this season because he was never satisfied with any and all success Denise obtained. I would have been content with a third season wherein Moray was driven away from The Paradise for good by the store’s evil proprietors while Denise continued to prove herself as a capable leader and innovative problem solver, eventually taking over the store herself.

News Clip: AMPAS Chooses an Oscar Host I Barely Know

I would like to thank the Academy for, in their latest attempt to court a younger viewership, choosing a host for the 85th Academy Awards whose creative output I’m completely unfamiliar with. This is a first. Congratulations, you just alienated a 26-year-old.

Per the Washington Post, the creator of the cult favorite TV show Family Guy (1999-present), Seth MacFarlane, is poised to emcee Movie Night on February 24, 2013. Isn’t he the guy who made a movie about a foul-mouthed CGI teddy bear? (Who cares if it grossed more than $420 million worldwide; what does that box office take say about us?) Isn’t MacFarlane also the guy who last week couldn’t find the microphone while presenting an award at the Emmys? Honestly, I thought this was a joke until I read press release attached to WP TV columnist Lisa de Moraes’s news brief.

It’s not that I have a list of more desirable candidates for the coveted hosting gig. But, if you insist… How about Jimmy Fallon? Hugh Jackman, perhaps? Louis C.K., if you want to be “edgy”? Ellen DeGeneres again? Wait, wait! I got it! Amy Poehler would be awesome as Oscar host. You might think she’s more associated with TV than she is with film. OK, that’s true, but so are all these other people (except Jackman, of course). After all, it’s not like MacFarlane is known for much else besides stupid animated fart jokes on TV.

None of this is to say that I won’t be watching the Oscars telecast when it airs. I hate it, always, but I can’t help myself.

Jump Cut: Trainspotting on TV

Tonight ushers in the premiere of CBS’s Elementary, the newest rehashing of the Sherlock Holmes story, set in a contemporary New York. It looks as if, in some circles at least, its promising buzz has turned into less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But I am going to watch anyway, for Jonny Lee Miller plays the iconic character. You see, with him returning to the American tube, this means that you can see four of the six members of the principal cast of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) on TV every week. You might recall that besides being one of my very favorite films, Trainspotting represents a watershed moment in the history of my cinephilia.

In addition to Miller’s (Sick Boy) starring role on Elementary, three other Trainspotters keep busy as parts of big TV casts. Robert “Bobby” Carlyle (Begbie) is on the audience favorite Once Upon a Time (2011-present), playing a certain Mr. Gold, a creep whose storybook world double is Rumpelstiltskin. I only ever watched the pilot that aired last year. I watched, of course, because he is in it, but sadly it was not my cup of tea. Since 2008 (or the fifth season), Kevin McKidd (Tommy) has appeared on the same network, ABC, as Dr. Owen Hunt, Iraq War veteran/PTSD sufferer/Dr. Christina Yang husband-turned-adulterer in the commercial juggernaut that is Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present), which is entering its ninth—and hopefully last—season tonight. Finally, we have Kelly Macdonald (Diane). If there is a leading lady on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), then it would have to be her: she plays Margaret Shroeder, an Irish immigrant in 1920 Atlantic City who falls under the spell of the county treasurer/bootlegging gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. The third season started a little more than two weeks ago with them, having gotten married to protect his investments, on the outs.

The star of Trainspotting—and the only bonafide “movie star” of the bunch—Ewan McGregor (Renton), was going to be part of an ensemble for HBO: indie auteur Noah Baumbach developed, co-wrote, and directed the pilot adaptation of The Corrections with author Jonathan Franzen’s full participation. Then in May, the cable channel pulled the plug on the production, for whatever reason. I was really looking forward to this, not because I know anything about The Corrections (which for the record, I do not), but because I knew it meant five, yes, FIVE! cast members of Trainspotting were going to be on American TV regularly. Interesting to see how their wildly different career trajectories brought them to the same medium, “across the pond” as it were, but on programs that couldn’t be any less similar.

The only cast member never to have secured a regular role on an American TV show is Ewen Bremner (Spud). What hypothetical or existing show can you imagine him having a part on? Although I gave up on it within the first five episodes of its most recent third season, I think I could imagine Ewen on FX’s Justified (2010-present). If you think the waifish Jeremy Davies can play the heir to an Appalachian drug empire with the most nervous energy, I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Bremner to do him one or two better. If he were cast—and I know this is nothing but a pipe dream—then maybe I’d tune into the show again. Even with Timothy Olyphant’s central performance, I couldn’t get interested in Justified, particularly because its Southern California filming locations betrayed its Kentucky setting to such an extent that I didn’t buy any of it. But I digress.

By way of conclusion, I think it’s worth noting the fun coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Day” is “trainspotter.” Not only do I subscribe to this mailing list, I collect the words I like the sound and/or meaning(s) of. Allow me to educate: according to the trusty ol’ OED, the word, a noun and originally and chiefly British, refers to 1) “A person (often a boy) whose hobby is observing trains and recording railway locomotive numbers, sometimes with other details” and 2) “In extended use (freq. depreciative): a person who enthusiastically or obsessively studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information.” That’s me!

Though the OED gives “trainspotterish” as a related word, it stops short of giving the further association and definition of “trainspotting,” which refers to a heroin addict’s practice of finding a fresh vein into which he or she can inject the drug. (The markings on their arms resemble train tracks.) Yes, this means that the title of the book and movie Trainspotting represents a utilitarian concept, and in much the same way that we say we “geek out” whenever we get really excited about something in pop culture, thereby taking ownership of the image which may make us seem uncool or esoteric to others, I like to call myself a “trainspotter.” I don’t watch trains (but I do whenever I have the chance), and I’m not a heroin addict, but I am a trainspotter—especially when it comes to Trainspotting.

Long Take: The Crimson Petal and the White Makes for Compelling Feminist Melodrama

Viewed September 12 & 14, 2012

CINE FEEL YEAH is all about the cinema, this much is true. But sometimes it is necessary to cast a glance at moving images more broadly defined. Case in point: director Marc Munden’s BBC Two miniseries adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), is so filled to the brim with less than reputable but intriguing characters, compelling melodrama, and enough symbolism to captivate any humanities major that I just couldn’t ignore it. Besides, the dramatic miniseries neatly fits the bill of one of my favorite subgenres, which centers around (usually historical) women rebelling against the dictated norms of her contemporary society. I caught the four-hour-long program when it aired on American premium cable television earlier this month, divided into two parts rather than its original four, and I cannot verify otherwise if the American telecast differs at all from the British standard. Either way, it is long and slow in some parts, but never so dull as to discourage continued viewing. It is also one of the more cinematic miniseries I have seen, featuring a more modern and eclectic score and a number of dizzying edits that are not the bread and butter of literary adaptations for TV. Before I forget: I have to warn you that I’m going to spoil pretty much everything.

The enviously prolific Romola Garai stars as the infamous teenage prostitute Sugar, but as she warns you in her voiceover narration, she is “far from sweet.” The story takes off in 1874, as she plies her trade at Madam Castaway’s (Gillian Anderson, looking a lot like a redheaded Gina McKee to me), a brothel tucked deep inside the dodgy end of London, where poverty, hunger, and disease persist. After hearing raves about Sugar from his friends who only wish they could have her, the feckless William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), both the heir to a soap-manufacturing company and an aspiring novelist, seeks out her company. Their unproductive encounter, shall we say (drunk, he passes out and wets the bed before they can even begin), sets everything in motion: from that point on, he is hopelessly drawn to her, eventually buying her exclusivity, then moving her to her own apartment and finally into his family home. Right, I must mention that William is married to Agnes (Amanda Hale), who is psychologically disturbed after enduring years of sexual abuse and trauma. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly there; I will discuss this subject in due course. There is a robust cast of supporting characters, including William’s pious brother Henry (Mark Gatiss), the reformer of prostitutes and tuberculosis sufferer Mrs. Fox (Shirley Henderson), and Mrs. Fox’s brother and Agnes’s physician, Dr. Curlew (Richard E. Grant).

But The Crimson Petal and the White belongs to Garai and, to a lesser extent, O’Dowd. I have watched the English actress seemingly grow up on-screen, and I haven’t always been a fan. Though I love I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003), I freely admit that Garai’s central performance is sometimes unpolished, but she has consistently gotten better in everything she has done, from Angel (François Ozon, 2007) to The Hour (2011-present). I don’t wish to be so gushy, but she really excels as Sugar, particularly in presenting her as a confident and pragmatic woman who starts out with ambiguous intentions but eventually earns our sympathy completely by miniseries’ end. It’s a bravura performance. As for O’Dowd, it is strange to see him in a non-comedic role, and in a costume drama to boot! I almost always find him a likable (OK, adorable) countenance, but because his character develops negatively, he gradually becomes less and less attractive. William is pompous, sexist, vulnerable, and brutish.

I haven’t read the book (all of its 800+ pages), so I cannot comment on it, but The Crimson Petal and the White reminded me of certain classic works of English literature and their own screen adaptations, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and pretty much anything by Charles Dickens, for it is a coming-of-age story about upward mobility (albeit centered on a woman who doesn’t achieve it). The comparison to Jane Eyre is obvious enough: our heroine enters a household to work as a governess for the child of her lover; who cares if she’s a prostitute and knows the mad wife already exists? William is no Rochester. He’s more like Alec from Tess, as he throws out the woman he seduces and impregnates. Through displays of moral courage and indescribable suffering, Sugar, like Tess, is redeemed. And let us not forget that the title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” which at one point Sugar reads aloud to her charge. I am no expert on poetry, but I think its stanzas speak to the dualism of Sugar’s and Anges’s lives.

The miniseries, and presumably Faber’s tome, is undoubtedly feminist, as it deconstructs how prostitution manifests in many different forms. And I don’t just mean as a comparative analysis of the various hierarchical venues that Sugar inhabits (i.e. the brothel and seedy taverns, the kept apartment, and finally the family home where she works as a governess and serves as William’s mistress and secretary). The Crimson Petal and the White, as adapted by Lucinda Coxon, makes clear that marriage is also a kind of prostitution, and this point is explicitly made through the juxtaposition of Sugar’s and Agnes’s individual experiences.

Whereas Sugar is sexually mature, having been pushed into prostitution at age 13 by her own mother (that’s right, Mrs. Castaway herself! but don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled anything you don’t learn within the first 80 minutes) and gained years of experience in giving men exactly what they desire, Agnes is sexually immature. She is locked in a young, almost prepubescent state, signified by her blonde ringlets, constant nightie-wearing, and, most importantly, fevered anorexia, which curtails her regular menstruation. On top of it all, becoming a mother eight years prior profoundly scarred Agnes’s psyche, so much so that she cannot accept that she ever gave birth in the first place. Thus her postpartum depression is so severe and permanent that William ensures that Agnes never sees their daughter, Sophie (Isla Watt), whom he keeps in another part of the house. Dr. Curlew visits Agnes weekly, using physical examinations as a pretense for violating her body. Ascribing a poor and poorer prognosis surely keeps up appearances, but it is also accurate. Agnes must get worse before she can ever get better.

Long before William set Sugar up her in own flat, she shadowed the man she did not yet trust, to his work and his home. (How ironic it is that he should own a soap-making factory, given his indiscretions.) One day, when Agnes looks out the window and finds Sugar on the street, staring back at her, Agnes becomes convinced that the stranger is her guardian angel come to rescue her (the small feathered wings stitched onto Sugar’s leather jacket help lend this impression). Once William confides in his mistress that his wife is having such delusions (obviously unaware that Sugar is Agnes’s “angel”), Sugar begins to interact with Agnes, either from a distance or on the condition that Agnes not look at her face. Things come to a head when William employs Sugar as Sophie’s governess and the women come face-to-face, usually when Agnes is in distress.

A shut-in from society, Agnes looks out her window and looks for her guardian angel, whom she doesn’t know is actually her husband’s mistress. Image courtesy of http://www.isserleylovesbooks.tumblr.com.

Out of pity (not jealousy), Sugar comes to Agnes’s aid and plots Agnes’s flight in the middle of the night. By this time, William has turned inattentive and cruel, and so I view Sugar’s planning Agnes’s disappearing act as one made out of female solidarity. Perhaps Sugar once wanted to replace Agnes, to bear William the son and heir he always wanted, but it’s clear that William’s raping Agnes one evening, to Sugar’s horror, encourages her to break Agnes out of the prison that is her marriage, which has traumatized her for over eight years and caused her to lose her mind. Thankfully, Agnes flees just in time, before William and Dr. Curlew have her committed. While letting a mentally disturbed woman loose unto the world may be inadvisable, Sugar’s determination to help is unambiguously romantic, possibly even an expression of her own desire to escape. Later, through a case of mistaken identity, William is led to believe he is a widower, and only Sugar knows that the river-ravaged corpse that washed ashore can’t possibly be Agnes because she cut her hair short before departing without a trace. The miniseries ends with no update on Agnes’s whereabouts, again lending a romantic air to Sugar’s emotional and intellectual attachment to Agnes and her gender struggle.

There is never any doubt that Agnes is a pathetic character and therefore deserving of our sympathy. On the other hand, before Sugar fulfills her promise as a guardian angel, she presents a more complex portrait. Having taught herself to read and write, Sugar keeps what she calls a “Hate Book,” which is either a tell-all memoir or a semi-autobiographical novel—it’s hard to say. She fills it with fantasies of exacting revenge on the men who have taken her innocence, and even as she gets to know William she conjures scenes in which she slits his throat or stabs his chest. Although it is clear that these are just her imaginings, the spectator might begin to wonder just what she is capable of. It is only after he takes Sugar away from Mrs. Castaway’s and encourages her to counsel him on business affairs that she begins to see her new client differently (he grants her more space and power than any other has ever done). That Sugar’s livelihood, particularly once William buys exclusive rights to her body, allows her time to write in the “Hate Book” is in stark contrast to William’s fledgling literary career. At Sugar’s urging, he throws himself into his job at the soap factory, choosing to express his masculine identity not through words but through accumulating wealth. More crucially, the “Hate Book” represents an escape, and it is telling that Sugar gives up writing in it as she becomes ever more entrenched in William’s family life, especially as Sophie’s governess. This leads me to the final point of comparison between Sugar and Agnes: it hinges on motherhood.

As I have already described, Agnes is literally unfit to be a mother. Her fragile emotional and mental state won’t allow it, and in her absence, Sophie has been reared by a strict disciplinarian nurse named Miss Cleave (Wendy Nottingham). When Sugar moves into the house and assumes her duties as governess, her predecessor warns that Sophie is a horrible, manipulative child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Within a minute, Sugar understands that she will look after Sophie differently; it’s clear the outgoing woman never gave Sophie a chance and shares William’s view that it is pointless to educate girls (then what does that make you, Miss Cleave, eh?!). In short, Sugar and Sophie form a tight bond, Sugar acting as both the mother Sophie never had as well as the mother she wishes she herself had. In case Sugar’s empathy towards Agnes doesn’t fully redeem her character, her devotion to Sophie does. When they profess their love for each other, it is the only time either one has ever heard those words spoken to her. But then their love is thrown asunder. Late in the miniseries, William casts Sugar out of his home and his life when he learns from Dr. Curlew that she is with child. Desperate, she takes Sophie with her. And that is how it ends.

Sugar and Sophie. Image courtesy of http://www.neovictorianthoughts.wordpress.com.

I am not crazy about Sugar’s kidnapping Sophie. I feel this way not only because she has committed a crime, but because this conclusion reaffirms that (even a fallen or, in Sugar’s words, “pushed”) woman’s role is as mother. Perhaps this is too harsh, given the emotional and psychological torment that biological motherhood bestowed upon Agnes, which was aggravated by the men’s sexual mistreatment of her. After all, she abandons her child forever when she makes way in the night, so being a mom isn’t for everyone. Moreover, I sure am glad that The Crimson Petal and the White doesn’t end tragically, with Sugar dead, say, and by William’s hand no less. In fact, I rather like the actual terms through which Sugar and Sophie’s escape takes place. Sugar tells Sophie to pack for an “exploration,” thereby echoing an earlier scene in which the budding cartographer Sophie asks if she can grow up to be an explorer. “I don’t see why not,” Sugar, ever the retroactive feminist, tells her. Sophie, who at age eight understands she is a second class citizen by virtue of her sex, assumes then that she will only be able to explore places that men do not or will not go to. How can I argue with this kind of language? While technically Sophie won’t be as materially well off as if she were still at home, there is no denying that she will be better loved and raised by Sugar. It is also noteworthy that in the final scene, as they wait for a train to take them far away, Sugar begins to write again, this time on a new pad of paper (the wind blew away pages from the “Hate Book” in their escape and they wind up in William’s befuddled possession).

I didn’t have much use for the subplot involving a tentative romance between Henry Rackham, William’s older brother, and Mrs. Fox of the Rescue Society. It does, however, serve to show that men are so easily crippled or undone by their (repressed) sexual passions. (Henry cannot reconcile his lust for an ailing Mrs. Fox with his desire to become a clergyman and so dies in a fire while fantasizing about her.) Women, on the other hand, are stronger and more resourceful, as evidenced by Mrs. Fox unexpectedly making a full recovery from consumption. As Dr. Curlew’s sister, she also points out how members of the same family can be advocates of diametrically opposed causes: he devotes his time to molesting his female patients while she selflessly labors to rehabilitate women and girls away from their previous lives of sexual exploitation. If only she knew of her brother’s misdeeds.

The Crimson Petal and the White isn’t only graphic in terms of representations of sexuality, it doesn’t pull punches when it comes to bodily functions either. That is, it doesn’t shrink from showing us what bathing, going to the bathroom, and miscarrying might have been like for women in the late nineteenth century. In fact, the scenes in which Sugar, having lost all hope in a future of wedded, familial bliss with William, fails to induce an abortion, first by administering chemicals and next by flinging herself down the stairs, are particularly harrowing. Later, when she hemorrhages at William’s soap factory in front of Sophie, it is a truly gut-wrenching sight. But there still is a sense of relief. And this is all of a piece with the filmmakers’ commitment to impressionistic realism. I know this might sound like a contradiction in terms, but I use “impressionistic” to clarify that the brutal realities of Sugar’s and William’s Londons are filtered through her unique perspective, steeped in abjection and ambition. Also, there is something refreshing about Sugar’s scars, undoubtedly the result of abuse at the hands of her former clients, always being on display, along with patches of irritated skin and her chronically chapped lips. It reminds us that living is hard, and this is especially the case for the sexually exploited.