Holiday Films: Mainlining Popular Culture

I’m afraid I’ve broken my resolution to write bi-monthly this December, a lapse I hope readers will forgive, as the month has been filled with planned family travel, unplanned fatigue, and a general sense of lassitude necessary after the rigors of a semester of teaching. In the new year, I’ll be back to my twice-monthly entries.

I planned to write my next blog about feminist criticism in general, and to engage with Lara Shalson’s piece in the latest Theatre Topics, in which she discusses the importance of criticism to the initial stirrings of feminist theatre in the 1980s, in particular. I still intend to write that piece, but given the season, I’ve been caught in the spirit of the holidays and their effulgence of holiday films. With grading finally behind me, and a trip to see family fully and pleasantly accomplished, I’ve been indulging my passion for the movies and trying to catch up on all these end-of-year flicks touted as Oscar material and contenders for other awards. I’d like to detail a few of my reactions here.

But first, this experience of spending so much time in movie theatres instead of live theatres has made me think about the differences I feel consuming the two forms. In a brief piece in last week’sEntertainment Weekly—which I read religiously, since I enjoy the smart, literate film reviews by Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman—their “Ask the Critic” column answered a question from a reader who wondered why it’s so much easier to tolerate plot confusions or peculiarities on television shows (or films on tv) than it is when you go to see a movie. Schwarzbaum replied that we go to the movies with so much more hope, that schlepping out into public to be with people to watch something on the much bigger screen demonstrates an investment of hope for the experience that shoddy plotting disappoints.

Her remark seemed right to me, and very much in line with my own belief in what I call “utopian performatives,” those moments when you go to see a performance and feel yourself in the presence of a group of strangers experiencing a moment together that fills us with hope that our world might be better than the way we currently know and experience it. Performances, because they’re live, are richer for me than film: the presence of the actor in front of breathing spectators implies an expectation that sharpens our watchfulness, our awareness of ourselves as a group, and the potential for our hope to translate into action.

It’s palpably different to walk into a movie theatre than it is to a theatre that presents live performance. Arriving early to see a mid-morning showing of Harry Potter the other day, I entered the theatre under the screen in the near-dark, confronted with rows of empty, looming seats. The room felt cold and corporate; there’s no life there without the audience. No one would ever leave a ghost light on in a movie theatre. (A ghost light is the standing lamp with the single bare bulb that sits in the middle of a bare stage or sometimes hangs alone from the rafters at night or when a theatre is empty; according to superstition, it’s left on to keep the theatre from “going dark,” or closing.) The blank white screen in a cinema doesn’t leave a residue of lives lived, as does the stage.

An empty theatre is warm, unsettled by the vibes of the living, cluttered with the labor and detritus of creating the magic of theatre. The back brick theatre walls and the revealed stage wings offer a sense of depth, of “there-ness,” of perspective that connects it with the audience. (Marvin Carlson beautifully details what he calls “the haunted stage” in his book of the same name.) In a movie theatre, the separation between the audience and the screen is clear, two-dimensional. It’s no accident that in the first scene of Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice folds herself into a chair in a theatre to gaze at the stage and watch her life unfold again (a conceit also attempted by the much less success De-Lovely, the Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline). The theatre is haunted by its ghosts—its stories, its players, its audiences, its stagehands. The cinema is haunted by underpaid kids who roll their garbage bins up the aisles between showings.

But films still hold out the possibility for transcendent moments, moments of recognition, understanding, empathy, and identification that speak to something urgent and desirous in me, that capture something intensely and sear themselves onto my emotional canvas in a lasting way. I love being entertained and entranced by films. In backwards chronological order, then, here are my impressions of and musings about the films I saw this holiday season:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter novels, which I find exceptionally fun and smart fantasies. J.K. Rowling’s books invent unique, creative worlds, where the Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore, for instance, can store his thoughts in something called a “pensieve” when his head gets too crowded, and where trains appear on half-tracks reached through acts of magical will. The sixth, most recent novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, seemed very much a post-9/11 story, in which an aura of fear inspired by an unseen but sharply felt enemy prompts a crackdown on civil liberties in the magical world of the story in much the same way we’re feeling this process in the States. The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, began to move the series into a darker world, after Harry’s godfather Sirius has been killed. The Goblet of Fire is literally a dark film, shot in shades of blue and black and grey that make it a noir-ish experience. This, along with the coursing hormones of the characters, whose relationships are newly strained by more complicated feelings and desires, drain the pleasantries and color from Rowling’s magic and replace them with a series of challenges to Harry’s body and his emotions, if not his soul.

The film moves at harrowing speed through the various tasks set for the four Tri-Wizard champions, each challenge more ominous and impossible than the next, until the reluctant Harry finally makes his way through the proverbial maze. He’s accompanied on his proving journey by Cedric Diggory, with whom he shares ethical, responsible, humble moments that keep Harry from seeming a lone, cockier sort of hero. Reaching the goblet of fire, which turns out to be a “port-key” that sucks him through a vortex into a parallel world, Harry finally meets his nemesis, Voldemort, the Dark Lord, played by Ralph Fiennes made-up to look like a man in the process of painfully, evilly resurrecting himself. Daniel Ratcliffe does a good job facing the traumas of being an adolescent hero and the supporting players gamely assist the suspension of disbelief that makes the story so addictive.

What’s striking from a feminist perspective, though, is how quest stories like The Goblet of Fireremain all about boys and men. Teresa de Lauretis, in her foundational book of feminist film theoryAlice Doesn’t, suggested that that the mythic hero’s quest, in which a territory is crossed and conquered, is always about the masculine conquering the feminine. In Harry Potter, this very much holds true. The quest, as reluctant a hero as Harry seems in this film, remains his, even though it’s his very smart friend Hermione who often feeds him information and the motivation to step up to the test that awaits him. And even though one of the four Tri-Wizards is a young woman, it’s a given that she’ll never win. She gets very little screen time, and in the maze, the most daunting of the tests of skill and will, she’s swallowed by a hedge well before the three boys fail or succeed. Even though Hermione has grown through the series—and in this more sexualized part of the story, looks attractive and alluring enough to attend the Hogwart’s dance with one of the visiting Tri-Wizards—she remains the smart side-kick.


Philip Seymour Hoffman is virtuosic as Capote, capturing his peculiar voice and speech patterns and his fey, effete character in a chilling portrait of a man whose own success outweighed any ethical concern for the killers on whose story he hitched his star. The film is a character study, but also says a lot about American culture, not just in the late 50s and early 60s, when the story takes place, but in the United States now, when celebrity is achieved at all costs and our mutual responsibility to each other seems lost in the greedy drive for personal achievement. Capote lies repeatedly and with unnerving sincerity to murderer Perry Smith, his main informant, whom he befriends in his jail cell to wrest his story from him. The writer preys on Smith’s need to be seen as good, as smart, as better than his actions would lead people to believe. Smith thinks he’s won Capote’s favor, that he’s found a champion for his story and his cause. Instead, Capote uses him and judges him (calling his book In Cold Blood, a damning phrase for a man who thought his horrible actions could be seen as nuanced and complex because of his childhood depravations) and makes his fortune on the killer’s life.

The film tells the story sparely, alternating scenes in Smith’s cell, Capote enacting all the gestures of false intimacy that lead Smith to trust the writer, with scenes of Capote camping and vamping at public parties, parlaying his access to the killers into a corrupt cultural capital. His lover shakes his head at Capote’s exploits, and Capote’s stalwart best friend, Nell Harper Lee, played by the amazing Catherine Keener, stands by him until she, too, is repulsed by his excessive self-involvement. Keener’s role is thankless; she’s a smart, talented actress schlepped along by the male lead, uttering very few lines, but telling pages of stories by acting with her face and her gestures and the sheer fact of her brilliant, knowing presence. Hoffman’s performance wouldn’t be half as good without Keener’s; her reactions to his actions allow us to see Capote as pathetic, as well as tragically talented. But we never see Harper Lee writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s Capote we see on the red carpet outside the movie’s premiere. Lee’s commitment to Capote seems motivated by the fact that they share a southern background, but given his neglect and self-centeredness, that doesn’t seem enough. In this too-familiar pattern, a female character is used in the service of the male, written as a foil for a compromised great man.

Brokeback Mountain

As a lesbian nearing 50, it’s still amazing to me to see a film about gay desire on the screen. So many mainstream reviewers of this mainstream film write with a blasé attitude about a same-sex relationship in the 60s, as though they’ve seen it all before. I haven’t and I only want to see more. I saw Brokeback as an historical film, one no doubt accurate to what it meant to love another man, in Wyoming, at a time when gays and lesbians remained either invisible or reviled.

Although the film feels contemporary, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Heath Ledger’s rugged good looks, the story is set at a time when the love they felt for each other could only be terrifying and shameful. The intercut scenes of violence against men suspected of loving each other are chilling and foundational in the film. Those images, seared into his young mind by a father eager to teach him a lesson, for a son who might have suspected some of that passion in himself even then, become defining for Ennis Del Mar, dooming him to a life of longing and furtive passion. I was moved by their relationship, by Jack Twist’s willingness to give up everything so that he and Ennis could share their lives, by Ennis’s fear of giving in to his love for Jack, and by the knowledge that in that particular time and place, their options were limited to the ones they ultimately choose. There are no heroes here.

Of course the women in this story are after-thoughts, cogs in the narrative machinery, stick figures to represent how society in the 60s expected heterosexual couples and their families to behave. Ann Hathaway is wonderful as Jack’s wife, wealthy, competent, and beautiful until she settles into a more garish middle-aged version of her younger self. Her own spirit is clearly stifled by her dominating father and weak-willed husband (until he finally asserts himself at a holiday dinner table and “wins” a modicum of his “manhood,” in a scene that underlines how ludicrous are the chest-thumping displays of male ego and prerogative). Michelle Williams is also very good as Ennis’s beleaguered wife, who sees her husband practically devouring Jack after a four-year absence and has no frame of reference through which to interpret the kissing and clutching she sees. She only knows that the passion she witnesses in Ennis is unfamiliar, something he feels for someone else, and a man, at that. Williams’ nearly wordless performance is a study in perplexed shame and confusion, and finally, anger and retribution. Brokeback is a man’s movie. These women decorate the window into the souls of two men whose love for each other is tortured and desperate because their society refused to allow it to be any other way.

King Kong

This high spectacle from Peter Jackson feels big (sometimes cumbersome), intent on eliciting the kinds of cheap emotions that come from watching computer-generated dinosaurs cavort and fight with 25-foot gorillas while little white men gasp and scurry to get out of the way. The film offers some amusing references to the popular entertainments of the 30s, where Ann Darrow, soon to be Kong’s play-thing, starts out as a vaudeville performer who’s let go by her struggling Depression-era company and is “discovered” by a corrupt impresario (Jack Black) trying to cast the romantic lead in a movie for which the funding has already been pulled. Jackson’s film, at first, seems happily parodic, a satire of all the beautiful-young-woman-discovered-as-a-star films, and all the greedy-egotistical-producer-will-make-his-film-at-all-costs stories.

But when the cast arrives on Skull Island, the unexplored territory on which Black’s character wants to film his opus, Jackson’s takes an unsavory turn. He portrays the island’s denizens as grotesque savages, losing all the satirical notes that first graced the film. The natives all look African; they wear bones and sticks through their noses and other parts of their anatomy, and their faces are wet with war paint. They shudder in Jackson’s frenzied fantasies of ritual ecstasy, rolling their eyes back into their heads and shaking their limbs and their rattles and their sabers as the camera cuts among them, furiously whipping up the audience’s sense of dread and loathing. Jackson toldEntertainment Weekly that the Skull Island “natives” were cast with extras of a number of different races, nations, and ethnicities, and then painted with the same dark make-up so that they would appear to be of the same tribe. The end result, though, is that they all look African, and all succumb to stereotypes of native people as primitive and grotesque, inhuman and cannibalistic.

Against this colonialist, racist backdrop, Naomi Watts, as Darrow, stands out as the dewy white, pure “virgin,” who must be captured and sacrificed to the reigning god of the island, King Kong. When Watts and the CGI-projected, Andy Serkis-animated animal meet, the film takes an interesting romantic turn. With her wit and her rather glowing presence, Watts pulls off an attachment to the ape that seems real, full of affection and eventually, mutual love. Considering that she did much of her acting against a green screen, with perhaps only Serkis in his wired, motion-capturing black suit to interact with, Watts’s performance is indeed remarkable. She ends the film in Kong’s hand, being chased up the Empire State Building, where, in her flowing, sleeveless white dress and precarious high heels (giving new meaning to winter white), she climbs a ladder to the very top of the building (with nary a hair out of place) and tries to save Kong from his inevitable death.

The film wants to speak to the necessity for human (and animal) connection and compassion, in moments of dire need and greed that too often prompt corruption. Watts’s character represents the pure, unsullied version of “America,” capable of falling in love with the “Other” and finding his humanity (always translated anthropomorphically into something that resembles her own). Black’s character represents the greedy corporate businessman who will stop at nothing to make a buck off his “art.” That Black brings the captured Kong to Broadway, where audiences flock to see this remnant of another time and place, is an irony too bald to be lost. We’re willing to pay quite a lot to gaze safely on the spectacle of the other, Jackson seems to say, an other whose rage and desire breaks his bonds and lets him escape to his eventual doom, ignorant of the bloodlust of his captor and the audience who comes to get their scopophilic pleasure watching him restrained and ultimately killed. “Freaks” have always been useful to capitalism; too often, though, those offered up as freaks were just different from what the dollar decides is “us.” The virgin sacrificed to the beast finally forces the beast to sacrifice himself for her, and we learn nothing new about women or the other, and only a little about the capricious, greedy, evil egotism of “man.”

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach’s supposedly semi-autobiographically film is about a family deteriorating from the parents’ self-absorption and superiority, while their children are left without clear ethical role models on which to shape their own choices. Nothing much happens in this film, but the snapshots of relationships on view, and the growing awareness of the two boys’ anxieties about losing their own childhoods to their parents’ strife, winds up being captivating and moving. Jeff Daniels, as the self-absorbed, pretentious father, has received the bulk of critical acclaim for this film. But Jesse Eisenberg, of Rodger Dodger, is wonderful as the teenage son trying to shape his own pretensions, who finds himself too influenced by his father’s snobbish opinions to lead an honest, earnest life. The younger son is even more wounded, caught between conflicting demands of two parents who can’t quite focus him in their viewfinders. Laura Linney plays the wife, who begins the film being attacked by tennis balls launched on the doubles court by her passive-aggressive husband, and ends with the upper hand in the dissolution of her marriage as her career as a writer soars while her husband’s sours. Implicit here is a critique of the assumption that women will always forgive men their trespasses. Watching Linney disabuse Daniels’ character of these notions is poignant, painful way.

Walk the Line

I love films about performers that actually show them performing, especially when the filmmakers capture the distinct gestalt of being onstage in front of a live audience. This biopic about Johnny Cash and his relationship with June Carter is best when Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, who sang their parts themselves, are seen performing, partly because they must capture something of how Cash and Carter looked and felt and partly because it’s clear that Phoenix and Witherspoon were also charged and nervous about performing themselves. Both layers come through in their performances. The film manages to get at what it means to have stage presence, and how Carter, regardless of the messes she confronted in her life offstage, slipped easily into the kind of charisma that makes spectators love a performer.

Walk the Line paints Carter as a smart, principled woman. Witherspoon is a joy to watch, graduating from her Legally Blonde series—films which themselves parody the stereotype of the dumb blonde—into a role that lets her use her own innate intelligence to lend a depth of character to June Carter. Watching them perform onstage together is a revelation; whether or not Witherspoon and Phoenix approximate the magic of the real Carter and Cash, they clearly strike up something novel and appealing of their own. Offstage, in the film, the gendering of their roles is more predictable, as June mothers and Johnny fails at the project of responsible manhood, until the narrative pulls them along toward a predictably redemptive ending.

The New York Times reported recently on the proliferation of Christian- and evangelical-based web sites that rate films according to not just their quality but their morality quotient, so that Brokeback Mountain, for instance, can get a high grade for artistry and a very low grade for what the sites consider “normal” moral behavior. I share their concern for films as influential, if not determining, artifacts of American culture, and hope that many more avowedly liberal—feminist, progressive, or otherwise—writers will continue to pen their own overtly ideological readings of the movies, as well as other forms of representation.

Here’s hoping that 2006 gives us lots more to think about and write about from a feminist perspective on the arts.

Warm wishes,
The Feminist Spectator

6 thoughts on “Holiday Films: Mainlining Popular Culture

  1. Thanks, FeministSpectator, for such provocative accounts for all of these movies. I’m often flummoxed at the movies – worried about anti-progressive messages, exhilarated by progressive ones, curious of other people’s responses, and desirous of overhearing conversations (other than cell phone conversations) about the how everyone else received the films. For me, the movie theater is haunted by spectator receptions — my own and others — left unstated as walk to our cars and ask our cohorts, “Did you like it?”

  2. Your view of Brokeback Mountain reminded me that about half of the (no doubt politically progressive) Brooklyn audience I saw the film with burst into laughter when Ennis’ wife spotted him passionately kissing Jack. It didn’t sound like that “hey, I get it” laughter you hear at Anderson (PT or Wes) movies, it sounded like “Ha ha, that’s funny” laughter. It horrified and upset me.

    Straight people scare me sometimes (like on Election Day.)

  3. When I saw Brokeback Mountain this holiday season, I was most interested in how a mainstream hollywood film would deal with the subject of homosexuality. Would it show truthful images of gays? Would it represent the gay community positively or negatively? Mainstream hollywood films such as Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, and The Talented Mr. Ripley have shed dark and evil representations of gay people, signaling that being gay is still considered a “mental illness.” Brokeback Mountain takes a different kind of approach, and attemts to represent two ordinary (but yes, good-looking) men as subjects of sexual repression. Even though they are struggling against the conservative forces around them, they manage to share their inescapable love toward one another in a very tender and loving way. Is mainstream Hollywood finally depicting a positive representation of gays in a mainstream film? Will audiences both gay and straight watch Brokeback Mountain and see and understand that true love transgress beyond gender? I am not so certain. I am wary that audiences will walk away from this film believing that being gay is a “choice.” Both Jack and Ennis have perfectly “normal” lives, living with their wives and having children. How do their actions read to audiences when they run off to go “fishing” with their buddy each year? Are they making a conscious choice that can be reversed through shock treatment, brainwashing, or by becoming a born-again Christian? Maybe audiences will believe that true love can be “fixed.” Some of the other short segments of repressed homosexuality annoyed me: 1) The first time Jack and Eanus make love looked so aggresive and painful. Was this a product of repressed homosexuality? 2) The moment Eanus puked beside the barn and mourned the separation between him and Jack was disgustingly unnecessary. Couldn’t he just mourn? Is puking the reaction from love or disgust? Perhaps both?

    All in all, I did enjoy the film’s courage to address some of the harsh realities that gay men endured during the 60’s and early 70’s, especially the scene where Jack is murdered by gay bashers. Even though I had to close my eyes during this violent segment, I was grateful for this horrible truth to be shown to mainstream audiences who may have not ever taken this thought into account.
    I await the moment we have a mainstream hollywood film depicting a famous American gay male playing a gay character in a major motion picture and representing a positive image to mainstream audiences. This will be very interesting.

  4. From Miguel:

    1) The first time Jack and Eanus make love looked so aggresive and painful. Was this a product of repressed homosexuality? 2) The moment Eanus puked beside the barn and mourned the separation between him and Jack was disgustingly unnecessary. Couldn’t he just mourn? Is puking the reaction from love or disgust? Perhaps both?

    I haven’t seen this film, so I can’t visualize either scene described above. However, I just want to note that Miguel’s critique fascinates me in a strange way.

    Gay sex (especially the first time, I imagine) *is* probably painful. I have no idea if these characters had anal sex or some less stigmatized form of contact. But maybe showing the “pain” of embodied contact adds a useful touch of reality to what is usually such rose-colored crap? Also, aggressive sex is not always such a bad thing; it can be fun! I think sex is one of those weird acts where even awkward-looking sex can be good, if you know what I mean…

    As for the puking, maybe your disgust with it is rooted in our cultural tendency to avoid showing bodily fluids, and to avoid breaking the boundaries between “inside” and “outside?” Even though I haven’t seen the film, I like this puking scene already! I think it’s sort of subversive to show puke in a Hollywood movie that is trying to be “sensitive” to a love story; I think it makes the grief of the character all the more palpable. (Ick… palpable in a really palpable way) 🙂

  5. I would like to reply to June:

    I saw Brokeback in an East Village theatre, also among an undoubtedly politically progressive audience, and I too remember the audience (including my not-straight self) bursting into laughter at seemingly inappropriate moments such as the one when Michelle Williams’ character discovers her husband and Jack devouring each other in a kiss. I think the audience’s laughter is much more complex than “ha ha that’s funny.” Laughter is a physiological release of tension. I think the audience felt profound sympathy both for the two male protagonists and for Ennis’ wife. The characters’ high and oppositional emotional stakes creates tension, not just onscreen or in a dramatic sense, but also for the spectator who is grappling with maintaining conflicting sympathies simultaneously. In this moment, Ennis’s release of unbridled passion gives the audience permission for release as well — hence the laughter. At least, that’s one of many explanations. (e.g. my laughter also came from relief and elation at Ennis’s rare display of emotion before another character.)

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