Victoria Jelinek


XV: Cancellation Culture

My brief response to a recent event in France in which, “…the entire board of the César awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, has resigned two weeks before its gala ceremony amid growing controversy over the French-Polish director Roman Polanski, whose film An Officer and a Spy leads the 2020 nominations. ‘The French film academy says unanimous resignation was to honour the film-makers and ‘regain calm’ of the festival.’” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/feb/14/leadership-of-french-oscars-resigns-amid-polanski-controversy

“Liberalism is totalitarianism with a human face.” Thomas Sowell

Femme and fierce - hand drawn lettering phrase about feminism isolated on the white background. Fun brush ink inscription for photo overlays, greeting card or print, poster design.If I disagree with your brand of “feminism,” am I no longer a critical person? If I don’t believe a woman’s claim over a man’s denial, am I no longer a lifelong feminist? By being skeptical about the “Me Too” movement, or French subsidiaries such as Nous Toutes (All Of Us) and Osez le féminisme! (Dare Feminism), am I immediately branded as an unwitting stooge who has been blindly indoctrinated by the global patriarchal system? If so, doesn’t it define those that would judge me thus as narrow-minded, illiberal, and non-progressive?

With the inalterable definition of what it means to be “liberal” in mind, how do many women (and some men) think boycotting a retrospective of a body of work, or a film by Polanski, or ‘banning’ songs written in the 1950’s, or admonishing folks not to look at art that has breasts on display, is going to change the power dynamics between men and women in the workforce, in political representation, even in domestic models? As Johnnie Tillmon once declared: “Every woman is one man away from welfare.” Social systems in which women have to fight to be educated, are judged differently than their male counterparts, are paid less for the same job, are called derogatory names for the same traits men are lauded for, do not form at least half of our representatives in public governance, or on corporate boards, are held to traditional standards as a mother (by both men and women), are expected to be both a mother and a worker (in that order), are the societal elements that need to be challenged and changed. Not the filmmakers, artists, and writers who are generally the first to be killed by a fascistic regime. Nor does forcing the resignation of an entire board of an organization which celebrates excellence in filmmaking going to make a real difference other than to headlines and articles, for the moment.

To be absolutely clear for the more zealous or obtuse: I am not defending the fact that the most of the voting membership for the Cesar’s (or the Oscar’s) are men and that’s not fair. Nor am I defending Roman Polanski the person. I am, however, defending Polanski the filmmaker, whose body of work includes several modern masterpieces. If it’s necessary to attack the cultural industry in order to receive more media attention in the name of modern feminism, could these movements not focus on, for example, why it is that the heads of departments on almost every film (with the exception of hair, makeup, and wardrobe) are invariably men? Or why, even as there is an overwhelming amount of women in publishing, most publishers are men?

Infighting about art and culture is what the capitalistic white men who dominate the world want. They do not care about national boundaries, much less culture, while they play their geopolitical power games. Division, scandal, and media sensationalism decreases the credibility of these feminist movements. Moreover, boycotting films, art, and books is akin to censorship. Does this suppression help or hinder women’s movements that claim to be fighting injustice? Art and the humanities are meant to enlighten us, provoke us, trouble us, entertain us, and inform us. To broaden our minds. To create space inside us that invites redemption, hope, possibility, and reflection about what it means to be alive – even if it’s uncomfortable. Familiarizing oneself with and having a general appreciation of culture develops critical abilities (the basis of democracy and why public education – and the arts – are always under attack). Art celebrates humanity with all of its foibles. The film, the painting, the book is not the same as the person who created it. The person who created it forms part of the context in which the ‘product’ is created, but the operative idea, here, is to have a sense of context.

By fighting over the personal lives (based on hearsay) of filmmakers, artists, and writers, one denigrates their works, many of which are fine and deserve to be honored by us, the public, by both men and women. Otherwise, we risk destroying excellence in film, literature, and the fine arts, and in my opinion, these fields make the world more beautiful, arguably more complicated, and definitely worth living in. By jumping on bandwagons with pithy and/or emotive “handles” because of our justifiable frustration, one is operating within a mob mentality, rather than with judiciousness.  Is it okay to believe a woman over a man simply because of gender? Is it fair to try a man in the media first rather than a court of law? By publicly destroying the careers of those who have brought art into the world by slandering and censoring them in the name of ‘justice,’ are we not also undermining art, artists, culture, the rule of law, and, ultimately, ourselves as rational women?

Just as it’s advisable to “follow the money” to get a sense of bias in politics, I ask you — who does this censoriousness of culture ultimately serve?

 



December 19, 2018 VII – Baby It Does Seem Cold Outside

Baby Its Cold Outside cover

“Leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.” Camille Paglia

Something I always stress with my students when we begin studying a book in class is the context in which it was created. The context (time period, locale, gender and socio economic status of the writer, historical and cultural events during the period in which it’s written) informs why and how the text is written. It is the seeming inability or unwillingness for many to consider the context in which songs, films, theater, photography, painting, art in general, is created, that gives me the impetus to write today. Specifically, I address the once-again attempt to ‘ban’ the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which is frequently played during the holidays.

In 1944, Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in order to perform it with his wife at their housewarming party as they said ‘goodnight’ to their guests. It was written by Loesser as a playful call-and-response duet in order to amuse its listeners. A few years later, the song was used for the musical “Neptune’s Daughter,” in which the male and female parts are identified as “The Wolf” and “the Mouse,” respectively. In the musical, the Wolf and the Mouse have been out on a date and after having a nightcap at the Wolf’s house, the Mouse is making her excuses to go home while he’s trying to persuade her to stay. In this back-and-forth between them, “I really can’t stay…” the Mouse sings, “But, baby, it’s cold outside…” those wishing to ban the song argue that he’s trying to ply the female with alcohol against her wishes and then take advantage of her – certainly many of we women have experienced this attempt and it’s what is, essentially, “date rape” the reasoning goes. Is she succumbing to his unflagging persistence against her wishes? Or, does she really want to stay, but is playing hard to get?

I believe she does want to stay but is playing coy because “good girls” in the 1940’s didn’t have sexual desires outside of marriage (or, arguably, within marriage, but that’s another post). At the time in which the song was created, women – or the Mouse in this case – understood that there were distinctly “acceptable” behaviors for women that were in direct contrast with what was deemed “acceptable” behavior for a man. It was beyond the confines of social “acceptability” for a woman to succumb to her sexual desires and stay the night with a man she had just been on a date with. Giving in to one’s desires could invariably prevent a “good girl” from having a “good marriage” later, which was at the time the raison d’etre for women. Realizing the boundaries of social expectations, the Wolf, through his repeated refrain, is offering her the excuses she needs in order to stay the night without any guilt. Moreover, at the time in which the song was written, “What’s in this drink?” was a stock joke because claiming to drink too much could ostensibly be used as an excuse for bowing to one’s ‘hidden’ wishes – behaving as one wouldn’t normally according to the social expectations at the time. Additionally, if one listens to the song, there are no predatory elements in the tone and style of the music. The female singer is not anxious or afraid – she’s playful, sexy, and desires the male. The song is, indeed, suggestive of light, flirtatious banter, just as the author Loesser intended when he wrote it to sing with his wife after their party.

I include the link (below) to a cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In this version, the roles have been reversed – Lady Gaga is the “Wolf” and Gordon-Levitt is the “Mouse.” I think it’s a wonderful rendition that captures the essential spirit of the original song.



Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy_Rich_Asians_posterWhen Nick invites Rachel to a wedding in Singapore, she views it as an opportunity to meet Nick’s family and see where he came from. Upon arrival, however, Rachel discovers that Nick has been keeping a secret: his family are the richest people in the entire country, and Nick is the heir to the fortune and something of a national celebrity.

The film and the book it’s adapted from are derivative – Pride & Prejudice meets Cinderella – cleverly infused with modern elements, such as the Asian locale and the private lives of the jet-setting-hyper-rich. And the film delivers on its title – every one of the characters based in Asia has a huge bank account and shows it off as garishly as they possible can. Even so, Crazy Rich Asians does introduce some real world topics into the conversation, amidst its being audaciously charming and fun.

While the political and cultural implications of a studio film* having an all-Asian cast are noteworthy, Crazy Rich Asians takes this mantle lightly, gracefully, humorously, and with a dazzling array of sequins. The film is completely over-the-top, but it’s grounded in sympathetic characters. The story begins in a very jolly tone, with jokes that often make you laugh out loud, but it gets funnier and more poignant as we see beneath the expensive surfaces of the film’s characters to their true insecurities.

Clever, funny, lavish and topical, a sequel is already underway!

* It was financed and produced independently to ensure creative freedom, which included the desire for an all-Asian cast, and then WB picked up the theatrical distribution.

 



Bohemian Rhapsody
November 28, 2018, 11:34 am
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BohemianRhapsody_POSTERThe movie begins in 1970 when Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), an audacious youth with a mouth full of too many teeth, works as a baggage handler at Heathrow and lives at home with his parents. One night, he meets, and then joins, the college rock band, Smile, and together they become Queen, one of the biggest bands in rock history. The film chronicles their rise to fame and ends with Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985.

Critical reviews have been lukewarm. In the interest of being judicious, I’ll cover primary complaints. Changing direction midway through production – from Bryan Singer to Dexter Fletcher – results in the subject of Queen and Freddie Mercury being realized in a safe, by-the-numbers manner, even as it’s depicting a man and a band who were anything but ‘safe’ and predictable. Queen’s ‘path to glory’ is fundamentally free of any road bumps, progressing smoothly from student gigs to sold-out stadiums within a few years. The film’s focus on Freddie’s relationship to Mary Austin, rather than any real time on a happy, gay relationship, undermines who he was. This part of his identity is further injured by the discovery of his HIV status being revealed in a quiet montage. Finally, ending the film at Live Aid in 1985, rather than covering the story of Freddie’s last six years, undermines the work he did during this time.

There is reason to these assertions, but the film couldn’t cover it all, despite its tagline, without seeming underdeveloped. Yes, Freddie Mercury is an utterly fascinating and deeply moving subject, and Rami Malek, who plays Freddie, is absolutely spectacular – he’s a strutting, bodacious peacock who’s also incredibly affecting, providing visual excitement on screen at every turn, just as the charismatic Freddie once did. However, I feel this is more about the story of Queen than its  frontman, so perhaps a criticism could be that the script didn’t fully realize its stated goal? And, it’s not about their, or Freddie’s, struggle to fame, it’s about their struggle to remain true to themselves, and each other, and relevant to their fans. I realized while watching the film how unwittingly omnipresent the band had been throughout my youth (and I sang Bohemian Rhapsody to my infant son as a lullaby), but I had stupidly not realized how collaborative they essentially were. From the moment the film starts, we see the set up for a large concert, from the roadies, to the technicians, to the ticket sellers, to the artists, setting the stage – literally – for the film, which accentuates the mechanics of creating the music. In my opinion, this isn’t a light journey through the hits that some declare, or the story of Mercury’s complicated life, but, rather, some insight into how those hits were created and developed by the band. Their relationship, for better and for worse. It’s compelling material. On top of that, one revisits one’s own youth through the music they created together. Ending the film on the Live Aid show simply creates a focused arc, a ‘bookend,’ if you will, that provides dramatic tension. As for not focusing on Freddie’s homosexuality, I think that’s tripe. The entire story arc for his character is about realizing his ‘true’ identity, who he is ‘meant to be,’ as he struggles with the role he has within his family, his sexual propensities, and the effects of fame. Mary Austin wasn’t an aside or an act of curiosity – she embraced Freddie’s flamboyance before anyone else did and was a consistent friend and lover for years (he left his entire estate to her) despite the fact that she was not male and consequently does not fit into the general assessment of who he was. If one is to be truly liberal, one should account for the possibilities inherent in human sexuality, and not be so dogmatic about how one “usually” fits into a category or not.

In fact, this film illustrates that things are not always what they seem, through its minor exploration of Freddie’s sexual awakening and consequent proclivities, yes, but also in its insight into the band’s marriage, if you will, and Freddie’s realization of his power as a performer. Ultimately, I found the film interesting, joyful, humorous, and poignant–fantastic entertainment that made me forget everything else whilst watching it.



A Star is Born
November 3, 2018, 1:09 pm
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A Star is Born movie posterJackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country music star that falls in love with wannabe singer Ally (Lady Gaga). With his help, her star ascends while his stardom, hindered by long time tinnitus, emotional trauma, and alcoholism, slowly falls.

I found myself haunted after watching this latest version of A Star is Born. I was pensive as a stillness settled over me when I left the cinema, and this film was the first thing I considered when I woke up the next morning. Bradley Cooper’s character is utterly compelling and terribly sad. Despite what his childhood may have been like, the story effectively conveys that his perspective and behavior are the product of mental illness. He can’t help feeling unhappy, insecure, or his being self-destructive because he doesn’t know how to get help, or, indeed, what, exactly, to get help for. He is charming, kind and talented, yet he is also isolated, reactive, and full of self-loathing even as his life contains so much bounty. And he implicitly realizes this type of ungratefulness, which exacerbates his self-hatred. The plot is still a love story, as the other adaptations of this film have been, however, this version stresses the theme of mental illness and its vulnerability more than the theme of ambition and compromise.

A Star is Born (2018) is unequivocally worth seeing. And, it’s evidence of Bradley Cooper’s directorial sensitivity and ‘acting chops’ – he’s not just a pretty boy as he goes hand held and gets up close and personal even when the subject isn’t easy or attractive. Lady Gaga, too, is believable – tender, tough, and charismatic – and absolutely holds her own in the acting arena.



WALL-E
September 17, 2018, 12:36 pm
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Wall-E-Movie-PosterHumanity has abandoned planet earth, leaving behind them a fleet of robots to clean up their mess. When the movie opens, however, the only one of these robots remaining is WALL-E who is fascinated by garbage, cleaning it up each day, as he’s programmed to, and taking various ‘treasures’ he finds back to his home. His enchantment switches to a new target when a super-robot EVE touches down, looking for signs of life on earth.

Released ten years ago, I watched this again recently with my young son after seeing a small robot that cleaned a pool at a hotel we stayed at – day in, day out, without stopping – that reminded me of WALL-E. It was in this re-watching, though, with our ever-growing global behavior of consumption and waste, that I truly appreciated the ambition, charm, and visual wit of Pixar’s film. The story can only be the result of inspiration and passion rather than marketing meetings and focus groups, ‘cause WALL-E brings a message about being nice to our planet and the evils of big corporations (ironic, yes, given Disney owns Pixar, but hey ho, this film was made). The setting, a future earth composed of great skyscrapers of trash reaching toward a permanently overcast sky, is prescient. As are the signs for a mega corporation, “Buy and Large,” dotting the nihilistic landscape. While our hero speaks maybe four words – and he has no mouth, no eyebrows, no thumbs – everything WALL-E feels is perfectly palpable and authentic. He is one of the most expressive characters developed in animation. It’s in the nervousness of his gesticulations, the tilt of one of his lamp-like eyes, and his emotive sounds (designed by Ben Burtt, the man who gave us R2-D2’s beeps and tremors) that he is empathetic and believable. Meanwhile, the humans have been reduced to fat toddlers living in Lazy-Boy-type electronic recliners in space, whose every need is met with a touch of the screen that is perpetually in front of them. Enter WALL-E, who reminds us all what is important in life.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do, with or without children. WALL-E is, arguably, Pixar’s most brilliant film in a canon of excellent films produced by the studio. It’s a hopeful film that reminds us of what it is to feel joy.

 



I Am Not An Easy Man (Je Ne Suis Pas Un Homme Facile) (2018)
July 15, 2018, 11:17 am
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I Am Not An Easy Man movie poster USADamien (Vincent Elbaz) is a ‘player’ in modern Paris. He develops content for an apps company by day, and seduces women when not at his job. Alexandra (Marie-Sophie Ferdane) is Damien’s best friend’s assistant. Damien tries to pick her up at a book-signing event to no avail, then leaves and bumps his head on a pole he runs into while ogling women passing by on the other side of the road. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a world where women hold the societal position that men have held historically to present day. While there is much in this film directed and co-written by Eleonore Pourriat that is arguably cliché and flat-footedly drives home a point, it’s ultimately a diverting film that one considers after watching it.

A hackneyed element is the idea that men in the alterative world who are not married at a certain point are sad and likely to live with a cat. I also found it rather wearisome that men in their role of stereotypical women in the alternate world are effeminate in their mannerisms, actions, and behaviors, such as swinging one’s hips, flipping one’s wrists, using ‘up talk’, etc. Would this actually happen with testosterone flowing through their veins? Is this type of behavior truly just environmental influence rather than biology? Conversely, women in the alternate world strut and burp, have their babies holding on to a hanging exercise bar, then turn the care of the babe over to the male nurse or their husband – would this happen with all the hormones raging through our bodies that (generally) work to bond us to the process of pregnancy, birth, and infant

Fundamentally, however, I found the concept good and was rather unsettled by how the reversal of gender is depicted, which prompted me to consider my own attitudes to roles men and women have in modern life. For example, women don’t shave their legs or armpits in the alternate world, but men must shave all of their body hair or risk being seen as disgusting hippy apes by potential seducers; women bare their chests while running or walking around, whereas men attempt to accentuate any cleavage and play coy with their titties; professional women wear dark suits, and men wear something colorful that, ideally, displays their legs; men are dismissed when they proffer a serious opinion, while women are respected and listened to; and men are the objects of lust in films; when Damien is ‘picked up’ by a woman and they have sex – they struggle for dominance and when she’s finished, she rolls over and leaves.

Even as I didn’t find this to be a comedic film, which has, perhaps, a cultural element to it, I did find it droll (derived from the French “drôle” meaning humorous or peculiar). For example, classic literature and philosophy has been re considered, with books written by George Sand (a woman in fact) becoming Georgia Sand. Additionally, I closely considered both my uncomfortable response to what was being shown as gender behavior in the alternative society, as well as why (exactly) it might be that men have dominated the cultural, political, economic, and personal lives of everyone since the beginning of time…has it all been so arbitrary?