He’s Just Not That Into You And The Incidental Female Friend

Dear CF,

So glad to have you back, and just plain relieved to get your take on films du jour. I’ve almost stopped going to the movies (partly poverty, partly inertia) so I’m hopelessly behind. To give you a sense of where I stand re: our cultural capital: I haven’t seen Inception yet, but last night I finally got around to seeing He’s Just Not That Into You.

Re: the sad-sack zeitgeist of which Scott Pilgrim seems to be yet another instance, I wondered, watching HJNTIY yesterday, whether it was doing something with the female equivalent.

He’s Just Not That Into You tries pretty hard to be our generation’s When Harry Met Sally. It wants to articulate the sexual mores of our age—Drew Barrymore’s monologues are straight-up exposition on what the internet hath wrought, and though much of the movie leaves me agape, some of Barrymore’s stuff is actually entertaining. If back in Rob Reiner’s day the guiding question was whether or not men and women could be friends, now the question is whether men and women can rise above the pervasive insincerity of the flirtation—a basic dishonesty that infects every relationship, every marriage, every nonmarriage.

I’m not awfully interested in HJNTIY‘s framing of that question (and, one devastating Home Depot scene notwithstanding, I don’t think the movie handles it with much success), but I do think the film is hitting—tangentially, maybe even by accident—on something zeitgeisty about Filmic Female Friendships in America Today: namely, the extent to which that insincerity infects woman-woman relationships too. The movie spends some expository time on the tendency to lie charitably and to spin the story so that the friend is never forced to occupy that terrible unspoken category: The Undesired.

If the sad-sack Apatovian bromance consists of comfortably joking about each other’s undesirability until the glimmerings of homosocial mutual esteem erupt (as in I Love You, Man), the sororomance (ugh—seriously, we need a word for this) wallows and sometimes drowns in expressions of mutual esteem that must, eventually, turn fake. There comes a point when the friend assuring Gigi “don’t worry, he’ll call,” no longer believes it. She says it anyway. At that point, the female friend becomes an untrustworthy source of comfort. When Gigi says to Janine, quite seriously, that her husband’s infidelity isn’t her fault, Janine can’t hear her. She’s too used to the vocabulary of sugary consolation.

I wouldn’t argue that HJNTIY is about that—the insufficiency of female advice is what gets Gigi dependent on Alex for “truthful” masculine counsel, so it’s probably just a plot device—but it’s one of the few parts of the movie I find interesting. And while I don’t know to what extent it captures a *truth* about modern friendships, it’s definitely theorizing a different modern myth of lady-homosociality than, say, the easy bluntness, the comfortably skeptical chemistry Rosie O’Donnell has with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Or Meg Ryan’s candor to Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally (“he’s never going to leave her”).

Again, while the dilemma of masculine friendship remains at the fore these days, I’m panning for intelligent glimmers of the other. As I think of other films with multiple female protagonists—Mean Girls, Vicky Cristina Barcelona come to mind—I notice that none of them really take the problem by the horns. Whip It has other narrative agendas it puts first, although I have to say that friendship strikes me as more “real.”

I don’t begrudge the boys their time. Friendship is worth thinking about on both ends of the gendered spectrum. But I doubt Beaches and Thelma and Louise are really the best we can do. Until the existential isolation that frequently attends couplehood gets coded something other than exclusively male*, we might have to consign our female friendships to bit parts, and think of them as consolation prizes.

Fondly,
M

*Though actually, Janine’s existence in that half-built house in HJNTIY captures the feminine version of this surprisingly well.

PS: [SPOILER ALERT] That last scene, when Affleck proposes to Aniston after spending seven years on his principled unbelief in marriage! Intensely disappointing. Harriet Vane would have dropped him on the spot.

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Katharine Hepburn in “Holiday”: Did Chekhov Ever Write Tumbling Into a Scene?

Dear CF:

I realized something today as I researched Holiday in order to present you with the delicious clip below: many of the old movies I love, and several I quite like, come from the same director.  A Philadelphia Story, Gone With the Wind (part of it anyway), My Fair Lady, Gaslight, and now Holiday all come to us via George Cukor. Not to mention The Women, the remake of which made you fearful. I don’t know how I failed to notice this before. I suppose I ought to consider a director more of an author-figure than I typically do.

Holiday does sisterhood and siblinghood better than almost any film I’ve seen. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. It has the sumptuary delights of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music (staircases! ballgowns!) but undercuts the sheer spectacle of money by making all the elegance seem like joyless work. Fun, in this film, is coextensive with the unmonied and therefore unscripted life.

Below is a seriously sensational cinematic treat. It’s seven minutes long. If all you want is the delightful hijinks, watch until 5:51. If you want to see how well the movie channels Chekhov, watch to the end of the clip.

What’s going on: Cary Grant (Johnny Case) is a by-his-bootstraps lad with a talent for business who wants to make a quick buck and “retire” to see what the world has to offer. He’s engaged to Julia, a socialite who (along with her father) wants him to work at the family bank. (Yes, this is a smarter, older version of My Best Friend’s Wedding.) Julia’s sister Linda is played by Katharine Hepburn—she, along with drunk brother Ned, are misfit siblings who feel trapped by the grandeur and refuse to behave like “important people.”

Katharine Hepburn’s character Linda is Mrs. Dalloway in a universe where she doesn’t get to throw the party. (The grief of that is treated with really extraordinary respect.) Her father takes over and turns it into a black-tie soiree—exactly the sort of thing she hates. She refuses to attend and stays upstairs instead. This is awkward for the family. She’s eventually joined by Johnny Case’s only friends in attendance, a wry liberal couple of professor-types who literally got lost en route to the gala and understand exactly how much they don’t belong at the “real” party downstairs. (Example: a butler takes away the man’s shoes when they first arrive and directs them several times to the elevator so that they don’t show up on the staircase, where they would be announced and seen.)

In this scene, Johnny has just joined them. (Puppets! A married couple doing “Punch and Judy” to teach their friend how uppity he’s gotten! Spankings! Tumbling! And maybe the single greatest line: “Wife, do we know anyone who smells of violet?”) They’re joined soon after by Linda’s snobby cousin and spouse. Then by her brother and father. Enjoy the absurdity and, if you continue, the nimble switch to sadness:

Fondly,

M

Mr. Fox: Not All that Fantastic

Dear CF,

I finally saw Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox today and didn’t like it much. I was surprised: I worship Roald Dahl, and I think I might be the only person I know who still defends The Life Aquatic. I am either a fascinating contrarian or totally lacking in taste. Still, not liking the movie left me with a bad feeling in my mouth, and I am going to work through that feeling here.

Impressions, more or less in the order in which they occurred:

  • Gorgeous, gorgeous lighting
  • Music!
  • Love the quilty textures!
  • Opening scene: Adam and Eve by the tree? Nope. I just see Milton everywhere. He talks a lot and they really want us to get the joke: he likes to give her two choices and talk her out of the one she makes. In both cases, the “scenic route” is the one that leads to him getting them into trouble. Reminds me of that Tom Waits song: “I’ll always take the long way home.”
  • Ah. She’s pregnant. That’s why she ran a little gingerly during the hunt.
  • We don’t find out how they get out of the trap. Okay—we’re forced to conclude he can get them out of impossible scrapes.
  • Super-duper ’50s family scene. Whew. I mean. He peruses the paper and chats idly about his column while she cooks. And serves him without sitting down herself. She’s wearing a Mad Men dress?
  • Fine. Whatever. It’s a cute kid’s film. Get over it.
  • She’s reassuring them that they’re not poor. He’s a great provider. Yay.
  • He worries nobody reads him. Hm. Could be interesting? (ETA: it isn’t. Except as a background detail that explains why he has to talk at everybody throughout the entire film in bad toasts—which in turn explains why nobody reads him.)
  • He doesn’t want to live in the hole. Hole=domestic life/not enough status/womb. Also slang for the isolation chamber in prison. Got it. I may be able to predict this film from here on out.
  • Weird kid. In a Wes Anderson film. Shocker.
  • Can’t get over the weirdness of a Wes Anderson movie without the Wes Anderson facial reactions. Funny to see a style so dependent on expression on inexpressive faces.
  • The tree is nice! Funny touches–pine is better than oak? The super! Ha!
  • He wants to live in a treehouse. He is infantile. Got it. Mr. M points out they’re buying a house they can’t afford. Like America! Topical!
  • I like the possum. Minnows!
  • The real-estate stuff is a smart and cool spin on the trend of  making a kid movie appealing to grown-ups. Unlike Shrek, say. I like that it doesn’t patronize kids and lets them be bored by details they overhear everyday. (Interest rates, etc.) That’s important to being a kid—the dullness and pervasiveness of adult dialogue—and it’s often missing in kid’s films.
  • That said, I’M less charmed than bored by the real estate details.
  • They set up house. Delightful kitchen tile. Owen Wilson’s character materializes in the form of a hot fox (heh) named Kristofferson or somesuch.
  • Actual Owen Wilson plays a coach.
  • I like how incoherent they make whackball. It reflects exactly how I, as a kid, understood real sports.
  • Sigh. Here’s the midlife crisis.
  • Beagles love blueberries! Again, Fox’s insanity miraculously prevails! He is magic! Delightfully magic! His Master Plans work!
  • Funny that the chickens don’t talk. Prey is just meat, even when it’s alive.
  • Tangent: I kind of wish there was Wes Anderson bingo. We should make it up if it doesn’t exist. Saintly wise wife with five lines per film: check. Who manchild takes for granted: check. Weird kid: check. Tuned-out dad who is nevertheless fascinating: check. Pseudo father/son relationship: check. Quiet and sort of poetic moment of empathy between young’uns: check. Moment of transcendence when boychild does the scary thing manchild values: check. Death: check. Wild animal that symbolizes wildness and the way real life shows the smallness of the manchild’s vision: check. Total affirmation of manchild’s craving for attention despite whole movie dedicated to challenging it and forcing self-examination: check. Society’s willingness to forgive manchild his having brought about the destruction of all their homes: che—wait.
  • What?
  • How on earth do all the animals, in a film that’s so much about a middle-class family struggling to make it, a film made during a recession when people are actually losing their homes, forgive Fox so easily for relocating them TO A SEWER?
  • Okay. I mean, I get that this isn’t American Beauty, and it doesn’t have to show suburbia’s every ugly surface, but this? Is totally absurd. He gets off way, waaaaaaay too easy.
  • Seriously. He loses his tail? That’s IT?
  • By the way, the evil man wearing the tail as a tie is really, successfully morbid.
  • The turncoat villain-rat is Southern and apparently black. And one-toothed. Huh.
  • Let the record also show that he is awesome.
  • Oh. And alcoholic.
  • No class issues here at all.
  • I like that they go ahead and skip Fox’s history with the rat. He’s the top athlete!  He and the rat have a long history of battles waged! You know there will be a showdown, admissions of mutual regard and a dollop of nostalgia.
  • Weird kid likes comic books. Dad is obsessed with “bandit hats.” Coincidence? I THINK NOT.
  • The sock-for-hat business is cute.
  • Ah, Mrs. Fox’s chat with our hero as they’re digging for their lives. Her claim that his habits have made their future  “predictable”  is an interesting reframing of the masculine midlife crisis, which is usually triggered by predictability and here is producing it. The consequence of domesticity is ennui; the consequence of his following his “wild” instincts is death. Awright. The movie understands its cliches. Excellent!
  • The wife has been sent away to comfort the women. Oh look. A cliche.
  • Now the men get to be awesome! (In a limited way.)
  • I’m trying not to be pissed off about that. I really am. In the immortal words of the Walrus, let us talk of other things! Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax (which I always thought was actually CEILING-wax until I typed it that way and realized it made no sense, one does not need wax for ceilings unless one is a bee), of cabbages and kings!
  • Okay, but SERIOUSLY? You had MERYL STREEP and you sent her off to tell the women that HELP is coming? You had Meryl Streep querulously ask Fox “IS help coming?” without demanding any details? TRUSTING the moron she admits she should never have married? Conclusion: she is a moron too.
  • However, since this seems to be yet another movie with a Magical Female (the equivalent of the Magical Negro, whose only narrative function is to show the protagonist the Right Way and track his progress thither), we are supposed to believe—because she says it mournfully, with tears in her eyes—that Mr. Fox’s problem is that he always wants to be “fantastic.” This is how I think the movie wants me to understand his defect.
  • Wow, I got really mean all of a sudden.
  • The thing is, I don’t actually like any of these characters.
  • Maybe it’s the animation? The faces? Why don’t I feel anything for them?
  • Heal and grow.
  • Heal and grow.
  • Well, my not caring much about them doesn’t make me want to stop watching. It’s still eye candy.
  • So, we were avoiding cliches and the predictable.
  • The plot just turned into Chicken, Run.
  • Which is a retelling of The Great Escape.
  • Mr. Fox is, in turn, Steve Zissou if he’d married poor.
  • With some Wallace and Gromit thrown in for good measure.
  • I like that the movie relishes the unslickness of everything. The badly executed rescues (devolved from the picture-perfect blueberry-plot at the beginning), etc.
  • Sheesh. I almost forgot: the “we’re wild animals” defense. (Which, by the way, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made on his Atlantic blog, defending the dudely right to comment on a Freedom Rider’s beauty (as compared to ladies with boob jobs on magazines) because it’s “honest” and “we want to be reverent” but aw shucks, they just can’t. They’re too honest! “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Coates says, before issuing an apology thanks to the intervention of his Magical Female, who set him straight).
  • The wild animal. I worry about it. I do. Mr. M. has a very smart read on how the movie invalidates Fox’s “wild animals” mid-life crisis that I think is actually much smarter than what’s there. He thinks (among other things) that Mr. Fox is the opposite of wild and loves the fantasy of wildness. To support that, Fox’s rousing speech exhorting the animals to be their awesome wild selves depends on calling their LATIN NAMES. And it’s cool that the movie gets the joke of this when he tries it on the wolf. Canis lupus lupus is the wrong thing to say in his presence.
  • It’s possible, too, that we’re supposed to see Fox’s narration of Ash’s awesome maneuver in sports terms (basically the opposite of wild animalhood—he’s the best at an elaborately organized sport) as supporting this. I’m partly convinced.
  • (Also? I love the “bread” karate mantra. Love love love love that. Kristofferson training Ash while blindfolded via arcane directives was the most pleasurable moment of the whole movie.)
  • Still, Mrs. Fox says she understands why Fox ruined their lives: she says  “we’re wild animals” and says she should never have married him. That the Magical Female assumes this posture gives me pause.
  • (That doesn’t get resolved in their marriage at all, by the by. The only reason we’re supposed to be happy by the end is because he pulled his “Fantastic” trick where he keeps everybody in the dark, again, forces them to trust him for the jollies he gets from making them all think he’s fantastic, again—an investment in his own jouissance that has gotten them all nearly killed multiple times.  Still.  He is so charming! Everything turned out fine! He apologized for keeping her in the dark (even though he’s urging her up a manhole—GET IT? He’s getting them out of the hole she never wanted to leave! Again!!). Anyway, why WORRY about why it all happened? Go up the ladder! Into the open air!
  • Oh shit. She’s pregnant. Again.
  • ‘Sokay though! He can provide for them while they live in their Soviet bloc/sewer with other dispossessed animal families. They will eat crackers made of turkey giblets instead of real giblets, and fake apples, which, after all have stars on them! Hurrah! Fake supermarket processed food. He is no longer a yuppie locavore. He has stopped worrying about their being poor. He is over it. He has done away with his own bourgeois preoccupations like Escrow and what his son is wearing. And he’s annihilated everyone else’s too in the bargain! Yay! He has liberated them all against their will!
  • He is  conscious of vegetarianism, though. Good dude. Though the badgers might be making up their walnut allergy.
  • Oh good. The toast. They’re begging him for a toast? Who in this movie who would beg this character to talk?
  • He understands he isn’t as wild as he thought. He drycleans his tail!
  • Magical Female says “You are quote-fantastic-unquote.” And we are relieved that she, at least, seems to have a sense of irony.

Okay. So that was my initial reaction. Then I read some of the reviews that loved it (basically all of them—it got 93% on Tomatometer). I was particularly moved by this review of Stephanie Zacharek’s from Salon:

I’m not sure I can explain why Anderson’s trademark dry, clever patter seems less tortured, and so much funnier and more believable, when it’s emerging from the mouths of animal puppets with scruffy, disarranged fur. But “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is one of the few recent movies I can think of that truly captures the vibe of a childhood spent largely with books. I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience: Looking at all the details in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — the character’s wayward whiskers, their little vests, the mansionette hideaways they’ve dug for themselves in the ground — brought back the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.

I love this description, and I wish I felt it a little more. I felt much attempted poetry, some of which fell a little flat. (The shared moment between Ash and his cousin with the train is a notable exception.) I really do think Anderson’s style is suited to extremely expressive faces whose affect is a yearning for recuperated innocence. I love Zacharek’s take on it, though, and the connection to Milne, which operates in exactly the space of simultaneously semi-fantastic and domestic, is really interesting.

Milne, of course, tells a much smaller tale. And this was a big story with lots of action and lots of characters, many of whose fortunes got a bit too sloppily shoved aside. Monsters, Inc., achieves similar scope and creates a similarly complex society without glossing over those gaps. (Then again, Pixar has story down to a goddamn art.)

As much as I’d like to think the reader-kid I was would love this—and as true as it is that I would obsess over every delicious visual detail in this film—it’s also true that I would have lots of obsessive questions. There are plenty of things this film overlooks because it’s a bit too interested in an adult and retrospective view of childhood innocence. It forgets what kind of adult society it set up at the beginning. It forgets the limits and constraints and laws that produce the crisis, so interested is it in the thriller it becomes. Makes sense: Anderson’s priorities aren’t sociological. His imagination lives in the afterglow of a resurrected past. It thrives on sadness,  on an adult’s quixotic loyalty to a childhood dream, and on the brutal way real life blisters that dream (that’s why the submarine in The Life Aquatic is rusted and creaky). The jaguar shark and the wolf aren’t just wildness, according to this reading: they’re the “pure talent” Fox tries to remind the animals of; they’re unadulterated childhood undamaged by self-consciousness, responsibility and loss.

I love all that about him, but that aesthetic seems unsuited to a kid’s movie since they’re, you know, kids. On the other hand, lots of great kid’s movies are draped with nostalgia, so perhaps it isn’t a problem.  There’s plenty of adventure. Still, if I were a kid and I’d seen this film, I’d have one question for Anderson: Why don’t the chickens talk?

Fondly,

M

Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.

Fondly,

Millicent

P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.

Inglourious Basterds: Comic Book or Graphic Novel?

Darling CF,

Recalling the days we spent aswelter amid our video-game art and chandeliers, all I can summon up to say on this sunny September morning, when so much of your city is burning and you are in a housedress, is: You! Makeup!!! And have you seen Inglourious Basterds? Because it is a riproaring superfun marriage of makeup and fire.

[SPOILER ALERT: the rest of this is about stuff that doesn’t happen in Inglourious Basterds and some stuff that does]

Inglourious Basterds is a long string of references and allusions that ends up being the film equivalent of tofurkey when you were hoping for a nice juicy bird. It is, in shape, more or less what you hoped it would be. You are full by the end. Plotwise, though, it’s a long exercise in distraction in which you have to forget that what you’re eating is tofu in order to enjoy it. As anyone who has eaten tofurkey knows, this isn’t really possible unless you have lots of blood and really excellent costuming.

Tarantino’s a master of spectacle and the magnitude of IB’s penultimate ending should satisfy—and does, visually, and that counts for a lot. But the fact is, he launches a thousand ships and leaves a number of ‘em languishing, forgotten, at sea. I’ll get to why this matters in a minute.

First I want to admit that it shouldn’t matter because Tarantino’s approach to moviemaking is like Jon Stewart’s approach to political commentary: they both claim they’re buffoons and insist that their objective is satire and entertainment. This is a genial half-truth, and their fans always insist that they’re really doing some serious statement-making.

With Tarantino, I’m not convinced this is the case—or—and maybe this is a better way of putting it, and I feel he’d be the first to agree with me—the only statements in which he’s sincerely invested concern movies themselves. Whether it’s slashers or spaghetti westerns or kung-fu films, his movie-making is really meta-movie-making and it’s (not quite) equal parts homage and entertainment. It’s almost—almost—fan fiction.

To put it another way, it seems wrong to blame Inglorious Bastards for not being a graphic novel when all it wants to be is a comic book.

Read more of this post

Funny People: In Which Sandler and Apatow Don’t Make It to the Altar and No One Laughs or Cries. Part I.

Dear CF,

Your reaction to the Funny People movie poster was eerily prescient. You have powers. Be my psychic? Also, I’d like to point out that James Thurber wrote his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” at 40. As a joke. Would that Apatow’s self-awareness ran so deep when he decided to mount a Career Retrospective at 42.

Instead we get Funny People, an effort to weave Apatow and Sandler’s comedy styles into one movie that both moves and amuses. It’s a threnody on love and loss, on dicks and disease, on the stand-up comedy circuit and the growth that fails to happen there. It’s the story of Sandler’s juvenilia and bad movies. It’s a chronicle of Apatow’s hardships before he made it big, a novella on how Power and Money isolate and how humor isolates even more.  It’s the beaten horse of Rogen’s weight loss (the movie wants us to know that he’s thinner, and that it knows that Jonah Hill is the fat version of Rogen because Rogen used to be fat and now he’s not as fat. Hilarity ensues). It’s a limerick on the hotness of Judd’s wife (she is hot) and the cuteness of his kids (they are cute), a villanelle on Eric Bana as Richard Gere, a sestina of movie and television cliches and a sonnet on how cliched movie cliches are (they are very cliche).  It tried to solve all this by plotting three semi-interesting movies, mashing them into one and resolving none of them.

I left the theater feeling befuddled and a little cheated by the poster, which seems, in retrospect, like a malicious exercise in deceit. In unrelated news, I am completing an Online Sexual Harassment Training and Survey. So, in the spirit of surveys and procrastination, I declare the birth of an informalish poll* for what the movie poster should actually have said (SPOILER ALERT):

Funny People:

  1. A show about a dying guy. Who gets better!!!!
  2. How he found love—and lost it because he inexplicably becomes an uncaring douche when her kid sings a song from CATS. (Yeah, yeah, you didn’t see that coming because he saved her film reel and her jeans and let her dog eat peanut butter off his face and played with the kids. But he checked his phone. He is a jerk and has learned nothing from his brush with the Kind of Cancer that Makes You Tired After a Game of Basketball Or a Brisk Swim.)
  3. How a nice dull man who recently lost weight meets a slightly older and funnier man. No one changes much—but there are twelve standup scenes in which you see them not change much. Also: penises.
  4. An existential look at life, death and unmeaning—not Sandler’s (he’s just a clever decoy) but the ghosts of sometime comedians, their shows and careers. Andy Dick will depress you. Paul Reiser will make you weep. By the time Norm Macdonald shows up you’ll be shotgunning beers. Watch them be dicks to each other and get upstaged by Eminem.
  5. Friendship Is: writing jokes for the dim dude you hired to write jokes for you, after he ruined your shot at your true love by blabbing inappropriate things to her children.
  6. Friendship Is: having inconclusive fights with your roommates who sell out to work on a bad TV show and sleep with the girl you sorta like. But you were an asshole too, and that’s life or something. Also, a slightly older dude in your line of work tells you these are the best years of your life, and not to lose touch with these guys who you kinda hate. So. You know. The end.
  7. ONE-TIME ROOMMATES, LIFETIME RIVALS: The FINAL SHOWDOWN between deposed comedy king Adam Sandler and bromance czar Judd Apatow (played by Rogen) to determine (here’s your twist) Who Gets to Be the Main Character in the Serious Movie?

*Turns out the options, in an unconscious tribute to the film, got way too long (TWSS). So I can’t create a formal poll. However, my vote, with explanations, sequins, and penises, is here.**
**Or, er, will be shortly.

Fondly,

Millicent

Away We Go But We’re Still Here

Dear CF,

I’m choked up with thoughts. I’ve started five letters to you and finished none of them. This I want to fix. So much to talk about: let’s start with Away We Go, which I finally watched.

I’d forgotten that Eggers and wife wrote the script. The moment those credits flashed on the screen I understood my own reaction to the movie a little better (it varied, I will confess, between amusement, bemusement, disgust, and a few moments of genuine weepiness). Eggers. This is a movie about Eggers trying to grow up. Everywhere in this movie you trip on glimpses of that sparkly McSweeney’s preciousness that stems in large part from adults behaving as if they were younger and more vulnerable than they are. The engine driving this kind of story is the fantasy that we’re all paper flowers pretending to be strong, that there are terrible and lonely and small occasions for beauty, that we are all Young At Heart.

To his credit, I think Eggers is trying to grow. The movie is rife with self-corrections, with scenes that try to save themselves from sentimentality by laying on reality in sloppy layers. Reality! the movie announces. Not sparkly-sadness! The odd reenactment of The Sound Of Music by the adopted kids in Montreal shows exactly what this movie is trying to do: alert you to the fact that up until now you’ve only seen the part of the movie without the Nazis. But this? This is real, it promises. Cue the woman who just miscarried pole-dancing at a club. The same goes for the crazy boss in Phoenix, whose daughter spends the entire last scene (where she tries to kiss Burt) flirting with two men in a truck. There is darkness here.

But he hasn’t made it for exactly the reasons you mention: namely, it takes a sudden turn toward the censored Sound of Music ending. We end up with a tree hung with plastic fruit and a friendless couple that actually prefers it this way—a couple that started out seeking community, started out on what has to be read as a Biblical journey, Mary and Joseph in search of an inn (yes, that’s how highly our writers think of themselves—they are birthing the secular Messiah) and ended up on an island, locked away from the very world it hoped would save it from “fuckuphood.”

The movie starts with that question: “Are we fuckups?” The worry starts them off on a quest for an adulthood free of cardboard windows. That’s the working definition, “free of cardboard windows,” and it never gets refined any further. It never gets asked again, or answered, except by negation (everyone else is a fuckup too). I think you’re right, though you read it much more lovingly than I do: their final answer is the opposite of progress. No matter how delightful that house may be, it’s total regression and total retreat.

You said you found the couple “solid in ways that most movies would rather not look at,” and I found myself thinking too about how the movie tried to undemonstratively demonstrate the kind of intimacy that must (because this seems to be the nature of time and touch) border on boredom. I’m thinking of the car ride, while Verona is eating an apple (before she gets out of the car). I’m thinking of that opening sex scene, which announces exactly the kind of democratic semi-irritated sex this couple has (while, yes, stretching the limits of credulity by keeping the covers on and Verona clothed).

I liked those moments—even if the oral sex scene was a little overdone for shock value, I respect the work it did and how quickly it did it. It was unslick, not about sex at all really, and yet all about the particular brand of awkward the Burt-and-Verona couple inhabits when sex is involved and it isn’t awesome or angry. I liked Burt’s conversation with the other guy while they watched his wife pole-dance—a conversation that could never happen in an Apatow movie because it assumes that two young, relatively cool men might care seriously (and freely) about their partners’ emotional wellbeing and navigate those pretty painful waters with trepidation and concern. I actually thought that was a tremendous scene.  Had the women been present, it might easily have gone the way of Knocked Up—men expressing the right emotion because they’re performing to the ethical tyrannies of an all-female panel of judges.

I liked the scene where Burt and Verona are in bed, he’s babbling amiably about what a good dad he’s going to be, and Verona’s sudden sadness over how their island is being threatened by the very thing they created. (This would obviously be an important concern for this couple, since they have no one outside of themselves). I liked the “vows” on the trampoline.

As for the rest of it… well, the structure was unfortunate. The conceit of taking the Huckleberry Finn childhood Burt wants for their kid and mimicking it prenatally is sort of charming. There they are, sailing down the Mississippi through different zany episodes. But the episodes were so vicious, and so sad, and the lands they visit are populated by (as you so rightly say) cautionary tales!

I would have liked for them to stay in Miami. That was a spontaneous trip—it wasn’t part of their artificial quest. It had real urgency, it offered real companionship. It would have given them something besides themselves. I’d have preferred it to the fabular house dripping with Spanish moss that leaves them just as isolated as they first began, but with bigger windows (that aren’t cardboard).  The movie seemed to be attempting so much—it’s too bad that this is the only definition of adulthood we get.

A note on Verona and her plot: she doesn’t want to get married because her parents can’t be at the wedding? This was ridiculously uncompelling to me. Undertheorized. What does that have to do with anything? Is this woman who paints brain surgeries really the kind who fantasized about her daddy walking her down the aisle? I like and respect her position that “we can only really be good for this one person;” it’s an unambitious stance but I can respect it, even admire the constraints she chooses to put on their reality. But there are so many reasons not to marry—this was the one she chose? I liked her stillness so much. I wanted it to be wiser.

I wished I’d loved it more. This is such an interesting and worthwhile direction. More, please?

Fondly,

Millicent

Fables and Nests

Dear M.,

Your thoughts about names and the responsibility of labeling things correctly were quite lovely.  I wonder if pen names can be considered honest at all, when they offer such a supreme cloak of distance.  Somebody said, but I didn’t say.  I could have said, but instead, Somebody said.  And yet, anonymity also allows for increased honesty, increased exposure of the most vulnerable and wobbly parts of things (our opinions on what is cool, our hopes in love, the things that we do not want our parents to know we think).  And what do we do here, my wonderful pen pal, if not fully wear the caftan of “us but not us” as we write under two of the best pen names a Millicent and a Carla Fran could have?

But your post also connects to some thoughts I had while watching Away We Go. I don’t think you have seen the film yet, and I encourage you to not read the rest of the post here until you have, because I am going to talk about it as if you have seen it: I am going to chat about plot points with little regard for spoil or alert.  But, before that, let me go ahead and with all caps say SPOILER ALERT, which I just realized I would want on a t-shirt, especially if I was a psychic or prophet.

So, the good news is that the movie was in no way as irritating or quirky as reviews had led me to believe.   In general, I found it to be round and authentic and apt.  It took on a bit of the Apatow set design of real living, but with much less jizz humor, and it would be interesting to do a side by side comparison with Knocked Up. Both movies face the issue of how to prepare to be a parent, how to find your adult place in the world, and look at models of the possible miseries ahead.  But Away We Go has a lot of love for both of its protagonists; neither of them are a plot device for the other’s growth.  The couple is solid in a way that most films would rather not look at: there is no climactic fight and revelation, no betrayal, and no stutter step toward the commitment and the future.   They are young and attractive, they aren’t ridiculously wealthy (for some reason, I adore that there wasn’t a quick assumption that they could afford all kinds of travel and self-finding), and they treat each other nicely without the standard treacle.

But, the movie doesn’t love all its characters equally.  While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is a funny little dagger, it is ultimately a cruel one that is about as flat and over-the-top as they come.  This great review from the New York Times suggested that Burt and Verona exist in a world where only they are sainted enough to be three dimensional and fair minded.  In the world of the movie, yes, besides Verona’s sister and Burt’s brother, they are adrift in a sea of caricature.  I almost don’t mind this because I think it connects to that important theme of carving out an adulthood.  Perhaps the extreme amount of caricature is just trying to do clean work by emphasizing how much of the world doesn’t match one’s perspective, and how alienating other people can be.  Who feels that they fully fit, that their parents’ worldviews are parallel to theirs, that the growned uppest friends are inspirations instead of terrors and cautionary tales?

Of course, in its press for clean lines, the movie skips an important part of this particular puzzle, and thus becomes more of a fable than a real take.  For being two such charming people, Burt and Verona have no friends.  Zero.  The cast they visit throughout the movie is either family or distant acquaintance.  There is not an email, phone call, or reference to a single person that they love outside of their little world.  By including like minded friends, the premise of picking up and leaving would have been fuzzier, and Burt and Verona couldn’t stand in such full contrast to the world they are navigating.  Plus, it is harder to land full and final judgment on friends, but it’s a quick guiltless leap for family and distant relations.  This could also be a metaphor for family life, as it does seem that once people family up, they implode upon each other with less and less time for expanding friendships.  The couple does feel sealed off from the world, but isn’t that what nesting is?

The end of the movie struck me for both its easy grace, which I almost mean as a compliment here, and for its ghost dance with the parent child continuum.  The home they have been looking for ends up to be Verona’s empty childhood house.  It has chandeliers, a breeze and a view, and a staircase just meant for children to run down.  So that we understand the house isn’t ostentatious, it has chipping paint and a rusted tin shed out front.  The movie starts in deep winter in New England, and ends with the more pregnant couple sweating in a deep southern breeze on the waterfront.  Lovely.  My question is, is perhaps the best home to raise a child the childhood that you have made peace with?  In fact, by returning to her childhood home, to a childhood landscape that Verona mentions early on as ideal and unruly, isn’t she professing a supreme self love (child rearing is a bit of a narcissistic endeavor)? Child, grow up as I did, and in a way, be me again.  This is possible in the movie because Verona’s beloved parents are both dead.  By choosing this house, she can give her parents the supreme compliment of wishing for a repeat performance, of returning to them.  By having children, we do become our parents, but I feel like the movie’s end takes the hard parts out of this, and makes it tender and scenic, again a fable.

They temper this by showing Verona’s emotional work of return, and the pain of her parent’s death, which I appreciate even if it was still a quick lob.  The movie moves fast, makes some easy jumps and events pile up very helpfully for the narrative. But, I never once groaned out loud.

I also very much like the final presentation of parenthood and adulthood: an empty house, a familiar one, and a landscape that is settled, exotic, even lush, and waiting to grow around them.  If it was a full on fable, vines would curl around their doorway and bloom as they sat, indeed sealing them off, but in the way that life does when there are are graces waiting for you, and perhaps elves and gnomes at the corner of the page.

A movie that did similar work, but with a more delicate and complex reach was the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It seems a true hurdle of adulthood (one I haven’t climbed–inflexible hamstrings) is making a world of your own without fear of what you have seen so far,  and with the extra nut of not assuming that fearlessness equals protection.

I wonder if this movie will be dated in 5 years, or as Mr. Carla Fran guessed, 5 months.    I wonder if 17-year-olds will see this and sigh, or if it is our generation’s turn at stories of early middle age.

Either way, I recommend the movie, though think it would make for an awkward second or third date.

Yours,

CF

* PS: As a final nitpick, the movie did a major disservice to doulas.  Burt says something along the lines “only dads who don’t want to be involved or don’t know what they are doing need doulas,” after the terrifying mother superior (Maggie Gyllenhaal) asks who their doula is.  I am constantly working against the stereotype that only mamas who use slings and have midwives use doulas.  Doulas help dads help mama.  They don’t get in the way.  And unterrible people use doulas.  Really.

*PPS: There looks like there is a slew of quirky down to earth romantic comedies coming out, including one charmer called Paper Heart.  Maybe the bromance has led us to this, the real person anti-formula (always starring Michael Cera).

*PPPS: This post bumps my ode to my cat off our list of recent posts.  This makes me sad, so I’m throwing a link to it here.

I Love You, Three Dimensional Well Written Character

Dear Millicent,

I am trying to find a phrase for the female bromance, and am not having much luck: sismance (sounds like a goiter), ladymance (sounds like a medieval weapon), cronemance (I kind of like this, but it makes me think Dune), girlcrush, or the brit term for falling in love at boarding school — –‘having a pash’?

I ask this because I just saw I Love You, Man, a title bromance, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (a supreme Netflix wonder). I was smitten with ILYM’s lack of difficulty: it is plot-lite, where even the climax is not very threatening or stressful.  I smiled at Paul Rudd throughout, and savored such lines as Jon Favreau offhandedly ordering a drink for wife, “and something with sour mix for her,” and Rudd’s father staidly announcing that his best friend is one of his sons in front of the other son.   But, the movie’s thesis is that women are friendship-a-matics: they instinctively klatch up and and share and support, while men have a hard time letting their hair down.  As Paul Rudd ventures to find friends, he encounters men wanting to date him or steal his clients, or geeks that are even less cool than he is.  His girlfriend enters the movie with a complete girl talk brigade with requisite bitch and ditz as besties.  Ladies have “girl’s nights” and drink wine.  They can sleep at each other’s houses and own boutiques together.  This doesn’t seem untrue, as much as one dimensional.

When he does meet his soul friend, they have quite the pash.  And it’s got all its dimensions.  They tell each other secrets, they support each other’s dreams, they make each other grow. The movie plays easy, so they have tilted the scales to make a more compact and satisfying formulaic tale.  The ladies have to be flat characters to foil the round joy of Rudd’s character arc with his manfriend.

But, isn’t the bromance really the story of all friendships? Doesn’t the post-college adult often flounder in isolation and miss the days where friendship was less homegenous, but very much enforced? In school there is required recess, and then the caste navigation of high school, and then dormmates and so on. Then we are released to the unwild, where people are no longer grouped by age or interest, and the world is lonelier.  Gyms and video stores and bars become the great chances of interaction.  I fuss not because ILYM is an inept representation of the difficulties of finding likeminded people, but because it’s like that way for everybody.  Women might say “I love you” to their pash a little earlier in the game, but otherwise same gauntlet.  And this is my nitpick with the Bromance/Apatow genre: it showcases its men with amazing dimensions of complexity, tenderness and contradiction and that is supposed to be the trick.  The ladies are supposed to have all of this stuff figured out, and as the men grapple and learn, we are all inclined to melt and appreciate the wit and humanity presented.  And, I usually do just that; as a critic, I am a worthless sop in the audience–I enjoy all of it.

Which brings me to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where I lost the bet that Kris Kristofferson would wear jeans in every scene (he wears white pants, once! The rest, denim all the way).  This move explained a few things to me:

  1. Why, while growing up in Tucson, people often referred to this movie and Jodi Foster’s amazing quote “he’s even weird for Tucson, and Tucson is the capital of weird.”
  2. A parenting trend that might have influenced my parents: in the movie Alice is a single mother that talks to her precocious 12 year old like he is fully grown.  He is very astute (and could walk straight into a Wes Anderson movie), and mom makes cracks about her sex life or trouble paying the bills and then tells him to finish his dinner.  They have a loving relationship.  I wonder if divorced parents at the time, hoping to have an equally savvy and well-bonded relationship with their kids, tried to be the brassy, worldly honest type, not realizing that their own lines (and their kids) were not written in a script where the outcome is ultimately a happy one.
  3. Harvey Keitel was once a very young man.

And, we have Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, as a successfully three dimensional lady on film.  My shock in watching the movie was how long it had been since I had seen that kind of complexity organically presented.  The movie is astounding in its motivations–every plot point has a very believable and fairly subtle reason for happening.  I have some issues with the ending–if you watch it, we must discuss–but overall, it’s a witty and complete portrait.  And, there is a gal pash, or rather, a tribute to the importance of the pash.  As Alice leaves town after her husband’s death, she and her friend have compelling goodbye scene where they both acknowledge how much they will miss each other (again, amazingly natural and heartfelt), and then later, this same friend is mentioned as Alice and Flo sunbathe in Tucson.  They have just become a united front, and Alice leans back, eyes closed to the sun and says “I forgot how good it is to talk to someone.”  The viewer feels how good these women feel in this moment.  It’s great.  I love the assumption of the movie that nobody has anything figured out, and practically every character is  their own little motor chugging through the world.

If the bromance/Apatow set , or a new think tank of entertainment, could take that kind of formula on, I’d be delighted.  I keep thinking there must be a female version of Peep Show, and all the Apatow gross-out/sentiment fests, and Juno isn’t quite it.

I love you, lady,

CF

Star Trek: I Love You, Man.

Dear CF,

Once, when I was fifteen and full of good ideas, I ditched my Mock Trial team at the courthouse and betook myself to an outdoor mallish esplanade that featured, among the dingy doughnut and copy shops, a clothes store and a decadent movie theater of the sort that has elaborate curlicues painted in gold. It was a warm, nay, a balmy, afternoon. People of all shapes and sizes were walking or sitting with their bags and boomboxes and I was highly conscious of myself as Woman of The World. Exhilarated, reckless, I bought a pair of brown polyester pants without trying them on.

High from this extravagance, I passed the movie theater. Ticket booth: cobwebby. Film posters: unfamiliar. It hit me then: this movie theater was a repository of something shadowy, fine, oblique and forgotten, a culture that soldiered on while people drank slurpees and shopped at Wet Seal. I looked to my right, to my left, tried the door and crept inside.

No one was taking tickets or serving popcorn. I dove into the first theater. A movie was playing but no one was watching it.  All the seats were empty but I felt taking one would be to push too far. (I wasn’t totally shameless. Yet.) I sat down on the floor to watch Gia.

Midway through a boy came in wearing a red vest and black pants. He was seventeen or so with longish-hair and evinced a certain Man-of-the-Worldness I felt totally intimidated by. (He was, in a word, cute.) I pretended not to see him and worked at puffing out my fictional persona, aiming to wordlessly convey a) my legitimate patronage b) my eccentric preference for floor over seat while c) sinking into the loud carpet and shadows (why do all movie theaters have loud carpet?) hoping he’d missed me, until the curtain swished closed behind him and I collapsed against the wall in asthmatic relief.

I gulped for air and tried to refocus on the movie. Suddenly he reappeared, walked over to my spot on the floor and handed me a coke. I drank the soda in a grateful cold sweat and watched the woman I’d later come to know as Angelina Jolie make mistakes.

I’ve told you this before and I’m rather inconsiderately forcing you to sit through it again because I need to purge myself of personal investment as I try to sort out my thoughts on Star Trek.  As logically and impersonally as possible. It seems fitting so to do, given that the Star Trek movie features not one but two Spocks, the younger of whom is struggling to keep his logical and emotional selves separate.

It’s no easy thing, finding oneself emotionally compromised.

Especially when one is not—and I am not—a Trekkie, and couldn’t pick Spock out of a lineup until seeing this movie. I’m approaching this little review with an impressive lack of background. And yet, despite my unfamiliarity with the franchise (or perhaps because of it?), I left the theater in a rage that some might call disproportionate.

It’s an entertaining movie. Storywise, I’m impressed with how the plot mirrors the moviemaker’s challenge—namely, recreating a mood and a look that manages to be both retro and futuristic, and adapting an old account of a distant future to our own time. (Abrams does this most virtuosically, I think, in the Young Kirk scenes—that Nokia carphone manages to bridge the gap between hokey futurism and cool gadgetry quite nicely.) It’s fitting that the writers bend time into a pretzel and manage to deliver both the epic (and impeccably linear) narratives of Kirk’s birth, Spock’s childhood trauma and Kirk and McCoy’s meeting AND the weird paradoxes of Old Spock giving Young Scotty his own formula or having Kirk deliver Spock to the red matter he’s already handled.

It’s curious, in the latter case, that technology answers the movie’s question of whether there can be an alternate destiny. (In case you were wondering, the answer—despite the myriad possibilities the writers try to open up by “rebooting” the franchise—is NO). Different characters tantalize us with this conundrum repeatedly. (Incidentally, Quinto’s Young-Adult-Spock notwithstanding, Old Spock definitely understands human pranks). Old Spock admits at film’s end that the dangers he warned Kirk of were useful fictions intended to serve the larger purpose of bringing him and Spock together. (This, maybe, is the problem: the script throws the finer points of time, violence, war and genocide out the window in the service of letting Kirk and Spock bond. It’s a bizarrely skewed perspective. If I were feeling generous I’d call the plot charming nonsense.)

The success or failure of Kirk’s whole project (and of his character) depends on whether or not the events of linear time are (pre)destined or not. If not, his “cheat” fails, but he goes up in our estimation because the uncertainty heightens the acuity of his perceptions and the genius of his instinct. Even if it wasn’t fated, he’s managed to put things right.

The movie tries to have it both ways—it wants both to present Kirk as the mythic hero blessed with unerring instinct, fated to do great things, and to have him operate under the uncertainty Spock tries to design for him in the initial training simulation—a simulation Kirk cheats and continues to cheat throughout the movie.

The film acknowledges this flaw and shrugs it off as a joke, but it really isn’t: in real terms, it deflates the suspense. The writers, like Kirk, have written in a cheat code that makes the movie totally winnable in a surprisingly uninteresting way. The answer really turns out to be NO: no alternate destiny is finally possible. Kirk will win. This is the way of prequels. Still, I give the writers an A for effort, and I get that they’re trying to make space (heh) for future storylines.

(Pat endings not withstanding, Abrams is ironically quite fond of the cliffhanger as a visual gag. There are at least three moments when Kirk is clinging to a smooth frictionless surface.)

As for the movie’s meat: as I was suffering the agonies of choice, deciding between Star Trek and I Love You, Man, I thought I’d opted against the bromance. I look back on my twenty-four hours ago self and think, silly fool.

The movie opens in crisis, with George Kirk forced to take command of the USS Kelvin, back when the handy-dandy beaming technology wasn’t available to catapult people out of their kamikaze missions (see Spock, Red-Matter Mission, Romulan). Ready for a coincidence? In a hilarious confluence of events, his wife happens to be giving birth aboard the ship at the same time. Oh, Murphy’s law.

(Why she’s on board a peace-keeping ship at all is never explained—we never see another civilian on a ship until Kirk drags Scotty back from the interplanetary arctic hinterlands).

Mrs. Kirk screams that she can’t deliver without him. (They forego the more popular movie trope of the pregnant lady delivering whilst screaming profanities at the man who put her in that condition in favor of a gentler, more dependent model. Here, this telegraphs a) the solidity of their marriage b) what a fantastic husband Kirk Sr. has been and what a great father he would be (and is, in another reality!) and c) what it must be costing KIRK to be away from her. The movie isn’t even slightly interested in her pain.)

The subsequent naming scene is quite unexpectedly sweet, with some pretty nice acting by Kirk’s mom. Dramatically unimportant (as we never see her again) but sweet, and despite the calamities surrounding the dialogue, it’s one of the film’s most (only?) contemplative and quiet moments.

It’s a commonplace, I suppose, to state that women in Hollywood films are there as growth charts against which to measure the male protagonist’s character arc. But never—never—have I seen this so obviously and hamhandedly done. Every woman in this movie is there purely as a plot device. She might as well be a deus ex machina—a tumorous maternal lump that gets removed and hurts in the way all amputations do.

Spock’s mother has three dullish lines that do nothing to illuminate the impact her death has on Spock’s psyche. Abrams relies 100% on archetype and does no character-work: Spock, we’re meant to understand, has lost his mother and that is sad, because we are all sad when our mothers die. Despite the emotional awakening this is supposed to spark, the loss has nothing to do with her particularly. If it does, the movie has no interest in exploring that. We are left to project our own mothers, or ideas of mothers, onto Spock’s mom and feel for him.

Why they bothered to cast Ryder in this non-role is beyond me. The point, movie-wise, is that SPOCK FEELS. (Oh and, parenthetically, Spock’s dad LOVED HER.)

Uhura is a foil for Spock. The elevator scene does the easy work of telling us that Spock probably feels something by sacrificing her only mildly interesting moment—when she stands up to Spock and demands her place aboard the Enterprise—to a preexisting romantic entanglement. We had no idea this relationship exists, and it has zero content—at no point does Spock actually talk to her. But hey, she asks him what he needs. She offers, she nurtures. And they kiss. Who cares about the rest?

Which brings me to the women’s wardrobe in this movie.

Sorry. My nostrils are flaring.

Oh, the ire.

Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.

Is it enough to say that if all the women on the flight deck have their knees smashed together to avoid flashing the public, the miniskirts are probably a little too short? Or that it might be unhelpful, uncomfortable, unsafe, not to say COLD to run around in miniskirts and boots at which Pan-Am flight attendants would blush? Or that the only time a woman wears pants in this movie is when Kirk is getting his award at the end and the woman in question is over forty and therefore not worth the easy-grope feature?

And why, if the powers that be insist on spandex-tight uniform tops, are the men’s saggy and baggy? Even the Next Generation had tighter uniforms than these.

Uhura complicates the Spock-Kirk tension, romps around in a bra when she’s not in her skirt, and is the one thing unconquerable Kirk doesn’t conquer. She humanizes Spock by intuitively reading his emotions and humanizes Kirk (who borders on the insufferable) by depriving him of something he wants.

Nero, of course, is doing this entire catastrophic terrorism thing to avenge the death of his wife.

Women are the red matter—which works a bit like a vagina dentata, contracting entire stars into nothing. Every time you expect an eruption you get an implosion into silence. I’ll spare you a description of the red matter consuming Nero’s ship. The point is: fathers are ultimately enabling objects of emulation—Kirk, for instance, wants to best his dad. Women, on the other hand, are the source of debilitating psychological trauma, emotional furniture that matters chiefly when removed.

In the movie’s terms, the only reason Kirk can triumph and lead and trust his (ever unfailing) instinct is because he’s maternally undamaged: unlike Spock, plagued with too many women and emotionally compromised accordingly, there are no women in his life.

As for the women, they and their stories, names, fates, desires, are not, in any universe, or in any time, or in any space, the point.

What really REALLY matters, dear Carla Fran—in this movie that claims to be about Life, The Universe, and Everything—is that Spock and Kirk get to be friends.

I’ll take my own smallish squashlet of an epic at the Crest Theatre any day. Thanks Gia. Boy with the Coke: thanks for spotting me among the chairs.

Live long and prosper,

Millicent