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Tina Fey’s Bossypants

31 May

To best enjoy Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants: 1. Have a couple of margaritas. 2. Be a female, 3. aged 40-ish, 4. who’s well-educated and career-minded, 5. with a kid or two. Now, these are general guidelines, and you can slide on one or two of these requirements, but don’t skip the margaritas (that’s just good policy.) It’s not that readers who don’t fit this description won’t enjoy Bossypants. It is funny as hell, and Fey doesn’t skimp on anecdotes from her stints at Second City, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Anyone will respond to those segments. But there is a reflective tone to the memoir which I think adult women in particular will relate to, as Fey examines how her experiences as a young woman and later as a mother shaped (and continue to shape) her ambitions, neuroses and successes.

Fey’s initial stories about her working-class upbringing and time spent in the trenches of the service industry humanize her enough that we’re willing to follow her when she turns her attention to the challenges of celebrity. She relates these stories by paying particular attention to anxieties most women will recognize. For example, I’ve never had to endure a professional photo shoot for a glossy magazine (and that’s really okay with me), but Fey describes the experience with such frankness and humor that anyone who’s ever had her picture taken will feel reassured.

“Somebody will put up a makeshift wall by holding a full-length mirror next to an open loft window, and you will strip down naked. You must not look in that mirror at your doughy legs and flat feet, for today is all about dreams and illusions, and unfiltered natural daylight is the enemy or dreams.

When you inevitably can’t fit into a garment, the stylist’s assistant will be sent in to help you. The stylist’s assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot’s Wife.

…at this point in time her job is to stuff a middle-aged woman’s bare ass crack into a Prada dress and zip it up. In my case, Esther and I are always mutually frustrated when zipping up the tiny dress. Esther is disgusted by my dimply flesh and her low status. I’m annoyed that her tiny hands lack the strength to get Pandora’s plague back into the box.”

Fey never shies from the fact that being a woman has shaped her experiences and successes. She’s up front about her feminism, but she’s not a cookie-cutter feminist. She challenges women to resist victimhood and plunge on with their ambitions, even in the face of sexism. One particularly funny segment of Bossypants details Amy Poehler’s arrival at SNL and exposes the sometimes subtle, unspoken sexism of the entertainment (in particular the comedy) industry:

“Amy (Poehler) was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start. There were always a lot of noisy “comedy bits” going on in that room. Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’.

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her in and in a faux-squeamish voice said, ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it!’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’

…With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

I can’t say I love Fey’s advice to women facing workplace sexism, however:

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. …

If the answer is yes, you have a more difficult road ahead of you … don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go ‘Over! Under! Through!’ and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

I agree that trusting our own competence is definitely the most valuable response to sexism in the long-run, but sometimes (as Poehler demonstrates) calling others out on their assumptions is valuable and lets people know you’re not showing up just to ferry their coffee.

If you get a chance, I recommend supplementing Bossypants with Rosanne Barr’s recent article in New York Magazine. Both women discuss sexism in the entertainment industry, but Barr’s response is both more strident and more potent. Perhaps Barr’s unwillingness to compromise as a writer, actress and comedian (and ultimately as the boss of her own show) cleared a somewhat smoother path for the Tina Feys, Amy Poehlers and Kristin Wiigs of the next generation.

Fey’s comic timing and original point-of-view are fantastic, and I giggled through most of Bossypants, but long-form prose isn’t exactly her strong suit. Transitions tend to be slight or non-existent, her chapters tend to end abruptly, and her organization is inconsistent. It’s clear Fey spends most of her time writing short sketches and screenplays, as the book’s funniest moments are the lists like “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter,” which includes hopes such as:

“May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.”

and

“And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister,
Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends,
For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.”

Charmingly, Fey isn’t afraid to expose her own insecurities in the interest of honest reflection, and it’s these insecurities which resonate throughout Bossypants. But I believe the specificity of Fey’s point-of-view prevented even open-minded Mr. Irises from enjoying even the funniest bits I read aloud to him. He’s not a nearly-40-year-old woman writer, terrified of having her picture taken, with a working-class background and young daughter, for example – hence my recommended-reader qualifications. Perhaps I should have plied him with margaritas first? Nah. I think I’ll keep both the margaritas and Bossypants to myself (or share them with my girls.) After all, he has Woody Allen.

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Swamplandia!

3 May

2000irises: A review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Mr. Irises and I have a longstanding tradition which I never thought was unusual until I mentioned it to friends. We read books aloud to each other. I don’t know when we started doing this, probably over 15 years ago, and I can’t say how many books we’ve shared. Many. We read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud. All seven Harry Potter books. The Chronicles of Narnia. So many more: The Blind Assassin, Tender is the Night, Love In The Time of Cholera, The Secret History, The Keep, etc. I can’t possibly remember them all. Over the past few years, though, we’ve become very spotty about reading together – small children can be so inconvenient. (Stop scowling. That was a joke.) In any case, we kept promising to get back to reading aloud. A little over a month ago we decided to give it another go and chose Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. What a fantastic book to come back to.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtrees: a strange, insulated family living on an isolated island in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Everglades. The Bigtrees have owned and operated the Swamplandia! alligator-wrestling theme park for two generations, but when its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, dies of ovarian cancer, the park falls on hard times. That’s just the beginning. What follows is the tale of a fractured family, founded on a manufactured history, struggling to survive as their self-delusions unravel.

The book is primarily told through the recollections of Ava Bigtree, who is 13 at the time of the story. She’s been so thoroughly insulated from the mainland that the only “ordinary” people she has ever met are the service people and tourists who come to Swamplandia!. She aspires to the magnificent strength and bravery of her mother, Hilola, and after her mother dies, Ava takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin. However, a scrappy 13-year-old who understands alligators far better than she understands people is an extraordinarily vulnerable person. She shows amazing courage, but her blind faith is a terrible liability.

We also spend a good deal of time with Ava’s older brother, Kiwi – a 17-year-old who only wants to escape the confines of the island and go to school like a normal teenager. He reads voraciously and counts himself a genius, but when he defects to the mainland, he learns the hard way just how little he knows. Like Ava, Kiwi has no idea how to interact with other people. As he discovers just how much of his family’s life is a fiction, he becomes more even devoted to them while scrabbling for his own independence.

Other characters in Swamplandia! include the third Bigtree sibling: Osceola, a 16-year-old with a predilection for interludes with ghosts; Sawtooth Bigtree, the aged patriarch; Samuel (Chief) Bigtree, Sawtooth’s fervently delusional son who has raised his children to be fiercely loyal to their family and proud of their home; and The Bird Man, a spectral figure who ostensibly controls the avian life of the swamp. And Russell describes that swamp with such throbbing detail that it too becomes a quasi-sentient being, pulsing with life, both sustaining and treacherous.

Russell writes so beautifully that at twenty-nine, she’s already been singled out by The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker for her prodigious talent. Have a look at Swamplandia!’s opening sentences:

“Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one – to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.”

Swamplandia! is thoroughly original, magical, and deeply suspenseful. Unfortunately, it highlighted one of the perils of reading aloud – it’s impossible to read a whole book quickly, especially when the writing is this rich. One can’t stay up all night, plunging desperately through chapter after chapter. After weeks of mounting tension, though, Mr. Irises and I finally caved in to the pressure and spent three hours straight reading the harrowing last 80 pages, desperate to reach the resolution. It didn’t disappoint. It’s already won the Bard Fiction Prize, and I think we can expect to see this book on more of 2011’s short lists of best fiction. Read it and tell me what you think.

Adapt or Die

18 Apr

2000irises: Adapt or Die — A Review of the film Hanna

I’m not normally a fan of the action film. Testosterone-drenched, glamorized violence does nothing for me. Generally, action movies are ridiculous at best, boring at worst. Yes, boring. I don’t care enough about pumping soundtracks and squealing tires to sit through a plotless parade of scantily clad women and sweaty men. Yawn. Action movies rarely show any inspiration or creativity, and the inevitable, endless regurgitation of sequels only waters down the already-bland content. Fast Five, for example.

Then, occasionally, an action movie comes along which surprises me. This year, it’s Hanna. If you haven’t seen Hanna yet, you really, really should. Hanna’s director, Joe Wright, is most widely known for his literary adaptations of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. (He recently announced he’s tackling Anna Karenina next.) Hanna is nothing like his previous work, but it retains crucial elements of his auteur style, in particular, his focus on complex female characters and their social environments. In a recent interview with Morgan Denno, Wright said, “I think most action movies have a very dubious socio-political point of view. It’s all about the glorification of violence and women becoming objects. I wanted to make an action movie that had a moral and a socio-political conscious.” [sic]

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is unlike any film heroine in recent memory. She’s s teen girl who’s been raised in the arctic wilderness, trained by her father to be an assassin. Sure, she kicks ass, but that’s a tiny part of why she’s so compelling. She’s lived away from civilization for most of her life, and despite her fluency in several languages, she doesn’t understand people or society. When it comes to relationships, motivations, falsehoods, love, she’s totally at a loss. This vulnerability balances out her fearsome fighting skills. Hanna has the innocence and self-preservation instincts of an wild animal – a comparison Wright sets up in the first scene. Hanna must kill her nemesis before she is killed, but her real challenge is to learn how to exist and survive among other people.

It’s notable that Hanna is not the only woman in this film. Unlike almost any other action film, the leads in Hanna are primarily women, none of whom are hypersexualized. (For comparison, check out what Joe Wright has to say about Sucker Punch.) Cate Blanchett plays Marissa, the CIA agent out to destroy Hanna and her father.

Jessica Barden plays Sophie, the “typical” teen daughter of the vacationing family that Hanna temporarily latches onto. And Olivia Williams plays Rachel, Sophie’s affectionate mother who tries to show Hanna kindness and protection. In contrast, only Eric Bana as Hanna’s father, and a truly sinister Tom Hollander have significant male roles. (Oh Mr. Collins, No!)

Hanna features gorgeous fairy-tale locations, fantastic cinematography, solid, terse dialogue, and amazing acting. What especially intrigued me, however, was the thematic question about mother-daughter relationships. Mothers populate this film: Photographs of Hanna’s dead mother haunt her throughout the movie. Hanna’s grandmother also appears briefly, and challenges Marissa to consider her position as a mother. (Watch Blanchett’s mouth and throat twitch when she admits she has no children.) Rachel is a surrogate protective figure, and Marissa, of course, is the anti-mother. Significantly, Wright doesn’t moralize about or idealize these mothers (or non-mothers) one bit. Instead, he presents complex characters in impossible situations and lets us consider how these mother-daughter relationships are relevant.

One doesn’t ordinarily expect such subtlety or philosophic consideration from an action movie. In his Vanity Fair interview with John Lopez, Wright explained, “Paul Greengrass showed us with the Bourne films that it’s possible to make an action film with a political, social conscience. I liked that idea of making an action film that was the opposite of misogynistic, gun-loving bullshit. Something that could entertain, first and foremost, but also have a social conscience.” Well done, Mr. Wright. Hanna is beautiful, well-written and masterfully executed.

Oh yeah, it’s also fast-paced, loaded with cool weaponry and impressive fighting, and set to a kicking soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. No car chases though. You’ll have to (gulp) see Fast Five for that.

Frankenstein Review Redux

11 Apr

2000irises: Frankenstein Review Redux


While I’m putting the finish touches on my review of Hanna (I expect to post that tomorrow), I thought I might discuss the opposite casting of Frankenstein. I saw it April 2nd when it ran at Notre Dame. In the first broadcast version, I loved Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, but now there is NO question in my mind that the Jonny Lee Miller – Creature / Benedict Cumberbatch – Victor is a far better combo. Cumberbatch nails Victor, bringing life and complexity to the character that JLM did not. I originally thought Victor was underwritten and his motivations confused and neglected; now I see what was missing — nuanced acting. I really like JLM as an actor, and maybe he’d had an off night when they filmed (he did seem hoarse and tired), but the difference was remarkable. Instead of just being vaguely a self-centered jerk as played by JLM, Victor is a downright scary sociopath in BC’s hands. Every detail of the performance was different: line delivery, facial expression, physical movement, stage presence — Victor’s very interactions with the other characters changed.

Two examples stand out vividly for me. The very first time we see Victor, he storms on stage and reacts to finding the creature alive with revulsion and horror. JLM rushed onstage, yelled something incoherent at the Creature, threw the cloak at him, and ran away a few seconds later. In contrast, BC rushed on stage and stayed to actually act out the mix of emotions Victor clearly felt. You could see Victor marveling at his accomplishment even while disgusted. The plotting of the scene was the same, but the meaning and relevance changed significantly and took more time.

In another scene, Victor is explaining to Elizabeth why he must return to England. He’s obsessing about creating the Creature’s bride. Victor assures his fiancee that she’s beautiful and he desires her. Where JLM seemed to be just mouthing the words with no emotion whatsoever behind the lines, BC slows down and uses facial expressions to communicate what’s happening in Victor’s mind. He holds up Elizabeth’s arm and studies it with a clinical coldness which is terrifying. We can see he’s imagining her as one of his experiments: she’s a specimen to be considered, not a living, feeling person at all. It’s the first time we see the parallel between the two brides, foreshadowing the coming horror. It’s breathtakingly awful (and freaking awesome.)

On the other hand, I could not see the same variance in the two actors’ portrayal of the Creature. They each did the Creature a bit differently, of course, but not in a way which impacted the significance of the character. Most of the difference lay in their body-types, I felt. JLM is stockier and more powerful, BC is longer and more fluid. I wouldn’t say either was “better.” The delivery, the depth, our belief in the Creature — all these aspects were pretty balanced. JLM was amazing as the Creature, which is obviously an enormous challenge. The role is complex and demanding, and must be hell to act. But bringing life to Victor is a more subtle challenge. Comparatively, Victor doesn’t have much stage time, but he’s still absolutely crucial to the play. We need Victor in order to truly appreciate the structure and meaning of the play.

As an aside, Frankenstein encapsulates something about British performers that captivates me. Good British actors and actresses are versatile in a way even the best American actors rarely are. Both JLM and Cumberbatch have shown they can do period drama, action, freaks, junkies, creeps and weirdos, straight drama, comedy, romance (less so for BC here, but gosh would I love to see more. I’m sure he’d be good at it. *cough-lastenemykisses-cough*) Also many British actors and actresses are as comfortable on stage as they are on screen. Perhaps Hollywood just has a greater tendency to typecast and pigeonhole. Perhaps American theater is too Broadway-focused. Doubtless there are dozens of American performers who can pull off multi-genre, multi-medium performances, but who? Kathleen Turner. Laura Linney. Natalie Portman. Matt Damon? Brad Pitt? Harrison Ford, maybe. (It’s harder to think of men.) I’m sure there are others, but I have to actually think about it. I wouldn’t say the same for British entertainers.

Born Inbetween

9 Mar

2000irises: Born Inbetween — Lady Gaga and Born This Way

I’ve always admired Lady Gaga’s particular strain of brilliance. She’s barking mad and utterly fearless. Part pop-goddess, part freak show, Gaga does glamour and sex, but she also does nasty, ugly, and gross. She sings, she dances, she bleeds all over the stage. She wears raw meat. She travels by egg. For Lady Gaga, sex is lace and glitter, muck and filth. She wriggles about half-naked, and once she has your attention, she dives into slime and gore, as if to say “Call me sexy now. I dare you.” It’s a confusing sucker-punch, a bit taboo, but somehow annoying and delightful at the same time. No other mega-star can pull off the bait and switch like Gaga. She’s not Katy Perry and she’s not Ke$ha – she’s Cindy fucking Sherman with a microphone.

With that in mind, let’s think about the new “Born This Way” video. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link to fix that problem right now. Don’t come back until you’ve watched all 7 minutes and 20 seconds.

Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" on YouTube

This video pulses with cultural references, some you probably recognize, others maybe not. Aylin Zafar identifies many of them in her article for The Atlantic, “Deconstructing Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Video.” Zafar deftly combs the video scene by scene, but her analysis is limited. She seems far more interested in cataloging the possible references than in considering why Lady Gaga would group these seemingly unrelated concepts together in a video.

If you’ll allow me an English professor moment: “deconstruction” is only useful when we examine the details in order to gain greater insight into the whole. If we want to understand what Gaga is really trying to achieve with “Born This Way,” it’s not enough to simply point out the religious iconography or note the use of Bernard Hermann’s “Vertigo Theme.” Yes, there are visual references to Dali’s work (particularly his “In Voluptate Mors,”) the RKO logo, and Metropolis. The ending sequence nods to Michael Jackson and Madonna and Blade Runner. But why? What do all these references have to do with “Born This Way’s” ham-fisted message of self-love and universal acceptance?

One common theme explored by all of the films, artworks, artists and religious figures referenced in “Born This Way” is the danger of classifying the world into neatly defined polar opposites. Let me explain:

We open with the “Vertigo Theme.” Okay. Why? How is Queer Pride linked to Vertigo? One key source of tension in the film comes from the question of whether Judy or Madeline is the real woman to Scottie. He tries to turn each woman into a version of herself more like the other, but could there be a third option where they both exist? A real woman not at all subject to Scottie’s fantasies?

Next we see Gaga as the “good” Mother Monster: an ethereal goddess tricked out with a transcendent, insightful third eye.

Here, she’s the feminine ideal: intuitive, unattainable, pristine. Yet this goddess is bound in chains – even her birthing stirrups are chains. While there’s nothing remotely realistic about the birth itself – it’s shiny, glittery, glossy – it still manages to be somehow more honest than the clean, ascetic depictions of childbirth we often get. Lady Gaga may mimic the exalted image of the Blessed Virgin, but this is no immaculate birth. It’s sloppy and gooey. (Nota bene: real childbirth involves goo. You have been warned.) Cauls cover the heads of her children: disembodied androgynous robots. This goddess is both divine and bound to earth. She’s otherworldly, yet physical, fertile yet inhuman.

Then our lovely Mother Monster transitions into her “evil” counterpart. The camera climbs over writhing red figures (arranged into the image of a skull á la Dali) to find Lady Gaga all sexed-up, birthing automatic weapons and Dia de los Muertos figures.

She is evil because she brings death. But as we see, birthing death isn’t any less complicated than birthing life. Those skeletons can still dance, after all.

The Dali work referenced here is just one of his many pieces that explored the boundary between life and death summarily rejected it. He depicted otherworldly places where logic melts into fantasy and decay bumps against eternal youth. Consider “In Voluptate Mors” – the image of a skull composed of the healthy bodies of nubile women. Which is the most relevant concept in this work: the skull of death, the vigor of life, or the image itself that incorporates both while embodying neither?

“Born This Way” also repeatedly borrows imagery from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, which asks us to consider which is more dangerous to society: a sexualized robot-woman who inspires lust and violence, or a pure-hearted flesh-and-blood woman who inspires love and hope among the repressed? For Lang, the two blend wickedly together, and the resulting monster must be burned at the stake, releasing the pure before destroying the wicked.

Then at last we have Gaga herself, pumping away in a sexy bikini. She’s not a goddess here, she’s not a robot, she’s not divine, she’s not evil. She’s just Lady Gaga doing what she does best: singing and dancing.

Some have suggested that her mostly-naked get-up contradicts her message of self-love and empowerment. But Gaga’s not telling anyone “don’t be sexy.” She’s not suggesting we find a cozy sweater and take up knitting. “Born This Way” is all about sex for heaven’s sake. She’s saying go ahead and be yourself, be sexy, sexy is fantastic. For Lady Gaga (and hopefully for us all,) ANY brand of sexy is just fine, even if it means stripping to your Underoos and writhing about with dozens of other people. She’s wearing a teeny-bikini, yes, but significantly, nothing else. Gaga’s stripped relatively bare here – no shoes, no elaborate wigs or headpieces, minimal (for Lady Gaga) makeup. She even has her hair in a ponytail at one point. Contrast that with the elaborate costumes of “Paparazzi,” “Telephone” or “Bad Romance.” Hell, contrast it with “Born This Way’s” goddess and robot costumes (can you imagine how long it took to get into those outfits?)

Other references in “Born This Way” take up the same themes. Is “Billy Jean’s” Michael Jackson a god-like Magic Man or a vulnerable human being capable of fathering a child? Which is the “real” Madonna: the flushed pseudo-bride of “Like a Virgin” or the dominatrix of “Human Nature?” Is Harrison Ford’s Deckard character in Blade Runner a human or a Replicant? The answer to all these questions is “somewhere in the middle.”

“Born This Way” may not be very subtle, but its labyrinthine video is. While the song plainly urges self-acceptance and kindness, the video reminds us why that’s so essential. By referencing works of art which question the tyranny of dualism, Lady Gaga reinforces that even our most primal, seemingly universal experiences never fit into neatly organized, labeled boxes. When we try to force ourselves into those boxes, we do harm. Lady Gaga’s futuristic utopia is a place where good and evil, life and death, male and female don’t really exist – everything here lies in between.

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