We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.
I’ve been meaning to write about 3 films Yvette and I saw together over the last 3 weeks. All are (I submit) womens’ films, & all worth comment, though in a very different spirit: Sex and the City (original texts by Carrie Bushnell), Before the Rains (film screenplay by Cathy Rabin), and There She Found Me (film screenplay by Helen Hunt, based on a novel by Elinor Lipman).
[PS. Or journalizing on 6/23 & 6/30/08: since writing this entry, I’ve been reminded of Mira Nair’s Namesake (another womens’ film, which I saw with Caroline, this one also based on a woman’s text, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake), and Yvette and I have been to see Claude Lelouche’s Roman de Gare and Anand Tucker’s When Did You Last See Your Father), and the interested reader will find longish comments on these 3 films too in the comments section of this blog.]
The readily enjoyable one was Sex & the City. Towards the end, I came near to crying twice. Yvette denies she cried, but her face was suffused with tears. I can see why the columns and then TV show were popular. The great one was Before the Rains; Yvette and I agreed it was powerful and original, genuinely thoughtful and true to human experience. We disagreed on There She Found Me, but found it compelling to watch.
Sex & the City is very much a woman’s film—one mark of this is the four girls at the center. Women’s films so often center on these utterly loyal friends in a little knot who stay together no matter what. It’s a fantasy, perhaps based on a reality of womens’ psychology. If Carol Gilligan and others are right, women look to and need supportive friendship. There is a group of four in Friends with Money, Caramel, Jane Austen Book Club, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Lovely and Amazing. Sex & the City did show women’s psychology sexually, for example, in the desire for a relationship that is meaningful as central to sex. The fantasy is in the idea of a large group of loyal spirits who stay together. The reality that can happen is more a pair of desperate women who are not that congenial but whose inner emotional reactions to life and status and position in life enables them to respect one another and stay together. The kind of pact as friendship seen in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days or between a man and women in Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris (like the TV Sex & the City, many Austen films and Bridget Jones’s Diary, this one has a continuing female narrator). Or one woman is in such a friendship for support with 3 others who are themselves not friendly with one another.
For some it’s a nostalgic return to the long-running TV show. The same actors were hired for all the roles, and we are watching the characters ten years on. This will sound weird but the appeal of the stories reminded me of Fanny Burney’s fiction, Cecilia. What Burney does in that is provide the reader with real emotion. You are asked and occasionally (only very occasionally) made to feel real emotional pain, distress, laughter, anxiety, worry, but the situations which give rise to these emotions are extravagant, absurd. Something not realistic, mechanical somehow, which would never happen is made the motive. In Cecilia, the heroine cannot marry and keep her inheritance unless she keeps her last name, at the same time as making her take his last name is the one indispensable demand the hero has. In Camilla an absurd and impossible demand is made of the heroine. Thus hundreds of pages misery may be brought forth and yet at the end all be made happy and no residue of pain left over.
The compelling interest and then enjoyment is that the reader or viewer is made to suffer without considering the real things that make for such suffering; they are kept at arm’s length. It’s utterly improbable, for example, that Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend, Mr Big, would act the way he does on their wedding day. Not one of the four women or men worries about money. Carrie, as novelist, simply makes tons; once she voices some worry but it never comes near to depriving of her anything. In Miranda Hobbes’s story, Miranda leaves her husband, Steve, for having sex outside the marriage once. Meanwhile she had been putting him off, reluctant to have sex, and eager to get it over with for months so she can get back to remunerative work as a lawyer and because she is bored with sex. As a result he has sex with someone else once, and because he’s so much in love with her (and the unexamined idea that any sex outside marriage must immediately destroy its basis is kept up), he comes home and tells her immediately. She of course immediately leaves him, and for six months. Extravagant, improbable, and a situation which keeps away from what might be the real emotional pain of a breakup over sex. But they are also we are shown in love with one another so the emotions they experience are real, and I just burst into tears when they got together on the bridge. By keeping the real things away Burney a couple of hundred years ago and Bushnell now can provide happy endings.
Another fantasy element allowing for lightening is no one has a parent or relative or sibling anywhere. Such people are centrally important in people’s lives, very hard to eradicate or flee, and the source of much emotional pain. Now in other womens’ books that are riveted in more reality, we do have mothers, fathers, sisters, children who are old enough to have characters (are more than loving dolls). Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones has a mother and father who form more a central part ofthe plot-design than Mr Darcy (actually a late addition). A good deal of the reality in Jane Austen comes from her embedding her heroines inside a family group.
One last aspect of fantasy is the type found in many womens’ novels: The men are really all emasculated; they do not act in the hard cold ways men and women too often do. This is common in lots of women’s novels. So Miranda’s husband is just abject; so too is Mr Big a kind of Santa Claus. Samantha lives with a beautiful athletic type who has eyes only for her; meanwhile she wildly longs for meaningless athletic sex & promiscuity: it didn’t quite work; she was too old for the role, but there was amusement and this kind of promiscuity is iconoclastic. I would not call the men weak and indecisive; rather they are the usual semi-emasculated figures of women’s romance, with the real hero being a sort of Mr Knightley (Carrie’s boyfriend and husband is, so is Miranda’s for all his one breach), never a whiff of violence anywhere.
On the other hand, Sex & the City was directed, produced and the actual script for it by men, and in the film, graphically in Samantha’s story I saw something which I’ve noticed in women’s films made by men: the sexual psychology of men is given to women. Enacted is the idea that women pant after men by seeing their body parts in the way men do for women. Indeed much in the stories are reverse male psychology: the individualistic successes for example.
Here is an not widely-distributed photograph of the four today:
Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davies
Revealingly, this is an unusual still for the group today—I had a
hard time finding it (Sarah Jessica Parker has not aged well, her face is hard, lean and tough and the stills from the movie are of her over-the-top glamorously dressed to divert attention from her face, with just tons of “big hair”). Most of the stills on line are for the group of four much younger, in say glamor “day” clothes and very highheels.
Looking at them I thought to myself they are actresses who were right for the stereotypical parts they were to play: the supposed grave boyish one, Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw), the sexy one, Kim Cattrall (Samantha Jones), the difficult one, Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbes), and the “norm” or tonic, Kristin Davis (Charlotte North) who in this latest manifestation is happily married, with an adopted child and gets pregnant). I can see why they were brought back for these individuals’ looks and psychological archetypes were important to the success of the TV show.
So too the looks of the men, Chris Norh (Mr Big) is a Ken doll brought to life, David Eigenberg (Steve, the man who has sex once with another woman after six months of without with his wife and accepts torture from her after this), Evan Handler (Harry Goldenblatt, another stereotype, the kindly sexless Jewish husband, they always get you a maid and washing machine was the saying I was brought up with), and the supersexy magazine type for Samantha, Jason Lewis.
In this one we see something of what’s wrong with this material. Have a look at Carrie’s shoes:
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mr Big (Christopher Noth)
“A bondage/fetishist’s dream” Clare called those shoes. Little jails on her feet. And so high and she’s so thin and frail in comparison to “Mr Big” who has a healthy strong body. While the women are all rich, leading fulfilling independent lives (even the one who is married and doesn’t work is clearly in charge of her destiny and living with a loving man), they are utterly obedient to every custom, more, thought, goal which decrees that women’s happiness resides in catching a man, looking like a magazine icon, and having whatever is fashionable this week. I admit I enjoyed the fashion show all four went to together: it was made into another scene of togetherness.
I gather the TV Sex & the City was a white program; for the movie, the film-makers added a black young girl who become Carrie’s personal assistant and we were show a black world which was presented as a white world with people who are black. They are all really doing versions of the same thing. All middle class.
Like other womens’ films which mostly gratify women’s desires and show us a woman’s world (however skewed and lightened), this film has been ridiculed and dissed. It is “chick-lit” (become an all-purpose derogatory term). In this essay by Ramin Setoodeh on the sexist criticism, she questions the male critics’ “nasty tongue-lashing” of the hlghest-grossing debut starring women (57 million the first weekend.) She points out that critics have been extremely kind to the “snoozefest that is Indiana Jones.” Kathy liked this passage from from the blog, “Women and Hollywood:” “Thelma Adams, film critic for Us weekly, laments the lack of female clout in Hollywood on the blog, ‘The point here is can women open movies? Meryl Streep can’t. Julianne Moore can’t. Julias Roberts can’t.’ But Carrie? Yes, she can.”
I tried to find some decent criticism of the book or columns but much online is frivolous, dumb or the participants are fighting a battle over what is feminism and how the TV show fits or does not fit. I finally found a sober account of the books by Bushnell (simply descriptive) in the Gale Thomson Database. I discovered that the original texts resemble those of other previously popular women’s stories: they were columns in a womens’ part of a newspaper. Like Joy Struthers’ Mrs Miniver, E. M. Delafield’s provincial lady, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones. While Carrie Bushnell’s four are not women in retreat, seeking quietude (like Mrs Miniver), and living apart from the modern city world, like all three I’ve mentioned (and many more such popular figures by women), the heroines are presented satirically, self-deprecatingly. One quotation from this database: Sandra Tsing Loh, write that
“Bushnell humanizes the glamorous substratum of New Yorkers who are models, artists, and book publishers, as well as other high-profile individuals at work in business and advertising. While the author’s focus is on her characters’ search for romance, she reveals at the same time the social fabric from which they are cut.
I see I’ve gone on as usual, so I will be more concise on the other two. Before the Rains is not specifically a womens’ film, but the angle from which we see the tragedy unfold and its victim is that of two women. It’s a colonialist story developed from a small incident in another film (2001 Asphalt Zahov). At the center is Sajani (played by Nandita Das), a South Indian woman who has been having an intense liaison with her British employer, Henry Moore (Linus Roache) who we are made to see as petty, sneaking coward by his wife, Laura (Jennifer Ehle).
Laura Moore (Jennifer Ehle) introducing her son to Sajani (Nandita Das) who tells him of a superstition about dragonflies
Here’s the story of the film: Henry Moore’s wife, Laura, returns from England with their son, to take up life with him, and at the same time Sajani’s husband begins to suspect she is having an affair with someone else. Sajani’s husband has been forced on her by the tribe; he beats her, and demands that she obey him like a slave, serve him hand and foot, and he behaves in the most arrogant cold and fierce ways to her. One night she comes home late and the husband suspects she has been having an affair; this suspicion is enough for him to beat her savagely. We see her brother, Manas (Indriait) knows what is happening as he comes for supper (she must of course then cook for this brute), but ignores it. Later that night (after another beating), she flees to Moore’s house, and wants help and love.
Sajani (Nandita Das) asking for help from Henry Moore (Linus Roache) and TK (Rahul Boose)
Moore coerces a young South Asian man, T.K. (Rahul Boose), into trying to get Sajani to leave the area and live elsewhere, find a new life, no matter what or how. It’s an impossibility. After her night away, if she returns to the village, she will be beaten and perhaps killed as an adulterous woman. When Moore tells her, he does not love her and will not help her, Sajani grabs an English pistol he had given her as a gift, and shoots herself through the heart. She dies quickly. Moore and TK then drive her to a river, and dump the body in.
What happens is Sajani’s brother, Manas, is now broken-hearted! He grieves for his loss (she is his? will no longer be there to cook meals?) and goes to seek her and will not stop looking. The tribe is aroused and after a savage barbaric ceremony wrest the truth from T.K. The remarkable thing shown is that alive, the woman would have been left to live a miserable beaten life by her husband (at one point the brother screams at her husband that he beat her continually so he knows) or been killed as an adulterous woman. Dead she is valuable, and the tribe becomes ferocious at her loss. The greatest line of the film is given Sajani: T.K. tells her she chose to have a liaison with Moore, and now must take hte consequences. “Choice? Choose? What choice have I ever had?”
Unlike most colonialist stories for European and American consumption (Somerset Maughn’s Painted Veil recently made into a film; Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown, adapted for a TV mini-series), there is as much development on traditional tribal life as there is on the upper class British life. We are shown how cruel are the customs to women, barbaric the trial ordeals, how irrational the customs, how violent and fearful most of the ceremonies. But at the same time we are shown in the person of the leading white male, how the British are as ruthless, aggrandizing and each utterly selfish, seeing the world out of their own specific needs and place. The secondary moral is that you cannot leave your world. T.K. tries to become British educated, and finds that he cannot, for once a crisis arises, the British will not help him as their friend, and the tribal group he must look to (for he cannot survive alone), see him as betraying them. The end of the film shows T.K. joining a religious procession as all there is to cling to in his world.
The reviews have been respectful but not gotten the point. The obtuseness comes from not seeing its vision is that of the two women and intense sympathies with them. Indeed one reviewer blamed Sajani in the same terms T.K. does before he is himself humiliated and rejected by the tribe.
In contrast, the appalling apparent morality of both societies here is upheld by Helen Hunt’s There She Found Me; Hunt took the starring role, April Epner, and Colin Firth as Frank (no last name) was her Mr Knightley. I know nothing of the novel by Lipman beyond that in the original story the heroine is a Latin teacher; in the film April teaches elementary school; she meets Frank because he is caring for his two children; his wife has left him for another man. At the end of the film, she has gone to live with him and his two children.
We have another of the recent heroines who longs for a biological child. April will do anything to get such an object, and by the end of the film succeeds. Part of this fantasy is we never see the child grown up; April is seen for a moment with at the end of the film with a 3 year old the child (apparently after all adopted), who is presented as all such babies are in these baby-mama films: just adorable, loving, and sweet and no trouble at all, all gratification. April herself was given away when very small by her mother, Bernice Graves (played by Bette Midler), and throughout the film we see Bernice trying to reconnect to April, and after several failures, succeeding because she pays for the artificial insemination, which doesn’t work and then the adoption.
April (Helen Hunt) and Bernice (Bette Midler) as estranged biological mother and daughter
The woman who adopted April is seen dying at the opening of the film: she is a narrow, bigoted cold and mostly cruel woman who has brought her daughter up to be religious.
Towards the end of the film April tells Bernice no matter how awful her adopted mother was, how this adopted mother treated her, she was there and thus deserves all loyalty. I wonder if this kowtowing to outrageous behavior was what was being taught. The movie began with a fable: we are told how parents teach children love or trust: a father puts his son on a stairwell and pushes him over but catches him before he gets down. This is done three times from low steps, but on the fourth or fifth try, the father puts the son on a high step, and then doesn’t catch him. The moral: “that’ll teach ya.” This cruelty is recurred to at the end of the film as telling us how to treat one another in life, what to expect, alluded to with approval. There is no irony at all.
There are two exceptions though: Frank is kindness itself (except when April has sex once with her ex-husband, then he wants to throw her out as she tells him!—as in Sex and the City, the transgression is immediately found out), and April’s step-brother, Ben (Matthew Broderick) is all understanding, sympathy, and support. Indeed without these two men, April would have ended up a mental wreck.
Colin Firth (Frank) finding comfort in trying to comfort April
As with Sex and the City, There She Found Me presents men as tender caring mothers (Suzanne Juhasz argues the center of women’s books is often a hero who is a selfess highly perceptive effective mother in drag). Revealingly, not once did April show up for a scan of her two pregnancies (both of which end in miscarriage) without at least two men by her side (sometimes the men include her ex-husband).
Yvette and my disagreement was over the fable. She did not react to it as pernicious. The reviews have been mixed; Hunt herself says it’s better Sex and the City. No.
Clearly There She Found Me is playing upon the realities that sex and love life for many people in the modern world is a matter of serial monogamy; that the result is families who are not biologically connected, and break-ups of such family groups. Bernice tells April so many lies about how she came to give April up (which lying the film endorses as we are to sympathize with Bernice) that it’s hard to say why she gave her up for adoption, but it seems Bernice was at the time very young and desperate to finish school, build a money-making career, and have some fulfillment for herself. Bernice’s desperate sudden need for April & the ending of the film would appear to suggest Bernice made a terrible decision, except that without Bernice’s money April could not have bought this new child. The child is Asian so has been probably been taken from another poverty-striken woman.
On Wompo we have been having a very long thread about the miseries and ambiguities of mother-daughter relationships which this film skirts over.
All are films for our time, dealing with central problems of life for women from a woman’s point of view. I recommend seeing them all.
Posted by: Ellen
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