But that's part of the problem, isn't it? That you can be devastated by a person's death. A person could die, of cancer, or by choice, and you're devastated about it. Your own life comes to a halt. You can't do the basic things you thought you'd be able to do when you thought about today yesterday, because today is different. Today is different because that person died. But that takes you to another part of the problem, which is that the sun is shining and the world is turning and you want to be thankful for the life you still have. You want to reaffirm your devotion to your life. But you can't. You can't bring yourself to appreciate the life you still have. And that mourning gets wrapped up in the fact of the mourning of this person who died, this person who you're going to miss.
I don't know if Showtime's brilliant show "Kidding" developed before or after Jim Carrey was cast. What I do know is that the character he plays, Jeff Pickles, is a very poignant followup to what looks like, from the outside, as Carrey jettisoning his career. Take this interview from September 2017, in which he gleefully expounds on his existential ennui to a panicked E! announcer:
There was a narrative surrounding Carrey at the time. This happened two years after his ex-girlfriend committed suicide in 2015. Her family was blaming him for it, trying to sue him. It was in the midst of a popular belief that Jim Carrey had lost it a little bit. Poor, rich celebrity, dealt a bad hand and unable to contend with problems that can't be solved with money.
On "Kidding", which just wrapped up its first season on Sunday, Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-like character on a children's TV show. The pilot takes place a year after one of Mr. Pickles's identical twin boys (Cole Allen) is killed in a car accident. Mr. Pickles can't seem to deal with the loss head-on and so it manifests in violent ways.
This is Carrey's first acting credit since 2016, which technically means he probably hadn't acted since 2015 - the time of his personal life tragedy. It's impossible that the creators of the show didn't take the similarities into consideration. It's impossible that they didn't intend for Mr. Pickles's struggles to inform and be informed by Jim Carrey's real life struggles. The role is so perfect for a celebrity looking to comment on his own celebrity through the medium of acting. It's perfect for Jim Carrey to use Mr. Pickles's gentle demeanor with the children who watch his show as a metaphor for what's good in his life and needs to be protected; juxtaposed with the violent outbursts he has over the course of the show as a demonstration for what happens when that's all you see; juxtaposed with the very real sentiments he expresses about love, loss, loneliness, mistakes, and the failure of our loved ones to protect us from harm, given over in several very literal monologues on "Kidding." There were very few times watching "Kidding" that I remembered Carrey as a celebrity and not as Mr. Pickles, yet his history imbues the messages he preaches with sublime duality.
Similarly, Lady Gaga was very clearly cast in "A Star Is Born" because she is Lady Gaga. Certainly this makes sense, seeing as the film is centered on the singing and songwriting ability of her character, Ally. While Ally and Stefani Germanotta have different lives insofar as Ally is from California and Gaga is from New York, watching the film I couldn't forget that I was watching Lady Gaga Without Makeup; Lady Gaga In Orange Wig; Lady Gaga In Gold Lamé Flamenco Dress (even though she'd never wear that in real life).
Much has been made of Bradley Cooper's transformation for his role as Jackson Maine: how he developed his voice, aged his appearance, and got a tan. I was taken in by his performance. Cooper is an incredible actor. (Side point: he should not have starred in his directorial debut, there was way too much of his face taking up the screen.) It is no accident that the casting of Lady Gaga and the stories about her first duet together with Cooper and how he mauled her face with a makeup wipe is what dominated the media narrative. I wouldn't be so cynical as to call this stunt casting, but Cooper hand picked Lady Gaga to star opposite him, and that is what he got.
The question, as always, is whether the decision serves the story. Is "Kidding" better because Jim Carrey suffered in a similar vein to his character? Are the unique vocals displayed in "A Star Is Born" worth a lesser quality of acting? On a more simplistic level, did the viewer benefit from the gamble or did it become a distraction to the detriment of the final product? By this point of my virtuous rant, you should have my answers already.
Spoilers ahead for this bonkers movie, but it's not like I'm necessarily making a recommendation to see it, so proceed at your fancy.
First off, until the title card showed up about seven minutes into the film, I thought the name of the movie was "Bad Times at the El Camino" as if this was some Fear Street chronicle about a gangster car where everyone's having a good time until they all die. God I've been in the automotive business for a hot minute. So the El Royale is this formerly glorious gambling spot that straddles Nevada and California in both location and over the top decor (rooms in California are $1 more), and this is where our players congregate in the mid-seventies. We've got Jon Hamm chewing the scenery as a vacuum salesman who's really an FBI agent, Jeff Bridges as a priest who's really a gangster ex-convict who's losing his mind, Dakota Johnson as a hippy with a blowout that must have cost $300, and Thor as a cult leader who can belly dance. From the lesser-known casting cadre there's a hotel clerk/junkie/snitch named Miles and a black singer who sings so much in this movie that I caught myself meditating.
I realize that on paper this may sound like a lot of plot but if that's the case then why did the majority of the 2 hour, 22 minute run time feel like a buildup? I did not need to hear Jon Hamm talk about his accoutrements five times in his hacky accent. I did not need to hear Miles try to confess on four different occasions just to find out he's an altar boy with PTSD from Vietnam. I definitely did not need that horror movie music when there was no horror.
But I'm not saying there isn't payoff here. The place burns down in the third act. We've got a crazy 14-year-old murderer on the run, who has been kidnapped by her sister Dakota in order to be saved from cult leader Thor. But wait! The El Royale is no ordinary hotel, it's a pervert hotel. (Well really a blackmail hotel but try explaining that when Thor's got a gun pointed at your head.) Every hotel room has a big gigantic one-way mirror for Miles to keep an eye on people and report back to management. Jon Hamm finds the other side and witnesses Dakota tying her sister up, so he interferes against FBI orders and unties Baby Dakota and then Big Dakota shoots him and Baby Dakota calls cult leader Thor to come get her and all hell breaks loose.
But then there's a lot of plot points that have ZERO PAYOFF. Where is the FBI raid after their agent is killed? And what was with racist Jon Hamm in the beginning? Was that just to make Darlene even more sympathetic? She's pathetic enough. Also, the black singer is played by CYNTHIA ERIVO OF THE ORDER OF THE TONY. I guess that's why there was literally twenty minutes of her singing a capella in this movie. I hate to insult a Knight of the Tonys, but Cynthia Erivo did not play Darlene well. Removing your wig to reveal a teeny weeny afro does not make you Viola Davis. I'm sorry. I will go hide under a rock.
I need to reiterate that this was not a good movie. But it is the first time in an extremely long time that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. All these moody silences, moody singing, moody comic book-like lighting out in the rain - you think you know where it's going, but you don't! Priest Jeff Bridges is about to drug Darlene's drink so that he can tear up the floorboards in her room and get the money he went to prison for. Instead, just as he's turning around, she wacks him across the head with a champagne bottle. I was stunned! And then Thor is actually a very good cult leader! I would like to join the cult of Thor, please, minus the pedophilia and violence.
In the end, Jeff Bridges and Darlene are the only ones who make it out alive, proving this to be a very moralistic tale. Darlene has been downtrodden her whole life but she's been virtuous, so she gets to survive, and Priest Jeff Bridges doesn't remember his own name, let alone his crimes, so he survives. (Side point: is she now his caretaker? Was this all a racist end after all?) Even poor Miles dies, and I was never sold on the idea that he was a junkie. If I'm not mistaken: Thor kills Dakota. Miles kills Thor (and henchmen). Baby Dakota kills Miles. Priest Jeff Bridges kills Baby Dakota.
And ... that's it, I think. That's the movie. It feels like a bunch of cool parts from other movies transplanted into this one with some humming to fill the time. So if you need to fill your time and can't handle Tarantino levels of violence, consider "Bad Times at the El Camino."
HERE BE SPOILERS.
I can’t be the only one who had an orgasmic reaction every time a new marketing tidbit was released for Ocean’s 8. First came the production still of our #squad in those fabulous coats on a subway. Then came the movie poster, each exquisite profile outlined in red, channeling business and mayhem. Then came the trailer. I couldn’t catch what Rihanna said her name was and it didn’t matter: I knew she would be the key to the whole operation. I knew Sandra Bullock would play a doe-eyed criminal hiding a master plan that takes no prisoners. I knew Cate Blanchett would be serving Boss Bitch with a side of homoeroticism. I wanted to drown myself in girl power vibes. It felt like women’s movie desires were finally being taken seriously. It felt like Hollywood had finally clued in to what the Women’s March was about. The beginning of #MeToo, yes, but also the right to entertainment that allows us joy in its purest form. Joy like watching a bunch of women steal a bunch of stuff just because they can.
Listen: I understand that trailers are crafted by people who are experts in human behavior and cater purely to the bottom line. It’s not unusual for a trailer to be better than the film. But when the reviews for Ocean’s 8 were underwhelming, I was actually saddened.
I like to keep my expectations low. How can I be disappointed, I reason, if I never had any expectations at all? There’s a long-standing debate in my family about surprises. Some of us love surprise parties and surprise visits from overseas relatives. The near-heart attack reactions are precious. However, the consensus seems to be that it’s a better time when you have a chance to anticipate the excellent time ahead. Bite your nails in the days leading up to the big event. Hope for the feminist event of the century and then get ... Ocean’s 8. All anticipation, no payoff.
That’s not to say the movie has no redeeming qualities. I now know that in an ideal world, my wardrobe would include every article on Lou’s (Blanchett) body. The expression Daphne (Anne Hathaway) makes when the insurance investigator (James Corden) mentions her neck is a masterful blend of “surprise” modesty and arrogance. Everything Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) does is absurdly hysterical. Someone watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and understood that Rihanna doesn’t have to speak, dance, or act – she just has to sit there and she’ll be the most impactful presence in the room. (See: BDE.)
So what went wrong? Pacing. And a severe lack of stakes. Remember in Ocean’s Eleven when Danny (George Clooney) was getting beat up in the back of a casino? Watching that was sickening. He was blinded by love! He doomed the heist! Then to have the whole flashback sequence explain how everything was planned – sitting on my couch the first time I saw that, I felt an honest-to-goodness rush of endorphins. I myself wasn’t trying to rob Andy Garcia, but watching Danny Ocean’s team do it made me feel like I was in on the operation.
Ocean’s 8 is the fourth installment in this series and by now, it’s not hard to predict that these fabulous ladies are ironclad. They’re too good to fail. Even if I hadn’t figured out that Daphne was in on the shebang ahead of time, I wouldn’t have felt the same rush as I did watching Brad Pitt parade around in a SWAT uniform. There is simply a crushing amount of evidence at this point that everything will go exactly as planned, with perhaps a little twist at the end to make it even better.
So what? So I was disappointed by a movie. Who hasn’t been? Who hasn’t entered a movie with high hopes just to leave disappointed? It’s a sequel, for crying out loud. Who among us?
But if I was wrong about Hollywood understanding what I, a white Millennial woman, one of their target audiences, wants to see on the big screen, that means a whole lot more than me being a snowflake brat. It means that Hollywood executives think if they give me enough female-led films directed by men, I should be satisfied. That if they give me enough sparkly fashion to look at, it will distract me from fundamental narrative issues. Worst of all, that if they keep me quiet for long enough, the men in their midst who have been shamed into hiding might one day reemerge. I’m afraid that movies like Ocean’s 8 indicate the #MeToo era won't have the lasting effect so many people have been working for.
Let’s demand better. Let’s demand that the next film with a female cast as stellar as this one not be squandered. Let’s demand blockbuster entertainment that doesn’t insult its target demographic. Maybe by making our demands known, this small act will send a message that even here, even in fluffy escapism, we won’t be silent.
Why do people like naming guns "Betsy"? Is it like when I name my giant chin zit "Ned"? To hide its potential for violence and social disruption beneath an unassuming, nonthreatening name?
Edit: As my excellent friend on Facebook points out, here is another example!
I saw an Instagram clip of Emma Portner and her partner dancing to Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I decided I wanted to do something like that, so I wrote a pretty bad poem with the intention of dancing to it. Of course it was undanceable so then I added music in the background. It wasn’t quite anything, but the deadline for having something to show for the piece was approaching so one night when I was so deliriously tired I couldn’t see straight I got out of the shower, sat on my bed, and did a one-take riffing on the poem I’d written to turn it into a personal essay. It wasn’t too bad at that point so I started choreographing, what my dance partner says isn't really dancing because it's sign language (it's not). Now I’m almost done with that too except I keep hitting roadblocks because I’m not a poet, nonfiction writer or choreographer, and I like to pretend I am sometimes. Anyhow I went back to the original piece that inspired me, hoping for more, and really paid attention to Bob Dylan’s words and realized that it’s a tribute to his mentor. It reminds me of that time in my video essay class when the assignment was to make a visual poem and the instructor said it was fine to use someone else’s poem. I started out with my own, knowing what I wanted to do, but the words felt inadequate so I went online and found a better version of my words. I can imagine a time when I might want to write a tribute to a person's life, when I want to eulogize them and share what made them special to me, and I guess this is all just to say that I don't think it's too much to ask that on that day I’ll find words as piercing as “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”
I am really into costumes. Maybe it comes from my theater background. There is something thrilling to me about pretending to be someone else – even if it’s just in appearance. Truth be told if I’m going to be somewhere that could feasibly have site-specific wardrobe, you best believe that I’m taking advantage. Which is why Purim is always a Big Deal for me.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been a Viking, Holly Golightly, Pride from the Seven Deadly Sins, a steampunk explorer, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil, Eliza Doolittle at the races and Elsa from Frozen. This is not counting the sundry group costumes and themed parties in which I also participate. I also want credit for the fact that these were all modest costume, which means working on the average cheap costume found on Amazon for a believable extension that doesn’t detract from the overall effect. I can’t sew, but if enthusiasm counts for anything I’d consider my tendencies to be cosplay-lite.
When I first picture myself pulling off a costume I’ll get an itch to see it happen. Sometimes that means holding on to a character from 2016. If it’s not around Purim time, I’ll sometimes buy the costume accessories anyway, collecting them with the hope that I’ll have use for them in the future. Wonder Woman’s headpiece and armband. A rainbow unicorn horn. A red-lined cloak. Steampunk stuff.
There’s one character, though, that I can’t bring myself to mimic: Harley Quinn.
It’s always the jacket that stops me. Printed on the back are the words: Property of Joker. It makes me take off my pastel-colored glasses and remember what the character represents, a living caricature of infantilized hypersexuality. Harley can’t free herself. She needs the Joker to do that. Much as I’d like a cute, high heeled, baseball bat-wielding character to be the feminist icon for taking no prisoners, Harley is not that.
If I can’t respect a character, I can’t embody her. Not to say that Audrey Hepburn’s characters are blushing flowers or that the Vikings didn’t rape and pillage everything in their path. When I dress up, I’m merging with the character to present a version of myself that can’t be expressed any other way. In costume, I am myself as seen through the lens of this new character. I don’t want to see myself in an abused light.
This is not to disparage the hundreds of thousands of women who do dress up as Harley Quinn, as evidenced by Instagram tags and Amazon reviewer photos. I have no problem looking at the different takes on her – even the preteen takes, decidedly and mercifully less sexualized – and appreciate the costume for what I envisioned for myself, separate from the character flaws. The women who dress up as Harley Quinn look like they’re empowering themselves in a cute outfit. I find it encouraging that there is a whole range of body types demonstrated. In a hypothetical situation I wouldn’t be able to make it modest, but I would be able to wear it with confidence and not have to worry about feeling fat.
Despite everything, I still wonder what it would feel like to wear that outfit. Would I feel empowered enough to create my own narrative in the costume? Or would I slip into a “bimbo” routine, smacking gum like Robbie does in the movie, putting on a bad Brooklyn accent and ultimately fit myself into her misogynist narrative? In a better movie, with female writers, Harley Quinn might have been an iconic character. Her wardrobe is so specific and fresh that it isn’t hard to imagine that character, which we may yet see in one of her upcoming films. Until her redemption arc, though, I’m going to have to keep resisting the urge to see myself through her.
I had to wait eight months between the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the rest of its first season. Eight months! For that alone I've given up on Amazon's pilot season. Aside from that was also the frustration that the pilot was the best episode of the show. Nonetheless, I got to every episode as quickly as I could and definitely enjoyed the ride.
Like my experience watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Amy Sherman Palladino's Mrs. Maisel provided me with some very nice representation: A twentysomething brown-haired Jewish princess whose over-the-top personality leads to both opportunities and pitfalls. Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), or Miriam, as she's known in her Jewish community, is a 1950's housewife with a beautiful apartment, two kids and a husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), who has ambitions in standup comedy that she can respect. This all comes crashing down when she finds out Joel's been cheating with "the Methodist version of [her]", the apartment is in his father's name, and he's been stealing all of his standup jokes. From there, the plot takes us down a familiar path of redemption in which Midge picks herself up by the bootstraps and discovers her own talent for comedy with the help of club manager Susie (Alex Borstein).
My complaints regarding the show as a whole are generally my complaints with any Sherman-Palladino production: The stakes are too low and the secondary characters are caricatures. The show hinges on Brosnahan's performance, though, and she is a continuous wonder. I am certainly guilty of developing a nascent nasal New York accent while binging Mrs. Maisel. And in examining Midge as a character, I was struck by a thought: While the feminist messages of the storylines are anachronistic to the time and therefore dampened, Midge rebuilding her life and coming to terms with her future is not. What we witness over the course of the show is Midge realizing that her values do not serve her and that they need to change.
Before Joel leaves her at the beginning of the show, Midge has no reason to believe that the world and values she inherited from her parents should lead her astray. Her life is a carbon copy of her mother's: Two kids, Upper West Side apartment, good standing in the community, an obsession with appearances and a full-fledged eating disorder. After Joel leaves her, however, rather than a simple rebellion, Midge launches into a full value overhaul. Having a perfect life was suppose to be a guarantee; so why didn't it work?
The first indication that Midge is changing her value set is evident when Joel tries to come home. He shows up at her building with his tail between his legs, all apologies and prostration - though it's clear he believes she's going to take him back once he's done debasing himself. But Midge doesn't want him back. Knowing it's what her parents want, knowing that her social standing is at stake, she firmly closes that door with no regrets. Midge could have gotten back together with Joel and gone back to her old life. But whether it's because of her pride or because Joel genuinely hurt her and she can't forgive him for that, Midge decides to turn her back on that path and forge a new one.
Next come the children: During one of her standup sets, Midge asks a woman in the audience if having breasts means she's supposed to want kids. It's in perfect contrast to what she believed and up until this point we were under the impression that she didn't mind her children - as long as she could leave them with the housekeeper or her parents whenever convenient. As soon as she realizes that having kids isn't something every woman should do, she stops feeling guilty about leaving them at night. She isn't allowing her children to be neglected, but she is removing from herself the burden of caring for them every minute of the day.
The next value to go is the belief that women shouldn't work. Once Midge finds out that the apartment doesn't belong to her or Joel, she has to move in with her parents. Anyone who's moved back in after being gone can relate to her resulting tension and stress, and it spurs her on to realize that it's not a sustainable situation. Thus, Midge becomes a makeup counter girl in a department store, putting more of her talents to use. While her parents wring their hands and guilt Joel about it, Midge finds herself enjoying the work (once she finds appropriate footwear) and taking advantage of the new social life it offers.
Midge also goes through something of an identity crisis, which is how we get the whole shtick with her Amanda Gleason pseudonym. If she can't be herself downtown, she might as well be some gentile off the block. This, too, is upended though. After the set in which she commits career suicide by disparaging a famous female comic, Midge comes to understand that her identity must be linked to her past and present. While she may no longer be Joel's wife or have that lifestyle anymore, she reclaims the identity of "Mrs. Maisel" as the trash-talking, profanity-laden standup comic she was born to be. Her decision to use her real name also shows how she's developed enough to not be ashamed of that identity. Rather than hide her downtown dealings from her uptown community, she's learned to integrate the two without shame.
For all its flaws, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fun show. Not to mention I'm a sucker for a loudmouth and a woman going through an emotional meltdown with pristine lipstick. While Midge's position as a standup comic isn't necessarily groundbreaking television in 2017, I find the transformation she goes through as a product of her family and culture extremely relevant. Not to mention entertaining.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.