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.
I love when a complex idea results in a really simple, familiar concept. I mean; I don't love it. It's like when you're writing this awesome new piece but then you boil it down and it's just a familiar plot you've known you're whole life. It would be great to make something new. It would be great to figure out something unpredictable, something without ten pages of notes on TV Tropes. But it's also comforting, and in this particular case, supports the notion of form following content. (It actually doesn't. It just reminds me of that. I love anything resembling form following content. I should look at that more.)
I have seen You've Got Mail (1998) about five hundred times. I grew up on it, much as I grew up on numerous romantic comedies that don't have sex scenes. Since it was approved by my mother, my sisters and I watched it over and over again. We watched Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) fight to keep her little bookshop open on the Upper West Side. We watched Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) threaten her livelihood with his Barnes & Noble stand-in, Fox Books. We watched them flirt online in a pre-aughts-unsullied Internet chat room without knowing each other's identity, and reveled in Kathleen's minor victories when she unwittingly used Joe's advice against him. There's never a question that they'll end up together, but seeing them overcome the unfortunate career situation is really enjoyable.
However, it's a wordy film. There is a lot of talking in "You've Got Mail". A lot of musing, a lot of literati references. There were a lot of scenes I tuned out of when I was younger. Watching it now, it's fun that I can understand the conversations that used to mean nothing to me. I appreciate the subtleties. (Especially Parker Posey. She's a gem.) Here, to get this out of my freaking system, is my favorite part of the movie that I discovered when I got big.
Kathleen's boyfriend, Frank (Greg Kinnear), is a journalist. He frequently and comically tortures himself with questions about time and things that have become obsolete. (His support for Kathleen's bookstore miiiiiiiight have been a clue that it wasn't going to survive.) In a scene where he talks over her, trying to support her, we learn Kathleen's greatest fear:
"I'm wondering about my work," Kathleen says. "I'm just ... what is it that I do, exactly? All I really do is run a children's bookstore--" At which point Frank delivers his funny line about her being a lone reed.
I always overlooked that line. The Lone Reed line overshadows it. But it's key to understanding Kathleen's struggles in the story. Hers is an understandable fear. Most people will look around at their careers or their jobs and wonder the same thing. Whether you enjoy your work like Kathleen or are doing it for the paycheck, we can't avoid taking stock of what we put our time and effort into. In this situation, Kathleen is being forced to examine her bookstore from the point of view of the conglomerate pushing her out. She inherited the store from her mother and so it has emotional significance for her, but if the going gets tough, is her work important enough for her to fight for it?
Later, Kathleen meets Joe at an industry party. The first time they met in her store, he kept his last name from her. When she figures out that he's part of Fox Books, she goes on a rampage, accusing him of spying on the competition. Joe knows he did her wrong. However, he's not one to admit that. He's about the bottom line and he wants his new venture to succeed. So instead of engaging in Kathleen's emotion, he remains passive and infuriatingly calm. But that comment about him trying to spy on her gets him enough to poke her back.
He says to her: "I have in my possession the super-duper secret printout of the sales figures of a bookstore so inconsequential yet full of its own virtue that I was immediately compelled to rush over there for fear that it's gonna put me out of business."
Joe was most likely trying to save face and shut her up: You think you're a threat? Nice try, lady. You're not. You're inconsequential. That word. It's devastating! Kathleen's deepest fear is that she's fighting for a cause that isn't worthy, that she herself is unworthy (which is probably why she comes off as the opposite, as virtuous). It's no accident that Joe knows exactly what to say to her. Indeed, it works, she's speechless, all she can do is point at him with a kitchen knife. And he knows it. He knows he cut her to the quick, as evidenced in his chat room confession later on. Here comes Mr. Nasty.
But: The feeling is mutual. Kathleen, while not as quick-witted as Joe in the moment, can be equally destructive. In the scene in the coffee shop when she's waiting to meet her Chat Room Prince Charming, Joe shows up and figures out that they've been chatting with each other all along. He doesn't reveal this information, however, and storms in without a plan or fully comprehending the situation. He doesn't understand how it's possible for two people to hate each other and be in love at the same time.
So he sits down and proceeds to torture Kathleen, making fun of the signals they had planned for identifying each other, teasing her that her man is never going to show up. He's lording it over her that she's probably at that very moment in love with him. But the fact of the matter is that he's in the same boat, he's just in denial. For now.
Finally, provoked beyond belief, Kathleen snaps at him.
She says: "You've deluded yourself into thinking that you're some sort of benefactor bringing books to the masses. But no one will ever remember you, Joe Fox ... You are nothing but a suit."
It's that line about no one remembering him that wipes the smug smile off Joe's face. Kathleen, just about in tears, is busy in the throes of being able to speak her mind finally, but even that satisfaction is quickly thwarted when she realizes how much she hurt Joe's feelings. Turns out he has the same fears that she does. That no matter how many books he brings people, that no matter how much money he makes, that's not what matters.
It's such a terrible feeling, to speak your mind when you wish it - as Joe had previously warned Kathleen during one of their Internet chats. Kathleen is devastated once again, but it's because of her own actions this time. She can't even blame Joe for it, other than the fact that he provoked her.
Joe realizes that he is in love with her and begins a journey to make amends and ingratiate himself to her. He is able to accomplish this easily - because of his subterfuge as her chat room confidant, yes, but it's more than that. Kathleen and Joe see each other. It's an extraordinary power, to see someone. To understand why they do things and what they strive for. As enemies, they exploited this power to harm each other. As lovers, Joe uses that ability to woo Kathleen instead. He comes over to Kathleen's apartment when she's sick and realizes that he's still bringing out the worst in her. He stops her from insulting him in order to help her avoid that horrible feeling again.
It's an example of there being a fine line between love and hate. Both require deep understanding of the other person and that understanding can be both used and abused. In this case, the whole story supports the fact that these two people are meant to be together - as a good rom-com should - right down to the speech and motivation of the two main characters. (Is there a form/content argument in there? I could have sworn there was ...)
Confession time: I watched the Dirty Dancing remake and I liked it. Specifically, I liked the screenplay. I could have done without the wooden acting; the "spontaneous" singing from everyone, all the time; the unnecessary melodrama in the delivery of certain lines. However, it was inspiring to see not-size-zero Abigail Breslin get the same treatment that Jennifer Grey did. And though the guy who plays Johnny (Colt Prattes) has super dead eyes most of the time, being able to act through dancing is not an insignificant talent – and both he and Breslin are really good at that.
But back to the screenplay: Written by Jessica Sharzer, this version of Dirty Dancing doesn't do what so many remakes before it have done – namely, a literal beat-for-beat recreation of the source material. (See: Beauty and the Beast.) Originally written by Eleanor Bergstein, Sharzer rewrote the movie with added depth. Her screenplay explores story lines hinted at in the original: Baby's mother (Debra Messing) is a frustrated housewife contemplating divorce. Kellerman's son (Trevor Einhorn) tries to impress Baby with knowledge of The Feminine Mystique. Robbie (Shane Harper) really is a dirtbag, like, salt in the wound uber-dirtbag. (But yeah – didn't really find it necessary for Baby's sister (Sarah Hyland) to become a Hairspray-style checkerboard chick who sings Bob Dylan, or for Johnny to be a dyslexic ex-con.)
Sharzer's working with the material means that she recognized and respected the audience's familiarity with the original movie. Obviously the people watching her remake would know the 1987 version by heart, and any lines lifted directly from it would feel disassociated and hollow. It's like a cover of a classic rock song where the singer knows her voice isn't as good, but by looking for new meaning in the piece she can bring something else to the table.
Watching the 2017 Dirty Dancing feels like a commentary on the original 1987 Dirty Dancing. Adaptation is a tricky process, and I love when it's done in a new and original way.
I felt the same watching Syfy's television show, The Magicians (2015-present). Now two seasons in, it's an adaptation of the book series by Lev Grossman. Take some young angsty millennials in modern times and have them learn that magic exists, along with their versions of Narnia and Hogwarts -- Fillory and Brakebills, respectively. The antagonist is a sadistic creature called The Beast. Another character informs students that she's been using time warps to figure out what the students can do to finally defeat The Beast in the present. In all honesty, I stopped reading the series after the first book, but my friend liked it so much that I got the sequel for us both to read. The sequel is when protagonist Quentin goes to Fillory and boy, does it pick up speed there. It's also where Quentin's best friend from childhood, Julia, gets her story told. The third book was even better, the best in my opinion.
While Quentin is often perceived as depressive and whiny - getting by mostly on his intellect and willingness to try anything - Julia doesn't get that luxury. In the books, she is rejected from Brakebills. The memory wipe of her entrance exam doesn't work, though, so she picks herself up and figures out how to become a hedge witch instead, learning magic outside of the clean and safe academia. Her story is tragic and it details the sacrifices she has to make to get what Quentin is handed on a silver platter.
When the Syfy series began, it was clear from the pilot that we weren't going to have to wait around for Fillory like we did in the books. Neither, as it turned out, did we have to wait for Julia (Stella Maeve). Quentin (Jason Ralph) gets in to Brakebills as he does in the books, and Julia's story parallels his from there. The series, however, works the material even further: Julia's rejection from Brakebills is not arbitrary in the series. Her rejection isn't because she's not smart enough or talented enough, because clearly she is. She proves herself more resilient and powerful than many of the successful students. Instead, in all of the previous time warps used to calculate The Beast (Charles Mesure), she was a student at Brakebills. She was happy and learning and not abused. The difference in the present time warp was that she was rejected and thus had to go on her journey to learn her magic on the streets, bargain for it, work for it, and therefore be able to defeat him this time around. Her pain is given more meaning in this version of events.
Instead of repeating the material over, Syfy's series - the creation of which Grossman is extremely involved in, by the way - works the material in a new way to create a new experience. It's building on the books and the story they tell. Remakes don't have to be nostalgic revisits of old stories. In both the Dirty Dancing remake and The Magicians, I felt that through the adaptation process the writers were able to enrich the original story with a commentary.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.