Elsewhere on the Internet: Summer Movies Matter

Where have I been these last few months? Writing. Cooking. Job-hunting (again). Updating my food blog. And watching a lot of new TV and movies.

I have not and probably will not read anything about Jurassic World I like more than this post by Michelle Vider, “Drink up that toxic masculinity”:

So I’m walking away from Jurassic World having enjoyed it an enormous amount, both for the spectacle it provided and for its view of toxic masculinity. It isn’t enough to consume media and check off the Y/N box next to IS THIS FEMINIST. That’s not how it works. Feminism is a lens through which we can mark the continued growth and evolution of gender roles, and that learning process should never be as easy as a Yes or No question.

That’s a pretty fair summary of my own response to this movie. I had a blast.Was it a good movie? Nah, I don’t think so. Can I recommend it? Probably only if you, like me, went to see Jurassic Park twelve times in the second-run theater when you were a kid. Yet I woke up thinking about the film for several days after, and there are very nearly enough Things I Love about this movie to make a list!

  1. So much homage to Jurassic Park. Jurassic World is basically a Jurassic Park fanvid. Some of the shots are framed exactly the same. JW characters revisit the location of a significant JP scene and it’s all lovingly recreated and covered with a layer of bones and dirt. A character wears a vintage JP tee.
  2. The movie’s twin villains are Big Corporate Entity and the Greedy General Public who forces Corporate Entity to churn out bigger and scarier attractions. This conflict is delivered without either irony or false earnestness, which is remarkable because of course churning out bigger and scarier attractions than JP is exactly what the movie itself does.
  3. The level of depth, dialogue, and character development was pretty much exactly what I expected when I saw the following bit in the trailer: 
  4. i.e. not very deep, not very developed. And yet! I was pleasantly surprised by this film more than once. Mostly by which characters were allowed to survive.
  5. My companions and I laughed so hard throughout the whole movie that a man across the theater yelled at us. That’s how much fun we were having.

I would never in a million years have gone to see Mad Max: Fury Road if not for Tumblr. I’m not familiar with the series, I’m not into vehicle-based action movies, and if you told me that the series centers around a lone wolf type who wanders around the desert, I would have politely declined. But instead I heard that the film centered around women. Not just one token female character, but lots of women. “Dodecabechdel test,” actually, was the line that hooked me. I couldn’t think of another film that featured twelve women all talking together. And talk about a movie that I think about for days after viewing it: I saw MM:FR in theaters nearly a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on it at least a little.

There’s so much good writing about this movie online and, to be honest, some of my favorites are just the one-off posts on Tumblr that zero in on tiny character moment like Nux not knowing what a tree is or the implications of Max’s back tattoo. But here are a few longer pieces I liked:

  • From The Daily Dot: “Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test, of course; it also passes the Mako Mori Test, on at least seven different counts.Mad Max: Fury Road leaves those mediocre measurements of gender representation—which the vast majority of Hollywood films never even attempt to pass—so far behind that it seems almost silly even to use them as yardsticks in the wake of the strength of Fury Road‘s narrative. . .  Fury Road is every inch the high-testosterone, manly action movie of your dreams. And even when they show weakness, its female characters are still fully in charge of their own destinies.”
  • Tumblr user and fetal amputee Laura wrote about how incredible she felt seeing Imperator Furiosa kick ass onscreen with one hand. Then she created fictionability.tumblr.com to write about it some more. Then she was interviewed by Nerdist.
  • In addition to having beautiful composition and dramatic use of color in each shot, this movie is remarkable in its use of center-framed shots to focus your eye on the action in the center of the screen. Tumblr user bonehandledknife digs into this a little further, comparing Fury Road to The Avengers: Age of Ultron and reframing shots from MM:FR to show how they would have looked if they had been framed in more traditional golden ratios. Conclusion: center-framing was crucial to portraying the female characters as people rather than decorations.
  • More Tumblr: here’s how the narrative would have gone if Mad Max got the conventional Movie Hero treatment.

I did watch the new season of Orange is the New Black. I probably won’t make a separate post–most of the Things I Love about the show still stand–but I did just want to say that I really enjoyed the season. Seasons 1 and 2 had unmistakable villains and high-stakes conflict; Season 3 stands out because those elements are much less clearly defined. On the other hand, S3 focused more on developing and deepening relationships–and showed that the ability to grow and connect is the defining trait of which characters become heroes or villains.

  1. Taystee, Poussey, Suzanne, Black Cindy, and Janae have to mend their relationships after Season 2’s big villain, Vee, tore them apart and left them wounded. Their process of making peace with themselves and each other is mostly private and internal, which is not something we’ve gotten to see much of in a show with a billion characters, most of whom don’t go in for long earnest talks.
    Taystee’s been a favorite of mine for a while, and her realization that she is effectively the new mother of the group was hilarious, touching, and wrenching all at the same time.
  2. Big Boo and Pennsatucky have both been villains of a sort in earlier seasons, but it’s impossible not to root for them in S3 because we watch them grow and confront some of their fears. I’ve always felt that Pennsatucky was a character not well understood by the show–one of the few in S1 who didn’t get a lot of depth or sympathy from the plot–but she certainly got her character development in 3.
  3. On the other hand, Piper seems not to have learned a thing. Like the New Corporate Overlords who take over management of Litchfield, her decisions generate a lot of pain and conflict and serve no one but herself. Arguably, she and they are the two Big Bads this season.
  4. Season 1 dropped the viewers right in the middle of an insular community with tensions and hierarchies firmly in place; we see through Piper’s eyes as she learns to navigate them. Season 2 shakes up those dynamics by introducing a rival queen. But in Season 3, we see a lot of the characters we’ve come to know either on their way up or down. The previous leaders have left, died, or stepped down; we’re seeing their followers attempt to step up and lead in their place. Even the subplot backstories for Chang and Norma, who are both typically treated as ciphers or jokes, have narratives about choosing to lead or follow. It may feel like a radical shift to see origin stories three seasons in, but as the series continues I think we’ll get a sense of the circular pattern of such shifts.

I am also watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I have so many feelings about it, but since most of those feelings are “!!!!!!” I think I’ll have to wait until the series ends before I can gather my thoughts. But if you want to talk about it with me in comments, have at it.


8 Things I Love about Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

It’s not an unproblematic love. I’m well aware that as a privileged television viewer–one who has never been incarcerated and most likely never will be–there’s necessarily something lopsided about my enjoyment of a prison drama. A prison dramedy, even, as this show can be very funny. But I think it’s a well-made show that does some valuable things, as shows go.

A lot of the conversation about Orange is the New Black revolves around whether or not it is a realistic depiction of life in prison. Let’s go ahead and settle that debate for the purposes of this post: it’s not. How can it be? And why should it be? It’s riveting television: hours of boredom and dreary routine have to be collapsed to make way for plot advancement; some aspects of the prison complex must be exaggerated and others must be downplayed in the service of narrative and character arcs. For example, with the exception of Piper’s first stint in solitary, we only get to know the horror of SHU by the way people look when they come back from it; Piper’s Thanksgiving SHU experience will probably be the only time the show spends much time in a solitary cell, because without the narrative frame of “new girl’s first SHU” there’s not much you can do with it storywise. It’s not a realistic depiction, it’s realistic fiction: its purpose is to present situations that could happen, place them in a coherent narrative, and in so doing provide us with insight into the time and place of its setting as well as our own.

And as a fictional narrative, this show does that extremely well.

  1. Drawing from Piper Kerman’s experience and additional research, the show depicts more of prison life than most viewers will ever see, and has sparked a great deal of interest in prison conditions. That’s a meaningful step, and I have to say that it works on me: I find myself reading reports and articles about prison life that I might well have skipped otherwise, because now I have a frame of reference for it.
    But in a fictional narrative, imprisonment also works as a conceit for other types of containment and restriction. Since it’s a women’s prison, we see again and again the ways the female characters are trapped because of being women. For an easy example: Season 2 opens with Piper overhearing a lewd conversation among COs referring to women as “poochies;” one CO explains that he can no longer say “bitch” because it’s degrading. Piper’s face shows how she feels about being subjected to this conversation, but obviously she is not in a position to give one of her signature prim corrective speeches. And how many of us have had to swallow our words because speaking up about sexism will open up a world of trouble? [Link goes to a classic Shakesville piece on daily negotiations with sexism.]
  2. Of course, sexism is not the only oppression at play in this show, and Piper’s sheltered character introduces a lot of sharp criticisms of race and class privilege. Piper is often criticized for being the least interesting character who is given way too much screentime; I don’t disagree, exactly, but I also really love what the show does with her. She’s very recognizable to me as a product of a certain kind of education and upbringing; I find it hilarious when she goes off on her little rants about how “The Road Less Traveled” is commonly misinterpreted or how emperor penguins care for their young. She could easily be someone I know: over-educated by birthright and irritatingly proud of it.
    In Season 2, Piper goes off on a loud public rant about how she understands that she received her furlough because she’s white but it shouldn’t matter because she’s going to see her beloved grandmother. It’s hard to watch–I’m not much for cringe comedy–but I’m glad it’s included. Piper learns a lot in the course of this show but there are a great many things she resists learning; her little cafeteria rant about race gives voice to white resistance you can plainly see anywhere on the internet anytime a nonwhite person is speaking about their lived experience of injustice, and I’m frankly glad that OitNB shows us how pointless and wrong it is to be that person. Sometimes Piper’s narrow-sighted naivete offers a lesson in How Not To Be.
  3. One more for Piper: I also love/hate her character for her insatiable need to be liked. Piper’s need to be liked drives her to do and say some completely stupid things: for one minor example, she gets a little miffed when Luscek refers to Alex as “the hot one” (as opposed to Piper); more egregiously, she argues with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” that she (Piper) is too a nice person, despite the fact that she has deeply hurt Suzanne’s feelings. Piper is an asshole, and has no idea she’s an asshole; when she does have her occasional flashes of insight and realizes that she’s a total tool, self-awareness brings her to her knees more painfully than any external antagonism.
    On the other hand, her need to be liked also leads her to do some genuinely nice things for other inmates, and form a legitimate bond with other inmates such as Miss Claudette, so that’s nice to see.
  4. Enough about Piper. The next few things I love are similar to other Things I’ve Loved about other shows, but they are still are unusual enough to be noted–starting with the fact that this show is almost entirely about women! Here is a critically respected show with an enormous ensemble cast and almost all of that cast is women. Women of many races and ages and sexualities and backgrounds! Although the male characters get just enough backstory that we can see their complexity and feel sorry for them if we so choose–even the Big Bad of Season 1, Pornstache–it’s really not about them. Honestly, I could do with even less of certain men, like Boring Larry, but then if we didn’t have some reasons to sympathize with him, we might get too sympathetic with Piper. (Truly they are two of a kind; my grandmother would say that it’s a shame to waste two houses on them.)
  5. Did I mention women of all races? Women of various races who have their own friendships, rivalries, and interests that have nothing to do with the white “main character.” It seems pretty basic, but it’s rare. (Here’s an older but still relevant post from the Angry Black Woman about the need for a Bechdel Test-style rubric for nonwhite characters.)
  6. Female desire is obviously foregrounded in this show–in a closed system of women, most of the romantic plots are between women. This is one of the points on which the show is often criticized, actually: lesbian action is so often eroticized for a male gaze in visual media that it’s really difficult to depict same-sex sex without traipsing a little into erotica territory. Fair. But what’s remarkable about the show is that female characters get to to be sexy and sexual without necessarily conforming to conventional (i.e. male, heterosexual) standards of desirability. Women express desire and desirability whether or not they wear makeup and fix their hair. They express sexuality regardless of size, appearance, or age. Toward the end of season 2, longtime inmate Red lays back on her medical seg bed with her face all bruised and discolored, and purrs like a cat as she talks about sex with her husband. Why shouldn’t she? But then, how often do we get to see older women depicted as sexual without it being a joke?
  7. Speaking of sexuality–I really enjoyed this piece by the OitNB writer who realized she was gay while working on the show. I was gratified to see that this is the writer who was responsible for that sweet scene between Piper and Alex when Alex tells her “I heart you.” Cheesy, absolutely–that’s why it’s perfect. Alex is definitely a character who is afraid of being vulnerable, so of course she would try to throw a Cloak of Plausible Deniability over her admission of love. In general, I think the writing on this show is great–very smart, very sharply observed, very revealing of various characters’ fears and longings.
  8. There are so many characters and I can’t think of one who I could do without. Even in Season 1, which had the busy work of introducing them all and setting the major plot points in motion, allowed even the minor characters to have little moments which revealed their motivations and personalities. Season 2 really opened up a lot of those storylines, and for the most part they are consistent with those little glimpses we saw in Season 1. It’s all about the long game, as more than one character has noted.

For more  thoughts on the series–some positive, many not–see the Round Table at Public Books. For fun, an insider view on how hair and makeup achieves some of the main characters’ signature looks.