Please Let The Devil Write Both Halves Of The Movie

The devil rides with me again
He always says everything’s okay
Maybe I’m losing sleep over nothing
Maybe I’ll be just fine
-
Beulah, “Me And Jesus Don’t Talk Anymore”

Today is International Women’s Day, so this will be (among other things) a Blog Against Sexism post, via the interesting sexist moralities of a few films I half-like.

Before we get to those films, I want to put in a word about two overtly sexist moments in pop culture. First of all, Marisa Cooper’s death on The O.C. I’ve mentioned this to a few friends: Marisa drinks, shoplifts, and has a lesbian affair, and her reward is to die. This is an overblown and frankly sadistic arc. The first season of the show was funny and frequently touching, and I championed it, but in retrospect her death is foreshadowed in disturbing ways. Ryan, the good kid from the bad part of town, picks her up and carries her to a bed when he finds her lying passed out on the sidewalk. Later in the first season, he picks her up off a Mexican street in Tijuana, when she’s passed out from a nearly lethal dose of alcohol and downers. In other words, several of their most romantic moments involve her being unconscious. Her frail, haute couture body now makes me uncomfortable, considering what happens to her and how nicely that corresponds to the recurrent strain of sublimated violence against women in the fashion industry.

Second, I hope that a great deal will be written trashing Black Snake Moan. The trailer made my physically ill. Unfortunately, not every piece of pop culture is a clever exposé about the way we live now; in other words, criticism can’t re-cast everything that comes to theaters near you as about the pathologies it represents. Sometimes the goal is just to be pathological, and to be hypocritical, and this bondage film for Puritans is a prime example. The idea of the film, in case you haven’t seen the trailer, is that a concerned man played by Samuel L. Jackson puts a metal chain around a nymphomaniac in her underwear until she learns to respect herself. He feels smug enough in the process to chirp about his steaks. Kudos to Justin Timberlake for being so clueless that he not only makes misogynistic music videos, he also picks “indie” films that show off the worst in art and human nature (cf. Alpha Dog in addition to this stinker).

Now for the rest:

The first two films, which are trashy films, are Cruel Intentions and The Devil Wears Prada. In both of these films, the first half is delightful, and the second half is excruciating. In the first half of the film, you have reckless, powerful characters enjoying themselves, and in the second half you have a painful fall that brings the film into harmony with the finest moral principles.

When Cruel Intentions was a different movie (a novel even) entitled Dangerous Liaisons, and it was set in the eighteenth century, it made a great deal of sense. The price for losing one’s virginity was very high, so the overexcited plot worked, particularly since flirtation and love among the gentry was a game in which the woman tried to return the man’s affections by not rejecting his advances completely, while still rejecting them enough not to be considered loose. Duels were common enough to make reasonable plot devices.

In Cruel Intentions, on the other hand, Sebastian gets killed in a car accident. He gets killed while acting nobly, but nonetheless it’s a grim deus ex machina for resolving the contradictions between his new love and his old wicked ways, one that tries (hopelessly) to compensate for the actual lack of moral retribution in the present. The whole second half of the film is weighed down with mopey introspection and dreary earnestness, and even the music is afflicted with wretchedness (a bland Counting Crows song).

ALL EYEZ ON SEXISM: In the first half of the film Sarah Michelle Gellar is a sexy bad girl making speeches about how she deserves as much pleasure as men. In the second half of the film, she’s an evil harpy who deserves to be ostracized and possibly given a noogie. In the first half of the film, Reese Witherspoon is an independent, sharp-tongued girl with all her wits intact. In the second half she’s a whiny tempest. Sebastian remains the hero, despite being as bad as his stepsister and robbing Reese of all her defiant individuality.

The Devil Wears Prada is just the same. In the first half of the film, we are treated to excellent speeches about the inevitability of the fashion industry, and its occasional rise to the heights of art. We are observe Andy’s spectacular transformation from mousy co-ed into intimidating New York fashion plate. In the second half of the film, all of Andy’s irritating friends, who have chosen idealistic paths like “consultant” and “yuppie chef,” start to berate her for joining “the dark side” and giving up on her values. Her boyfriend is particularly merciless, alternating between ranting, and twisting the knife with his brooding silences. This means that he clearly does not realize that:

a) We all remember when he was nothing more than the DJ in the video for “Crazy.”
b) He is actually a character borrowed from Coyote Ugly, which also follows this insane pattern of making us pay through the nose for ten minutes of pleasure.
c) For some reason, he is getting more points for making grilled cheese than his evil foil gets for knowing about Gertrude Stein and fetching Andy a manuscript copy of the new Harry Potter.

The characters try for a little realism by insisting that they just want Andy to be “honest,” but actually, since the film forces her to quit her job and go back to writing about janitorial unions, the real push is for almost total regression. Show me a film about a real labor strike, or even just something about working day shifts, and I’ll stand up and applaud. I really can’t be bothered to pat this one on the back for name-dropping liberal politics.

ALL EYEZ ON SEXISM: First of all, let’s have a big shout-out for the fact that the boyfriend gets to wear his boring T-shirts throughout the whole film, whereas Andy has to moult into a “glamazon.” Second, although the film shouts about the fact that Miranda Priestly is considered a bitch because she’s female, it also casts two mirror-figures (the French fashion editor, and Emily Blunt’s Emily) as classic bitches, and suggests that Andy should take an infinite amount of abuse from her co-worker while refusing to be promoted over her. In other words, against all odds, it insists on making Andy a nurturing figure.

***

In closing, let’s have a moment of silence for one mediocre film (A Beautiful Mind) and one good film (Good Will Hunting), both of which take a similar sort of wrong turn, except on the theme of genius instead of glamour. Instead of dancing on a bar and pouring drinks, or learning the value of Chanel boots, or seducing the therapist’s daughter, Will writes proofs on MIT blackboards, and John Nash follows pigeons around until he understands game theory.

Not only are these films subtly sexist, they manage to mix a sort of Pauline anti-intellectualism in with their sexism. Love! they preach, and the woman (who is smart, but not that smart) gets to be a sort of physical manifestation of love. In A Beautiful Mind this is done so badly that I just turn the film off when Nash starts to go crazy. In Good Will Hunting, though, the problem is a bit more obscure. The film seems to be all in favor of Will getting hired to do math, and of course it’s possible that at some point he does just that. However, a lot of the drama involves a fight between his two mentors about what kinds of things he should value most. Once again, the answer is love — the two things, love and intellectual work, are put at odds with each other. Skylar moves to California, but the jobs are in Boston. We see Will’s friend Morgan smiling, but the scene is misleading because Morgan thinks Will is cashing in on his “winning lottery ticket” (his smarts), whereas actually Will is going to see about a girl.

***

My point is this: rarely enough do we have the kind of good luck that lets us go see about somebody we love. Rarely enough do we get the chance to do meaningful, smart, creative work. Most of the fashion I see on the street depresses me, and I secretly believe it’s basically meant to depress me. Most of the bars I go to are dark, loud, and overpriced, and don’t play either “Unbelievable” or “One Way Or Another.” These films are about the supposedly dire consequences of bliss, but most of my days are the opposite: they are about the consequences of banality.

It’s easy to put the divide between low and high culture in terms of what’s fun, and what isn’t, but in my experience this tends to involve conveniently forgetting all the stuff about the mainstream that is about as much fun as getting a holiday lecture from some relative who’s worried about you. In other words, such films are divided into excess and remorse. Whereas the tingle of pleasure and dread that comes over you when a great movie begins never lets up; in such films, life is indivisible, and permeated by sweetness, regret, elegance, and pain.

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