20th 01 - 2008 | 5 comments »

Persepolis (2007)

Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.

Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.

The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.

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As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the Shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the Shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.

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Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.

Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.

Eventually, worried for Marji’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.

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Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.

I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.

We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.

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Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.

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For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.


31st 07 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Wanda (1970)

Director/Screenwriter/Star: Barbara Loden

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This week, the world lost two of its greatest film makers—Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Both were men of enormous vision, skill, and influence, and their films will pass down through the generations to enlighten new viewers and inspire the giants of cinema’s future. How lucky for us. And how lucky for them!

My words now are not for the much-lauded who saw their ambitions fulfilled over the span of long lives, however, but rather for those directors who died too soon, who hit walls in making and distributing their films, whose output—visionary as anything by Bergman or Antonioni, but not as formed—was, is, and will be ignored and possibly lost. There are a lot of talented film makers in this group. Barbara Loden—who died at the age of 48, having been unable to get another film made after Wanda appeared and disappeared—was one of them.

Some people may know the name Barbara Loden. She was a pin-up model and actress whose best-known performance today is as bad girl Ginny Stamper in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Loden also was Kazan’s long-time mistress, and eventually married him. Kazan helped open some doors to get Wanda made, but apparently didn’t lend a hand again to help her realize her other projects. Among the many honest things Wanda communicates about women’s place in society in the 1960s and the crushing effects of economic constraints on the human spirit, is an ambivalent, but no less cutting, indictment of traditional men like Kazan. Maybe that’s why he never helped her make another film.

According to Wanda’s cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, the idea for the film came when Loden read a newspaper article about a woman named Wanda Goranski, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in a bank robbery. Apparently, when the judge sentenced her, she thanked him. Loden, who had grown up dirt-poor in Marion, North Carolina, connected with both the boldness and self-effacement Goranski exhibited in this newspaper account. Although the film is set in Pennsylvania, Loden wrote the screenplay with her own experiences in mind.

The film opens on a coal-mining operation. A long shot of the coal fields gives way to closer shots of large machines grasping and moving mountains of coal. Then the scene shifts of the interior of a house in which a baby is crying, a toddler is moving around, and a worn-looking woman just out of bed is in the kitchen, trying to prepare food and quiet her infant. On the couch is a figure under rumpled blankets. It’s Wanda (Loden), who stretches absently as she watches her sister (Dorothy Shupenes) and registers the dirty look her brother-in-law (Peter Shupenes) gives her as he leaves for work. “He hates me because I’m here,” Wanda says. It sounds like she’s felt this way before.

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Back in the coal fields, a ghostly white figure moves across in an extreme long shot. It is not until the figure nearly reaches its destination that we realize it’s Wanda, dressed in a cotton blouse and slacks, with her hair in curlers. She asks a mentally challenged man who is collecting coal in a bucket for his own use to lend her a little money. His relationship to her is not made clear, but he gives her a dollar. She uses it to get on a bus. She’s late to her own divorce hearing in town.

wanda05.jpgHer husband (Jerome Thier) is anxious for the hearing to begin because he wants to marry the woman sitting behind him with his two kids as soon as possible so she’ll take care of them. Wanda finally shows up. He claims she abandoned the family. She does not dispute this claim and says that if he wants the divorce, the judge (M. L. Kennedy) should give it to him. She doesn’t even look at her children. “They’ll be better off with him,” she says when the judge asks her if she wants custody.

So what’s going on here? Mr. Goranski seems more inconvenienced by Wanda’s disappearance than anything else. He has already lined up a new caregiver and wants to make sure his life gets back on track. On the other hand, Wanda seems indifferent to her children, which he, at least, is not. She seems very emotionally disengaged and resigned to losing what she had. Did she really want it? It’s hard to know. Wanda doesn’t say her wants out loud very often.

The next scene is in a garment factory. Busy hands move irons and push cloth through sewing machines. We see Wanda enter the manager’s office. She tries to collect two days’ pay from the past week. The manager (Milton Gittleman) says she was paid. She reckons she was owed $24 dollars, but only got $9. The manager claims the deductions were government withholding. “They take out that much?” she asks. He assures her they do. She asks if she can come back to work. He says that they need people but not her—she’s too slow. She thanks him as she leaves his office. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t get it.

She goes to a diner and orders a beer. A man (Arnold Kanig) in the diner says he’ll pay for it. We next see him trying to make good his escape from his hotel room the next morning without waking Wanda up. But she catches him and briefly pursues him out the door before he peels away in his car. So maybe she wanted him. Off again she goes.

Late at night, she walks into a tavern. The man in the bar says they’re closed and tries to push her out the door. She pushes back, insisting she needs to use the toilet. He waits nervously for her to come out as she takes her time washing her face and pushing at her hair. When she comes out, she sits down at the bar. The man comes around the other side. We then understand that he is not the bar owner but a man who came in to rob the owner, who is lying, bound and gagged, on the floor, out of Wanda’s view. Wanda asked the robber (Michael Higgins) for a beer. He opens the cash register and pulls out all the money. Then he draws her a beer. They leave together. After they have sex in his hotel room, Wanda asks Mr. Dennis if he’s married. “You have a ring,” she observes. He evades the question.

Wanda%203.jpgBut they form an alliance. Wanda acts a bit like Mr. Dennis’ dog—obeying his commands about how to dress herself, begging to come back to him after he has thrown her out of the car for questioning what illegal doings he’s up to, scraping pickles off his hamburger. She never calls him by his first name. Dennis is gruff, but he’s a penny ante loser who robs a Goodwill drop box to clothe Wanda and grabs a suit for himself from an open car. He’d take tips off tables if he had the chance. He doesn’t really have a clue how to get by in the world. When he visits his father in Scranton, we learn that he’s just out of prison. His father refuses to take money, considering that it must have been stolen. He’s right, of course, but Dennis is hurt, nonetheless. The next scene shows Wanda and Dennis drinking near their stolen car. A remote-control model airplane is buzzing overhead. Dennis climbs on top of the car roof and dares the plane to come back and get him. This is all the fight he’s got in him? It’s starting to look like he and Wanda were made for each other.

The movie veers bizarrely into a Bonnie and Clyde plot in which Mr. Dennis plans a bank heist and enlists Wanda to help him grab the bank president’s family as hostages. When the bank president (Jack Ford) tries to take Mr. Dennis’ gun, Wanda hits him, grabs the gun, and jams it into his back. She ties up his family, Mr. Dennis places a suitcase full of explosive in front of them, and sets the timer. He, the bank president, and Wanda, leave the house to go to the bank. “You did good,” Mr. Dennis says to Wanda. The smile on her face shows exactly what a gift she’s gotten.

Of course, the heist goes horribly wrong, and Mr. Dennis becomes a suicide-by-cop. Wanda, shattered, wanders and ends up in front of a restaurant/bar that night. A friendly looking woman passes by her and says hello. Wanda does not respond. The woman climbs some stairs. After a bit, the woman comes back down and asks Wanda if she has anywhere to go. When the apparent answer is no, she steers Wanda upstairs to join a rousing party of her friends in the bar. Wanda sits, holding a beer, looking crushed, lost, and completely alone.

This film was shot in 16mm using a handheld camera, giving it a grainy verite look that has been compared with the films of John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes, Loden shot some of the film near her home in Connecticut and treated the cast and crew like a family for whom she cooked. Why Loden didn’t follow in Cassavetes’ shoes and act to gain money for her projects is a bit of a mystery—though work for actresses has always been more dicey than for actors—but it seems that Wanda must have been a character close to herself.

wanda14%20edit.JPGLooking for some kind of validation, living at a time of few options for women, despised for walking out on family life, Wanda is a character seemingly moved by an irresistible force within to be something or go somewhere she feels she counts. The women who were at the vanguard of the modern women’s movement—often without realizing it—paid a heavy price. Wanda is horribly vulnerable, terribly beaten down, and directionless without society’s accepted paths to walk. She made Mr. Dennis take care of her in the brief time they were together, even if it was on his terms. Unfortunately for Wanda, the solution of making a man stand by you has proven over and over to be a sham. Sitting in the bar, surrounded by people who are connected and happy to be together, she looks like an alien, utterly miserable and completely unnoticed. What will happen to Wanda?


19th 06 - 2007 | no comment »

Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968)

Director: Jackie Raynal

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The French New Wave may be the most famous movement in cinema, but there are seminal forces from this movement—as well as in other corners of French film of the 1960s—that time, film tastes, and sexism have pushed into the shadows. One of them, film editor/director/actress Jackie Raynal, who edited films by Chabrol, Godard, and Rohmer, produced a startling experimental film called Deux Fois as part of the Zanzibar group—a score of young filmmakers given strings-free financing by philanthropist and feminist Sylvina Boissonnas. Deux Fois is both an obvious and extremely challenging film that can be viewed over and over without truly penetrating its “secrets.” As I would find out, not even Raynal, who attended the film’s screening at the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival this past weekend, seemed exactly certain of her motives.

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The 63-minute, B&W film opens with Raynal stuffing a meal hurriedly into her face while shifting her gaze around the veranda on which she’s seated, directly at the camera, and at an unseen companion. At the end of this somewhat nerve-wracking vignette, she tells us what we are about to see and then says the film will result in the end of meaning. Don’t bother to catalog the scenes as she describes them because not all of them occur. I’ll deal with the end of meaning later.

We are treated to a number of mainly unrelated vignettes thereafter. In one, Raynal enters a room, goes behind a table on which sit a number of cameras. She picks up one and goes offscreen. She returns, puts the camera back on the table, picks up another one and a light bulb, and goes offscreen again. She returns, replaces the objects where they were, and picks up a mirror. She moves it to reflect light into our eyes. This sequence is repeated three times.

In an outdoor sequence, Raynal walks along a dirt path, a very long scarf trailing around her neck and down between her legs. She is seen in a medium shot moving horizontally and then moves toward the camera in a closer shot. She trips over the scarf and out of the frame. This sequence is repeated twice.

Another sequence shows her with Francisco Viader, a handsome Spaniard she met in Barcelona, talking intimately, and they kiss each other on the eyebrow. A later sequence shows Viader, shirtless and framed by what looks like a piece of kraft paper, apparently making love to someone below the horizon of the paper, occasionally looking up to smile into and primp for the camera, and then returning his focus to his companion.

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In perhaps the most daringly funny sequence, Raynal stands in the upstage left corner of a room wearing nothing but a pair of black pantyhose. A man identified only as Oscar sits downstage right, scowling. Raynal seems in torment, painful expressions and jerky movements building into a growing frenzy. Her hand moves toward her groin. A moment of hesitation, and then it becomes very clear that she has to urinate. Oscar suddenly moves out of the frame and sticks his face directly in the lens, completely obscuring Raynal. When he moves out of the frame again, she is kneeling on the floor with her head down. She straightens up and a look of relief—and a puddle—appear. Her almost total lack of modesty in this sequence shocked viewers at the time, who vented their hostility on Raynal everywhere the film was shown. It perhaps doesn’t occur to them that they likely were enjoying the view of her naked breasts, but that this voyeurism is as over-the-line as watching her pee, the act of which certainly must have given her a sense of relief and pleasure.

Today, audiences have seen it all, so a mainly nude woman urinating barely raises an eyebrow. That is not to say, however, that Raynal’s film seems tame. Although they may have focused on the specific acts in the film, what challenged viewers then is what challenges them now—they cannot rely on Raynal to transmit the “right” meaning of the film to them—hence, the end of meaning she declared as the “purpose” of the film. Human beings like to be told stories; that is the foundation for so many of our pursuits. Without an identifiable story, or frame as it is commonly called now, we must come up with one of our own or feel alienated from the world we are inhabiting. This almost Brechtian distance certainly can account for the chilly reception Deux Fois did and does receive from some people.

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Raynal does seem to try to give us something to hang onto. She has one sequence in which she appears to be asleep, but wakes up several times to write down what we presume to be a dream. Then she enacts the dream—the purchase of soap—several times. This is almost a linked narrative, but in the sleeping sequences, a telltale trail of cigarette smoke invades a corner of the frame, letting us know that the set-up of the story of sleeping and dreaming is completely artificial. The act of watching, which we normally would do unself-consciously in a movie theatre, is brought to our attention by the unseen smoker watching Raynal portray an untrue moment. We are not allowed at virtually any time in this film to feel comfortable watching other people perform for our psychological benefit.

There also is a specifically feminine point of view to this film, which also may account for the venom directed at Raynal when it first came on the scene. Women are watched—constantly. The struggle for feminists to end the objectification of women stems from the incredible discomfort and constraints this practice impose. When Raynal shines the mirror into our eyes, it does communicate to a small degree that it is painful to have a light pointed on one all the time. At the same time, the loving regard the camera pays to the sexually exciting Viader allows women in the audience the freedom of carnal observation, but puts men in a position to identify with the feeling of objectification.

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It was exciting to meet this pioneer feminist filmmaker in one of my favorite venues, the LaSalle Bank Cinema, which normally opens its doors only on Saturday nights to show films, cartoons, and shorts from the silent and classic movie eras that are normally hard to view. In this sense, Deux Fois was right at home. Raynal did not really recall what she was trying to accomplish with the film; she planned the shots, she said, but my impression was that she was somewhat impulsive and improvisational, moved internally to make certain choices. She told us she meant the film to be a love letter to her boyfriend in Paris, but ended up with something different when she found herself filming it with a new boyfriend in Barcelona. She talked about her feelings of inferiority upon coming to Paris from the south of France, betraying her “lower” origins in her Southern accent. I imagine these feelings may have informed the atmosphere of Deux Fois. Now, many years after she laid her body and her psyche bare, Raynal is more comfortable with herself and therefore less connected to this youthful work, but still a bold woman who said “yes” to the opportunities that came her way. Good for her, and good for us.


30th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Come Early Morning (2006)

Director: Joey Lauren Adams

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“It’s going to sound like the biggest cliché in the world, but there are no good parts for women. Well, a few, and Nicole Kidman gets them.” So said Joey Lauren Adams about her motivation for writing and directing Come Early Morning, a mature and particular look at a woman in her 30s who has a successful career and a dysfunctional emotional life.

Adams’ own career as an actress should have taken off following her breakout performance in Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy. However, already “aging” out of contention at the ripe old age of 30, Adams envisioned herself on The Surreal Life and decided that rather than gripe about it, she’d move in another direction. In the process, she harnessed the power of another underutilized actress, Ashley Judd, to create a real life on screen.

Judd plays Lucy Fowler, a partner in an Arkansas contracting firm whose m.o. with men is to hook up with one at a bar, get drunk, get laid, and vanish early in the morning. The film opens with Lucy after one such tryst, stumbling into her boots, suffering a slap from the man who doesn’t take kindly to catching her making a getaway and insisting to the hotel clerk that the room be placed on her charge card. She catches a cab to the house she shares with her roommate Kim (Laura Prepon). After throwing her panties in the garbage, Lucy catches a little rest before she has to go into work. We see her on a building site with her partner Owen (Stacy Keach) and watch her demonstrate how well she knows her business.

Lucy frequents a tavern called The Forge, where she likes to listen to the traditional country jukebox and play pool with Eli (Wally Welch). One afternoon, a woman comes into the bar and starts baiting Lucy about the fact that she has two fathers. The catcalls escalate into a full-blown fight, and a young man in the bar pulls Lucy off the other woman and drags her outside. His name is Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), and he draws her attention to the nasty cut on her face. She drives off, giving him an interested look.

Lucy has two grandmothers whom she visits regularly. Nana (Diane Ladd) lives with the verbally abusive Ed (Pat Corley), and every visit is fraught with complaints. Doll (Candyce Hinkle) lives in an assisted living complex, and Lucy drives her to the grave of her nasty husband. When Lucy asks her why she still goes, Doll answers, “You got no say over your heart, Lucy. And if you think you do, you’d best not let yours roam too far.” Lucy has been taking this advice all her life, though she hadn’t heard it before from Doll.

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When she meets up with Cal again, he asks for her phone number. “Why?” she asks uncomprehendingly. “So I can call you,” he answers. “For a date?” she says in cynical disbelief, then says she’s in the book. It is only at this point that she reluctantly tells him her full name. When they finally do go out, she brings Kim along and resists making small talk. They end the evening as all Lucy’s evenings end, in bed, with Lucy making her early exit the next morning. But she finds ways to pursue him anyway.

Come%20Early%20Wilson.jpgDespite Lucy’s same-old same-old routine, she seems on the verge of a change. When she learns from Doll that her distant father Lowell (Scott Wilson) was over to replace her VCR, Lucy finds out from Doll where he is living and that he is attending a new church. Lucy gingerly makes contact with Lowell and asks if she can attend church with him. This she does for several weeks, and we learn that the congregation is a caring one, and the preacher (Ray MacKinnon) doles out some pretty good advice.

Predictably, Lucy’s romance with Cal is almost too painful for her. When they make love, Lucy sober this time, Cal’s gentle stroking of her body in comfort brings Lucy to tears. She needs to find a way to ruin it, to maintain her independence. When her business partner decides to take a job that’s less demanding, she feels momentarily abandoned. She runs to the preacher and wonders why God would be so hard on the little child she was, that she’s tired of knocking and knocking on a door that doesn’t answer. The preacher advises her to stop knocking and just walk in. This she does literally with her alcoholic father, and listens to him play his guitar, his offering and hiding place. Lucy finally seems to realize that everyone has limitations, and that you just have to work with them.

Ashley Judd gives a nuanced, mature performance that feels real at all times. Bravely, by Hollywood standards, she eschews glamour for direct sunlight on a naked face. She finds a number of interesting mannerisms, such as the way she stands away from a door when she knocks, that make this character completely individual. Her supporting cast members give fully fleshed performances, too, even in small roles. Laura Prepon as Kim, for example, sticks to her hopes for a real relationship. “Don’t you ever get tired of waiting by the phone for some joker to call?” Lucy mocks. “Don’t you ever not?” Kim shoots back.

This film doesn’t offer all the answers, and Lucy doesn’t solve all her problems by falling in love and getting the guy. Her father doesn’t suddenly warm up, and her grandparents don’t realize they’ve been selfish. Lucy has emotional problems, but she’s not a child. She understands through trial and error and utter desperation that she has to figure out how to make peace and learn to be happy. We don’t know what life will look like for her when she finds her way, but Lucy gives us hope that she—and we—will get there.


15th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

Director: Jasmila Zbanic

2007 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

War is a popular subject for films, one that normally is tackled with patriotic fervor, nostalgia, brute realism, or gallows humor, depending on the year of the film’s release, the mood of the audience, and the temperament of the creative team. Films that deviate a bit from the expected, such as the “opposing” side narratives of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), are always remarked upon, usually with interest. There is a face of war, however, that normally stays hidden—the civilians, and particularly the women either left behind or caught up in the fighting.

The first war film I can remember that seemed to have a genuinely feminine point of view—as opposed to an idealization or demonization of women—was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Not coincidentally, that film, which talked about the difficult adjustment of a Vietnam vet and the woman who loves him after his tour of duty, was based on a story by a woman (Nancy Dowd). Now the toll the 1990s’ Bosnian War took on its female civilians is brought vividly to life in Grbavica, a film coproduced, directed, written, and photographed by women.

The film opens with close-ups of apparently sleeping women draped across each other on a crowded floor. One is reminded of dead bodies in a heap, and that inference is, I’m sure, intentional. The slow-panning camera rests on Esme (Mirjana Karanovic), and next we are taken inside her life. We are brought into a nightclub pulsating with rock music and writhing grbavica%20club.jpgbodies. Esme, who could be a soccer mom in the United States, seems out of place as she weaves through the crowd, whispers in a man’s ear, and is directed to an office. There, Saran (Bogan Diklic), the club’s owner, asks her some questions about her availability for working nights and whether she has kids. No problem, Esme answers. No kid, either. “You have to be crazy to have kids these days,” offers a cynical Saran. He asks her to pick a game for him to place a bet on. She unconventionally picks an away game for his team. He decides to take her advice to see if she will be lucky for him. To a man like Saran, women are mascots, sexual conveniences, and favors offered to friends.

Cut to Esme’s apartment and a shot of her teenaged daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Mother and daughter clown around, tickling each other and chasing about the flat. Sara pins Esme to the floor. Esme, suddenly nervous and panicked, abruptly orders Sara to cut it out. This is the first of many clues to a secret Esme has, one that will become harder and harder to keep as the film progresses.

Esme is shown at work at the nightclub, making clothes for friends, and beginning a flirtation with a man named Pelda (Leon Lucev) who does “things” for Saran. Pelda drives Esme home from work one day because they both live in Grbavica. He says she looks familiar; though it 20060220201703_5-grbavica.jpgsounds it, this is not a standard pick-up line. He asks Esme if she ever went to post-mortem identifications. Yes. “Who are you looking for?”he asks. “I found him. My father,” replies Esme. Pelda, too has been looking for his father among the corpses of recently exhumed mass graves in and around Grbavica. Once he was sure he had found his father and talked and cried to him. Suddenly, a woman came up and claimed the body was her father. She identified him the same way Pelda did—black boots and wrist watch. “You know, I got really close to that man,” said Pelda. “I even went to his funeral.”

Sara is having her own difficulties in school. She gets into a violent fist fight with a boy who thinks she should not be playing soccer, a boy’s sport. When a teacher breaks them up, he tells them to bring their parents to school. Sara claims that her mother is ill. “What about your father?” he asks. One of her classmates offers that Sara has no father. “My father is a shaheesh,” says Sara, a martyr to the Bosnian cause. When a school trip is announced for which Esme will have to come up with 200 euros, Sara says all she needs are the papers that prove her father was a shaheesh to avoid the fee. Esme finds one excuse after another not to produce the papers. Eventually, she comes clean with Sara about who fathered her, in an emotionally intense scene in which she batters Sara repeatedly.

Esme’s secret isn’t hard to guess. The domestic situations aren’t unusual. There are even moments when we are sure the film will devolve into extreme violence or tragedy. But the truth is that the tragedy has already occurred and is still very alive in the women (and Pelda) who inhabit this film. The female creative team on Grbavica, I think, is responsible for avoiding the easy clichés that are so common in mainstream war films by men. For example, Esme goes to a community center to receive her welfare check, but is silent during the confessions of other women about the horrors they faced in the war. In one particularly unsettling scene, a drawn, pale woman revisits her painful eviction in the middle of the night while another woman chuckles and then laughs uncontrollably. Nobody says a word to her about stopping and, in fact, they join her.

Besides the unusual tale of war’s aftermath, what lifts this film well above the ordinary are the extraordinary performances of the entire cast. Mirjana Karanovic inhabits Esme as though the part were written especially for her. Young Luna Mijovic couldn’t be more perfect as the loving but confused daughter who alternates between scarily violent and sweetly childish with complete ease and believability. Sarajevo itself is a source of fascination, as criminal plotting happens in sight of a mosque and the sound of microphoned prayer.

In the end, Sara, who hates folk music, joins her classmates in singing a folk song to Sarajevo. Somehow, this act seems both healing for her and a foreboding reminder that nationalism lives, ready to erupt in the cyclical convulsions that plague the Balkans.


11th 06 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Our Backstreets #10: Mommie Dearest Strikes Again

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps some of you saw an Associated Press story in your local paper or online news service (Comcast, for example) this past week reporting on the findings of a study comparing obesity in children with parenting style. The headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read “Strict Moms Raise Fatter Kids: Study.” The lead graf was: ”’Clean your plate or else!’ and other authoritarian approaches to parenting can lead to overweight children, a new study finds.”

Well, it’s hard for me to believe that a study published in the June issue of Pediatrics actually cited the phrase “clean your plate or else” in describing its findings, but since I don’t subscribe to Pediatrics, I can’t say for sure. The AP article was bylined by Carla K. Johnson, who I have learned is supposedly the first medical writer to have started a blog. She is quoted in Poynteronline (“Everything you need to be a better journalist”) as saying, “People comment that my blog is fun to read. I try to look for quirky health stories, something I can make a wry comment about. . . . I’m bringing a more casual tone into some of my print stories.” So, I think maybe she made that lead up.

I’m intrigued by how many media outlets picked up this item. Not all of them used the accusatory headline that was in the Sun-Times. The Washington Post started with “Strict Parenting Linked to Overweight Kids.” ABC affiliate KATU-TV has “Study Finds Strict Parenting Can Lead to Overweight Kids” on its website. To be frank, however, the Sun-Times headline, while more offensive, was also more honest. The study drew from data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which surveyed only mothers and children.

I have limited access to the data used in this study. You have to pay to use it, and that’s exactly what a lot of academics do who can’t get funding for their own studies but need to publish to keep their jobs and gain that increasingly elusive tenure. What I have learned is that the study authors constructed four parenting styles using two scales—maternal sensitivity and maternal expectations for child self-control—and compared the mothers in the data mine’s longitudinal study with the weight of their offspring over time. Hence, the finding that what they called “authoritarian” mothering created fatter children.

Why the National Institute study chose not to involve fathers in their data mine is a basic question any reporter should have asked. A good reporter also would have asked about food choices that were the norm in the study households. Fast food is a popular—and fattening—choice because almost all kids will eat it, and modern families frequently don’t have time for traditional sit-down meals. In addition, there was no mention of the commercial food industry that creates demand for high-calorie cereals, desserts, and snacks through advertising and entertainment tie-ins as being a link in the child obesity chain. I question the peer reviewers at Pediatrics for accepting this article for publication, but I’m not really here to bludgeon the academic press.

Rather, I am tired of the media taking the easy way out on medical studies and especially looking for “hooks” that will resonate in the public consciousness. The long and complicated history of Mom in the culture wars that have dominated the second half of the 20th century is further tangled by reporters looking for wry and quirky data to feed undigested to media that are getting increasingly boilerplate in their coverage. (I also wonder why Carla Johnson [or an editor at the Sun-Times] felt the need to Anglicize the name of the study’s lead author from Kyung to Kay, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Moms have a hard time these days juggling multiple responsibilities, and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty about whether their necessary disciplining is going to jeopardize their children’s health. I think perhaps journalism ought to worry less about strict moms and more about lax reporters and editors and the health of the news they’re putting out there. l


12th 05 - 2006 | 5 comments »

Border Café (Café Transit, 2005)

Director: Kambuzia Partovi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, women living in the country’s legally mandated Islamic society have had to walk a tightrope. Forced out of their western attire and under the veil and the thumbs of the men in their lives, Iranian women have labored to find some measure of independence and identity. Their painful struggle has been captured in best-selling books, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by English literature professor and author Azar Nafisi, and in films such as The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, 2000), the debut film of Marzieh Meshkini, wife of renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

One angry, feminist film that affected me deeply was The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Kambuzia Partovi. Now we have Border Café, Partovi’s ninth outing in the director’s chair and his first for adult audiences. It’s an assured, well-observed film that avoids agitprop overtones while nonetheless showing clearly the obstacles Iranian women must navigate just to find some breathing room.

The structure of the story is slightly confusing. It uses reminiscences of people who have beeen touched by Reyhan (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Partovi’s wife), the main character, to suggest what a remarkable women she is. It almost sounds as though Reyhan has died. Whatever has happened, these people feel sure they will never see her again. Slowly, her story unfolds.

Reyhan is a recent widow with two children who is urged by her brother-in-law Nasser (Parviz Parastui) to become his second wife. He wants to take care of her and her children in an honorable fashion, and her lengthy mourning is starting to embarrass the family. Reyhan is not interested in Nasser or remarriage. She came to Iran to marry her now-dead husband, and feels no regard for the villagers or their opinions. Instead, she decides to reopen her husband’s roadside café, employing his former staff and doing the cooking herself.

Reyhan cleans up the café and hangs out her shingle for business, hoping that some of her husband’s former clientele will be attracted back. They are. Reyhan is an excellent cook, and news that the café is back and better than ever spreads among the international community of truck drivers who pass through. One trucker, a Greek named Zakariyo (Nikos Papadopoulos), comes into the café for a table and tea, but always brings a can of food with him to eat. Reyhan, who must stay in the kitchen because the law forbids her to mix in public with men who are not of her family, watches him through the kitchen service window. She asks the waiter to bring his plate to her so she can see what he is eating. The next time Zakariyo comes to the café, she sends out a plate with her version of his food on it. It is delicious, and from that moment on Zakariyo becomes a frequent visitor and occasional companion.

Reyhan’s success not only humiliates Nasser because she is having too public a life, but also is hurting the business at his own café. He determines to close her down, and because he owns the building, he has his way. The family Reyhan had built in her café disperses, taking us back to the reminiscences that started the film. But Reyhan hasn’t died. She buys the restaurant across the street from Nasser’s place. The worried look in his eyes tells us the rest of the story. Reyhan will endure.

Reyhan is a kind soul to whom people like Zakariyo respond. Moved by her attempts to make him feel a bit of home while on the road, Zakariyo tries to court Reyhan, in Greek. In another subplot, a Russian girl named Svieta (Svieta Mikalishina) washes up in the rain one night, and Reyhan takes her in on what becomes a permanent basis. A very moving scene has Reyhan and Svieta in the yard one day. Reyhan reveals her pain over the loss of her husband and her own homeland. Svieta does not understand a word. Svieta responses in Russian with her own pain. Although neither woman understands the other, both are in tears, communicating through the heart. These moments confirm what a waste it is to try to lock Reyhan away from the world and reveal what Islamic men fear so much—the allure of the female. Although Orfani plays Reyhan as a modest women who is constantly pulling her chador closer around her face, she won’t be held down.

With Border Café, Partovi gives us a rich look from the ground level at the lives of ordinary people in Iran and the way Islamic law plays out in everyday life. It’s not as ironclad as I had imagined, but nonetheless provides women with little wiggle room. I am grateful to Partovi for opening the doors wider on Iran and breaking new ground as the tradition of great Iranian filmmaking moves forward. l

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24th 04 - 2006 | 3 comments »

Wolf Creek (2005)

Director: Greg McLean

By Roderick Heath

Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was greeted by a success-starved Australian film industry with ravenous cheer. After good reviews and box office, it was sold onto the Weinsteins. Opinion amidst U.S. critics was much less favorable—Roger Ebert regarded it as a virtual atrocity—but undeniably it hit its target audience square in the middle. With its superficial realism, it almost succeeds in executing the fan-dance required for a modern horror film—exciting its audience’s visceral responses whilst slowing thought processes to comatose levels.

I’m a horror film fan, and I’m also not a fan, that is, the majority who count themselves as such, who devour them by the dozen on DVD, and for whom the grisliness is itself a virtue wouldn’t recognise me as one. It’s possible that it’s never a good season to be a horror fan. Good horror films float on a sea of dross so vast as to boggle the mind, and the genre has always been the bane of mainstream critics, the villain of censorship boards, and the terror of the protective mother. It’s also the most cheerfully radical of genres. It survives like a xenomorphic monster by filling in the gaps of crudity, unpredictability, the forbidden zones left by other films. It is the one form where we are not coddled—at least, not overtly. Goodies can die; monsters may not be killed, or if they are, they can come back in the sequel. The forces of darkness, once evoked, cannot necessarily by driven back into the box.

To watch a horror film is to court what is most repulsive to us. Of course, that’s not all there is to the genre, but it does explain why horror films can be so appalling by every traditional measure and yet still register, even be counted as great films. Equally, a horror film can be made with polish, class, and cash, and come out weak, unimaginative, and tasteless by comparison with its true poverty-row arbiters. As a genre it has suffered most from the modern pattern of annexation by the dumb action film. Yet there will always be the little film made by the guys with the digital video that stands a chance of being a hit.

Wolf Creek is, however, a very bad film. It’s inspired by (“ripped off” might be another phrase) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is technically polished, exceptionally so for a low-budget Aussie film. The three young leads—Kestie Morassi and the charming Cassandra Magrath as English backpackers and Nathan Phillips as Ben, their witless but hunky Sydneysider guide—are scarcely delineated except that Liz and Ben kiss, Kristy describes Liz as “fantastic”, and that they’re all headed for deep doo-doo. But then the innocents in horror films are meant to be blank slates so that audiences can slip guiltlessly into the role of masked, motiveless villain.

The trio is headed for Cairns from Broome, Western Australia, where they’ve been partying hearty. On the road in the outback, they detour to see the monumental Wolf Creek Crater, the impact zone of a meteorite. Later, they stop into a pub, where the usual selection of clichéd yokels leer at the girls. In a supposedly spooky echo of a story about UFOs told by Ben, the threesome find their watches have stopped and their car refuses to start. They remain stuck in the middle of nowhere until a truck pulls up, driven by Mick (John Jarratt), an inversion of Mick Dundee from Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee, who presents an avuncular, helpful ocker persona, telling them he’ll fix their car for free and towing them to his remote mining encampment. After telling them of his experiences as a professional hunter working on cattle stations, Mick eyes Ben evilly when he makes a clumsy joke, but everyone settles down peaceably for the night. Come morning, Liz awakens, finding herself tied hand and foot and gagged in a tool shed.

The fun and games commence as Liz escapes, finds Kristy being tortured by Mick in a shed, and with some quick thinking, distracts Mick long enough to get hold of his gun and shoot him in the neck. This lays him flat, and our heroines start doing everything wrong in the style of trash movie exposition: they fail to kill Mick; they steal his truck but contrive to almost drive it over a cliff; they split up; Liz wastes time looking through the belongings of previous victims. When she finally gets around to stealing a car, Mick’s already in the back seat. He stabs her, cuts her fingers off, then severs her vertebra, reducing her to a paralysed “head on a stick.” Kristy makes it to the highway, but when an old guy tries to pick her up, Mick’s long-distance shooting skills takes him out. Then he chases Liz on the highway until he runs her off the road and shoots her in the head. Ben, who’s been nailed to the wall of a mine tunnel, manages to pull himself off the spikes and stumble out into the desert, where he is rescued by a pair of German tourists in a Kombi van and taken back to civilisation. A title card coda tell us he was briefly suspected of the killings, cleared, and the true circumstances remain unknown.

So, why have we just sat through this film? The film claims to be based on true events, but as usual, the connection with reality is tenuous. The inspirations for the film are the Ivan Milat backpacker killings that occurred on the East coast in the mid 1990s, and more recently, the assault on Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio on an outback route by Bradley John Murdoch. So many of the positive reviews cheer the film for being “genuinely terrifying.” I was never terrified, not even mildly perturbed; in fact, once I realised the director had no interest in whether or not the characters lived, died, got revenge, or got killed trying, I became impatient and then bored. There have been more gruesome films, but few so with such a perfunctorily cruel demeanour. The accent of recent horror films, including Hostel, Hard Candy, the Saw films (also composed by Aussie film makers, with Hollywood money), is on suffering and torture. Why? Well, it’s the last playground of the transgressive film maker. The horror genre is one where rules can be chucked out, but too often, this a pass for directors with no actual ideas, who can’t think of an ending, who can’t build tension without gore or illogical pizzazz, who substitute absurdity for real wit, and who plan for umpteen sequels rather than dramatic strength.

Indeed, in genre film-making, we are in a real dark age. In assessing the recent action films, horror films, and sci-fi films I’ve watched, most have been so mechanical, so lacking in human content as to suggest they were spat out by computers. So many are set up with no intention of giving you people to care about or stories to follow. Wolf Creek lacks precision, dark wit, or thematic purpose. Bear witness of the reduction of the genre–from the tragic ambition of Frankenstein, the disorienting perversity of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, and the hard subversion of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, to lamp-on-your-face campfire stories. Woooo! Once there were some kids in a car and a killer killed all of them! Wooooooo! The dark oppositions that fire the narratives of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are not consciously extended by Wolf Creek, which magpies the structure of those films without nearing their impact. Mick is evoked as a malevolent force of nature rather than a twisted progeny of a culture.

A happy ending to a modern horror film is the exception, not the rule, quite often with the most facile of effects and motivations—it helps keep the franchises alive. There is a deeper chord to this trend, however. Morality is no longer a motivator in a horror film, that is, traditional dimensions of right and wrong, good and evil, reality and unreality. John Jarrat’s Mick is monstrous and not especially convincingly so—Jarrat’s performance is so eye-rollingly broad he invokes Robert Newton’s Long John Silver—and monsters are easy to create. Those few heroes who inhabit the modern genre, such as Wesley Snipes’ Blade or the heroes of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing, follow the patterns of superhero flicks in their featurelessness and indestructibility. In a review of Sleepwalkers (1992) in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopaedia of the Horror Film, we find a telling comment: “It is hard to take seriously that any creatures could live forever if to destroy them takes not the spiritual and moral strength of a Dr Van Helsing, but merely the panicky reactions of a popcorn girl and a horde of housecats.” Beyond the specifics of the comment, the whole failure of most modern horror films is laid bare. Spiritual and moral strength? What the hell are those? Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing was turned into the shallowest, most plastic of knights. In the cruel swamp of Wolf Creek, Liz is the closest to approach heroism, and she meets the nastiest of ends. Her sacrifice means nothing. Kristy is caught quickly and Ben escapes only because Mick doesn’t expect him to ever leave the mine and doesn’t check on him. Thus, the film’s theoretically thrilling final third throws tension out of the window by playing cynical games.

Wolf Creek, then, is not so far from from de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in the impulses it invites in its audience . The “innocent” are ritually abused to pay for their innocence. Or are they innocent? Are they not the sort of drug-pumped, rich ratbags who comprise most of the audience, globe-trotting tourists who make poverty their spectacle? In the modern torture film, the decadent westerner is being treated to the excesses of Abu Ghraib that they have sanctioned simply by living according to the decadence of their societies. This subtextual relevance doesn’t, however, actually make a film good. On the contrary, it might make them worse because it propagates the kind of careless attitude to life and death it pretends to warn about. They punish their viewers as much as they do their characters.

Another feature of Wolf Creek is its unredeemable misogyny. This might be taken as a tough-minded attempt to trash gal-power clichés of so many improbable butt-kicking girls in tight pants taking on massive enemies. Yet even Halloween was more sophisticated. Certainly Halloween‘s slutty cast was butchered and its virginal, geeky heroine was the one left to fight the evil, but there is in that a defence of the intelligent as more equipped to fight and survive than the cluelessly sensual. In Wolf Creek, Mick starts with the thesis that girls are “weak as piss,” something which is only temporarily contradicted by Liz, who gets herself killed with stupidity.

So, what good horror films have been made in the last few years? Frankly, it’s a short list. I’d count Tim Burton’s gleeful Sleepy Hollow; John Fawcett’s witty Ginger Snaps, Neil Marshall’s derivative but muscular Dog Soldiers, all of which, tellingly, break away from the structure of the slasher film as invented by Hitchcock and Bava and long since driven into the ground. The horror film is having a boom as its box office relevance has returned, and yet there has been a lack of creativity and originality in the new films. We are in a mean age, looking for mean thrills. After watching Wolf Creek I went to bed and started watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead again. Now that’s a horror film. l

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6th 02 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Our Backstreets #5: Thank You, Ms. Friedan


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There have been quite a few losses in recent days—Moira Shearer, the lovely red-headed ballerina whose dancing and acting artistry lit up The Red Shoes; Al Lewis, who respectably ripped off the mature Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester in creating his hilarious Grandpa Munster; and playwright of the feminine experience Wendy Wasserstein. Civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, certainly the most prominent among the recent dead, had a televised funeral befitting a queen. But the loss that affected me the most was that of Betty Friedan, who succumbed to congestive heart failure on Saturday at the age of 85. A visible shudder went through my body, and unseen hands pushed me into my den, where I removed my copy of The Feminine Mystique from its place on my bookshelf and ran my palm lightly across its paper cover.

While I certainly don’t begrudge the televised tributes Coretta Scott King has been paid, I have to ask whether Betty Friedan’s contributions to freedom are held in equal esteem? The convictions that guided Betty Friedan’s life and work have been in prolonged eclipse ever since “morning in America” meant waking up in the arms of Ronald Reagan and all his acolytes of the Radical Right. I presume that her founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) is one of the reasons news of her death came and went in a day.

As a 50-year-old woman, I can’t pretend that I know precisely what “the problem that has no name” felt like for women of Ms. Friedan’s era. But I do identify with her life to some extent because I, like many women through the centuries, have had to make some of the same painful choices she did.

Bettye Naomi Goldstein was an unlovely girl who never fit into the popular set at her Peoria, IL, high school. But she was smart. She attended Smith College and went on to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied under the famous psychologist Erik Erikson. Nonetheless, as bright as she was, she turned down a PhD fellowship at the urging of her physicist boyfriend. Being physically unattractive, Betty felt she had no choice if she wanted to have love. However, the resentment she felt grew too great, and her romance bit the dust. She moved to New York City and became a reporter.

In 1947, Friedan married and started a family. It was during her years of tending to laundry, dinners, dishes, and daisies and letting her education, her brain, stagnate, that she realized how painful “enforced domesticity” really was, and how condescending the remedies she was given for it—charity work, bowling, and tranquilizers. It took her own desperation, and the discovery that she was not alone in feeling it, to make her write about the vapidity of “the feminine mystique” of domesticity as a woman’s highest calling.

Her book kindled a movement in which Betty Friedan, as one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), would play a crucial part. In addition to NOW and NARAL, Friedan also founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.

The reason that I can look at want ads and not find, “Help Wanted—Female” as a category is because Betty Friedan worked to end that practice. The reason other women have entered politics, medicine, and the military in large numbers is because Friedan worked to see that they had the rights and opportunities to do so. Young women who think a backlash against feminism is a blow for femininity might want to go a little further and have their credit history wiped out and rely on their husbands for their future credit-worthiness. Betty Friedan made economic freedom for women a top priority in her fight for all women’s rights.

Most of all, Betty Friedan made me understand a woman of her generation who means a lot to me—my mother. There were times when her manic cleaning, her short temper, and her intense focus on appearance drove me mad. Now I understand that what I saw was the face of frustration. Thank you, Betty and Mom, for making me a better woman. l


22nd 01 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Our Backstreets #4: What’s So Funny?

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’m going to quote a bit from some press reports of a couple of incidents. Please bear with me:

From an Associated Press report picked up by the January 21 Comcast News on-line:

E! Reporter Rubs Some Celebs Wrong Way

By Solvej Schou

Was it playfully outrageous or just plain offensive? Live from the red carpet at the 63rd annual Golden Globes, E! correspondent Isaac Mizrahi groped Scarlett Johansson’s breast, looked down Teri Hatcher’s dress, asked Eva Longoria about her pubic hair, and otherwise caught celebrities off-guard. The openly gay fashion designer didn’t mean to offend anyone, E! Networks President and CEO Ted Harbert told The Associated Press on Friday. In fact, Mizrahi was just what the network ordered. He’s already been assigned to carpet duty at the Academy Awards on March 5.

And this from Alice O’Keeffe of the U.K.’s The Guardian Unlimited:

There are certain things you can only get away with if you are a very camp, gay fashion designer. It’s probably safe to say that having a quick feel of Scarlett Johansson’s breasts is one of them. So all credit to Isaac Mizrahi, making his debut appearance as a red carpet interviewer for the American cable channel E! at the Golden Globes last week, for not passing up the opportunity.

OK, now let’s consider this high-profile bit of liberty-taking:


USA Today captioned this photo: “With an impromptu smooch, a sex symbol was born at the 75th Academy Awards.” I think we can assume that the newly born sex symbol was NOT Halle Berry.

As a journalist, I am offended that a failed fashion designer would even be considered a reporter, but then Mizrahi likely was hired precisely for that reason. A real reporter would not have behaved in this manner and thus would have jeopardized E!’s ability to generate buzz and the money it makes.

When the AP asks if Mizrahi’s actions were playfully outrageous or just plain offensive, I ask if those are my only choices. I see sexual harassment at best, simple assault or sexual molestation at worst. Don’t let Ms. Johansson’s smile fool you. Laughter often is a cover for nervousness. She was caught off-guard, in a highly public place, with a public image to maintain. Women, but especially celebrity women, are under a lot of pressure to be good sports about such things or risk facing retribution. If it were up to me, I would have made E! pay with fines and possibly jail time for encouraging a criminal act. Just because some people think that a gay man can take liberties with a woman’s body because there is no possibility of sex involved doesn’t make it so.

Which brings us to the famous lip lock, which no one can brush off as a gay man’s prank on a straight woman. While I admired Mr. Brody’s performance in The Pianist and applauded his richly deserved Oscar, I consider his blindsiding of Ms. Berry sleazy and arrogant, and certainly a publicity stunt. But he was given a pass by almost everyone. Why? Well, he did just win an Oscar and used the normally odious acceptance speech to pay a moving tribute to our fighting men in Iraq. It seemed only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt and call his transgression enthusiasm. Besides, Ms. Berry’s husband, who was in the audience, was a real hound dog and so Brody did her a favor by humiliating him. What does it matter that he might have humiliated Ms. Berry, too?

I will be the first to admit that opinions on these incidents are all over the map, and I don’t have the final word on truth and justice. I simply call them as I see them. I think the media thrives on controversy and titillation and seizes the opportunity to exploit both whenever possible. Celebrity events are made for such exploitation because the public has a love/hate relationship with stars, mixing idolatry with extreme envy. Wary of the conservative right and its sexual prudishness, media executives may be getting a bit more savvy in how they slip their sleaze against women to us, using a gay man to do it and female writers to talk about it. The fact remains that these incidents show just how far women haven’t come, how persistent the thumb of patriarchy is.

I realize there are much more serious issues facing women in the world today, from female infanticide in China to the loss of almost all their civil rights in Iran. In my mind, it is the small, persistent indignities that wear away at a person’s ability to fight, and celebrity media is particularly harmful to its largest fan base, adolescent girls and young women. Most young women don’t realize they are giving up their power through these media assaults and the creation of Barbie doll idols such as Britney Spears until it’s gone. With a greatly weakened women’s movement in the United States, I fear for my younger sisters. I know it’s still hard for me to stand up to some of the intimidation, and I’ve been around. I hope that sensible people everywhere will condemn this degradation of women. She’s not your daughter, but Ms. Johansson is somebody’s daughter.

E! Entertainment Television is 79.2% owned by a joint venture between subsidiaries of Comcast Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, with Comcast controlling 50.1% and Disney controlling 49.9% of that joint venture. The remaining 20.8% of the company is owned by subsidiaries of Comcast Corporation. To lodge your protest, write to Brian L. Roberts, Chairman & CEO, Comcast Corporation, 1500 Market Street, Philadephia, PA 19102; Robert A. Iger, President and CEO, The Walt Disney Company, 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521.


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