Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Misogynist Books Surprise Me

Last night I finally started reading a book I can stand. It's sadly a bit cliche, as the movie's out, but it's Revolutionary Road, and I have to say it's fantastic. I had lumped its author, Richard Yates, into the category of unforgivable, disturbingly overrated misogynist writers like Philip Roth and John Updike (also, a big hello to Grandpoppy Ernest Hemingway), but I think perhaps there may actually be something in this novel that relates to human nature (gasp!) and not just the oh-so complex workings of the male member.

That said, since Updike died two weeks ago, and I'd been feeling a bit, well, bitchy, about being so against his writing. I tried to read the Rabbit novels over two summers ago, and found them to be the most boring novels I never finished. I gave him yet another shot with The Centaur, and again with Pigeon Feathers. Nothing stuck. However, The New Yorker dedicated practically an entire issue to their fallen colleague, and in reading some of the bits and pieces of his work that they compiled, I thought to myself, well Jessica, maybe you'll have to give him another go. Are there any Updike fans out there? Is there a novel, or a collection of short fiction you'd recommend that won't make me puke from its total and complete neglect of the fairer sex, or fall asleep from sheer boredom?

(Sorry, Roth, you don't get another chance).


Anyway, you're probably wondering who this dude is in the photo up top. His name is Michael Shannon. He's an actor that was most recently seen in the aforementioned movie version of Revolutionary Road. David Edelstein (the film critic over at NY Mag) recently wrote a profile of him, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing (it's not that long, you have no excuse). Shannon plays John Givings, the mentally ill and violent son of Kate and Leo's neighbors. Apparently his performance is the film's best. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to when I finish the book in the next few days.

I'm so tired of non-actors who just play around with this Hollywood shit. Shannon strikes me as an angry young man, who, like so many fantastic actors, finally figured out that he could work through his shit in a healthy way and be creative by being an actor. The result, of course, is that he's actually an actor.

Over lunch in Carroll Gardens, near his Red Hook apartment, Shannon recalls how badly he’d wanted the part. In his audition, he explains, he pulled out every stop when it was time to tell his controlling mother (played onscreen by Kathy Bates and in the audition room by the casting director) to shut up. When it was over, she told him that in all her years in the business, she’d never felt so personally wounded by an actor’s reading.

He thinks a moment. “I guess for years and years, I’ve been wanting to tell my mother to shut up, and I finally got an opportunity to do it. One of the great things about acting is you can do things that in real life would get you in trouble. I think that’s something I figured out pretty early on. ’Cause I had some issues … ”

Does anyone else find this totally refreshing?


That was a side-track, really. It doesn't connect at all to my point about misogyny. So far, in the book, Frank Wheeler gets all the face time. And he's pretty pathetic. I haven't gotten to know April, his wife, nearly as well, and I find this a bit problematic. We'll see. But there's an underlying disgust and suffocation in the tone of this book that has nothing at all to do with gender. It reminds me of The Bell Jar. And for someone like Richard Yates, I can't think of a greater compliment.

Book / movie review coming soon!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Silent Light (Stellet Licht)

I am loath to post a companion picture for this review because I feel as though there's no way this image or any other image from the movie could really communicate what it's about, or its strange, intense yet sorrowful mood that pulses through its two and a half hour run-time. It's a film to be experienced on the big screen.

Stellet Licht is the story of a Mennonite Community, where Johan, a married man with several children, has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne. Johan sees Marianne has his "natural woman," or, the woman that God intends him to be with. He has been honest with his wife, Esther, about the affair from its genesis, but isn't sure what to do. His religion commands that he should remain faithful to his wife, but Marianne seems like the woman for him.

This is the plot of many movies, albeit without the religious undertones, but Carlos Reygadas, the director, has made a wholly original film. For one, he employs actual Menonnite actors, and even non-actors in the film (most of the actors who play Johan's children, are, in fact, related) and the extras that appear in the film are in fact from a Menonnite community. They speak a rare dialect of German called Plattdeutsch, which adds further exoticism and lyricism to a film already brimming with nuance. In a way, with the language barrier, and Reygadas' insistence that we really LOOK at the images he's presented, Silent Light is more like watching a ballet than a film.

And what do I mean by "Reygadas' insistence that we really LOOK"? Well, the film begins with a sunrise, from pitch dark to mid-morning. He focuses on every face, every moment, with such dedication that, as a audience-member, I was literally uncomfortable with the prying gaze of the camera. With simple dialogue and little plot, Silent Light is a compendium of moving time and a tribute to the landscape of Northern Mexico, where it was filmed. It's no wonder that in the midst of these open spaces, Johan clings to Marianne, as if tangible solace (the physical sort) is the only thing that might offer a reprive from the accomplishments of God. And that's what Johan's world is: an accomplishment of God.

And in religion, there is punishment for dark acts. Not much happens in this film, but when it does, Reygadas takes it to the next level. Like Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, the unclean actions eventually come to define an entire person, as if the sin were ordered from God himself. But before I get too preachy I will simply say that the film's title is undeniably a nod to the mysteries of life, and the existence of a higher power. It's stillness is comforting, and its intensity rivals that of Herzog's Aquirre the Wrath of God . . . but with none of its malice.

Silent Light is a difficult film to watch. You will squirm, you will be tired, but most importantly you will be entranced by its subtle filmmaking. The movie will stick to you. And in the end, the beauty Reygadas is able to capture seems to suggest that there may be a purpose to life's most mundane plots.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Women, Work, Wedlock

Over eighty years after Virginia Woolf delivered her famous lecture on Women and Fiction at Cambridge, which would become the impetus for her essay "A Room of One's Own," and a series of essays under the same title published a few years later, women still struggle to write and create in the world of men.

I was struck by this exchange, on the idea of "wives," in an interview with writer Mary Gaitskill (Bad Behavior, Veronica) in The Believer's February issue, conducted by Shelia Heti. I think Gaitskill's work is fantastic, mainly because of the way she deals with gender. I was lucky enough to talk to her once, and I said, "I like your books because you write about issues women deal with that remain taboo." And she said, "What issues?" And I said "Sexuality, body image, aging, drug-use, and violence." And she replied, "Oh, you think those are still taboo?"

Here's the excerpt, below.


SH: Do you ever feel like you would rather have been born a man, or are you happy to have been born a woman?

MG: I think, for my type of personality, I might have been better as a male. When I was a kid, I did want to be a boy. I didn’t like to play with dolls, and most of my friends were kind of sensitive, sissy boys. But as I got older, the mystique of being a girl began to interest me. It was confusing what sexuality was, and the responses of other people, but it didn’t make me feel terrified or vulnerable. Then once I got into being a girl I did like it, although I was very conscious of and angry about certain inequalities or ways that women were treated. I became aware of that early and I didn’t like it.

One thing I’m very envious of men for is when they get married—this is less true than it was, but I still think it’s true—their wife is going to help them. Look at Nabokov. He was a brilliant writer. He would have been a brilliant writer no matter what. But do you know how much his wife did for him? She did the shopping. They would drive to the store together—she would drive. She did all the dealings with the landlord, she shoveled the walk. She typed his manuscripts, she edited them. I don’t think most women would go that far, but women are far more willing to do the support work, which is really, really helpful. Virginia Woolf—I’m sure she would have been a great writer, regardless, but she had a lot of help, too. Leonard was a wife. That’s invaluable. Women do not have that very often.

Also, the fact that women are expected to have children and most of them want to have children. That is a lot of work. Men can have children and enjoy that and have the pride and love but they’re not expected to do most of the child-care and they don’t. Even if they want to, most children, when they’re young, the connection is with the mother more than the father.

My husband and I have a pretty mutually supportive relationship, but sometimes we joke about, Somebody needs to be the wife around here! Where’s the wife? Will somebody please be the wife! I mean, we sort of take turns being the wife to some extent, but both of us would really secretly like a wife.

SH: But would you have respect for a man who would be your wife?

MG: No! That’s the problem. I mean, I would appreciate him, but I think that most women—not all, but most women—would have some degree of difficulty with that, whereas men don’t.

SH: I would find it hard to be very sexually attracted to somebody who was doing everything for me.

MG: Well, Virginia Woolf and Leonard didn’t really—I mean, maybe they did, sometimes—but I don’t think that was their primary relationship.

SH: Is not having children part of wanting to write?

MG: Well, I never wanted children, up until my forties. Then at forty-one I got married and started to think of it. I think I still could have conceived. My sister had children when she was forty-three and I probably could have, too. If things had been different, we might have, but both of us were in very bad shape financially, and I had to teach, and I was trying to write Veronica, and it would have meant giving up being a writer, and I wasn’t in a position to do that for ten years. So it did involve a decision based on writing. It was something that I did feel a degree of sadness about, because children are wonderful. They are. And it is part of the gift that women have, that they can do that. Not being able to have a child is another way in which it’s hard for me to imagine being a man.

SH: Do you think it’s more of a role to be a man in the world than a woman?

MG: I don’t know. It’s certainly been the conventional wisdom. I think there’s a sense where you have to prove being a man, where you don’t have to prove being a woman. But I think there’s a great deal involved in the woman’s role as well, and having children is proving that you’re a woman. I think that if you don’t have children, people are very critical of your femininity. There’s a strong tendency to feel that a woman who doesn’t have children is somehow failing in her role as a woman.


I couldn't agree more with Gaitskill's feelings on the subject. Oftentimes, in a marriage, or relationship, there isn't room for both careers. And certainly the introduction of children compacts the situation. If both people have to / want to work, who looks after the kids? And if there's a financial problem or a strain, who takes the time off their busy schedule and career to help their partner? Who makes the sacrifice, and why?

The answer is that women conventionally do, even when they have a career. Especially when it comes to kids. This is changing, certainly, as some men elect to stay home for work for "paternity leave," or work less when their children are young. But what Gaitskill says about Nabokov is true. I like the idea of the inverse, in Woolf's case, or, more recently, the success of young "novelist" (as you can see by my use of quotes I am not a fan of her work) Marisha Pessl's debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Pessl's husband is fairly wealthy, and supported her while she wrote the book.

As a woman who wants it all: a successful career, a husband, children, and french bulldogs, these issues really cut like a knife. I'm wondering, readers, what your thoughts are on the subject. Do you think it's alright to accept support in order to write a book? Is housewifery a cop-out? Would you still respect your spouse if they waited on you hand and foot and devoted their life to supporting your career?

Woolf offered up a suggestion that every woman she have a room of her own and five-hundred quid a year if she wants to write. It's a nice idea, but does it work in 2009?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Let the Right One In

Has anyone else noticed how this has become a movie-review blog?

Anyway. Last Thursday night I was in a lot of pain. I was suffering from strep throat, although I didn't know it for sure, I certainly could have guessed it as by late afternoon it had become impossible for me to swallow. I went to the gym, hoping to work out (silly), and walked in the freezing rain to the Angelika film center where I bought a ticket for one to Let the Right One In, the anti-Twilight, art-house Swedish vampire movie du jour. My boyfriend was leaving the next morning for Florida (lucky), and I was sick, and already lonely.

It was the first movie I'd ever seen in the theaters alone.

Let the Right One In
isn't really a vampire movie, aside from one of its characters being a vampire. It's a love story about two young outcasts who are thrown together in the dead of winter. It's about isolation, then love, and then acceptance. And the dissonance between the violence of the film and its unabashed belief in romance strikes a really wonderful-sounding chord, if you ask me.

Oskar is an cherubic little boy, bullied at school and largely ignored by his parents (alright, I take that back . . . both put in a considerable effort, but they're divorced, and I think his Dad might be gay). In other words, he's little guy who's put-upon by his circumstances. He spends most of his time reading about murders, and plotting revenge. And that's where Eli finds him, in the courtyard, practicing his stab technique with a tree.

There's something off about Eli . . . she's a little girl but the filmmakers have dubbed her voice so she sounds like a teenage boy. It's an effective technique. She's constantly dirty and rather anemic looking, as if she's suffering from dehydration. And on top of it all, she smells bad, according to Oskar. (Judging from the looks of her hair, it may have been upwards of 200 years since she's washed it). She even has a man who gathers blood for her. Because of their difference in age, some say he's a father-figure. I have to wonder if perhaps he's a former lover that's just aged when she has not. Theirs is a complex story which never really gets explained. It's lovely to be able to say I wish I knew more about them.

Eli at first is realistic about her attachment to Oskar, but his charm quickly grows on her. For one thing, he doesn't care that she's a vampire. If anything, he's just impressed that she managed to solve his rubik's cube. After a late night snack, from which Eli barely escapes, she crawls into bed with Oskar, her face smeared with blood. He asks, "Do you want to be my girlfriend?"

It's thrilling to watch two people simply accept each other for who they are, problematic as their relationship may be. And it's also empowering to watch Eli act as Oskar's defender against some really fucked-up bullies. I haven't seen Twilight, so I should reserve judgment. But it's hard for me to imagine that a Hollywood movie has the freedom to make the same provocative choices this film does. Genuine love story aside, it's inversion of the gendered vamp story is so refreshing, and on top of that the movie features some seriously realistic violence and some pretty awesome special effects. And, the sprinkles on top is that it's an absolutely beautiful film, a reminder that movies were once just moving pictures.

Alone or not, I highly recommend Let the Right One In. In fact, it's a fabulous departure from the sappy excuses offered up as date movies.