Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sex, Abelism, and the 80s: "Children of a Lesser God"

The 1980s were awesome in America. Or, at least, that is how I remember them. Granted, my vision of life and media was pretty narrow at the time. I was focused on how I could be more like She-Ra and Wonder Women and why the Skeksis in Jim Henson's film The Dark Crystal (1982) were so scary. Yep. I am a child of the 80s.

Recently I decided to watch Children of a Lesser God (1986). It was too adult for me when it came out in the mid-1980s and, realistically, I wouldn't have enjoyed it any way since I would have been totally grossed out by all the sex. Like. Totally. As an adult who doesn't believe in cooties any longer (most days) must admit that I found the film really interesting in terms of how it attempted to transform the image of the disabled from their usual villainous position as the cinematic other to something that is much more empathetic. Emmanuel Levy commented about Children of a Lesser God:

Not only Matlin benefited exposure-wise from the film: it did a lot of good for deaf actors and actresses in general. The hope of deaf actors and actresses at that time was that they could start getting parts in films that were not necessarily about being deaf people. The triumph of Marlee Matlin at that time, as well as others like Phyllis Frelich (who won a Tony award in the original play of Children of a Lesser God) and Howie Seagro were boosts for the National Theater for the Deaf, which had been fighting many years for such a breakthrough. Children of a Lesser God marked a breakthrough time for deaf actors.

However, that does not mean that the film was still not problematic.

Roger Ebert had an interesting comment about the way in which Children of a Lesser God was constructed to get around the fact that one of the characters, the deaf woman Sarah (played by Marlee Matlin), does not speak for most of the film:

The movie uses a strategy that works well - if you accept the basic premise, which is that everything said on the screen must be heard on the soundtrack. Marlee Matlin, who plays the deaf woman, signs all of her dialogue, and William Hurt, who plays the teacher, then repeats it aloud, as if to himself. "I like to hear the sound of my own voice," he says at one point, and indeed he does such a smooth and natural job of translation that the strategy works.

But think for a minute: Hurt can hear and can read sign language; Marlin's cannot hear or (she claims) read lips, and can only communicate by signing. In many movies about two major characters, there are scenes from two points of view. In "Children of a Lesser God," the scenes between the two of them are from Hurt's point of view, and none of them are played without sound.

I'm not suggesting silent scenes where we have to guess what the sign language means. But how about a few silent scenes in which the signs are translated by subtitles, giving us something of the same experience that deaf people have (they see the signs, and then the subtitles, so to speak, are supplied by their intelligence).

The feeling of seeing Hurt and not hearing him, of looking out at him from a silent world, would have underlined the true subject of this movie, which is communication between two people who speak differently.

By telling the whole story from Hurt's point of view, the movie makes the woman into the stubborn object, the challenge, the problem, which is the very process it wants to object to.

Regardless of how the film is remember - as a "breakthrough" for deaf actors or just another example of how women are perceived as stubborn - it is interesting to note that deaf characters in main roles have all but disappeared from popular cinema. Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) and The Family Stone (2005) featured secondary characters who were deaf, but aside from that there has not been much in the way of Hollywood films that feature deaf main characters. Even Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, has been relegated to mostly TV guest spots after her Oscar-winning turn as Sara in Children of a Lesser God. It as if the inclusion of hearing-impaired character has fallen on the deaf ears of Hollywood producers.

* Ebert, Roger. "Children of a Lesser God"

* Levy, Emanuel. "Children of a Lesser God"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Things I Love: Mae West

I love Mae West. She says all the things I could never say and does it with such panache I can't help but swell with admiration.

Mae West started out on in vaudeville and eventually moved to Broadway and where she became notorious for her raunchy style. She even wrote and starred in a play simply titled "SEX!" which also landed her in jail for obscenity in 1920s New York. However, it was the controversy that she created as a part of her sexy persona that peaked interest in her from the Hollywood studios. She eventually signed a contract to make films for Paramount Pictures. It was the 1930s, the Depression, and Paramount was facing bankruptcy. However, Mae's box office draw almost single-handily (partial credit also goes to the Marx Brothers) saved the studio from complete collapse.

Aside from being an actress, Mae West wrote most of her own stuff and was proud of it. Director George Raft commented that "She stole everything but the cameras." In honor of her witty dialogue I have copied and pasted some of her more memorable one-liners here. Oh, may I only be this witty one day!

A dame that knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up.

A hard man is good to find.

A man in the house is worth two in the street.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

Cultivate your curves - they may be dangerous but they won't be avoided.

Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can't figure out what from.

He's the kind of man a woman would have to marry to get rid of.

I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.

I believe that it's better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.

I didn't discover curves; I only uncovered them.

I enjoyed the courtroom as just another stage but not so amusing as Broadway.

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.

I only have 'yes' men around me. Who needs 'no' men?

I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported.

I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.

I'm a woman of very few words, but lots of action.

I'm no model lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing.

I've been in more laps than a napkin.

It's not the men in my life that count, it's the life in my men.

Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.

To err is human, but it feels divine.

Virtue has its own reward, but no sale at the box office.

When I'm good I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.

When women go wrong, men go right after them.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.

Eventually the Hollywood Production Code censors ran Mae out of town with their puritan ideals. However, she made a comeback at the age of 85 in a film called Sextette (1978). In it she sways and sasses a host of men including Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Tony Curtis, Timothy Dalton, and Alice Cooper(!). May we all be as lucky as Mae one day!

Oops... I Didn't Know We Couldn't Talk About Gender, Kathryn Bigelow

With the Oscars just mere weeks away I finally just got the chance to watch The Hurt Locker (2009). Shameful, I know. But it was released with a squeak last summer and I wasn't listening. And let me say that it is so powerful I had to pause and take a break before the climax because I was too into the story and was feeling ill as a result. That, my friends, is powerful filmmaking. It literally made my gut wrench.

Despite Katheryn Bigelow being just the fourth woman in the history of the Oscars to just be nominated for Best Director she is reluctant, at best, to talk about her status as a woman in a man's world.

"I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it's to explore and push the medium," Bigelow says. "It's not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions."

It is hard for me to sit back as a fellow female director (albeit on a much, much smaller scale) and listen to her not talk about the possibility that she could be the first woman to ever take home the Best Director Oscar. I want her to join up with the feminist army and laud her accomplishments. However, then I read about instances like this:

At the Q & A after a screening of The Hurt Locker at AFI Dallas, moderator Gary Cogill commented that his favorite book about the Iraq war was written by a woman (The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz) and then asked Bigelow a question that essentially amounted to, “Isn’t weird that The Hurt Locker is so good, since you’re a girl?” Bigelow deflected the question, but the issue came up again when an audience member who introduced herself as a member of Women in Film gushed that it’s “almost miraculous” that Bigelow has “embedded” herself in the making of “big boys movies.” This is when I decided it was time to leave; as I made my way out, I heard Bigelow respond that he choice of material is chiefly “instinctual” and not motivated by a desire to step where she supposedly doesn’t belong by virtue of chromosomal difference.

Ah. Audience Q and A sessions. I swear - the bigger the director, the stupider the questions get. With queries like these no wonder Bigelow is deflecting the comments and queries about her gender.

However, issues of her gender abound in the way the the film and her directorial skills are reported upon in other ways:

Just before dawn one July morning, Kathryn Bigelow was setting up a shot for The Hurt Locker in the Jordanian desert. The movie follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal bomb technician, one of the hundred or so soldiers in Iraq who dismantle roadside IEDs planted by insurgents. For the scene, the tech and two of his co--workers would detonate a bomb in the middle of the desert, and Bigelow wanted to shoot them from atop a high sand dune. This meant that the crew had to tote all their gear to the top of a hill in the brutal summer heat. "There were a lot of macho guys on the set, British SAS, not to mention all these young, studly actors, and all those guys were falling by the wayside," says Mark Boal, who wrote and co-produced The Hurt Locker. "I'm not walking this hill, no way in hell. I drive past one of the crew who's literally puking on the side of the road. People are dying on this hill. I drive up, and Kathryn is already at the top. She's beaten everyone up there."

In the great tradition of tough-guy filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living crafters of male-bonding genre films. It may seem an odd fit, as the beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent 57 year-old woman was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute with a background in painting; she's hardly the eye-patch-wearing, cigar-chomping type like her Hollywood predecessors.

Critics can't seem to get over the idea that a female director could devote herself to making adrenaline-charged films that owe more to Ridley Scott than Nora Ephron. They rhapsodize, in high academic prose, about the role of guns as phallic symbols in Blue Steel, a thriller about a female cop; or the homoeroticism of Point Break; or the androgynous female figures in Near Dark, a hybrid Western/vampire movie. At the same time, it's hard to believe that Bigelow would dedicate her oeuvre to genres that are typically made by, for and about men, and not have a few thoughts on the subject.

True. And while I want to hear Kathryn Bigelow acknowledge that she is a woman in no woman's land I completely understand her reluctance. After all, her directing skills are the result of years of working hard on her craft and have nothing to do with what is between her legs.

It is also interesting to note that the same rhetoric is not applied to male directors who have made careers making "women's films". In fact, Douglas Sirk, the man credited with initiating the "women's picture" genre was never seen as subversive or treading where he didn't belong when he made such classics as Imitation of Life (1959) and All that Heaven Allows (1955). In Bright Lights Film Journal Sirk's place as a male director of women's pictures is only questioned due to the questionable nature of the genre:

While the "action" movie had long had its defenders as poor man's Hemingway, most of Sirk's best-known films were "woman's pictures," a genre regarded by male critics as the domain of that mythical incarnation of bad taste, the "shop girl," and even (especially?) disowned by feminists.

As a feminist, I disagree. I thoroughly enjoy Douglas Sirk's body of work. But I digress...

George Cukor, another man who directed "women's pictures" was called:

...legendary 'women's director'; noted for The Women (1939) - a melodramatic comedy based on the hit play by Clare Boothe Luce with an all-female cast (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, among others) - a group of catty, back-biting, competitive, and richly-spoiled high-society women, although its tagline tauts: "It's All About Men!"; while seeking divorces in Reno, women learn of other affairs and infidelities and are forced to make tough decisions.

Despite my decrees that Kathryn Bigelow should flaunt her femaleness all over Hollywood I hope that when all is said and done and she becomes the first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar (Pretty please!) that she is remember much like the quote above of George Cukor - legendary. After all, she is a director with an impressive resume that spans genre and decades. For heaven's sake - she directed Keanu Reeves to the point of believability in Point Break and I am pretty sure that most would agree that isn't easy! As a proud feminist filmmaker I channel Aretha Franklin when I say that all I want is R-E-S-P-E-C-T for my work and I get the feeling that is what Kathryn Bigelow wants too. At the end of the day we just want to be remembered as "legendary" for mastering our craft, not just because we were women. Oooooohhhhh. A little respect.

Quotes from:
* Kathryn Bigelow: Road Warrior
* "THE HURT LOCKER & Kathryn Bigelow's Girl Problem"
* Interview: Kathryn Bigelow on THE HURT LOCKER
* Imitations of Lifelessness: Sirk's Ironic Tearjearker
* Melodrama Films

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


This morning Kathryn Bigelow became the fourth woman in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for her work on the film The Hurt Locker.

Over the weekend she was the first woman to win the Director's Guild of America (DGA) award for directing. This award is seen as highly indicative of who will will the Oscar. I can only hope.

I wish her luck on her journey. I will be rooting for her from my Oscar party in Seattle with a whole bunch of other female filmmakers!