Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jim is observing the transition to the new year. This moment finds him in shameless entertainment mode: he's currently reading Sue Grafton's V Is for Vengeance, the 22nd installment of her abcedarian series featuring Kinsey Millhone. Grafton has slowed her pace; after publishing one a year in standard detective novel fashion, they're now coming every other year. But, surely not coincidentally, there's been no diminution in quality. Indeed, the sense of texture and emotional resonance in these books may well be greater than ever. (Part of the reason for this may be that Grafton has not elongated the sense of time in the stories themselves, which are still firmly planted in the 1980s, back when A is For Alibi was first published.) V is for Vengeance features a series of interlocking stories that gradually converge, thanks to shoe-leather gumption on the part of the tireless Kinsey. Not sure how it ends, but the brio with which it begins gives a reader reassurance that he's in good hands.

A trip to a bookstore while vacationing in Massachusetts resulted in the acquisition of Michael Connelly's The Reversal -- another genre writer at the height of his powers -- and Roger Ebert's autobiography Life Itself. May have more to say about those in the coming days.

Best to all for a relaxing interlude -- and a satisfyingly productive 2012.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shades of gray blues

In Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial, a group of scholars looks at the receding legacy of a great national drama

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

To say that the Civil War ain't what it used to be is to indulge a postmodern cliché: by this point, we all understand that what we "know" is socially constructed -- and contested. The takeaway from this anthology edited by Tom Brown at the University of South Carolina seems more prosaic but is actually a good deal more pointed: the Civil War is not what it used to be because it matters less than it once did. Which is not to say it's unimportant; the war continues to be engaged, in some cases with real intensity. But these essays collectively assert that it is now less a defining touchstone of national identity than a point of departure or iconographic warehouse for cultural productions that invert, bend, or reconfigure the conflict in ways that previous generations would hardly recognize, much less endorse.

Significantly, this cultural shift is not simply that of the avant garde. One of the more compelling pieces in the collection is Brown's own contribution, which looks at the lingering contemporary obsession with the Confederate flag. He notes that in the century following Appomattox, the flag was a rallying point for a sense of shared Southern identity, one whose resonance intensified in the mid-twentieth century as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Now, however, he argues that the Stars & Bars, along with related iconography, have become emblems of a self-conscious white minority that defends its civil right of self-expression with consumerist logic that would appall earlier guardians of Confederate identity, who regarded selling flags or t-shirts as a form of sacrilege. Insofar as the Southern experience of defeat has any compelling moral or psychological legitimacy, it's via a Vietnam analogy that is itself fading into history.

One also sees the recession of the Civil War in Robert Brinkmeyer's piece on contemporary Southern literature. Brinkmeyer notes that for African-Americans in particular the military conflict seems far less important than the antebellum decades leading up to it, and the battles are less important than various aspects of the home front. (The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall's 2001 parody of Gone with the Wind is discussed by a number of essayists.) And for many white writers such as Bobbie Ann Mason or Ron Rash, the Civil War is a tangent, even a dessicated husk.

In many of these essays, local, even private, concerns trump national ones. In his piece on the growth of Juneteeth celebrations marking the anniversary of emancipation's arrival in Texas, Mitch Katchun observes that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the joint resolution that led to the Thirteenth Amendment, would be an apt candidate for a national holiday, especially since it comes at the start of Black History Month.  But it has been only one of many, and not a particularly beloved one.

Even the stock of the blue-chip Lincoln has sunk a bit. Amid his analysis of how the Left in general and Barack Obama in particular have tapped into the mythology of the Great Emancipator, C. Wyatt Evans notes that the contemporary Right has largely given up on him, uncomfortable with his Big Government reputation and awkward in invoking his Civil Rights legacy. The Tea Party invokes the Revolution, not the Civil War, as the source of its power and legitimacy.
The primary focus of Remixing the Civil War, however, are the visual arts, where collective memory of the conflict functions as a postmodern closet that gets raided for varied acts of bricolage. Essays by Elizabeth Young, Gerard Brown, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage all look at the way images, particularly photography, have been used to destabilize inherited notions of what the war was about. Sometimes contemporary artists complicate racial hierarchies or essentialized notions of blackness; other times their work involves the expansion or projection of alternative notions of sexuality or gender into nineteenth century settings. Ironically, some art carefully uses patiently recreated artifacts or settings to call attention to the artifice involved in remembrance.

Such work can be impressive in its passion, creativity, and intelligence. But it's a little depressing, too. In part that's because written history, scholarly and otherwise, seems to lack some of the same spark these artists show, as even the most avowedly transgressive or revisionist scholarly writing remains helmeted in academic convention. Conversely, the deeply fragmented quality of contemporary Civil War remembrance suggests a larger crisis of confidence in which grand unifying themes or aspirations can only be looked on with a sense of irony or suspicion. It's remarkable to consider that the versions of the Civil War that do evince such confidence, like Ken Burns's celebrated documentary or the 1989 film Glory are now (already!) a generation old. In becoming what can plausibly considered the first real 21st century rendition of its subject, this book provocatively suggests that the Civil War may really be running out of time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Small blessing

In Religion in America: A Political History, Denis Lacorne provides an overview of God in America with a French twist

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution. But an important dimension of this even-handed study is an attempt to balance what he plausibly sees as too much emphasis on the Puritan roots and influence in American society. For Lacorne, an entirely separate strand of U.S. evangelicalism has also been part of the picture. So has, at least as importantly, a largely secular one centered in the thought and legacy of the Founding Fathers. This latter one, whose institutional locus has been the Supreme Court, has been decisive in his (generally approving) view.

There are three separate dimensions to Religion in America, all of them arresting. The first is its function as a overview survey, which begins with the Quakers and runs through an epilogue of the Obama years. The second is as a historiographic account of the shifting reputations of evangelicals, Catholics, and other religious movements in the United States, both among their contemporaries and subsequent historians. A related, but discrete, third dimension looks more specifically at the French perspective (Lacorne is a senior research fellow at the Centre d'Etudes ed the Recherches Internationales in Paris). France is an especially valuable lens for such a study, given its constrast with Anglo-American tradition, its own republican tradition, and the long love-hate relationship between the two countries. Naturally, de Toqueville looms large here, but Lacorne is nuanced in giving him his due even as he points out his limitations.

Lacorne's skill in juggling these three interpretive balls makes the book a notably versatile volume for teaching purposes. It's an edifying read for someone seeking grounding in the subject as well as a user-friendly course adoption. The individual chapters are also well-segmented, allowing them to be slotted into general survey in addition to religion courses. Rarely does one encounter such effective one-stop shopping on such a large important subject. One hopes and expects it to become a perennial.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

False fantasies

Streep's early '90s movies deconstructed notions of gender

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

  Streep followed-up She-Devil with the more upscale comedy Postcards from the Edge (1990), Carrie Fisher’s 1987 autobiographical novel about recovery from addiction set among the Hollywood elite. Though it’s less pointed in its gender politics than She-Devil, the Mike Nichols-directed Postcards is nevertheless a departure for Streep. For the first time—and surprisingly late at that—she is a daughter rather than a mother, as the struggling adult child of a major star, presumably Fisher’s famous mother Debbie Reynolds, played by Shirley MacLaine.
There’s a pleasant postmodern fizz to Postcards, in that it calls attention to its own artifice. The film opens with a dramatic sequence about a drug cartel that turns out to be a movie-within-a-movie, though the drug angle is real enough: Streep’s character, actor Suzanne Vale, is fired for taking a snort in her trailer. At other points in the movie, we learn a city street is actually a movie set, and Streep spends a long stretch of the movie ironically wearing a policewoman’s costume.
Though much of the plot turns on her relationship with a wayward playboy producer (Dennis Quaid), her character’s struggle is typical of that facing the boy who seeks to become a man: What will I do with my life professionally? How do I emerge from the shadow of a powerful parent and gain my own public identity? How will romance fit into, as opposed to define, this picture? The script (also written by Fisher) suggests Suzanne has begun to resolve these questions by making the movie’s closing sequence the shooting a music video, which allows us to see a truly fabulous Streep performing a country tune, “I’m Checkin’ Out,” written by Shel Silverstein, a remarkably versatile author and illustrator who also wrote the Johnny Cash classic “A Boy Named Sue,” among other country hits.
Postcards, then, had some serious currents running it, notwithstanding its decisively comic tone. By contrast, Streep’s next movie, Defending Your Life (1991), proceeds from a presumably grave question—what happens when we die?—but is so light it almost floats off the screen. Writer/director Albert Brooks has long been a kind of cut-rate Woody Allen, an auteur with a real sense of humor whose movies are rarely fully satisfying (he’s better as an actor). In Defending Your Life, he plays Daniel Miller, a morose Los Angeles advertising executive who drives his brand new luxury car into an oncoming bus and dies. He awakens in “Judgment City,” a kind of purgatory where the events of his life are reviewed through a judicial hearing that will decide whether he will graduate to a higher form of consciousness or be forced to repeat human life in what amounts to a kind of Southern California Hinduism. Fortunately, Judgment City is a pleasant place to pass the time; you can eat all you want for free and never gain an ounce. While in Judgment City, Daniel meets his dream girl, Julia (Streep), who is charmed by Daniel’s jokes. There are lots of comic bits about Julia’s higher standard of living in Judgment City, owing the fact that she was a nicer person than Daniel was. But despite their divergent verdicts, true love conquers all, even in heaven.
Streep agreed to act in Defending Your Life because she was charmed when Brooks pitched it to her, poolside, while she was filming Postcards from the Edge. But her motives in taking the part seem to have been at least in part a matter of playful experimentation with gender expectations. “I know Albert feels he’s written a whole woman, a completely full-blown person,” she said in a 1991 New York Times profile. “I didn’t know how to break it to him, he’s really not done that. He’s written an idea of a woman. And I did my best to fill those silver slippers. But it was also fun. I thought, ‘Ah, the hell with it. You’re dead. You can do whatever you want.’ ”
Streep’s next movie, Death Becomes Her (1992), was a black comedy on the order of She-Devil. As with She-Devil, this is a story of romantic rivalry, but its main theme is a veritable American obsession: aging, a subject whose gender dimensions are especially vexing for women. Streep is Madeline Ashton, an aging actress who steals and marries Ernest Menville, the plastic surgeon boyfriend of her frenemy, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Helen, plunged into a despair gauged by a grotesque weight gain, ends up in a psychiatric ward, but as with Ruth Patchett, gets rejuvenated by the prospect of revenge. Madeline, meanwhile, has also aged and gained in weight, while the alcoholic Ernest has been reduced to working as a mortician. Unbeknownst to the other, each of the women learns of, and imbibes, a magic potion that reverses the effect of aging, purveyed by a woman named Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini). A newly svelte Helen seduces Ernest, and convinces him to kill Madeline. Madeline learns of the plot, and the movie moves into slapstick overdrive as the women commit grotesque acts of violence against each other that result a twisted heads for Madeline, holes in the Helen’s abdomen, and the like, none of which are of course fatal. (Death Becomes Her, which Streep described as taking longer to make than any of her movies, won an Academy Award for its special effects.) Ironically, though the two women reconcile, they find themselves dependent on Ernest to spruce up their brittle, if immortal bodies, until, even more ironically, they find themselves dependent on each other. (Sisterhood may be powerful, but it’s very often exasperating.) As such, the movie ends on a comic, though not particularly satisfying, be-careful-what-you-wish-for note.
It’s a message, however, that’s consistent with Streep’s own thinking, particularly in terms of the movie’s critique of the cult of beauty. “My son, Henry, who’s 12, asked me, Who do you think is the prettiest girl in my class?’ ” she reported in a 1992 interview.  “And I said, ‘Who cares?’ ” Streep also professed to comfort with aging. “I felt 40 years old since I was eight,” she said. “And so when I became 40, I felt suddenly like I could fit into my clothes. I could say whatever I damn well please.” Of course, one might well reply, such things were easy for a woman as attractive and powerful as Streep to say. But her subsequent track record as an actor does indeed suggest a sense of personal liberation and a more relaxed persona in many of her roles. While few of them have had the searing intensity of Sophie’s Choice or Cry in the Dark, many have proven to be deeply satisfying. It’s hard not be moved, for example, by the tremendous affection that Streep pours into her portrayal of the aging Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2009), and the palpable joy that infuses the performance itself, which feels not showy in that “our lady of the accents” way critics like Pauline Kael disliked—even as her mastery of Child’s unique voice can make you laugh out loud—but rather as an affirmation of life itself.

 Next: Streep in flux.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maternal care

Streep's greatest roles have been as (tragic) mothers.

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

At the risk of belaboring the point, I want to be clear that I’ve been applying a specific litmus test to Meryl Streep movies, measuring them in terms of whether the women she portrays have an autonomous life apart from any specifically gendered one of wife, lover, or mother. I’ve done so to argue that Streep’s brand of feminism, neither unique to her nor entirely shared, had a specific tenor in the first decade of her career, one that both suggested the possibilities as well as the limits of that feminism in the mainstream popular culture of the Reagan era.
That said, I remain aware of Streep’s injunction about reading too much into her choices. The line I’m drawing is not exactly straight. Still, it is real. Actually, the Streep roles I’ve found most intriguing are the more ambiguous ones that blend private and public feminism. But even those ambiguous ones tend to run toward the private side of the spectrum. As we’ll see, that would change.  
The other thing I need to say before we move on is that Streep has never been particularly ideological in these matters. She’s an artist, not an intellectual. And one who has been committed from the outset to capturing the realities of women’s lives from multiple perspectives, whether or not they happen to be her own.
It’s notable, then, that two of Streep’s greatest performances were a matter of embodying women whose gender identities—particularly the gender identity of mother—are avowedly at the center of who they understand themselves to be. The first is what for a long time was Streep’s signature role, that of Polish émigré Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice (1982), for which she won her second Oscar, this time for Best Actress. The movie, based on the semi-autobiographical 1979 novel by William Styron, is presented from the point of view of an aspiring novelist named Stingo, who moves to Brooklyn in 1947 after finishing his education at Duke. He rents a room in a large house whose residents include a vivacious couple, a dashing Jew named Stingo (Kevin Kline) and Streep’s mysterious and alluring Sophie, a Polish-Catholic refugee who fled Nazi Germany. The three enjoy each other’s company immensely, but it becomes increasingly apparent to Stingo that Nathan, who presents himself as a high-powered chemist, is a fraud, and a schizophrenic prone to flying into jealous rage.
Though Nathan is demonstrably insane, he is right in one respect: Stingo is falling in love with Sophie. She, too, is not who she appears to be: she claims her father was an anti-Nazi professor, though we later learn he was Anti-Semitic apologist for the regime. Sophie had a lover in the resistance movement in occupied Poland, who was caught and executed. Sophie herself was caught smuggling a ham for her dying mother and sent to Auschwitz with her children. In about the worst kind of cruelty imaginable, a camp official tells her she must choose which of her children should live. She chooses her son, who is sent to a children’s camp (we don’t learn anything beyond that), while her daughter goes to a crematorium. It is a scene about as wrenching as any in modern cinema, and must have been very difficult to execute.
Streep’s performance is awe-inspiring on many levels, most obvious in the way she reverse-engineered her way to English as a second language, by learning Polish (a language she did not master) and its accent (which she did). As with the French Lieutenant’s Woman, she conveyed a sense of alluring mystery in her character by managing to hold something in reserve that you can sense without ever being told. We also sense a tragic outcome, even as Stingo tries to flee Nathan’s murderous rage by taking her with him to a hotel, from which he hopes to return to the South and marry her, where they can live on a farm he has inherited. But Sophie simply cannot relinquish the horror of her motherhood. Indeed, one suspects her decision to cast her lot with Nathan after the war, a man who abuses her and with whom she can never finally be happy, is an act of self-sabotage.
In a 1983 interview, Streep responded to a journalist’s question about whether Sophie worked while living in New York by saying, “Yeah. Not that we ever saw. But yeah, she worked. Still, that wasn’t what that movie was about.”  Instead, what it’s about is a mother’s grief. Sophie indulges Stingo with a night of fantasy, but returns to Nathan, with whom she commits suicide. Her death, like her life, can only be defined in terms of others.
 Sophie’s Choice was a tour de force showcase for Streep’s talents. But her acting in A Cry in the Dark (1988) is all the more powerful for its understated quality. Here she’s another true-life character, Australian Lindy Chamberlain, who became ensnared in a media maelstrom in 1980 after she was accused of murdering her infant daughter despite her insistence that the child had been killed by a dingo, a wild dog indigenous to Australia, during a camping trip. Streep mastered yet another accent for this role, one she said she found more difficult because unlike Isak Dinesen or Karen Silkwood, Chamberlain was still alive and still in the public eye, and someone whose idiosyncratic expression required more precise emulation. But it’s the helmeted quality of Chamberlain’s expression, the Puritanical mien of a committed Seventh-Day Adventist married to a minister (Sam Neill), that badly damaged her public image, and which Streep captures in her performance.
Cry in the Dark was directed by Australian Fred Schepisi, who also directed Streep in Plenty. It performed poorly at the U.S. box office, probably because American viewers were not widely familiar with the scandal, and because the material is so wrenching. But Streep nevertheless earned yet another Oscar nomination for the role. Since nominations come from fellow actors—winners are chosen by the membership of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences as a whole—such recognition is an honor in its own right, and a testimonial to Streep’s realized ambition to represent the reality of a woman’s life on her own terms, in this case a woman who saw herself first and foremost wife and mother.
By the end of the 1980s, then, Streep was not simply a movie star, but a cinematic brand—a virtuoso known for high-wire characterizations in artistically challenging dramas. Asked by a film professor at the University of Kansas in 1988 whether she still takes a secret delight in jumping into a movie with a new face on, Streep said yes with a laugh. “It’s part of what I get criticized for,” she noted. “But that’s what the joy of it is for me.”
In the years that followed, however, Streep began seeking out somewhat different joys.

Next: Streep in (comic) transition.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Skin," Deep

With Memory of Lost Skin, Russell Banks provokes his readers to confront the implications of an intensifying national taboo surrounding sexual deviance

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.

When a psychiatrist friend in our reading group recently suggested that our next book discussion focus on the topic of sexual deviance, my instinctive reaction was one of aversion. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Is there?) I did recall, however, that the latest Russell Banks novel deals with that subject. I've long been a Banks fan -- his 1995 novel Rule of the Bone was a rich re-imagining of an unlikely interracial friendship spanning North and Latin America, and his 1998 novel Cloudsplitter helped me understand the 19th century abolitionist freedom-fighter/terrorist John Brown in a way no else ever had -- but again, the topic of sex offenders was not particularly appetizing. Still, I figured that if anyone could make that subject compelling, Banks could, and the group agreed to adopt it as our next title.

I took for granted that it was going to take a while to get into Memory of Lost Skin. But from the opening page, when its fearful young protagonist -- known only as the Kid -- goes into a public library in order to ascertain whether he could be found on an Internet site listing local sex offenders, I was riveted. Here as in his other fiction, Banks demonstrates a remarkable ability to make us care about people in situations we are unlikely to understand, much less sympathize with, were we to encounter them in real life. But I found myself with an instant attachment to this character in his unselfconscious affection for his pet iguana, the only living creature in his life with which he experiences anything resembling emotional reciprocity. Instinctively smart and yet profoundly ignorant, I was stunned by the intensity of my desire that this homeless, fallible human being get a second chance after a foolish mistake. And my anxiety that he would not.

The Kid, who never knew his father, grew up with a mother whose stance toward him was one of benign neglect (emphasis on the latter). Since she was largely concerned with a string of disposable sexual liaisons, the socially isolated Kid viewed online pornography as his primary window on the outside world. A stint in the army was cut short by a maladroit act of generosity, sending him back home again to South Florida. We eventually learn what he subsequently did with a minor that resulted in a three-month jail sentence. More punishing than the jail stint is his ten-year prohibition against living less than 2500 feet from any public setting in which there are children, which effectively makes it impossible to do much else than pitch a tent under a highway in a makeshift community of other convicts. We meet various members of this community, whose appeal and moral stature vary widely.

We also meet another mysterious character who, like the Kid, is known by the similarly enigmatic name of the Professor. A sociologist of immense girth and intellect, the Professor enters the Kid's life just after the young man experienced a series of setbacks involving his job and makeshift residence. But the Professor's motives are murky, something the Kid knows just as well as the reader. The omniscient narrator allows us to see more of the Professor's life than the Kid does, and we sense decency in his motives, even as we know that there's a lot of his story that's missing. Over the course of the tale we learn more (not everything, but more) about him. The Kid, meanwhile, finds himself ever more dependent on the Professor. There's irony in this, because the Professor helps the Kid adopt new pets for which he can exercise responsibility, and he aids the Kid in assuming a role of leadership among the sex offenders in their efforts to survive in the face of community hostility and poor living conditions. But there's another irony as well, because in the key plot twist of the novel, the Kid finds himself in a position to help the Professor, though he's not sure he should.

Like Rule of the Bone, Lost Memory of Skin -- the title has reptilian, sexual, and other connotations -- resonates with the spirit of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, whose name is invoked a number of times here.  In all three cases, we have an unlikely friendship between an older man and a younger one in a world that regards both with suspicion. But Lost Skin is a bit different than the others in that it's less a story of flight than a quest for its main characters to keep a home despite pasts that make this seemingly impossible. There is no territory for the Kid to light out for; as for the Professor, unseen walls are closing in. That's what makes their tale so gripping, and so sad.

In a more important sense, however, this novel really is consonant with Huck Finn. Banks, like Twain, believes that we are all born with varying forms of decency independent of the circumstances of our birth. At the same time, however, our notion of morality is shaped by those circumstances, which can lead us to tragically misguided notions of of right, wrong, and our capacity to know the truth. Yet the belief -- and we are, in the end, in the realm of faith -- that we can find a justifiable reality gives the novel a sense of earned hope. Not optimism, mind you, but hope.

I understand -- insofar as anyone who hasn't experienced sexual abuse can ever really understand -- the imperative to protect people from a real evil, even as I wonder about the costs of what appears to be an intensifying taboo (perhaps not coincidentally, our last taboo). I sometimes find myself wondering whether my appetite for reading is simply one more form of addiction, albeit one in which I am fortunate because my predilections don't afflict anyone beyond loved ones who may wish they had more of my undivided attention. But I experienced Lost Memory of Skin not as a fix for a bad habit, but rather an an experience that widened and deepened my understanding of the world. I'm grateful for the compassion of Russell Banks. And I'll try to keep an eye out for the Kid.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Engendering humor

Streep's comic approach to middle-aged womanhood

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

In 1989, Meryl Streep turned 40. By that point, she had crossed into “woman of a certain age” territory, at least in Hollywood terms, and as such had entered rocky shoals. It has long been the conventional wisdom that female stars fade in Hollywood, and while there have always been exceptions (Sally Field, Susan Sarandon, and Helen Mirren come to mind), illustrations of the rule (Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Melanie Griffith, all a decade younger than Streep) are not hard to generate. Though she never has never gone more three years without appearing in a movie, and has appeared in two or more movies in the same year a dozen times, there is a general perception that Streep’s star power dimmed in the 1990s, when she typically surfaced annually. Partly this is a matter of choice; these were years when she was actively raising children, and logistical considerations, like the locale of a shoot, have often been factors for her. But the quality of the roles she took was sometimes weaker, principally when the women she played were so saintly as to lack the edgy interest of a Joanna Kramer, Lindy Chamberlain, or even Karen Blixen. Still, Streep was never a passive recipient of parts, and while it’s clear that she acted on instinct, there’s surprising consistency in batches of choices that she made in the second decade of her career.
The first such batch of choices involved a set of roles that satirically deconstructed the idea of womanhood itself. The conventional wisdom is that after ten years of appearing in serious drama, Streep made leap into comedy. This was indeed a shift, and while critical and commercial reception was initially mixed, it proved to be a durable one: Streep has been a reliable cinematic source of laughter ever since, particularly in the last decade. But it’s those first few movies, a quartet of films she made between 1989 and 1992 that I want to focus on here. Though they were not highly regarded, they’re surprisingly coherent in the way they play with notions of gender.
The first, and perhaps most obvious example is She-Devil (1989). In what was widely regarded at the time as an odd piece of casting, Streep’s co-star was Roseanne Barr, a stand-up comedian who was approaching the peak of her cultural status as a working-class icon of feminism on the strength of her hit TV series Roseanne (1988-1997). But the dramatic contrast between the aristocratic-looking Streep and dumpy-looking Barr, which was played to the hilt, is essentially the core premise of the movie. She-Devil, based on the 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil  by British writer Fay Weldon, had been made into a four-part BBC television series in 1986.  The main storyline of all iterations involves a housewife and mother named Ruth Patchett, whose accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr. in the movie) leaves her for a famous romance novelist named Mary Fisher (Streep). Patchett then systematically responds to this betrayal by dismantling the public and private pillars of her husband’s and Mary’s, life. In its literally explosive garishness, the film version of She-Devil makes the BBC series seem downright prim by comparison. Barr goes out of her way to accentuate her ugliness as Ruth (as in ruthless), though she’ll undergo a transformation before it’s all over. But it’s Streep’s performance that endows the movie with a comic zing by giving us a Mary Fisher who’s both sharply observed and almost impossibly over the top at the same time. The funniest scene in the movie is a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous profile by the real-life host of the series, Robin Leach. “They find ways to make the man feel important and comfortable,” she says of her novels in a breathy voice, her blond tresses framed by a pink dress, pink nails, and poodle with pink ribbons.  “To let him know that he is—pregnant pause—the man. You know, so, there’s no confusion.” Mary later condescendingly marvels about “all the little families, mommies and daddies and dear little children tucked away for the night. How lucky they all are.” She will of course get her comeuppance, and Streep is as least as game in playing her descent, already underway when she snappishly evades being caught in a lie about her age. Ruth, for her part, begins her revival by dumping the kids at Mary’s house end entering the work force, something she does in the service of her master plan, but which results in a promising new career. These strongly feminist accents are undercut a bit, in that the story ends with Ruth’s husband rejoining the family after his release from prison for embezzlement, which she helped expose: Why would she want the lout back? Mary, for her part, recovers from a tepidly received final novel (she’s seen painfully ignored at a mall book-signing) to reinvent herself as a Serious Writer with a memoir, Trust and Betrayal: A Docu-novel of Love, Money and Skepticism (our last view of her is at a bookstore signing flirting with a charming Frenchman). Revenge may be sweet, but it need not be complete. Besides, the Other Woman was never the primary problem anyway; the feckless man is.

Next: Other Streep deconstructions of gender.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Woman at work

Some of Streep's feminism in the 1980s integrated public and private life.

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

There were some Streep projects of the 1980s in which the non-gendered aspects of her characters life were truly important. In Plenty (1985), based on the David Hare play, she is Susan Traherne, a British woman whose small but dramatic role in the French Resistance during World War II, depicted in the opening sequence, makes everything that happens in her life subsequently pale by comparison. We see her in a number of jobs, among them a “good” one in advertising, whose mindlessness infuriates her. Traherne has a tryst with another operative (Sam Neill) early in her life, from which she never recovers, subsequently marrying a diplomat (Charles Dance) whom she treats with indifference that sometimes crosses the line into cruelty. The same can be said of a prior relationship with a young working-class man (Sting) with whom she seeks to father a child without attachments.
In the context of her career, Plenty is a fascinating experiment for Streep: she plays a stunningly unpleasant character. There’s an excruciating dinner-party scene in which Traherne manages to make us sorry for a stuffy senior Foreign Office operative (John Gielgud) grieving over British ineptitude in the Suez crisis. Streep’s capacity to incite anger in viewers usefully poses questions about the standards, gendered and otherwise, by which we judge people, something she would do repeatedly over the course of her career.
Streep did make a couple movies in which the synthesis of public and private feminism was far more successful from both an ideological as well as artistic standpoint. The best example is Silkwood (1983), the first of a series of collaborations with director Mike Nichols, screenplay by Ephron and Alice Arlen. Streep is Karen Silkwood, the real-life metallurgy worker at a nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. Divorced with children who live with their father, Silkwood shares a house with two co-workers, her lover (Kurt Russell) and a lesbian friend (Cher).  The rhythms of their everyday life, both in terms of casual humor and domestic tensions, seems more authentic and contemporary than that of The Deer Hunter. “If anything that’s the thing I’m most proud of in this movie, it’s that it accurately depicts the work force and how people keep their sense of humor no matter how bad things get,” Streep said in 1983.
 She plays Silkwood with a low-grade anti-authoritarian attitude, rendering her as an appealingly profane, pot-smoking good-ol’-girl who at one point flashes her breast on the job as a riposte to some heckling men. That anti-authoritarian disposition hardens as she gradually comes to realize that inadequate safety measures endanger workers at the plant, danger that ultimately engulfs Silkwood herself. Her growing labor activism attracts attention in Washington, but at the cost of multiple personal relationships, with men and women, among them Russell, who nevertheless still loves her.
The real Karen Silkwood died in murky circumstances in a 1974 car accident, just as revelations at the plant where she worked would go public and ultimately force its closure. Some critics disliked the ambiguity of the film’s ending, which was aesthetically as well as politically unsatisfying. But Silkwood herself belongs in the pantheon of Streep characters for the fully integrated quality of her life, a truly three-dimensional feminism of the kind one rarely sees in movies.
My personal favorite example of such three-dimensionality, however, is Streep’s turn as Helen Archer, a fictional character in the 1987 film Ironweed, based on William Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. This may seem like an odd statement, in that the movie is about a couple of homeless alcoholics in the Depression-era Albany of 1938.    (Streep is paired again with Nicholson, an impressive piece of teamwork when one considers they played a Washington DC power couple the previous year in Heartburn.) Helen, cut off from her family, is jobless and nearly hopeless. But we learn she was once a singer in concerts and on the radio. At one point she, Nicholson and a friend (Tom Waits) wander into a local saloon and chat up the bartender (Fred Gwynn), a former singer and recovering alcoholic himself. When Helen ingenuously gushes about his singing and mentions that she too once performed, he genially insists she take the stage at the back of the room and sing a tune. Helen tentatively begins a version of “He’s Me Pal,” a pop standard circa 1905, which she dedicates to Nicholson. But her performance gains in intensity—Streep’s singing talents are put to very good use here—and the room takes on a remarkable glow, even if her teeth are blackened and her clothes tattered. Helen finishes to rousing applause, and Nicholson, who had bought her a flower for her coat moments before, now comes over for a kiss. “My God, Helen, this is as good as it gets. You were born to be a star,” he tells her. “You think so?” she replies, tentative pleasure in her voice, and the two embrace, protected from view by their hats, the iconic image that became the movie’s poster.
As we’ve been suspecting, though—how is it that her voice is projecting even when she’s not in front of the microphone, and where did band accompaniment we hear come from?—it’s all been an illusion. The camera cuts to Helen finishing her song, much less impressively than imagined, to a crowd that less impressive, and less impressed, than imagined. (Her man is still waiting for her, though, and the kind bartender, ironically, buys her a drink.) It’s a beautifully heartbreaking moment in a vivid but painful movie. It also represents a rare moment of fusion in a woman’s life, where she is doing something she loves in a public setting for a man she loves, and that man is there to support and savor labors that generate positive attention from the crowd, even if not as much as we wish for her.  Helen is a tragic figure—she had explained the bartender before she sang that her Nicholson’s drinking problem had forced them to sell off her piano and other prized musical possessions—precisely because her vision of a career was not a mere illusion. Just as Nicholson’s love of her is both real and destructive.

Next: Streep as mother.