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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Watching music

In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Video Music Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum chart the rise and fall of a cultural movement

The following review was posted last weekend on the Books page of the History News Network.

Before there was Facebook, before there were iPhones, there was MTV. After an unprepossessing launch in 1981, the cable network became a powerful force in American popular culture, exerting a much-noted impact not only on the music and television industries, but also on film, fashion, and even politics. Some of the attention MTV got was celebratory; some of it highly critical (from a variety of directions). About the only thing more striking than the network's dramatic impact is the degree it has receded since its first decade of cultural dominance. So the time seems right for an assessment of its trajectory.

Former Billboard editor Craig Marks and music journalist Rob Tannenbaum make a shrewd choice in rending the MTV story as an oral history, taking a page from Live from New York, the 2003 Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller history of Saturday Night Live (and before that, George Plimpton's ground-breaking 1982 biography of Edie Sedgewick, Edie). Tannenbaum and Craig conducted hundreds of interviews that that they arrange in a kaleidoscopic array of voices that include corporate executives, performers, video directors, and so-called "VJs" like Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman.

From its inception, MTV was a slick corporate product. Underwritten by the somewhat unlikely duo of Warner Cable and American Express -- which at the time hoped to sell financial services via interactive television -- the network's commercial premise rested on an audacious concept: to use one kind of advertising (musical acts promoting themselves) in order to sell another (ads that would be sandwiched between the videos). Even more audacious is that MTV got programming, at least initially, free, as it expected record labels to supply the material it broadcast, though the actual cost of the videos was typically charged to the artists in the form of an advance against royalties. There was widespread skepticism in just about every direction that this business model would actually work, but it proved to be spectacularly successful.

Like the advent of sound in motion pictures, the rise of music video rearranged the power structure of the music business. British musicians, who had long been using video clips for shows like the much-beloved Top of the Pops, were better prepared, both in terms of having content at hand and their willingness to produce more, in exploiting the opportunity, spawning a second British invasion in the early 1980s that included acts like Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, and the Human League. Similarly, established acts with photogenic and/or charismatic lead singers, such as the Police and U2, were also able to exploit the potential of the new genre. By contrast, those without such assets or an inability to fully understand it suffered; there's an amusing chapter in I Want My MTV that chronicles the way rock star Billy Squier's video "Rock Me Tonight" was directed in a gay-friendly manner that wrecked his credibility among his core audience.

In aesthetic terms, music video evolved with remarkable rapidity, its development greatly accelerated by Michael Jackson, who overcame early resistance to having his videos broadcast and took the form to a whole new level. Madonna was similarly successful in bending the channel to showcase her talents, not the least of which was creating a sexual brand. But MTV was finally a director's medium, and was important in launching a series of careers, among the most important of which was that of David Fincher, whose apprenticeship in music video became the springboard for a distinguished, and ongoing, Hollywood career.

But almost from the start, MTV had a remarkably decadent corporate culture that over time sapped its vitality. In part, it was corrupted -- insofar as the term makes any sense in the music biz -- by an unholy alliance between executives and artists, who collaborated in a regime of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that made the counterculture of the 1960s seem tame by comparison. But MTV's indulgences were not only sybaritic. The network cultivated incestuous commercial relationships with certain performers, as well as indulged in racist, sexist and other questionable practices. Above all, it was corroded by money, chiefly in the form of inflated video budgets that gave accounting precedence over art.

Marks and Tannenbaum chart these developments at the network with surprising detail and clarity, the panoply of voices showing both multiple perspectives on the same video as well as the way in which prevailing perceptions were widely shared. The authors also document the many memorable highlights and byways of MTV's history, like Madonna's notorious appearance in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Awards ceremony, for example, or Tipper Gore's notorious crusade against Twisted Sister and other bands with the Parents' Music Resource Coalition (PMRC) in the late eighties. They also chart the network's gradual move into hip-hop, which revived the vitality of pop music as well as video in the early 1990s, and the role of MTV in electing Bill Clinton president in 1992.

By this point, however, the vast center MTV had created -- for much of the eighties it was the de facto national radio station, creating and/or sustaining huge mass audiences for the likes of acts like Prince and Bruce Springsteen -- was beginning to crack. A rotation that included R.E.M., Debbie Gibson, and Public Enemy was intrinsically centrifugal, and as such less attractive to advertisers. The rise of grunge rock, particularly that of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, represented a bracing new chapter for MTV, but that's because such bands overtly challenged much of what the network stood for. At the same time, the channel found other sources of cheap programming, like The Real World, that squeezed time for music videos, which gradually but inexorably disappeared from sight. Finally, the advent of the Internet, which empowered viewer choice to an unprecedented degree, balkanized audiences to the point of no return. As Marks and Tannenbaum note, "Offering MTV to a kid in 1993 was like offering a board game to a kid in 1981."

Today, MTV is just another cable channel, albeit one that enjoys commercial success with Jersey Shore, a tawdry show that honors the network's brash roots in style, though not in content. Music video lingers, chiefly on Internet sites like You Tube, where it remains the marketing tool it always has been. It's much less important than it used to be, but something closer to what its more modest champions imagined three decades ago. Reliving the glory days of MTV in this book is entertaining but sobering: the things that once seemed to matter so much now seem so small. Sic transit gloria mundi, Facebook. As Elvis Costello put it so memorably way back "Girls Talk," his 1979 song from before the MTV era "You may not be an old-fashioned girl but you're gonna get dated."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jim is observing the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. His recent reading has included The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis's 2010 account of the how reckless behavior in the mortgage business wrecked the U.S. economy. The Big Short is an emperor has no clothes tale, in which a small groups of attentive people pay enough attention to opaque financial documents most people are too lazy or ignorant to understand. When they do so, they realize that the economic foundation of the nation is actually built on sand. Their challenge is to maintain their confidence in the face of apparently intelligent people who work for investment banks and pretend -- or, worse, actually seem to believe -- that the business they're in is actually sound.

Though the information Michael Lewis provides becomes increasingly more arcane, the narrative arc of the book is such that you have a growing sense of suspense as these people steel themselves to maintain their nerve as pressure on them grows on the very cusp of success. And yet there's an unreality about their story, in that the catastrophe they predict both finally arrives and yet doesn't quite prove catastrophic enough to fundamentally change the way financial speculation continues to work in this country. Though the consequences would probably be bad for everyone, you find yourself wishing that the financial titans at places like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs paid a higher price. Alas, we still seem addicted to an economy predicated on making money on nothing rather than producing real things that improve the lives of ordinary people.

For the moment, however, we can be thankful that an experiment that began 391 years ago in Plymouth, Massachusetts continues to bear fruit. A happy Turkey Day-- and Turkey Day leftovers -- to all.


Monday, November 21, 2011

'Glass' Window

In The Glass Harmonica, Dorothee Kocks depicts the pursuit of happiness as a metaphysical principle

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

Dorothee Kocks has had an intriguing career. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she went on to pursue a doctorate in American Civilization in the decidedly different climate of Brown (where our paths crossed almost a quarter-century ago). She got a tenure-track job at the University of Utah, proceeding to publish a richly suggestive piece of scholarship, Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in in Modern America (California, 2000). Then she ditched her teaching post, took up the accordion, and began traveling widely, supporting herself with odd jobs. Last year, she made a foray into fiction by publishing her first novel, The Glass Harmonica, as an e-book with a New Zealand-based publisher. It has just been published in a print edition.

Kocks's unusual vocational trajectory is worth tracing here, because The Glass Harmonica is an unusual book. A work of historical fiction that bridges the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also sprawls across Europe and North America. Napoleon Bonaparte makes a cameo appearance, but its core is a love story between a commoner Corsican musician, Chjara Valle, and an entrepreneurial American purveyor of erotica, Henry Garland. The two lovers encounter any number of obstacles -- principally in the form of spiteful people on either side of the Atlantic -- but nevertheless manage to build a life together,  one animated by the mysteriously alluring (and thus to many threatening) glass harmonica, a musical instrument which enjoyed a vogue in the age of its inventor, Benjamin Franklin.

Such a summary makes the book seem simpler than it is. For one thing, The Glass Harmonica is rich with historical texture. Brimming with research, it vividly recreates any number of subcultures, ranging from continental drawing-room entertainments to the feverish intensity of revivial meetings. As one might expect of a writer who has spent much of her life, and much of her work, exploring the concept of place, Kocks also evokes varied geographies -- urban Paris and Philadelphia, rural upstate New York, coastal New England;  et. al. An afterword limns her sources and provides set of footnotes worth studying for their own sake.

Kocks also boldly trespasses over contemporary convention in realistic fiction, eschewing the spare, lean quality of modern prose in favor of lush, omniscient narration. "On the morning Chjara Valle quickened in her mother's womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea," the novel opens. The book is engorged with such biological/anthropomorphic motifs.

But at its core, The Glass Harmonica is a novel of ideas. Sometimes those ideas are suggested in deceptively simple language, as in this exchange with her mother that suggests the paradoxes built into the the very notion of an autonomous self:

"My destiny is here," Chjara said.
"Your destiny is not yours to decide."
"Who decides then?"
"Don't be impertinent."

Other times, characters engage in explicitly philosophical discourse, discussing theology, politics, and other topics.

But for all its its intellectual sophistication, the argument of the novel -- part of its hybrid quality is that one can speak of it having a thesis -- rests on a simple idea: the pleasure principle, expressed most consistently in sexual terms. (The libertarian ethos of the book extends secondarily to economics as well.) Over and over again, her characters affirm it. "She wondered at this idea -- we are God's instruments -- and she vowed to live by the principle that would make us feel more alive was good," Chjara declares at one point. Henry, for his part, "understood that his father's [Puritan] religion was not the only one in the world; Jefferson's deists gave [him] the confidence that the world had been made to work well regardless of his breakfast." The lovers will be forced to question this conclusion repeatedly over the course of the novel, most seriously in its when it appears their choices have damaged their children. Faced with trauma, they look to themselves: when, in a desperate moment, Henry feels compelled to pray, it's not to God but to Chjara. Later their son prays to himself. And yet for all their intimacy, Chjara and Henry also have the secrets, a challenge to their fidelity more vexing than any adultery.

Kocks's libertine stance is both consistent and subtle (no mean trick). As such, it's hard to contest; though her protagonists encounter resistance, some of it internal, to their way of life, she makes a convincing case that that their quest for self-actualization is a bona fide American tradition with deep roots in the Enlightenment. The problem I have with it is less one of contradiction -- or a disposition of intolerance reflected in characters who block the couple's path to bliss -- than insufficiency. The fuel of happiness ultimately depends on sources of power such as money, looks, smarts, health, or the admiration of others (reflected here in the proto-celebrity culture that springs up around Chjara, who exults in adoration), which are in short supply under the best of circumstances. Notwithstanding their obstacles, the couple is suspiciously well endowed in these categories. Lacking them, most of us try to find ways to redeem our lives beyond ourselves, which typically involves some sort of self-sacrifice, beginning with raising children, truly an electric transfer of energy at least as transformative, if not always as felicitous, as procreation (or sexual recreation). But beyond such private leveraging of personal resources, a libertarian sensibility seems like a thin reed on which to build a community life, too; it seems no accident that the Chjara and Henry are itinerant. Nor is it easy to see, beyond a sympathetic disposition, how constructive their approach might be in other life-affirming quests, like the struggle to end slavery, for example.

As someone of who pledges his loyalty to Adams more than Jefferson, as it were, I'm not sure how much better a life of duty, variously constituted, really is. To be sure, it has evident costs, often paid by others than those who make such a pledge. It is a strength of this book that it forces one to consider such questions. The Glass Harmonica is a provocative novel by an elegant writer who has blazed her own path. It's a path worth surveying, whether or not one takes it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The private sector

Feminism, Streep style, in the 1980s

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 continued to play strong-minded women in all of her film roles of the 1980s, but the power her characters wield is largely defined in sexual terms. She landed a high-profile double role in the 1981 film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, based on the 1969 novel of the same name by John Fowles. Fowles’s book is that rare case of a commercially successful postmodern novel—only Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Antonement, also made into a (weaker) movie, was comparably successful—in which characters defy the narrator-author’s wishes in a story with multiple endings. It would not appear to be particularly promising movie material, except that it was skillfully adapted by playwright and fellow Briton Harold Pinter, who created a parallel movie-within-a-movie plot involving actors making a romantic drama set in the Victorian era. The two pairs of characters, played by Jeremy Irons and Streep, are both in love. Their different fates at least initially appear to hinge on their different historical circumstances. In one case Streep is an abandoned woman, left desolate by the unseen French lieutenant of the title, who insists on lingering as a social outcast in a seaside town until she becomes a source of growing fascination for the affianced gentleman played by Irons. In the other, her character is a privileged professional actor in metropolitan London, empowered to conduct an extramarital affair and largely dictate its conditions to the (also married) Irons. But as with the novel, the point of the movie is very much that things are not what they seem. The French lieutenant’s woman has more resources, principal among them the power to beguile, than her pursuer realizes. And while the professional woman is, in the parlance of the time “liberated,” the problems she is seen grappling with are primarily romantic, not professional. (It might have been interesting, for example, to have a scene with her arguing with her director about the portrayal of her character.) I don’t want to go overboard in emphasizing how the bottle is half-empty here: women, and the actor who portrays them, are at the center of the story. But in retrospect their compass of action seems limited, precisely because the overt tenor of the discourse is emancipatory.
The same might be said for Still of the Night (1982), in which Streep returned to the supervision of Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton in an overt work of homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Here Streep is a blue-blooded femme fatale named Brooke Reynolds, who may or may not have anything to do with the murder of a man who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time of his death. Roy Scheider is the therapist who finds himself drawn against his better judgment to Reynolds, who works at an East Side auction house. The film is competent but boring, in large measure because Streep and Scheider are lacking in chemistry.
Even more boring is Streep’s 1984 film Falling in Love, much-ballyhooed at the time of its release, because it marked a reunion with De Niro. This time the two play married Westchester suburbanites who fall in love courtesy of the Metro North commuter railroad, despite their better judgment. De Niro is a construction executive, and we see him at work repeatedly. Streep does a little freelance artwork on the side, but is otherwise a housewife without children. This is one of those movies that make you impatient for the lovers to hurry the hell up and overcome the tedious obstacles that stand in the way of their inevitable triumph. Were it made ten or fifteen years later, a divorced Streep would start a business involving chocolate chip cookies or some other form of home economics, which would provide the perfect way for the lovers to accidentally run into each other at a strip mall. For now, they have to settle for Rizzoli’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue (seeing that got me pining for a long lost love).
In Heartburn (1986), Streep for the first time of many subsequent times tackles playing a real person, in this case journalist, later turned writer/director, Nora Ephron. (“It’s a little depressing to know that if you go to an audition to play yourself, you would lose to Meryl,” she later joked.) The film, directed by Mike Nichols, is based on the 1983 roman a clef of the same name, which chronicles the rise and fall of Ephron’s marriage to Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein, played by Jack Nicholson. It’s refreshing to note that we do see Streep’s character in workplace settings, unlike her husband, known to the world for his role in breaking the Watergate story. Not surprisingly, that working style is more fluid—the personal and professional aspects of her life are apparent both in showing up for meetings pregnant, and in her warm relationship with her younger boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Moreover, Ephron makes the bold choice of making the resolution of the story her decision to leave Bernstein for his infidelity without another man waiting in the wings, a clear breach with the normal logic of romantic storytelling.  Such an approach makes real demands of an audience, even a predominately female audience, and the pitch for its protagonist’s sympathy is further strained by the obvious elite status of a woman who can literally afford to be divorced, even with children. No doubt about it: this is a feminist movie. But it is decisively feminism of the private sector.
What’s striking about the pattern I’m describing is the way in which even a movie that seems a world away—1985 Best Picture Out of Africa, set in colonial Kenya—turns out to be pretty much the same old story. Writer/director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) was a true Hollywood professional, and Africa is, from a visual standpoint, simply gorgeous. But its racial politics amount to little more than a postcard for imperialism, and its gender politics are also finally retrograde. Streep again plays a real person, Danish writer Karen Blixen, later known to the world by her pen name, Isak Dinesen (1885-1962). From the start, we see her as a maverick figure. During a frigid European hunting expedition, she proposes a marriage of convenience with a friend, Baron von Blixen-Finecke (an amiable Klaus Brandauer), whereby the two will start a diary farm in Kenya, which turns out to be a coffee plantation because he changes his mind without telling her. Mrs. Blixen arrives in Kenya and blithely walks into a men’s-only private club, causing a stir. (Naturally, they’ll collectively stand her a drink by the time the movie is over.)  She also takes a strong hand in running the plantation, not only because her husband would rather go hunting, but also because that’s the kind of woman she is, a woman who, when her husband sends word to send supplies to himself and British soldiers fighting the Germans in East Africa in the First World War, insists trekking across dangerous terrain and delivering them in person (with a retinue, of course).
But none of this, or even a Blixen writing career we know about chiefly through the flashback voiceover device that frames the film, can compete with the romantic charms of Robert Redford, who plays her lover Briton Denys Finch Hatton with an incongruous American accent. Redford is admittedly a powerful draw, but their relationship—she pining away while he repeatedly takes off—puts the film in very familiar grooves. Blixen does finally take a hard line with Finch Hatton, but we never really learn the outcome of such militancy, because he dies before their relationship is resolved. There are any number of possible reasons why the edgy or simply novel aspects of the story get swallowed by conventional romance; a desire to sell lots of tickets to a 1980s mainstream audience was surely prominent among them. But such big, bloated and bland moviemaking is exactly the kind of cinema that has given Hollywood films of the 1980s something of a benighted critical reputation, would later help spark the leaner, edgier independent movement of the 1990s (in which, as we’ll see, Streep would participate).

Next: Streep's (smaller) body of public sector feminism

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bending with gender

In three 1979 films, Streep made the most of limited material 

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

The Deer Hunter put Streep on the map as a new force for women in cinema. In her next two movies, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (both 1979), Streep played professional women, a writer and a politico respectively. Significantly, however, they were women whose careers were secondary in terms of their function in these movies, which turned on their sexual relationships with men. In Manhattan is a fabled work in Woody Allen’s writing/directing career, but one whose May-December romance with the high school student played by Mariel Hemingway would never fly in terms of contemporary mores, even without the later controversy surrounding Allen’s relationship with his adoptive stepdaughter. Streep plays his ex-wife, Jill, who now has a lesbian lover and is writing a tell-all about her marriage with Allen’s character, Isaac Davis. (“Look at you, you’re so threatened,” she says amusedly to Isaac, even as we know he is right to be.) A walking stereotype of the feminist as castrating bitch, the character as written is so over-the-top as to amount to misogyny, even making allowances for comic license and the fact that Allen’s purported attempt to run over Jill’s lover in his car becomes a bit of a running joke. But Streep, who plays Jill straight, endows her with an unselfconscious confidence and intensity that makes her seem alive, and, amazingly enough, almost appealing. Yet the character, who only has two scenes in the movie, is defined in terms of being a foil for Allen’s persona, right down to her literary career, which consists of turning her personal life into commerce in the form of a book with the title Marriage, Love and Divorce.
Streep’s character is the creature of a decidedly less severe stripe in writer/actor Alan Alda’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in which she plays Karen Traynor, the daughter of a Southern political fixer who becomes one in her own right. Alda plays the title character, a married U.S. senator from New York drawn by the siren song of national office—and, of course, the charms of his hired female gun. In the 1970s, Alda was lionized as the quintessential modern man of the feminist era—a thinking woman’s man. The Seduction of Joe Tynan suggests that Alda’s vanity got the better of him, both in his unwillingness to play the bad guy (something Robert Redford was more willing to do in The Candidate, a similar movie released in 1972), or to make Streep’s character much more than a (professional) woman in love. The Seduction of Joe Tynan proved to be a forgettable movie, and a mere stepping-stone for Streep.
Far more important was her third film of 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. (It’s a bit odd, yet a sign of the times, that Streep got a supporting Oscar for a title role.) In terms of gender politics, Streep’s role as Joanna Kramer is a tough sell, as she plays an emotionally distraught woman who leaves her husband and son to go off and find herself. The rhetorical deck was also a bit stacked against the character. In part, that’s because the source material for the movie, Avery Corman’s 1977 novel, has a distinctly male point of view. (“Feminists will applaud me,” his Joanna declares when she leaves her husband at their New York apartment, in stilted dialogue that characterizes the book.)  In part, it’s also because Streep’s co-star, Dustin Hoffman, was, to put it mildly, a strong-minded actor with figurative weight he wasn’t afraid to throw around. But Streep, who was married and had her first child by 1979, took the part as a matter of conviction, determined to make a case for Joanna as a woman who loved her child but who was in too much personal anguish to continue without respite. “I think that if there’s anything that runs through all my work, all my characters, it’s that I have a relationship with them where I feel I have to defend them,” she said of her feelings for the character.
In addition to her acting, Streep made her case for Joanna Kramer by arguing for changes in the script, successfully persuading director Robert Benton to rewrite her courtroom testimony for custody of the couple’s son toward the end of the film. In particular, she added a key line responding to assertions that Ted Kramer had been the primary parent for the couple’s child for eighteen months by noting that Joanna had been so for five and a half years. “We listened,” Benton later explained. “And she became the real Mrs. Kramer.”
But the real Mrs. Kramer remains, first and foremost, a mother. In the book, her aspirations for career, which turn out to involve working as a clerk for Hertz, becomes a source of bitter humor: “She left her family, her child, to go to California to rent cars,” Joanna’s own mother notes incredulously to Ted. In the movie, Joanna testifies that she’s a sportswear designer. But while Ted’s career in advertising is central to the course of the movie, this passing mention is all we hear about Joanna’s. Any work outside the home is incidental.

Next: Streep in the '80s.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Deer" Meryl

Streep provided crucial ballast for the male-dominated Deer Hunter

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

Though, as I’ve indicated, Meryl Streep underwent a long and rigorous apprenticeship, and did some relatively high-profile television and film work in the late seventies, the movie that turned her into an “overnight sensation” in 1978 was The Deer Hunter. In part, that’s because The Deer Hunter, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, was a sensation in its own right, and became a Hollywood legend for a whole host of reasons. One was that its success led United Artists to give director Michael Cimino broad license for his next film, Heaven’s Gate (1978), whose colossal cost overruns helped plunge the studio into bankruptcy. Another was that it was the among the first major Hollywood films to deal with the Vietnam War, and included a notorious plot line involving Russian Roulette as a betting game among the Vietnamese. A third was its extraordinarily gifted cast—which included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Streep’s fiancé John Cazale, in the final appearance of his brief but brilliant career—that defined the movie as a generational turning point for a new generation of actors.
The Deer Hunter follows the lives of a group of friends (De Niro, Walken, and John Savage) from a small Pennsylvania steel town to The Horror of the Vietnam war, from which only De Niro’s character returns home anything resembling intact. The film combines a gritty working-class feel along with action sequences that rival anything from the Francis Ford Coppola school of filmmaking (Coppola, of course, would weigh in with Apocalypse Now the following year). In their phallic bravado, both movies seem dated; the extended wedding reception sequence in The Deer Hunter was much celebrated at the time as a vivid, almost anthropological, slice of working-class life, but for my taste its sweaty Eastern-European vivacity, complete with a SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY banner looming behind the dancing partygoers, verges on condescension.
Streep’s character, a supermarket checkout girl named Linda, provides crucial ballast for this male-dominated cast. We first see her on the morning of the wedding, in a gaudy pink bridesmaid’s dress, making breakfast for her alcoholic father. When she brings it to him, he assaults her. But Linda is not a passive victim. When we next see her, it’s at the bungalow her boyfriend Nick (Walken) shares with his buddy Michael (De Niro). She asks Nick if she can stay in their place while the two are in the army, and states she wants to pay them. We don’t quite know what happens—we see the action through an interior window, and Nick seems to be remonstrating at the very idea of her paying—but we get the idea that Streep’s quiet, willowy persona notwithstanding, she’s got a spine.
Michael, we figure out quickly, has a soft spot for Linda. But he’s not going to steal his buddy’s girlfriend. Even after he returns from Vietnam—Nick, badly psychologically damaged during a stint as a prisoner of war, insists on staying behind to become a professional Russian Roulette player—he’s reluctant to take up with Linda. Linda, however, shows interest in taking up with him, which becomes an unresolved subplot in the movie.
In her scenes with De Niro (the two would team up again for Falling in Love in 1984 and Marvin’s Room in 1996), Streep deploys a become facial tactic that would become a standard part of her thespian repertoire: looking directly at her acting partner, then turning her head away, her eyes cast down, sometimes rolling her eyes as she does so in moments of levity or irony (we viewers are ever-so-briefly in on the joke). What’s really quite striking about this technique is that it manages to convey shyness and assertiveness simultaneously—feminine feminism, as it were. This delicate balance goes to the heart of her performance in The Deer Hunter, where she is largely at the mercy of events beyond her control, but still manages to quietly express herself in ways that are both moving and life-affirming in the face of death, literal or psychological. It’s not entirely clear whether Linda’s feelings for Michael are for him in their own right, or whether he’s simply a living connection to Nick and a sense of possibility the war seems to have wrecked. But she knows what she wants. “Why don’t we go bed,” she says to Michael shortly after his return. “Can’t we just comfort each other?” (Streep recites the line as a statement, not a question.) Michael demurs, but the next thing we see is Linda in his cheap motel room, undressed, climbing into bed with him (“feels kinda weird!” she says, looking into the bathroom mirror before she does so). But Linda finds the fully clothed Michael asleep on top of the sheets. She nevertheless crawls under them and lies beside him, taking uneasy comfort in his presence. That sense of uneasy comfort culminates in the final scene of the movie, where in a group middle shot, Linda leads the group in singing “God Bless America,” she and Michael looking at each other, but rarely at the same time. Love and pain, public and private, are intertwined. Feeling both is an act of will, and a prerequisite for hope.