The Movie Club

The Last Movie Taboo
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 8 2009 5:50 PM

The Movie Club

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Are we at the point where we break out the cigars and brandy so soon? Jeez, friends, there's so much I could take on at greater length: There's my gratitude for the year's book-to-movie adaptations that knew their proper proportions, and my observation that often as not the best of them tended to be fashioned from material meant for younger readers. (Five years ago I was all about Holes; props this year go to the verve of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and to Kit Kittredge: American Girl.) We could talk about the welcome return to feature films of tremendously gifted director Darnell Martin, who makes a great, complicated, ardent work like Cadillac Records look so relaxed. After her knockout debut with I Like It Like That in 1994, Martin has done smart but relatively nameless work directing episodes of smart, big-name TV series like Law & Order and Oz. (Episodic TV: It's where adult women go to do adult artistic work, filtered through stories of cops and lawyers.)

We could share stories of who among us has been slagged sexually (along the lines of, "Hey lady, get laid") by readers who disagree with something we've written and muse about whether our male colleagues have any similar stories. (That's right, this topic occurs to me out of personal experience.) And then we might turn to a discussion of self-awareness as it applies to writing about a movie intended for either hens or for roosters. I know that when I analyze something intended for women, I reflexively filter what I'm seeing through a kind of primal female truth-ometer, and then I decide whether to make use of my findings or toss them aside. (And, see, this is where I completely get Jeannette's intense response to Revolutionary Road, although it's not a response I share; I was definitely among those peering through thick Plexiglass and admiring the home furnishings. By the way, read Judith Warner's really excellent New York Times piece about "The Lure of Opulent Desolation.") I mean, it's not that a story can't be a wild and crazy fantasy—but neither can I, a girl of my gender, put up with a crass, clueless pantomime like, say, Diane English's wrongheaded remake of The Women. Similarly, when I consider something obviously intended primarily for men (I mean specifically boy-men, a la Apatow, Farrelly, and related Jackass-iana), I'm aware of my minority place in the audience, even as I'm aware that, hey, I love a good scrotum joke as much as the next popcorn-eater.

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I could talk about all this, but there isn't time—not when I want to wrap up with thoughts flowing from our multitasking discussion already in progress. So first to … abortion at the movies. Yes, I guess we're back at Revolutionary Road again, at least as a conversation-prompter. (FYI, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead.) I admire the story—which, obviously, belongs first and last to novelist Richard Yates—for going to that terrible, desperate place of destruction and seeing the stunning act through. (Jeannette's right—it's a double killing.) But since the movie itself leaves little imprint on my own emotions, what lingers is the neutral observation that a modern-day abortion—responsibly chosen, legally performed, and safely executed—is the last cultural taboo in any commercially distributed, English-language movie hoping for a general audience.

That Kate Winslet's April Wheeler induces her own is made tolerable by the fiction's nostalgic, Mad Men setting. That the title character played by Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake did business as a freelance abortionist was made tolerable by the British, tea-cozy 1950s setting of Mike Leigh's film. Abortion (and rape, too) are treated with calm, riveting, naturalistic attention in Cristian Mungiu's magnificent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—one of the world's great films of 2007, released commercially (if by commercially, you mean minuscule IFC day-and-date delivery) in the United States this past year. But the story of a frightened young woman in trouble and the resourceful flatmate who helps her has the exotic advantages of 1) being Romanian and 2) being set in the 1980s at the end of the totalitarian Ceausescu regime.

What about now, in our time? Well, the chatty, independent-minded high-school student played by Ellen Page in Juno briefly considers terminating her pregnancy but opts for adoption. The preggers young professional played by Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up quickly reviews her choices, then chooses motherhood, never mind that her partner in procreation is a blobby, irresponsible slacker who's an emotional toddler himself. With full awareness that the choice of abortion is awesome and terrible in all biblical senses of the words, I wonder why moviemakers who have so little problem incorporating the realities of rape, crime violence, divorce, disease, and family dysfunction—not to mention all manner of good old, always popular sexual variety—still won't go there, to the reality of legal abortion.

Maybe what's first needed are more women writing about movies?

Well. I can't leave it at that. So here's my final pensee, bringing us back to faces and bodies of the actors we see on-screen vs. our own bodies, ourselves. I'm not shocked, really I'm not, that movie stars are extremely invested in maintaining their beauty and their youthfulness. It was ever thus, going back to the medium's first flickering images, when both women and men ringed their eyes with dark pencil and rouged their lips. Nose jobs, hair dye, boob lifts, girdles to suck in manly guts, and surgical tape applied to pull back sagging faces are nothing new, it's just that the technique has gotten fancier. Standards of beauty may have changed over the years, but our desire to gaze upon beauty hasn't. (Standards of scrutiny have intensified, too, with the unforgiving stare of high-definition technology.)

I think what has changed, though, is that the performers we see on-screen—and particularly women—are pursuing eternal youth through chemistry and surgery at the same time that a new naturalism has emerged as a desirable form of storytelling. On the one hand, we love grit and dramas of struggle, alienation, and emotional challenge, as well as indie films featuring characters who dress in sacking and can't get out of bed. (I just made that scenario up, but I'm sure I'll find something like it next week at the Sundance Film Festival.) On the other hand, the actors (by whom I mean actresses) who love to work in these indie projects are game to dress in cunning schlumpwear and let their hair go artfully lank. But still, whatever their ages: Their lips are pillowy, their boobs are pert, their faces are unlined, their teeth are Tic-Tac white, and they blend into their settings like … like Kate Winslet as a Nazi prison guard.

And with that, I drain my snifter and give you each a double-cheek kiss.

Lisa  

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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