Boo hiss. Going to work on Saturdays suck.
Boo hiss. Going to work on Saturdays suck.
I had a wonderful 25th birthday celebration yesterday. Went out for lunch at Burger Bar with my mentor/friend, saw Under the Skin. My celebrations started Tuesday and are continuing into today when I go out for dinner and drinks.
My heart is so full of joy, I could cry!
While my 25th birthday is drawing to a close I still plan to celebrate it into the summer. This is a momentous birthday for me for several reasons.
one) When my mother had just turned twenty-five she was on her second marriage (to my abusive father) and was due to give birth to me. I have been thinking a lot about her today. What I have inhereted from her and how vastly different we are. At 25, I have a strong sense of self and my desires, I am single and (mostly) content with that. I am very much unlike my mother when she was my age.
two) I have made a fuckton of progress in my life. I have a good paying regular job. i am writing with a passion and fury I have never had before. I am actually sending my work out into the world. I am not exactly where I want to be but I have grown in the past year. three) I’ve made a game plan so that by May of next year I will be in Los Angeles.
four) I have good people in my life. People who are kind and artistic and sincere. I want to continue to build on these friendships.
five) I am slowly getting out more. Anxiety and panic attacks still poison my life. But I’m better at managing my schizoaffective disorder.
six) I still define myself a bit too much by illness. I am still too quick to anger and to judge. I still expect people to pity me when I open up. I am working on it. I am better at notdoing this. But I still do it.
seven) I want to be as brave in real life as I am in my writing.
I am a madwoman, muse, writer.
1. A woman who is mentally ill.
2. A woman with a transgressive place in society because of her anger, sexuality, and/or refusal to play by the rules.
3. A woman ruled by her passions. (See: Taylor, Elizabeth)
4. A woman of fire and music. (See: Davis, Bette in All About Eve)
Each line in my definition of madwoman applies to myself.
Today I am thinking a lot about Bette Davis. Our cinematic Medusa. The cinematic spirit sister of passion and intelligence and determination.
I am invoking Dame Elizabeth Taylor. She of strong appetites and natural talent and undeniable charisma. A woman so great the fucking Vatican condemned her for her lavish romantic vices.
I am invoking Marilyn Monroe. The ever-misunderstood daughter of the silver screen. A woman so meant for cinema. She like champagne fizz. Light and heady and effervescent. But she can be darker in mood, harder to contain.
I am thinking of Eartha Kitt. Her forceful presence and talent and refusal to change herself for a man. And why should she? Why should I?
I am invoking characters like Alicia Florrick, Kalinda Sharma, Diane Lockhart, Margo Channing, Laurel Gray, Olivia Dunham.
I am thinking especially of Charlotte Vale. The ever-yearning Charlotte Vale. I feel like Charlotte when she steps off that ship after transforming fabulously, internally and externally. But we still have farther to go, don’t we Charlotte?
I am savoring the words of Kate Zambreno, Angela Carter, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I am listening to Beyonce and Ulver and Emily Wells and Clint Mansell.I am reading the script for Stoker by Wentworth Miller (again). Because it challenges me and is like having a conversation with the distant, wry cousin of Truman Capote.
I am turning to Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success, Black Swan, True Detective, and In A Lonely Place for inspiration.
For the first I really feel like I am really living not just surviving. I am living, madly and brightly and true to myself.
The women’s picture is a genre of contradictions. These films, which lasted roughly from the early 1930s through 1960 (with some notable modern exceptions), put a woman at the center of her own cinematic universe. They were often highly contradictory even hypocritical in how they approached womanhood. On the surface, this can be blamed on the constraints of the Hays Code. But I think it deals with something more primal and ingrained in our society. Women are often viewed through the prism of stark archetypes and the women’s picture reflects that; Madonna, Whore, The Cool Girl, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Jezebel and so forth.
Mythology is littered with the stories of women whose underlying purpose seems to be that femininity is inherently monstrous. There’s a powerful quote I came across on Tumblr that echoed this:
it’s really interesting how so many mythological creatures that are exclusively female (harpies, banshees, sirens) are described as having really piercing or unpleasant or otherwise notable voices? sirens kill men with their songs, banshees shriek when someone is about to die, harpies are awful cawing bird-women
(watch out for the girls who know how to make noise; we are monsters) [x]
The women’s picture aims to give a woman power through her voice and the exploration of what it means to be a woman beyond just a wife or mother. Only to end by damning her for realizing this voice and power, however briefly. It is a genre in which women were allowed to be larger than life. It was the playground that Bette Davis made her castle. Women in the 1940s and 1950s were allowed for a blissful 100 minutes (give or take) to live outside the constraints of their life. Through the actresses that populated this genre they could be fabulously dressed, with comebacks as sharp as cut glass, they could rage against the patriarchy…until the ending of course. Women’s pictures are often concerned with the struggle between the matters of the heart and those of self-realization/desire. Women were often caught between who they wanted to be and who they wanted to love. It seems as though no matter how grand cinema can be a woman having it all (or at least willing to try for it) is too fantastical to display.
In A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 Jeanine Basinger breaks down the genre.
“The most significant thing about the women’s films of the 1930s-1950s period is the way they display this consistently inconsistent purpose and attitude. The crazy plots, the desperate characters, and whatever settings and time periods the woman’s film inhabits can be best considered under the umbrella of three main purposes:
-To place a woman at the center of the story universe.
-To reaffirm in the end the concept that a woman’s true job is that of just being a woman, a job she can’t very well escape no matter what else she does, with the repression disguised as love.
-To provide a temporary visual liberation of some sort, however small—-an escape into a purely romantic love, into sexual awareness, into luxury, or into the rejection of the female role that might only come in some form of a question (“What other choices do I have?”)”
Basinger’s definition while thorough leaves out what I feel is central to women’s picture; question what it means to be a woman in the first place.
What about the subversion that colors the edges of the endings of these films? It is easy to imagine that while they end with neat, patriarchy approved messages that these women’s taste for autonomy hasn’t been fully wiped out.
I’ve grown rather tired with how women in film—-especially classic film—-are framed by modern viewers and critics as not their own character but a negation or just reflection of the masculine. This line of thought also strips these characters of a voice and also negates the subversive traits the actresses who played them lend the characters even if the screenplay doesn’t.
Divorced from the Hays Code (but not the patriarchal society it was born from) how would a modern women’s picture look? What would it say about modern womanhood——what it means to have it all, sexuality, the politics of desire, intersectionality in feminism? Could a modern women’s picture give women the ending they need and deserve rather than echoing the societal issues in a damning way (i.e. there are only so many ways to be a woman that are accepted, choose one or you’re fucked)?
I think we can find the answers to many of these question through the exemplary television show The Good Wife starring Julianna Marguiles as Alicia Florrick. The former scorned wife now, in the fifth season of the show, a dynamic at times morally gray and yearning badass lawyer trying to chart a course to her own happiness and autonomy.
In last Sunday’s episode the male lead, Will Garnder (Josh Charles), Alicia’s former lover/boss, was brutally killed in a courtroom shootout by his own client. Will was an important component to Alicia’s redefining her own sexuality and sense of desire outside of her toxic marriage with Peter (Chris Noth). Killing off Will is a bold move. It demonstrates an audaciousness that I feel is lacking in even the supposed upper tier cable shows. But what is more interesting is the reaction from fans. Many fans have expressed an inability to continue with the show since the sexual chemistry (turned heated animosity) between Will and Alicia was indeed very important to the show. But it wasn’t the show. Ultimately, The Good Wife, like many women’s pictures is about the main character’s journey toward autonomy, happiness, and a redefinition of what being a woman means to her. Or as the showrunners have put it, “The Education of Alicia Florrick”.
i wrote this, y’all.
My 25th birthday post!
I think it is fitting to write about Bette Davis on my 25th birthday. Since first witnessing Bette on-screen in my late teens in All About Eve, I have been obsessed with her going as far as creating the term “Cinematic Spirit Sister” to describe how deeply connected I feel to her work. Bette represents the kind of woman we’re told not to be. She’s quick to anger with strong appetites, she’s willfully defiant, bold, passionate, prickly. When describing herself she once said, “I’m just too much”. She is too much, in the most glorious way possible. She is female anger incarnate.
I have always considered Bette Davis a cinematic Medusa. Bette while still one of the more well known actors from old Hollywood is also one of the most misunderstood. Unlike Katharine Hepburn she hasn’t been reclaimed by feminists or used in a bevy of conversations by layman to signify being against the grain in an era when women seemed to be voiceless glamor dolls. Maybe it is because her films exist as the question “can women have it all?” only to answer them in a way modern women may not be too fond of. Maybe it’s because she never had a great love story in real life to bolster meta-textual interest in her. Her cinematic love stories seem more interested in delving into a woman loving herself and rarely have happily ever afters, Now Voyager being a bittersweet example of this. Maybe it’s because she excelled at playing characters like Leslie Crosbie.
In the 1940 noir The Letter, Leslie is a liar, a woman fueled by a hunger for autonomy and power and twisted love to the point that she makes a fake rape accusation to justify the cold blooded murder of the man who spurns her. The Letter opens with Leslie killing her former lover, Geoff Hammond. Her face still as she empties bullets into his back until he tumbles the ground and finally dies. She isn’t hysterical if anything she seems to know exactly what she was doing. The film is ultimately about the narratives we build around our lies that eventually consume us. The narrative Leslie builds is unable to save her as a letter she wrote to Geoff is revealed to her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) creating a chain reaction that briefly gives Leslie some sense of freedom only to have it snatched away in death. The ending of the film is a bit disconcerting since it would have been a more fitting punishment (and have greater depth) if Leslie survived and had to live with the memory of everything that has transpired realizing her marriage and lies have created a prison for which the only escape would be death. But the Hays Code would of course want Leslie dead since she transgressed certain societal moral codes.
While The Letter is ultimately a noir, by centering it around Bette’s character Leslie it lends the darker impulses of the genre to delve into a twisted narrative not too far off from a women’s picture about the ways a woman corrupts and is corrupted by her own desire. In the shot below, the idea of imprisonment (by desire and the lies she spins) takes a literal form in how the sharp lines of shadow and light frame her.
Bette Davis plays Leslie full tilt. But there are moments (like in all of Bette’s best performances) of remarkable silence which William Wyler seemed particular good at getting from Bette. Their collaborations brought out some of Bette’s most dynamic and interesting performances. While The Letter is arguably the most beloved, I am more drawn to The Little Foxes. Wyler and Bette had a passionate relationship on and off set. There is a film or a book waiting to be written about these warring artists and the reasons why they never married and the circumstances surrounding each of the films they made together. Wyler said at the American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis, She was difficult in the same way that I was difficult. She wanted the best.
Bette once wrote about losing battles with Wyler on set saying,
I lost it to a genius. So many directors were such weak sisters that I would have to take over. Uncreative, unsure of themselves, frightened to fight back, they offered me none of the security that this tyrant did.
Bette is at her best in The Letter in quieter moments, particularly during and right after her final confrontation with her husband. In these moments she lets her body (most vividly her eyes) communicate for her better than any line of dialogue can. Even with a striking voice that seemed almost incongruous to such a petite woman, Bette is first and foremost a very visual actress. Wyler smartly takes advantage of this.
But the best shots in The Letter are when we don’t see Bette’s face.
The shadows in noir take on mythic proportions. So, what does it say that in the shots we understand Leslie greatest we are seeing her shadow not her face?
Bette made a career out of playing women like Leslie. Women who are violent, selfish, and self-destructive. Women yearning so deeply for power and autonomy it leads them to ugly yet very human actions. These women tend to do rather despicable things to create their life in the image they feel they deserve. But I feel Leslie is one the hardest of Bette’s characters to find a sense of kinship with. Part of it is the film itself. As much as I find The Letter’s synthesizing of noir with the emotional underpinnings of the women’s picture exemplary, the directing stellar, the acting a master class…I can’t ignore the racial issues. The lynchpin of these issues is Gale Sondergaard playing Mrs. Hammond, Geoff’s widow. We are supposed to believe that Mrs. Hammond is Eurasion, which means we have to deal with Sondergaard (who was very much a white woman) adorned with all the old Hollywood markers of generalized Asian femininity. Her otherness is mostly characterized by her primarily silent nature and extravagant costuming. She is the exoticized other.
The fact that Bette is able to make us understand and even sympathize with Leslie is a testament to her abilities as an actress to bring compassion to her characters. There is a sense that Bette doesn’t judge these characters as she brings them to life but seeks to understand the underpinnings of their impulses.
The war between control and submission, the matters of the heart and the high-minded desire for career success is common to the narratives centering on women in the 1940s and 1950s. Bette excelled at creating layers of compassion and transgressiveness in narratives that could easily turn misogynistic or maudlin without the right touch.
Today, on my 25th birthday, I am savoring every moment. One of the things I have been working on is to be as brave in real life as I am in my writing and to finally put my work out into the world (my longer form essays and screenplays). Bette Davis represents the joy of being an artist, of synthesizing your inner life in an outward manner. For her it was acting, for me writing. I aim to be as fearless and passionate and unapologetic as she was in films like The Letter and her life in general.