I have to say: I don’t think I’ve been this happy to get back to New York City since September 11, 2001. Truly, ever since that day, whenever I’ve taken leave of this crazy apple, a little knot between my brows has smoothed itself out, I’ve breathed more deeply, and I’ve slept. And slept some more. Done my laundry without feeding a slot coins. Listened carefully to the silence. And gazed forever at a black, not purple, sky. With stars.
But this year, as soon as New York’s jagged skyline came back into my view, I felt an elation I didn’t think I could ever feel about NYC again. I actually jumped in my seat, and started improvising song lyrics. (Usually this means I sing “Yancey Strickler” to whichever song’s on the car’s radio, to Yancey’s chagrin and my great amusement.) The reality was I was just so happy happy happy to be back in the black-sheep mecca, high rents and all. Where you can still walk to the corner and eat something very fine and watch something even finer; where, if you’re single and over 30, you are not automatically written off as a sad sack or a borderline personality. Where no one says to you when you’re almost 34, “You’re not getting any younger. When are you gonna have your kids?” Or, worse, in a sympathetic tone: “So you decided to not have kids?”
In other words, the holidays were a mite hard.
But I made a pact with myself. I learned way back in therapy 101 that the best plan is, well, to have a plan. So I promised myself that, just like when I was growing up, everyday I would go to the movies. Like a good girl, everyday I went. Went to real-life Boston theaters — drafty, greasy from popcorn stains, and full of people hissing to each other, “We goin’ to the packy ahftah this, Sully?” and “Do they have to use the language?” and “I’m quite sure that’s a tautology she just uttered.” (Therein lies the paradox that is and always will be Boston, a city inhabited by working-class forevas and old-money neuters and professorial transplants.)
Bad Education at the Waltham Landmark Embassy Cinema. A raging snowstorm outside, a theater packed with graying Newton types, some of whom accompanied by their kids. Including my parents Bernie and Sari, and me. No doubt under normal circumstances I’d be harder on Almodovar’s flapjack of a plot (it hearkens back to the scattershot of his early films but lacks their gorgeous hyperbole), but I drink it all in. Those reds and greens, Gael García Bernal’s swollen pout and perfect rump, the hot Spanish countryside. Such a lovely contrast to the cold and wet pooling inside my boots and beating against the roof. I try to pretend my parents aren’t sitting near me while everyone fucks everyone up the ass. My father doesn’t try as hard. Even though he is sitting a few rows ahead of my mother and me (don’t ask), I can still hear him chortling. It is easy, as the theater is otherwise dead-silent during those scenes. This just in, Boston: Sex is not merely for the purpose of reproduction. Of course, the Rosmans know that all too well. (Like I said, don’t ask).
“That was some movie,” he says.
“It was confusing,” I say.
“Ya, I thought it was confusing. But interesting.”
When my mom emerges from the ladies’ room, we ask her what she thought.
“Oh, those pretty boys. I just loved all the cuhluhs.”
A Very Long Engagement at Loews Harvard Square with my dear friend forever, Melina. Ten degree weather and we can’t find a parking space. The carpool mom dilemma of the situation has us laughing, but we’re also giddy from the relief of hanging out without her two-year-old: so sparky, so pretty, so knee-deep in A Phase. I am wearing: New England-drab winter boots, three layers on my legs, five layers on upper torso, a face mask.
I sweat all the way through that weird-ass movie. There are five of us in the strangely decadent theater: high-ceilings, art-deco Egyptian details, heavily beaded chandeliers.
I deliberately skipped the screening of Engagement, as the only advantage of not having a very regular venue for my film reviews anymore is skipping the movies I’m not remotely curious about. But Meliner never gets to see movies, and, being an enormous Delicatessen fan, she is clamoring to see Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest. Honestly, there’s not that much wrong with the movie; once again it’s pleasant to ogle blooming European countryside while the winter stamps its foot outside, and it’s crazy to catch Jody Foster as a Polish widow, prattling away in French. But Juenet’s preciousness doesn’t suit a war tragedy particularly well, and the movie seems to drag on eternally. I worry that the mild boredom I fail to entirely hide hinders Mel’s enjoyment. I suspect that I am right.
Kinsey at the West Newton Cinema. On the way out of Boston, I end up here somehow, the same way I always did when I was nursing a boyfriend hangover or scrabbling with BernieSari.
It’s a grand, freezing theater right down the street from their house, and when I was growing up, the same art films ran for months at a time. My Life as a Dog, Manon of the Spring, Bread and Chocolate. At first I resisted them, in allegiance to Chevy Chase comedies and Star Wars no doubt, but since the cinema and the library were my only local refuges, I eventually surrendered to the superiority of the weird foreigner movies. This was before American indies coughed up anything interesting on a regular basis (sorry John Sayles), when foreign movies were regarded as practically the only non-Hollywood option. In high school, I dated one of the cinema ushers, and we’d make out, nasty teen style, while Cinema Paradiso emoted on and on ’til the break of dawn.
The night I’m to drive back to New York, I’m all shades of blue. It’s bitter outside, with a whistling empty sky. All my NYC friends will still be out of town, and I’ve already said goodbye to my Boston people. But the traffic at dinner time is pitiful, and I guess part of me wants to savor the sweet-and-sour soup in which I’m emotionally drowning. So I return to the scene of the crime.
I forgot how much I love the mirrors lining the walls and the dirty red carpets. I love how steep the screening rooms are, so no one obscures anyone else’s view. I love the bar separating the seats from the corridors, so good to sling your saddle shoes over; I love the little stage for the screen. The theater’s packed with a surprising number of grizzled Newton 70somethings wearing political button-festooned polar fleece vests. Are arty movies about sexual deviancies the porn for The Nation readers of a certain age?
Kinsey suffers from all the Edelstein-documented problems that typically plague biopics, namely that the arc of a real human life doesn’t translate very well dramatically. I greatly enjoy Laura Linney at all times, though, and ain’t nothing funnier than braying Liam Neeson wearing a brushcut in the middle of a sex sandwich.
It don’t matter anyway. I’m watching a movie by myself, suspended in time and in between cities, surrounded by the bodies of other popcorn munchers and nose-breathers but not in any way connected to them. Here I may not be elated but I am located.
I am home.
So as I’ve been lying about in a radioactive glow from an especially nasty flu, I’ve been inspired me to go back and look at Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). It’d just occurred to me that Leigh’s feminist-second-wave Vera Drake has an interesting precedent in these two films. Plus An Unmarried Woman keeps showing up on the WE Channel, which is my most shameful secret viewing vice besides Oxygen and, well, Lifetime. I am a woman who loves Women’s Entertainment television programming, apparently. Hear me roar.
Both of these films were made by very accomplished male directors smack dab in the heart of women’s liberation. Remember the ERA? At that, remember when people even wielded the term women’s liberation with nary a smirk? Or was that smirk ever successfully suppressed? (I was but a lass, it must be said, and my mom and her girlfriends were too busy drinking coffee and making fun of their husbands to be duly invested in a revolution.)
At any rate, An Unmarried Woman makes me reasonably happy; Alice does so only remotely. I’d remembered it as hard to watch, and not in that rewarding drink-your-French-cinema
-it’s-good-for-you way. Watching it again, I regret to report that it’s still a bit of a drag. I dig that it’s the story of a Southwestern working-class woman who harbors artistic rather than middle-class aspirations — an awfully rare distinction these days — but Scorsese is off his turf here both topically and geographically. Partly this has the dutiful feel of a studio assignment, which it really was (his first). Partly he doesn’t seem to like women: Beware the wrath of the ugly short man.
Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is a mom who’s been newly widowed by a man whom she feared more than loved. She finds a new job in a new town as a singer, but loses it when a new lover turns out to be a married psycho (Harvey Keitel, using his beady eyes to good effect here). Then she works as a waitress in a podunk Arizona town, comes crankily to the revelation that she’s never learned how to live self-reliantly as a woman, and so naturally enters a relationship with a rancher who’s not nice to her kid. To be fair, the kid is that staple of the divorced-parent movie: a smart-mouthed, precocious toad. Worse, he wears aviator glasses and hangs with a baby dyke Jodie Foster, revving up for a stint as a Taxi Driver’s child prostitute. The film’s not very nice to look at, except for the opening segment, a Wizard of Oz homage flooded with blood-red. It’s strange to watch Scorsese fool idly with techniques such as fast zooms that he’ll use to such better effect later. Mostly the film is filtered through the grainy, sun-dappled lens and cinema verite shtick that was the downside of 70s cinema.
An Unmarried Woman amuses me more, basically. It’s set on the Upper East Side and in a very nascent Soho. It’s always fun to look at New York in the other eras, and Mazursky excels at pleasantly gossipy, two-hour social tableaus. God love Jill Clayburgh’s cowl-neck sweaters and capes; the small glasses of white wine in the “single bars”; the enormous artists’ lofts littered with the abstract paintings; the jogging in turtlenecks; the C-R session drawled out in New York nasal; the “I smoke grass, you know” daughter (another toad variant); the feminist shrink with the severe middle part and a whiff of macramé.
Clayburgh is Erica, a Seven-Sister grad at the very top of her 30s, whose Wall Street husband suddenly ditches her for a girl at a Macy’s counter. She’s still got her middle-class cache — cash, digs, gallery job — but is at a loss about what to do with the rest of her life. Same sentence: “I don’t know who I am without a man.” Like Alice, her solution to that problem is to be with more men. She’s even nabbed a bearded lover, same as Alice — British, porcine Alan Bates rather than Alice’s working-class hero Kris Kristofferson. But how I rationalize preferring Mazursky’s film, when it’s equally as trite but diddles with bourgeois dilemmas rather than the working poor’s tawdrier sprawl, is that girlfriend doesn’t rise to her boyfriend’s ultimatum. At the end of Unmarried, Erica refuses to follow her artist to Vermont. As punishment, he takes leave and saddles her with an enormous painting that she’s forced to heft by herself through city streets. Given his crap art, it’s punishment indeed. Still, there’s something endlessly hopeful about Clayburgh wobbling through early Soho in earth shoes made for walkin’.
More seriously, what these two directors lack, which Vera Drake director Mike Leigh possesses in spades, is a willingness to imagine these characters as truly distinct from their connection to men. Burstyn and Clayburgh do their damnedest to fill in the gaps left by male screenwriters and directors. Burstyn in particular gamely does her generous, wide-lipped best with the plenty-of-nuthin’ that landed in her lap. But Scorsese and Mazursky can’t quite conceive a truly female space for their female protagonists. When abandoned by her husband, Erica is left almost entirely to her own devices; except for one over-earnest, utterly humorless powwow with women we never meet again, no girlfriends rush in to pick up her pieces. Where are those seven sisters when she needs them? And the liveliest scenes in Alice are when Alice and Flo (Diane Ladd) crack each other up while they are sitting in the sun or holed up in the ladies’, but those scenes are few and far between. Relegated to the ladies’ indeed. It speaks volumes that when Alice was reinvented as a sitcom, it focused almost entirely on the relationship between Alice, Flo, and a third waitress, hapless Vera. TV’s less skittish when it comes to las hermanas doin’ it for themselves.
I’m still sorting out why TV does better by women than film often does. For one, it inhabits the same domestic ghetto to which the feminine is still mostly banished — both are literally stuck in the home, where stakes are, if not lower, certainly perceived as less urgent. Typically great directors still don’t bother themselves too much with TV, though cable is certainly changing that. In fact, many of the interesting women directors of the last decade have been resurrecting their careers on shows like The L Word (Rose Troche), Six Feet Under (Lisa Chodolenko), and Sex and the City (Alison Anders).
But many of the best American male film directors continue today to try their hand with the woman in self-recovery. Some, like John Sayles with his Passionfish, succeed more with such material. Most succeed only mildly, if at all. (I regret to remind you of Spike Lee’s Girl 6.) In sooth, short of earning their cub scout “sensitive” badges, I wonder what compels these men to tackle what used to be called women’s films and now are called — I wince as I type the words — chick flicks. Only they’re not called chick flicks when the really big boys direct them. Mike Nichols’ movies, for example, are typically the ultimate chick flicks (see the brittle dirge Wit or, for a real paean to Yuppie careerism, Working Girl) except that no one would deign to call them that, especially at awards ceremonies. Which is fine, anyway, as his women don’t really seem to like other women. Huge mistake. Never trust a woman without women friends, and never trust a movie about a woman’s pilgrimage that doesn’t include her women friends.
Of these big boy directors only Mike Leigh has recently painted a plausible women’s world. Funny that it’s still all about women’s plumbing. One of these days on the silver screen, women in packs will more regularly tread further than the ladies’ room. Excuse me, excuse me. Women’s room.
This morning: rainy, cold, drear. Sitting in the coffee shop window, I was feeling smug that I didn’t have to hustle to work like all the Rick Springfield mofos hastening by. One of the coffee jerks — twentysomething, hugely pregnant, more blowsy than blooming — waddled outside, followed by a small young man with bright, dark eyes. They stood, kissing gingerly for a surprisingly long time as everyone streamed around them. I couldn’t stop gawking. So little apparent passion, and yet the kiss dragged on forever, tongues flashing and everything. Eventually, they disentangled and I went back to my crossword. An hour later, on the subway platform not a half-block from the coffee shop, I saw the small man again. With a far greater urgency, he was kissing someone else — a slight, pretty blond girl. The kind of girl who’d be your basic nightmare if you had eight months of baby sacked in your gut.