Gender on the Small Screen

September 27, 2011

I’ll have more posts (and an interview on Voices & Viewpoints this Friday) talking about some of the new shows.  In the meantime, check this out:

Have to disagree with one of the other “experts” about Prime Suspect – my favorite of the new series I’ve seen thus far!



September 25, 2011

I stopped watching Two and a Half Men a long time ago.  Misogyny wears thin, doesn’t it?  Did catch the season premiere on Hulu, though.  Is anyone else pleased that the show scored its highest ratings ever without Charlie Sheen?



September 25, 2011

I enjoyed Moneyball, but there’s not a lot I want to say about it.  Just another well-crafted, Hollywood-ized biopic that is fun to watch but without a lot of stuff to think about.  It’s a crowd pleaser, and that’s not a bad thing for a baseball movie opening in late September.

If you are interested in hearing an update on Billy Beane, though, check out this article in today’s New York Times Magazine.

Fun to read, just like Moneyball is fun to watch…but I won’t be thinking about either one of them tomorrow.

Soap Operas in Decline

September 24, 2011

Another one bites the dust.  No one is surprised that soap operas are in decline.  After all, ratings have been dwindling for years as more and more women work outside of the home, and besides game shows and talk shows are produced more cheaply than daytime serials, which also makes the soaps less attractive to the networks.  But, who would have thought that the soap world would abandon Erica Kane before she decided to take a curtain call?  The Erica Kane character is iconic in the soap world and has become known even to people who don’t watch the genre.  Susan Lucci who plays Kane finally got her Emmy after 18 unsuccessful attempts, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but even being dubbed Daytime’s Leading Lady has not been enough to save All My Children from cancellation after 41 years on ABC.

I probably haven’t seen an episode of a soap opera in over 20 years, and All My Children was never in the mix for me anyway, but I can’t say that I don’t carry some nostalgia for the genre.  When I was a little girl, my mother and sister and I frequently visited the Cleveland County farm in Western North Carolina where my mother grew up.  Sometimes my father was with us, too, but usually it was just the girls, especially in the summer when we had breaks from school and could spend long days helping out with chores and building playhouses outside and reading lots and lots of books.

My grandmother was like many farm women.  She worked from dawn to dark keeping house, cooking three meals a day, maintaining vegetable and flower gardens, putting up food for the winter, making quilts and clothes, and helping out with the cows during the years my Pamma and Papa had a dairy farm.  There were pigs to slop, and chickens to feed, and sick people to visit just lots and lots to cram into the average day.  But, after the lunch dishes had been washed, there was one hour to sit in the air conditioning and shell peas or break beans or do a little mending.  There was one hour to relax a little and share the challenges and triumphs and scandals of the Hughes Family in As the World Turns.  The long-running serial had a lot going for it, and one of the most important things to my family was the bold and cunning character of Lisa played for 50 years from 1960 until the show’s cancellation about a year ago by Eileen Fulton who was born not too far away from Cleveland County outside of Asheville.

I don’t remember many of the characters or the storylines, but the clothes and accessories and hairstyles seemed elegant to me then, and I remember when I started sitting in the den with Mama and Pamma after lunch and watching the show with them that I felt remarkably grown up.  Soon I knew all of the characters and heard about the storylines from years gone by in Oakdale, Illinois.  Hard to imagine now, but then this fictional town seemed so exotic to me.  We talked about about Chris and Nancy Hughes, and Bob and Kim Hughes, and Jon Dixon, and – of course – Lisa.  She was married a lot and divorced a lot and flirted a lot.  I looked it up.  Her character’s name with all the marriages is: Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn.  My great grandmother had a first cousin named Peggy Dickie Catherine Billie Bitty Beautyshine Green, but I never heard that she was married more than once, and I’m sure she didn’t have anything on Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn.

Over time I came to see the soaps as a bit silly and as a huge waste of time.  On some levels, that is true, I guess.  But, maybe I need to relax, like we did in those hours after lunch on the farm, relinquish my critic’s gaze for a moment, and refrain from scolding judgment.  Over the years these stories have provided a narrative glue that helps link communities, and that’s not all bad.  The people viewers gossip about are characters who can’t be harmed by idle conversation.  Would I rather that people bond over the op-ed pages of major newspapers or international films from famous directors or award-winning stories broadcast on NPR?  Sure, but maybe it’s not terrible to engage in some frivolity.  After all, aside from aesthetics, I’m not sure it’s a huge leap from All My Children or As The World Turns to Parenthood or Desperate Housewives.  It’s not hard for drama to edge into melodrama with or without recognizing the transition.  So, for this week, I’m going to remove my critic’s hat and offer a half-salute to the venerable soap opera.  My Pamma would approve, and I’m sure my mother and sister, both of whom still keep up with the soaps, appreciate that I’m suspending judgment for a week.

Playing on a tractor at the farm with my Pamma looking on in the background.


September 16, 2011

I love double feature days.  Sometimes I even indulge in a triple feature day but time constraints make that a rare treat.

The afternoon of September 11th was a twofer, but given the date, I was in a pensive mood and selected a couple of somber films to build on that tone.

Sarah’s Key and The Debt have several things in common.  Each film has parallel storylines set in different historical periods, each has a connection to the Holocaust, and each features strong performances but fails to coalesce into movie magic.

Kristen Scott Thomas is superb in Sarah’s Key.   She really is capable of great subtlety and great depth of emotion at the same time in emotionally complex films.  Seeing this film reminded me how much I enjoyed her in the 2008 film I’ve Loved You So Long.

In Sarah’s Key, she plays a journalist working in Paris who discovers a secret about a young girl whose family was rounded up by the French government in 1942 – along with thousands of other Jews – and transported to Nazi death camps.

History is seldom straightforward, and French alliances in World War II lend support to that way of thinking.  The particulars of this story are fictionalized, but the historical backdrop is true.  The film is based on a novel that tells a story about a little girl who hides her brother when French officials come to arrest her family, but then she realizes that her family is going to be deported while the young boy is stuck in a closet in their empty apartment.

The film is engrossing and quite promising until the final act. Up until then, this is a carefully constructed and thoughtful narrative. but the end fizzles as the dramatic tension comes unraveled.

Sarah’s Key is worth seeing, but don’t expect it to finish as strong as it starts.

I have to give a similarly qualified recommendation to The Debt.

Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent who becomes involved in modern day implications of a celebrated case she worked on years before in East Berlin.  In the sixties, she worked with two other agents to catch a doctor known as the butcher of Birkenau, a war criminal in hiding who had performed grotesque and cruel experiments on people interned at the concentration and extermination camp during the war.

The story, like Sarah’s Key, is told in two timelines but this one with younger versions of the same main characters.  Jessica Chastain (seen recently in Tree of Life and The Help) plays the younger version of Mirren’s character, Rachel, and the story includes a love triangle involving Rachel with the two agents working with her.

Watching The Debt, I kept thinking it either needed some of the sustained tension of the best sequences in Hitchcock’s (otherwise mediocre) Cold War film Torn Curtain or the remarkable and dazzling interiority of one of my favorite films, The Lives of Others, which is set in East Germany but in the 1980s.

I think most people will find it entertaining, but there’s just no magic there.  My favorite film by director John Madden is Shakespeare in LoveThe Debt is competently made with good performances, but it’s not likely to have the sustained following of Shakespeare in Love, which I wouldn’t mind watching again most any time.

Movie magic is an elusive thing.  After seeing my Sunday double feature, I came home and noticed that Casablanca was scheduled to air at 8 p.m.  I had some work to do but decided to “watch” the film at the same time, and I did more actual watching than planned because I couldn’t stop looking.  There’s an example of movie magic; Casablanca is a film that never loses its luster.  It continued my World War II theme of the day as well and contains a notable flashback sequence if not a parallel storyline.

Later this semester, students taking my Introduction to Film class will see Casablanca, many of them for the first time.  It’s a gift I’m happy to give them, and I hope they appreciate the magic.

Labor Day

September 1, 2011

Those are conventional pursuits to mark the federal holiday honoring American workers, but it would also be fitting to watch one or more of these films.

I’m starting with The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel from 1940 that was directed by John Ford.

The Grapes of Wrath also stars terrific actors with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma and John Carradine as Casey, to name a few.  Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her performance, and John Ford won an Oscar for directing.

Also worth mentioning is the cinematography by Gregg Toland, which is about as good as it gets – after all, Toland shot Citizen Kane, too.  The stark black and white images in the film beautifully complement the bleak storyline as the Joad family packs up and leaves the Depression-era dustbowl for the chance at a better life.  The images are indelible.

The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the United States under the National Film Registry.

I also have a soft spot for the 1979 film Norma Rae.  Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae Webster, a North Carolina textile mill worker who worked to unionize her factory.  The film, which is directed by Martin Ritt, is based on the life story of a woman named Crystal Lee Sutton.  There is a lot of drama and danger in this narrative.

Finally, I have to mention Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., which is also a classic.  Forget the genre, it’s a great story.  You might say that this film transcends genre.

Kopple’s film documents a 1973 coal miners’ strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company.  The mine is located in Harlan County, Kentucky, hence the film title Harlan County, U.S.A.  This film, too, is an Oscar winner, and the filmmaker spent years with the miners and their families, which gives her an insider’s perspective and lends the film a tone of authenticity that is hard to capture without developing a relationship with the participants and letting the story unfold without forcing it too much.

Especially if you are drawn to Harlan County, U.S.A., make a note on your calendar to catch The Last Mountain, which will open at a/perture on October 4th.  I’ll have more to say about this documentary recording a West Virginia community’s efforts to stop mountain top removal before it opens.  There is an interesting section of the film that deals with labor issues.