Film Studies

Of Goddesses and Monsters: The Female Body in “Under the Skin”

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Hollywood satiates the hunger for flesh.

For the better part of the past decade, the body of the woman has been both the main course (flesh on full display) and a lukewarm side-dish (the mother, the girlfriend, the “filler”).  Women are so unfairly represented in film that critiquing the system has almost become a stale art.

It takes a committed, visionary filmmaker like Jonathan Glazer—someone who knows how to treat the female body and is conscious of its treatment at the hands of other directors—to craft an entire film around the deconstruction of the sexualized image of the female body.

That’s not to say his brilliant Under the Skin doesn’t involve sex. At its core, the film is about an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johansson) traversing the streets of Scotland, luring men into its den under the pretense of sex, and harvesting their skin for sustenance. It sounds like the workings of an early Russ Meyer film; the alien assimilates into human culture, absorbs its surroundings, and regurgitates them to seduce earthly men, who willingly follow the penis wherever it might lead them. But, there’s an underlying persistence to the whole thing that forces us to confront the whats and the whys of what we’re seeing instead of indulging the side of us that has been conditioned to succumb to titillation at the sight of a disrobed Hollywood actress.

Glazer crafts his alien as if she were a child crawling, walking, and evolving through life. The alien draws upon societal structures to shape her projection of womanhood. She is drawn to expensive, attractive clothing after seeing women shopping at the mall; she splashes makeup over her face after witnessing masses of earthly women constructing a mirage of societally-coded “beauty” on their faces at a makeup counter; she learns that sex is treated like a tool for self-pleasure, self-sustenance, and self-worth, and appropriates it as a means to fit in; she sees that men respond to this image, so she zips up in a soft suit of milky skin and slinks along the streets with sexually-confident swagger.

Glazer structures his film as one of oppositions. From the get-go, we’re immediately introduced to the dichotomy between light and dark. A black screen overwhelms us as a small white dot appears at its center. It grows, evolving into the shape of what appears to be a series of planets aligned during an eclipse, then into a human eye, which eventually gives way to the images of a road, then to a stream, to the body of a dead woman, to Johansson’s alien—fully naked—stripping clothes off the dead body, placing them on her own, and assuming human form. Within minutes, we’re shown that the world is a series of opposites; light vs. dark, naked vs. clothed, earthly vs. alienesque, natural vs. constructed, sex vs. fear. None such a match is as powerful as the split Glazer wedges between the body and the allure of sex. The sight of Johansson’s naked body–that comes quite often throughout the film–recalls the faint glimmer of sexuality we’re so used to associating with the naked female form in contemporary cinema, but we sense that something’s not right. The goal for Johansson’s alien, however, is the body itself as a physical harvest versus a form of pleasure, and in that sense Glazer is able to recontextualize the naked human form.

The bulk of Glazer’s commentary on the female body in society comes from the way the alien digests our culture and the men she seduces, being that its interpretation of “normal” female behavior is to act, dress, and seduce like a sex machine. The scenes of sexuality are sensual on the surface, but we’re forced to see them as something monstrous—not necessarily because death is a certain outcome for the men the alien seduces, but because Glazer forces a disconnect between the naked human form and sex as we know it.

The alien’s body is undoubtedly “used” by the film, but the way the alien treats her body is non-sexual. She’s doing it not for the sex, not for the pleasure, and not for the sake of using sexuality as a weapon–she is not human, and therefore does not understand human sexuality the way that the men she seduces do. She’s not gaming; this is simply how she survives.

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Yes, the alien is sleek, she’s cool, she’s unaffected; her emotions aren’t human, so it’s ludicrous for us to attempt to unearth any sort of logic, reasoning, or motivation other than that it’s necessary for her existence. As a result, we must process the alien (in every sense of the word) procedure from an outsider perspective; we see sex every day and we know how it works, but Glazer instead tickles our curious fancy and probes us to question the limits of physical attraction by demystifying the constructed fantasy of the female body.

Women are generally sexualized in movies, whether they’re the girlfriend or the hot girl in high school; their bodies are conquests and possessions. But, Under the Skin views the body not as the goal, but as the bridge. The alien’s goal is not an emotional or sexual conquest, it’s merely to harvest and sustain, removing any traceable form of human connotations from the act of sex itself. There are no violent scenes in the film. We do not see the alien ripping throats out, drawing blood, or even engaging in any sort of overtly sexual contact with these men at all. Instead, Glazer wisely strips the seduction scenes of any surrounding distraction. They’re surreal, cold, and straightforward; we see two naked bodies against a black background, and the male form simply sinks into the darkness and out of frame. The body is disposable, yet charged with the implications of what we as an audience want to see happen—but are so deliberately denied—at the sight of flesh. We’re denied primal spectacles of violence and sex. The body is the body, and the body is all we get—no strings attached.

There’s a scene in the film where the alien has what can be construed as a change of heart. We see her go through the motions of seduction with a man with neurofibromatosis. He’s unsightly because our culture values a specific form of beauty, one that “deformities” do not fit in with. She speaks with him, asks him about his friends, asks him if he’s lonely, and systematically breaks the barriers a lifetime of being an outcast has built up, so much so that she’s thrown off-course by the pity she feels for him. She lets him go; beginning to understand at least some of the complexities of the human form she has taken. It’s here that she begins to sympathize with humanity. She escapes to the countryside and finds refuge with an older man who offers to help her. He gives her a coat as they walk side by side in the rain to his home. Her makeup wears off with the water, and he gives her his oversized coat, which covers her womanly curves. She attempts to eat human food—a piece of cake, in one of the film’s more obvious metaphors—but spits it out after we see it framed so lusciously next to her lips on the fork. The framing is delicious, but the taste of what we’ve been conditioned to eat (the female body as represented in film) is repulsive.

It’s here that the film’s refusal to objectify the alien’s human body becomes clear. We spend the majority of the film as mere observers. The film is not violent or sexual enough—by conventional standards, mind you—to titillate, and it never aims to be. It shows us a beautiful naked figure but does not indulge the coded desire to see that body used for sex, but for something disturbing and cruel. Glazer challenges the audience, however; does the film industry (and its audience) still view the female body in a film such as this as “sexy,” even though it’s associated—in context—with something monstrous?

A majority of audiences will say yes. They’re used to preying on the female body. They’re used to female actors being reduced to roles where the only things that are celebrated are their flesh or their ability to fill the role of a mother, a girlfriend, a sister, an appendage. Glazer’s alien is not an appendage. She is in control; she takes the form of something familiar, and turns it on its head. She forces us to question our perception of the female body, regard it with fear, confusion, and mystery; anything other than the sexual attraction we’re so used to seeing hawked by Hollywood studios. The film is not so much a triumph as a narrative, but rather as a funneling of the human form into a refreshing mold that challenges the industry around it.

Glazer peppers the film with a few scenes that show the alien looking into a compact mirror. The camera gazes into it from the alien’s perspective. We see her face, her tempting eyes, and her lipstick in its frame; it’s all a succulent dish, but under the surface we know we’re just smacking our lips. We’re not looking at an alien, we’re looking at our own painted reflection, and it’s here we realize that Glazer has created a character with big enough balls to show us the readily-consuming monster staring back from the other side of the glass.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Mother Knows Best: The Identity of Evil in “Bates Motel” vs. “Psycho”

bates_motel_101Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

What ruins Norman Bates?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind as they tune in (in record numbers) to A&E’s drama series “Bates Motel,” the “before” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As we approach the series finale (airing Monday), are we any closer to identifying the source of Norman’s otherness—or at least a probable catalyst which makes Psycho a credible “after” for one of the most prominently disturbed characters in cinema history?

At what point does a slightly awkward, attractive, brainy do-gooder of a teenager become a sexually confused, murderous social deviant? The answer has yet to be found within “Bates Motel,” which is just beginning to find its legs as a drama as we come to the conclusion of its first ten-episode season.

If Psycho is Hitchcock horror at its finest, “Bates Motel” is a few Asian sex slaves ahead of being a watered-down Nancy Drew mystery, with the ending already set in stone nearly fifty years ago.

Psycho teaches us that evil has an inherent home within his mother, after all.

…that has to be it, right? We need someone to blame, and if Hitchcock’s extensive filmography has taught us anything, it’s to never trust a woman.

But, the assumption that Norma’s ways are cloying and possessive (damagingly so) has implicated her since the release of Psycho. “Bates Motel” hasn’t exactly shown us otherwise, and for good reason. It’s a classic argument made against the infamous maternal presence in Norman’s life, which is never anything more than a corpse and sloppy-drag incarnate in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, but a much more tangible presence in “Bates Motel,” as Norma Bates’ relationship with her son serves as the framework for the series instead of a thematic crutch. If “Bates Motel” were in clumsier hands, the ideology of the 1960 classic might have bled into the contemporary cloth. Norma isn’t worth exploring as a character; she is now and has always been the pre-established burden of femininity; the bane of Norman’s existence; the origin of blame and the source of Norman’s life and his demise. But it’s time we view such analysis as archaic, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s objectification of women in nearly every film he ever made. It’s time to move past old assumptions because, frankly, “Bates Motel” is in some ways the worst potential multi-season narrative ever conceived. With a conclusion that’s become common knowledge far outside just the film community, how does a series earn its legs as a prelude for an already-exposed ending? The answer lies in its treatment of gender and its disregard for Hitchcock’s ideologies.

“Bates Motel” doesn’t incriminate Norma as a woman, but rather as someone on, in the simplest terms, an intense power trip. Having the series set amidst a modern backdrop (complete with iPhones and high school raves) alleviates the foreboding presence of old-timey perspectives on the issues of transvestitism, motherhood, and gender identity which made Psycho at once a blessing and a curse for the queer identity in cinema and society. The time is here and the time is now; dressing Norman up in women’s clothing simply wouldn’t have the same immediately-othering effect as it did in the 60s.

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The strength of “Bates Motel” lies in its insistence on not equating anything, from convoluted morals to pure murderous evil, with gender. Whereas Hitchcock’s Psycho epilogue seeks to explain, bit by bit, Norman’s psychological and gender-based transformation from a man’s mentality to a woman’s, “Bates Motel” instead sifts through the psychobabble bullshit and delivers a pure representation of actions without generalized implications.

The series begins as Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) move to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon (a town with a local economy supported by Marijuana distribution and patrolled by corrupt police officers staking a cut), to start afresh after the demise of the family patriarch. Norma is a woman, but she’s also in a position of power, enough power and conviction to move her son across the country to build a placid state of blissful isolation from the past. Here, “mother” is not inherently synonymous with “possessive,” but Norma’s relationship with Norman is, at least we’re to believe, almost solely responsible for his social ostracizing in White Pine Bay. When Norma is in trouble (which happens shortly after the move), Norman’s life is put on hold. He needs to “be there” for her, as he often explains, which often gets in the way of his social land sexual progress. Norma is raped in the first episode of the season, and Norman aides in the fending off (and eventual death and disposal of) the attacker. Norma hides the evidence, and Norman assists. Norma is found out, and Norman puts his life on hold to assure her freedom. Whatever the circumstance, Norman is implicated alongside Norma by pure choice. It isn’t until the midway point that we come to understand that Norman’s clingy behavior is predisposed. He has a mental deficiency, one which makes him hallucinate, to see things that aren’t there. Often, it’s images of his mother telling him what to do. We’ve come to observe in waking life that Norma is far more subtle in her controlling ways. She likes to imply, to suggest, and to coax, but never command Norman to do her bidding. Their bond is assumed, and Norman has simply grown to subconsciously accept it as normal, even in the face of strong opposition to the relationship from his brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), and English teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy). Norman is constantly overshadowed by people far more influential than he. Acting on the advice and whim of others is Norman’s specialty.

There’s only one explanation (or exposition, one might argue) for this that’s been given thus far. After guiding our suspicions onto Norma for the death of her husband, it is revealed midway through the season that it is Norman, in a fit of all-encompassing psychotic rage after his father harms Norma, who commits murder. This had apparently been going on for quite some time as Dylan, who left the family a few months prior to escape Norma’s manipulative ways, consistently reminds her of the turbulent marriage and its damaging effect on her sons. While Norman is directly responsible for his father’s death, he only did so because of Norma’s involvement. It is a subconscious trigger which fondles Norman’s psychotic nerve to protect his mother, manifesting itself in other ways in his conscious state, particularly within his skepticism regarding her relationship with Officer Shelby (Mike Vogel). The bond is psychological, physical only to the extent of Norma’s keen insistence that her son’s proximity remain consistently close. The bond is not gendered, but rather familial. Would these implications against Norma be any different if the roles were reversed? If Norma had been the physically abusive spouse instead of her husband? Understanding the bond and its balance between mental and physical (and Norman’s inability to accept casual affections from anyone else including Bradley, his crush and first sexual partner) is key to understanding the effects of possession itself versus lumping everything into the category of maternal smothering.

Although Norma is obsessively possessive of Norman, her power as a character is derived from her strong-headed will and conviction to her actions, not solely based on active sexual power or pull on Norman’s sexuality or any other man’s. We’ve been given enough information at this point to know that she’s more than capable of getting herself out of complex situations where coupling is only a loose connection versus a binding commitment. Shelby is a sexual deviant (he traffics sex slaves in and out of his house) Norma sees fit to use for her benefit only after he initiates an attraction. Norma falls into the right line of attraction at the right time. She doesn’t proposition him and serve her vagina with a side of deception, rather it is Shelby who pursues a relationship while Norma falls for him outside the net of intent she’d originally cast by complying with his advances; she grows more invested than simply indulging his desire for her own gain (and the opportunity he presents, on the opposite side of the law but willing to do things like steal incriminating evidence from the storage room to ensure it won’t be used against her), so her power over him transcends both of their sexual desires into something emotionally-based. He wants to protect her, and she is more than willing to accept the help without lording sex over his head; she doesn’t have to. “I love you, you idiot,” he tells her in Episode 4, and she smiles; they kiss as Shelby pushes Norma against her car amidst a backdrop of the misty bay. It’s almost sickeningly reminiscent of a romantic melodrama of the 1950s, indicating that Norma is able to have “real” relationships outside of the one she has with Norman. While sex might be a component, it’s not the definition. And Norma’s frustrations about her son’s budding sexuality seem to stem more from her knowledge of how she experiences sex as a would-be tool for manipulation rather than an all-out attempt to smother him. Again, this is not inherently a “gendered” issue, working against Hitchcock’s insistence on adorning Norman in women’s clothing and a wig as an immediate sign of othering.

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Norma’s ability to have an onscreen sexual relationship with a man who isn’t Norman’s father only strengthens “Bates Motel” as a challenger of Psycho-era ideals of female sexuality. In 1960 her son is a social deviant, a feminized male demonized not only for his murderous ways but also because he kills under the guise of being a woman—of believing he is a woman, of actively making himself a woman. His mother, dead throughout the entirety of the film, lives on only in Norman’s mind. He becomes his mother, or whatever memory of her Norman keeps alive within his own psyche, an unimaginably taboo subject for an audience not nearly as socially evolved (or accepting) as the one watching “Bates Motel” today. With or without being a killer, Norman is othered purely by gendered deviance. The “normal” side of him is calculating and precise; he is fully aware that there is a hole in the parlor wall into the adjacent hotel room. He actively peeps through it, wanting to see a young woman undress, which ultimately triggers the maternal murders. The clothes don’t materialize on his body. It is Norman who puts the dress and wig on, who grabs the knife from its resting state, and plunges it into Marion Crane’s body. It’s a female-driven, female-executed act of male sexuality (even the word penetration resonates masculinity). In “Bates Motel,” we’re still exploring a Norman who is unquestionably uncomfortable with the murderous dreams he has of Bradley (Nicola Peltz), after she reveals that their one-night stand was in fact just a one-night stand. Norman still passively receives the thoughts from his subconscious.

Present-day Norman is not mentally unstable because his mother is a woman with similar mental complexes; it is authority, rather, and the convolution of authority above Norman, which contributes to his state of being. Norman’s father, as we glimpsed a few episodes back, is abusive; lazy; violent. His mother, pushed into a corner far too many times, retaliates. She wins. But she wins through Norman, as her victimization triggers Norman’s patricide. It is Norman rebelling against the male side he’s yet to fully explore (his budding sexual escapades with Bradley, confused emotional attachment to Emma, his acceptance of Dylan as a pseudo father figure, etc., each indicate that Norman is not yet a “man,” but very much still an inexperienced boy on the verge of technical adulthood). Gender plays a role in Norman’s transformation, but it is far from the defining factor of his psychological evils. Similarly, Norma’s relationship with Shelby is not deviant because it is sexual, but rather pathetic in its teetering between legitimacy and fraudulence. Norma enjoys the romantics, but the burden of murderous guilt (and the benefits screwing a crooked cop with ways to decriminalize her public name) prompts her to keep the relationship from gaining as much momentum as Shelby would like. Shelby desires a nuclear family. He wants to claim both Norma and Norman as his own. The problem is he already asserts himself as a dominant sexual force as a sex-slave trafficker. He owns “vagina,” but not “sexuality,” and Norma is far too concerned with preserving an ideal state of illusion to toy with a man predisposed with old-fashioned perspectives on female sexual and domestic possession.

I’ve heard many fans of “Bates Motel,” new to the world of Psycho or longtime Hitchcock savants criticize Norma’s newly personified presence in this TV series. “Sure, blame it all on the woman,” I remember reading on Twitter after the premiere episode, the budding feminist anger building to a slow boil as the show continues. If the viewer is angry that Norma is a convoluted person, or angered by the fact that she’s a woman, or interprets that anger as the show being anti-woman, that’s simply the viewer’s responsibility and lazy projection. Norma is not evil because she’s a woman. At no point does “Bates Motel” offer us any indication that women are inherently deceptive and smothering with the intent to turn their sons into serial killers; Norma’s gender is treated as happenstance, as an afterthought; she is simply Norma. Do we need someone to blame? Is Psycho going to be any less impactful if “Bates Motel” offers an alternative framework to the one we’ve believed for fifty years? More importantly, is it inherently evil of us to assume that a male’s source of deviant corruption can only come from his mother? She’s a mother with questionable parenting skills, but skills which can’t be seen as the sole ingredient in the murderous monster mix of an adult Norman Bates—that is, perhaps, until season 2.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

Savoring the “Cinematical” Cord

“The Tree of Life” (Malick, 2011) and its lyrical musings on birth, life, and death.

The womb is the womb. Acceptance and recognition. This is the place which birthed us X or Y years ago.

A cave is the womb. The stone temples of ancient Egypt. Sifting and snaking through columns and crevices, recreating the physical mystique of this primordial pouch.

Things to represent it, things reproduced in its likeness. You must accept that this is where life begins.

It’s funny, then, that over the course of my academic career I would spent countless hours studying cinema. Why? It’s inevitable that at some point during a stuffy film lecture from a “seasoned” (or garnished and overcooked, dry crusts and all?) professor, you’ll hear them boldly equate some element of the medium to sex. What follows is usually the class’ collective “inner vomit,” filling the room with a pungent awkwardness and bitter aftertaste boasting hints of multiple “I just thought of Dr. Anderson’s wrinkly balls.”

But as awful as imagining unsexy people’s sexy exploits always will be, one of the most beautiful things I harvested from the impossibly pretentious film studies crop is the ability to recognize the almighty power of the symbol. From the basis of “Introduction to Film” all the way to “Advanced Film Seminar,” the filmgoer’s experience is constantly likened to that of a fetus’ engagement with the outside world from the womb.

One of the most beautiful comparisons came in the Spring of 2012. Marcia Landy, an accomplished academic and author in the film studies community, helmed the capstone course of the University of Pittsburgh’s film program from the head of a long wooden table, uncomfortably shoved into a tiny nook of a classroom on the Cathedral of Learning’s fourth floor. The room was about forty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Pipes and other structural framework poked out from every crack and corner on the ceiling, the windows blacked out with thick matted paper. This was a room where light was unwelcomed; a submarine quarter with a crew of fifteen students huddled around the table, our captain sitting focused and rigid at the head of the table. She was a small woman with a delicate frame. Her style and stature begged us to make jokes about Edith Head cheating death as she sat before us. Her eyes danced around to each of us as we performed standard introductions, a gaze which burned her genuine interest (albeit blank expression) into our skulls. We finished. Her eyes shifted around the room, making sure we knew she was going to connect her carefully-chosen words with our solitary surroundings.

“Welcome to the womb. Birthing ideas, that’s what we’re here for.”

As ridiculous as the comparison sounds, you can’t help but appreciate cinema’s likeness to the flux and flow of life. Its key defining moments throughout history have only, for lack of better words, birthed new schools of thought, consumption, and pure indulgence. Méliès and Godard, postmodern flair and avant garde innovation, Wilder and Hawks, Tarantino and Herzog…minds and movements spring forth from an ooze, a fetal framework set in motion so many years before. The medium as a whole is a child itself, growing, evolving, expanding beyond its humble beginnings as a cheap, disposable art which critics looked upon as a mere passing fad.

A fad which grew because we chose to expand it. Unlike a child, it is not inherently programmed to blossom on its own. It can’t develop its mind, it can’t write a poem, a song, or fall in love for the first time; it is dependent on our experiences and what we choose to do with them to make its transition from childhood to adolescence. The beauty is that it will never grow old. Will never die, will never leave its loved ones with a void they will try to fill for the rest of their lives.

I didn’t know it then, but when I was fresh from the womb myself (maybe a year or two old?), a void was filled to the brim. I was petrified. Fear, the governing emotion of the day, took hold of my hand and thrust it into my grandmother’s as she coaxed me into the theater. It was a re-release of “Snow White,” playing mid-afternoon at a theater that’s no longer there. She towered over me, protective, watchful, holding me close as we moved closer to the bright lights at the end of this mysterious tunnel I’d only “seen” once prior in a hospital room. I didn’t want to. I really didn’t want to. But she made it OK.

Another inch, both of us still standing in the middle of the aisle.

I welcomed comfort as I felt her hands on mine, her encouraging whispers filled my ears with loving disregard for the other sets in the room that were trying to hear the film, not her.

Another inch.

Was it the darkness? The bright light from the screen? The uncertainty of what lies within either one?  The inexperience of having to think of these things as a child with an undeveloped sense of the world?

Another inch. A few more this time.

Forty-five minutes later, half the movie over, and my grandmother’s patience not a hair thinner than it was upon entry, we sat down. And from that moment, I fell in love. A love was consummated, giving life to a passion that exists to this day.

I thank my grandmother for giving me that. If it weren’t for her (or my dad, mother, and pretty much everyone else in my family) forcing me into things as a child, I don’t think I’d have such intense passions for anything I’m, well, passionate about. It was a birth in itself, pushing and inching which gave way to a new entity that still grows and evolves with me as I grew. Went to school. Graduated college.

There were periods when the passion became routine. During the later parts of my furthered education, film became a chore. A weekly paper. A monthly exam. But I guess every child goes through the difficult stages. I was eating up thousands of my parent’s dollars as this was going on. Munched away at savings like film snacked on my sanity.

But alas, social maturity in college affords us other exploits. And, hand in hand, I learned that films are like one night stands; the bad ones forgotten, the good ones savored, the great ones growing into relationships spanning eternity. As sex is a natural part of the human evolutionary process, a passion is a similar byproduct of yourself, a child that never leaves your side (but also doesn’t bitch about wanting a pair of ‘cool kid’ jeans).

As I position myself as a college graduate, these sorts of experiences are all I have to go forward. I see the other students clamoring into their dorms, nervous about whom their professors will be. Whether they’ll like their roommate. If they’ll still talk to their best friend from high school three years from now. Leaving the “little kid” inside them at home, where they’ll revisit here and there. A new life, a rebirth.

For though I am childless, I wield my passions like a tiara-clad toddler dancing around onstage in that hooker outfit from “Pretty Woman.” I am scared now, approaching my new life as a “real” person. The previous 22 years (I tell everyone I’m 19 at parties) mean well, bidding my childhood goodbye and pushing me out into the cold hands of Dr. Life.

Inching closer to the light, holding my grandmother’s hand.

Norma & I; Spectatorship and the Female Body in “Sunset Boulevard”

It’s hard to imagine the history of cinema without considering the issue of misrepresentation. Every “minority” (that is, of course, because we are to assume and base any observation off of the notion that the spectator is male, right?) under the sun has been done a massive injustice in some way or another by the very medium we look for to exude honesty, clarity, and (for the most part), subjective interpellation on contemporary screens. Consistently represented as an object of sexual desire, the image of the female body has been placed on display for countless audiences since the creation of the medium itself. From early silent films to contemporary productions, the female body has consistently been the most prominent possession of the male spectator’s gaze, often facilitating (while also fulfilling) fantasies of the dominant, intended (generally) heterosexual male audience of American cinema. Generally, films which prominently display the female body adhere to conventional norms which would be deemed “beautiful” by their respective audiences. Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard instead chooses to emphasize the body of an aging film star, Norma Desmond, fallen from the graces of Hollywood’s silent era, attempting to regain prominence on the screen in a time period which sensationalizes her age versus the “youthful” image she so desperately aims to project. Sunset Boulevard ultimately presents the female star body in contrast to its conventionally “sexual” representation, opting for an aggressively critical view of Norma Desmond (and female stars in general) which condemns the industry which treats her as a disposable commodity, product, and lifeless object of spectacle. However, as a result of this depiction, the film implicates its audience in unique ways. Favoring what could initially be construed as a sadistic criticism, the film funnels elements which initially point to a portrayal of Norma as a “victim” into a characterization that reverses socially-coded roles the female body has played throughout the rather “recent” history (i.e., since the spread of cinema) of a “spectating” American society.

Facets of Norma Desmond’s life prior to her introduction to Sunset Boulevard’s audience function to build a framework for the film’s initial critique of her position within the film industry. The audience is given pieces of information pertaining to Norma’s life as a silent film star primarily through other characters’ recognition of her former place within the industry. It is Joe Gillis, a screenwriter Norma hires to help her finish a “return” script, who first notes his familiarity with her face upon meeting her. Joe, along with many others who come across Norma, does not immediately recognize who he is looking at when first gazing upon her. In fact, it is only through visual association that many of the characters come to recognize Norma in the first place, only understanding who she is (or “was,” in this case) by recognizing her physically through association with her body’s former place on film screens (“You’re Norma Desmond!” he exclaims, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”) (Sunset). Of course, vision is a sense most people possess and use to recognize everyday objects, but Norma’s face is presented as one which used to be a familiar object but has since retreated to the deeper parts of the public’s (and audiences’) memory after her successful silent film career came to an end. They have no reason to recall her days of stardom since she is no longer relevant to the film industry, instead associating her face with the faded grandeur it represents. She is a product used by an industry which no longer needs her, casting her aside to rot.

Norma’s post-filmic career amounts to nothing more than pitiful attempts at writing a script she hopes will facilitate her “return” to the screen. She does so within a decrepit mansion which serves as a metaphor for Norma and her body. The house is old, decaying, and assumedly once maintained a greater level of grandeur and aesthetic beauty than its current dilapidated state would suggest. Norma’s body, which was also more conventionally “beautiful” and young, similarly shows signs of age. Wrinkles and crow’s feet are visible on Norma’s face throughout the entire film, but are often juxtaposed with photographs of Norma showing what her face looked like when she was still a film star. This suggests that while Norma is still a physical being, the very thing which makes her human (life, itself) is also the cause of her position within the industry; she is old (by film industry standards), decaying (in a figurative sense), and no longer represents the youthful conventional standard of beauty valued by the film industry.

However, despite the fact that Norma is presented as “decaying” does not necessarily mean she is not a powerful woman. She has commanded the spectatorship of an entire nation of people who flocked to see her silent pictures when she was still a commercially viable star. It is, after all, this type of audience which made her and Gloria Swanson commercially viable enough to provide them a pedestal from which to fall in the first place, though the distinction between “commercially viable star” and “powerful woman” is something the representation of Norma Desmond’s character delicately straddles. As a result, the film converses with its audience on a dual track of association, speaking to their literal relationship to the film based on associations and references to “their” world and incorporating them into the diegesis of Sunset Boulevard. The film relies on the dual spectating groups gazing upon Norma (both male and female, both the diegetic audience and audience viewing the film itself) to make a case for her irrelevance to both. The film industry in 1950 America no longer “favored,” for lack of a better word, Gloria Swanson as an actress who could carry a picture to financial success, similar to how the film’s treatment of Norma sees her at the tail end of a career nosedive. The use of Gloria Swanson to portray Norma Desmond relies on the audience’s familiarity with the latter’s situation, based simply on the assumption that the film’s audience would draw conclusions based on former’s career and relate them to a characterization of the fictional character. Hence, Norma Desmond uses her financial power (given to her as a result of her willing participation in and harnessing of the objectifying realm of a male dominated film industry) in an attempt to regain the “visual” power that results from being an attractive, youthful woman in front of a camera.  She will “buy” a screenwriter to finish her “return” screenplay, while also commanding his sexual attention at the same time.

If Norma is to be successful at “returning” to the screen she vacated with the coming of the “sound” era, she must convince both the audience of Sunset Boulevard and the audience within Sunset Boulevard that she is still capable of commanding the spectator’s gaze. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey states that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (203). In essence, the female body is the defining point of interest of the male gaze, with Mulvey further commenting that “the beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look” (Visual 206). Mulvey’s observations point to the classical representation of women in films as the object themselves, created and viewed by a male-dominated industry and perspective respectively. Sunset Boulevard, however, utilizes the aforementioned metaphor of the mansion to frame Norma’s insistence that the gaze—any gaze, for that matter—be focused on her, in an attempt to regain the visual power she’s since lost.

Despite the mansion’s exterior implying that its owner is a forgotten film star, the interior of Norma’s home is maintained to its inhabitant’s personal standards of self-indulgent grandiosity, becoming a metaphor for its owner’s insistence on commanding the look of a spectator. Its marble flooring is waxed (as Norma tells Joe on New Year’s Eve), its rooms ornately decorated, and its lavish appearance generally maintained. Similarly, Norma attempts to maintain a sort of interior balance within herself by adorning her body with lavish costumes which recall those she donned in the films she once starred in. Norma becomes fixated on glamorizing her outwards appearance in an attempt to appear youthful and relevant to the film industry, wearing headpieces, jewelry, and flamboyant gowns and accessories (none more excessive than the ensemble she wears on New Year’s Eve) to reflect not only the monetary stability being a film star provided her but also to preserve her body’s physical image as a commodified star whose physical appearance will earn money. As Norma reveals towards the middle of the film, however, most of her financial prosperity comes from business ventures (“I’ve got oil in Bakersfield pumping…what’s it for but to buy us anything we want?” she asks Joe) and not with income from making films, which renders her decorating her body like delusional attempts at physically appearing as a film star versus actually being one (Sunset). This does not, however, demean her prowess as a businesswoman. The film casts her in an exaggerated light in reference to her attempt at a return to film, but this exposition of the source of her income only strengthens the impression of Norma as powerful in her own regard. She is not simply a “has been” film star; she is now an expanded brand of business ventures, making a stake in male-dominated business industries since she has arrived at a temporary (at least, to her) roadblock along the road to becoming a relevant film star once again.

Because of the emphasis on Norma’s image and the consistent obsession with her appearance, it becomes clear that her presence in the film industry is what facilitated her insistence on creating a spectacle of her body. Because silent films relied on visual spectacle to appeal to an audience (pantomime performances, lavish costumes and sets, etc.) Norma is conditioned to do the same in her efforts to “return” to prominence. As a result, she continuously forces Joe to watch her old films, look at her old head shots, and fondle her when she forcibly places herself within his embrace (at the pool when she dries him off, when she clutches him during a screening of her film, etc.). This sort of “reaching” and “fondling” of Joe indicates a firm grasp she has on the male gaze; even though she “paid” for Joe’s presence in her life, she has command and control over it. She is not the victim of his gaze, but rather the being which facilitates and demands it. She is his possession, but only because she chooses to do so, and he is merely a manipulative reversal (of sorts) of the traditional “femme fatale.”

Norma also dresses herself in the aforementioned costumes, creating a physical spectacle of her body simply by wearing them and drawing attention to herself by way of their flashy materials and construction, commanding again Joe’s gaze but also the gaze of the audience (the flamboyance of Norma’s attire is of key importance, because they appeal to both genders, not overtly sexual enough to only demand the male gaze). Norma is essentially forcing her body to be gazed upon not only by Joe but also by the audience of Sunset Boulevard, what with her flashy attire and gestural mannerisms (which mimic those performed in silent film pictures) suggesting Norma’s undying insertion of herself into the film industry. If the films won’t come to her, she will literally bring them (and the life that comes with being a film star) to herself; she will buy the most expensive clothing and jewelry, “perform” exaggerated expressions and physical movements in everyday life, and fine-tune her body to her perceived level of perfection since she consciously desires to be the “product,” not the helpless victim of the male gaze who is unknowingly subjected to the male gaze. She recreates the familiar spectacle of silent films in her everyday life, even going as far as to impersonate silent film icon Charlie Chaplin in an attempt to humor Joe but also draw another line of familiarity between the audience of Sunset Boulevard and her own world. Her identity as a true “product” of the film industry becomes apparent, as does her insistence and power enough to command that it return, what with the industry literally intruding upon her life through her conscious decision to draw attention to herself as a spectacle. This does not, however, strip her of her commanding, powerful presence; merely it marks a willing desire to attain the attention by her own means, not the means of the men who “created” her (she tells Max she doesn’t want to speak on the phone when she receives a call from one of DeMille’s assistants, letting the phone call go unacknowledged because she is not being appropriately sought after in the way she hoped to orchestrate).

After all, as Norma says, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” so she will force the “small” (as she perceives it) industry upon her life through her grandiose life practices of Gloria Swanson’s metaperformance and Norma’s conspicuous consumption (Sunset). The term metaperformance is given to film performances that essentially entail the actor or actress performing within their initial performance; In other words metaperformance describes a performance in which the actor or actress is playing an actor or actress who is “acting” within the context of the containing film. To conceptualize metaperformance is to understand the medium of film itself, seeing as one must recognize that the person they are seeing act the part of a character onscreen is in fact a person who exists within reality and is only portraying a figure in a fictional (sometimes biographical or reality-based) medium. Metaperformance describes the extra layer of performing within a performance on top of the actor or actress’ initial performance. In essence, metaperformance is two performances contained within one performer. Norma has been used and discarded by the industry that made her a star in the first place, without a single role or performance since the silent film era ended. Her overemphasized enunciation, extravagant costumes, and bodily motions reminiscent of those belonging to an actress in a silent picture indicate that Desmond has taken on the responsibility of “acting” in her everyday life. She is tied to the industry which “created” her much as a car is tied to the manufacturer which produced it. When a BMW breaks down or requires an extra part to work again, those who designed and built the car will supply the replacement, continuing a line of consistency from producer to product. Here, Norma carries silent film “performance” with her in everyday life, signifying that her body is a product of the film industry, albeit a self-made spectacle with no one “important” (an actual diegetic film “audience”) viewing it in order to make the product a commercially viable one.

A key scene in Sunset Boulevard uses elements of metaperformance to emphasize Norma’s body as a physical product. Just minutes prior to shooting Joe, Norma is attempting to thank him for turning Betty Schaefer, his “real” love interest, away from the mansion after she arrives to retrieve him. Joe retreats to his room and Norma, sans elaborate makeup and ornate costuming, attempts to follow him. She repeats Joe’s name over and over as he ignores her and enters the room, shutting the door behind him. Norma rushes to the closed door, but stops dead in her tracks as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror hanging in the hallway. The audience is given two images of Desmond’s face; one that gazes at itself, and one which gazes back. The image takes on dual meaning. At once the scene registers as showcasing the true nature of the “audience” for Norma’s body (the only audience member being herself). Because Norma is able to “gaze” upon this “natural” (only intended to imply that she is physically “there”) image of herself in the mirror, she is able to see her body as a physically unfit object for a man to see what with chemical peels dangling from her temples, wrinkles creasing over her face, and not a stitch of makeup on to cover it all up. She rips the peels off, attempting to “fix” her face by running her fingers over it and through her hair. Because the illusion of “youth” is spoiled when she sees the very means by which she hopes to achieve it (the chemical peels), she deems her body unfit for the male to gaze upon. She removes the “falsities,” fixes her hair, and readjusts her posture to suggest that which a film star would have as she stepped before a camera shooting a motion picture. By incorporating more “camera-friendly” elements into her physical appearance in this scene, Norma again makes herself “acceptable” for the male, Joe, to physically “see” her in an emotional state, emphasizing the intrusion of the film industry’s standards of the female body as objectified spectacle onto her “real” life, albeit harnessed in a conscious effort to persuade Joe to stay in her life (it is only when he goes against her powerful will that she “snaps” and kills him).

The final sequence of the film proceeding the murder of Joe at the hands of Norma similarly emphasizes Norma’s physical objectification by the film industry which cast her aside years prior. A crowd of reporters and camera crews swarm Norma’s house after word gets out that she shot Joe. Reporters and journalists (including a cameo by real-life gossip columnist Hetta Hopper) hope to capitalize on the misfortune the “famous star of yesteryear” brought upon herself, indicating the media and public desire to sensationalize stars and exploit their connection to the industry even when they are no longer a commercially viable “star,” as is the case with Norma (Sunset). Norma ignores reporters attempting to question her as she preps her face (once again, maintaining the spectacle) for the cameras downstairs, thinking they are part of a motion picture crew when in actuality they are there to document her arrest. Norma’s delusions of starring in another picture lead her to believe that she is on the Paramount lot filming another picture, pantomiming in full costume as she wafts down the stairs of her mansion towards the cameras as if she were playing the role of a princess for a film.

As Norma reaches the bottom of the stairs she pauses, thanking everyone in the room for welcoming her back to the set of a picture and expressing excitement for her future as a film star. The power of the scene comes from two sources, the first of which drawing from the fact that it is one of the only scenes in the film where Norma commands an audience who watches her perform. Granted, they are not gazing upon her body for its brilliant costuming or to see a brilliant performance for the screen as she desires, but rather they sensationalize and objectify her as a culmination of what it means to “fail” in the eyes of the film industry. Norma then turns toward the camera from which the audience of Sunset Boulevard gazes upon her, contorting her arms in a stew of acrobatics and gestural exaggeration as the lens blurs, distorting her face into a monstrously unidentifiable mixture of makeup, motion, and costume (the only things which become traceable in the silhouette created by the blur). At once this scene demonizes both the media and film industry which produced Norma, but also condemns the star herself for lending her life to such a monopolizing industry which sensationalized her body onscreen as well as in its state of post-stardom fragility which facilitates her delusions.

The scene also functions to implicate the audience of Sunset Boulevard for participating in the capitalist structure of the film industry which killed Norma’s career. The popularization of synchronized sound ushered the silent era of Hollywood out, putting stars such as Norma Desmond (and Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, for that matter) out of work as “fresh” faces were implemented into the “talkies.” Sunset Boulevard is one such “talking” picture documenting the effect the transition from silent films to sound films, and viewing the descent of a silent film star by way of a sound picture lends itself to the condemnation of the audience as well. The audience viewing Sunset Boulevard indulges in consuming the spectacle of Norma’s presentation of her body as spectacle within a film which uses sound technology that killed her career. The audience is therefore “guilty” of rendering Norma’s body as a product as well, playing into the producer/consumer model which dictated the decision to transition to sound films from the silent era. Norma was simply “loose fat” which needed to be cut during the transition, the film chronicling her expenditure as a used product audiences no longer desired via the very technical innovation which put her in that place to begin with. It is this reversal and implication of the audience which functions as a testament to the dual relationship of the narrative and its elements to the audience of the film itself. Norma, on one hand, can be viewed as the victim of such a cruel and scrutinizing industry, but her power to transcend the narrative of Sunset Boulevard and make a predatory move upon the spectator of the film speaks volumes about her mastery of bringing the gaze upon herself. She is controlled by the industry which “created” her, but she spends a vast majority of the film proving that she has a relevance to the art of spectacle, commanding attention upon herself and harnessing that attention to aide her “return” to the diegetic public which once bowed at her feet.

It becomes clear through the seamless blending of Norma Desmond’s extra-filmic life with delusions inspired by her “reign” as a silent film star that her body is nothing more than a commodified product. She adorns herself in lavish costumes and moves about her deserted mansion in highly exaggerated fashion, mimicking the pantomime of her former days acting in silent pictures. Even when the film attempts to inspire sympathy for Norma, that sympathy is turned into guilt, using the medium of the sound picture to incriminate the audience for consuming it and, in essence, killing Norma’s silent film career. Through such technical and thematic elements, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard creates a critical view of the female star’s body and the industry which “produced” it, shying from the typically sexual representations of the female body and instead condemning the industry wide standard of objectifying female stars’ bodies through the use of its star as a self-created spectacle for both diegetic and non-diegetic audiences. But, Norma’s commanding of an audience’s spectatorship based simply on creating visual spectacle out of her life and body remains a testament to her power as a physical point of awe, simply without any commercial outlet to funnel her awesome qualities into. The real victim of the film, then, becomes the audience of both Sunset Boulevard and the diegetic audience within the film; we are all at the mercy of Norma Desmond, regardless of how the male gaze “wants” to frame her, she will ultimately seek control and (usually) succeed.

2010 Thus Far; Top 10 Films, Pretentious Students, and Shameless Hating on Kathryn Bigelow

In case you haven’t noticed (holla at my 2 faithful readers out there!) I’ve been severely slacking on my blog game as of late. Starting my film classes at Pitt this semester has really taken a toll on my love for film, and I can confidently say I’ve never felt more defeated in my life. You know, film classes really destroy the medium. At least that’s how I feel right now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve encountered some fabulous instructors who give a great deal of insight into the topics their teaching (shoutout to Neepa!) and really give a new perspective on tired elements of the industry, but I feel like constantly (and consistently) analyzing the shit out of individual works of art totally strips any and all mystique away from these personalized products. I’m surrounded by (and being swallowed alive by) the pretentious arthouse crowd I’ve come to know as peers (aka fellow film students) who pretend to be completely unaware of the vast amount of made-up-but-intellectual-sounding bullshit that’s coming out of their mouths as if they’ve accidentally talked themselves into a goldmine of analytical pretention concerning the film under discussion. I mean yeah, I can make Esper’s The Maniac sound like a critique on 1930s censorship masked as brilliant piece of intentionally-bad filmmaking by using big words, too, but I’m going to take it for what it is; a really shitty, half-assed waste of time to sit through.

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But, I’m getting way off-topic here…why did I start writing this piece again, you may ask? That’s right, to inform all six of you reading this (the only two that count are the aforementioned faithful readers, not including my grandfather and parents…and yes I’m including the second read my grandfather will probably give this in my count) of my annual pre-Oscar season top 10 of the year so far. And what better time to do this than that point during the year just before I become inundated (and slightly incapacitated) by brilliant performances and emotional low-blows whilst crying by myself at the local arthouse theater…why yes, Oscar Season is nearly upon us! (note: I wish I had more friends willing to accompany me to these things, but the thought of sitting through two hours of foreign films or things that don’t involve fake shaky cam ghosts doesn’t exactly entice the majority of my circle of friends).
So far this year, we’ve quite honestly seen some of the most interesting year-to-date release patterns I can recall of the past decade. I mean hell, Shutter Island went from being last year’s top contender in a handful of major categories to a *possible* technical filler nominee simply by pushing its release date to the first quarter of this year. We also watched The Kids Are All Right single-handedly do nothing to cement itself as a pre-beginning-race shoe-in for Best Picture, the only true lock on the radar at this point in any category. Baffling, I know…and not because of the quality of the film, but once again because of the release date. Summer releases generally don’t garner the acclaim needed to sustain a successful awards run, but Kids has come out of nowhere (thanks in large part to its progressive message’s relevance to society’s shift in ideology concerning sexuality) but will undoubtedly end up somewhere truly substantial. I really see this film maintaining its awards season steam well beyond its time, something modern BP winners rarely succeed in doing (Hurt Locker wha? Million Dollar Baby wai?). Pluse, I mean, you can’t deny that my love for the film has anything to do with the presence of goddess Julianne Moore (who some of you will remember I’ve included in my made-while-drunk list of “Best People in the Whole World”…yes, no other qualifiers necessary other than simply being “Best” to me while intoxicated) who gives her usual effervescent (I believe I misspelled that word, but I’m leaving it like that because it amuses me) performance as a lovely lezzy (melts my heart every time). I fear that the Academy will shy away from Moore in favor of Bening, though, simply based on marketing placing Bening at the forefront of the film’s cast. Ugh. Screw lead roles, I’m all for the ANTM-alum (miss Yaya DaCosta, holla Cycle 3!) getting some major screentime in the film. Score one for Tyra.
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The majority of quality releases for 2010 thus far have undeniably come from veteran directors engaging in the usual arthouse/independent stint; Rodrigo Garcia stuck true to his reflective I-wish-I-were-a-woman ways with the fabulously, dishearteningly bleak Mother and Child (can you sense that I get immense pleasure out of acknowledging that I like feeling such emotional turmoil whilst watching a film?) of which contains one of the best performances of the entire year from Naomi Watts; Mark Romanek treated us to another dazzlingly depressing (albeit thematically irrelevant, even though it thinks it isn’t) film with Never Let Me Go; and Debra Granik also returns (after a 6 year hiatus from 2004’s epic Down to the Bone) with the taut and sufficiently rattling Winter’s Bone, a film (and director, I might add) that recalls the female-empowerment (deservedly so, as was not the case with Kathryn Bigelow) trip (both narratively and in terms of the awards circuit) of Frozen River’s Courtney Hunt two years ago.
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But 2010’s stand-out gem is none other than Luca Guadagnino’s brutal portrait of domestic feminine sacrifice I Am Love. Guadagnino directs Tilda Swinton in one of the most haunting and relevant narratives to grace American screens since Rachel Getting Married. Swinton gives one of the best performances of her career (as she usually tends to do in these under-the-radar arthouse pictures) thanks to her unflinching willingness to delve into territory many other actresses of her iconic status would dare tread.
But what to look forward to? What’s in store for us this upcoming Oscar Season? Well, my darlings, that’s an entirely different post that I’m not all that inclined to spend an hour crafting right now. For the time being, let’s just marvel at what we’ve been graced with thus far into the year, and giddily anticipate the vast amounts of cinematic fabulosity (holla Kimora) we know is coming our way over the next few months *cough* Black. Freaking. Swan *cough*. Cheers to 2010 so far. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? The only direction a year following one in which this happened…
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…can only be up, right? Here’s hoping…

Oh and PS, no, I haven’t grown tired of quoting the Meryl Streep version of Julia Child at ear-splitting levels at amusingly-inappropriate times…oh how 2009 will live on in mysterious ways.

Top 10 of 2010 (So Far)

1 – I Am Love

2 – The Kids Are All Right

3 – Catfish

4 – Mother and Child

5 – Never Let Me Go

6 – I’m Still Here

7 – Conviction

8 – Shutter Island

9 – Chloe

10 – Winter’s Bone