Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bridesmaids and The Tree of Life

Sometimes I wonder why I’m so drawn to theater as opposed to the other arts, especially film. “You love movies,” I tell myself. “Movies have performances and (usually) narratives and… so many of the things you love to talk about in theater. So why not?”

Seeing Bridesmaids and The Tree of Life helped me answer that question. I walked away from both films feeling so beaten over the head with Hollywood gender stereotypes that I could not fully appreciate what the directors—Paul Feig and Terrence Malick, respectively—did accomplish. One could rebut, especially re: Malick’s film, with its expansive subject matter, that my standards are too high, my mind one-track. But I question whether my inability to access the films is wholly my fault. Part of the blame surely lies with the lack of women directors and writers involved in both these films and the medium as a whole.

Granted, two women—Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo—did write Bridesmaids, which follows Annie (also Wiig) as she’s asked to be the maid of honor at her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. You see Wiig and Mumulo’s influence most in the unusual degree of nuance with which they imbue the female leads: the way Annie avoids her passion, baking; how Lillian tries to conceal her hurt as she forgives Annie her various faux pas.

But even as some of the film’s relationships transcend stereotype, others are steeped in it: cattiness, the film suggests, dominates female interaction, most notably in Annie’s rivalry with Helen (Rose Byrne) her competitor for the title of maid of honor (and that of Lillian’s best friend). Fat jokes abound (heroically weathered by Melissa McCarthy), and, just for the lowest common denominator, an episode of explosive bathroom humor is sure to titillate. (David Denby reports that this last scene was added only “at the insistence of Feig and the producer, Judd Apatow.")

What’s more, even as the film purports to center on female friendship, it still implies that a woman is not complete until she has snagged a man, hence the obligatory male binary of the sleazy dickhead (Jon Hamm) and the too-accommodating puppy dog (Chris O’Dowd). Even as Annie inevitably makes the obvious romantic choice in the end, she has to suffer through demeaning sex and even more demeaning pillow talk to get there. “It’s always difficult to watch a woman debase herself,” my mom said as we were leaving the theater. The film doesn’t condone the debasing, but it doesn’t condemn it either. Its attitude is more one of resignation—and for me, that’s even more difficult to watch than the debasement itself. “What saves Bridesmaids,” David Denby writes, “is Feig’s love of performers—in particular, his love of actresses.” I’d argue that it’s the other way around: It's Wiig and Mumulo’s writing that (tries to) save us from Feig’s “affection.”

While the women in Bridesmaids keep themselves impeccably put together (or squeezed into molds), aided by the latest in cosmetic technology, the women, or should I say, the woman in The Tree of Life unfurls, billows and wafts. Always framed by her windswept hair, rustling curtains or ballooning skirts, Jessica Chastain, playing the film’s mother character, is the picture of nostalgia, Oedipal desire, idealized femininity—a characterization that makes sense, given that the film is less a narrative than a visual exploration. Not that it doesn’t have a plot, per se: the film follows a family in 1950s Waco, Texas, from the point of view of its eldest son (Hunter McCracken), as he is perilously on the verge of growing up.

Malick’s compositions are exquisite; watching each frame ooze mesmerizingly into the next, I was reminded of the hypnotic power of a lava lamp—a comparison I felt silly making until lava actually appeared. The Tree of Life includes a history of the earth (digitally rendered, somewhat abridged), from its formation at the beginning of the solar system, through its molten, Jurassic and icy phases, and into the present. It takes a while to get into, this digression of titanic proportions—until, in fact, life appears, in all its unicellular glory. Creation is a miracle, Malick reminds us—but so is the everyday. Malick’s eye is an outsider's: every shot, be it of a toddler’s hand gripping the edge of a bathtub or a dinosaur-annihilating asteroid plunging into the ocean, is wonderful, strange and always limned with foreboding. For him, our cosmological history informs, enriches and dignifies the banalities of domesticity.

Though it’s pretty, the film isn’t perfect. As others have written, the pieces with Sean Penn, as an older version of the young protagonist, detract. Endings proliferate. And the voiceover feels superfluous, even silly and trite. Malick doesn’t need to go to such lengths to reveal his characters’ thoughts. His family conflicts are at their most interesting and tense when he keeps things quiet, allowing a look or an averted one to do all the talking.

But what transcends the flaws is not the film’s aimless beauty but Malick’s deep understanding of childhood: how truly terrifying an angry parent (Brad Pitt, as the loving but volcanic father figure) can be, how you get yourself into trouble and want to get out of it but, not knowing how, must learn to stand your ground, too firmly—a troubling vision of what it means to grow up.

But Malick’s portrayal of womanhood also comes from a child’s point of view: His women exist on a spectrum of maternal to sexual. Even as their world, with its shut drawers and closeted thoughts, is eminently unknowable, the women themselves are always good, pure, turning the other cheek to physical and emotional abuse, from husband or son.

Carina Chocano wrote in the Times recently that she’s tired of “strong female characters” in movies:

What we think of as “virtuous,” or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. "Strong female characters," in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough "strong" female characters in the movies—it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.

She mentions Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids as just such an example of a realistically weak character, and I guess for her Chastain’s in The Tree of Life would count as an unrealistically weak one.

But I think this discussion of strong vs. weak female characters misses the real problem. Screen actresses seem either simplified (Chastain) or oppressed (Wiig), and they’re going to keep being that way until more female artists author the works, a problem well documented by Manohla Dargis, also in the Times:

From now through August, American films will again be almost all male, almost all the time… There are 130 or so movies opening in New York between now and September, about 20 by women, half of them documentaries.

Those other ten women, she goes on, even if they aren’t working in chick flicks, a "genre ghetto that has helped entomb careers and contaminated the very idea of the woman’s picture,” just don’t make work that’s as bold as that of female filmmakers in other countries:

American women working in the commercial field, both studio and independent, tend to skew softer and safer, quirkier and cuter, and, really, considering how tough a sell that women’s stories are, it’s no wonder.

I don’t know whether women suffer from more or less stereotyping in theater than they do in film. But I do know that, once the curtain goes up on a theatre performance, it’s the actresses (or actors, if you must) who call the shots. Actresses in film sacrifice that power from the moment they hear, "Cut!"

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