Friday, October 2, 2009

Designing Women

It's no secret that men and women view things through a different lens. Traditional stereotypes cast men as hunter-warriors and women as nurturer-gatherers. Men are often characterized as thinking along strictly linear lines while women are portrayed as understanding how consequences play out in a ripple effect.

While some men remain focused on winning at all costs, many women (especially those who have raised children) are willing to redefine victory. While some men brag about their sexual prowess, only to pass out soon after orgasm, many women enjoy extended foreplay and are capable of multiple orgasms

Sheryl WuDunn (the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize) recently did a stellar job of trying to school Stephen Colbert on the essential differences in how men and women approach a challenge:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sheryl WuDunn
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While some people embrace the simple standard that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, I have always preferred the lyrics to Dolly Levi's first number in Jerry Herman's musical, Hello, Dolly!:
"I have always been a woman who arranges things,
For the pleasure and the profit it derives.
I have always been a woman who arranges things,
Like furniture and daffodils and lives.

When a man with a timid tongue
Meets a girl with a diffident air,
Why should the tortured creatures beat around the bush
When heaven knows Mother Nature always needs a little push?
So I put my hand in here,
I put my hand in there.

And a girl over six foot three
Loves a man who comes up to her ear.
Surely it's obvious she'll never be seduced
'Til some kind soul condescends
To give her beau a little boost.
So I put my hand in there,
I put my hand in here.

I have always been a woman who arranges things
It's my duty to assist the Lord above.
I have always been a woman who arranges things
Like luncheon parties, poker games, and love.

My aplomb at cosmetic art
Turned a frump to a trump lady fair.
She had a countenance a little bit like Scrooge,
But oh, today, you would swear
The Lord himself applied the rouge

I put my hand in here
And twist a little, stir a little,
Him a little, her a little,
Shape a little, mold a little,
Some poor chap gets sold a little.
When I use my fist a little,
Some young bride gets kissed a little.
Pressure with the thumbs,
Matrimony comes
When, I put my hand in there.

For when my little pinkie wiggles,
Some young maiden gets the giggles.
Then I make my knuckles active,
"My," he says, "She's so attractive."
Then I move my index digit
And they both begin to fidget.
Then I clench my palm,
The preacher reads a psalm
When, I put my hand in there!"
It's not so much that women are scheming manipulators (although some have definitely earned that distinction). After years of picking up after others, women may simply have developed stronger problem-solving skills.
  • A woman may not be paralyzed by traditional male hangups.
  • A woman may have more skill at finessing results so that more than one person triumphs.
  • Sometimes the world, as seen through a woman's eyes, defies masculine tradition.
  • To quote an old feminist adage: "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."
* * * * * * * *
Soon to be seen at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, Måns Herngren watery comedy, The Swimsuit Issue, takes its inspiration from films like 1997's The Full Monty and 2003's Calendar Girls. The big difference here is that most of its characters have jobs. No one is trying to raise money for a charitable cause.

A former journalist (currently unemployed) who quit his job in a huff after a female editor demanded that he rewrite an article to reflect her views, Fredrik (Jonas Inde) is facing a crisis on the home front. His former wife -- who makes more money than him -- has been offered a job in London. In order to get Fredrik to let their daughter stay with him while she is gone, his ex-wife has agreed to subsidize the cost of the arrangement.

Meanwhile, Fredrik and his male friends are trying to find a new way to remain viable as a team. Two decades ago, they came close to winning one of Sweden's floorball competitions. Now in their 40s, some of the men have gotten married or turned flabby. The latest insult is being told that they have to relinquish their playing time because of a gym policy that favors children, women, and the disabled.

When, prior to his wedding, the team threw a drag bachelor party for Larry, they had no idea that the video that captured their shenanigans might lead to an entirely new goal in life. The footage -- which shows Larry (Jimmy Lindström) in a wedding dress along with his friends in red women's swimsuits, pretending to perform as a synchronized swimming team -- proves to be the high point of Larry's wedding celebration. One of the guests even offers big money for the team to perform at one of her parties.

However, minus the drag element, their act falls flat on its face. When Fredrik's 17-year-old daughter, Sara (Amanda Davin) takes her father to task for thinking that a bunch of middle-aged, out-of-shape men could compete in Berlin as a synchronized swim team, she knows what she's talking about. Sara is, after all, one of the budding talents on an all-girl's synchronized swim team (the sport has been strictly seen as a woman's event for decades).

When Fredrik learns that synchronized swimming was originally a men's event in competitions, his macho need to win kicks into gear. Convincing his teammates that they should try to compete in the upcoming World Cup games in Berlin, his road to glory is filled with unexpected challenges:
  • Some of his friends can barely float, much less hold their breath underwater for 30 seconds.
  • Borje (Shebly Niavarani) is noticeably pudgy and slower than the other swimmers.
  • Viktor (Peter Gardiner), who insists that he is not homophobic, harbors a secret fear of such unmacho things as pedicures. When a late addition to the team (Ossi Niskala) performs a screamingly flamboyant audition, Viktor expresses grave concerns that Jarmo might be, you know, um....... only to hear his teammates reply that yes, indeed, Jarmo is.......Finnish!
  • The team doesn't have enough men to meet the requirements for the Berlin contest.
  • Fredrik has to find a pool where they can practice (some have tried to use the mechanical dollies in an auto repair shop where one of Fredrik's friends is employed).
  • They are in desperate need of a coach.
Co-written by Måns Herngren and Brian Cordray, The Swimsuit Issue follows a group whose athletic dream is essentially rescued by a teenage girl with far more maturity than all of her father's male friends put together. Sara's ability to whip the team into shape and, at the last minute, rescue her father from his macho stupidity, is enhanced by lots of good-natured teasing and some appealing underwater photography. However, be warned that Swedish is not the easiest language to listen to while trying to read subtitles. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
What happens when a poor young woman realizes that conventional romance has no appeal for her and that she doesn't need -- or even want -- a man to define her existence? What happens when she comprehends that men control all the physical and financial assets she will require in order to thrive? What happens when she decides to spurn the path to matrimony and pursue a career on her own?

You get a film like Coco Before Chanel, which opens this weekend in Bay area cinemas. When I watched this film at a press screening several weeks ago I couldn't figure out what felt so wrong.

Was I tired? No.
Was I unsympathetic? No.
Was there something technically wrong with the film? No.

I tip my hat to Eugene Novikov for his clinical diagnosis of the problem: "The only thing worse than the biopic... is the biopic of someone to whom nothing interesting actually happens."

Long before Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem were born, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was living life very much on her own terms. Born in 1883, she spent several years living in an orphanage before becoming a singing waitress. Even after she is introduced to the wealthy Parisian playboy Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) who becomes her lover, the audience can't help but notice gears of hardened steel clicking behind Audrey Tautou's deep, dark eyes.

As directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine, Coco Before Chanel depicts the young Gabrielle as an icy realist unable and unwilling to make the standard compromises that cause so many other women's lives to implode into meaninglessness. With Tautou offering a near glacial performance in the lead role, one almost gets the feeling that Coco is as cold-blooded as a velociraptor silently waiting for the exact moment to pounce on its prey.

The essence of a self-made woman, Chanel propels herself into situations with a daring that would have been scandalous for a less intelligent woman. Pushing her way into Balsan's lush life, she is eventually introduced to the one true love of her life -- Captain Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) -- an English polo player who was killed in a tragic automobile accident in 1919. As she watches some society women at a horse race, her eyes soak in every detail of their clothing with the intensity of a scanning device. Her developing artistic vision has little room for frivolity.

While there is much to admire in Fontaine's film (particularly some magnificent long shots and the film's constant background of waltz music), there is a coldness to Tautou's performance that, although befitting the character, may prevent audiences from embracing Coco Before Chanel. Emmanuelle Devos delivers a lovely performance as the actress Emilienne d'Alençon (a former love of Balsan's). Unless you're already dying of sentimentality, you might want to bring a book with you. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
It takes a razor-sharp, cold-hearted lesbian to come up with a workable solution for the protagonist in The Little Dog Laughed, which recently began a limited run at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. A play about how and why one goes about covering up a pack of lies, Douglas Carter Beane's bittersweet comedy knows its territory all too well.

The inspiration for Beane's play came to him after the film rights to his 1997 play. As Bees In Honey Drown, were sold and an attempt was made to "straighten out" ("de-gay") one of its main characters in order for the film to have "wider appeal." As Beane started to work on The Little Dog Laughed, his original concept was to have one of his characters be a closeted neocon Republican congressman. In an interview with NCTC Development Officer Meredith Lee, he recalls that:
"I was in San Francisco having cocktails with Armistead Maupin when I mentioned in passing that I was writing a play and was considering changing a congressman to a closeted gay movie star. But that all seemed so dated and Armistead had written about it in the seventies. Armistead suddenly got very serious (his moods are like the San Francisco fog that way) and he listed 20 major stars who were closeted. I was immediately shocked by how many I know about, but had forgotten about because they were "married." Or how many I had never even thought about. I created Mitch Green that night at the W Hotel. I needed to create the world of this twisted logic to keep Mitch confused, a person who would always tell the truth no matter how shocking it was. Every movie star Armistead mentioned is still in the closet, so no progress has been made whatsoever. Television seems to be making great painless progress, but movies are stuck. We now even have openly gay film directors publicly telling gay actors to stay in the closet if they want a career."
A tautly-written and highly economic play to produce, The Little Dog Laughed revolves around four deeply-conflicted characters:
  • Mitchell Green (Matt Socha) is a popular Hollywood actor, a handsome leading man who has always been cast as the extremely heterosexual and likable "boy next door." Whenever Mitch gets into a tight spot, he can always turn to his agent, Diane, who will know what needs to be done. The only problem is that when Mitch is on the road and drinking to combat his loneliness, the gay boy inside of him keeps trying to break free in what Diane refers to as his "recurrent bouts of homosexuality."
  • Diane (Michaela Greeley) is Mitch's scheming agent, a woman with a heart as cold as nails who thrives on superficiality and negotiating contract points. Always looking out for the best interests of her client, Diane has determined that, in order to boost Mitch's career, she should buy the film rights to a brilliant new play in which Mitch would portray a gay character. Got that? A closeted gay man who has made a living by playing straight will pretend to be gay as a way of advancing his career in Hollywood.
  • Alex (Justin DuPuis) is the surprisingly sweet gay-for-pay hustler who shows up at Mitch's hotel room after the drunken actor dials an escort service he saw advertised on late night cable television. Although Alex would like to believe that he's really straight (after all, he continues to have sex with women), his encounter with Mitch has stirred some latent desires in his heart as well as his groin.
  • Ellen (Danielle Perata) is Alex's best friend since high school. No sooner does Alex begin to have feelings for Mitch than Ellen discovers that she is pregnant with Alex's child.
Matt Socha and Justin DuPuis (Photo by: Lois Tema)

While Beane's script is full of gossip, dish, and leaves no gonad unturned, I was most impressed by Kuo-Hao Lo's beautiful unit set, which may just be one of the best sets ever designed for New Conservatory Theatre Center. As Mitch, Matt Socha has just the right amount of cute closeted male puppitude to make you want to reach out and either slap the shit out of him or take him over your knee, pull down his pants and spank him for being such a bad boy and cowardly sellout. Justin DuPuis made an impressive NCTC debut as Alex, the self-doubting (but never self-loathing hustler). Danielle Perata did a very nice job with the character of Ellen.

The life blood of the show, however, is the acerbic Diane (Mitch's legal eagle and cunning linguist of an agent). Thanks to the strength of Beane's writing and Ed Decker's clean direction, Michaela Greeley shone in the role. There's something uncanny about a lesbian with more balls than all the gay men around her that always seems to anchor a situation and Greeley's feisty agent had it in spades. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Swimsuit Issue is enticing; hopefully Ms. B. and I will be able to view it.