“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”: Media in a Time of Crisis
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This keynote was delivered at the the 2019 Literature/Film Association Conference, held in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon. I am grateful to the Board of the Literature/Film Association and its membership for the opportunity to deliver these remarks.
As I sat down to write this keynote over the summer, I found it difficult to concentrate. When I wanted to immerse myself into the work of researching the state of the field or drafting some ideas, I instead found myself scrolling through Twitter, looking to see what new horrors were unleashing themselves around the world. Is it extreme weather destroying a small coastal village in Alaska, another mass shooting in someone’s hometown, the immolation of the Amazon forests, another hurricane, or perhaps America’s ongoing human rights violations at the Southern border? It’s all of those things, and much, much more, all the time, every day. There is no day when things seem better, or when there doesn’t seem to be a crisis. Of course, the world has always been this bad, it’s just that more of us—people like me, who haven’t ever really found ourselves at the mercy of bad actors—are finally starting to take notice. To notice is to be distracted. To notice is to feel angry. I feel angry every day, all day long. And I know I’m not alone. These are angry times.
So what do we do with our anger in 2019? When is it productive to allow yourself to be distracted by the world, that is, to be fully and completely angry, and when is that anger just so much screaming into the void? More important to the goals and purposes of the people sitting in this room right now: how might the very field in which we all work provide a pragmatic conduit for our righteous anger? Is it possible that the texts which are so often reviled for their seeming lack of creativity—texts that are reused, recycled, rebooted, and adapted across platforms—could it be that these are texts most suited to times of crisis? In other words, at what point does our anger with the world, our expertise in literary and media studies, and our desire to do something, anything, converge?
Today I want to offer one possible point of convergence: the spring 2019 issue of Feminist Media Studies. This issue builds on the work of contemporary feminist scholars and writers like Sarah Ahmed, Rebecca Traister, and Brittney Cooper and their analysis of the revolutionary power of anger. Issue editor Jilly Kay Boyce’s introduction opens by recognizing that “Women’s anger has for so long been cast as unreasonable, hysterical, as the opposite of reason and that this anger is inextricable from feminism. This is why the anger of women has, for so long, made so many people uncomfortable. Today, Rosalind Gill argues, later in the same issue, feminism has “a new luminosity in popular culture.” But, she cautions, the visibilities of these feminisms remain uneven. For example, as Brittney Cooper explains, black and brown women have historically been policed by respectability politics and culturally determined norms of propriety, as well as the need to manage the self according to the limited standards ascribed to their bodies. “Rage and respectability,” Cooper notes, “cannot coexist.” Black feminists are asked to deny their own rage if they wish to be taken seriously, nevertheless Cooper argues in favor of the “eloquence” of rage.
Jilly Kay Boyce and Sarah Banet-Weiser further build on these ideas in their essay, “Feminist anger and feminist respair.” “Respair,” is a 15th century word meaning “a recovery from despair.” Boyce and Banet-Weiser advocate for the value of respair because it acknowledges the tangled relationship between hope and despair. It is “a hope that comes out of brokenness,” an optimism necessary to channel our outrage. We’re angry because we expect more from the world, and we expect more from the world because we still retain the hope that it can be made better. Another way to think of respair is what science and technology scholar Donna Haraway refers to as “staying with the trouble.” She is worth quoting at length:
Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude. Neither despair nor hope is tuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence.
In my remarks today I want to further explore this ideas of anger, respair, and “staying with the trouble” as they relate to the central to the theme of this conference: Reboot, Repurpose, Recycle. I believe the act of repetition and repurposing in the media, in the form of sequels, remakes, and cycles, is one way that we, as consumers and scholars, can stay with the trouble. When we return to the same story, told over and over and over, across time and across media platforms, and when that story feels timely (and it often does), we are choosing to stay with the trouble articulated in this repeated story, and the anger it generates. I think the anger we’re all feeling right now in this moment is, indeed, a productive affect– it just needs to take a form people can recognize.
The Handmaid and Feminist Respair
To that end, I want to explore how this moment of shared anger can be usefully embodied, not by new stories and new ideas, but by texts that already exist in the cultural imagination, texts which are instantly recognizable in their semantics, but hauntingly resonant in their syntax, and ultimately, I believe, politically productive in their pragmatics. Multiplicities can supply the form in which our collective anger can take root and be shared and collectively understood. My case study for this particular exploration is a television series, itself an adaptation of a 1985 novel, which was also made into a 1990 movie, that has become a locus of respair since it premiered in 2017: The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian future in which birth rates have plummeted and the land, air, and water is literally toxic. In response to these apocalyptic developments, a totalitarian, Christian theocracy seizes control of the United States, renaming it “Gilead,” after the holy city. Among the many heinous policies instituted by the government of Gilead, the worst is its enforced classification of women into categories: as wives (who are docile and obedient), as Marthas (who do all the cooking and housework in homes), as Aunts (asexual school marms, only with rape) and as Handmaids (fertile women who are raped under the auspices of God’s will and the greater good). Handmaids are forcibly removed from their homes and families, are stripped of their children, and expected to be obedient receptacles of the seed of the wealthy men who run the government.
Although America in 2019 is no Gilead (yet), the image of the handmaid has, over the last few years, become a symbol of protest, of women being visibly angry in public. As Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill argue in the aforementioned issue of Feminist Media Studies, “Against the consistent containment, policing, muting and outlawing of the expression of women’s anger in media and culture, the current moment, specifically in the wake of the #MeToo movement, seems to represent a radical break.” Thus, the handmaid costume is most frequently used to call attention to reproductive justice and attempts to limit it, but it has also been deployed to protest sexual assault, or really any moment when a woman (however she may define herself) feels like she is not sovereign over her own body. In recent years, protestors have donned the iconic handmaid’s costume to protest gender-based inequality in the United States, Argentina, United Kingdom, and Ireland. The Mary Sue called the costume “a symbol of protest” while The Guardian described it as a, “potent medium for dissent.”
But before red robes marched into DC to denounce Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or to protest the restrictive “Fetal Heartbeat Bills” in Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri, they were words on a page in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Here is the first time Atwood mentions the Handmaid’s uniform, just a few pages into The Handmaid’s Tale:
Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. (Atwood 8)
This initial description is short but vivid: the red and white cloth, the concealment of the body, the way the wings of the headpiece obscure the handmaid’s vision so that she can only look at what’s right in front of her. The costume is a literalization of the handmaid’s only value—her fertility, the red blood of her womb.
When Atwood’s book was first published, this now-iconic handmaid costume was often the cover illustration, its simplicity lending itself to easy recognizability. However, there were no protests featuring the costume in 1985. In 1990, when a film adaptation of the book starring Natasha Richardson was released, the costume didn’t show up in protests, either. It stayed firmly within the confines of Atwood’s fictional world. So why now? More specifically, how has the rebooted, repurposed and recycled image of the handmaid in contemporary popular become a vehicle for feminist respair? A major reason, of course, is the current state of American politics. As media historian Heather Hendershot writes in her analysis of the Hulu series, “If [Atwood’s] original novel was the perfect allegorical response to the Reagan years, and continues to resonate today, the online series speaks quite precisely to the Trump moment.” The Handmaid’s Tale premiered just after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and four months after a recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was leaked to the public. But Trump isn’t the only reason why the handmaid reverberates so strongly. I believe the resonance of the handmaid costume right here, right now, is only possible because The Handmaid’s Tale is also an example of a contemporary media multiplicity, a text that has been adapted and remade and shared and remixed. The text’s proliferation is what supplies it with power.
What are Multiplicities?
Before we continue down this path, I want to take some time to define a term I’ll use throughout this talk: “multiplicities.” Multiplicities are any pop culture texts that appear in multiples— including adaptations, sequels, remakes, trilogies, reboots, preboots, series, spin-offs, and cycles. As media industries scholar Jennifer Holt explains, the consolidation of TV networks, film studios, music studios, and print media into just a handful of conglomerates means it is increasingly difficult to discuss media platforms as discrete industries, “we must view film, cable and broadcast history as integral pieces of the same puzzle, and parts of the same whole.” Or, as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows writes, “Once information is digitized, the boundaries between media dissolve.” Indeed, as it becomes more and more difficult to discuss media like film, television, and streaming content as separate entities, we need a critical term that allows us to discuss these texts all together. In light of the ever-increasingly transmedial nature of contemporary screen cultures—and the fluid way in which texts move from page to screen to tablet to video game and back again–the term “multiplicities” offers cohesive ways for discussing transgeneric groupings, and theorizing the complicated ties between text, audience, industry, and culture. Read all about in this anthology, co-edited with Barton Palmer. The most central trait of multiplicities is that they refuse to end, insisting that no texts have firm limits; stories can be constantly be told, retold, and spread. The study of multiplicities is the study of audiences—of ourselves—of why we (collectively) seek out a version of the same story (or character or subject) over and over again
Although film and television seem to be dominated by multiplicities at the moment, it’s a production strategy as old as the cinema itself. In his study of films produced in the years 1902-1903, film historian Tom Gunning found that a large percentage of films were based on plots and characters familiar from other forms of popular entertainment. Multiplicities have always existed, but we haven’t always known it, particularly since we are not always primed to spot the source text when it was intended to be understood by a very different set of viewers (See, for example, the whole dam family and the dam dog, a novelty postcard that inspired several short films). The practice of basing films off of comic strips, magic lantern shows, popular songs, postcards, as well as other films, and then replicating those successful formulas over and over until they cease to make money has been foundational to the origins and success of filmmaking worldwide.
Still, another reason why it might feel like we have more multiplicities today than ever before is because the terms we use to discuss multiplicities, like remake and reboot, emerged at different moments in media history. For example, historian Jennifer Forrest’s research into early cinematic remakes found before the Copyright Statute of 1906, individual films were seen as commodities, not as “works of art.” Unauthorized imitations, such as Edison’s remake of the Lumiere Brother’s famous film, Arrival of the Train, titled The Black Diamond Express, were common practice before 1906 and were not, legally at least, labeled as “remakes.” In other words, early cinema was filled with remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations, we just didn’t name them as such.
Yet another reason why it feels like we have more multiplicities now than we did in the past is due to the short shelf life of Classical Hollywood Films prior to the popularity of TV in the 1950s. Because films were generally screened once and then never seen again, it was difficult to recognize a remake when it appeared. For example, Thomas Leitch discusses how Warner Bros released 3 films based on the same intellectual property: Dashiell Hammet’s hard-boiled novel, The Maltese Falcon. In a 10 year period, Warner Bros released 1931’s Maltese Falcon, 1936’s Satan Met a Lady &1941’s Maltese Falcon. They were not described as remakes at the time of their release, and were not recognized as such. In the past the links between texts were either ignored or actively hidden. But by 1960, 90% of American homes had at least one television, and this sharp increase in TV ownership generated a need for more TV content. One solution was to purchase film studio’s back catalogs of films, and soon TV stations were flooded with thousands of previously shelved titles. This shift is important to the history of multiplicities because, as Con Verevis argues, American viewers could now see films that had been out of circulation for decades, which gave them the opportunity to more directly compare different iterations of the same intellectual property. Consequently, audiences became more aware when different forms of entertainment were adaptations or remakes or reboots or sequels or prequels of something else they have read or watched or heard before.
Verevis further argues that we are now in an era of postproduction, a transformed media culture that arose in response to a combination of forces—conglomeration, globalization, and digitization. The market is flooded with content that can be consumed on a multitude of platforms, often with a single click. Whereas one might have needed to screen dozens of movies, from different decades and cultures, to catch all of the movie references in a Quentin Tarantino film, today it is possible to Google them in the span of a few minutes. We are all more media literate than ever before because it is easier to be media literate.
Repetition and Bad Texts
Postproduction has incentivized media conglomerates to increasingly rely on a culture of repetition, replication, sequelization and rebooting. Nevertheless, this production model is often equated with the dwindling of creativity and the bastardization of the ancient art of filmmaking. In just the last month, the DC/Marvel multiverses, The Lion King “live action” remake, and the recently announced plans to reboot the 1990 hit, Home Alone, have all been the subject of hyperbolic criticism from audiences and critics. When discussing multiplicities, critics use terms like “plague” and “bombardment,” like these texts which we are all free to consume or ignore, or consume and ignore, are coming for us whether we like it or not. A recent article in The Guardian is representative of this discourse “Hollywood…seems determined to serve up a relentless platter of regurgitated and recycled fare. And it’s slowly making large portions of its audience sick.”
It’s not just contemporary critics sounding the alarms about multiplicities; the decades-old writings of post-modern thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, Guy DeBord and Fredric Jameson seem to have predicted our current media landscape. For example, Jameson places the remake in the larger category of pastiche, an affectless or neutral imitation of another text, arguing that cultural production “can no longer look directly out of its eyes at the real world for the referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental image of the world on its confining walls.” Multiplicities are still described in these terms—reductive, confining, even dangerous. It’s hard not to look at the state of contemporary media multiplicities and fear the worst.
Many of the complaints about multiplicities are rooted in the assumption that this frequently recycling of familiar plots and characters must mean that media producers are lazy, using the easiest route to achieve financial success. Critiques of multiplicities argue that a movie or television series that unabashedly courts the audience’s desires is somehow less artful, less complex, or less worthwhile than one that exists to thwart, complicate, or comment on those audience desires—or that the audience is somehow being exploited, or manipulated into spending money on an undeserving piece of art. As Pierre Bourdieu argued in Distinction, a study of taste in 1960s France, bad or maligned art objects are most frequently those texts whose pleasures are easily accessed and immediately apparent, thus confirming the superiority of those who appreciate only the “sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane.” Bourdieu argues that the lower and working classes are not predisposed to view art objects with detachment since their livelihoods depend on a constant, active engagement with the material world. Scholars of the melodrama and soap opera also note that this ranking of what is a guilty pleasure and what has its roots in classed & gendered prejudice; designations of taste work to keep certain ideas, images and texts, and audiences, in “their place.” As Michael Newman and Elana Levine argue in their study of the legitimation of television, “There is nothing intrinsically unimaginative about continuing a story from one text to another. Because narratives draw their basic materials from life, they can always go on, just as the world goes on. Endings are always, to an extent, arbitrary. Sequels exploit the affordance of narrative to continue” When critics complain about Hollywood’s lack of creativity, these complaints are rooted in a distaste for those who seek out these texts, and gain pleasure from them.
Multiplicities are also viewed with suspicion because they refuse to end, denying the kind of closure necessary in or at least desirable for literary forms in which the material object of the book determines forms of storytelling. Multiplicities insist that no texts have firm limits — that any story can be retold, reconfigured, and spread around. Why is this troublesome? Because a text without end is a text that never relinquishes its hold on our time. If the text never ends, we could, hypothetically, watch the text forever, and then, how would we ever get anything else done?
This fear was acknowledged as early as 2011, when the sketch comedy series Portlandia depicted a couple getting sucked into the DVD box set of Battlestar Galactica, foregoing all other obligations, including going to work and using the toilet. The joke here is that it’s absurd to get so entranced in a television series, but also, we may not be able to control ourselves. In a 2013 New Yorker essay, Ian Crouch attributed the shame associated with binge-watching to “the discomfiting feeling of being slightly out of control—compelled to continue not necessarily by our own desire or best interests but by the propulsive nature of the shows themselves.” An unspoken emotion in these thinkpieces is shame, the shame of being out of control, the shame of indulging in repetition.
Repetition is associated with a dulling of the senses, of something masturbatory and excessive, or something simplistic, like a child who always asks to read the same book at bedtime. And sometimes multiplicities feel that way, reflecting the way we feel about ourselves in a world that our brain can’t comprehend, despite or perhaps because of the sheer amount of data we have streaming into our phones at all hours of the day. We might feel lazy and ineffectual and indulgent when we sit around binge-ing a TV series. But, the effect of binge watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV series that forces the viewer to be immersed in its terrible world of rape and silencing and violence, is to produce a viewer who is afterwards exhausted, sad, and possibly fuming. I think that’s a good place to be right now. Bear with me here: what if we viewed retreating to our screens as staying with the trouble, instead of running from it? Which brings me back to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I promised earlier.
When some people binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, while others read the book, and still others just see the memes online, they may be consuming different media, but they are experiencing the same story. The red robes and white caps serve as a shared point of contact, a unit of cultural transmission, and a link between disparate groups of people. Multiplicities offer that possibility of this shared culture, of connecting with someone we’ve never met. When we see handmaids lounging near the Lincoln Memorial or standing solemnly outside the Alabama courthouse, we are being asked to stay with the trouble, to see the allegoric repression of Gilead overlaid on our real, living breathing world. This connection is not just made by me, but by anyone who has the seen the series, or heard of it, or read the newspaper or just scrolled thru social media. Though repetition has negative connotations, it is precisely the repetition of images that supplies their power; their proliferation ensures that they cannot be ignored or dismissed. As new media scholar Jean Burgess argues, memes are a powerful medium of social connection due to their spreadability. Memes are propagated by being taken up and used in new works, in new ways, and therefore are transformed on each iteration –what Burgess terms a “copy the instructions,” rather than “copy the product” model of replication and variation. The subject of many memes, the image of handmaid is also spreadable, and its spreadability forms of the crux of its power.
For example two years ago, for Halloween I decided to dress up as a Handmaid, complete with a red dress and cloak, and a large, vision-obstructing white bonnet. I wore the costume to work, because I taught on Halloween, and also out to some Halloween parties that weekend. What struck me, both on my college campus but also while out in my community, were the emotional reactions my costume evoked. When people recognized who I was—and that moment happened almost instantly—there was amusement, followed by a kind of fury. The joy and the anger rested side by side. And this affect was only possible because the image is so widely known, because it is a multiplicity.
Far from robbing fans of access to novelty and personal connection, contemporary media multiplicities can generate strong emotional resonance and a creative flourishing both within and among fans. Every new Thor and Captain America is a new visit with the same character, which has in turn been molded to resonate with the world as it is happening. The aura, seemingly absent from texts that repeat the form and content of previous texts, is invented anew in every retelling, tweet, meme, and cosplay. I would go so far as to say that these conglomerate, multiplatform, transmedia stories—the Boy who lived, the fight against the Dark Side, the battle over who shall rule Wakanda—may be the only way for our culture to have a shared cultural touchstone. At a time when we’re no longer reading the same newspapers (and most newspapers are gone anyway), or even believing in the same set of facts (like whether or not a hurricane will hit Alabama) all at the same time, media multiplicities may be our only remaining watercooler moments. Our ability to take note of the multiplicities around us—that so many stories are simply retellings of stories we already know—provides us with a shared narrative, a collective symbol for articulating what is happening around us.
In the season 1 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist, Offred describes a similar moment of wordless connection that occurs among the handmaids. She explains:
There was a way we looked at each other at Red Center. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was exactly. That expression in their eyes. In my eyes. Because before, in real life, you didn’t ever see it. Not more than a glimpse. It was never something that could last for days. It could never last for years…
This voice over is the audio counterpoint to scenes from Offred’s life at the Red Center, where she and the other fertile women of Gilead are being trained, often violently, for their future roles as handmaids. The episode then cuts to the present day, to Offred in her handmaid uniform, just after she commits an act of rebellion by smuggling a package of letters, written by imprisoned handmaidens across Gilead. It’s a small rebellion, the first of many that Offred will attempt during her time in Gilead. “It’s their own fault,” she muses out to herself, “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” The replicated red robes of the handmaids, intended to render them as a mass of faceless babymakers, as opposed to individual women of agency, has had the opposite effect. Or rather the effect created by the shared uniform opposes the docility that Gilead had hoped they would confer on the handmaidens. Here, sameness isn’t a demoralizing force, it’s an organizing force. It doesn’t make them the same, it makes them united. This is a crucial difference.
This keynote is a call for scholars and fans and audiences alike to recognize the roles of media multiplicities, those denigrated, unoriginal, texts, not just to our field, but to the work of justice and good citizenship. Rather than feel guilt over our desire to experience the same story, over and over, instead we should watch and feel that moment of connection with all those other people who have watched, will watched, and are watching the same thing. This is not a turning away from society, but a turning towards it, to other people. Shared stories mobilize us, and help us to see what we have in common with those around us. There is power in an image that evokes collective rage over injustice, that gathers mass as it’s shared. Or to quote Offred, “they never should have given us multiplicities if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
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Welcome to the 5th Annual edition of “My Mom’s Oscar Picks.” We started this tradition 6 years ago, not long after the death of my father, at a time when my mother and I both found a lot of solace in going to the movies. Since that time, we both look forward to this annual tradition, and do our best to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as we can. She has even developed her own fanbase, and had the good fortune of meeting a few of them face to face this summer when my university hosted the media studies conference, Console-ing Passions. One conference attendee actually gasped when he saw her, exclaiming “You’re Nana? I love your Oscars blog!” She was tickled.
For those who are new to this tradition, here is what I initially said about my Mom’s qualifications for this job, back in 2012:
Perhaps the best thing about my mother’s cinephilia is her pithy, honest responses to them. Her critiques generally match up with what the professional critics have to say. And she sees enough of the new releases to have a solid understanding of the contemporary cinematic landscape. She can tell when a film is being manipulative (like War Horse [2011, Steven Speilberg]) and when it is being subtle. Her one blind spot is experimentation. My mother doesn’t like films that are “too weird” or that steer too far away from conventional cinematic language. For example, she really enjoyed The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius), which, with its lack of sound, can certainly be labeled as “experimental.” But she hated Tree of Life (2011, Terence Malick). We have discussed her hate for this film on several occasions. I think she is actually mad at Terence Malick for making this film and for luring her into the theater to see it.
This year we were able to conduct our Oscars picks in person, because we got together in New York City to celebrate her birthday. This conversation was recorded just after a heavy Italian dinner and several glasses of wine. So without further ado, let’s begin.
Me: Welcome back
Nana: My pleasure
You enjoy this a lot, don’t you?
Yes, I do
I’d like to start the way we usually start, by putting our cards on the table and listing all the Oscar-nominated films that we did not get to see this season. So out of the Best Picture nominees, can you tell me which films you haven’t had a chance to see?
The only films I did not see were Get Out and Phantom Thread, unfortunately.
The films I didn’t see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri…
[Nana makes surprised noises]
…and Darkest Hour
[Nana makes outraged noises]
…yes, because I’m tired of movies about World War II. Now with that on the table, I think we should start with the acting awards.
Before we do that, I’d like to make a comment.
Every year as I look at the pictures I’m to review—and I love doing it—I’m told it’s never as good as the year before…
Who tells you this?
Hmmm…people…out there [gestures in the air]
People? Just a vague group of people?
Yes. And they’re saying the acting is not what it was…
Where are you getting this information?
From the right wing?
No, that’s not what I’m asking…
Maybe from the left wing, because they’re into the theater? [laughs]
This is what is called a “straw man argument,” mother. It’s where you come up with an opposing argument that doesn’t exist so that you can make your point. I don’t think people are actually saying this.
Well, it’s interesting. I don’t really go to a movie unless I’ve read good reviews, like in New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Time magazine…
So you get your reviews from the liberal, lamestream media?
They are so liberal! But that’s okay, because they know their stuff.
The fake news?
Well, whatever you call it…but every year I am more impressed with the nominated films. And this year is an example of that…
I agree. I thought the films this year were very strong…
Okay, let’s start with the Best Supporting Actor categories. This year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees are:
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
And you’ve seen all of these nominees?
Who is your pick?
Without question, Allison Janney in I, Tonya was absolutely amazing. I loved Laurie Metcalf in Ladybird, but there’s no comparison…
I’m with you on that. I, too, saw every film in this category so I feel like I can speak with some authority here…
Octavia Spencer is a great actress, but I don’t think she did anything special in The Shape of Water, Laurie Metcalf did a great job of depicting the complicated relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter in Ladybird, and I also enjoyed Leslie Manville in Phantom Thread. Now, as for Mary J. Blige, you may not know this because you’re so very old, Mary J. Blige is actually a singer…
I’ll be darned!
Yes. When I saw her in Mudbound I didn’t even realize it was her until after it was over. And I thought she was fantastic. But, Allison Janney—playing this chain-smoking bitch who is awful but still compelling on screen—that’s a tough line to walk.
So we’re in agreement?
Now let’s talk about Best Supporting Actor. The nominees are:
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Who is your pick?
I have seen 3 Billboards, The Shape of Water, and All the Money in the World (Christopher Plummer was great) but I choose Sam Rockwell.
Why is he your pick?
He played this angry sheriff’s deputy. He just couldn’t handle that this woman, the mother of the murdered girl, was causing all this trouble. The movie moved from one horrific scene to another, and he was just phenomenal.
Why do you pick him over the other nominated actor from the same film, Woody Harrelson?
He was superb. But I really had a problem with that nomination. He was not in the film as much as Sam Rockwell, and his role was not as striking.
I have to say, I am a little out of my depth here because I have only seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances. With that in mind, my pick is Willem Dafoe. The Florida Project—and I’ll talk about this more later—was my favorite movie of the year. It’s a realist film, focused mostly on children who are living in precarity in Orlando. Dafoe plays the super of this apartment building where a lot of the action is set. His character is engaged in the lives of the residents of this building—they don’t pay the rent on time, they’re on probation, they’re doing illegal things like prostitution—and he’s this compassionate figure. It’s not a showy role. It’s subtle and lovely.
Let’s discuss Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The nominees are:
Meryl Streep, The Post
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Now have you seen all of these?
Who is your pick?
Well, it’s tough because this year, more than any other year that I have been doing this job for you…without pay…
…the roles for women were amazing. All of them were superb. I had to weigh between Margot Robbie, Frances McDormand, and Sally Hawkins. But in the final push, I give the Oscar to Margot Robbie. She is so drop-dead gorgeous, and they tried to make her look not as gorgeous, but that didn’t matter. Evidently, she learned to ice skate? She was amazing. This year it was tough to pick the Best Actress.
Don’t you think that’s exciting? That there were so many great roles for women?
Yes! They dominated these movies. It’s almost unfair to have to choose just one.
My pick is also Margot Robbie. Acting is such a subjective category. It’s hard to pin down what makes one performance better than another. But part of it for me was the movie itself. I loved I, Tonya. The Tony Harding scandal happened when I was in high school and it was a such defining moment. The scandal was such a big deal. I remember watching the Olympics and not knowing if Harding was even going to skate. And then she does, but she has a problem with her skate. It was so much drama!
That was insane.
It’s hard for me separate my interest in that story, from the performances of the actors portraying that story. But she was so convincing. Her character aged throughout the film, and she was convincing at all those different ages. I also thought she conveyed the ambiguity of Tonya Harding: is she innocent? Or she manipulating us all?
That’s still a question. And we didn’t like her in those days. We hated her.
Right, the media portrayed her as this villain and Nancy Kerrigan as this angelic victim. But this was such a sympathetic portrait of her…Well, look at us, in agreement again.
Now here is where we’ll disagree: Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
You said you didn’t see Get Out or Phantom Thread, and I’m assuming you didn’t see Roman J. Israel, Esq…
I don’t think anybody saw that.
My pick, without question, without hesitation, is Gary Oldman. That film…
…and I know you don’t want to see another [World War II film], but this is different. It all takes place in the bunker…
How many more movies do we need about World War II?
Well, I agree with that. But Gary Oldman was so great…you know I never heard of Gary Oldman?
Well, Gary Oldman was Winston Churchill in this film…
So you’ve met Winston Churchill?
[ignores my question]. I read the book Clementine, which is the story of his wife, and what she dealt with…so it was amazing to see how this man had such balls. He told British Parliament he was doing this…
Can you separate the historic importance of the movie’s topic from the performance?
I can’t. Because he made it real. We’ve all read about Churchill. We all know about him. But he made it real. This film you’ve got to see.
I’m not going to see it.
My pick—and again, I haven’t seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances—is Timothée Chalamet. First, it’s rare for Hollywood to tell the story of a romance between two men in a non-tragic way. Usually, when these stories are told, someone is getting AIDS, getting rejected by their family, getting rejected by society. It’s rare to see a mainstream film depict a same sex couple having a romantic summer together in the same way that heterosexual couples have been. On top of that, I found Chalamet’s performance so believable. He’s in his twenties, but he’s playing a 17-year-old, and it works. The way he moves, the way he would slink around with his sunglasses and headphones, creeping around the edges of things, lying in bed masturbating, every inch of him was an angsty teenager who is having a sexual awakening. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He stole the film from his co-star Armie Hammer, and everyone else.
I disagree. I did not feel any magnetic energy between them. I thought it was all so fake. I didn’t see true passion.
I agree with you on that with regard to Armie Hammer’s performance. I didn’t feel his passion for this younger boy. But Chalamet? He was practically vibrating with it. Like the scene where they kiss in his bedroom and he’s not sure where to put his hands or how to hold this man, he’s this sexually inexperienced kid. He’s just grabbing onto his body. It was so intense.
I didn’t get that at all. Look, if Gary Oldman doesn’t win this Oscar, we’re finished.
[editor’s note: she makes this threat every year]
Let’s talk about Best Picture. The nominees are:
Call Me by Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Another tough one.
Why don’t you start by telling me what your favorite movies were, then your pick for Best Picture?
It’s very tough. Let’s go through each of them. Darkest Hour? Oldman was the best. Dunkirk? Nah. Call Me By Your Name? No way. There was a lot of hype [about that film]. The only thing I liked about it was the gorgeous scenery of Italy’s countryside. Ladybird? A lot of people felt this was the best film. I thought it was an interesting film, but not the Best Picture. I didn’t see Phantom Thread. The Post was superb. 3 Billboards I loved until I saw The Shape of Water. That film is so brilliant.
I liked the creative impact of the sets. It has this young woman who was unable to speak and then this monster that they found and brought into the laboratory. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, who is so scary, and Octavia Spencer’s character, who grounds everyone in reality. And Sally Hawkins was so great. I mean she had such an amazing life. Every morning she’d get into the bath tub and masturbate.
Then they have sex in the bathroom!
Yes! Very cool. And then when she wound up flooding the bathroom? The whole thing becomes a love story between this monster and the woman who can’t talk. When I first read about it I thought “This is ridiculous. I’m not going to this movie.” Well, I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but by the end of the film, my friend and I were so choked up. I actually cried. I was so emotionally upset about these two who loved each other and wound up in the water. The whole thing is such a fantasy. But it was beautifully done. And that director, writer, producer? [She means Guillermo del Toro]. He really should win Best Director.
I’m with you. I loved The Shape of Water. I was totally entranced. You fall into the world del Toro creates, and he makes you believe this world exists. And one thing I didn’t think about until I heard an interview with the actor who plays the monster…
On NPR’s Fresh Air. The actor mentions that the two romantic leads never speak. I didn’t even realize that until after the film was over…
I realized that.
The both of them were very lonely people, monster and woman. She probably never thought she’d have a romantic relationship. The monster obviously didn’t.
But this is the one thing that confused me [about the movie]: this monster was chained up in the lab and beaten. But at the end of the film he’s able to heal her wounds, and his own wounds, and he had the power to take her in the water and make her breathe like a fish…
…But I don’t even care. I loved it.
Before I give my Best Picture pick, let me say what my Best Picture criteria are. For me, Best Picture is like Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. It’s everything: great performances, great script, beautiful or interesting direction, compelling story. And then I add in one more quality for Best Picture, which for me is a timeliness. I like to ask: why is the film being made at this moment? What is it doing for its audience?
I don’t think about that part.
So, Get Out, do you know the premise? A black guy is dating a white girl, she brings him home to meet her family, and shenanigans ensue, and not the kind of shenanigans you’re expecting. I thought it was very clever. Horror films are all about showing us what we’re afraid of, what we try to repress. And in that regard, it was an excellent horror film. But part of me still has trouble thinking of a horror film as a Best Picture winner. And I realize that is a ridiculous bias for someone who studies film for a living to have. But I can’t quite see it as Best Picture.
Ladybird is not my pick because it wasn’t a “big” or “grand” enough for Best Picture. Phantom Thread was a beautiful film but for me, the final moments really threw me for a loop. It rattled me so much that I didn’t really process it as I was watching it. I feel like I need to see it again, knowing what I know.
But my pick for Best Picture, believe it or not, is The Post.
That’s not gonna win.
I know. Let me tell you why it’s my pick…
[rolls eyes] Because of what’s happening today…
Now why do you say it with that tone?
Because I don’t think that should be why you pick a film for Best Picture. You should pick THE BEST PICTURE! The Shape of Water was the best film released this year!
Can you just back off and let me explain? First of all, the cast of The Post was amazing: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, David Cross, absurd cast!
The second thing I loved about this film was its subject. I knew very little about the Pentagon Papers going on, and so it was fascinating to hear about this chapter in American history. What I also liked about this movie—and here is where you were rolling your eyes at me—is this question the film asks: what is the role of the media? What is their duty, where is their allegiance? Is it to protect national security or is it to report on the news in the most honest and complete way that they can?
Absolutely. I agree.
The Post made this concept so clear, at a time when many Americans have forgotten the role of the fourth estate.
And how she [Kay Graham] made that decision to publish. A woman did that! She told all those guys with the white hair “I own the paper, I’ll make the decision”
And when I left the theater, I felt inspired and hopeful about the ability of journalism to speak truth to power. I know you don’t feel as pessimistic about the world right now as I do, but this movie made me feel like there might still be something left in this country that will keep us together as a country: the truth and the facts…
There were so many great movies this year, but the one that hit every button for me was The Post. I know it won’t win…
Well, it may. Because it’s a very liberal group that votes [she means the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]…
It is! [The Academy] may feel what you feel…
Wait, wait, wait…so you’re telling me that a movie about exposing a government conspiracy and revealing the truth about a highly controversial war to the American people is a “liberal” value. Isn’t that an American value?
I think that’s all very nice and I think what you’ve said is true, but I’m talking about the best picture…
Right, but you also just described my pick as “liberal”…
Well, it’s going to be pushed in that category because right now it’s all about real news versus fake news and all the bullcrap…
It’s not bullcrap. It’s incredibly important! The only way the average American knows about what is happening in the world is through the news. Are you flying to Syria to see for yourself what’s happening there? No, you rely on journalists for that.
You know what a similar thing is? I loved Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, but I would never give that Best Picture because we all know that story.
But the story of the Pentagon Papers is not as well-known as the events of World War II…
Oh, everyone knows about that! Unless you were born…right now. The film that shows the creativity of today, of thinking over the top, is The Shape of Water. Who ever in their head to think up a movie about a monster in a tank, a woman who can’t speak…
Look, my second choice is The Shape of Water. But I’ve got to go with my gut and my gut says The Post was the best film of 2017.
You know what my second choice is? Three Billboards. You haven’t seen it.
I haven’t, but I wish I had, because I would love to argue with you about it, because everyone I’ve talked to about it has said it was complete garbage.
OH MY GOD! Film people?!
Yes. And you know a movie has to be about more than good acting performances. You’ve been doing this job long enough to know that.
So, that about wraps it up. Is there anything else you want the people to know?
If my picks don’t win, we’re gonna have a problem doing this next year.
Really? Because because you say that every year, and every year you come back.
Well, last year [my Best Actor pick] Leonardo won. So I came back. This year Gary Oldman better win.
So you are willing to state, on the record, that if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor, you will not be doing this next year?
Exactly. So my fans better put pressure on…
Okay, well thank you so much for doing this.
And happy 75th birthday!
What?! How dare…[angry sputters, I turn off the mic]
So, Nana-fans, what do you think of our picks for 2018? And are you in any way concerned that Nana will quit if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor? Share your thoughts below.
I am super pleased to have this piece published over at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the need for well-researched pop culture writing. Yes, even in thinkpieces. Also pleased to have co-authored this with my dear pal, Kristen Warner, who is a big smartypants.
Read, enjoy, make snarky comments about how this article means we are elitists [shrugs]:
Click here to read.
I know. I know. I haven’t written anything here in many months. But here’s the thing: work is busy. Also, no one pays me to write for this blog.
But you know who does pay me to write? The New Yorker. God bless them.
Here is my latest essay tied to my larger project on MTV and youth identities, “Thirty Seasons of The Real World.” Please read and share so maybe I can make more money writing and then can write some shit for free for you fine folks.
Click here to read the full piece.
Last night, I had a rather disturbing conversation with my 8yo daughter. I was in the middle of doing the laundry and she walked into the room and asked me if I thought she looked fat. I’ve been dreading this question since I became pregnant with her. This is how women destroy themselves.
I decided to write about it over at Medium’s Human Parts.
You can head over there to read it by clicking HERE.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB just turned 30! I wrote a short piece about the experience of teaching a film I adored in my youth to a brand new generation of students. The big surprise? They loved it as much as I do:
“It’s a hard thing, teaching students of another generation about a movie you loved as a child. Indeed, whenever I teach a film that I loved passionately in my youth—”E.T.”, “Star Wars,” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”—I try to divorce my affective attachment to it from my pedagogy. It’s not that I don’t let students know when I truly love a film—I gush about “Breathless” and “Double Indemnity” and “Killer of Sheep.” It’s just that I don’t trust the tastes I cultivated during my youth, back when my raw, hormonal heart dictated the music I listened to and the movies I watched. My undeveloped cinematic palate is somehow less authentic, at least to the teacher in me, than the tastes I formed post-college, when I began to study the cinema as a critical object. So I overcompensate for the love object. I try to point out its flaws ahead of time, to prepare myself for disappointment. I am sure they will find “The Breakfast Club” racist, close-minded, and unsatisfying. They will surely shit on my youth.”
Read the full piece here.
I don’t normally cross post between my blogs, as the readers shift for each. But today I very much want to share a story I wrote to illustrate a series of photographs my then-3-year-old daughter took just after the birth of her baby brother. If such things interest you, I encourage you to head over to Tell Us A Story and give it a read.
Here is how it begins:
“Only years later did I think to upload any of the hundreds of photos my daughter took with her brand new Fisher Price “Kid Tough” digital camera during the first few months of 2010. In addition to her burgeoning interest in amateur photography, it was during this time that my daughter learned what it meant to have a sibling, a brother who arrived, angry and red, late in the evening on that January 13th.”
Read the rest by clicking here.