In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”
I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.
We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.
While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique ) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).
After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.
Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”
This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.
So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?
When I first watched Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), in preparation for my Trash cinema class, I watched it alone. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience but it was not until this week, when I screened it for 21 undergraduates, that I got the full effect of this masterpiece of cinema terrible. I had prepared my students for what they were about to watch: I told them the film had a strong cult following, that it has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and that fans had developed their own set of rituals, such as spoon-throwing. But, my students’ enthusiastic, joyous response to the film truly exceeded my expectations.
The moment Tommy Wiseau enters the frame in the film’s first scene and utters the words “Hi Lisa” in his strange, unidentifiable European accent, the room erupted in raucous laughter. And it only built from there. Usually, when I screen a film for students they remain quiet, laughing or gasping when appropriate and occasionally making a stray remark. But when watching The Room my students immediately sensed that it was acceptable to laugh, whoop, and even yell at the screen. When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) has a prolonged, Cinemax-style sex scene for the 3rd time one of my students exclaimed “But we saw this already, right?” And when a random couple appears in Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa’s apartment (as characters often do in The Room), another student yelled “Who the hell are they?” When the film was over the students burst into applause, something which has never happened at a screening in my 7 years of teaching film classes to undergraduates.
In our discussion of the film yesterday in class, I asked the students to consider several key questions: Why is The Room considered to be a “bad” film? What codes, conventions, and expectations does it violate and why do these violations provoke laughter (as opposed to boredom or annoyance)? And if this film is so poorly made, then why do audiences gain so much pleasure from watching it?
Here is what we determined:
1. It’s Just Plain Bad
The movie violates almost every rule of storytelling: characters pop in and out of scenes with little explanation, plotlines are addressed and then dropped forever (Lisa’s mother’s cancer, Denny’s [Philip Haldiman] drug problems, etc.), and character dialogue is frequently nonsensical. Wiseau inserts establishing shots of San Francisco into the middle of scenes for no apparent reason and spatial continuity is nonexistent (does Johnny live in an apartment or a house and how do they get up to that roof deck anyway?). These problems are so pervasive that it almost seems as if Wiseau is making these blunders on purpose–but according to reports from his former crew, Wiseau was simply inexperienced.
Wiseau’s senseless dialogue:
One of many scenes that make no sense and do nothing to further the plot:
Who takes wedding photographs one month before the wedding?
Wiseau’s arbitrary use of establishing shots:
The film’s inability to convey the passage of time:
Is it “tomorrow afternoon” already?
2. It’s Camp
The Room is enjoyable precisely because it proposes itself seriously and yet we cannot take the film seriously because it is so over the top. Susan Sontag writes that, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” My students agreed that in terms of bad taste, The Room is as good as it gets. For example, in one of the film’s many sex scenes, Wiseau employs rose petals, gauzy bedding, bad R & B music, and a sinewy man thrusting away at a woman’s pelvis (I would include this clip but when I uploaded it to YouTube it was determined to be “pornography” and was removed). As my students pointed out, these sex scenes bring together every cliché of the Hollywood sex scene and the effect is overwhelming.
3. It’s Passionate
In Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist (2003), Jack Stevenson argues that a great camp film is “the product of pure passion, on whatever grand or pathetic scale, somehow gone strangely awry… pure camp is created against all odds by the naïve, stubborn director who in the cynical, hardball, bottom line movie business can still foolishly dream he is creating a masterpiece without money, technical sophistication, or (orthodox) talent.” Indeed, The Room is infused with Wiseau’s passion. From its awkward dialogue to its nonsensical plot, the film is the embodiment of this strange, quixotic man. Watching The Room is, in many ways, like the reading the diary of a tortured teenage writer. My students agreed that it was Wiseau’s unadulterated passion and hubris that made the film so engaging to watch, despite its frustrating plot and characterization.
The best example of this passion can be found in the infamous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” scene, a blatant rip off of a similar scene in Rebel without a Cause
But, if The Room is so very personal, if it is Wiseau’s soul up there on the screen, then is it wrong to subject this film to scrutiny on a regular basis? Is mocking this man’s art akin to walking into an art gallery and pointing and laughing at a painting that you think is shit? Or going to the theater and yelling at an actor for being bad at his job?
Fans react to “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”:
4. It Makes Us Feel Better About Ourselves
This leads me to the final characteristic of watching The Room: it makes the viewer feel better about him or herself. In his famous study of taste cultures, Distinction (1984), Pierre Bourdieu writes, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” When we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying “I am better than this. I am superior to this.” For example, during the following scene my students howled with laughter–and when we rewatched it during our class discussion they laughed even harder. Why? As one student put it, “This scene is intended to show us that Johnny’s character is a good guy because he is always buying roses for Lisa. But it just FAILS.”
So are we cruel for laughing at Wiseau’s film, for laughing at Wiseau himself? On this point my students were divided. Some said yes, that they felt guilty for laughing because the film was so personal. Others argued that the moment Wiseau made his film and put it in a public theater, he agreed to public ridicule. Personally, I am torn on this issue–but that won’t keep me from watching The Room. And laughing.
Like many True Blood fans I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), vampire queen of Louisiana, whose existence had been leaked through various entertainment news sources weeks ago. Last week I was tantalized by the sight of her lavish home and the image of a pale female foot, bathed in a stream of blood. And as a fan of Wood, whose portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen (2003, Catherine Hardwicke) blew me away, I was sure that the young actress was well-equipped to handle the role of an 1100-year-old vampire queen.
But last night I found myself underwhelmed. I don’t blame Queen Sophie-Anne’s failure on the writers–who gave her choice lines like “I haven’t been interested in men since Eisenhower was President”–or the costume designers–who gave her beautiful white gowns and bathing suits to luxuriate in (plus a vintage copy of Vogue to read!). No, this character fell flat due to Wood’s lackluster performance (though EW’s Ken Tucker disagrees with me).
Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be more than 1,000 years old, but Wood plays her like a precocious child playing dress up. Such a role is certainly challenging–Wood needs to convey the sense that she is an old soul even as she lives in a teenager’s body, a state of endless arrested development. But it has been done before and done well. Here I can’t help but think of Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Claudia, a mature, blood-thristy vampire trapped in the body of a sweet, prepubescent girl for all of eternity, in Interview with a Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan).
I believed Dunst’s performance–indeed, I found it to be highly disturbing. Dunst expressed her frustration with her small, child’s body and its incompatibility with her adult hungers. You could see her age in her eyes and in the way she carried her body. Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be elegant, regal and a commanding presence (she is the QUEEN after all) but as Wood plays her she is more like an annoying celebutante in the vein of a Paris Hilton or a Lydia Hearst. Blech.
I am not giving up on Evan Rachel Wood (girlfriend did look hot), but for now I remain unimpressed.
P.S. Not enough Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) in last night’s episode. Just sayin’.
It’s week 2 for my little blog and with classes having just started and a head cold ravaging my senses I was all out of blogspiration (if this is not already a word it should be). Besides, the first weeks of baby bloghood are so unsatisfying: why am I doing this? is anyone reading this? should I take a nap? But today I received an e-mail from a colleague in my department (hello Randall!) who said this regarding my inaugural post, “The Watercooler” :
Interesting comment during your water-cooler post. I’ve also noticed how little we talk about lit and film. I wonder if some of the lack of wc talk is due to a fear of showing ignorance, revealing that you have not seen a particular movie or read a particular book. I certainly don’t want Marianne [our department’s Shakespeare expert] to know that I haven’t read most of Shakespeare’s plays and can’t remember much about those I have read.
I say we come up with a log in which every one lists their most embarrassing literary or cinematic oversights.
Upon reading this I thought “Eureka! I have something to post about this week!” So in the spirit of Randall’s e-mail I have assembled a list of the films I am most embarrassed to have not seen:
1. Rambo: First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)
As a child of the 1980s, this is unacceptable.
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
My friend, Ali, is devoting a substantial portion of her dissertation to the films of David Lean. When I admitted that I hadn’t seen Lawrence, she replied “It’s long.” That pretty much sums up why I’ve avoided it.
3. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
I have brought this film home from the library at least twice. And then I’ve opted to watch something like America’s Next Top Model instead. Oh the shame.
4. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
I have read numerous critical essays about this film and even sat though several conference presentations that address this classic WWII flick. Does that count?
5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
I haven’t read the book either. Nail me to the cross.
6. Shane (1953, George Stevens)
I am embarrassed about this one primarily because I always show a clip from it when I teach the Western to my Intro to Film students. Shhhh, don’t tell them.
7. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
My knowledge of Indian cinema is woefully thin.
8. Rashômon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
I know, I know, bad me.
9. Way Down East (1920, DW Griffith)
As with #6, I always show a clip (the one on the ice floe) of Way Down East when teaching melodrama. I should watch this tomorrow.
10. Thelma and Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)
I’m an American chick who was in my teens when this film was released. What the hell is wrong with me?
That was oddly liberating.
Care to share your own list of embarrassing cinematic oversights? Yes, you may use an alias…
True Blood seems to get better with every episode that airs. When it premiered last fall I was unimpressed and was close to giving it up. My new Southern friends here in North Carolina assured me that Sookie Stackhouse’s (Anna Paquin) accent was laughable (what did I know?) and the series’ vampire plot seemed like Buffy-lite. But slowly the show found its footing. And now I’m obsessed.
I attribute much of the show’s allure to its mastery of the slow burn. What I mean is this: while many programs with rich, soapy plots (The O.C., Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl)) rush through their storylines, anxious to bring them to a climax before audience interest wanes, True Blood is a true tease. Mysteries remain mysterious and flirtations go on and on and on (I am particulary taken by the brewing attraction between Sookie and Eric [Alexander Skarsgard]). Furthermore, we are always finding out something new about the show’s characters–they evolve and become more complex with each episode.
Maryann Forrester’s (Michelle Forbes) story arc is another great example of True Blood‘s deft storytelling technique and character development. Maryann first appeared at the scene of Tara’s car accident at the end of Season 1, cradling a pig and looking devious. The writers made us suspicious of her character then, but buried her secrets behind Maryann’s sweet, disarming demeanor. In this way we were much like Tara (Rutina Wesley); we know something isn’t right about Maryann, but what is it? That she smokes too much weed, buys too much delicious fruit, and parties too hard for a woman in her 40s?
It is not until almost halfway through Season 2 that we find out that Maryann is an immortal supernatural being and somehow tied to the god, Bacchus. She thrives on unfettered human drives like hunger, lust and violence. The scene in last night’s episode (“New World in My View”), where Maryann crafts a pyre of meat and flowers while the sounds of buzzing flies fill the air was the apotheosis of the excess she had been slowly and cannily directing all season long. It was a satisfying moment.
The best scene of the evening, however, had to be when Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) (who really deserves an Emmy for his work this season) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) (who will always be Frank Sobotka to me) outwit Maryann’s angry mob by outfitting Jason as the “God who comes.” These two characters are consistently portrayed as the biggest morons in the town of Bon Temps, but they are able to (momentarily) save Sam Merlotte’s (Sam Trammell) life by using their wits. So there’s something else rattling around in Jason’s brain besides the drive to drink beer, screw and kick ass? Good to know.
An honorable mention goes to Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis) (any scene with Lafayette is a great scene as far as I’m concerned), who banded together with his estranged aunt (Adina Porter) to yank Tara free from Maryann’s spell. At one point Lettie Mae prays for her daughter’s salvation but trails off in despair and, without missing a beat, Lafayette finishes her prayer. Lettie Mae turns, looking surprised. “Jesus and I agree to see other people. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk from time to time” he responds in his usual deadpan manner. So Lafayette has religion? Yet another nuance we can add to his already rich character.
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “the Queen” (Evan Rachel Wood), who Bill (Stephen Moyer) visits just before the episode ends. We see only her white leg, covered in a stream of blood, before the screen fades to black. As always, True Blood, like any good tease, leaves me wanting more.
This fall I have the great privilege of teaching a course I have always wanted to teach, “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema and Taste.” Jeffrey Sconce has defined “trash cinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus.” Would Sconce agree with the way I am defining trash cinema in my course? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the term “trash” is a useful way to denote the broad and shifting category of “bad films” and as a method for getting students to discuss film aesthetics. We will watch films that have been maligned for their “bad” acting (Showgirls), “bad” taste (Pink Flamingos), “bad” subjects (Freaks), “bad” politics (El Topo) and just plain “badness” overall (Glen or Glenda?). We will discuss what qualities categorize a film alternately as “bad,” “low brow” or “cult” and how taste cultures and taste publics are established. Finally, we will discuss why certain films are believed to have “cultural capital” and why and how trash cinema rewrites the rules about which films are worth watching.
Every week I will discuss one of these films on this blog, my students’ reactions to them, and whether or not these films offer a useful way for undergraduates to discuss film aesthetics as a political, cultural, economic and social construct. This is also a good excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite films.
The first film the students will watch (during the week of 8/31) is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The film has been dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad films” and has gained an impressive cult following in Los Angeles, where folks line up for midnight screenings. Last year Entertainment Weekly did a wonderful story about it, which is when I first became obsessed with it. The Room even has its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-like rituals.
Which brings me to why I am posting about this now: if anyone out there (are you out there?) is familiar with any of The Room‘s rituals (I know about the spoon throwing and the yelling of “Denny!” whenever that character appears), could you please share them here? My students and I would be most grateful.
More on The Room to come…
When Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) shot poor, weeping Adriana (Drea de Matteo) in the middle of the woods on The Sopranos it was a “water cooler” moment. When Paula Abdul complimented American Idol Season 7 contestant, Jason Castro, on his singing performance, saying it was better than his first performance that evening—even though at that point in the program all of the contestants had only performed once—it was a “water cooler” moment. And when Omar (Michael K. Williams) was shot by a small time hopper while buying a pack of Newports in the final season of The Wire, it was certainly a “water cooler” moment.
The problem for me is, I don’t have a water cooler. Well, let me rephrase that. The faculty lounge at East Carolina University, where I work, does indeed have a water cooler. And I do have conversations with people when I’m standing there, filling my environmentally conscious stainless steel water bottle. But we rarely discuss television or movies or media. We are usually talking about our classes or our students or about the latest round of frightening budget cuts. In my profession, where people are in their offices only a few days a week and only then, for a selected range of hours, it’s difficult to depend on the water cooler as a location for discussing last night’s episode of True Blood or the newest theatrical releases.
And that, my dear readers (are there any of you out there yet?), is where you come in. Sure, there are a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking, innovative media studies blogs out there (see my blogroll for proof). So why did I need to start one myself? Because I need a water cooler. I need a place to discuss those “oh my God!” moments, those “John Locke is in a wheelchair?” moments, those water cooler moments.
But this blog won’t just be about current television shows or movies that are playing at the multiplex. I will also revisit older shows and films of interest, and will take occasional forays into the world of tabloid media (my other passion). I may even talk about my teaching. Once and if things really get cooking, I hope to invite guest bloggers to offer their opinions.
My hope is that you can read this blog with your morning coffee. I hope that what I have to say will enhance your experience of what you’re watching now or encourage you to go out and see something new.
More than anything though, I hope to have a conservation with those of you out there who love watching movies and television, who aren’t ashamed of the deep emotional connection you feel when sitting in front of the screen. What made you laugh out loud? What broke your heart? Am I too emotionally invested in the well-being of Nicolette Grant (Chloë Sevigny)?
I want my water cooler. Can you make that happen for me?