The New Deal

by Lisa Rosman
September 24, 2009 8:34 AM
1 Comment
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It’s been nearly three years since I blogged about film regularly. I fell out of practice ahead of the curve, before Twitter rendered what once seemed like undigested blurts positively Odyssean. I did not shut up not because of the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” but because of a variation on it: If you don’t have something worthy to contribute to the conversation, keep mum, mum. Not exactly pithy, but you get my point. I prize silence unless something really needs to be said and, over these last several years, what contemporary cinema has inspired in me has better suited a book report than a fully considered essay. The 100-word film reviews that comprise my bread and butter have done the trick. Quel new millennium.

Around the same time I shut up, I started Screwball Dames Sundays. My girlfriends and I would rustle up an improbable meal (think peach-sea salt salads and whiskey ice cream) and plant in front of a celluloid fast-talking broad from some other, better era. Some of us were dykes, some of us straight, but all queer for these women. O, Barbara Stanwyck! O, Rosalind Russell! O, Lauren Bacall! O, Jean Arthur! The kind of ladies whom you only find amongst European women or drag queens these days. Nothing like those pigeon-toed tabula rasas smeared instead across contemporary silver screens. Indie girl Barbie! Action star Barbie! Rom-com Barbie! MILF Barbie! Cougar Barbie! Hip hop Barbie! Thank you, doctor, but I require a stronger prescription.

The dames of yesteryear were my kind of ladies. Idiosyncratically gorgeous, each one radiated a beauty that was cultivated rather than inflicted. Not one of them were traditionally drop-dead by today’s standards-- not Bacall, once you parse out her long-lady features; not Marilyn, who’d be written off as a chubby hausfrau; not Mae West, who’d be mistaken for an actual drag queen. Nay, these women doctored up their dame personas themselves, donning crooked grins and lowered lashes and fabulous hats and skinny shimmies riding dangerous curves. And their films arranged themselves around that fact, supplying clever dialogue and snappy editing if sometimes staid cinematography.

After a month of these Sundays, I stopped referring to myself as a biologically female drag queen. How I talked, ate, laughed and wept, even how I strode down a subway platform, had felt so robustly feminine compared to what slouched around me that I’d come to feel I belonged to a different sex entirely. But the films reminded me that I was not a biological sport so much as an anachronism: a grown-up lady. I live at the top my 30s and have counted among the tall bottle blonds of this world since I was 11. I strap on tall pumps, tight skirts, and red lipstick, and am not known to suffer fools gladly. I’m that old-time broad with a wisecrack and a broken heart. Someone who earned her face—for better and worse. A woman rather than a girl in a town, a country, an era that does not embrace growing up.

And grownups are what contemporary American film lacks: the snap in the spine that you typically only find in adults, or people who actively aim to become adults. There is so little grown-up lady energy on big screens these days that the only semitalented Julia Roberts is a relative grand dame. And I’m not just talking about the actual ladies. I am talking about films with grace and wit; big brains and big hearts; forms as glorious as their function; standards; risks. Movies.

I don’t see the world I wish for -–which is what all my favorite movies have always proffered at their core--anywhere but in European film these days. I can admire a Bujalski film for its deliberate, careful work, but his characters and their small stakes, their passive-aggressive proddings masquerading as interrogatives, their underdog-as-overdog aesthetic just ain’t my thing though it prevails everywhere I look. Neither is that parade of earnest docs that don’t boast enough cinematic value to merit the large screens they’ve migrated onto from PBS and premium cable. Neither, obviously, is the muddled tyranny of the (un)proven formulas big studios keep churning out with a willful blindness.

So what’s changed? Why am I blogging, apparently at some length, now?

It’s too easy to ascribe it to what I persist in referring to as the new economy. When the bottom fell out a year ago, a spate of articles posited how a recession might positively affect art. And though those halcyon days have yet to arrive, I remain hopeful that higher stakes in real life will beget higher stakes in our films. We’ve all sobered up in the last year, realized that a theoretical daddy doesn’t loom who will bail us out of all of our financial and creative malfeasance. But have we accepted it yet? Ideally, only the filmmakers passionate enough to persist by any means necessary, old-school 40 acres and a mule style, will survive. The early-aught dilettantes fueled by cheap new technology and never-ending credit lines may now fade away. At the least, we have all been reminded that it is a privilege to make and view films.

This fall’s slate—the prospect of discovering what, if anything, has really changed--has helped to rouse me out of Greta Garboville. But the real reason this lady has stirred has very little to do with such lofty, sociological reasons. It comes down to my trip to mid-coast Maine last month. Away from the Assburglar exchanges that comprise New York social life, I climbed back to my real self for the first time in a really, really foul year. No movies, I swore. No screens of any sort. Instead, I swam in the cold, Northern sea; feasted on lobsters trapped at the end of our dock; read expertly plotted British and Swedish detective novels; flea-marketed; kayaked; cooked increasingly baroque meals; slept long and hard. At night all was quiet; no one else’s lights or chatter punctuated the black sky looming outside our windows.

'Twas wonderful.

One evening it grew cool and we could feel Fall nosing into our cottage. We pulled quilts around us on the couch after dinner and surrendered to our long-dormant television. Like a beacon, all the reds and shadows of The Godfather whooshed into the blackness of our cottage. Suddenly I was transported from Maine and the unhappiness I’d only semi-escaped to the ritualistic underworld of mid-century Manhattan and Long Island. I had forgotten just how much a movie could move you from here to a there. I was captivated, in love again. Finally.

To be clear, I still think that a lot of what's appearing on silver screens is largely not worth the 12 bucks most Americans have to pay to see it. I sometimes prefer the new genre of strong television serial introduced by the likes of HBO (and expect to see me discuss it here from time to time). I am uncomfortable with the critical chatter that falls so frequently below the belt. But alone in the dark, as Ebert would say, I realized I wanted to share where I’d been. Selfishly, I miss completing the journey films always launch. The only way I know to complete that journey is to write my way to you.


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1 Comment

  • Vincent | January 18, 2011 6:46 AMReply

    I belatedly invite you to visit my blog dedicated to one of those wonderful "fast-talking dames," Carole Lombard:

    http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co