Archive for July, 2010

Work of Art, Bravo Network, Summer 2010

An Open Letter to the Network

Re: Reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist

Dear Bravo Network,

Do not do this again.


Thank you.


A genuine art critic.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

The Kids are All Right (2010)

The Last Prejudice

The Kids are All Right is about a marriage threatened by an affair and a family threatened by a stranger from the outside.  The only novelty, which is hardly a novelty, is that the couple is lesbian.  My question is who is the audience for this film?  I am sure that the people who think that being gay is a sin and a mental disease will boycott this film. I am sure that there are certain small towns that will refuse to show this film.  The very audience that needs to be reached isn’t listening.  Then there are the rest of us.  The supposedly earthshaking revelation that gay people are just people makes the film feel dated, rather like looking at The Bill Cosby Show, which shocked, shocked the world in the Seventies with the news that black people were just people.  For those of us in LA and in the OC, this movie is about people we know, our next-door neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends.

Indeed it was the goal of writer and director Lisa Cholodenko to tell the story of her life. She and her partner were shopping for a sperm donor and the process of selection of a candidate and, finally, of reproduction were on her mind.  Teaming up with her literary partner, Stuart Blumberg, who, Cholodenko tells us, is straight, she wrote the story of her life, projected it into the future and asked “what if?” the sperm donor returned to the scene of the family? Much has been written about The Kids are All Right.  The usual critical theme has been that a family is a family and a marriage is a marriage, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.  This is a nice film, well written and well acted by the excellent cast, amusing in parts, and totally good natured.  Totally mainstream, this is a movie you warm to and you leave the theater, feeling good.

That said, once you get beyond the surface, there are some serious points to make here.  Probably unintentionally, this film repeats the prejudices of mainstream straight society. Straight society, for centuries, has forced gay people to accept the strait jacket of straight life.  Many gays and lesbians have written eloquently of the extent to which straight society “sells” the heterosexual couple as if it is the only proper way for people to love each other.  Agreed. The social assumption that the straight couple is “normal” is a kind of cultural tyranny.  But this film replicates that same tactic and reveals another prejudice.  Marriage is celebrated as “normal” and is sold as the only proper way for adults to live.  Single people are cast as second-class citizens, maladjusted and irresponsible.

In point of fact, there are more single people today than married people.  Counting divorces, widowhood, celibates, the never marrieds, the too young to marry, single people outnumber couples.  More and more people chose to never marry or, if they were once married, decide to not marry again (especially women).  And yet the whole economic basis of society and tax system is geared to encourage and reward marriage and procreation.  Popular culture and films routinely portray single people as loose cannons on the decks of the Good Ship Marriage and The Kids are All Right is no exception.

The couple in question, long married, is “Jules” (Julianne Moore) and “Nic” (Annette Bening) who have two lovely children, “Joanie” (Mia Wasiknoska) and “Laser” (Josh Hutcherson), courtesy of their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo).  This normal family of kind and conscientious parents and smart children with good sense is rocked when the “kids” invite “Paul,” the donor, into their family circle.  Mayhem ensues.  Here I thought that women who were lesbians did not like to have sex with men, but apparently I was wrong, because  “Jules” has an affair with “Paul.”  “Nic” finds out, the kids find out, and the marriage quakes and shakes, but, with astonishing ease, the firm foundations hold.  Accusing him of being an “interloper,”  “Nic” banishes the remorseful “Paul.”  “Joanie” goes off the college and “Laser” stays home with his “moms.”  The bad single person is left behind, his longing nose pressed to the window of marriage and the family he cannot be part of.  The end.

But the central character is “Jules;” the film is really about her.  She has played the housewife to the wage earning husband figure, “Nic.”  “Jules” stayed home and took care of the children, but she resented “Nic’s” power of the purse over her and the fact that she could not get the career she wanted. The “kids” are leaving the nest, which in a few years will soon be completely empty.  Once the children leave home, what should she do with the rest of her life?  Society still does not provide a road map for the stay-at-home partner.  How do you reengage with the real world outside the boundaries of the family?  How do you catch up?  How do you interact with adults who are not your partner?  Very carefully.

Married people live a very sheltered life.  They are able to find support and sustenance from each other.  When a married person who has been the stay-at-home partner leaves the protective circle of the family, there will almost always be problems for this person, male or female.  You tend to assume that the rest of the world is like your family where everyone is on your side.  You don’t know that the world is full of self-interested people who are not like your family.  You will make mistakes, because, like a young child, you have no experience and no judgment. Particularly when it comes to sex.

“Jules” is naïve and is totally unprepared for real people in the real world. She uses the unexpected offer from “Paul” to landscape his terraced garden behind his organic restaurant to start a new way of life, with herself as an achiever instead of a caretaker.  In other words, she left the family and its protection.  “Paul” is made out to be a predator, afraid to make a commitment.  He very carefully selects an unavailable woman, one who is vulnerable and who does not understand that (single) men hit on women all them time.  To be able to hit on all women all the time—that is why “Paul” has never married.  “Jules” makes a mistake so typical of people who wander outside the familiar territory of marriage, she blunders into an ill-advised adventure.  She is used to agreeing to sex, that is what marriage is all about, and “Jules” does not know that, outside of marriage,  you get lots of offers, some you accept, some you don’t.  So “Jules” says, “yes” to “Paul,” because that is what she does.  The film does not address the very real question of why she was so unworldly and ignorant that she was left open to making such a mistake.  “Jules” scrambles back to the family, not older, not wiser, not more grown up. She remains a child, protected by “Nic.”

The affable, free-wheeling, motor-cycle riding “Paul” is a minor character, the outsider, the disruptor. He is the catalyst that works against the grain of the story.  This character deserves to be deconstructed.  The entire plot is told from the vantage point that marriage is best and that being single is an unnatural condition.  But “Paul” is exactly who and what he wants to be.  And although self-actualization is supposed to be the goal of every individual, he is condemned for being “arrogant and full of himself.”  The married people mock him, indicating just how threatening they find him.  But “Paul,” like most single people, likes the freedom.  Although “Nic” scorns him for having dropped out of college and for having done exactly what he wanted to, “Paul” has made a success of his restaurant business, a very real accomplishment, for which he gets no credit.  Paul is condemned for doing what people do: taking advantage of an opportunity to enjoy himself.   In contrast, “Jules,” who obviously has not done what she wanted, tested the waters of a new life by acting out with a man, of all people, gets off with an apology.

The “kids” have much more street smarts than their parents.  They see “Paul” clearly, enjoy the new possibilities he offers, but, in the end, they loyally follow their ”moms” lead and reject him totally.  Too bad, because the man had something to offer.  He was responsible enough to apologize but no one in the family is willing to meet him halfway.  He has committed the cardinal sin: he has attempted to break up a family and a marriage.  Nowhere is it asked why the marriage and the family were so porous.  For “Paul” to be able to enter in, the family had to be in some kind of crisis, if only one of a transition.  “Paul” is not the problem.  The marriage simply needed refreshing.  One might ask why a lesbian couple could not create a more innovative form of marriage. Why would such a couple replicate a 1950s style heterosexual marriage in which the husband held all the power?  That type of patriarchal alliance was bad for straight couples.  Surely in the Twenty-first century, a more equality or a balanced partnership can be found for marriage.

“Paul” is portrayed as a man-child, a perennial Peter Pan who will not grow up, an attitude that assumes that single people are immature and that only married people are adult and only couples shoulder responsibility, because only couples have children.  Even if we leave out the fact of courageous single parents, the attitude of this film is curious because single people have to be strong and independent.  Single people are alone in the world, depending upon themselves and their own resources.  The pay off for being alone, for a single person, is worth not having a partner as a backstop.  It’s not just that you get to eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough at midnight, and no one will laugh at you. Although a single person can come and go without ever having to call home, being single is more than sheer self-indulgence.   A single person is free and self-reliant.    Without having to consult anyone else, single person can change jobs, make a new life, find a new identity.  Strong character, self-reliance and the courage to take chances—-this is the goal of every mature adult, isn’t it?   Society has overcome many long held prejudices.  The bias against gay people and gay marriage is today largely a generational or regional concern.   But the prejudice against single people is still alive and well and active in The Kids are All Right.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Inception (2010)

“Life is but a Dream”

“We are the stuff that dreams are made of.”  So said William Shakespeare in his last play, The Tempest. And this, in a nutshell, is the theme of Inception. This is the movie the summer has been waiting for.  Only rarely does one go to a movie and see something that is actually inventive and imaginative.  Most films are recycles of older films and reruns of time worn ideas.  But in the sure and steady hands of director Christopher Noland and thanks to a remarkable group of digital artists, Inception reminds you that movies are us: the stuff that dreams are made of.  Noland takes a very basic premise about human beings—we use very little of our conscious mind and that much of our mental activity takes place while we sleep.  Our minds are unexplored and under utilized territory, but this terrain is inhabited. Beware.

Dreams happen each and every night, but we remember little of the content.  From a Freudian point of view, dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious.”  There, in this buried kingdom, our deepest longings are secreted, our most profound fears are cached, lying under layers of traumas and very resistant to excavation. Freud described the unconscious mind like the city of Rome, a place he never visited but the analogy was apt.  As anyone who has been to Rome knows, you can walk down many streets and many strata of time are laid out in front of you, like an Escher drawing: the ancient world, the world of the Renaissance, the time of Mussolini, and today.  The mind, like Rome, has its own archaeological layers of experiences that have to be mined.  The psychologist uses the dream images for what they are, metaphors that must be interpreted.  Noland is asking the audience to both take dreams literally but to also remember that dreams stand for something else that is hidden away.

Noland also plays with another, more Eastern, more mystical concept: suppose we are the dream of a greater being, a fantasy of some kind of god?  For philosophy, psychology, for theology, and for us all, the real question is what is existence?  The answer has to be is that Being must include that vast amount of time we spend on our fantasy worlds, not just our night dreams but also our daydreams.  Like Shiva, we dream ourselves into an existence.  Noland is fascinated with the mechanics of the dream: that we create the dream but do not know that we are creating all elements of the dream.  In other words, those who chase you and persecute you are you.  Suppose we are the gods of our own dreams and we are dreaming ourselves?  Then what is real and what is the dream?  That is the key question of Inception.

The plot is simple.  The main character, “Cobb,” played by Leonardo Di Caprio, is an “extractor,’ a trained operative, who can go into the dreams of other people and direct the dreams in such a way that allows him to find hidden corporate secrets.  In order to go into the dreams of another, one needs a team, people who will enter into the dream with you and add to the false fantasy.  His team is “Arthur,” who looks like a serious bank clerk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an incredible “acrobat,” as Noland termed him, doing his own stunts. These stunts, which take place in zero gravity are worth the price of the film ticket.  Not since Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in Royal Wedding has this effect been so well done.  Other members of the team include “Eames,” played by Tom Hardy, and “Yusuf,” played by Dileep Rao.    The key member of this team is “the architect,” played by Ellen Page, who is called “Ariadne.” She shows off to “Cobb” by building an amazing dream world that folds itself over and lands on top of itself. Amazing.  Obviously, the architect builds a dream world that does not have to obey the laws of logic, but the dream must function logically like a labyrinth constructed in three levels, each borrowing deeper into the mind of the target.  The target in this case is “Robert Fischer, Jr.,” played by Cillian Murphy. Even the veteran actor, Tom Berenger, is on hand to play the lawyer for the Fischer family. According to “Saito,” the corporate client, Fischer is on the verge of making his late father’s energy empire into a total monopoly, and only Saito has a company that could break such a totalizing control.

This plot, of course is a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin.  The quest or the task or the object in question was always unimportant to Alfred Hitchcock.  For this director it was always the couple, the romance and the need to resolve the relationship between the man and the woman. Often, as in Vertigo, the relationship was obsessive compulsive, with the characters repeating their mistakes on an endless loop.  In Marnie, the couple is daunting combination of repression and obsession.  In a Hitchcock film, the male must control and contain the female; but the man does not always succeed, as in Rear Window, where, the hapless James Stewart is ensnared by a triumphant Grace Kelly.

The couple at the core of the film is “Cobb” and his wife, played by Marion Cotillard.  “Mai” also has/had the power to penetrate dreams and to manipulate their outcome.  Hitchcock warned men over and over in many of his films—beware of the powerful woman, the femme fatale.  “Mai,” apparently a figment of “Cobb’s” imagination, has the nasty habit of suddenly appearing in his dream jobs and sabotaging his work.  Every time “Mai” appears, the beautiful Cotilllard slows the film down.  In an action film, it is a problem for the audience to get bogged down in a relationship.  But Noland is a brave director.  He allows “Mai” to be a drag on the film, because this stopping of the flow is absolutely necessary for the concept of the film and its plot.

Noland, who wrote and directed Inception, is well aware of film studies that have equated film with dreams.  We leave the light filled ordinary world and go into a dark theater, we sit immobilized and stare at a screen upon which images are projected.  Our state of watching a movie is similar to our watching ourselves in a dream, full of projected images.  The camera in the theater is behind us, just like we are the mind behind our screen where we experience the dream.  In a dream, we are unable to know that we are dreaming but in a theater we have the choice of suspending belief or not.  We are asked to surrender ourselves to the fiction, as we surrender ourselves to the dream.  Film language uses dream language—particularly important is the effect of “elision,” or the jump cut.  In a movie when a character says something like, “Let’s go out to dinner,” we immediately jump to the restaurant.  As in dreams, in movies, we are spared the logistical details of changing clothes and getting reservations and driving to the restaurant and getting a parking place, and so on.

Noland uses the resemblance of film language to dream language to great effect in this film, seducing the audience into assuming that we are experiencing film language.  But pay attention; ask yourself—-are we witnessing a film or a dream?  The fact that the viewer will be run through a maze is obvious, given the name of the architect, “Ariadne,” a character from mythology who led a Greek hero, Theseus through a maze built by the first architect, Daedalus, to confront a minotaur, the half-man, half-bull.  In the world of dreams, we are Daedalus, the true architect, but we are also Theseus, encountering our deepest fears, the Minotaur, the monster, who is also ourselves.  Ariadne is the psychologist who is following a thread through the dream construct to find the truth and to heal the patient.  We assume that “Ariadne” is the grounded member of the team, the one who holds the string or thread that will lead the hero to the surface.  But what is the Minotaur?

The movie begins with a failed mission, one undertaken to get into the mind of Saito” who subsequently hires “Cobb” to get into the mind of “Fischer” to get him to break up his father’s monopoly by planting the idea to do so in his mind during a dream.  “Cobb” can no longer be an architect, we are told, because he suffers guilt over his wife, “Mai,” who committed suicide because he planted an idea in her mind about the power that the mind has over reality.  This idea caused confusion between the real world and the dream world in her mind.  For those in a dream state, there is a “bump” that can wake you up, such as your own death.  In order to wake herself up to bump out of the real world she was convinced was the dream world, “Mai” leaped to her death and staged the scene to make it look as if her husband had killed her.

Separated from his children, Phillipa and James, cared for by their grandfather, “Miles,” played by Michael Caine, “Cobb” agrees to take on the job offered by “Saito,” played by Ken Watanabe.  “Saito” offers to make a single phone call that will allow “Cobb” to go home to his children.  The team goes into the mind of the target—will they succeed?  Will “Cobb” be allowed to go home?  And that is the McGuffin.  The real clue is the implanation of an idea and the effects of this idea, which can take over the mind.

To Noland’s credit, he is absolutely straightforward with the audience.  We are given all the facts up front.  From the very beginning we know everything, but we chose to go along with the dream world that Noland has written for us. The director tells us that the mind, even the unconscious mind, has defenses that protect the secret.  In real life such defenses are responses to the trauma of bad memories.  We compulsively repeat certain kinds of dysfunctional behavior or we project onto others our own feelings.  In Inception the mind of Fischer creates guards, guns, entire armies to resist invasion with the same single-minded resistance that a compulsive gambler will show to a therapist.  The “secret,” a last will and testament is also a glimpse into the mind of his father.  The mind of the parent is always a mystery to the child who is always futilely trying to interpret the adult way of thinking.  It is the parent who inflicts the first wounds and the primal trauma on the mind of the child who buries the agony in the deepest vault of the mind.  To get to this vault, the team must go deeper into the mind and encounter greater resistance to break into the castle, where the safe is to be found.

For a two-hour film, Noland is exceeding generous to his large cast of actors.  You never feel as if there are “stars,” who are in the lead or eat up most of the screen time. Each actor gets his or her due and is as fully developed as dream characters get.  I have read comments about the violence in this film, but there is actually more action than violence.  Fasten your seatbelts; this is a fun ride.  Because we are in a dreamscape, the special effects are believable and amazing and you never get the effect of “digital effects” or “CGI” that have become so common to the run of the mill movie.   Though less complex than Avatar, the artwork is just as compelling and powerful.

To film audiences unfamiliar with Hitchcock or who did not get the references to Greek mythology or who don’t see Noland’s play with film theory, the ending of the film might come as a surprise.  To those of us who knew where the film was going after about ten minutes, it simply doesn’t matter.  Like a dream, you just go with it.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger