Saturday, January 9, 2010

So Many Women, So Little Time: The Sexual Politics of Up in the Air and Nine

Hollywood has always been a man's town. Wait, scratch that. Hollywood has always been a middle-aged, upper-class, heterosexual white man's town. It tries to pretend it is diverse and changing with the times but, like Washington, D.C., it is still run by prehistoric white dudes. Not too surprising, I'm afraid, given the content of 90% of the crap Hollywood releases each year. How else do you explain Couples Retreat, a "realistic" movie where bloated and puffy Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn are somehow married to young, thin and gorgeous Malin Akerman and Kristin Davis, respectively? Something is obviously wrong with this and, yet, nothing ever seems to change. Looking at two of the year's Oscar contenders--Jason Reitman's "zeitgeist" dramedy Up in the Air and Rob Marshall's musical follow-up to Chicago, Nine--what stands out is that even the most progressive-appearing of this year's batch of films are still haunted by this male-dominated conservatism.

The fact that Up in the Air is being marketed as a "zeitgeist" film, the film of our times, is both laughable and alarming at the same time. It is laughable because the film's corporate downsizing/unemployment themes become so unimportant by the end of the movie, you barely realize the film has said anything about the subject. That's probably because Up in the Air doesn't. The widely celebrated "documentary" scenes with "real" unemployed people are hackily tacked on for some semblance of relevance that just does not exist. They offer nothing I didn't already glean from Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story and are so disconnected from the narrative they truly make no sense in the context of the film.

I am alarmed by Up in the Air's status as the film of our times because the film treats its main female characters as bad, if not worse, than TV treated women in the 1950's and 60's. When it is busy not saying anything about the recession, Up in the Air follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney playing George Clooney), an unattached, isolated bachelor who works for a company that fires people, and his inevitable journey toward self-discovery and settling down. Along the way, he meets two women who help him change his lifestyle for the better. The first is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveler he has a one-night stand with after meeting in a hotel. Their relationship eventually blossoms into something where Ryan seriously considers giving up his jet-setting lifestyle and settling down with her. The other woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), Ryan's young co-worker who develops a program that further decreases the inhumanity of Ryan's job and threatens to ground him indefinitely. With these two women so vital to the narrative, you would think the film would treat them with more respect than they are ultimately given. For the most part, Alex and Natalie are portrayed as women who have many characteristics of men. Alex, at one point, rather vividly and bluntly describes herself as a man with a vagina. Natalie's introduction to Up in the Air is a scene where she introduces her video conferencing program that allows the company to fire people from the main office instead of in person. She is wearing a boxy, unfeminine business suit and adopts the cheesy mannerisms of a stereotypical 50 year-old businessman, cracking corny jokes and playfully grabbing the shoulders of her boss (Jason Bateman). To top it all off, in their own ways, both women are emotionally frigid and distant: Alex repeatedly insists that she does not want a complicated relationship with Ryan while Natalie is so focused on saving the company money, she does not see the inhumanity of the technology she has created. Normally, this would not be a problem, but Up in the Air feels the need to punish Alex and Natalie for wanting to act like men, pushing this idea that unless these women act like women, they are not truly women until they do. After a film-changing (and narratively ridiculous) twist toward the end of the movie, Alex becomes the villain of Up in the Air. According to the film, she's an evil harpy standing in the way of Our Hero from reaching self-actualization. I'm actually surprised that at no point does Ryan burn an effigy of her to further the point. Since Alex is so incapable of committing to Ryan, an unwomanly thing to do since women are wedding-crazy and solely focused on getting that ring, she must become the villain of the film. Natalie, on the other hand, gradually loses any male traits she had in the beginning, replacing them with softer, more traditional female traits. She gradually abandons her head-strong, businessman persona and becomes Ryan's conscience, urging him to give a chance on love with Alex. Up in the Air seems to suggest that successful females either have to choose between a career and love because women can not have it all. If you're a middle-aged man taking a chance on love for the first time while decrying the heartlessness of modern technology, however, you're off the hook. Puh-lease.

Even if the women in Up in the Air become muddled by the narrative, at least they occasionally appear to be real people (the scene in the hotel lobby between Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick is the highlight of the entire movie). The same can't be said with the ladies of Nine who are nothing more than shallow, one-dimensional stereotypes parading around the film's soundstage. For a film all about a director whose entire life has been shaped and guided by women, it is disconcerting to find that none of these women are as complex or even interesting as Guido seems to find them. As Nine unfurls, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that anyone would have as many existential crises as Guido does about his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz). To save time, I'm surprised no one thought to just name these characters Madonna and Whore to make the point even more clear. Think about it: what exactly do we learn about any of the female characters that we do not already grasp from their opening scene? Luisa is a saint for putting up with Guido's shit (although the film forgives Guido because, by golly, he's a hot-blooded Italian artist and fucking multiple people is a part of "being Italian"). Carla loves sex and loves Guido. That's seriously it. 'A Call to the Vatican' is a visual ode to the beauty of Cruz's body, but does not actually say anything about Carla besides she has a nice ass. Lilli (Dame Judi Dench) acts as Guido's conscience throughout the film but, even with the Dench touch, she still does not come across as anything more than a shallow plot device. Claudia (Nicole Kidman) has nice hair extensions. Loren, Hudson and Fergie are in the movie for so little of the runtime they barely register before they are quickly ushered off for more of Our Hero's insufferable suffering. Rob Marshall is so focused on the problems Our Hero faces juggling the numerous women in his life, the women become nothing more than pawns, or even obstacles in some instances, in Guido's journey toward making his movie. Not exactly a commendable attitude for a movie that has been non-stop in its marketing as a movie about all of these juicy, glorious actresses.

Up in the Air C-
Nine C-


Adam M. said...

FANTASTIC post. One of your best film analyses, and one of the most insightful pieces I've read about 'Up in the Air' (a film too many have been thoughtlessly praising) from anyone. Awesome job!

I HIGHLY disagree with your conclusions about Alex and Natalie in 'Up in the Air,' and you can expect my rebut soon.

As for 'Nine,' Guido does seem to be christened as a deity no matter what he does, but I do think that Kidman, Dench, and (particularly) Cotillard are treated pretty fairly overall.

Kidman's Claudia is in complete control of her destiny, and even if she needed Guido at some point (a point we don't see), she's moving on with a solemn regret. She totally owns Guido in her scene.

Dench's Lilli is always smarter than Guido and just barely puts up with his shenanigans. I got the impression that her loyalty lay with her job, and later, with Luisa-- and that these loyalties were the reasons she was even sticking around. Again, she totally owns Guido in every one of their scenes together.

Cotillard's Luisa holds on to some memory of Guido when they were together and happy, and this, I believe, is why she keeps giving him a free pass. Yes, she puts up with Guido's infidelity and yes, she gives him too many chances, but I think it's for an admirable ideal-- not actually for her scatter-brained, sleazy husband. Then she breaks away in a really big way at the end of the film. She REALLY owns Guido in 'Take it All.' The whole song is a roar of feminine independence.

Fergie and Loren are sort of throwaways. I don't think we learn enough about them to assess their motivations. But I do absolutely agree that Carla (Cruz) is a pathetic mess who literally feels like life is not worth living without Guido. And then that huge waste of space Hudson sets women back a few decades with her immediate, uninhibited attraction to the blubbering mess that is Guido, and then basically worshiping at his altar in her song-based celebration of the Italian cinema (ignoring the fact that Guido has been churning out flops and that she can't get a peep out of him about his next project).

Again-- awesome post.

Toli said...

Hey man, Up In The Air was filmed years ago, before the recession, and well before Capitalism A Love Story came out.

RJ said...

I have to say I pretty much completely disagree with your opinions about the women of Up in the Air. However, you already know how fully I agree with you on Nine. I still can't understand what effect Kate Hudson's character was supposed to have on Guido. She's just a one-night stand for him, basically.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Toli. I don't think James is saying nay to your sentiments, but the film has become labeled as a film of the recession era and la all that BS. Whatever. I agree with you on UITA but not quite on Nine. I've not seen Nine as yet, but judging from the play your claims sound about right. But the thing with Nine is that it's all about Guido, UITA can't use that as its saviour because we're supposed to feel for all these characters. But that's the reason why Nine is like it is: the women are labeled just as Guido labels. Remember Luisa was an actress, but she marries him and becomes Mrs. Contini, Carla as much as she seems to be a woman of her own wants to marry Guido and become the new Luisa, and on and on. I suppose Adam is right that only Claudia is able to hold her own, but I haven't seen the movie since in the play Cluadia moves on from Guido and shacks up with an older man "investment banker" and lives off him. My point is that the "sexual politics" is deliberate in Nine. UITA is a question mark for me. Still I've got to see Nine the movie, either way this is a good post. Very nice work.

kameronaloud said...

I haven't seen 'Nine', but I did see 'Up in the Air' and I thought it was fairly good, until the end when Natalie seemly disappeared and Alex became the villan. I'm not insightful enough to adequately put how I felt about it, nor can I comment on the how the women where represented, but I really did want to like the film.

Dame James said...

Adam: Aww shucks. You're just saying that. I know we disagree and am eagerly awaiting your comeback.

I would agree that the characters you mentioned in Nine are treated fairly and are even independent women throughout the course of the film. My main objection was the fact that they are one-dimensional and we learn absolutely nothing about them besides a couple key details. Again, I will argue that it wasn't so much Kate's fault that she's so shallow because her role is superfluous one at best. She's on-screen so little there's not much to really get worked up by.

Toli: Are you referring to the book that Up in the Air was based on? If you are, I think it makes my point stronger. The "documentary" scenes stick out that much more and, since they were added after the original work, were obviously tacked on to try and have some relevance.

Andrew: Hmm, interesting point. I knew nothing about Nine going into it so hearing your perspective is interesting. I would love to hear what you make of everything once you see the film.

RJ: I would love to hear your take on the UITA ladies. And I'm still wondering that about Hudson's character as well. A total headscratcher.

Kameron: I agree that the ending is a killer. I was mildly entertained throughout the whole thing but once Alex became the villain I was like "Oh hell no!" to the whole thing. I wanted to like the movie too (I adore Kendrick and Farmiga outside of this film) but I honestly couldn't.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I'll let you know when I see Nine, but UITA really was a letdown for me. And Kendrick [I know you're a fan] seemed so false throughout. That crying scene made me god blech. Farmiga is good, but it's like she's sleep walking. And I'm totally with you on that "Oh hell no" when she becomes the villain. How original.

gehenna42 said...

Don't forgot the strange pairing of Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell.

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