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-