Musing on the Menfolk of THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)


So I’m not the first person to posit the whole <<patriarchy hurts men/feminism actually helps men, can you believe it?>> formation, nor am I the first this Halloween season to say, hey, maybe it’s worth (re)visiting the 1975 The Stepford Wivesdirected by Bryan Forbes.

Has anyone brought those two points into conversation though? Likely. The internet is huge. That said, I haven’t read it (yet), so here goes!

I showed The Stepford Wives in my Horror class this week: it fit neatly into the “Humor and Horrors of Modern Life” unit of the course and sets us up for next week’s screening of Get Out. It also continued many of the themes and questions we have been asking throughout the semester, namely, how does the horror genre use metaphor to discuss real-life horrors and terrors? How do these movies say what is otherwise unsayable?

The movie is an obvious, chilling but at times campy, commentary on the pressures women face to be what Stepford‘s director calls “Marilyn Monroe meets June Cleaver” — indeed, this is in large part what (white, middle-class) second-wave feminists were reacting against through the women’s liberation movement, though Betty Friedan famously hated The Stepford Wives and mistrusted author Ira Levin’s allegedly good intentions.

But — and I cringe to put this in writing, so imagine it delivered with a thick layer of irony that does not completely undercut my meaning — what about men, you guys? 

The Stepford Wives is a really killer text for understanding how the patriarchy hurts men, even if the argument is more subtly rendered than the film’s “without feminism, women gotta be robots” through-line. Specifically, I want to point to two moments, the first being when the protagonist Joanna’s husband, Walter, comes home from his first Men’s Association meeting. She discovers him, in the middle of the night, drinking a Scotch and staring into the fire. Joanna is worried about him and his mood and urges him to come to bed, and he responds tearily with a deep and seemingly genuine confession of love. Of course, how genuine could it be if, based on what we discover later, he has committed to swapping out his wife with a look-alike robot and condemning his wife to, what? (I mean, murder. He’s condemning her to death. He’s hard to like, but of Ira Levin husbands, I can’t help but hate Guy Woodhouse. Even. More.)

Stepford Wives I Love You.png

I would cross-reference this moment with one of the final scenes: he chases his wife up the stairs, visibly drunk and continuing to drink, as the plan to Stepfordize his spouse is in its final throes. At the risk of sounding like overly sympathetic to a monstrous character: destroying his wife does not suit him. While he does yell at her, in an ugly argument, that he wishes she would spend more time cleaning the house and the children, there’s no reason for him for that teary fireside love fest unless he, like, you know, means it.

Possibly Betty Friedan hated this film in how much it lets the husband character off the hook — he is, somehow, pitiful in these moments, even as he sets in motion the murder of his wife, the mother of his children. And indeed, there is something sinister about the inevitability of Joanna’s destruction. While she runs from the Men’s Association mastermind at first — she is, naturally, the Final Girl in this horror show — the end of her life is not frantic. She recoils but ultimately succumbs. The game is up, and there is no way out.

It is worth, then, considering how Walter is in that same boat as Joanna — and we should do this without releasing him from moral responsibility within the narrative. He does the unspeakable and is of course a villain, but yet the film is at least partially invested in having us know that he is conflicted and even unhappy about it. Maybe it is not just the women who are programmed or trapped: the Men’s Association is the Patriarchy, and yet its members are also victims of their own rules and plans. Thus, we can think about how the Patriarchy programs men who want or at least could do better. This is why Feminism Is Good For Everyone.

Then again, does anyone who reads this blog disagree? Preaching to the cinephile choir 😉

Coda: I cannot tell enough people to watch The One I Love. This indie film co-starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss is more than it seems. It is a compelling companion piece to The Stepford Wives in how it asks a similar, if not identical, set of questions through a bizarro genre lens, namely: “What does it mean to love someone? Can we love someone else or only the projection of them that we choose or prefer? Do any of us want to be partnered with Real, Messy People, or is what we really want more selfish and less evolved than romantic comedies would have us believe?”

Watch it watch it watch it. No plot spoilers, just go watch!

13 Ways of Looking at a Harvey Weinstein

(A Make-Shift List-in-Progress…)

  1. I KNEW IT.
  2. Did I actually know it? Let me think about it…
  3. Yeah, I guess I did know. I sort of compartmentalized. Man, that’s probably the problem, isn’t it?
  4. Boy, I’m glad they never called me for an interview when I applied for a job at the Weinstein Company: I like to think I’d be a terrible Honeypot. So impressed by Ronan Farrow’s reporting…
  5. Teaching my Hollywood Stars seminar and bringing this news story into the classroom has really forced me to approach it less as a gossip hound and more as a cultural critic. So when a Harvey Weinstein is exposed — and there are a lot of Harvey Weinsteins out there — what does the public demand to know?
  6. How long has this been going on? What has been happening? Spare no gory detail, please! Who did it happen to? Again, tell us everything…
  7. There is a particular kind of voyeurism that goes hand-in-hand with righteous indignation: we want to condemn Harvey Weinstein as a community, but there is a sadism inherent to wanting to know (and possibly picture) what he did or didn’t do to Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence…
  8. But not Gretchen Mol. Go figure.
  9. Whatabout-ism is for people without the capacity for critical thought: true story. We got Roger Ailes and Donald Trump on the right, Harvey Weinstein and (if we want to throw him in) Anthony Weiner on the left, and Bill Cosby wherever you want to put him. Of course we do. I may agree with Harvey Weinstein on gun control measures, but if he approaches politics as a form of channeling his desire to dominate others, then how can I possibly feign surprise about these allegations? If he wants to fight Wayne LaPierre and the NRA from a NYC jail cell, he is welcome. I very much doubt that is what it is about for him.
  10. HW’s “apology” is just about the worst. He is obviously only sorry he got caught, but even bracketing that, this idea that he is from “a different time” is absurd. Someone needs to tell this guy that Mad Men is not a documentary and that there was never a time where making a woman lock herself in the bathroom to get away from you was an inscrutable, opaque chain of events. “What could she possibly mean by her hysterical retreat? I wouldn’t know. I’m a baby boomer.”
  11. The inner academic chimes in again: how many personas will be forever altered, even shattered, by the on-going revelations? Matt Damon? Ben Affleck? Eighth grade me shudders at the thought. #RoseArmy
  12. I would be remiss as a Film Studies professor if I did not direct you to this wonderful essay from The Toast (RIP The Toast! We miss you) on the Awful Studio Heads of the Classic Era. Unsurprisingly, Louis B. Mayer tops off the list. Hollywood is predicated on sexism, predation, and abuse: it’s not a bad apple problem. It’s a tree problem.
  13. With the Sony Hack, I watched the stories roll in with a mixture of professional and personal interest. The ever-evolving Weinstein case feels different. What can I — what can any of us outside the industry — do now? Leave thoughts in the comments…

How’d That Get In There? Bad Scenes in Great Films, SUSPIRIA edition

As a film scholar, knowing how to improve on screenplays or movies is not really my forte. But I do have some background in creative writing and, more than that, I am a deeply opinionated person when it comes to movies and TV, and where better to express those than my personal blog?

Suspiria (1977) is a gorgeous giallo film that I just taught in my horror film class last week. It is beautiful in the most twisted way, inviting us all to be sadistic aesthetes. People who know me know that I’m not a horror buff, but I am intrigued by the social and political questions that horror films raise, and one of those questions is why we want to exorcise and play with our own primal and socialized fears. Does that make us sadists, masochists, or something in the middle?

See? Colorful. Painterly. Dramatic. (There are some much more disgusting images in this film, but I’ll let you consult Google Image for that)

So what’s up with this?

The scene in which Suzy does her homework and talks to some academics about (SPOILERS) witchcraft. The aerial shots fit in with the rest of the film — what Adam Knee explains in his writing on Argento constitutes a kind of menacing, if sexless, surveillance, a supernatural gaze. But the space is so… vanilla, particularly in comparison with the dreamy, expressionist colors and contours of Suspiria’s ballet school. While the rest of the film has very little in the way of dialogue, this scene is overly talky and, frankly, boring.

What is this scene doing here?

My thinking is that Suspiria, even as it should be condemning violence and bitchiness (the film is overflowing with both), is meant to be seductive, attractive — so when you leave it to enter, of all places, academia, Argento wants you to feel that loss… he wants you to miss Murder School. Again, does that make us sadists, masochists, or just stone-cold weirdos?

Two of my students, however, came up with alternative theories: first, an Argento aficionado, described the director’s disdain for mental health professionals generally and saw the scene as a critique or satire of these Authority Figures. Another mentioned how the scene reminded her of the final scene in Psycho, where the psychiatrists explains Norman Bates’ “condition” in a similarly dry, know-it-all kind of way. I gotta say I love both of these readings 🙂

Next installment of HOW’D THAT GET IN THERE? is looking like it will be Casablanca… why do we need to flashback to Paris?! Okay, okay, I’ll wait to talk about that next time.

In the meanwhile, do you have questions or complaints about a scene in a film you otherwise love? Please comment below!

Hip to be Square, or: Can Female Academics Have Bodies?

I have decided the only way I am going to be able to keep up blogging is to allow myself to muse, to provoke, to suggest, and not always to present or hold forth. This blog is process, not product — conversation, not oration — so rather than sit on this for a few months before ultimately deciding not to, I am going to write about Marimekko dresses.

If you dig on fashion as much as I do (in theory, at least, if not in practice), you will probably enjoy this article from Alexandra Lange about the “power” of the Marimekko dress. Now, just to be clear, I want one. The loose, arty-farty vibe of the Marimekko dress has Feminist (with a capital F) origins: “Marimekko was made for the working woman who could afford to ungirdle herself, one in a long line of “reform-dress” movements that started with the nineteenth-century feminist bloomer.”

Here is the one I want, if you feel like buying me one. It’s not cheap. (Isn’t this one nice though? I like how the flowers are slightly different sizes, the colors are muted but not boring, and the belting…)

Anyway, I study Hollywood for a living, so I’m used to my faves being problematic, and I’m not the first to call out fashion for being, “like, patriarchal or whatever.”

What I am struggling with is the idea that this “feminist” garment, designed to let the woman move more freely, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And yes, part of that involves the exorbitant price, one of a zillion indicators that lifestyle feminism is as much (if not more) privilege than politic.

But the part that I’m mulling over is this: “Most of these [Marimekko] dresses had loose long sleeves, big pockets, and triangular silhouettes.”

This silhouette, presumably, only sits right on women who are thin: welcome to fashion. But what about Smart Women Fashion (TM)? Clothing marks the wearer as someone and something, and the wearer of a Marimekko dress broadcasts her status as an artist, as a intellectual. If the Marimekko dress is the intellectual woman’s uniform, I want to ask: do intellectual women have to be triangles? How important is it for women to hide their bodies so they can (be seen to) have brains?

“Marimekko is for women whose way of wearing clothes is to forget what they have on,” one 1963 fashion critic declared, but c’mon. We know better. Any woman who has ever dressed for an academic job talk knows what I mean: wanting to look good while also not looking like you care is a lot of work. Back in the day, when I was trying to be a d-girl, I received advice on how to dress the part: basic black with an “interesting” accessory, like a statement necklace or some such. Be unobjectionable yet remarkable? Cool cool cool.

So, the problem is two-fold: first, intellectual women have to look like they don’t care how they look, while also looking good, and the result is not feeling super liberating, nor is it particularly affordable. Second, the intellectual woman uniform is ostensibly one that unsexes the female form. Breasts are distracting; hips are for baby-making; to butcher The Wizard of Oz for a moment, “pay no attention to the (wo)man behind the curtain!”

At any rate, I work in a field where women are asked to “lean in” — better to be isoceles than hourglass (with childbearing hips)? The irony, of course, is that these dresses are designed to let women move freely, but are the wearers only freeing themselves to be brains without bodies?

…Though of course, I still want that dress.

What can I say? I’m going through my Mirror Phase…

When I look back at this blog, I see that my last update came.. yup, before the 2016 election. Who was I when I wrote that post? Who were any of us? What happened? Nope. Nope, that’s not what I’m writing about today.

If I am something of a sporadic personal blogger, I can say only this: the person who runs this blog doesn’t pay enough to write more regularly. And that person is me. Even so, I came to a crossroads: either I needed to delete this blog or come back to it in some small, maybe very small, way. I did some soul-searching in between checking Facebook and googling “healthy foods that are actually healthy and not in some way bad for you” (turns out, no such thing). I looked into my heart and said: eh, what the heck, the blog commences!

In honor of my decision, I want to tell you about my three of my favorite mirror scenes in Film/TV. I hope that below (or on FB), you will tell me about your favorites, which might also become some of my favorites too.

So, I’m just going to quickly flag you to all the academic stuff I could say about mirrors but don’t have to, because this is not a peer-reviewed publication:

-Something something mirror phase? Psychoanalysis? Sure.

-Something something projection-identification (see: Edgar Morin, who I just assigned for my first-year seminar).

-ERGO, something something meta: mirror as cinema, cinema as mirror. You get it.

I hope that I have thus proved that I am a Serious Scholar and that I Could If I Wanted To. Enough of that. My three favorites (chronologically):

  1. Waterloo Bridge (1931). This is probably my favorite pre-Code film after Baby Face. It is about a prostitute and the naive soldier who falls in love with her, never once understanding that she *stands under street-lamps: hello!*. To call Waterloo Bridge a slut-shaming melodrama is an understatement, and sure, it suffers from “Stella Dallas Syndrome,” meaning that it presents class virtue as moral virtue with such poignance and elegance that I am angered but still moved. One of the most stirring and memorable moments is when star Mae Clark puts on make-up to go out and find a John. It is haunting. Color me haunted. Yeah, it’s femininity as performance + sad clown, but there is something ineffable in her performance that transcends those cliches and any others. The entire film can be found on Youtube and is worth watching, even though the end… THE END! Somebody needs to watch it, so we can discuss.
  2. Is it square to like American Hustle (2013)? I know it was a sorta basic flick that somehow won Best Picture at the Academy Awards… but I love a story about con artists. I never, ever get sick of watching actors play actors, and who is more of a capital-A Actor than Christian Bale? The opening sequence is just… not only is it a neat meta-portrait of Bale’s notorious Method but is just a killer piece of characterization/foreshadowing worthy of any Film Appreciation course.
  3. This one is still marinating in my brain, considering it was just on this week, but Miriam Schor is one of the highlights of Younger, a show that is smarter than it seems, if not by a lot… At any rate, after her character, Diana Trout, kicks her lying, manipulative boyfriend to the curb, she walks out of the apartment (that he will be moving out of, pronto) and gives herself a sad, empowered, perfectly Diana glance in the mirror before strapping on an enormous red flower and going to accept an award. Schor discussed with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung (a former college roommate of mine, no thang, not like I’m name-dropping) about what she wanted to capture in this moment. What draws me in is the fraught, contradictory nature of this gesture: she is both strong and fragile and turning herself into an objet d’art: to be looked at, not to be touched (or kissed. How do you kiss someone wearing a huge rose necklace that, in its blood-red color, looks like a wound?) Diana Trout’s relationship to fashion just fascinates me, and fashion and mirrors go together like… well, they just go together.

Honorable Mention: Devin, what’re yoooou doing heeeere? Enough said.

What are your favorite mirror shots, scenes, and moments in film and television? Please post below!

Touch of Evil, Citizen Trump, and Countdown to Prez Debate #1

*There will be spoilers.*

So, I’m an Assistant Professor of Film at Hollins University now, in Roanoke, VA. Did I mention?

That probably warrants a post all its own, and I’m getting to it, but new jobs are pretty hectic! Even so, I wanted to post this thought quickly before the first presidential debate in almost an hour.

In class today, I showed Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, a film I first watched in college over ten years ago. At the time, I was struck by the dramatic, low-key lighting and the ridiculous premise that Charlton Heston was cast as Mexican. (In fact, for half the movie, I wondered why his character was trying to pass as Mexican and why everyone believed him.)

But for me and for many audiences, the most distinctive moment of Touch of Evil is that long opening shot that seamlessly takes us across the US-Mexico border. Growing up in the Northeast, I never thought much about that border, being a white girl from the Northeast, but now more than ever, I realize how large it looms in America’s public imagination as a space of danger and volatility: a place that needs a wall.

Orson Welles would have had a field day with someone like Donald Trump — just look what he did to William Randolph Hearst, for crying out loud! — and from the grave, it seems, he mocks Trump’s border policy… or is it more of a border catch-phrase?… in Touch of Evil.

In numerous ways, Touch of Evil might and should make a contemporary viewer uncomfortable. It plays into upsetting stereotypes about the Mexican criminal underworld and the menace that these sinister brown youths pose to a lily-white maiden Janet Leigh, an actress whose characters never have any luck picking the right motel. The *good* Mexican, the one whose moral compass is as straight as his shot, is played by Charlton Heston in brown-face.

Even so, this film has an important and pressing lesson to teach: the long shot at the start of the film sets up an argument that the border between the US and Mexico can never fully be closed, and the rest of the film bears out this assertion. Whether it be romantic love or craven self-interest that connects individuals from both sides of the border, it is not only impossible to close off each nation but pointless too. The evil on the Mexican side is more than matched by the diabolical schemes of Detective Quinlan (Orson Welles), a lying racist tyrant favors his own “intuition” over facts and evidence,and is willing to say or do anything to accrue more power. He’s more than a touch evil, if you know what I’m saying, and I am afraid he is more than a touch familiar as well.

The film’s exploration of the US-Mexico border as artificial, ideologically-driven divide together with Vargas’ statement to Quinlan that “a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” make this incredibly significant and timely watch. With the rise of Trump, Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face in the Crowd has gotten increased attention from critics, but Touch of Evil is a worthy companion piece for gaining more insight into this election cycle than what you will watch on cable news.


Brief Thoughts on Season 2 of UNREAL


I’m a big fan of the Paley Center and all the resources it has provided me in terms of research and Hulu-related procrastination. (Is it procrastination if you study television for a living? Who can say?)

In my attempt to be a more regular in my blogging, I will keep this on the shorter side. This event ran about 90 minutes, half of which was spent watching the Season 2 premiere, which aired this week. It was great fun to watch the episode in a room full of, you guessed it, mostly women. What surprised me was how raucous it was and how full of laughter. Watching Unreal at home, I would describe it as darkly comic at best, but in a crowd, it turns out to be a real laugh riot, though it was also funnier than I remember the show being in the past.

My review for the episode is this: the episode seemed a bit disconnected from Season 1, but very clear-eyed on the present and future of the show. When I say disconnected, I do not mean that season 1 is forgotten: far from it. Rachel ignores a call from Adam (who is not featured), and Jeremy is still looking to destroy his former flame. Rather, it was the tone that felt off — at some moments, it felt as though very little time had elapsed, particularly between Rachel and Jeremy, while with Rachel and Quinn, they are having a little too much fun getting matching “Money, Dick, Power” tattoos and seemed to have forgotten that, last season, Mary died. (Oh, sorry. Spoilers.) Perhaps the fuzziness with which we can view the events of last season is on purpose, allowing new viewers to get into the show without having watched any episodes beforehand. It felt wrong to me, but then again, I am not a paid employee of Everlasting. You could say, “Of course they’re callous. That’s the point.” But is it?

I think the show is more about what happens between pig-tailed producer Madison and a contestant who is grieving the loss of her fiance in a car accident. The catch? The contestant was driving the car. In a twisted Cyrano allusion, Rachel puts an ear-piece on Madison and demands she ask the contestant whether she killed her fiance. Nearly both women are driven to the brink in the process, the contestant and Madison weeping in equal measure. (As it turns out, Madison’s mother has recently died.) When this excruciating interview ends, Madison walks away, sobbing, and vomits on the ground. We think that she has reached her breaking point when she looks up, smiling, and declares: “That was awesome!” The audience around me roared with laughter.

That pull between guilt and pride, squeamishness and shamelessness, is what motivates the characters on this show and, to some extent, Unreal viewers as well. Madison is pained and thrilled by her own manipulations, and so are we. I think that’s why we all laughed so loud with her final line — it’s that embarrassed flicker of recognition, right?

The season holds a ton of promise. I’m particularly interested to see how the show treats Black Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activism, two sociopolitical movements that we already see will have a prominent place in episodes to come. In other words, I’m ready for whatever comes next.

The other half of the event was a Q&A with the cast and creators, the panel being facilitated by former Bachelorette Andi Dorfman. I myself do not watch The Bachelorette — okay, I’ve watched one or two episodes, but it never grabbed me — so it was less exciting to me, even though Dorfman was very articulate and glamorous in her snazzy romper.

I also learned from this talk-back that creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is just as funny and brilliant speaking as herself as she is speaking through her characters. A favorite moment in this event was Shapiro recalling her time at a women’s college, speculating to her friends how much money it would take for her to betray and humiliate women-kind in her job: “Twenty-five million dollars!” Then she graduated and took a job at The Bachelor and discovered, nope, it takes $1500 a month without benefits.

Other neat discoveries:

-Constance Zimmer, who I’ve been a fan of since the sitcom-of-yore, Good Morning, Miami, is just as cool as you would picture her. She’s Quinn, but without so hard of an edge.

-Craig Bierko was the first choice to play Chet, which Bierko takes humorous offense at. Witnessing his intensity in person really drove home why he is the right fit for the role.

-Josh Kelly has much more sympathy for his character, Jeremy, than I have for him. I suppose that is how actors should feel about their characters, but ech.

If you watch Unreal Seasons 1 or 2, please comment below, so we can discuss! Somebody needs to create a Watercooler emoji, because this is a show that benefits from some post-viewing gab.


Meditations on Mamele (1938) and Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival

I was fortunate enough to attend Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival this evening and catch the 1938 film Mamele, immediately followed by J. Hoberman’s fascinating keynote lecture. Mamele is about a young woman named Khavtshi, who, when her mother dies, takes on the responsibility of managing the home and taking care of her siblings. The entire family, however, is far from grateful to Khavtshi, and in fact, the more she sacrifices, the more they demand. When their dreamy musician neighbor — who is Jewish, of course — comes a-calling, will Khavtshi answer the door? Will she even realize he’s knocking for her? (You’ll realize it. Right off the bat. He’s not particularly subtle.) The light comedy of this film — a kind of Yiddish rom com, really — comes into conflict with its historical context, directly on the heels of the Nazi occupation of Poland. As convener Masha Shpolberg noted in her introduction to the film, this film is a portrait of a Jewish life that is soon to be lost — and as Hoberman addressed in his lecture, Yiddish films from this period are often best described as portraits of a “utopian Yiddishland” that, in fact, never existed in the first place.

The “utopian” vibe definitely comes through with a film like Mamele, the story resembling a fairy-tale more than anything else. When the lights came up in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, the woman next to me said, “Cinderella story, huh?” (I would mention her by name, but I actually never met her. Thank you, stranger!) (Oh, and speaking of Cinderella stories, I want to put in a plug for my colleague Maya Cantu’s excellent book, hot off the presses: American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage.)

One of the things that makes Mamele a fairy-tale, and indeed, a Cinderella story, is that Khavtshi marries for love. Hoberman explained in his talk that, in Yiddish films, marriage is not usually presented as the product of romantic love but, rather, as a step toward maintaining tradition and continuing the Jewish community, which is to say, making Jewish babies. Mamele is not like this. At all. The two fall for each other in the typical musical fashion: by unwittingly singing a duet together about wanting to find love and, eventually, with him singing directly to her about love. It’s ostensibly not about the love he harbors for her but of course it is, you guys. And, in the end, the two marry and he presumably moves into the family home, so Khavtshi can continue to play the put-upon Mamele who at least is married now.

So what is a love match doing in a Yiddish film? I have a few theories.

The first is somewhat inspired by Stanley Cavell’s idea about a genre’s compensatory elements. Basically, what this means is that while every genre has a recognizable set of elements, not every example of that genre has every single one of those elements. That’s why we can recognize that a TV show like Firefly is a Western, even though it is set in space instead of West: because the plots, characters, and language is reminiscent of a textbook Western. You dig? Cavell is discussing 1930s romantic comedies when he coins this term to explain, for example, why It Happened One Night is a comedy of remarriage, even though the leading man and lady are not actually married until the… well, don’t let me spoil it.

So Mamele resolves with a love match and, I would argue, incorporates a critique of the more pragmatic approach to love. When Khavtshi’s glamorous younger sister Bertie finds herself newly single and bored, she decides she wants to marry Schlesinger. Khavtshi tries to hide her devastation and tells her sister, “But you don’t even love him.” Bertie responds that, according to conventional wisdom, the love comes later. In a different context, Bertie’s decision could be seen as a kind of maturity, a sadder but wiser move out of the Marjorie Morningstar playbook. But in this moment, the film makes Bertie seem selfish and greedy — she would just acquire Schlesinger as a husband just like she buys up dresses on her work breaks. Even audience members whose marriages were arranged were certainly rooting for poor Khavtshi, who deserves more than a husband but to marry the man she loves!

That said, there are other elements of the Yiddish play/film that are upheld in Mamele: the importance of family, the willingness of the mother to sacrifice for others, the disrespect that children show their parents (or mameles). We also know that, when they marry, Schlesinger will move in with Khavtshi’s whole family, and the Jewish lineage/traditions will be continued… partially or entirely subsidized by his salary. Schlesinger is a mensch, after all.

The other reason why a love match is not just acceptable but necessary to the plot of Mamele relates to the film’s status as a star vehicle. In his talk, Hoberman explains the tension between the humble origins of these independent films and the reality that many of these films, adapted from the stage, began as star vehicles. The star of Mamele, Molly Picon, was a popular Yiddish star on stage and on the radio; she had played this role for years before it came to the screen, such that, okay, it’s a little distracting that she is a 40-year-old woman with a small child who is somehow her brother. As Doberman told the audience, a musical number involving Picon playing a grandmother is a gentle joke at the unspoken age problem. (Reminds me of watching Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, her dry delivery of the line “Them’s my brothers and sisters” and the uproarious laughter that resulted….)

I would argue that the romance plot is central to any star vehicle, because the film has to establish the star as lovable, as magical even. That’s how we know to love her too. It is as though the character of Schlesinger models for us how to appreciate, even worship, her, while nearly everybody else treats her like garbage.


Bridezilla? Not on Khavtshi’s watch.

And to return to the Cinderella story idea, Schlesinger doesn’t just love her — he discovers her. While everyone else around her thinks Khavtshi is either invisible or, as she calls herself, an “old maid,” Schlesinger recognizes her for the “charming” and “clever” wife she can be. In that way, the finding of love is analogous to the discovery of the star, which sure is economical, considering that Mamele is a star vehicle and a love story invested in being both at the same time.

I highly recommend Mamele, which is available through the National Center for Jewish Film. Many thanks to Yahel Matalon, Zelda Roland, and Masha Shpolberg for organizing this event and to J. Hoberman for his lecture.

Does Television Hate Itself?

Two shows I’ve been watching this spring/summer are FX’s The Comedians and Lifetime’s UnReal. The former was recently cancelled, the latter a critical and commercial success renewed for a second season. The former is a comic mockumentary, the latter a super-soapy melodrama. What do these shows have in common, besides their shared identity as basic cable programs? They are both set “behind the scenes” of a television show.

I can hazard a few guesses on why The Comedians failed to get an audience — perhaps we don’t believe that Billy Crystal is an ego-maniac actor, or maybe we just don’t want to, or maybe the show couldn’t decide whether to go full-Larry David or not. For those who watched the show,  which centered on a struggling FX show (“The Billy and Josh Show”) that lacked network support, the real-life cancellation seems like a meta-joke. In fact, part of me wonders if it is just the most genius publicity stunt, but it’s probably not. The season finale had very low ratings, after all….

Still, I’m almost surprised that FX pulled it, considering how The Comedians was free advertising for the network. Our first encounter with an FX executive — played by the infinitely talented Denis O’Hare — takes place in his office, with a poster for the FX show “You’re the Worst” hanging up in front of him. It’s a plug for the show but also a clever apology for such shameless self-promotion.

I’m sorry the show didn’t find an audience, because I felt it was getting better with each episode and really finding its voice.

UnReal, by contrast, is a highly addictive night-time soap opera about Rachel (Shiri Appleby), whose talent as a reality show producer may or may not stem from the fact that she may or may not have a conscience. Underrated actors Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko are there, alongside dreamy-sleazy Harry Potter alum Freddie Stroma playing the “Suitor” (the Bachelor) in a show called “Everlasting” (…Again, The Bachelor). Watching five minutes of the pilot with a friend, she turned to me with wide eyes and said, “This is intense.” You bet it is, unnamed friend! You don’t know the half of it!

If you aren’t watching it, you should be watching it. And not just because I say so. But because Emily Nussbaum says so.

When we get a fictionalized “behind-the-scenes” view of the television industry, it is never flattering. Never never never. Sometimes it is just somewhat icky, as in The Comedians, and sometimes it is morally bankrupt and criminal, as in UnReal. Still other times it makes you laugh with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach (see: The Comeback). But this self-critical, self-loathing streak television has when it talks about itself goes back at least as far as the 1957 episode of Playhouse 90 entitled “The Comedian.” Starring Mickey Rooney as a piece-of-work TV star, this script was written by Ernest Kinoy, a former writer for TV star Milton Berle. No one is saying that Rooney’s character is based on Berle, but then again, no one is not saying that either….


Similarly, one of the creators of UnReal worked on The Bachelor. Is this why we want television to prostrate itself, to reveal itself to us? Because we want the inside dirt. Everybody likes a good tell-all.

Still, I would argue that when Hollywood movies reveal the industry in fictionalized form, there is an element of love or begrudging respect. In the 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful, three Hollywood professionals are wounded by the same callous, control freak director, played by Kirk Douglas. They vow never to work with him again… and yet the magic and romance of making a good film will lure them back in. Even Sunset Boulevard, a kind of grotesque display of the declining studio and star system, understands the pull of movies. Norma Desmond, as “Grey Gardens” as she is (read previous post), will still get her close-up. And no movie treats Hollywood as cruelly as the film Network depicts television: Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet sure did have an axe to grind, no doubt.

Television does not have illusions of its own grandeur, and perhaps it has never had the luxury, living under the glamorous shadow of cinema. There is no romance, no magic, to working in television… at least, according to television. It is a petty medium and a petty industry, period. For years, television has owned its second-rate status and turned it into something of a shtick: it apes humility, even self-loathing, as a kind of pre-emptive strike against itself.

Will our contemporary Golden Age of Television — in which all the cinephiles openly prefer quality TV to whatever is playing at the local multiplex — change all of that? So far, not so much.

An interesting counter-example: The Dick Van Dyke Show, about Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), the head writer of a comedy show (based on Your Show of Shows/Caesar’s Hour). It premiered in 1961, the same year that FCC Chairman Newton Minow condemned the lion’s share of television programming as a “vast wasteland.” In this moment of quiz show scandals and the visible decline of TV’s first “Golden Age,” The Dick Van Dyke Show is a kind of nostalgia for television of the previous decade, and for an industry that was still vital and dynamic.

It’s a Small Bowl After All

As I sit at my desk, staring at the empty bottle of “Cheap White Wine” sitting next to my external hard drive, my mind cannot help but wander to my wonderful European adventure. The last couple of weeks, I have had the pleasure of visiting Reykjavik, London, and Paris, sightseeing, visiting with friends old and new, and eating. Eating, in fact, with a capital E. 

So, as I gear up to eat leftovers for lunch, here are some of the culinary highlights of my trip. 

1. Lobster Soup at Saegreifinn (Reykjavik)

I wouldn’t call myself a “lobster person” but this soup is totally savory, creamy without being heavy, and is chock full of the most tender lobster I’ve ever had. Comes with a warm loaf of white bread. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I gobbled it up too quickly.

2. Anything you eat in a hot spring (Reykjavik)

The White Nights Tour, offered through GoEcco tour guides, is an enrapturing experience, even for an indoor cat like me. After a long stroll through a landscape of stinky geysers, greener-than-green-hills, and coy sheep, I probably would have devoured anything the guide gave me. I think it was a hard-boiled egg sandwich. I inhaled it, along with a healthy gulp of Brennivin. (Brennivin is like Sambuca that you can use to remove varnish from your furniture.) It just goes to show: atmosphere counts!

3. Chai at Dishoom (London)

London is known for its Indian food, so I took a London friend to Indian brunch at the Covent Garden Dishoom. While bacon and eggs on naan is certainly a treat, what I can’t get out of my head is the chai tea. My dining companion, who has visited India, assured me that what I was drinking was the “real thing.” Can’t ever say I’ve had chai like it: sweet but not too sweet, a touch spicy but still very easy to drink. Cheerio, chai tea. I miss you already.

4. Probably anything off the menu at Moro (London)

I knew we were in for a good meal when they brought the sourdough bread at the beginning (and I asked for seconds). Having sampled my companions’ dinners as well as my own, I can attest that the fish is great (especially if it is covered in yogurt, um, yogHURT, right?), as is the vegetable mezze plate that I ordered. Also recommended: the courgette-feta fritters as an appetizer and the yoghurt cake from the dessert menu. I’ve pretty much listed everything I tried there, and I suspect you can’t order wrong at Moro. I’m tempted to buy their cookbook, though there is no way I could ever re-create their culinary magic.

5. Crepes from Chez Nicos (Paris)

Okay, so it was one of the closest crepe stands to my hotel, but the citron presse was perfect. Check the Yelp reviews and you will see I’m not alone in my appreciation.

6. Soft-boiled egg appetizer from Cafe Constant (Paris)

A breaded hard-boiled egg… impossible, you say? More like improbable. I don’t know how they did it, but it was totally delicious. Go early, because Cafe Constant is a gem, but it is not hidden but in fact quite popular. Also recommended: Gazpacho, fillet of sea bream with pesto.

7. Passion Fruit Sorbet from Berthillon (Paris)

I found one stand on the Left Bank serving these glaces, and I was hooked. My favorite flavor is Passion Fruit, but it is not for the faint-of-TART. Get it? Yeah it’s super tart. I love it. The pistachio is also delicious, though it tastes more like a pistachio than the bright green pistachio ice cream I grew up with.

Happy eating!