Film Politics Sexual Politics

Norm MacDonald

Did I miss something?  After Norm MacDonald’s death this week, I kept reading about what a great comedian he was.  I had never liked him much but I wanted to be fair:  I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him.  Maybe I missed something.

Here’s one of his jokes.  He tells us that during a medical examination of Arnold Schwarzenegger because of a faulty heart valve some of the doctors were concerned because they became turned on during a routine examination.

That’s it.  That’s the punch line.  The audience, on SNL (which is live) didn’t laugh much either.

He also joked about a custody battle between a mother and her ex-husband who was transgender.  It was witless, crude, and dismissive.  It was the kind of joke back-slapping conservative males made and enjoyed at the time.  [Well, well: I now read that Macdonald was a Christian.  It’s possible to be politically progressive and Christian, but clearly Macdonald was your standard, off-the-shelf conservative hypocrite, mocking feminists, poor people, and gays, perhaps with slightly more subtlety than Dennis Miller, while nursing a gambling addiction.]

Again, in front of a picture of Bill and Hilary Clinton: “here’s a picture of the first bitch”.  No joke– just calling Hilary Clinton a bitch.  In another segment, he calls her a liar.  Again, no joke– just calling her a liar.   On an episode of “The View” he accused Bill Clinton of being a murderer.

A lot of Beatles paraphernalia was up for sale, including a “rare” photo of George Harrison not looking haggard.  Huh.

Two homeless people got married at a homeless shelter.  If you want to buy them a gift, they are “registered” at a recycling center.   Huh again.

I’m told his “off the cuff” comments on carrot-top were hilarious.  I’ve watched the clip.  I’m open-minded: maybe there is some reference there that is hilarious, and I missed it.

Same with a cooking demonstration on Conan O’Brien’s show with Gordon Ramsay.  We’re supposed to find his inept inability to follow instructions– like a drunk, really– hilarious.  The biggest laugh was his use of an obscenity, which the audience laughs at because they know it will be beep out.  It was all lame, tedious, witless, and boring.  Conan must have loved him– that lame segment should never have seen the editing suite.

Paul McCartney is going to host an online chat.  Already, 2.5 million calls have come in from people hoping to chat.  But 2 million of them are from Ringo.  That one is not even a little funny.

How about this: Donald Trump decided to divorce Marla Maples because she violated the pre-nuptial agreement by turning 30.  Sophomoric.

Washington D.C. mayor is not interested in polls, or anything that isn’t crack.  Again, very sophomoric.

A joke, in bad taste, about Reagan being allowed to still think he owns the ranch he sold to the U.S. government after the purchase.  Maybe Norm didn’t know Reagan had Alzheimer’s.

He mocks women for their looks.   He mocks Ellen DeGeneres for wanting to have a baby, because she and her partner are both women.  Yeah, they are.  Did someone miss something here?  This might have been funny had it not already occurred to every single person in the audience.

More women would vote if you could bake your vote.  I’m not making that one up– yes, he thought that was funny.  Yes, he read it on Weekend Update.  No, the audience didn’t find it funny either.

When a joke failed– which was often– he would ramble on aimlessly about how that one didn’t work, which is not even funny once, or make a banal comment like “what a world we live in” as if he discovered something that was not already obvious to everyone.  Or, fatally, he would try to explain why the joke was actually funny even though the audience didn’t laugh.  That’s not a secret: Macdonald’s approach to comedy was to do jokes he thought was funny even if the audience didn’t.  Like Red Skeleton.  He and some others thought it was a virtue.  I think it’s an attempt to explain why someone who checks him out because you said he was great might be disappointed: because you don’t get it, see?  He doesn’t care if you don’t think he’s funny.  Really?

After joking about Rikki Lake having to get rid of a dog because it was aggressive with her young child– by eating it– he compounds the lukewarm audience reception with “she ate a whole dog”, which torpedoes the wit factor of any joke.

Those are neither the least nor most funny of a bunch.  A joke about Richard Gere and a gerbil is worse than tasteless.

A lot of his humor is based on the “everyday man” school of comedy, which holds that anything sophisticated or complex should be mocked because if I don’t understand it, it can’t be true or valid.  Gay marriage.  Transgender surgery.  George Harrison frowning in a picture.  And why can’t I make fun of obese talk show hosts?  Well, you can– but making jokes about their obesity really isn’t all that funny anyway.  Calling Bill Clinton a murderer with a tone of  “everybody knows it, right?” isn’t even witty.  If there’s a joke about someone involved in the Clinton scandals– and there are lots– tell it.  But Macdonald didn’t have that kind of Carlinesque skill.

Macdonald did not graduate high school and he has the tone of someone who loves to get digs in on those people who think they are smarter than you simply because they are smarter than you and got educated and understanding something about finance and trade and economics and medicine and music and history– those snobs.

He defended Louis C.K. after he was blacklisted for some relatively mild allegations of inappropriate behavior– a position I agree with.  But he also defended Roseanne Barr  after she made several tasteless, racist tweets.

Well, gosh, so did Donald Trump.

Jokes about Oprah Winfrey’s husband writing a book on how to be a success (Macdonald quips, “marry Oprah Winfrey”), are okay.   A genuine joke: congratulations, Norm Macdonald.  Use this one as a model for humour.  And ironic insight.  A smart perception.  A revelatory twist.  Go for it.

That’s it for Norm Macdonald.  Some okay jokes.  Someone who must have been quite likeable in person– he has lots of defenders, including Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien.  That doesn’t make him funny.



Justice Sexual Politics

How Dare you Defend Yourself

The New York Review (of Books) is one of the best periodicals I have ever read.  It is up there with the long lost “American Film” and “Musician” magazines, couriers of superlative, thoughtful, original journalism unlike almost everything else out there.  Liked “Wired” for it’s first year before it immediately declined into commercial crap gadget marketing manual.  Or Byte Magazine before it got bought out and destroyed.

No– it is better than all of them ever were.

But in the past few years, a couple of missteps.  First, Editor Ian Buruma is fired because he had the shameless audacity to allow Jian Ghomeshi to defend himself after the women who charged him with abusive behavior were caught lying to the police and to the judge at his trial.  I repeat, for emphasis: the women who charged him with abuse and assault lied to the police, to the crown attorneys, and the judge.  The evidence of this was indisputable.  All of the charges were, as a result, dismissed.

But Mr. Buruma’s publisher decided that the lies did not matter.  The fact that some women made the charge against Ghomeshi is sufficient to determine his guilt.  Women never lie.  And if they do, the men they lie about are still guilty, because they are men.

And so we get to a deeply regrettable review by Joyce Carol Oates in the February 11, 2021 issue of New York Review, “Chronicle of a Death Ignored”.   Ms. Oates is discussing a book by Becky Cooper, “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence”, about the murder of a Harvard graduate student, Jane Britton, in January, 1969.  Becky Cooper– to Ms. Oates pleasure– writes mostly, really, about herself, how she connected to the story, how she felt about it, and how important it is for us to know all about her.

She also spends considerable time and effort to condemn Harvard University for not finding the killer among their abusive or “callow” professors for surely they were– as men– abusive or callow or both– and must certainly answer for Ms.  Britton’s murder.   But Becky Cooper is on to them: she confronts them with courage and conviction and persistence and forces them to admit that they are abusive and callow.

She is selective, of course.  Some students felt that Jane was in an abusive relationship with a professor at the time.  That must surely be true.  Jane’s brother thought she was promiscuous, a drug abuser, and “a bitch”.  That must surely be false, since it came from a man.

There is a development that is incredibly inconvenient for Cooper, which explains the odd first three paragraphs of Oates’ review.  Cooper has developed her entire project around the assumption that it was a Harvard professor, most likely Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky, who raped and murdered Britton.   Thus she is shocked and horrified that Harvard University actively  provided legal support to Lamberg-Karlovsky and others.   So, having spent 10 years developing this thesis and marshalling all your rhetorical energy to condemn the Harvard patriarchy, what do you do when the murderer turns out to be someone who had absolutely nothing to do with Harvard University?  Well, Oates would have you believe that there is some kind of essential, magical truth that makes Cooper’s narrative “a brilliantly idiosyncratic variant of generic true crime, rather more a memoir than a conventional work of reportage”.    Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Harvard was indeed “silent”: but there was nothing to hide or disclose.  It didn’t know who murdered Jane Britton and, as it turns out, there was no reason to think it should have known.  Harvard didn’t “ignore” the death.   It’s just that Ms. Cooper and Ms. Oates think the Harvard patriarchy is complicit in some way regardless of the facts.

And they are not personally satisfied with the grandiosity of Harvard’s response, as if Harvard owed it to them, as women, to scale it all up.

Well, as in the case of Ghomeshi, it is sufficient to make the charge.  How dare they defend themselves!  If a woman says you did something wrong, you did something wrong, whether you did it or not.



Sexual Politics

“Crucify” by Tori Amos

When it was first released, I thought this song, and the entire album it was released on was very compelling.  Over the years, I’ve begun to rethink this one– “Crucify Myself”.

It initially impressed me as a complaint– why do men abuse us so much?  Why are we figuratively “crucified” when we don’t measure up to your standards?

It took me years to realize that the “standards” she attributes to men don’t belong to men at all.  They belong to women.  And what she is really complaining about is why do I have to feel bad about not pleasing you?  The next question, honestly is, who asked you to please me?

It is not unusual to discover that a person who resents someone’s lack of gratitude is really more angry about the lack of obligation felt by the recipient of his or her ministrations.  Why can’t I control you?  I made you breakfast.  Why don’t you verbally thank me when I made you coffee when you didn’t ask for it?



Politics Sexual Politics


For God’s sake, she is the wife of a former president.

That is the problem at the heart of the four-part series “Hillary” on Netflix, a carefully crafted and manipulated portrait of the woman who lost the 2016 presidential election to the most ridiculous candidate in the history of the U.S.   The astute observer will immediately detect the subtle direction of the edits, the selectivity, the omissions, all intended to convince you that Hillary Clinton did not ride to prominence on the coattails of her husband, and that her influence and power within the Clinton Administration and her subsequent career as Senator and Secretary of State and presidential candidate were the fruits of some kind of legitimate mandate, and not the product of opportunism or privilege, and that the only reason she lost to Donald Trump was the embedded misogyny of American political culture, and the unmitigated gall of Bernie Sander’s fanatical followers to not turn up and vote for her.

What must not be displayed is the obvious: her entire career in politics was founded upon the success of her husband, Bill Clinton, who assembled a team of political operatives and ran for election as Attorney-General, and then Governor of Arkansas, and then President of the United States.  This is not to say that she was not a talented lawyer, or political manager.  This is to say that she would never have served as Secretary of State, or run for the Senate, or for President, if it had not been for the fact that her husband ran and won first.

“Hillary” tries– too hard– to convince you that Hillary Clinton was so remarkable, so amazing, and so diligent and perceptive and astute, that she earned her way into the White House, and to the Senate, and into Obama’s cabinet, and then as the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in 2016.

So we are shown clips from the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign in which we offered two contradictory narratives, simultaneously true and not true.  One, that she was a liberated feminist who contributed mightily to the campaign on both a strategic and policy level, and, two, that she became a substantial liability after insisting that she had no intention of staying home and baking cookies.  While insisting that she did not compromise her principles, we are shown the new haircut, the demur stage presence, the tailored outfits, the girlish exuberance– bouncing on the stage with Tipper Gore– but told to believe that through some magical osmosis, America elected her to be an active and involved First Lady.

The right comment from a reporter or columnist at that moment would have been to point out that this established something about her character, a suspicion, that never went away.

Let’s go back further.  Bill Clinton won his first election as governor of Arkansas and then lost his second attempt, then won his third attempt.  “Hillary” would have you believe that it was because she became a better governor’s wife.  Every other political analyst knows it was because Bill Clinton reversed his position on capital punishment, purely out of political calculation.  What was that again about authenticity?  “Hillary” itself begins to raise suspicions about their interest in the truth.

That’s the seed of America’s disaffection with Hillary Clinton: the “documentary” (it is not a documentary: it’s a flattering piece of Hillary advocacy) shows us Hillary scoffing at the idea that she presented a calculated image to the American people and subtly affirms her view.  Why did people ever think she was not authentic or genuine?  It’s a mystery!   And then she proceeds to claim to be baffled as to why, after the scandalous bail-out of the banks after the 2008 crisis, people would want to know what she said to Goldman-Sachs for $200,000.  Why didn’t she just release the text of the speech she gave to them?  She says, because she was using it as leverage to force Bernie Sanders to release his tax returns.


“Hillary” would have you believe that all Bernie Sanders talked about during the 2016 campaign was her corrupt ties to the banking and investment industries.  No mention of Vince Foster’s suicide on July 20, 1993.   (as of the first episode and 1/2) and the travel office scandal.  We’ll see…


I watched the episode (3) which covered the infamous Vince Foster suicide.  And no surprise: not a word about “travel-gate”.  In summary, the Clinton’s became convinced that the travel office, headed by one Billy Ray Dale (who had served under two previous presidents) which organizes flights for members of the press corps when the president travels, was disorganized and unaccountable and possibly even corrupt.  They wanted to replace the staff with some of the their friends from Arkansas.  It was also believed that staff members in the White House travel office were leaking gossip about the Clintons’ marriage to the press.   So the Clintons had seven members of the staff fired and replaced with Arkansas associates.  And then were very surprised to learn that the media– which was quite friendly to the staff of the travel office– thought the firings unjustified and driven by ulterior motives.  Republicans sensed an opportunity and cried foul.  The whole thing blew up and became the Clintons’ first unpleasant public scandal.

There were rumours that Hillary had been pushing the firings which she categorically, publicly denied, even to investigators.


A two-year-old memo from White House director of administration David Watkins surfaced that identified First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the motivating force behind the firings, with the additional involvement of Vince Foster and Harry Thomason.[39] “Foster regularly informed me that the First Lady was concerned and desired action. The action desired was the firing of the Travel Office staff.  Wikipedia

It is important to note here that there is evidence that the travel office really was somewhat corrupt and that it did favors for the press, which may be one of the reasons the press seized on the story.  There were investigations before the Clintons but nobody had proceeded with charges or disciplinary actions.

During the investigation, Hillary Clinton was question by investigators and she vehemently denied that she had anything at all to do with the firings.  This was a lie.

Hillary Clinton lied to the press and to investigators about her role in the affair.  And, in “Hillary”, she lies again, pretty shamelessly, mocking those who thought there was anything to the scandal.

“Hillary” wants you to believe it is honest and truthful by carefully choosing the scandals we all already know about to relate to us (look– they even talk about Genifer Flowers!) while conspicuously ignoring the ones that will never play well.  “Hillary” proffers lots of straw men to knock down and badly wants you to believe that people didn’t like Hillary Clinton because she was strong or opinionated or a woman.  How easy to believe she is really a wonderful, honest person who never deserved any of the vitriol directed her way.  But the fact that they ignored the more unpleasant facts about her career (and the one overwhelming fact I stated in the first line of this piece) just confirms what people have always thought about the Clintons: they are not authentic or honest or straight, and a good deal of the misfortunes they encountered in their careers– including losing the 2016 election– were deserved.

But life is endlessly ironic.  The Republicans, without a doubt, harbored a vicious, vindictive, irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, and, yes, there really was a conspiracy to destroy their political careers, funded by wealthy right-wing investors in cooperation with Republican operatives and ultra-conservative media personalities, and, eventually Vladimir Putin and the Russians.  Mr. Comey became an accidental accessory when he announced that he was re investigating her “missing” emails just days before the vote in 2016.

Hillary Clinton should have been elected in 2016 not because she was a good candidate for president but because her opponent was incredibly awful.  The truth is that Bernie Sanders would probably have won that election had he been the Democratic nominee.  Clinton was a bad choice, given her long history in Washington, the way she polarized voters, and her privileged access to Washington politics as the wife of the former president.

And, yes, her fundamental dishonesty.


Film Sexual Politics Uncategorized

Fleabag Season 1 Episode 4

There was a scene in “Fleabag” episode 4 that kind of stunned me.   Fleabag is at a “silent retreat” with her sister Claire, an unwelcomed gift from their dad.  Next door is a men’s retreat in which a leader hilariously tries to train men to not call women sluts or mock them when they receive promotions.  She sees Bank Manager there– someone she had previously flirted with while negotiating a loan for her cafe.  She strikes up a conversation with him, over smokes, and he tells her that he has been forced to attend the workshop as a consequence of some inappropriate behavior at work.  He touched a woman’s breast, twice.

Fleabag immediately offers him her breast to touch.  He frowns and says, “I’m trying to quit”.

I immediately tried to imagine a similar scene in a CBC comedy, or on an American Network.  I don’t think it’s possible.  I think there would have been shrieking and threats of violence and boycotts and a new hashtag and resignations all around.

I thought of Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, Korea, who committed suicide after a secretary went public with accusations of sexual harassment.  His offense seems to have consisted of repeatedly hitting on her.  He sent her pictures of himself in his underwear.  He pressed his body against her while taking selfies.  He kissed a bruise on her leg.

“I felt defenseless and weak before the immense power,” the woman said in a statement released through her lawyer at a news conference on Monday. “I wanted to shout at him in a safe court of law, telling him to stop it. I wanted to cry out how much he has hurt me.”

It is politically incorrect to think:  for this, he felt his only choice was to commit suicide?  Was the secretary not able to warn him that she would go to the police if he continued the harassing behavior?  We are not told if she did, but the prevailing wisdom among activists is that she shouldn’t have to.

The secretary is not apologetic.  In fact, she is angry that people feel bad about Park Won-soon– who was a sterling advocate for progressive women’s issues his entire career– and not sufficiently considerate of her feelings.

I was disappointed.  I thought she might say something like, “the way he treated me was wrong but I am horrified that an otherwise admirable person felt driven to this terrible act.”

I thought Fleabag’s reaction to the Bank Manager was admirable.  It was “what’s the big deal?”.    It was the act of a truly liberated woman, self-confident, independent, and wildly immune to the “system” that we are led to believe oppresses women.  She would have told Park Won-soon to fuck off and that would probably have been the end of it.

But then… later, Fleabag tried to convince Claire to take a job in Finland that she was reluctant to take because she would be away from her husband, Martin.  Fleabag told Claire that Martin had tried to kiss her, which was true.    Martin denied it and claimed Fleabag had tried to kiss him.  We learn later that Claire always did believe Fleabag but chose to stay with Martin for reasons of her own.

Unlike her interaction with Mr. Bank Manager, this was disappointingly conventional and hypocritical of Fleabag who has herself seduced married or attached men.

“Fleabag” is an outstanding series– you should see it.  It is fabulously original and witty and sometimes transcendent, as when the priest delivers the homily at Fleabag’s father’s wedding, and when Fleabag’s father tells her that he likes Claire.


Sexual Politics Uncategorized

Two Perfect Women

In the entire history of the world, there were two perfect women.  Elizabeth Bisland and Hedy Lamarr.

I exaggerate, of course.  There may have been only one, and it would have been Hedy Lamarr.  Hedy Lamarr, of course, was the famous actress, regarded, in her time, as one of the great beauties of the world, and unlike most “great beauties” of the world, she deserved to be ranked.  Near perfect face, complexion, body, and– shockingly– brains.  In fact, if you are using a cell phone or WiFi today, you owe some thanks to Hedy Lamarr who invented the basic principle behind this kind of wireless transmission.  Look it up– it’s true.

Elizabeth Bisland was said to cause an entire room to go silent when she entered.  But, like Lamarr, she also had a brain, and she grew up to be a pretty good writer.  Her magazine, Cosmopolitan, sent her around the world in 1889, to see if she could do it in less than 80 days, and faster than the competition: Nellie Bly, who was sponsored by New York World, had set out around the same time and there was a kind of informal race between the two.  It is alleged that someone lied to Ms. Bisland about the availability of a fast steamer to the continent which caused her to lose the race by a few days.

What is the point?  We are humans.  We love many things about ourselves, our looks, our achievements, our styles.  Why not celebrate exceptional packages of all three?





Film General Sexual Politics

This is Equality?

In her new movie, 50-year-old Jennifer Lopez plays a stripper.

I knew before I even saw any reviews or previews that Jennifer Lopez is not going to strip in this movie.  Like Natalie Wood and Demi Moore and Jennifer Aniston, who have all played strippers in movies, she will embrace the peculiarly feminine trope of screaming “look at me!  I’m SO naughty!” without actually doing anything all that naughty.   She will somehow convey that she didn’t really want to play the role but just had to.  That somehow, this film about persuading men to give you money to take off your clothes, is really about female empowerment.

She will not do this film unless the director ensures that when she does her pole dance, the audience simply goes wild.  We don’t– it’s a rather pedestrian pole dance, and, fit as she is, Lopez is still 50– but the audience in the film are directed to go while and shower the stage with money.  And we are supposed to believe that this is a kind of gutsy performance, the result of dedication and discipline and months of training.

She will fully expect, and the entertainment press will fully deliver, reviews that rave about her astonishing beauty.  Who would even think she was 50 years old?  And some reviewers will give her extra points for playing a character they think the audience thinks is dark or conflicted or interesting on some level that eludes me.

And a certain type of reviewer will fall in line by proclaiming that the 50-year-old will stun 20-year-olds into awed silence at her overwhelming deliciousness, while simultaneously shutting men up with her liberated, empowering, feistiness and bravado and blah blah blah.

Speaking for the entranced multitudes:

Nowhere is this truer than with the 50-year-old Lopez, who makes a magnificent entrance in “Hustlers” with an athletic, graceful and erotic dance number, and never lets go from there. Once again, she proves what an instinctive, spontaneous actress she is, infusing Ramona with her own Bronx-born street smarts, and carrying herself with the feline regality she’s acquired over a nearly 30-year career as one of the entertainment industry’s most gifted triple threats. In this raunchy, gloriously liberated revenge fantasy, Lopez rules with seductive, triumphant authority. Not only do we climb into her fur, we’ll happily follow her anywhere.   Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post

Have you seen any other Jennifer Lopez films?  She may have “feline regality” but she is far too busy being a star to be convincing in any of her roles.  And what is “feline regality” anyway, if not a code word for celebrity privilege and entitlement?   But we are given a clue about the reviewer’s perspective: she infuses “Ramona with her own Bronx-born street smarts”.  Is that code for the idea that she doesn’t really create a character– she just plays herself?

We understand why Hollywood religiously adheres to the titillation code: Wood, and Moore, and Aniston, and Lopez can play strippers and deceive you into thinking they are almost naked on screen (they never are) so you can enjoy the perversity of watching a naked woman, while reassuring yourself that you are a decent, morally upright human being because they are never actually naked.  You get to live in an envelope of widely accepted hypocrisy.

It is of a piece with Seth Rogan comedies: you get to talk dirty and make stupid jokes about bodily functions and then tack on some kind of sentimental moral lesson so that audiences can feel good about enjoying the smut.

In interviews, Lopez plays it for what it’s worth:

This is the first time you see my character. It’s sexy, it’s dangerous,” Lopez explained of her character’s introduction during the video diary.  From 


I am just stunning!  And empowering!  And stunning!  I display my empowerment by stripping for men (and then robbing them).  And stunning!  The distasteful part of it is that the film will show other characters in the film reacting as if they have waited their entire lives to watch a 50-year-old rich celebrity strip.  This is the arrangement: Lopez will draw a guaranteed constituency to pay to see the film (who revel in her celebrity status) and therefore has to power to essentially give herself a role more suited to a 25-year-old.  As I noted, the celebrity press will play along with this, even suggesting she should get an Oscar.

She continued: “There’s something liberating and empowering about it, but you’re really out there, physically, emotionally and psychologically.”  From Here.

That makes me morally superior to Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.

In some way or another.



General Justice Politics Psychology Sexual Politics

Be Careful Little Eyes What you See

In the category of “you couldn’t make this stuff up” is the story about a North Carolina police department that arrested a 17-year-old boy for having nude pictures of himself on his cell phone.

This is in a country in which 3/4 of the population will admit they don’t know what the 3 branches of government are.  They certainly don’t know what a marginal tax rate is.  And they will never know what common sense really is; they will think they have it, but they will be wrong.  Sense is anything but common in America.  And they will never, ever be able to independently assess the question of what is terrible about a teenager having nude pictures of himself on his smart phone.  You just have to say “nude”, and “pictures”, and “teenager”, they will howl with outrage.

We live in a world in which we can be surrounded by morons who say, “but that’s what the law says” or “it may seem strange, but that’s what the law says”, or “we are complete morons so we only do what the law says”.

Are you telling me there would have been serious consequences for a sergeant or a detective who said, “I don’t care what the law says, no, we are not going to prosecute a teenager for taking pictures of himself”?

A young mother in Utah who took her shirt off in front of her family has been charged with lewdness.  Her husband took his shirt off too, but he is not being prosecuted.

Of course not.

That would be stupid.

Do you have a mirror in your bathroom?



Film General Sexual Politics

Klute: The Devilish Film

“Klute” is a devilish movie.

If you asked any man to candidly express his biggest frustration with women, you are likely to get an answer like this: “I don’t know what they really want.”

“Klute” is too specific and particular to answer that question cleanly.  All it does is raise the possibility that men are generally being hosed when they think they have been given an answer.  It also indirectly raises the question of whether women are being hosed when they think they have been given the question.  All in that dark brain of that self-possessed, insidiously clever woman, Bree Daniels.  (She is variously called “Bree Daniel” and “Bree Daniels” in the film– check it out.)

Here’s a summary:  Tom Gruneman, a businessman in Tuscarora, PA, disappears one day.  After six months of frustration, his boss, Peter Cable, and family, hire a private detective and family friend, John Klute (Donald Sutherland, who is wonderful in the role), to undertake an investigation to try to determine what happened to him.  Their only real clue is an violently obscene letter found in Gruneman’s desk, addressed to an escort named Bree Daniels in New York.  In this well-made film, the family does not appear to be totally shocked– they’re more concerned about the disappearance, than they are shocked by the indiscretion,  at the moment.  But that colorful little detail adds a murky, dark texture to the quest.  What was he up to?

Klute goes to New York and contacts Bree Daniels.  She refuses to see him at first.  So Klute takes an apartment in her building, below hers, and succeeds in tapping her phone and recording her calls.  He uses the recordings as leverage to get her to agree to meet with him.  When she does, she tries to entice him in the most predictable way imaginable, but he is clearly unmoved by her exotic allure, and her sexuality.  Instead, he persuades her to lead him on a dark exploration of the world of drug addicts and prostitutes in New York, to gather information from anyone who may have had contact with Gruneman, including the  prostitute who gave him Bree’s name.

At one point, she asks him what he thinks about her glamorous life in the city and her friends: he tells her they are pathetic, and she is wounded.  She liked to think she was somehow shocking and roguish (oddly, like the Sally Bowles character in “Cabaret”, who also seemed to take a special pleasure in the illusion that she was somehow shockingly outrageous).

This narrative is periodically interrupted with Bree’s therapy sessions with a female  psychiatrist.  Bree tells her how she feels about her job, how it gives her control and power over men, how they are easily manipulated, and how she needs to know that they desire her.  These are some of the most corrosive passages in the movie.  They are among the most corrosive passages in any movie (the only serious competition probably comes from “Carnal Knowledge”).  Do you think you know your wife?  Even worse is the “You Don’t Own Me” aspect of it: Bree is consummately independent, self-contained, needless.  She wants life on her own terms.  She doesn’t need or expect anyone to enter her life to protect or manage her.

She thinks she might become a model or an actress: in another caustic scene, she goes to a cattle call for actresses, and we witness how the women are lined up, examined, and judged clinically, and rejected.  And we learn how Bree sees the way society judges women.

Here’s brilliant artistry: we aren’t give the “Shawshank Redemption” treatment here, and asked to be shocked and outraged at Bree”s treatment at these auditions.  Instead, we become aware of how deeply embedded this kind of objectification is– it is casual and routine, and Bree herself isn’t shocked.  It is a far more powerful statement than the more usual Hollywood treatment, in which Bree would demand attention, receive it, and glow with triumph while earning the grudging respect of the cruel casting directors.

There’s nothing caricatured or mean about this scene, other than the subject: the casting directors act in a way that is a caricature of how we judge beauty and worthiness.  It’s just the way we do business.  Bree understands that and plays along with it when necessary, but you can see how her options are really limited.  How different, really, is the industry that also dehumanizes the subjects of our gaze, manipulates them like objects, punishes them for not matching our illusions about beauty and privilege.

It raises the question though– why doesn’t Bree just get an education and look for a regular job?  She’s smart and attractive.  “Klute”  answers that question: because it would only result in her being used in different ways, being pressed into conformity, and forced to sacrifice her independence.  It would be part of the package that Gruneman and John Klute himself represent, and they illustrate to her that even the powerful members of that society are drawn to the outliers, the rebels, the divergent.

It challenges the most fundamental assumptions about sex and sexual relationships and power and privilege and desire.

Spoiler Alert

In the end, perhaps as a concession to the audience, Bree does decide to take a chance on a more conventional lifestyle.  It doesn’t feel totally plausible to me, but it doesn’t hurt the story very much, artistically, because it doesn’t anesthetize the viewer with drippy music or a pastel sunset.  They both know it won’t be easy.

And the astute viewer knows that it probably won’t work.

[updated 2019-09-23]

Justice Politics Psychology Sexual Politics Theatre

The #Metoo Crucible

“Stratford Festival decided to put on a sure-fire crowd-pleaser this year: “The Crucible”, one of the greatest, and certainly the most powerful, American drama.

“The Crucible” is about a group of young girls in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1690’s who are caught dancing naked in a woods.  Think about the cultural climate– puritanical New England.  The upstanding leaders of the devout community are beyond horrified, and this is immediately apparent to the girls so they connive to persuade the town elders that they were, in fact, bewitched.  Their deception is helped by a particular girl who seems to be having fits and hysterics and claims to see apparitions.

Who bewitched them?

They begin to name names, including upstanding members of the community.

One of the girls, named Abigail, was a handmaid to a couple, John and Elizabeth Proctor.  John had an affair with her, which Elizabeth knows about.  John and Elizabeth reconciled and evicted Abigail but are terrified that the community will find out about the affair and disgrace John.

Abigail is convinced that John really loves her.  What were the girls doing in the woods?  Abigail had persuaded Tituba, a black slave, to show them how to cast spells, so she could curse Elizabeth Proctor and win John back.  With the community in hysterics, and her own position in the community under threat, she seizes the opportunity to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft.

When some in the community become suspicious of the girls’ motives, they too are named.  Eventually, 20 citizens are hanged, and one is “pressed” to death because he refused to enter a plea.  Yes, this really happened– the historical record is unmistakable.

Years later, the magistrates who condemned them would– astonishingly– come to the realization that they had been in error and issue an apology.  How often does that happen?

Arthur Miller wrote the play in 1952 and he clearly intended to draw a parallel between the Salem witch-hunts and the McCarthy communist witch-hunt that was taking place at that moment, and which had snared Miller himself.  Miller was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and admitted that he had been a communist at one time in his life.  That was not enough for them.  They demanded that he identify fellow-travelers.  He refused and was black-listed.

In the play, as in real life, a man named Giles Corey discovered that some of the accusers stood to benefit by acquiring the land of the accused (if convicted of witchcraft, a citizen’s possessions were forfeit).  He is then accused of witchcraft himself.  He refuses to plea because doing so would result in a conviction and the land he hoped to pass on to his sons would be forfeit.  He is sentenced to be “pressed”: placed under a board with the weight on it increased gradually with rocks.  He dies under the torment, mocking his accusers.

Do you see a problem with this play?  I don’t see a problem.  The play is historically accurate.  More importantly, it is psychologically accurate: I find the portrait of a community that is fearful and cowardly and not really virtuous in the sense that they all believe it of themselves to be quite convincing even today.  (Think of how we symbolically recycle, and conserve, and care for the environment, while doing absolutely nothing that will have any real impact on global warming.   Think of how women go on national television to tell the world how ashamed they are of having been sexually assaulted.)

But the #metoo movement saw a big problem.  You see, a credo of the #metoo movement is that girls are ALWAYS to be believed.  They never lie about abuse or rape or assault, even if it is assault by the devil himself, as in the case of Salem.  (I am not exaggerating: I heard three women on the CBC discussing the issue and they all insisted that women never lie about abuse and there is never any “collateral damage” (ie. innocent men accused).  Do women ever lie about rape?  Judge for yourself.

And the play makes it clear that the girls are sly, conniving, convincing liars, and that they are responsible the deaths of 20 innocent victims.

So the #metoo movement demands an adjustment.   And the Stratford Festival Theatre made it.  Here is their description of the play from their website:

His (John Proctor’s) refusal to take responsibility for his actions leads to an epidemic of fear and suspicion that engulfs the guilty and the innocent alike. Inspired by historical events but no less pertinent to our own times, this American classic stands as a timeless tragedy of abusive behaviour and its all-consuming consequences.

This is worse than a distortion of the play.  It is an obscenely malicious reversal of it’s meaning.  It is all John Proctor’s fault.  The girls are innocent.  Abigail was forced to lie because she was oppressed by the patriarchy.  They were justified in causing 19 innocent individuals to be hanged to death.

Abigail didn’t enjoy seeing those people hanged.  Not at all.

Or maybe the girls were telling the truth after all: maybe there really were witches.

No young woman or girl would ever lie about that.