Enchanted? Not so much.

Well, what can I say. It’s the kind of movie that triggers lots of superficial conflict and cultural anxieties for me. When I like it, I know I’m slipping down that slope to hegemonic sell-out land. Where it annoys me, I know I’ve made the argument a million times before (to myself and anyone who will listen, take my courses, or read my blog). And I can’t change the world to be more analytical except by one willing, sympathetic soul at a time.

So. Enchanted: This Disneyfied almost-Princess finds herself tossed into NYC 2007 and must survive til she can be rescued by her Prince and return home. She’s entirely ill-equipped, of course, to navigate our world. And so there’s superficial pseudo-post-feminist critique there momentarily. The classic western fairytales all involve ill-equipped lovely maidens being rescued. I prefer Sondheim.

That our heroine manages to get NYC pigeons, rats, and roaches to clean her rescuer's apartment is fascinating, especially as what passes, then, for “clean” is roach/rat/pigeon-cleaned clean. Which I enjoy. All animals are new “friends” to our heroine, and I do love her holding up and singing to a CGI roach at one point.

At the same time, I’m groaning from my absolute knowledge that this film will end “happily ever after,” and the odds are that the soft-spoken NYC hero won’t end up with his careerist “professional” (a.k.a. pseudo-post-feminist) girlfriend.

Along the way, I’m enjoying the song and dance numbers and the absolutely irresistible message that we all need a little magic in our lives. Heaven knows, these sorts of films beg us to acknowledge how dull and painful our lives are. And sometimes in some ways they certainly are. But then they offer us a few minutes in the dark of a fantasy we cannot possibly achieve as our “reward” for our acknowledgment. I say the payoff is woefully inadequate and just leads to further depression or unrealistic expectations of what "happily ever after" is truly about: a lot of luck and a lot of relationship work.

(I’m also NOT enjoying the little girl in the film. Lousy actress and annoying to watch. What producer's kid is this that she got the part?)

Anyhow. Back to the fantasy. I predicted at the beginning that the princess would become the magical catalyst for the main fella, helping him and his girlfriend to live happily ever after. I kept saying, “Well, at least it won’t be him ending up with her! She needs to go back to fairyland with her incredible childlike naïveté that men with midlife crises often want and divorce their wives for then go, ‘Oops, I seem to be married to someone without maturity, self-insight, or adult goals.’ Guess I'll cheat on her now."

Halfway through the flick, though, I look at my son and say, “Yep, they’re going to end up together” as I push away my over-salted popcorn. I also predict at this point that the workaholic girlfriend (who really we don’t see developed at all as a character, resting so fully as she does on stereotypes of “Today’s Woman” that she doesn’t need development) will end up with the clueless Prince, which she does. That she has to go all the way to Disney fairytaleland to achieve happiness is really sad and, I think, a message the writers feel oh-so proud of. Aren't we clever? We acknowledge that careerist women are as unhappy as men! That the writers believe that this woman would truly want to live the rest of her life with a braindead prince, of course, tells me they’re either all men in midlife crisis wanting to excuse their own sexism by pretending women are just the same as men, or they're women who’ve bought into this mythology, too.

But yeah, ok, corporate life does suck mightily, and I understand why the girlfriend wants out. It’s just that presenting these fantasy extremes just doesn’t help us out, either as real solution or as truly pleasant diversion.

The price we pay for each moment of laughter in a film like this does trouble me.

I will say this, though: I noticed the wrinkles around the super-skinny lead actress’s eyes as she played her bimbo-voiced, wide-eyed wonderfantasygirl and fashion designer. And I thought: Susan Sarandon looks better. And I’d rather be the Wicked Queen than the Bimbo Princess, every time. Am sure Sarandon agrees.

Tell me: Are there truly no new stories to tell?


The Quality of Attentiveness

Part of the pleasure of doing Streetcar was reading scholarship on it. I realize this is not everyone's cup of tea, but it helped me grasp possible ways to play the role and is also just part of my pleasure in reading literature. One early article I discovered online, by George Toles, dealt with studying drama and also doing drama. This isn't an area of scholarship I've investigated much, oddly. I often keep my acting separate from my studies. But reading this Toles article impacted my studies and my portrayal of Blanche and my understanding of A Streetcar Named Desire as a play. One quotation in particular has stuck with me beyond its ramifications for being Blanche, and I've put it in my signature line in my email and thought about it a lot. Here it is:

"Sometimes another person can arrest my sense of absence from life by remembering that I exist, and making that memory tangible through their quality of attentiveness. I come to believe once more (through another's belief) that I am situated, openly, within my life, that I belong to a world that actually contains me. I am sustained by finding myself at home in another's gaze. And once revealed in this other being's sight, where there is room for me to remember myself, I can turn back to my separateness and not be annihilated by it."

Specifically, Toles is discussing the final scene of the play, in which Blanche rises from having been pinned to the bed by a nurse when a doctor holds out his hand, calls her name, and brings her back, arguably, to a sense of herself. There are many ways to play this moment: is the doctor manipulating her to keep her calm and out of the need for a straightjacket or does he truly care? Is Blanche regaining a bit of sanity and personal power or slipping back into her Southern belle role, attempting to flirt with the doctor to earn the privilege of leaving the room in a relatively dignified manner? Toles describes what may be happening to Blanche at this moment of eye contact with the doctor in the quotation above. But I think he's also describing an important interpersonal moment for all of us who seek approval in the gaze of another.

In film theory, the concept of the gaze, particularly as the "male gaze" discusses the way looking can be political, especially when it is the camera or male protagonist looking at a more passive female subject. The hero rescuing the damsel in distress, the teen boy looking through a peephole at the showering co-ed, the femme fatale caught in the sights of the detective's gun, or a million other similar scenarios with male as active and female as passive. The oversimplicity of this model has, of course, been considered. From issues of race and class and how they modify gender to historical specificity in impacting meaning and from the lesbian gaze to parodic use of the gaze, we understand that this formula may not always apply or apply the same way.

This quotation at first troubled me because of its talk about being sustained in the "other's" gaze. The language of woman-as-other, and how many women may seek validation for their existence through male attention, was problematic for me. And so it is for Blanche, who walks off stage -- whether she is proudly walking on the arm of the rescuing doctor or falling prey to a foolish self-delusion (again) that some man is going to rescue her from herself and from death -- still the same woman obsessed with men.

And the actor is also desperate for the gaze, the insecure "look at me" aspect of theater for the performer. And I am definitely an exhibitionist, not a voyeur. I'd rather act than direct, rather sing than be sung to, though I do not consider myself pathological or abnormal here. I also enjoy seeing good theater, listening to good music, watching films, etc. But that's not really the depth of what this quotation does for and to me.

I also seek validation for my insecurities based on other aspects of my life choices and personality. I feel alien and "other" sometimes, based on my political views and worldview (Left, vegetarian, feminist, pacifist, Jewish American, athiest, outspoken, bisexual, etc.). And so yes, sometimes someone just meets my gaze, literally and, more importantly, symbolically, and I feel at ease, at home, and safe -- for at least a moment. It can come in very differing forms, such as a comment to me that lets me know I've truly been heard or reading a perspective I share and need to hear in Mark Morford's SF Gate column or a negative film review of some hideously popular film that I hated but almost everyone else on the planet seems to have loved. It gives me a moment of feeling safe in the "gaze" of the person or the writer or whomever, and, as Toles says, I can safely "remember" myself, be myself wholly and know I'm not alone. And then, fortified by this reflection, I can continue to be my pessimistic idealistic self, my nervous dominant with the heart of gold self, my wild thing meets doting mom self, and many other selves that aren't always met with praise or understanding in this "my way or the highway" culture.


Tennessee Williams and DESIRE

I’ve gained new (or perhaps renewed) respect for Tennessee Williams of late, as I enmesh myself with his worldview in A Streetcar Named Desire. He is so right on when he argues, through Blanche and really the whole play, that Desire is the opposite of Death. I know for certain that various forms and manifestations of desire motivate much of my life, from the more obvious to the more implicit. Sex, theater, teaching, writing, activism, parenting: so much in life is so much about Desire. And the more Death you see, the more Desire you need to muster to keep feeling alive -- and as safe as a very unsafe existence can allow. The distinction helps me understand a lot about myself, the risks I take – wise and unwise, the multitasking I do, the constant need to fulfill a drive that seems inexhaustible: no amount of publications, no number of shows, no high enough teaching evaluations, no ample enough times of saying or hearing “I love you”… I just need more more more to feel good about myself, to feel safe, to feel alive. So, bravo Tennessee Williams: your words and being Blanche have helped me uncover another layer of myself and this crazy species we are.