Chick Flicks and Tearjerkers

Fall is here, which means we are exactly a month away from Love Actually season and all its miseries.

It’s not so much that I mind the movie itself–the way it flaunts its manipulative triviality is almost endearingly goofy–its the inexplicable canonization as quintessential chick flick and tearjerker.

Because really, if we’re going to designate a special genre for sentimental dramas about women and their relationships (I would love to hear what the corresponding term for Braveheart and Field of Dreams is, by the way) I think we can do better than a film that largely consists of Alan Rickman cheating on Emma Thompson and Colin Firth mooning over the beautiful maid he’s never had a conversation with.

Behold, the real chick flicks, or at least a small sampling thereof.


Anne of Green Gables

When I was five and my sister was three, our best friend moved in next door to our grandparents. We did not know she was our best friend when she moved in, but it soon became obvious. We spent almost every moment of every subsequent summer together, on roofs and up trees, playing the kind of demented games that three very close, over-energetic, under-supervised children will invent. The highlight of every July was a sleepover spent watching Anne of Green Gables.

I had read the books, and loved them, but my sister and friend never did. It didn’t matter. The movie captures and distills a great part of the book’s dusty red, tree-lined heart, somehow making it its own. It’s the shots of Anne and Diana walking across a field, lit by the fall sunset, or through the tall dune grass (Anne walks by the sea with no one else), always accompanied by the fluting soundtrack. The total impression is of an idyllic Prince Edward Island whose visual and affective contours mirror the workings of memory–the way certain friendships, and certain moments in those friendships, exist always vivid, always enclosed and perfect, dipped in summery and autumnal golds.

I may or may not have teared up at this:

Anne’s sick and desperate face upon hearing that Diana is marrying the meek and worthless Fred (I love Bruce, but you must admit he was not fit to untie Anne’s shoelaces) says everything. Diana goes through with the wedding, but she kisses Anne first. Anne was always first.

The whole post, like the movie, is for anyone who’s fallen in love with a friend at at first sight, head over heels in total heartsick longing.


Sense and Sensibility

Out of innumerable Austen adaptations there are only two true greats: the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice and the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility. The BBC Pride and Prejudice is a delicious, impeccable romp; its source material is less steeped in grief than Sense’s, and it is too busy being a perfect Austen adaptation to be anything else.

Sense and Sensibility, though, is that rarest of birds–an adaptation whose liberal tweaking is defensible and coherent, a marriage of minds in which the text shines through, but suffused with the particular vision of the adapter.

And what a lonely vision it is: the muted palette of steel grays and blues, the rainy skies, the expanses of Devonshire moor. It’s a lonely place, and a lonely movie; full of the pain of isolation and of being misapprehended, of worry and doubt and no one to share it with, of the ever present threat of loss. For Marianne, who cannot comprehend losing what she loves, and for Elinor, who always fears that she will.

Watch her beg Marianne not to leave her alone, then go call your sister, tell her you love her, and maybe weep to pianoforte music for an hour or so.


I am realizing now that almost every movie in this sampling is about sisters. I realize, and acknowledge, but I do not apologize. On to Little Women.

Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel charms and torments by turns. The March sisters, and their rich intra-familial life, and their fervent Trascendentalist context, are irresistible.  Alcott’s relentless didactic incursions into the text, on the other hand, nearly drove me to to distraction. I am a tolerant lady, tranquil as the flowing stream, but there are only so many speeches–often about feminine modesty and the sweet, tender power a maiden wields over young men who reverence her as the principle of womanly purity and the sacred domestic hearth–that a body can take.

And there’s then there’s jarring difference between the two mini-novels that comprise the whole.The first, Little Women, is a love letter to the March clan. The second, Good Wives, picks up after the marriage of the eldest daughter, and is a plodding, meandering account of a now less vibrant clan’s drift into marriages and death.The whole thing seems a vindication of Jo’s complaint “Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are?”

None of this even touches the book’s cardinal sin, the ghastly crime of Jo and Laurie (I cannot bring myself to speak that interfering German fathead’s name).

Rest assured, I am not implying that the plot is a crime against Laurie, that he “deserves her” just because he falls in love and knows how to wear a cravat. I am firmly opposed to women, fictional or otherwise, being handed off to men as prizes, no matter how prepossessing the waistcoat or necktie involved. The resolution of Jo’s love affairs is a crime against Jo and against the universe.

That two people who light each other up, who confide in and challenge each other, who have known and loved each other through the vagaries of youth, in whom the same slight piratical streak runs, should sunder on pretexts flimsier than the social safety net; that Jo must pretend that she would not be magnificent traipsing around Europe with husband Laurie–a rascally, growly belle laide–it is all unconscionable.

I do not know if Alcott felt compelled to punish Jo, or punish herself in Jo, or if she simply could not imagine a practicable sexual relationship without a large age gap and strong paternal subtext. Whatever the dreadful reason, there is little to be done now.

The film adaptation, oyster-like, does its best to soften all these irritants in a layers of nacre-gleaming excellence, and largely succeeds.

The fascinating, maddening, WASPy New England triad of patrician battiness, moral rigorism, and social conscience remains. It’s made more accessible, though, by the excision of Alcott’s direct address, and by making the feminist thread that runs through the book more explicit.

The casting doesn’t hurt either; Susan Sarandon’s jawline alone could play a credible Marmee, while Winona Ryder and Christian Bale simply are Jo and Laurie. Ryder in particular seems born for this role, and her eager, angular, beauty, almost poignantly evocative of a specific moment in time, perfectly captures Jo’s muddle of towering ambition and resistance to life’s onward march.

Much of the novel, necessarily, winds up jettisonned, but it’s hard to imagine how the final cut could be more perfect. The demands of on-screen concision go a long way towards mending the faults of the novel’s second half, chronicling Jo’s development and the unraveling of the March’s domestic knot without the episodic weariness of the book.

Perfection would perhaps entail grownup Amy married off to some polite and human-looking English lord, and Professor Bhaer darning socks alone in his boarding-house forever. But, since that is not to be, it is some comfort that the film really does the best it can.

Jo actually gets a love interest, not a grandfather, courtesy of the beautiful, beautiful Gabriel Byrne. She gets a a courtship, a real courtship that does not consist solely of Bhaer shuffling around and offering unsolicited opinions about what she should be writing. Laurie grows capitally offensive facial hair, which takes some of the salt out of the wound.

It’s not much, but against the backdrop of the telescoped years with Jo and her family, it’s more than enough.

Here is the soundtrack, in lieu of the Concord Farmhouse you really wanted.


A League of Their Own

When we did not feel like going out on weekends, my college roommate and I would build a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor of our room and curl up together to watch this movie (or, occasionally, Stardust; never anything else.)

There is little else to say about it, except that Geena Davis is resplendent and full of the warm female authority Jane Eyre spends most of a novel searching for.

Whether you are by nature a mule or a nag, if it’s on, you watch it, and if you watch it, you will cry.





Disney movies are all very well in their way, but none of them even come within a hundred miles of twanging the old heartstrings like Anastasia.

I don’t know whether it’s the hungry search for her family, or the confirmation of secretly harbored beliefs that one is probably a disinherited empress, or the delights of a fairy tale set in jazz age Paris, or just the thoroughness with which Anya crushes Rasputin under her immaculately shod heel.

I suspect though, that it’s largely something to do with the movie’s gleaming, wistful, ghostiness.

I mean, an amnesiac beggar-princess dancing with the ghosts of her executed sisters. What more do you want?


There are other movies, I am sure, that many will contend deserve top billing on this list–Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, The Color Purple, et cetera–but since I have not seen these films, I will let others make the case for them.



The Movietrailer

Why are the three books angsty teenagers everywhere cite as their sacred texts all going celluloid at the same time? Can the world handle all this tender breathlessness, or will it make like a fabulous roman candle and explode like spiders across the sky?



Sorry, Orlando, but the American accent didn’t work in Elizabethtown (although really, what did?), and it isn’t working here.



Same goes for you, Emma, although because I like you a lot you get points for trying.



I would just like the record to show that Baz Luhrmann is possibly the last man I would have picked to direct this movie.


Ok, moving from angst to passionate, deranged ghostyness.



This might actually be ok? I like how silent the trailer is.


Not sure what to make of this one yet,



except that I used to have those overalls and want them back.


And finally (sensitive viewers, skip this one):



I’m glad that this avoids a Pretty Woman narrative in favor of two women building a business and a friendship. Brownie points.

BUT I am getting prettttty fed up with this whole “sex work is so boho-chic and empowering as long as it takes place in a completely non-threatening white middle class millieu!” trope. More on this later.

Ok, that’s all, folks. Any interesting coming-soons that I missed?


Update: OH WAIT. We should sneak a bottle of whiskey into the theater and go see this.



This is exactly the kind of movie they invented brown paper bags for.


Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks markets itself as sweet romantic comedy, opens as delicious satire, slides seamlessly into third-act feminist horror film, and blows it for a closing bid at bittersweet romantic comedy. Surprisingly, it’s not at all confusing to watch.

We meet Calvin at his vintage typewriter. Calvin is a Sensitive Male, you see, and sensitive males write their novels on vintage typewriters. They also sport gingham socks, scruffy hair, and tortoise-shell glasses. They may or may not hold a teddy bear on their shrink’s couch (I blame you, Sebastian Flyte), but they always display a profound self-consciousness and halting inability to connect with others (Calvin is almost a recluse).

This is especially pronounced around women, towards whom they assume a posture of wistful self-deprecation and impotence–until the right girl, the special girl, the volatile and warm and artistic girl waltzes into their lives and unearths the gems that they are.

Of course, if these girls prove a little scarcer-found off the silver screen, you can always write one off the page and into your life. Ruby Sparks creates a brilliant premise out of a simple truth: the manic pixie angel dream-healing indie-man-whisperer whatever is entirely a construction of the immature male psyche. So they made a movie where the manic pixie is literally a construction of the immature male psyche. It’s awesome.

Right after Calvin meets Ruby and wraps his head around the fact that yes, she is real, they have a moonlit poolside tete-tete. Why did you date those jerks, he asks (he, of course, has written her as sexually vulnerable). Because I hadn’t met you, she says, or something along those lines.  You can see Calvin’s face light up, or maybe I just imagined it, because finally, everything is making sense–finally these beautiful girls are realizing that it’s they who are only partially whole without him, that they’ve been making all the mistakes–finally, he’s getting the adoring sprite he deserves for being sensitive, and sad, and purposely emasculated, and Such A Nice Guy, dammit.

It’s sharp spotlight on the cult of the dreamy sad-sack, and the subtly narcissistic version of male entitlement that often pervades the identity. A particularly deft touch is Calvin’s brother–a matter-of-fact, iron-pumping, casually chauvinistic he-man who is nevertheless both the only character in a mature and responsible relationship, and the film’s moral compass.

The movie is full of these great parodic  moments–my favorite is when we meet Calvin’s mother, who lives in a sort of California jungle-treehouse, and she waxes mystical about her manic pixie dream home: “We got the wood from Amish-land (it’s blessed), and the bricks are from a torn-down Catholic school!” Thank you, lady, for reminding me why I hate the rich and artsy.

[Ok people, here come the spoilers.]

As refreshing as the respect afforded ordinary decency over piquant bohemianism is, things really get going only as Calvin’s inability to relate to anyone outside the confines of his own head becomes increasingly clear. As he more and more willingly controls Ruby’s emotions, actions, and character through his typewriter, he enters a spiral of  manipulation that culminates in one of the most disturbing and riveting scenes of vicious abuse the genre has ever produced.

Rarely are romantic comedies so honest about the implications of the relationship patterns they portray; rarely do they confront the audience with raw horror as the price of all that cute. Ruby has never existed for herself–only to titillate, inspire, and affirm Calvin. As Sady Doyle says

“If you think this relationship is going anywhere but to a scene of Ruby forced to shout “you’re a genius” over and over, tears streaming from her eyes, then you’re one of the world’s true optimists.”

The scene is more than a clear-eyed look at the brutality of narcissism,  however–it’s a damning indictment of what the romance of romance does to women everywhere. Ruby is a perfectly subject construction, born of Calvin’s need for control and superiority; as such, she can be jerked around, posed, made to speak strange languages, humiliated, imprisoned, and finally, whirled and twirled into tortured, abject submission. And of course, Calvin never gets his hands dirty–the glory of his total rule is that he can make her do this to herself.  While she is spinning and sobbing, Ruby becomes everywoman–every girl who has stifled her own thought and desires, who has twisted herself up into unnatural contortions social and physical, in whom bodily and mental traits has been ruthlessly moulded or excised to fit some standard of perfect womanhood that exists to annhilate her in favor of a two-dimensional role.

Because this scene is so great, because it takes Ruby Sparks from a clever, gentle spoof to incisive social commentary, everything that happens after it is doubly frustrating. Horrified at what he has done, and loving Ruby, Calvin types that she leaves the house, forgets the past, and is freed of the typewriter’s power. He trades in his magic machine for a Macbook, writes a best-selling, bittersweet novel about his experiences with her, and lives a chastened, wiser man until, mirabile dictu! He meets Ruby in the park. He still loves her, she has no memories of their past, and in Calvin’s introduction and their gentle flirtation, we see the possibility of a fresh start at a healthy relationship. Finis.

I’m sorry, what?

This is problematic on both levels on which it works.  As a conclusion to the story of their romance, it’s terrible–this man has manipulated and abused her in awful ways. It’s nice that he’s realized his error, but his typewriter didn’t cause his behavior–it only enabled it. This is not someone Ruby should go back to–especially since she has no memory of her past, and no way to make an informed decision about her ex-boyfriend. Calvin still holds all the power in this relationship, and he’s still abusing it.

Equally frustrating is the fact that Calvin only “liberates” Ruby through an exercise of power. Had the movie’s resolution involved the imprisoned Ruby waiting till the dead of night and smashing Calvin’s typewriter into a million tiny pieces, I would have stood up and cheered. Instead, Ruby only gains some measure of agency by Calvin’s decision to write her that way; he still is responsible for the content of her character, experiences, and now, even her memory. The Ruby he meets in the park is even more of a blank slate for him to write his story on. She has been freed to make her a fitter mate for Calvin, who has gained enough sophistication to prefer his women cage-free.

For all its insight on the manic pixie dream girl mythos, Ruby Sparks only succeeds in being a subtler version of the trope. Ruby, in the end, exists only for Calvin–to provide with artistic material, romantic fulfillment, and some measure of moral growth. I’m glad Calvin realized that a relationship of absolute control makes both parties unhappy. Unfortunately, neither he nor the film seems to realize that using power more gently isn’t the same as giving it up.

Links Roundup

Like Woody’s Roundup, see, except I get to be Jessie.

Well, this is an interesting take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that has plagued womankind (buy me a beer and I will tell you the stories) since…actually I don’t know when this started. Prize for whoever who can find the earliest instance of the MPDG in print, film, or mythology.


Yes yes yes

What. Is this.

I really think there should be a line of liquor called Feminine Spirits. Having some on hand would certainly help me deal this kind of thing better.

Against the literary.

This essay comes close to nailing what I have been inarticulately fumbling to express to my cultured friends for ages.

One of the reasons I distrust garden-variety self-styled progressives is that so many of them have been so unwilling to call Obama out on this.

This is so wrong.

Seriously?? You interview one of the most accomplished media personalities ever to grace NPR, and you ask her

a) Whether she wanted children

b) Whether she’s a lesbian

and c) How she feels about people wanting to screw her.

You stay classy, Andrew Goldman.

I’m not sure “swagger” and the hyper-aggressive pursuit of profits are good traits in anyone, man or woman–but as long as our current economic structure rewards these behaviors, it’s really frustrating that ladies aren’t allowed to exhibit them. Businesswomen, take note.

Fairy tales!

I wish Amy Poehler would give me advice.

This is a BIG DEAL. Oh yes, it is. Just you wait.

If you are anything like me, you were a little dismayed to hear that Catwoman would be played by someone who’s career high, I firmly maintain, is still The Princess Diaries. “Why?” you asked. “Why would they pick someone who exudes all the charged, smoldering danger of a bunny rabbit? Have we forgotten the sad travesty that was Becoming Jane? Were all your other femme fatales busy? Did Penelope Cruz have a lunch date that day?” Well, I was wrong, and so are you. Anne Hathaway is, against all odds, fantastic. She nails the role and steals the show, and never has eating my words been more enjoyable.

Of course, that does not excuse this.


Bracketing the total ruination this movie seems poised to wreak on the novel, Keira Knightley? I get it. She’s everyone’s go-to period piece actress, looks great in a corset, etc. But Anna is supposed to be this gorgeous, warm, full-bodied creature of passion and tenderness, not some starveling waif obsessed with the sharp angles own jawline.  Kate Winslet should be playing this role. Ugh.

And, of course, RIP Sally Ride.



Unconnected Thoughts on the Death of a Chick Flick Queen

“Look, by this argument, it is impossible to have a subtle, complicated, adult romantic comedy in which the main couple ends up together.”

Nora Ephron, rom-com royalty, died on Tuesday. Here is an article/debate about her most famous work, in which Williams argues that When Harry Met Sally firmly enshrined the myth that men and women can never be friends in the pantheon of cultural pseudo-knowledge.

To me, this seems an example of the Pride and Prejudice effect: an excellent, clever, and complex work becomes defined in the popular imagination primarily by an appalling lesson or narrative based on a widespread but breathtakingly clueless misreading. So, with Pride and Prejudice we skip over Lizzie’s refusal to be loved on terms that pit her against her community, or Austen’s use of romantic love to demolish, purge, and reconstruct social norms, and learn that arrogant assholes are the real catches, because their jerkish behavior is proof of their smoldering love. Plus, they’re probably rich. (This, of course, is the real danger of the P&P myth: encouraging marriage for money is one thing, but they’re supposed to love us as well?)

Obviously, When Harry Met Sally isn’t in the same league, or even playing the same game, but the same thing happens. The dynamic duo ends up together and hey-presto! Harry was right all along! They really couldn’t be just friends (of course, “just” is doing all the work in that sentence, and in our ridiculous “friend zone,” with its definition of friendship as something limited and exclusive). It ignores the fact that Harry and Sally’s fall into bed occurs only after several years of chaste friendship, and their fall into love is impossible without them. Harry’s discomfort after the sex isn’t just a jab at the emotional differences between men and women–their coupling is disconcerting, awkward, and out of place because nothing about their prior relationship suggests sex as a natural step. It functions as the catalyst for their romance, but only accidentally, and only because the strength of their friendship sees them through the mess. Ephron’s point is not that men and women can’t be friends, it’s that men and women must be friends.

Friendship requires adult choices–the choice to deal honestly and virtuously with desire and concupiscence, and to see men and women as persons rather than one-dimensional categories in our relational schemas. So unused are we to seeing erotic emotions as something that can be directed or controlled that we’ve become terrified of them. When someone asks if our best pal might be a boyfriend, we respond with a shriek of disgust and a quick castration: “Ew, of course not! He’s my friend.”  Something along the lines of “X is my best pal, and we’re not pursuing a romantic relationship” would be much more healthy.

Because as it stands, with everyone from the libertine masses to sententious youth pastors warning us of almighty Eros in one form or another, men and women really can’t be friends–or at least, they’re not supposed to be. And this is greatly to the detriment of both–it drives the sexes farther apart and props up their fantasies about each other. It warps sex, too, by placing upon it the unnatural weight of men and women’s entire emotional life in relation to each other. Not only does the prohibtion-by-disbelief encourage artificial and selfish courtship norms, it sterilizes the social sphere by bringing a claustrophobic pressure to bear on every flirtation, date and interaction–if only one type of serious relationship between men and women is legitimate, we doom ourselves to a compulsive grasping after it.

Yes, barring external constraints or the sort of relationship usually developed only in childhood, there will probably always be some sort of erotic possibility in a man and woman’s friendship. Who cares? Are we teenagers that we should be so afraid of our own sexedness?


Ephron’s movies are not always intelligent or morally insightful, or anything close to the thorough excellence of the 30s/screwball tradition she drew inspiration from (You’ve Got Mail is a remake of Lubitsch’s perfect The Shop around the Corner). They are always light and charming, however, qualities sorely missed in the current rom-com landscape dominated by the witless, cloying, and dully vicious.

I don’t see anyone replacing her soon, but something interesting is coming out of the Saturday Night Live crowd. I’ve always thought that the opposite of comedy is not tragedy, but horror: tradedy deals with the cyclical and fundamental–comedy and horror tend to come at the social and circumstantial from opposite angles. If Alien and Friday the 13th depict modern moral unease about lost sexual taboos through primal fear (Steven Greydanus has a great article on this here) romantic comedies navigate shifting anxieties about manners and mores. Ephron’s famous 80s and 90s movies explore and exploit a restless loneliness and displacement most obviously manifest in the fraught world of dating–consider the gimmick of You’ve Got Mail: a relationship conducted not even with the tangibility of letters, but in abstract cyberspace, while the heroine loses the business she has inherited from her mother. What is it Kathleen Kelly says–“good night, dear void”? Or Sleepless in Seattle, its cover depicting the protagonist staring wistfully into space, their cities, on opposite sides of the country, in the background. And of course the fear, in that  scene where they discuss the chances of getting married after 40 versus getting killed by a terrorist–that you could be as beautiful, charming, and successful as Meg Ryan’s characters always are, and still have to face aging and insignificance quite alone.

Insofar as directors aren’t just cutting and pasting the usual montages, runs through the airport, and mood music, romantic comedies have moved to something different. It started with Juno, or maybe earlier, and continued with Knocked Up, The Backup Plan, The SwitchBridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and now, Friends with Kids. Many of these films look heinous, and several walk or blur the line between romantic comedy and simple farce, as the CVs of their actors might suggest. However, all of them put romance in some kind of a larger context–whether families, children, sexual consequences, small towns, or female friendship. If the 90s dealt with the frightening severance of sex and fulfillment from community, we seem to be working through the realization that sex is in fact inescapably communal, and more importantly, that we have no idea what to do with that.  No one seems to have much to say or any sense of purpose aside from highlighting our tense cluelessness, but sexual love and desire is no longer solely a one or two player bid for romantic fulfillment. Worth keeping an eye on.

Scattershot Recs


I don’t know how I haven’t gotten around to mentioning this, but if you can, go see The Kid With a Bike. It’s a beautiful film, full of undemonstrative ache and unsentimental faith in goodness. The threads of Christianity laced through it have people making Bresson comparisons, and it’s true–but in particular, this seems to me an overwhelmingly Marian film, both in narrative and imagery.

“Full of grace–” that title might be the only one that wholly captures the Mother of God, and I keep coming back to it with Cyril’s foster mother. A fullness and completeness that does not draw attention to itself, that resists attempts to parcel or categorize, that pours out without being depleted and accepts piercing without being rent, that is simply itself, and good.

Anyway, see it if you can. It might still be playing in limited release.

In other and unrelated news, alt-country, folk, and rockabilly  seems to be making a revival, or bringing forth new pastiche genres.



This can only be good.

Also, why isn’t my name Tamar Korn?

Girls on Film

NB: You probably shouldn’t watch these trailers if you are an adolescent or kind of horny.


I don’t know how good these films are (I have great hopes for Turn Me On, although I might just be suckered by the nordic-cool millieu), but they seem interested in the lives and coming-of-age of girls–real, weird, oversexed, underdeveloped girls, not knowing, pouty-sweet Selena Gomez clones. So that’s something.

Studio Ghibli

So, there was a post up here for about an hour that I had to temporarily remove for reasons which I shall someday explain. Either way, it’ll be back eventually. I know. To quote Syndrome, lame, lame, lame, lame lame.

So let’s talk about Hayao Miyzaki instead. I’ve known for a while that the Japanese director is a role model for the geniuses at Pixar and generally regarded as one of the most talented living animators and storytellers, but I’ve still been chary about seeing his films. For me, fair or not, “Japanese animation” conjures up pale men in dark rooms sweating to anime porn.

But a few weeks ago, my mom rented Howl’s Moving Castle for the little kids, and I was charmed. Everything about the film was delightful, from the slight sweet romance to the exquisite animation. I didn’t mind the chaotic plot, and even the slightly morbid strangeness that seems a constant in anime didn’t put me off–it was tempered by the loveliness, and was perhaps inextricable from it.

I would absolutely love to see what Studio Ghibli could do with a George MacDonald fairy tale. Till then, I want to watch all of Miyazaki’s movies…film fest anyone?