The Motion Picture Academy announced their latest members inducted, and it is about as discouraging as you might expect. Fifteen new directors were added – three of them women. A four to one ratio might actually be an improvement, however. Meanwhile, guess how many women have been nominated for Best Director since Kathryn Bigelow won it for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009? Zero, as in no Oscar recognition for “Zero Dark Thirty.” Screenwriters are a little better off – I counted four films with women sharing credit for the screenplay in the past three years, but that includes both the original and adapted categories.
But enough of your whining. Who can blame the Academy poobahs for not inviting women into their club or nominating them for Oscars when they haven’t done anything to deserve it? Just look around at the films playing today. How many were directed by women? And who wants to watch a film directed by a woman, anyway? Chances are it will be some kind of chick flick.
Actually, there is one film released recently in these parts directed by a woman, and you can be sure it’s not from Hollywood. As the brassy, eye-rolling “New Yorker” editorial assistant groans to legendary editor William Shawn, “She’s not one of those European philosophers, is she?” Indeed she is. The title protagonist of Margarethe von Trotta’s’s “Hannah Arendt” revolutionized the way we look at tyranny and fascism with such books as “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” (“Catchy title,” sniffs the same assistant). She also made herself a household name of sorts when she covered the 1960 capture and subsequent trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann, coining the term “banality of evil.”
She was a giant of 20th century thought, but the trouble is, how can you show that on screen? Von Trotta resorts to what I guess we can call the cigarette smoking fallacy, in which a character’s inner processes, such as thinking, are conveyed by lighting up and puffing away. So Arendt will gaze into the distance, take a deep drag, and perhaps lie down on a couch, thinking.
Then there’s a cut to her hammering on a typewriter
or chatting with her friends about her latest brainstorm about evil and banality.
By my count she smokes some 30 cigarettes in the course of the movie – which if movie time were real time would add up to about 25 packs of cigarettes a day. Sometimes, instead of smoking and thinking, she puffs away and slides into a flashback to her college days in Berlin meeting with her favorite Professor, Martin Heidegger (another giant of 20th century thought, but not smart enough to pass up an opportunity to join the Nazi party and disgrace himself forever),
in his office, listening, rapt, to him relating his latest thoughts on thought, after which the pair gambol up to a bedroom where Heidegger, who looks a bit like a plump waiter in a stuffy restaurant, puts his thought-burdened head on her lap. Hot stuff.
Say what you will about the cinematic dynamism of von Trotta’s film, it doesn’t have a lot of competition these days when it comes to roles in which women are empowered. They aren’t just objects or victims or decoration, but strive for independence, if not immortality, either historical or literal. Those that attempt his do so through the usual avenues: becoming a vampire,
as is the case in Neil Jordan’s extravagant (has the spirit of Ken Russell possessed him?) “Byzantium” (Henry is writing on this film in more detail); or a belly dancer,
as in French-Moroccan director Rachid Bouchareb’s first English language film, “Just Like a Woman.” In the latter two women flee their oppressive husbands (and the law), driving from Chicago to Santa Fe where one of them, a belly-dancing aficionado, hopes to audition for a company of similar abdominal terpsichoreans. Bouchareb’s film also intrigues because it clearly draws on that feminist film “breakthrough” of 1991, Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise,” which turned out to be a breakthrough for movies with strong female characters in the same way that Bigelow’s Oscar was a breakthrough for woman directors.
But back to the recent releases. I was a big fan of “Bridesmaids” (2011) and like many I thought this was going to offer a back door for women into the mainstream, proving they could do the kind of raunchy comedy beloved of the adolescent male demographic, yet still retain their female integrity and autonomy. Instead, so far (and Leslye Headland’s “Bachelorette”
was an encouraging, hilarious, albeit straight to VOD exception) all that’s happened is that the Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy has gotten more or less degrading roles in films like “Hangover 3” and “Identity Thief” and has received grotesquely misogynist notices from Rex Reed.
But “The Heat” promised more, directed as it is by Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids.” And indeed it delivers, mostly. It’s more relentless than the earlier film, and not as funny, and verges on a misogyny of its own. But it is refreshing to see McCarthy as Mullins, a Boston Police detective, call up the wife of a handcuffed perp busted for soliciting a prostitute, drop a dime on him, drag him through his car window into her own beat-up rattletrap, and then drive helter-skelter after a pimp trying to escape on foot through the vacant lots and back alleys of one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Now that’s Boston strong.
In true mismatched cop partner style, Mullins is hooked up with FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), her polar opposite – anal, nerdy, lonely (she doesn’t even have her own cat, and instead has to surreptitiously borrow a neighbor’s), and just snooty and condescending when she’s around the guys.
But like Mullins she’s a woman striving for autonomy, empowerment, and career advancement in a traditionally all male profession, and thus equally obnoxious to the fatheaded patriarchal powers-that-be. She’s kind of like Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” except a lot funnier and more pathetic and after much smaller fry.
Paul Feig settles for small fry too, and the film falls into a long-winded, routine tale of Boston mobsters, family ties, and departmental treachery, with that soupçon of local color we’ve come to expect from so-called Boston noir. I got the sense that Feig might have watched the family scenes from “The Fighter,”
said “Yes!”, and applied everything he picked up to filling in the details of Mullins’s feral, hateful clan.
And you’ve got to throw in the requisite sports mania (paintings of Jesus playing on various Boston sports teams!) and the accent jokes (“Are you a nahk” “A what?” “A NAHK!” “Oh, a narc!” “No, a NAHK! Etc.). Wicked funny; I laughed so hahd I forgot to pahk my cah in Hahvahd Yahd.
However, and this is a major accomplishment, “The Heat” is the first film to really capture the sloppy transcendence, the spilled beer, cigarette-butted, vomit-splattered, delusional grandeur and besotted epiphany of getting wasted in an East Boston dive bar.
If women can break into that realm, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.