Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Women Who'd Make Great Biopics (I find yet another excuse to talk about the Godfather)

In "This Year’s Best Actress Race: A History of Inequality", Keith Dodge has outlined what he perceives to be problematic inequality in how stories of men and women are treated by the movie industry and the Academy, and he opens with thoughts on biopics. People who study movies methodically have attempted to measure this inequality, and I'm not in the mood to compile sufficient data to argue one way or the other. The truth is, however, that I like some of these "men's stories" a lot. So I decided to take a look at some famous movies about men and see how similar stories might be made about real life women. Here are three (an extremely incomplete list, but bed is calling):

If you liked Gladiator or Lincoln, what about a movie about Harriet Tubman?
Escaping from slavery once is an unbelievable triumph of the human spirit. Returning back to the South to continue to lead more and more slaves out is simply unbelievable. Now maybe there wouldn't be any gladiator-type fights in it, but when you watch Gladiator, it's not really the violence that's captivating. At least not for me. The violence in the movie was necessary to show how truly brutally harsh the life of a Gladiator was. That movie succeeded because of the convictions of Maximus won over the crowd. Surely, Tubman's convictions could as well? Harriet Tubman is one of the most remarkable figures in American history--probably in all history, and seems to be remarkably underrated. Brave, caring, principled, smart, and strong-willed, she is a hero in every sense of the word, and--perhaps more importantly for movie makers (though obviously not to the countless lives she changed at the time)--her story involves an incredible amount of suspense, danger, and (presumably) countless interesting interpersonal relations. Our obsession with the wrongs of slavery have led to an idolization of Lincoln, of which I have certainly participated. I haven't seen the Daniel Day-Lewis movie, but as history informs us, Lincoln didn't start trying to free the slaves until the middle of the war, whereas on-the-ground emancipation was Tubman's business from the get-go (after that was successful, she worked on women's suffrage). I greatly admire the work Lincoln did in politics and recognize the fortitude that is required for that field (more on that later). Since Lincoln was born free and worked to free others when it was militarily advantageous and Tubman was born a slave and had to free herself through her own skill and chose to liberate others through great personal risk, it seems inappropriate that her narrative has received so little attention in pop culture.

If you liked The Godfather, what about a movie about Angela Merkel?
This fall, a book was released that compared the German Chancellor to Vito Corleone. While it's not really fair to equate this real-life, legitimately elected, currently-in-power government official with a fictional Don, The Godfather is a movie about much more than organized crime. It's also a movie about power and priorities. It's a movie about having people who depend on you. One character (you know who if you've seen the movie) even says, "My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator". So while I would take great objection to calling Merkel, whom I greatly respect, a criminal, one could certainly make a thoughtful movie in that vein about any political figure with that kind of power. In "Why We Love Politics", David Brooks writes "Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good...Politics involves such a perilous stream of character tests: how low can you stoop to conquer without destroying yourself; when should you be loyal to your team and when should you break from it; how do you wrestle with the temptations of fame". These are some of the many themes discussed by The Godfather and are presumably some of the Merkel's concerns, as she is tasked with determining what is best for Germany, what is best for the EU, and, if she finds the answers to be different, whom to prioritize. While the account would, of course, have to be fictionalized because that part of history is very much still in the making, necessitating either a fake history and future of Germany or some fictional character meant to approximate the German chancellor. But you'd have to presume that kind of decision making, drama, and responsibility would be seemingly made for the big screen.
(On a side note, you could, I suppose, make a movie about the real life cocaine "queen" nicknamed the "Godmother" who named her son Michael Corleone Blanco.)
Oh, and for the record, I agree with Bill Simmons that "there will never be another 'Godfather.'"

If you liked movies like Troy or ones about Hercules, why not a movie about Athena?
Okay, so Athena isn't a historical figure in the way these others are since she's not real, but the Greeks did literally worship her and named their most important city after her. Back in the day, I used to be very well versed in Athena mythology, but unfortunately I'm a little rusty right now. But she played a great role in guiding heroes to great successes. She also beat out her uncle for the right to claim Athens as her own (aren't there tons of movies about competing for power. Glengarry Glen Ross, though not a commercial success, was critically well-received, and that was a movie about competition in real estate. This would be similar. Except the competition would be between gods with superpowers and they'd be competing for a city whose prime we still idolize.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nantucket's Influential Women in Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea

I recently finished Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea. Subtitled The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, it tells the true story of the boat and whalers that served as the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick (just bought the book--anyone want to read it with me)? For those of you with a strong stomach, I highly recommend it.
In an era in which we constantly discuss whether or not women can "have it all" (can people have it all?), the women of early Nantucket should not be forgotten. And before the Essex leaves shore, Philbrick makes a point of mentioning these women--even in a story about an all male boat. For that he deserves credit. Here are a few highlights:
--Nantucket Quakerism, a defining part of the island's identity, was only possible because a woman allowed it: "It was Mary Starbuck's conversion to Quakerism that established the unique fusion of spirituality and covetousness that would make possible Nantucket's rise as a whaling port" (Philbrick 8). Starbuck (there is a connection to the coffee company) had refused similar efforts, as Philbrick notes: "Throughout the seventeenth century, English Nantucketers resisted all attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because a woman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it" (Philbrick 8). For a woman to wield the power to choose a society's religion and by extension its culture and, ultimately, its economy, is remarkable. Men may have gone on the whaling missions, but they owed their livelihood to a woman.
--"With their men gone for so long, Nantucket's women were obliged not only to raise the children but also to run many of the island's businesses. It was largely the women who maintained the complex web of personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning" (Philbrick 15).
On pages 15 and 16, Philbrick describes how the island's Quaker faith (which, as you recall, was allowed by a woman) gave women a status and equality that the would not have received on the mainland, a point that was acknowledged by the Nantucket feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott (15-16).
Yes, In the Heart of the Sea and Moby Dick focus on an all-male voyage. But those voyages were made possible by the hard work of women. And the Nantucket Quaker culture found the roles played by women to be of equal value to those played by their male counterparts.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

HIMYM Thoughts: I really don't care who the mother is

How I Met Your Mother is a guilty pleasure of mine, and I've been watching this season with interest. But not in "the mother". Instead, the intriguing plot point for me is the relationship between Barney and Robin and how it evolves. Here are a number of reasons why I'm not holding my breath for Ted's future wife's identity to be revealed:
1. By the title of the show, I kind of always assumed we'd just meet her in the last episode in some final scene, Ted would say "and that's how I met your mother", and we wouldn't need to know more about the mother, because well, the kids already know who their mother is, there's a good chance they've heard stories about their mom and dad's dating life from their mother or from Ted's friends or from Ted because he's obviously so interested in sharing intimate details of his own personal life.
As I understand it, HIMYM isn't the story of Ted's relationship with his wife--how could it be if we've gone seven full seasons without meeting her, and if Ted were actually telling the story of that relationship, she'd be more than a minor detail.
2. The story of Barney and Robin is much more compelling.
To me, this is the key reason. While I like Ted and think he's a nice guy, he's just not as fun to watch as Barney. While Ted seems to genuinely fall for every girl he meets, Barney and Robin are more cynical, which makes their connection more powerful on a screen. Yes, their relationship does to a degree fall under the cynical-man-falls-for-smart-driven-passionate-woman branch with Casablanca and Star Wars. (Many thanks to Grantland's Brian Phillips for making that connection.) Yes, it's been done before, but there's a reason people like it. Neil Patrick Harris is a better actor than Josh Radnor, and his relationship with Robin is one that has been developing throughout the course of the show, whereas we haven't even met the mother yet, so it would be hard for the relationship to be as meaningful as one that's been there all along. Some people don't like Barney and Robin, but I do. I find them both to be dynamic characters with interests much less straightforward than Ted's "I want to get married and have babies" philosophy.
Aside: The more I think about it, the Star Wars analogy that posits Ted-as-Luke, Barney-as-Han, and Robin-as-Leia actually makes a ton of sense. And who's to say the creators didn't consciously make that way, since they reference Star Wars all the time. Just like in Star Wars, the self-interested character ends up becoming a good person as well as everyone's favorite character. Robin works as Leia because they're both feisty, independent, and motivated by some very important non-romantic passion (Robin wants to become a journalist, and Leia wants the Rebellion to win.) And Ted and Luke are both good guys, but Robin/Leia just isn't happening for them. That's okay though, because they get to succeed in other ways.
3. I feel like the level of anticipation that has greeted "the mother" is setting fans up for failure.
This last one is me just being pessimistic, but I think it will be hard for the creators to envision a character that pleases all of their fans. And as of late, they haven't been doing very well. Victoria in season 1 was well received. She had her own personality and career ambitions, she was nice and not stereotypically jealous, and she was strong and intelligent. Stella was a well done character as well. You know, for someone who doesn't like Star Wars. I thought Stella and Ted running into each other, and her giving her thoughts on how there's a "one" out there for Ted was great and continued that general philosophy of the show that certain people are meant for each other. (Whether or not you believe this to be true in real life, the show relies heavily on the notion, and it was therefore good for Stella and Ted's meeting to confirm that.) Zoey, meanwhile, was not well received (and I didn't like her either), and Victoria's season eight persona felt much more contrived. I actually like Quinn a lot, so I haven't given up on the show's ability to create new, interesting female characters. That being said, I'd much rather spend my viewing time rooting for characters I already know that I like. And Barney and Robin happen to be my two favorite characters in the show.