Monthly Archives: March 2011

a perfect actress

Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8

Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8

I just watched BUtterfield 8 in honor of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011).  Now that I’ve finally seen this film, I have just one Elizabeth Taylor film left to see: A Place In the Sun.  In BUtterfield 8, Taylor was gorgeous in every dress, at every angle.  And her eyes really were that purple-blue, in color.  I’ve always wondered how it was possible for eyes to be that blue.  Maybe it’s some Hollywood trick, but if so, I prefer not to know.

Like Suddenly, Last Summer, and to some extent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,  in BUtterfield 8 Elizabeth Taylor plays a fallen, over-sexed women that men are always falling over (except of course gay Paul Newman).  I finally learned BUtterfield 8 is the name of a telephone exchange that Taylor’s character Gloria Wandrous asks to take messages and pass on calls from her many beaux.  I’d always assumed it was the address of a brothel (which is not entirely incorrect) or a group of eight call girls, kind of like The Magnificent Seven.

At any rate, Butterfield 8 was filmed in 1960 and exudes Mad Men glamour.  Rather, Mad Men glamour is based largely on Butterfield 8.  The character Norma in the film has Joan’s style but Peggy’s priggishness.  Weston, the romantic lead played by Lawrence Harvey, is like a British Don Draper.  He’s got a rich wife–a less pretty version of Betty Draper –who shoots skeet in New Haven and whose family got Weston a job that’s not really a job.  He drinks scotch and knows how to wear an overcoat.  He’s a womanizer acting out of  an existential crisis that (unlike Don Draper in the later seasons) he doesn’t try too hard to understand.

In many ways, Mad Men is an attempt to give Butterfield 8 the grittier, less moralistic ending it deserves.  The film’s downfall is that Elizabeth Taylor is breaking boundaries but the plot woven around her can’t bend enough to give the film the ending that the dynamic character of Gloria Wandrous truly merits.  The allure of a 1960s adult drama like this or Suddenly, Last Summer, which was shot in 1959, is that it insinuates instead of announcing.  For viewers today, this is both enthralling and frustrating.  The whispered hint becomes far more dark and erotic than all the full frontal nudity and open sex talk in today’s films.  Although the hints enthrall, they also confuse as audiences today misinterpret hidden codes (Is she really a prostitute? Oh she’s just a slut? Is that all?).

The early 1960s are a fascinating moment of transition.  In a bold scene that’s still a bit shocking today, Elizabeth Taylor shakes her mother out of denial by screaming: “Mama, face it, I was the slut of all time!”  To say the word “slut” instead of the more polite “tramp” or “woman of ill virtue” was bold and surely lent Butterfield 8 its scandalous status, like Clark Gable’s utterance of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” in Gone with the Wind. A reference to Playboy magazine also made Butterfield 8 risqué.

Butterfield 8 was an adult movie: lots of sex, lots of problems caused by infidelity, lots of incompatible people looking for love.  There’s even a good psychiatrist and a good reason for Gloria’s sluttish behavior: it’s revealed that she was sexually abused by a family friend when she was 13.  In films today, it’s almost a cliché that a female character who sleeps around has a history of sexual abuse.  But this was unexpected and socially conscious at the time.  Providing the character of Gloria with this serious backstory was very modern and forward-looking in 1960.

Yet the film has a less sophisticated 1950s ending.  Gloria realizes that self respect makes a woman more beautiful than any makeup, fur coat, or man.  She goes off in search of this self-respect by abandoning the only real love she’s ever had.  Of course her man feels threatened by this and ruins everything, then tries to apologize and marry her, but it’s too late.  He’s already made her feel like a whore (because her checkered past made him feel like a less of a man) and so she does the only thing a “fallen woman” can do in a Hollywood film shot in 1960: she drives her car off a cliff and dies.

The character of Gloria was living life on a highwire, so the sudden tragedy is not totally out of character.  Taylor plays her beautifully.  I believe Taylor’s performance. The kind of self-respect that Gloria is seeking is sincere.  In the 1980s, this character would have said “fuck off” to the rich asshole whose jealousy blinded him to her worth and would’ve gone off into the sunset… or like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, it would turn out the asshole was also a knight in shining armor.  In a film of the 1990s or 2000s, this character would be a hardened survivor and somehow get revenge on her childhood sexual abuser.  She would possibly take her mother to task for being such a negligent parent instead of begging her forgiveness in a surprisingly touching scene between Gloria and her mother.  I believe Taylor because her acting is genuine and involves her entire body, her voice, her spirit.

But I do not believe the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film where Weston chases after Gloria on the highway and unknowingly forces her off a cliff.  The epilogue in which he tells his Park Avenue virtuous wife that “Gloria was all sex and devil-may-care on the outside but inside she longed to be respectable” is incompatible with a 2011 mentality.  As the viewer, watching today, we love Elizabeth and root for her.  We love the insinuated sex, the quaintness of the moral dilemma. It’s not like she’s a REAL whore.  She refuses money and “she chooses the man.”  The idea that a woman could be sexually liberated and choose her lover is not novel to us.  It’s accepted now that women have sexual agency and can take initiative.  Gloria’s self-loathing and low self-esteem are also familiar themes in plays and films now.  But the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype gets a little tiring when the whores always end up dying at the last minute.

It was a messy, explosive ending, but now it seems like too tidy a resolution.  The fallen woman dies a saint, redeemed at the last minute by her good intentions of self-actualization, without actually being required to self-actualize.  What’s more, the real villain is never brought to justice: the real villain is the suffocating morality of 1950s Protestant  propriety.   This film is imperfect because it starts out subverting conventional middle class morality but ends up reaffirming it.

It’s a small shame that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t have the chance to be in a perfect movie.  She was such a perfect actress.

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Digital ConvergenceTransliteracyAugmented Reality.

As near as I can tell, these trendy IT terms essentially mean that our online world is eating our offline world.  The fact that we even need to call the physical world “offline” is some kind of assbackwards preemptive anachronism like saying “analog” as opposed to “digital.”

Analog means “with a face”–like a clock-face watch with two arms instead of a digital alarm clock with red robot numbers.  The only reason we had to rename the centuries-old clock as an analog clock is because of the advent of digital clocks.  I suppose when mechanical clocks came about, they supplanted sundials.  Maybe “sundial” is a retrofitted term as well? Maybe before the wind-up clock, sundials were referred to as clocks?”  In any case, it’s beyond ironic that the things that exist in a spacial, synchronous, physical sense are now being renamed and reclassified, retroactively, as if in deference to their virtual counterparts.

Imagine if we did this with every new invention!  It would be absurd:

“Here is an automobile.  There is an anautomobile, or as some people say an equinemobile.”

“Horseless carriage” may be quaint, but it made sense at the time.  Horses were how people got around for centuries, millennia even.  Obviously an invention that allowed for transportation without means of a horse would be novel for precisely this reason: it was horseless.  In fact we still refer to a car’s “horsepower” in order to describe it’s oomph. Similarly, the wireless radio was novel because, theretofore, radios and telegraphs required wires.  Today if someone says “wireless” we think of wifi, wireless internet or wireless phones, all previously wired things.  But when did this reverse definitioning begin?  When did the advent of a new technology start making us relabel not only our prior technologies but aspects of the physical environment that surround us to this day?

We still have horses but “horseless carriages”– not so much.  Yet, as I said earlier, we don’t call horses “uncars” or “anautomobiles.”  We don’t call airplanes “subspacial atmospheric aircraft” even though billionaires can now be tourists, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, on commercial space shuttles.

There is a movement in other social sciences towards retroactive re-labeling of vocabulary as well.  For example, in Psychology, people who study Autism Spectrum Disorders have started to call people with normal or typical brain function (i.e. people without autism) “neurotypicals.”  It’s an attempt to label everyone in a way that doesn’t make people with autism out to be “abnormal.”  Likewise, in Gender Studies, the opposite of transgendered is cisgendered. (If you don’t know what cisgendered means, then you are probably cisgendered or haven’t taken a Gender & Women’s Studies class.)   The goal is to eliminate heteronormativity by taking away the idea that one gender identity is normal and another is abnormal.  For some, these labels seek to achieve a sort of scientific equality of terms.

From the standpoint of academic discourse, I appreciate why and how these terms are used.  From the standpoint of having a real conversation about and within my real reality, I find the whole cadre of retroactive relabeling to be confusing and overwrought.  Offline only exists because “online” was invented.  Yet offline will continue to exist long after online becomes something else entirely.  Even if the whole of civilization was obliterated, there would still be a world, with immutable physical attributes (barring a Matrix-like dystopic future where the computer imagines a reality for us pod people while feasting on our life force, of course).  There would be no “offline” if humanity went off the grid completely in a post-nuclear apocalypse, but there would still be The World.  There might not be cisgendered or transgendered people if all our academies, libraries and Interwebs burned down, but there would still be People.  There would be no “analog” but there would be mechanically engineered solutions to the challenges presented by the physical environment– just as cavemen invented the wheel and orangutans eat ants with straws made of bamboo.  There would be no term “analog” but “analog” would still exist all around us, despite the absence of VHS and vinyl records and Rolex watches.

So I guess our reality is augmented now by the online world, through our smartphones and GPSes and ebook readers.  We can look around and get reviews on everything from restaurants to shoes from  1,000 people we’ve never met.  We can crowdsource and twitter and hack our lives until we fool ourselves into thinking we CAN’T LIVE without our iPhone or Android at our side.  We can work ourselves into panic attacks if we leave home without our phones or if the Internet mysteriously goes down.  How will we find the nearest subway stop?  How will we know what architect designed that building?  How will we know where we can buy cheaper gas? How can we find our friend in a crowded park or department store, or know they’re running late, without texting them?

This is called “augmented reality.”  And what it really means is that we’ll be spending more time looking at our devices and less time looking around us.  With our phones, our schools, and the Internet, we can label the whole world, but we still don’t have any clue who the fuck we are.

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Today marks one year that my husband has been in the United States.  I asked him whether he felt Americanized now, and he said “Maybe about 60%”

Like anywhere, there are things he hates about America and things he likes, sometimes surprising.

He loves skyscrapers.  He loves getting cash back at the grocery store.  But he misses buying fresh baguettes from a corner bakery and getting halal beef.  He loves Potbelly’s pizza sandwiches, lemon bars, and brownies.  He has adjusted to the coffee but still opts for stronger espresso.

He has an “American” tri-fold wallet now, after my brother made fun of him for not being able to fit a large billfold into  tight European pants.  He likes that we have sales all year round instead of “soldes” only twice a year.  He finds the customer service is generally more responsive in America. (It took three months in France to install internet at my then fiancé’s apartment and they ran him around a rat-maze of bureaucracy whenever he tried to complain.)

When we heard a story on Colbert about how Taco Bell is not legally allowed to call their taco meat “beef” because it does not contain adequate percentages of pure beef to meet USDA standards, my husband said to me:

“I love America!”
“Why?” I asked, “Because we eat beef that is not really beef?”
“No, because you have a government agency that makes rules about these things.”

When we first met in France, I was worried that there would be a sort of cultural chasm between us, that would prevent us from truly understanding each other on the most important level: humor.  Because I was smitten, I convinced myself that over time we would learn from each other, that whether he thought Jon Stewart or Family Guy were funny–or whether I understood stand-up comic Gad Elmelah— was not a major problem in our relationship.  If an American guy had not laughed at Jon Stewart, I probably would have called that a deal-breaker (except that deal-breaker is on my list of hated words).  But my husband and I both made allowances for each other’s pop culture.

Now, we watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert together every night.  Some jokes have too much historical, political, or pop cultural roots to be funny to my husband, but he probably laughs at 75% of the jokes.  Culture is something you can pick up if you are interested enough to learn; it’s the other stuff like being a generous person, being intellectually curious, listening well, and having a sense of playfulness that cannot be taught.  I’m glad I chose someone based on those unteachable qualities and relied on time and exposure to take care of the minor cultural stuff.

There are things I miss about France too.  Like the speedy subways, the fact you could walk anywhere, the daily farmer’s markets, the beautiful shoes, the leisurely meals, and the chocolat épais at Flowers Café in Toulouse.

As we speak English more, I have started to miss speaking French.  There’s a physical deliciousness to speaking French and how the sounds feel on your lips.  Being nerds, we often have at least one conversation a day about words or phrases in English, their origins, and their French equivalents.  For example, we realized the other day that “falling in love” is the same in all the languages we know how to speak.  The idiomatic expression is not “jumping in love” or “rising in love” or any other possibilities.  Universally, being in love seems to involve falling.

So how much is 60% Americanized?  I think it’s quite enough.  I think I’m probably only about 75%-80% Americanized myself.  I like socialized health care and $3 movie tickets for students. I can’t stand the song “God Bless America” and I hate strip malls.  Every time I travel, I take an invisible piece of culture back with me, which means that I’m probably not 100% USDA approved either.

A home may be ancestral, getting its value from a large family with ingrained traditions, or it may be something completely new that you build yourself stick by stick.  For me, culture had always been separate from home— until I went abroad and felt like a foreigner.  Now, I recognize a thread of connection between the two.  Home, like culture, is something you construct, not something you can find waiting for you on the other side of the rainbow.

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