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Happily Ever After, In The Real World

Dec
2
2007

As the father of two young women, let me go on the record: Not a fan of princesses. But I am crazy for a new Disney movie about a fairytale princess because it illuminates what’s so wrong with the enduringly popular Princess mythology.

Enchanted is a new film that builds on the popularity of Princess movies, but it also subtly undermines their foundation, suggesting that real life is preferable to living in a myth. I’m sure there are fans of the hit movie that don’t see that subtext, but I found it a delightful antidote to the Princess Myth, a mythology filled with True Love, but based on simplistic notions of relationships.

Now, my problem isn’t with actual princesses, although I’m not convinced of the symbolic worth of a monarchy to a democratic nation. I also don’t have a problem with the original fairytales from which the classic princesses come from – such as those of the Brothers Grimm – since those stories are very much rooted in their time and are filled with historical details. My beef is with the modern Princess Myth as it’s exemplified by those princesses and princess-wannabes found in American film, including such Disney classics as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and the plucky characters found in movies like Pretty Woman and The Prince and Me.


“The Diana
Chronicles”

There are two halves to the appeal of the Princess Myth, one classic and one contemporary. The older half is the image despaired by feminists for years: Our young heroine sits around, looking pretty and doing little more than longing for happiness until Prince Charming swoops in and saves her, presumably then taking her off to a castle where she will spend the rest of her days doing little more than looking pretty and being happy. While the notion that a man “saves” a woman is still around, there’s also the more material modern half to the myth: Oh My God, wouldn’t it be cool to have all those clothes and live in a fancy house and have butlers and stuff?

In this version of the myth, women can have their cake and eat it too. You can be free-thinking and independent and all that good stuff, but still benefit from having a Prince who supplies that American Express Black Card (annual spending required: $250,000) you need to complete your life.


The
Princess
Bride

I’m convinced this is an essential part of the huge appeal of Princess Diana, a fandom that approached hysteria upon her death. There is an element to Diana’s celebrity that relies on her fans believing an inaccurate but basic message: “She was one of us and she made it. She achieved the dream.” Yes, the dream every woman has of being in line to ascend the throne, having your husband cheat on you and dying in a fiery crash in Paris. The stuff of the Brothers Grimm. And, of course, Diane was part of a line of distinguished English aristocrats, the Spencers, who can trace their lineage (and land holdings) back to the 17th century. She was hardly starting life with little more than the rags on her back.

In Enchanted, Amy Adams plays Giselle, a classic Princess type. In the initial animated sequence, which perfectly nails both the classic Disney films of the Forties, as well as those of the Nineties, Giselle sings and plays with her animal friends, while waiting for her Prince to come along, whereupon the pair will instantly fall in love and live happily ever after. The happy couple is split asunder when the evil Queen throws Giselle into the real world of Manhattan, where she must try to make her way in a world of diminished expectations.

But it’s interesting how things wind up (here come the blessed spoilers). At some point, Giselle begins to prefer the real world. While she’s dismayed to discover the concept of divorce – she hooks up with a divorce attorney, played by Patrick Dempsey – there’s also a delightful scene where she discovers the emotion of anger, a completely foreign concept to her.

Even though she finally is rescued by her handsome Prince, who follows her to the real world, Giselle finds she is unsatisfied. Her Prince loves her utterly and without reservation, but Giselle has also discovered the concept of the “date,” of going out to talk and getting to know the other person. Why is it those animated heroines always seemed to love their dashing Princes at first sight, almost never knowing much about them?

Giselle battles the wicked Queen and saves her love. She chooses to stay in New York and open a business. She becomes a step-mother to a young girl. She elects to live in the real world, a place where things don’t always work out. Another New Yorker in the film, a rival female character, does choose the fairy tale and heads off for her happily-ever-after with the Prince. But which of these two women has found real happiness?

Editor’s note: P.J. Rodriguez isn’t the only Spot-on writer who’s not a fan of the princess phenomenon. Deborah Klosky’s taken a look at the “real” life version of this story in this post “Princesses are Us.”

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:53 PM | Permalink

Let’s Go to the Movies

Aug
11
2007

Our movies reveal a lot about where we are at any given time in our culture. And when it comes to political thrillers like the late-summer hit, The Bourne Ultimatum, those movies often seem to reflect both our own paranoia and uncomfortable truths at the same time. Bourne‘s success may be due to its deft exploration of the dark side of the current administration in Washington, giving us a more pointed analysis than we get from the mainstream media.

Movies – even documentaries – aren’t an accurate depiction of reality; life is rarely as tidy and meaningful as movies. But we have expressions like “truth is stranger than fiction” and “life imitating art” because life and art have a symbiotic relationship. Art helps us understand our world and there are things that happen to us that feel like they only happen in movies.

Certain types of events are so beyond comprehension, so violent and chaotic, that we think of them as “movie moments.” Ever read a news story about someone actually saving the world from a madman? James Bond does it all the time. But many Americans described the events of September 11 – a moment when this country actually was attacked by a madman – as being just like a movie.

One of the reasons we go to the movies is to escape reality. Sometimes that means entertaining fantasies of perfect true love or amazing adventures. Sometimes it means tapping into our darkest fears through horror movies. We like to think the bad stuff couldn’t really happen, not to us. But there are also movies that seem strangely prophetic when their events later occur in life.

That’s why it’s a little disturbing that the tales of Jason Bourne have a ring of verisimilitude. Bourne is a former government assassin, who has lost his memory and is on the run. The Bourne Ultimatum is the third in the series and while it features scenes with black hoods pulled over heads and water torture that might have come from the prisons of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, what really rings true is the statement expressed by characters that these are dangerous times and we must secure our safety through any means necessary.

For most of the 20th Century, the political thriller both reflected truth and presented fantasy. Films like Foreign Correspondent (1940) presented heroes being threatened by the Nazis or the Russians or unidentified foreign agents. But did any film of the Thirties and Forties featuring evil Nazis ever present a glimpse of the true horrors of the concentration camps? The Manchurian Candidate (1962) managed to simultaneously suggest that McCarthyism was a farce, designed to work us into a frenzy over a phony threat, and also that the domestic threat of Communism was real. After Watergate and the Church Committee hearings in the Seventies, we found out that our own government was up to some scandalous and crazy stuff. All the President’s Men (1976) seems a lot like other paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, such as The Odessa File (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), but with the added benefit of being true. There isn’t an ax-wielding maniac hidden in the closet, but maybe your government is out to get you.

And that’s what’s most disturbing about The Bourne Ultimatum. Much of it is typical movie stuff: heroes making impossible leaps between buildings, car chases in the midst of cities, impossible hi-tech espionage. But at its heart, the film is about some very nasty people who work for the U.S. Government and who have done some very unpleasant things while feeling very justified in their actions.

At a time when our own government is spying on U.S. citizens, maintaining black-site prisons and torturing people for information, it makes you ask: Is truth stranger than fiction or is life imitating art? Maybe it’s better to ask it this way: Are we now living in a horror film or has the Bush Administration seen one too many action movies?

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 2:07 PM | Permalink

Just the Facts, Ma’am, Just the Facts?

Jul
20
2007

When I first saw the 1996 movie Up Close and Personal, I recall that it annoyed me because it claimed that the essence of good journalism is telling stories.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Tally Atwater – the glossy version of the gritty and tragic life story of newswoman Jessica Savitch – gives this very dramatic speech where she says, “What we in the news business can never forget is that we are only as good as the stories we tell.”

Novelists tell stories, but aren’t journalists supposed to convey facts? A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Often, it conveys a moral. I had naively always assumed that a journalist must first get the facts right: what happened, how, where, and so on. But the films of Michael Moore and a bit of neuroscience provides evidence for another point-of-view.

Documentary filmmakers like Moore get to skirt the “just the facts, ma’am” approach, because, although most documentaries document events (hence, their name), they are also films, and therefore need a dramatic arc. Documentaries that have specific intents and goals in mind can edge closer to propaganda. And if, like my Spot-on colleague Matthew Holt, your thoughts immediately turn to Moore’s new film, then you’re on the right track.

Moore’s Sicko is intended to rouse Americans about the healthcare crisis and hopefully reform the current system. He does in this film what he has done in earlier works and creates a dramatic arc. We meet Americans who have been screwed over by the healthcare system. We see people in other countries have it better. We learn that even prisoners at Guantanamo Bay get better health treatment than most Americans. And so, Moore bundles up some 9/11 workers with health problems and heads off to Cuba for treatment. Gitmo ignores him, but they receive treatment at a Cuban hospital.

It sounds cheesy and irresponsible, but in the film, it works wonderfully. But even some of Moore’s fans cringe and wonder why he has to rely on emotional appeals in addressing political issues. But there’s a logic to this approach when it comes to movies, particularly one that seeks, as Moore does, to motivate people to action. This was illustrated when the public radio program Radio Lab looked at the issue of morality last year, to try to figure out how we decide between right and wrong. Josh Greene, philosopher and neuroscientist, used brain imaging data to figure out that we make rational decisions in one part of our brains and emotional decisions in another part. So, for example, if you ask people whether they would push a button to send a runaway train down an alternate track – killing one person, but saving five – then they make that decision with one part of their brains and decide to kill the one. But if asked to push someone off a bridge to stop the train – killing one person, but saving five – they use a different part of the brain to arrive at a different conclusion: it’s wrong to kill.

If Michael Moore makes a healthcare documentary full of statistics and facts – in other words, based on logic and rationality – then the audience watches with one part of the brain and arrives at certain conclusions. But if he makes a documentary based on personal stories and human tragedy, then the audience watches with a different part of the brain and makes very personal and emotional decisions. You can argue whether ends justify means, but this is a rationale to tell stories instead of relaying factual events.

Thinking about it further, I realized that some mainstream journalists have awful nerve to criticize Moore for his storytelling technique. “He’s not one of us,” they might say, “because he can’t just stick to the facts. He has a personal point-of-view; he relies on anecdotes; he fudges the facts.” And mainstream journalists don’t?

In recent weeks, some media critics have noticed that John Edwards’ $400 haircut keeps being referenced over and over (see Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler or Jamison Foser at Media Matters) to attack Edwards’ emphasis on poverty. A fact – Edwards got expensive haircuts – is turned into a story – the rich man is a hypocrite. In contrast, Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon that a similar story about Mitt Romney spending $300 on makeup hasn’t had the same traction as the infamous Edwards haircut, a story which is actually a sequel to the expensive haircut President Bill Clinton is said to have received on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

One could rightfully argue that all these trivia-based hit pieces are stupid, but the reason why some take off and others fall flat is whether they fit into preconceived notions (Heck, we know Romney’s a hypocrite and a pretty boy…). But it’s also useful to look and see what effect the storyteller is trying to achieve. What these news reports on Edwards seem to do is argue that it’s mighty ironic for a man to claim to fight for the poor, while getting incredibly expensive haircuts – a stance that only works if you ignore the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy all addressed poverty while being simultaneously personally wealthy.

You could say it’s unfair to let Moore off the hook for playing fast and loose with the facts and I’m not arguing for inaccuracy in filmmaking or saying that documentaries should always provide an emotional narrative. But it’s interesting that Moore uses his technique in the pursuit of addressing a genuine social problem, while the haircut fairytale seems to exist largely to make fun of trying to fight for the poor. Or as noted television journalist Tally Atwater once put it, “What we in the news business can never forget is that we are only as good as the stories we tell.”

Editor’s Note: Spot-on’s healthcare guru Matthew Holt has had plenty to say about Sicko. Those posts are here and here.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:42 PM | Permalink

The Force Is Always With You

May
25
2007

Last weekend, I was out in California, watching my daughter graduate from law school. Commencement speaker Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, known for taking on the asbestos industry and Big Tobacco, wanted to make the right comparison to communicate what it meant to join the brotherhood of lawyers. The graduates, he said, were like the Knights of the Round Table. A moment later, he switched metaphors: they were like Jedi Knights, fighting against the Dark Side of the Force.

When a 61-year-old Southern lawyer references a movie, you know it’s made an impact. George Lucas has made a global impact with the Star Wars films, which have served some of us as a bright shining beacon of our youths. For me, that beacon’s a little tarnished now, but I wondered if there’s still anything left of my cherished memories.

It was 30 years ago today that Star Wars premiered, the movie known to true fans (a.k.a. geeks) as Episode IV: A New Hope. If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely that summer of ’77 remains one of the highlights of your life. I actually saw Star Wars that opening weekend and I still remember the beginning of the film quite vividly. The first crashing chords of John Williams‘ score thundered out, while the screen filled with the text: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

It was a brilliant mix of Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and John Ford, featuring both cornball cliches and visionary big ideas. It was a movie that transcended its status as just a movie to become an event. Back then, a hit film would play in theaters for longer periods of time; for example, I saw Star Wars five times between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Star Wars was the first epic blockbuster film trilogy, something worth remembering as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End fills the nation’s movie theaters this weekend.

My fond memories got a little squished by the second trilogy, released between 1999 – 2005. If it had featured a new set of characters that led into the original Star Wars, it would have been more tolerable. But old favorites like R2D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca were awkwardly forced into the new films, which also seemed more poorly written and acted than the original movies.

Trying to get a fix on where Star Wars stands today, I called up my old friend Larry Ross, now proprietor of Blast from the Past, a store that sells collectible toys and movie memorabilia. He sees a steady stream of devotees of the movies in his store, both original fans bringing in their kids and younger fans that discovered the series more recently. When I spoke to him, he was actually at the epicenter of the phenomenon: Star Wars Celebration IV, a convention being held this weekend in Los Angeles.

It’s the definitive event, with any actor who can lay any claim whatsoever to a Star Wars movie making an appearance and selling autographs. It includes a lot of people who acted while buried inside big costumes, meaning that there is no way of proving that it’s them. This includes people like David Prowse (Darth Vader), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), but also a couple of guys who supposedly played stormtroopers. The most egregious example is a guy who wore a wampa ice creature costume, not even in the original The Empire Strikes Back, but in the Special Edition.

But despite the commercial nature of the event and my natural cynicism, Larry won me over with his enthusiasm. That, and his report of a Captain Jack Sparrow walking by with a Slave Leia in tow. “In regular life, if you geek out, people will punish you socially,” he reminded me. “If I was in a bank and I yelled out ‘I love Star Wars,’ people would clearly think I was strange. If I did that here, about 30 people would start cheering.”

Both Larry and I were huge geeks in high school, so I fully appreciated his point. When you’re obsessively devoted to something that judged to be out of the mainstream, it generally plays havoc with your social standing. “The weirder you are here, the more you’re celebrated and honored,” reported Larry. “It’s not even a competition to see who can be weirder, it’s a contest to be yourself.”

And so I was won over. I forgive George Lucas for everything, even Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the most universally reviled film in the series. As Larry said, “I know a woman who comes into my store – granted, she’s autistic – but she loves Jar Jar Binks.” We should all be allowed to love those things in life that give us pleasure and make us happy. The Star Wars phenomenon is bigger than any of us and allows us a place to feel safe.

Three decades later, I make peace with my childhood dreams. May the Force be with you.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 8:08 PM | Permalink

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