Friday, August 31, 2007

Desert Island, All-Time, Top Five Women In Film

If for no other reason, then at least thanks to Nick Hornby , we are all familiar with the Desert Island All-Time Top Five. Long a popular concept, he cemented it's place in pop culture by featuring it in his book High Fidelity which was adapted into a tremendously popular film (which I love) and, therefore, dispensed to the masses.

I've always loved making those lists. If you could only take five albums (and, presumably, a device with which to play them) to a desert island on which you would be stranded - which five would you choose? Which five books? Which five films released before 1980? You get the idea. We've all played this game in one form or another. Categories get progressively more specific the longer you talk about it, and people have posted lists on wildly varying themes.

This is mine.

My Desert Island, All-Time, Top Five Portrayals of Women in Film

I'm not saying that these are THE definitive films of this nature. They just do it for me. Films about women I can respect, women I can understand. Portrayals of women that I would want my daughter to see. They are also all movies I could watch over and over again on a desert island without ever growing tired of them. These are women I want to watch.

1. Alien, 1979

Ripley was written to be a man. In the original script, while the writers used androgynous names to imply that most roles were essentially unisex, they never considered Ripley being cast as a woman. A strong female lead in science fiction or action films was, at the time, practically unheard of. Instead of a classic male lead, however, the young, statuesque Sigourney Weaver stepped into the role of the sole survivor of the Nostromo, changing the genre forever. Yes, I prefer this first film to the tremendously popular sequel, Aliens. Why? Because the sequel makes it about Ripley’s maternal instincts. The final battle of Aliens casts her as the raging protective mother guarding her adopted cub. In Alien Ripley wants at first to hold her crew together and maintain control of her ship and, in the end, is simply struggling to live.

Alien isn’t about a woman, it’s about a human being - a feat rarely accomplished in film since this landmark casting decision.

Also important to note - Alien shows us a strong female protagonist who is sexual without in any way being weak or filling the exaggerated buxom stereotype. An female action hero living in a harsh, gritty and - new to the genre - grimy vision of the future. A world where the scapeships have mechanics wearing greasy coveralls and the women don't care what their hair looks like.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that while I STRONGLY prefer Alien to the subsequent films, I own them all. In fact, I own the absurdly extensive Alien Quadrilogy. Ripley is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters and I think Sigourney Weaver is amazing.

2. Under The Tuscan Sun, 2003

The film only holds a vague resemblance to Frances Mayes' popular book, which I am very fond of, but the adaptation has the author's seal of approval. The book was really a chronicle of a house being renovated and Mayes' account of how she fell in love with Italy. It is richly detailed, makes you yearn to travel and has absolutely nothing resembling a plot.

The film stars Diane Lane as a younger, highly fictionalized version of Mayes who is struggling with a divorce. A very messy, unexpected divorce. Watching previews, I assumed the film would be fluff. Far from it, the film is about a woman recovering from tremendous loss, finding strength and hope in the rediscovery of herself, in her friends and in a beautiful foreign country. The director Audrey Wells, who also wrote the screenplay, brings men into Frances' life again and again but refuses to make any of them a "solution." In the end, as in life, she has to find her own happiness before she can find happiness with someone else.

I can watch this movie again and again. I never tire of it. I go on about it a great deal here. Sandra Oh as the best friend in that brilliant platonic life partner sort of way (if you have a friend like this, and I do, you cannot help but be thrilled by the brilliant chemistry between Lane and Oh and how very true to life their friendship is). And as I said in that previous post, "I am particularly in love with the performance of Sasa Vulicevic as one of the Polish men working on her home. He only says a few words in the film and none of them in English, but there is clearly this unspoken adoration he has for Frances that has nothing to do with the story but which adds brilliantly to the richness of the film. His sadness when saying goodbye after the house has been finished just kills me. It’s the little things that make this film great."

I have to go watch this movie again now.

3. Girlfight, 2000

Michelle Rodriguez, in her first film role (in fact, in her first attempt at acting at all), plays an angry young woman who wants to learn to box. Maybe to feel empowered in a world that disregards her, maybe to express the anger that just seethes out her, maybe to prove she has just as much value as her male sibling. But she wants this. Badly. In boxing, her character Diana Guzman finds a place in the world. Finally sees herself as capable.

Apparently Rodriguez was such a natural talent that the trainers who worked with her on the film tried to convince her to go pro. So that part of the film is very real. But director Karyn Kusama will be the first person to tell you that, in using this film as a metaphor for male/female relationships, she had to choose between realism and being true to the intent of her narrative. In order to address some issues fully, Kusama has to have her female lead hold her own against male boxers who, while specified in the film as being in her own weight class and therefore reasonable sparring partners, clearly outweigh her in reality. Without allowing Diana to compete on an even playing field, however, Kusama would have been unable to explore the themes she wished to.

I found the relationship between Rodriguez's character and Paul Calderon as her father really strikingly convincing. Calderon's strong supporting performance is vital to the film as is Rodriguez's ability to communicate a great deal without speaking. Girlfight is a beautiful film. I love it as an intricate character study. I love it as a portrayal of women in sport. I love it as an examination of what happens to personal relationships when women sucessfully compete against men in a traditionally male arena.

4. Muriel’s Wedding, 1994

Toni Colette is a beautiful woman and a tremendously talented actress. Most of us didn't know who she was, however, before she gained 4o pounds to play a lost, underachieving dreamer named Muriel Heslop. Insead of going the traditional route of movieland makeovers, Muriel tells embarassing lies, steals money from her parents, humiliates herself and generally makes a complete disaster of EVERYTHING. And while I sat there in the theater wincing in discomfort, I recognized a grain of myself (and most every woman I know) in those disasters. The things we do when we are young and want too badly to be liked. The foolish things we say when we want more than anything to just fit in. The mistaken belief that a man wanting to marry us means we have greater value.

Muriels' Wedding is the chronicle of a woman making every possible mistake on her way to self discovery. In the end she is not the gorgeous, svelte woman we all know Toni Colette to be. She has lost some weight but only the weight lost inevitably from getting off her duff and getting out into the world. She goes from this horribly awkward girl to a woman who thinks she has it all figured out, having made herself into every one else's idea of a success, and then actually DOES figure her life out and learns that there is far more to succeeding in life than getting a man to walk you down the aisle. It is emotional, much of it is not remotely pretty, and it is uncomfortably honest while also being a bit over the top.

Oh, and there's and awful lot of ABBA. Considering how I feel about ABBA, this is the icing on the cake. A film in which, instead of becoming skinny or popular or getting a big promotion, a woman just becomes a better person. And learns how to be herself. And that might sound like a mundane change, but it's really quite wonderful.

5. The Big Chill, 1983

This may seem an odd choice, but aside from being just about my all-time favorite film, The Big Chill was the first film I saw as a girl that showed a group of men and women who felt completely equal to me. The women were doctors and lawyers as well as homemakers. The group of friends interacted as individuals who were all so different and distinct but completely equal and genuinely loving each other, sharing a genuine and unique bond in which their gender roles were irrelevant. It was also the first time I saw the idea of a single, successful woman conciously planning to get pregnant and raise a child on her own presented in popular media. I knew women could raise babies alone - my own mother was a single parent. But I feel it was a wonderful and significant choice that Kasdan made to present a woman making the CHOICE to do this in his film.

I can watch this film again and again. And beyond the fact that it just speaks volumes about the odd nuances of friendship, it explores human relationships in ways that go beyond gender while acknowledging the women as women. They are equal and sucessful without being sexless. I think this film was, for me, the first time I saw women portrayed as successful professionals in film without showing them one step behind the men, without the film being ABOUT their competition in the workplace. It revolutionized my concept of what adult women could be.

My favorite scene is of Glenn Close on the floor of her shower crying. It reminds you that, in the midst of this nostalgia, these people are grieving. As a group and individually, they are going through something incredibly difficult. I am fond of Glenn Close and it is, in my opinion, the most complex and nuanced performance of her career.

Oh, and my whole life, I've always wanted to live in that house.

And my "runner up" - because I want to include it, but probably wouldn't pick it to watch 20 bazillion times on a desert island because you can ONLY CRY SO MUCH:

6. One True Thing, 1998

In this film, RenĂ©e Zellweger’s character is a driven young career woman who has to put her life on hold when her mother, played by Meryl Streep, is diagnosed with cancer. In awe of her father’s (William Hurt) success, Zellweger’s character worships him and, conversely, disdains her mother’s life of raising children and building a home. This film follows a woman leaving behind the illusions of her childhood.

One True Thing deals with an aspect of female relationships and gender roles too rarely addresssed in film. An entire generation of women grew up with only a small number of female role models in their life sucessfully pursuing careers. Our mother’s generation made the choice to enter the workforce, but was struggling against centuries of ill conceived notions about women - and not all of our mothers made that choice. So many women in my generation looked to their father as a role model when reaching adulthood and pursuing a career, leading to an acutely blind form of hero worship. This film is about moving past both our childhood concepts of who our parents are as well as recognizing the value of our mother’s contributions.

AND it makes me cry. A lot. Highly recommended... but maybe not desert island material. What with the dehydration concerns when one is stranded and all.

I'd love to hear other people's top selections. It's not just about the characters themselves, but how they stand up as a representation of women, real women, and what the filmmaker is choosing to say about our sex.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Farewell to Joan

As of today, Joan of Seven Inches of Sense has decided to close up shop. She’s been one of my regular reads for a while now and I have enjoyed her intelligent writing, frank and open approach to discussing sex (particularly as she has provided a much needed voice online as a survivor of rape who went on to have a healthy, active and adventurous sex life) and her unique perspective. I didn’t always agree with her, but how interesting would it be to only read things you agree with? I, for one, will miss Joan’s presence. There was mention of a book in the works at one point - perhaps Joan’s musings will be available to the world in print at some point. Until then, I hope the future brings her great things.

The Art of LeUyen Pham

"Shino" © LeUyen Pham

I collect the Annual Spectrum editions - they are collections of "contemporary fantastic art" - artwork that explores anything outside the "real" world as we know it, really. It covers a lot of ground. I first saw LeUyen Pham's "Shino" in the 8th edition of Spectrum. I loved how she had taken a mythical creature like a mermaid and made her so of this world; with the string of pearls in her hair fallen to one side, her slouched posture, her morose expression and the casually held cigarette. Honestly, she looks like a young woman contemplating a shit situation that she's unhappily resigned to... beautifully mundane and familiar except for the fish tail. The detail of the little mer-kitty biting it's tail balances the piece, makes it feel a little less hopeless to me. I found her approach to this subject absolutely fascinating.

THEN I found LeUyen Pham's website, Predictably, she has a wonderful sense of humor - as evidenced by her bio page (it's a hoot!). Her work also varies from gorgeous fantastical adult work to whimsical children's illustration. All presented to you in a highly entertaining web page. I strongly recommend taking the time to peruse her gallery.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Kelly & Audrey Hepburn

Photo taken backstage at the Oscars, March 21st, 1956. Hepburn is waiting to announce the Best Picture Oscar winner, Marty, and Kelly is waiting to present the Best Actor award to Ernest Borgnine for his role in the same film. For whatever reason, it's fascinating to me to see these two iconic women together. Even more so because the photograph is of a quiet backstage moment.

This photograph was taken less than a month before Kelly left Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

After the Abnormal Pap Smear


What To Expect If They Find Wonky Alien Cells in Your Coochie

This is a teeny bit graphic but it's my attempt to demystify the Abnormal Pap smear for other women. If you can't handle talkin' 'bout Vaginas then just don't read this post. Chicken.

So I had a Pap Smear come back abnormal.

This is WHY we have pap smears. We go to the doctor every year (and if you don’t, and are a woman under the age of 65, you should) because of the many conditions that might go overlooked unless a red flag goes up when you have your annual exam. About 5% to 7% of pap smears produce abnormal results. Primarily, pap smears are a method of early detection for Cervical Cancer. And conditions like HPV* that are associated with Cervical Cancer.

So I go. Every year I get my exam. I brave the chilly tools and undignified experience and the unpleasant sensation of someone poking around my insides. Putting my feet into cold metal stirrups and leaning back on that weird inclined medical bed thing always makes me feel like I’m getting into some bizarre ride or machine, except my vagina is front and center so apparently IT’s the one driving. It’s a FREAKY feeling. But I do it. Because I want to live a long life, I care about my family and I want to have children someday (and part of planning for that is making certain that my reproductive system is healthy and hasn’t been taken over by aliens or anything).

We learn in health class (hopefully) that girls should get annual exams and about some of the things a pap smear can detect. No one, however, talks to you about what happens when you get a call from the nurse saying your pap is “abnormal.” I did some research. An abnormal pap smear (love that phrase, by the way) can mean many things and can be handled a few different ways. It can mean you have an infection, that you have pre-cancerous cells in your uterus, that you have HPV... it could even be that your pap smear was inaccurate. Click here and here for more detailed information. When I called the nurse back in a panic, she theorized that the GYN would probably just do a second pap to make sure the first was accurate. She was trying to be reassuring. I wanted to be reassured so I chose to take her word for it.

My appointment was yesterday. It was then, after being weighed and peeing in a cup and filling out forms (you know the drill, I swear they do this to make you feel that you have no power and are therefore less likely to complain when they keep you waiting forever and poke you with frozen metal implements), that the nurse handed me a form to sign. A form that, essentially, served to acknowledge that I had had the Colposcopy and Biopsy procedure explained to me and knew the risks involved.

I hadn’t. I didn’t. And... I was scheduled for WHAT?!?!

Biopsy is a scary word. Biopsy means - to the uninitiated layperson with NO experience of it - You Might Have Cancer And The Doctor is Gonna Cut You. Mix into that the fact that the doctor wants to cut me IN MY UTERUS and - you know what? I got a little tense. Call me crazy but I wasn’t stoked on that combination.

The nurse breaks this news to me and then drops me off in an exam room. I sat there for 30 minutes on the fresh sheet of paper they pull across the table (I really don’t LIKE sitting bare assed on what to me appears to be something very similar to butcher paper. HELLO? If you can wrap dead meat in it, I don't want it NEAR my private bits.) Waiting. For half and hour. For the doctor to come in and explain why she needs to CUT ME IN MY UTERUS.

When she arrived it pretty much went like this:

She read my lab results to me. I have some atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS. Yes. It’s an official designation. Wacky, huh?). The short version is - there were some signs of wonky-ness in my uterus.

To determine the exact nature of these cells, the Doctor will perform a Colposcopy (read here and here about Colposcopies) and possibly a Biopsy.

First the Doctor has you position yourself in the stirrups (the same as the Pap Smear position. Superfun) for the Colposcopy. She puts in the speculum (evil cold duck-lip thing) and widens the Vaginal opening enough to see what’s going on in there. A vinegar-like solution is spread around and it turns abnormal cell growth white so it can be easily identified (this feels similar to but not nearly as scratchy as a Pap smear). She uses the Colposcope to get a better look at the cells. IF the Doc finds sufficient abnormal cell growth (read here: pretty much any at all), she cuts a small piece of that tissue off to be tested - that is the Biopsy. This feels like a very sharp pinch; less pronounced than I would expect it to hurt if someone cut a bit of tissue off of my hand or leg (but without the reassuring knowledge that you can kick the person who has injured you in the hand or leg.) It DOES hurt, but it isn't all that bad and it is fairly brief. I did NOT feel noticeable continued pain after the Biopsy - as you would if you were cut somewhere externally.

Women have these done ALL THE TIME. They just don’t talk about it (presumably because no one wants to talk about having HPV, which seems pretty stupid considering that three out of every four adults over the age of 18 have been infected with it) so it sounds really freakin’ scary. The Biopsy causes mild bleeding. It is not like menstrual bleeding, it’s more thin and bright red - like what you expect from a cut on your skin. It can also cause cramping. I experienced a tiny bit of this but the nurse gave me four Motrin prior to the procedure and really - they did the trick. It did hurt but wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. If I can handle it, most other women will be fine.

After the Doctor was done, she put something on the cut to help stop the bleeding. This stuff looks icky AND she tells me that in a few days this material will “drop out” on it’s own so I shouldn’t freak out. JOY. Love being told that my Vagina will be expelling stuff. Woo-hoo!

Oh, and my warm fuzzy Gyno tells me that you should not “Place anything in The Vagina for two weeks after this procedure.” I wanted to ask, “oh... THE Vagina? The one right here or the one I keep on my kitchen counter? WHICH Vagina exactly am I not supposed to put ‘anything’ in?” But she did at least clarify that she means, “Tampons or intercourse.” Which I guess is to reassure me that she didn’t assume I put like power tools or an extra pair of shoes up there.

The good news is, I’M FINE. There was very little abnormal cell growth. I will probably just have to have my PAP every 6 months for a while until we are sure nothing weird is developing. In two weeks I’ll get the results of the Biopsy which will be more specific. Statistically, it will probably turn out to be no big deal. But I would rather KNOW.

Mind you, for the last ten minutes of sitting on that stupid paper waiting for the doctor, I seriously considered just leaving. I was uncomfortable and scared and horrified that she might have to perform a Biopsy and I wanted to GO HOME. I stood up and paced. I seriously considered walking out the door (after changing from the big paper sheet back to my blue jeans and underwear, of course). I'm glad I didn't. Proper Gynecological care can catch early evidence of cancerous growth, saving your life and your family a great deal of grief. My visit yesterday was unpleasant, but nothing compared to how horrifying it would be to find out that I had a condition that had advanced to the point that it couldn't be treated.

I just wish that ANYONE I knew had EVER mentioned having this procedure before. I was terrified. Stone cold horrified and ready to beat feet. So now, if this happens to YOU - you know it also happened to ME. And we're gonna be ok. Even if the news is bad, I will be finding out early - while something can be done to help me. If you get an abnormal Pap smear you may have to have a Colposcopy (which I can barely pronounce) and/or a Biopsy. You will survive both of them just fine. They aren't as bad as they sound and maybe you will be luckier than me and have a Gyno who warms up the speculum.

Also, from personal experience I can say that chocolate cake helps. Taken orally, of course. When your Uterus feels bad, four Motrin with a chocolate cake chaser may not actually fix anything but it does help.

*There are like 40 types of HPV, roughly 74% of adults in the U.S. are carrying it. It is sexually transmitted but a lot of people who have it have no symptoms and never know they have it. Some forms manifest as genital warts (which, since it’s an obvious question, I will share with you that I DO NOT have. Yay for me.) Some forms are associated with Cervical Cancer. It’s like this: NOT everyone who has HPV gets Cervical Cancer but everyone who has Cervical Cancer has HPV. Basically if you have HPV, then they watch for Cervical cancer... ‘cause you are at risk. Read here about HPV truths and myths!

ANOTHER addendum: My doctor has told me now that I do NOT have HPV. I am a little unclear on whether this means the initial tests were inaccurate or if this means it can "go away" - which I did not think was the case. Whatever the case, I preferred to have this accurately recorded here. And I'm not asking again lest she suggest another biopsy. A scalpel doesn't need to be anywhere near my ladybits again, thankyouverymuch. It's been a few years and I am still getting very regular checkups to make sure I am healthy because, no matter what my doctor says I do or do not have - keeping track of our health is something we owe it to our loved ones to do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rita Hayworth

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda...
and woke up with me.”
- Rita Hayworth

Hayworth is referencing her role as the the iconic, sultry title character in Gilda. The character became so indeliby imprinted in the public's image of Hayworth that it is felt to have overshadowed her in some ways, apparently in her personal life as well as in her career.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Bette Davis

“I've no time for broads who want to rule the world alone. Without men, who'd do up the zipper on the back of your dress?”
- Bette Davis

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bree Sharp

Bree Sharp, portrait taken by Alex Abercrombi
click to go to Sharp's official website

You know how some songs come on and you experience this rush of irrational glee? I feel that way about Bree Sharp’s pop hit “David Duchovny.” It’s completely silly. It also makes sense. She captures the irrational TV star crush; How it’s all mixed up with a fascination for the character they portray (who, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with who the actor is) and the transportive excitement of that (usually fleeting) fixation. She’s just hilarious while singing as though she is taking her subject SO seriously - which we all know is the key to truly good campy humor.

She actually sings the lines, “David Duchovny floating above me / In the alien light of the spaceship of love” and - BRILLIANTLY - wheedles “I’m gonna kill Scully.” into the last verse. I love it when something makes me want to sing along and laugh and listen closely ALL AT ONCE.

The only thing better is when a song does all those things AND compels you to dance. Still, “David Duchovny” is a joy to behold. It’s on my Happy Song list. Right up there with Bowie’s “Golden Years” and Pete Townsend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” and Regina Spektor’s “On the Radio.”

David Duchovny

It's Sunday night, I am curled up in my room
The TV light fills my heart like a balloon
I hold it in as best I can
I know I'm just another fan
But I can't help feeling I could love this secret agent man
And I can't...

Wait any more for him to discover me
I got it bad for David Duchovny
David Duchovny, why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me?

My friends all tell me,
"Girl, you know it's just a show,"
But deep within his eyes
I see me wrapped up like a bow
Watching the sky for a sign
The FBI is on my mind
I'm waiting for the day
When my lucky stars align
In the form of...

David Duchovny floating above me
In the alien light of the spaceship of love,
I need David Duchovny hovering above me
American Heathcliff, brooding and comely
David Duchovny, why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me?

So smooth and so smart
He's abducted my heart
And I'm falling apart
From the looks I receive
From those eyes I can't leave
And you may say I'm naive
But he told me to believe...


My bags are packed, I am ready for my flight
Want to put an end to my daydream days and sleepless nights
Sitting like a mindless clone
Wishing he would tap my phone
Just to hear the breath of the man, the myth, the monotone
And I would say...

David Duchovny, why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me? Why won't you love me?
David Duchovny, why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me? Why won't you love me?
David Duchovny I want you to love me
To kiss and to hug me, debrief and debug me
David Duchovny I know you could love me
I'm sweet and I'm cuddly - I'm gonna kill Scully!
David Duchovny, why won't you love me?
Why won't you love me? Why won't you love me?

- Bree Sharp

...and, of course, I TOTALLY loved Fox Mulder. For at least an entire season. With his brooding and his huge forehead and pensive expressions and uptight FBI duds. Loved how his girl Friday was an uber-short redhead (who looked a bit like me with a far more upper-crust schnoz and much more boring wardrobe) and how he lectured her endlessly in his meandering way on why her logical answers were WRONG and his wacky-ass crackpot theories were SPOT ON.

Oh, yeah. Loved me some Mulder.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

If I'm Quiet, It's Because I'm Holding Back

It is so easy to forget how boring it is for other people to hear all about the warm fuzzy goodness of your new love. The truth is that, beyond the bare essentials, only your closest friend or sibling wants to know... and even they don’t want to know THAT much. It’s like elderly people talking about their physical ailments in excruciating detail, the parent of a young child explaining every remarkable thing about their child to you at length or the obsessive pet owner who tells you everything about Fluffy’s wacky hijinks of the previous afternoon. Unless the person happens to be a naturally riveting storyteller, you don’t really want to hear these stories. They are interesting to the parties involved and maybe a few select people who are seriously emotionally invested in Fluffy.

So I am trying to remember not to share my enthusiasm too much, which probably leads some people to underestimate how happy I am with life at the moment. But 90% of the people in your world just need the highlights: “Things are going well. Seems serious. Meeting the parents next weekend.”

That’s it. No one really needs to know more than that. I also think it’s easy to confuse the ability to share minutiae with the intimacy that stems from sharing more personal truths. I think closeness stems from an ability to share who we ARE with each other, not what the doctor said about your joints or how proud you are that Junior became conditioned - after only three minor burns - to leave the stove alone. Sometimes you NEED to tell someone about the little details, but right now I'm trying to remind myself that my friends will not be as riveted as I am by a detailed description of my new man's dead-sexy laugh lines or the way he spontaneously starts dancing with me when we're chatting in the kitchen. I find these things FASCINATING. But then, I'm all addle-brained by the warm fuzzy goodness.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Potter on my Mind

Most of the stuff I get sent from YouTube is an absurd waste of time, but THIS is BRILLIANT. And I don't even particularly like puppets.