Monday, January 31, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "Chicago"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's second installment (2004's "Mean Girls"), I now present ~

Chicago 2002 / Dir: Rob Marshall

SYNOPSIS: Based on the 1975 Broadway musical, "Chicago" is the story of two prohibition-era murderesses - Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a showgirl who killed her cheating husband and sister, and Roxie (Renee Zellweger), an aspiring entertainer who killed her boyfriend because he lied about getting her a gig. Fearing that they will be hanged for their crimes, the two ladies vie for the attention of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a slick and hitherto undefeated defense lawyer who specializes in distressed damsels.

Of all my favorite Bitchfest films, I am most embarrassed about "Chicago". Perhaps it's because it stars people like Zellweger* and Gere, but more so, I think it's because the movie isn't nearly as good on the "small" screen. I believe I watched that hotly anticipated DVD once before I sold it. I caught it on TV another time and flipped back and forth between it and another show. Based on those weak responses, I'd assume that my initial reaction to the film had been tainted by an unusually good mood, but I actually saw it four times in the theater.

When I went to my first viewing, we had to wait in line outside the theater door while the previous screening finished. As the audience members emerged, I noticed a particularly jubilant middle aged man and his wife. Both were beaming, but he had tears rolling down his face. He turned to me and said, "You're gonna love it!" He was not only correct, his physical reaction predicted my own. Aside from "Singin' in the Rain" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", I don't think I've ever been more entertained while sitting inside a movie theater. Guess I have a thing for musicals...

And as musicals go, this one has the perfect balance of story, humor and catchy, addictive songs. Immersing oneself in it - which really does require a theater - is an exhilarating experience. And it turns out that a good musical doesn't require complex character development. As Bitchfest stories go, this one is awfully shallow. Every lady is a "bad girl" which implies that "good girls" simply can't make it in show business. What's interesting about this tale from an audience member's point of view is that even though Velma and Roxie aren't particularly likable, you're nevertheless glad to see them win in the end. Part of the reason is that, although they suck as people, the men that they offed were actually worse. This simple ploy to keep you rooting for the heroines is fleshed out in the "Cell Block Tango" number, during which several other murderesses (all clad in black lingerie; it makes sense but I can't explain why) recount how and why they wound up killing their no-good lovers. As the song reaches its inevitable crescendo and key change, the ladies harmonize with the words "The dirty bum, bum, bum!" These irresistible, old-timey touches make you cheer for these vixens just as you'd cheer for a Cagney villain.

It's difficult to choose sides in the Roxie vs. Velma rivalry, but ultimately it doesn't matter as they are equally ruthless and thus equally successful in the end. Surprisingly, Gere's Mr. Flynn might be the most likable character. I don't know why I have such a bad feeling about Gere (I blame "Pretty Woman" more than the gerbil legend), but he redeemed himself with this role. I'm a sucker for the slippery, silver-tongued Irishman stereotype and he hits the mark. He effortlessly bounces between boyish grins and withering glances (the former for the press and the jury, the latter for his dim clients). He plays a classic Bitchfest male role, the manipulator who can't be baited, and he even gets his own number - the all-lies "All I Care About is Love". Dressed in shirtsleeves, suspenders and a newsboy cap, Gere croons with a hint of a brogue, "I don't care about expensive things/ Cashmere coats, or diamond rings / Don't mean a thing / All I care about is love" as the camera cuts to shots of Billy dressed in his usual finery, scoffing at Roxie as she attempts to seduce him in lieu of paying him. His portrayal is reminiscent of Cary Grant's Walter Burns; a callous jerk, yes, but he's no sap.

Other highlights include: John C. Reilly as Roxie's hapless, cuckolded husband and his rendition of "Mr. Cellophane"; Queen Latifah as scheming prison "mom" Matron Morton and her rendition of "When You're Good to Mama"; and most of all, Ms. Zeta-Jones's pace-setting performance of the opening number, "All That Jazz", which has to be one of the five all-time best show tunes. When she belts the penultimate line, "No, I'm no one's wife / But, oh, I love my life!" she not only earned her Oscar but also prompted a male friend of mine to say, "She's hot. I'm gay and I would do her."

Some of my other musical theater friends hated the movie, claiming that its best aspects were mere shadows of much better Broadway productions. I guess that "Chicago" just happens to be based on an already excellent musical with a fun, mean-spirited storyline and cool period costumes. I have no doubt that there have been and will be superior staged versions, but I've never had the cash or means to attend one of those. I will someday. In the meantime, I would gladly pay standard movie theater admission price if I ever got a chance to see this on a big screen again. I know it would be money well spent.

Tune in for the next installment, 2010's "Black Swan"

*Okay, I admit that I kinda love Renee Zellweger, if only for her perfect performance in "Bridget Jones's Diary". She did, however, aid and abet the crime that was "Jerry McGuire"; that "You complete me" garbage was an unforgivable disservice to all non-sociopaths everywhere.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "Mean Girls"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's first installment (1939's "The Women"), I now present ~

Mean Girls 2004 / Dir: Mark Waters

SYNOPSIS: Having just relocated from rural Africa to the midwestern 'burbs, formerly home-schooled teenager Cady (Lindsay Lohan) begins attending a public high school. As she navigates this unfamiliar social territory, she quickly befriends a pair of outcasts - goth Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and "too gay to function" Damian (Daniel Franzese) - while simultaneously gaining the attention of The Plastics, a crew of snooty popular girls. Janis and Damian encourage Cady to infiltrate the Plastics and get some dirt on vicious ringleader Regina (Rachel McAdams). Cady initially takes the Plastics' offer of friendship at face value, so she's devastated when Regina moves in on her dreamy crush, Aaron (Jonathan Bennett). Cady decides to take revenge on her rival while pretending to be her best friend. In doing so, she transforms into the same sort of mean girl that she's trying to defeat.

One of my favorite pseudo-intellectual activities is helping my exhausted grad student instructor friends pick film clips to screen during their Friday classes. This was how I was able to convince my husband to show a scene from "Mean Girls" to his sociology students (it is now regularly featured in his Intro to Soc course). The film offers excellent examples of group assimilation in the context of a very clever and entertaining story.

I would expect nothing less from screenwriter Tina Fey, whose piercing, often hilarious social observations help make "30 Rock" the funniest sitcom in the history of television. Her screenplay is based on Rosalind Wiseman's nonfiction bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World. Fey uses Cady's fish-out-of-water perspective to render a darkly humorous examination of girl world politics, from duplicitous three-way phone calls to unspoken rules about sex and dating. But what makes "Mean Girls" most interesting is that it transcends the typical Bitchfest good-girl-wins/bad-girl-loses scenario by demonstrating that all of us have the potential to be both types at the same time.

Lohan's gradual transition from subtly attractive math nerd to vapid hottie is both believable and sympathetic, particularly when she observes that, "it was better being in the Plastics, hating life, than to not be in at all. Because being with the Plastics was like being famous." Though Cady makes several bad decisions along her girl world journey, it's hard to imagine oneself behaving differently, especially when handicapped with her inexperience.* McAdams's Regina is refreshingly complex as a villain who is more angry than evil; you spend most of the film longing for her comeuppance, and when it's finally delivered (in the style of a too-bad-to-be-true violent fantasy), you realize that it's disproportionate to her sins. Amy Poehler's appearance as Regina's embarrassing, youth-obsessed, "cool" mom (the kind who is quick to offer alcohol to teens because, "if you're going to drink I'd rather you do it in the house") provides some of the film's biggest laughs, as well as some insight into the origin of her daughter's bitterness.

In one of the best scenes, math teacher Ms. Norbury (played by Fey) hosts an emergency all-girl assembly after the school wide distribution of the Plastics' slam book incites a riot. Ms. Norbury forces her young charges to calmly confront each other about what's really bothering them. The scene is brilliant, not only because it contains the film's best line - "Somebody wrote in that book that I'm lying about being a virgin because I use super-jumbo tampons. But I can't help it if I've got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina!" - but also because it makes two key points; 1) that cattiness isn't a victimless crime and 2) that nearly all victims are also perpetrators, and vice versa.

Tune in for the next installment, 2002's "Chicago"

*Which reminds me, Lohan's critics (many of whom seem to think that she owes them a personal apology) might benefit from a second viewing of this film. She's a good actress who got very famous at a young age while being saddled with horrible parents. Could you do any better in her place?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon!

H. L. Mencken once said that a misogynist is "a man who hates women as much as they hate one another." Terrible, isn't it? Yet I admit that's one of my favorite quotes. After all, we ladies do have a nasty reputation for picking on each other. It's the one pissing contest in which we've always been eligible to compete. While I personally abhor girl-on-girl cattiness and try to exclude it (and its enthusiasts) from my social interactions as much as possible, I'd be lying if I were to claim that I've never engaged in it. I suspect this is a common struggle amongst us self-proclaimed feminists. After so many generations of women abusing women, I sometimes wonder if this spitefulness we've inherited is something we all just need to get out of our systems.

I may have stumbled upon an outlet. In lieu of attacking other ladies, I seek a healthy dose of bitchiness in my entertainment.* My favorite unsung film genre is something that I like to call "The Bitchfest". These are the stories about women being awful to each other. The plot usually involves a "good" girl and a "bad" girl fighting over a guy (though it may be a job or a thing). Oftentimes the good girl adopts bad girl tendencies to win her man/thing. Sometimes this method succeeds, sometimes it is the heroine's undoing. This hackneyed scenario remains surprisingly entertaining despite its shallowness, which is why I've watched movies like "The Devil Wears Prada" when I probably had something better to do.

So in the spirit of wintry, pent-up aggression, I present this selection of much better films, along with an explanation of what makes each one so great. I consider these five movies to be the Best of the Best of the Bitchfest.

NOTE: I originally intended to include all five films in one post, but it was getting crazy long, even for me. Instead, I will publish several installments over the coming days. Beginning in reverse alphabetical order (which just happens to lead to the gem of the genre) ~

The Women 1939 / Dir: George Cukor

SYNOPSIS: Sickeningly contented society matron Mary (Norma Shearer) has no idea that her beloved spouse Stephen has been stepping out with scheming shop girl Crystal (Joan Crawford), until her obnoxious friends set her up to be informed by a gossipy manicurist. Clinging to her waning sense of dignity, Mary rejects her repentant husband and heads to Reno for a "quickie" divorce. She encounters several other wannabe divorcees on the westbound train, including her two-faced pal Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), who is all too eager to see Mary's marriage crumble. Seeing these various women enter and exit marriages that are based on money and status, Mary realizes that she may have made a mistake in leaving a man that she actually loved.

There's a gimmick behind this story, which is based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce - no men appear at any point during the film. So even though the characterizations, the storyline, and especially the resolution can be disheartening (I don't much care for the way that Mary "wins" in the end), this angle allows plenty of room for wonderful acting by women.

Shearer brings both glamor and a true intelligence to her very privileged heroine, which makes her more likable than you'd initially expect. She gets off to a rough start in some early "calm before the storm" scenes with her annoying daughter, Little Mary (portrayed by cringe-worthy child actor Virginia Weidler, who is fortunately absent from the bulk of the film). The two are so blissfully self-satisfied that you may want to vomit. But once the cracks in Mary's seemingly perfect marriage are revealed, Shearer plays her various stages of grief with convincing grace. She really is the sort of mature, upright, self-respecting friend that you would identify as an especially good person.

Crawford's Crystal is exactly what you'd expect - a cunning and icy vamp. Her character bears the fewest dimensions, but she plays that bad-girl-you-love-to-hate brilliantly. She absolutely nails lines like, "There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel." Now that Crawford is doomed to be forever associated with wire hangers, it's difficult for a modern viewer to imagine an actress who would have been better suited for the role.

The various supporting characters - especially Paulette Goddard's charming homewrecker Miriam and Mary Boland's flighty and much-married Countess De Lave - help round out the drama with plenty of sparkling humor, but Russell is flat out the funniest. Her Sylvia is the perfect cat, toying with the other ladies for nothing more than her own amusement. Consistently crass and occasionally histrionic, Russell makes a very amusing ass of herself; her unflattering antics were truly remarkable for the era.** In one of her best scenes, she bares her teeth in the mirror, just to be sure there's nothing stuck up in there. It's only a moment, but the film is replete with these little impressions of how women behave when men aren't around. That's something that we rarely see in any movies ever, which is why this 72 year old film remains refreshing today.

Tune in for the next installment, 2004's "Mean Girls"

*Of course, if lady-on-lady meanness ceased to be a recognizable thing, this sort of entertainment wouldn't exist. Luckily, I'm not really here to solve social problems, thank goodness!

**Russell's comedic performance attracted future husband Frederick Brisson, who became obsessed with her when he saw repeat screenings of "The Women" as he was sailing to the US. He convinced his friend Cary Grant to introduce him to her during the filming of "His Girl Friday" and the two married shortly after that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The "F" Word

I'm not sure exactly when the enjoyment of food became a competitive sport, but I'm way past wanting to be a contender. Working at Foodie Deluxe in Ann Arbor was oddly reminiscent of my 1998 trip to Ireland - just as that humbling experience taught me that I'm not really Irish (I'm American), this more recent experience taught me that I cannot call myself a "foodie" (I'm just a person who likes eating - there are literally billions of us). Of course, I also refrain from describing myself with the "f" word because it's terrible and I don't like the flavor of my own vomit. But even if I were to choose a slightly less obnoxious word like "connoisseur", I would still feel like a fraud because I know too many people who have far more sophisticated knowledge, taste and skill when it comes to making and eating food.

Nevertheless, I do love cooking and feasting. When I left my job in Ann Arbor and moved to Chattanooga, I was looking forward to embracing my new kitchen (with its restaurant-style stainless steel counters) in a more modest and less food-obsessed town. I've been having fun, especially now that I have some cool new toys, like my crock pot and immersion blender. But I didn't anticipate that my relationship with food would be so different from what it was when I lived and worked in Michigan.

The biggest food-related change came with my new fitness regimen. Now that I workout more than I ever have in my life (I actually run miles!.. without stopping!.. of my own volition!), I worry less about restricting this or that type of food. The only dietary advice that my trainer T gave me was this - get three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables every day. This albeit simple rule is actually the goddamned revolution. For one thing, it's brilliant to give food advice in the form of a "do" instead of a "don't" - "don't" just isn't that motivating in the long term. I follow this "do" slavishly and I inevitably eat more healthfully. The only way I can make the 3/3 diet work is by snacking on bananas and raw carrots, which means I'm not often snacking on potato chips and cheesy things. I definitely have more energy, I'm less reliant on caffeine and I don't crave greasy food as much.

That being said, I have learned that my addiction to dairy fat cannot be denied. If I go a couple days without cheese or sour cream or half and half in my coffee, I get really crabby and start wondering why this miserable world has to be populated with so many IDIOTIC JERKS. I'm not my best self without lactose.

This new food routine is fine, but figuring out how to get three fruits, three vegetables and a little dairy fat in my body every day takes a lot of concentration. That means I have less energy for planning elaborate entrees or trying new recipes, which brings me to the second biggest change in my relationship with food. I'm no longer as interested in cooking. This is why I love my crock pot. With minimal prep, I make a big ass heap of food that I can turn into several meals. Overnight grits become breakfast, then grits casserole, then grits muffins, etc. It isn't a very sexy approach to culinary arts, but it is efficient.

I think the other major difference in the way I approach food concerns my favorite pastime, going out to eat. Chattanooga is not prime for this activity, though not for lack of fancy restaurants. This town has plenty of places where you can buy an expensive steak, but there isn't much variety when you examine the spectrum of choices. I couldn't have anticipated how much I would miss metro Detroit's sundry culinary options (a reflection of its mixed population), including Mexican, Middle Eastern, Greek, Indian, Polish, Chinese, Thai; I'm confident that you can find excellent versions of each one of these cuisines in the D. Chattanooga, unsurprisingly, is more culturally homogeneous. I thought this town would boast some great barbecue, but I've had trouble finding places that really smoke the hell out of some meat. I haven't yet found that "native" cuisine that's special to this place, and I'm beginning to wonder if it exists. I keep going to the same few dependable restaurants but longing for more adventure.

Yet, within footsteps of my home, I can purchase fresh-roasted coffee, handmade sausage and artisan bread. This winter, Dan and I purchased an 18-week lettuce CSA and now we get to eat fresh greens every day. These small local farms and businesses are where you find the best flavors in Chattanooga. I'm glad that so many of these vendors are represented in our city's restaurants, but for the sake of thrift and control, I prefer to eliminate the middle man and just deal with these businesses directly. Living here, I just don't have as much motivation to go out to eat.

Despite my waning interest in living a food-focused life, it turns out that I'm really good at selling the stuff. My only goal at work is to get people to put whatever item I'm pushing in their basket and I'm a little shocked at how often they do. We aim for a 400% increase in sales of that item. Two weeks ago, I was demoing an obscure salami that I was sure no one would buy; we saw a 1500% lift in its sales. I'd call it a fluke, but my coworkers are always shocked when I run out of whatever I'm sampling. I must admit that I find this success very satisfying. I'm excited about this new facet in my ever-changing relationship with food. Food and I may not be best friends anymore, but we make great business partners.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It Is What It Isn't

I'm not so sure about this new job. I feel like it should have bored me to death by now. Two or three days a week, I "demo" a featured product at a health food store. I have some experience sampling specialty food items from my days at Foodie Deluxe (not its real name, which - if you know me - you probably know anyway), and I guess I'm pretty good at the 30-second-to-one-minute sales pitch. Anyway, we keep selling out of the stuff that I'm pushing which seems to indicate that I'm doing my job well. But eight hours is a long time to stand in one place doing this one thing and I wonder how long I can dig this gig.

It helps that I do this only part-time, and that I receive a kick-ass 20% discount in addition to my reasonable hourly wage. It also helps that this store happens to be a surprisingly pleasant public gathering space. There's a slew of individuals who pop in almost every day, wandering the aisles, chilling in the cafe, enjoying the cheese and fruit samples. I generally dislike shopping but I've always liked shopping there. Pretty much every employee I've met has been friendly and helpful. I can envision a scenario in which I pursue other opportunities at this place because so far, I really like the company.

Yet, I am surprisingly pleased to be doing what I do now. Why is that? How can I be content with the repetition and constantly hearing myself say things like, "Isn't it great how the spice in the chutney complements that cheese?" as if I were saying it for the first time? How can I so willingly wait through those quiet half hour blocks, when I see nearly no customers and all I can do is think about stuff and anagram words on signs*? Is it the rewards and the environment that keep me interested? Or rather, is it all the things this job isn't? The latter is worth some consideration.

Number 1 - This job isn't critical to the overall operation.
I've been the boss, the only other waitress, the necessary extra set of hands to get the job done. Being valued is nice, but being critical is overrated. I love that the store will run just fine whether or not I'm dishing crab dip samples. That doesn't mean that I'm going to slack off or show up late. But, there is some comfort in knowing that taking a sick day isn't going to make another person's day miserable.

Number 2 - This job doesn't require that I work closely with anyone else. This is a biggie. I work best in situations where I can get away from other people, because my feelings are much like Calvin Tran's ~

Even though his words make no sense, I know exactly what he means.

Really, I've got no problem with team work. I can work well with a group because I'm generally nice and helpful and can crack wise in an entertaining fashion. That's the fun part of working with others. Too bad I absolutely loathe the downside of group dynamics - drama, bitching, passive aggressive behavior, mean-spirited gossip, etc. My MO in most jobs is to keep conversation light and avoid talking about others behind their backs. Okay, incompetent bigwigs and annoying people from other departments are fair game, but I'm very seriously opposed to trashing the people you work with every day. Even when complaints are warranted, I find that such two-faced behavior only makes a bad situation worse. When backbiting becomes common, I know it's the beginning of the end for me and that job.

At the same time, I don't like having to be friendly or pleasant to a person who drives me batshit crazy. Professionalism is one thing, but I can hold in a lot of emotion when I'm dealing with someone I don't like. That isn't good for me. I need to be in a situation where I can get away from annoying people.

The position I'm in now is pretty extreme. I'm physically isolated from most other employees. In fact, I stand in one place all day and hope that others will come by and visit for a bit. Again, I doubt that I could be happy doing this for years, but coming off my last long-term job (working in a tiny office with anywhere from three to seven other people at a time), I think this distance from others will be nice for a while.

Number 3 - This isn't the only job available. My recent trip to Michigan, though delightful in many regards, was a bummer trip in just as many ways. The air of recession depression is practically overwhelming. It isn't just the unemployed who are struggling. The semi-employed and those who are working jobs they hate (but are too scared to leave) are suffering, too. I've been in all three of those situations and know that each one sucks. I would have a very different perspective on this gig if I lived in Michigan because I would feel more desperate about keeping it. This is already my second job in Chattanooga and I feel pretty confident that I could find more work elsewhere if this place doesn't suit me, which takes the pressure off this being the One Big Opportunity.

I read a David Sedaris piece in which he mentions this idea that our lives are like a four burner stove, with each burner representing family, health, work/career and friends. Successful people usually have just three burners turned on, and super successful people use just two. Of course, this begs the question, how do you order your burners? Family and health would be my current top two. I suppose that being new to this town would allow work to tie with friends, only because I haven't made that many yet. In any case, work just isn't a big priority for me right now. I like making money and having a commitment to something outside of myself. I like the forced social interaction, even when it's as superficial as, "You've gotta try this artisinal salami!" I like that what I'm doing now is so different from what I had been doing for the last several years. Still, I have to admit, I'm surprised that this is enough for me right now.

*That's a boredom-fighting tip my mom taught me; my recent discovery is "spices" and "Pisces".