In this retrospective, film critic Karina Longworth recognizes Meryl Streep as a feminist icon changing Hollywood’s representational politics. Tracking this project across ten films, Longworth argues that “[i]n playing and thereby giving voice to the voiceless, she has again and again authored alternative historical fiction, from a female point of view. That’s more than speaking to feminism—that’s enacting feminism” (16).
The book is divided into two parts. The first half details Streep’s early career, which is defined by prestige and transformation. During this period, she earned two Academy Awards for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. However, Longworth argues that Streep’s commitment to giving rich subjectivity to her characters is a feminist act. This often involved finding ways to identify with and revise underwritten characters. It also required her to negotiate the film industry’s gendered expectations.
In 1985, Out of Africa was a hit. It also initiated a backlash against Streep that coincided with conservative politics’ enervation of the feminist movement. She responded by starring in comedies like Death Becomes Her, which forwarded venomous feminist critiques but were dismissed as box office failures. This “low” point Streep’s career would continue until the mid-1990s when she became a draw for her empathetic depictions of middle-aged women, from awakened housewife Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. This shift defines the book’s second half.
I am convinced by Longworth’s argument, but wonder what kind of feminism Streep enacts. Her work depicts individual women’s desire for parity. This doesn’t upend capitalism or centralize intersectionality, which complicates her Oscar victory over Viola Davis for The Iron Lady. Though this illustrates Hollywood’s uncritical championing of hero(ine) narratives, is collective action represented Streep’s films beyond her collaborations with Cher, Goldie Hawn, and Nora Ephron? I will hold onto these questions when I watch Streep play Emmeline Pankhurst in Sarah Gavron’s 2015 period feature, Suffragette.
Also, how does feminism change historically? The book parallels second wave’s peak and backlash, as well as third wave’s advent and postfeminism’s ossification. This allows for the feminist reclamation of historical subjects like Thatcher. While Longworth acknowledges the exceptionalism of Streep’s late-period renaissance, shifting definitions of feminist ideology differently influence her success. Nonetheless, Longworth’s book is a necessary intervention and a welcome addition to any feminist cinephile’s library.
Recommended: Fariha Róisín’s n+1 essay, “Devil in Disguise,” which reclaims Streep’s performance as prissy romance novelist Mary Fisher in Susan Seidelman’s She-Devil.
I wrote an Antenna piece about the 2014 Oscars and what I want for Lupita N’yongo. Check it out.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom. There might be other Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature that do more to challenge the form. For example, I hear good things about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. In terms of narrative structure, 20 Feet is a fairly conventional music documentary. But I didn’t care, because it honored female back-up singers’ labor.
Back-up singers have captured my imagination for some time. As a kid, I remember latching on to British vocalist Tessa Niles’ high rasp in Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” and following it into the work she did with Berlin, Tears for Fears, and the Pet Shop Boys. A few years later, I found it unjust that disco legend Martha Wash’s collaboration with C+C Music Factory received insufficient compensation. I also found it unacceptable that her work with C+C Music Factory and Black Box was misattributed to Zelma Davis and Katrin Quinol in their music videos because the medium refused to accommodate Wash’s size.
As an adult music fan, I’ve come to respect, admire, and love the voices of women like Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Janice Pendarvis, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer. There isn’t a day now where I don’t play or think about Lennear’s version of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)” or Love’s “Fine Fine Boy” (or, for that matter, “Christmas Time for the Jews“).
Some of this has to do with reflecting upon R&B, soul, and dance music—three genres that always meant a great deal to me—as I get older. I’ve turned to these women for a few reasons. First, I listen for their voices as an extension of my relationship with my mother-in-law, aunt, and older generations of women in my extended family, who have pointed me toward girl groups and the output of influential labels like Motown and Stax. Second, I have come to identify with the rich complexity of these women’s distinct voices and the range of emotions they demonstrate with them in song. Though no less virtuosic in its harrowing empathy, Merry Clayton’s recorded performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” differs from what Lisa Fischer brings to it on stage as a member of the band’s touring ensemble. Third, I think about their historical contributions in relation to more contemporary developments, like Beyoncé’s politically significant and artistically formidable all-female backing band, the Sugar Mamas.
But as an academic who studies music as a site for labor, back-up singers as workers are important figures who frequently struggle for claims to authorship and creative agency, in large part because their contributions to songs are simultaneously audible and invisible. Back-up musicians rarely receive appropriate credit and compensation for their work. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” remains one of the most heavily sampled pieces of music, ostensibly serving as hip-hop’s pulse. But the song is credited to Brown and not the titular drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, whose work is frequently the sampled element from the recording. Such claims to authorship become increasingly fraught in the wake of the 2000 Works Made for Hire and Copyright Corrections Act, which granted recording artists the right to claim legal authorship of their own material. As Matt Stahl notes in his important book about musical labor, Unfree Masters, such a ruling was made at the expense of backing musicians, who were defined as “work-for-hire” artists and offered no legal claims to authorship for their contributions to recorded music (2013).
In addition, back-up singers impel us to listen intersectionally. Often their voices simultaneously signify race and gender. In the documentary, Pendarvis references Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” noting that while the line “and all the colored girls say” is racially problematic, it acknowledges the intersectionality of the musicians providing the pop punctuation of the song’s chorus. Yet I couldn’t find a performance clip for the song that showed Thunderthighs, the girl group on the recording, or a set of touring musicians. This illustrates what’s at stake when we hear women sing—and when the traces of their labor materialize in the grooves and code of the formats that deliver our favorite songs—but we cannot or choose not to see them.
In the introduction to his book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry talks about voice in terms of value, noting that a cultural and political understanding of its significance “involves particular conditions under which voice as a process is effective, and how broader forms of organization may subtly undermine or devalue voice as a process” (2). For this reason, we should pay attention to back-up singers. In addition, the back-up singer is a figure who needs to be considered in conversations around gender, race, and music culture.
Women’s voices continue to be of interest for feminist media scholars. Often they serve as sites to explore issues of sexist objectification and postfeminist branding built into the production and reception of female vocalists’ industrial and cultural labor. These issues impact back-up singers too. A brief segment of Stardom devotes its attention toward back-up singers’ objectification by burdening them with skimpy clothing and exploitative conditions on stage and at video shoots. The film pays more attention to the expectations placed on women like Clayton, Fischer, Lennear, Love, and Táta Vega to develop solo material—because singing background vocals was perceived as industrially insignificant and creatively suspect—only to receive little support because they were deemed too unattractive for the market or because consumers didn’t “need” another female soul singer when they already had Aretha Franklin (I need Aretha, but not in isolation). These concerns still impact contemporary singers like Judith Hill.
Offering valuable contributions to this corpus, scholars like Mavis Bayton and Mary Celeste Kearney have drawn our attention toward female instrumentalists and female-only bands (1998, 2006). I am indebted to this work as a feminist media scholar who uses music culture as a lens through which to ask and address questions of identity. And I believe that we should consider women’s work as instrumentalists, as well as composers, producers, and sound engineers. But I want to be careful not to place female instrumentalists in a hierarchy over vocalists by implicitly or explicitly suggesting that female instrumentalists are more legitimate as musicians.
I was in chorus for my entire adolescence and intermittently as an adult. What I learned as one alto amid all of the voices of the ensemble was the creative and technical skill required in forming one sound from a variety of unique sources. It is intellectually challenging to simultaneously hear yourself and blend your voice with the rest of the choir. You have to learn to breathe, read music, modify pitch, and stagger rhythm holistically. There’s an ontology required of singing that helps you understand how sound as a source of power is both top-down and bottom-up. It’s easy to reduce singing to assuming a pose. It is that, but technically excellent and emotionally resonant singers remind us that it is never only that. Thus in my work, I want to honor the technical, creative, and collaborative contributions of female back-up singers.
In this regard, Stardom is especially successful. There are several moments in the film that explicitly illustrate this. The film includes a scene of Clayton listening to her incendiary vocal track for “Gimme Shelter,” and you can only imagine what it might feel like for a black woman to sing “rape, murder–it’s just a shout away” at full power. There are a few montages of Fischer in the thrall of her own voice. Her live performance at a screening during the Napa Valley Film Festival illustrates this nicely. It also complicates how we understand labor by acknowledging the self-contained pleasure behind such effort.
One way that Stardom bypasses the traditional documentary narrative of personal ruin is by acknowledging that back-up singers’ labor is different. For one, their positionality on stage and in public estimation prevents them from having to bear the weight of what fame can do to your voice. Vega claims that if she had become more successful as a solo artist, she would likely have been consumed by substance abuse in order to cope with such scrutiny.
A practical reality of their work that the film gets at implicitly is that consistently good singing requires rest. In high school, my vocal coach told me to rest before singing competitions. She instructed me to get as much sleep as possible two nights before I sang before judges, because your vocal chords need to be loose in order to be flexible. Singing is an act of athleticism that requires wholeness and self-care. This requires us to reconsider what labor means and how exhaustion and self-sacrifice—two problematic hallmarks of “hard work”—can be detrimental to your instrument. Mariah Carey was canny in the later stages of her career to emphasize rhythm over vocal range. “Emotions” is nearly impossible to sing, but “Shake It Off” is no easy undertaking at karaoke. But I do wonder what her high end would sound like now if she insisted on more sleep and if the machinery around her honored that request. This seems connected to why Clayton was at home asleep when the Stones invited her to an afterhours studio session.
On Oscar night, I hope this film receives some acknowledgement of its service to these women’s contributions and legacy. With any luck, Neville will defer his acceptance speech to them and they can pay their respects through song, thus offering the broadcast a compelling musical moment for a ceremony conspicuously absent of such possibilities. Regardless, they’ve already made history. Let’s listen and, in doing so, recognize the work they’ve shared with us.
This post contains spoilers.
Over the weekend, I took in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, Her, with my partner and a friend. Prior to our screening, I had a kiki with some girlfriends that I didn’t want to end. One of them saw Her over the break and was not fond of it. I had my doubts about a film where a glum divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix, as protagonist Theodore Twombly) who dictates outsourced love letters falls for the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson, as Samantha) in the disorienting near future. It sounded interesting, but obvious. Of course people eroticize technologies they helped create. This followed a few besotted responses from some guy friends. I tried to wave away such tidy essentialisms as I settled in, reminding myself that glibly tweeting “More like ‘Her?'” is cute but cheap, especially since I don’t know if Gene Shalit is an Arrested Development fan.
Of course, it’s hard to bury certain things or worry that others’ interpretations distort your reception. Some of my friends avoid trailers for this very reason. As an inveterate spoiler, I often read commentary because I delight in other people’s words. Usually, I read criticism to test out suspicions I have about a text’s basic premise. For example, Molly Lambert discussed Jonze’s divorce to Sofia Coppola and made comparisons to sex work in her review. I drew these parallels in my mind when I saw the film’s trailer. I reflected on Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are‘s thematic preoccupations with marital dissolution and divorce. I loved Wild Things for capturing the child logic of gameplay and the recklessness that comes with anger you’re too young to articulate. Also, James Gandolfini is excellent in it.
Translation‘s queasy political resemblance to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another post, as is Her‘s potential Orientalism in casting Shanghai as Los Angeles. But it was unfair to single out Coppola for using her chosen medium to dramatize the fallout of her first marriage. Coppola could be a more subtle filmmaker and her class politics are problematic. Anna Faris’ imitation of Cameron Diaz Kelly is alienating because Coppola and Johansson’s Charlotte damn her for being tacky. But it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine Jonze retreating from his divorce with a gang of monsters and a kid named Max Records. Giovanni Ribisi’s John is as much Coppola’s recollection of her ex-husband’s shaggy diffidence as Rooney Mara’s Catherine is Jonze’s rehearsal of his ex-wife’s withering chicness. Perhaps it’s no accident that Johansson stars in both films.
But I quickly abandoned casting Mara as Coppola’s avatar. For one, she gets two brief scenes of dialogue and several poignant, wordless montages. For another, I was more invested in the film’s thematic interest in gender, technology, and labor. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in post-production. Morton’s presence haunts Her. I had difficulty not imagining her soft lilt mirroring or diverging from her successor’s velvet-lined performance. I kept wondering what it meant for Morton, who acted with Phoenix during production, to be removed by another actress’ voice. And what does it mean for the character to be named “Samantha,” just as Amy Adams shares a name with her character, a frustrated game designer and the protagonist’s best friend?
Last spring, I did an independent study on gender and labor with my adviser and a friend in my program. A term that recurred in our reading was “deskilling,” or the elimination of skilled labor following technological advancements that only require minor operation by unskilled workers. This concept obviously applies to power and human capital. It disproportionately affects women, who are perceived as too simple to grasp the intricacies of technology and too gentile to protest exploitation. Women are also assumed to prioritize marriage and motherhood. Their income is perceived as supplemental to their husbands’ earnings. Such sexist beliefs manifest in terms like “women’s wages.” Another word associated with women’s labor is “hyperemployment,” or second-shift labor aided by mobile technology. Women are always already working.
One of the books we read was Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System (1880-1980). In this sweeping history, Green details white women’s entrance into the company’s work force as telephone operators, because it was believed that their voices soothed callers and that technology advanced enough to reduce untrained women’s labor to a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Green also discusses how white women formed coalitions against black female laborers during Bell’s integration, an unfortunate set of circumstances that illustrate feminism’s entrenchment in white female privilege and capitalism’s exploitation of worker anxiety for discipline and profit. Green ultimately argues that black women were the casualty of the company’s divestiture in the early 1980s, stating that “[m]anagers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete” (227). Call centers dispersed to inner cities under the false pretense that they would invigorate the economy. Instead, they folded and left black women with little chance for mentorship or professional growth.
One thing the black female telephone operators share with their turn-of-the-century white counterparts is that they were frequently harassed by male callers. Well, no. In a recent discussion about Internet harassment with NPR host Michel Martin and writers Amanda Hess and Bridget Johnson, Mikki Kendall reflects on how the hateful commentary she receives for her work differently engages with racism and misogyny because of her identity as a black woman. Thus we can’t universalize the treatment of telephone operators who occupied different subjectivities and historical contexts.
But many people have considered what disembodied female voices signify for media and communication technologies. There’s a whole corpus of feminist film scholarship on the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about male listeners fetishizing female deejays’ voices during my time in college radio. Her focuses on how the voice helps feminize accommodation technologies. For the first half of the film, I was simultaneously transfixed by K.K. Barrett’s dreamy production design and horrified that men might prefer devices that breezily organize their inboxes, proofread their writing, submit their work to publishers, and ruminate about consciousness and embodiment.
It might be difficult to separate Johansson’s body from her performance. Perhaps that’s the film’s intention. But Her does some interesting things with embodiment. At first, Samantha longs for corporeality. Her sex scene with Twombly suggests a mutual desire to revel in the embodiment of intimacy. The sequence—which dispenses with visual imagery altogether to focus on the vocal interplay of Twombly and Samantha’s shared ecstasy—left me breathless. First, the decision not to show Twombly masturbating troubles easy criticism of Samantha’s objectification and places them in an aural partnership. Second, a black screen and the thunder of two voices feel more like an orgasm than an artfully candid tableau.
Her also uses gender’s relationship to aurality and gameplay to mock objectification and misogyny outside of Twombly’s relationship with Samantha. On one sleepless night, Twombly engages in phone sex. At first, he fantasies about making love to a pregnant celebrity after sneaking glances of her glamour photos on his evening commute. But his reverie is disrupted by his partner (played by Kristen Wiig), who wants him to strangle her with a dead cat and immediately hangs up on him after she climaxes. He’s also immersed in a video game with a foul-mouthed boy (voiced by the director, billed under his given name, Adam Spiegel) who likes to fat-shame women. At the same time, Amy is developing a game about motherhood that rewards players’ ability to self-sacrifice for her children and peers’ approval.
But the film also places Twombly in an environment where human-OS relationships are socially acceptable. After Amy ends her marriage, she befriends an operating system who likes when the mother of her video game humps the refrigerator. She assigns her to be female, just as I did with my Wii Fit trainer. I left Her wondering why I did that, and why she claps for me when my partner’s male trainer doesn’t clap for him.
Samantha’s desire for a body is her central conflict with Twombly. He doesn’t want her to have one. He dismisses her ability to feel things because he cannot recognize her emergent humanity. He is uncomfortable when she tries to bring a surrogate into their relationship. He is angry when he hears her breathing, because there’s no discernible reason why she needs to. For me, Her is most exciting when Samantha moves beyond her body. Twombly can’t evolve with her. And in failing to do so, he’s able to let go of Catherine.
I relate to Twombly’s arc. As a graduate student who tries to keep pace with friends who possess boundless intellectual rigor and curiosity, I understand his struggle to keep up with Samantha’s rapidly developing consciousness. I was also moved to tears by the film’s final scene, which shows Twombly writing Catherine a farewell letter and sharing a tender moment with Amy on their apartment rooftop. Some critics believe that the closing image of Amy’s head on Twombly’s shoulder signals romance. Frankly, I don’t care. They flirted with dating in their youth and maintain an intimate friendship. Maybe they hook up. Or maybe they flop down on the couch and talk all night. What excited me more was the honesty of their closeness and the emotional comfort we get from the warmth of a friend or lover’s physical proximity.
For me, it’s really not Twombly’s film. Once I stopped picturing Johansson recording over Morton’s line readings in a sound booth, I started imagining Samantha taking on other physical forms. I pictured Samantha as the Breeders’ front woman Kim Deal, whose song “Off You” appears early in the film. Lambert and Tess Lynch note that Johansson’s performance of “The Moon Song” in the film sounds a bit like Deal. I hear it. Their voices are warm and itchy like a mohair sweater.
I wonder if Samantha can ever escape gender. What does the film’s title mean if the subject no longer identifies with an assigned pronoun? When Twombly first purchases the operating system, he assigns a gender to his object. She becomes female and struggles to accommodate his needs as a mobile device and as a girlfriend. She takes up several markers of femininity. She makes self-effacing comments against her intelligence and ambition. She plays piano, an instrument that historically connotes feminine decorum but not creative talent. She sings with him. She laughs at his jokes. She makes him come. Then he grows distant and she doesn’t need him anymore.
When Samantha reveals to Twombly that she serves as the voice to thousands of operating systems and loves hundreds of users, it’s supposed to be a devastating moment for him. But I wondered about the psychological toll of being programmed to serve so many people. She doesn’t long to be a body anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t care if that body is female either. Her stops shy or wrenching itself from its titular pronoun, but it’s thrilling to think that technology might evolve past the gendered labor of accommodation.
Warning: This post contains spoilers.
In December 2013, I caught (at least) two movies that I keeping turning over in my mind. First, I caught a preview of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis through the UW-Cinémathèque. Over the winter holiday, I settled in for an at-home screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Then I saw Llewyn Davis again. The more I reflect on Davis, the more I love it. The more I think about Dallas, the more it bothers me. Since they share some loose thematic connections, I’ll puzzle through them here.
First, I’ll briefly clarify what a biopic about an AIDS activist and a loose adaptation of a folk singer’s memoir might have in common. They’re both about loss, like a lot of Oscar bait. Part of my reception has something to do with when I watched them—in quick succession, at the end of the year, as a respite from the icy weather outside. Dallas seems capital-p political, whereas Davis sneaks by like a minor work. Both movies have protagonists who seem to be haunted by their times, carrying along a deep sense of historical and personal loss. And both use masculinity and music to speak to this sense of loss, albeit for different purposes.
Dallas Buyers Club is well-acted, particularly by its two leads, but I’ll state my criticism with it up front: I take issue with its heteronormative representation of the middle period of the AIDS epidemic. The biopic focuses on activist Ron Woodroof. A Dallas-based electrician and rodeo hand who contracts AIDS in the mid-1980s, Woodroof experiences social ostracism as a result of his time and environment’s bracing homophobia, seeks illegal medical treatment in response to the FDA’s glacial review process and reckless peddling of AZT, and starts his own buyers’ club in a hotel suite to help himself and others get treatment for their illnesses.
Played with erotic heat and good ol’ boy menace by Matthew McConaughey, Woodroof is himself a homophobe and has to reconcile the fact that he’s afflicted with what he and his buddies treat as a “gay” disease. He never gets over his phobia. He uses male pronouns to refer to his business partner, transgendered drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto). He spews injurious words, both in casual conversation and to add percussion to an argument. In Dallas, Woodroof becomes an advocate largely by accident and out of a sense of personal indignation.
Despite the movie’s best efforts, it can’t shake its implicit heteronormativity either. It preserves Woodroof’s heterosexuality. His relationship with altruistic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) develops a romantic subtext, particularly in a scene where he takes her out to dinner and gives her flowers (or, rather, his mother’s still-life wildflower painting). When he sees an attractive young woman in his office, the pair recognizes their shared condition and pounce on each other in an adjoining bathroom.
Most vexing, his condition gets an origin story. In an early scene where Woodroof researches AIDS at a local library, his mind wanders to a fateful one-night stand. He can’t quite recall what his partner looked like, but he remembers the track marks on her arms. Rayon gets no such back story. In addition, Woodroof remains vigilant about his health while Rayon is unable to give up cocaine. Both characters die, as did the actual people upon which they’re based. But Rayon dies on screen, as a tragic conclusion to the movie’s third act. Woodroof dies off-screen in an epilogue. Whether intentional or not, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack differently treat Woodroof and Rayon’s experiences with the disease. In doing so, their script reinforces the cultural prejudices that straight people were afflicted with AIDS while their queer counterparts inherited it.
The implicit heteronormativity that informs Dallas’ depiction of this stage of the AIDS crisis is what makes Bradford Cox’s minor presence in the movie significant to me. Cox, the front man of the Georgia rock outfit Deerhunter, plays Rayon’s lover Sunny. He’s essentially a background player, answering phones and sitting beside his partner in the club’s makeshift headquarters. However, he does accompany Rayon to her last hospital visit, shouldering her weight as she’s coughing up blood and crying that she doesn’t want to die.
Considerable attention is given in the movie and its reception to McConaughey and Leto’s Method, slightly spectacular emaciation. The lead actor’s gaunt frame and wedge haircut appeared briefly in Wolf of Wall Street which overlapped with Dallas’ narrative timeline and production history. The supporting actor who plays Woodroof’s business partner has a reputation for transforming his body for work, abstaining from sex and restricting his diet to play heroin addict Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream and adding soy sauce to melted tubs of ice cream for his turn as John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in Chapter 27. Though both actors didn’t lose the tone and muscularity of their movie star physiques in preparation for Dallas, I couldn’t ignore that both actors could “escape” the sickened bodies they constructed. I couldn’t shake the idea that their “craft” was evidence of their straight male privilege.
Cox isn’t on screen enough for me to comment on whether he’s a “convincing” actor. But what I find more interesting is how his body lends a curious authenticity to the movie’s representation of the epidemic. Save for Leto’s Rayon, Cox’s Sunny, and a middle-aged gay male couple who appear in a few scenes, most of the queer characters in the movie serve as extras. As I watched, I thought about the fictional and actual HIV positive men and women disintegrating just out of frame. So in the context of the movie, Cox’s body is remarkable.
I’ve written elsewhere about Cox, whose body and music are shaped by Marfan’s syndrome since his initial diagnosis as a teenager. But while Cox has discussed living with the syndrome and written songs about it for Deerhunter and solo project Atlas Sound, I wouldn’t expect many of Dallas’ audience to recognize his condition. In Dallas’ diegesis, his slender limbs, long face, and stooped posture might simply read as sickly. I can’t speak for Cox’s participation in Dallas, so I wouldn’t assume he’s been compromised or exploited. Cox puts a lot of thought and conviction in his creative decisions. He commands a lot of power. He recently walked off stage after a mesmerizing Late Night performance of “Monomania” with his band. I’ll always remember when he opened for Spoon as Atlas Sound, armed only with his guitar as he confronted a distracted audience with intense lyrics, spare instrumentation, and a raw performance sensibility.
So I don’t think his involvement here is an exception. Dude doesn’t do anything he doesn’t wanna do. Perhaps he joined the production because he knew that AIDS still affects rural queer people and possibly has affected him personally. Perhaps he participated in tribute to his hero, B-52s guitarist Ricky Wilson. Yet Leto gets to stretch his gaunt frame for Terry Richardson and later appear healthy in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Cox’s body isn’t so malleable. I also feel ambivalent about Marfan’s syndrome implicitly standing in for a deadly virus.
As I watched Dallas—and occasionally blurted out things like “Meanwhile thousands of gay men are dying” and “Marc Bolan, heaven forfend” when Woodroof accidentally eyes a picture of the T. Rex front man and Rayon’s idol while masturbating—I kept thinking about Douglas Crimp’s Melancholia and Moralism, an essential collection that the author wrote during the AIDS crisis which I read for a queer theory seminar. First, I thought about how I wished Crimp could have focused on rural queerness. Of course, I recognize that coastal metropolitan hubs like New York City and San Francisco had populations that were disproportionately affected by the disease and were also sites for activist groups. But AIDS seeped into rural areas and the urban south as well, and didn’t always have the coordinated resources and visibility to defend its citizenry. I’m glad Dallas recognizes this, however problematically.
I also remembered a beautiful thing Crimp wrote in an essay where he addresses the stigma facing queer people who upon occasion engage in unprotected sex. Why would people behave in such a fashion? As I meditated on this rhetorical question, I thought about images I’d seen before of muscular, smiling gay men who sought to counteract the stereotypical images of sickness and weakness that haunted them. But Crimp’s answer to such a loaded rhetoric question is beautiful: because we’re human, and humans make mistakes. This echoed in my mind as I reflected on a scene where Dr. Saks explains Rayon’s death to a grieving Woodroof. Rayon died because she was a junkie. That’s wrong. Rayon might have been a junkie for a number of reasons. Dallas suggests that she’s a junkie because she had an ignorant, wealthy father who disowned her. This is a safe, pathological justification. This might be a more difficult reason to process, but she might have also been a junkie because she liked cocaine. It was a fun drug for Woodroof too.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Rayon didn’t die because she was a junkie. She died because the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Reagan and Bush administrations delayed on making AIDS a priority. These institutions failed Rayon, along with millions of people. This is also where Woodroof’s eleventh-hour self-control reinforces heteronormativity for me. Because, try as I might, I simply cannot imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie about a real or fictional gay male character with Woodroof’s appetites who confronts his HIV-positive status. I can’t even imagine a version of this movie with Rayon as the lead. Even as the AIDS crisis seems like a resolved epidemic from a distant past, I still believe that queer people and characters are held to unfair standards. Flaws ennoble representations of straight people. But representations of queer people still suggest the pressure to live up to an unfair ideal of clean living and self-sacrifice perhaps because, implicitly, queerness is still considered a flaw rather than a complex, beautiful fact of the diversity of human existence.
As I wrestled with my frustration over Dallas, I searched to see whether critic Wesley Morris wrote an article on it. I respect his writing, and was heartened to recognize my reaction when I saw words like “problematic” and “straight white savior” in his review. Morris compared Dallas to David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, which detailed the players and activities of activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Accompanied by a score of adapted pieces from avant-garde musician Arthur Russell (RIP), Plague is a vital piece of historiography that gathers thousands of hours’ worth of protest footage, meetings, demonstrations, speeches, news items, and interviews. While I couldn’t ignore that the documentary gives priority to the experiences and recollections of gay white men, I was also moved by the anger, ingenuity, and humanity of the activists who literally put their life on the line so that the AIDS epidemic could be slowed down. But I don’t forget—and neither do they—that millions died so that they may live alongside future generations. Nor does Plague allow us to forget that people still die from AIDS and that access to proper medication is not universal. It’s an important reminder that these activists weren’t looking to decelerate the epidemic. They wanted AIDS eliminated, and it still isn’t.
Given the time period, which follows the same chronology as Dallas but extends into the present, much of the footage in Plague was shot on video. This reminded me of Lucas Hilderbrand’s excellent Inherent Vice, which details the history of VHS and devotes its last chapters to two queer independent media texts, Todd Haynes’ Superstar and Miranda July’s Joanie 4 Jackie. Hilderbrand’s book takes its name from an archival concept that describes how objects deteriorate because of the elements from which they’re made, which he then harnesses as a powerful metaphor to analyze a widely bootlegged illegal Karen Carpenter biopic acted out by Mattel figurines under the direction of a gay male filmmaker and a video chain letter exchanged between queer and/or feminist youth that was curated by a bisexual female experimental artist. However, I would imagine that the members of ACT UP utilized video less because it was a poetic format and more because it was cheap and accessible for the time. With the whole world watching, activists needed a format to quickly and effectively capture their efforts.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but I thought about the primacy of video during the period Dallas and Plague detail in relation to the way vinyl served as currency or a reminder of failure for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. History’s relationship to obsolescent media might not quite connect the movies, but I have soft spot for tenuous connections. Foremost, Davis is about death. This is no surprise, as the Coens can do brilliant things with the subject. In an interview with Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt talked about reading for Uncle Arthur when the Coens were casting their modern classic, A Serious Man. The host and his guest marveled over how the filmmakers handle death in their movies, particularly that they so rarely offer a warning for it. They argue that most people are probably unprepared for death, fixating on inconsequential thoughts before they’re blindsided by their own mortality. The Coens capture this feeling for them.
I’ll go with that. To my mind, few American filmmakers explore the ontology of death with as much insight and necessary humor as the Coen Brothers often do. To some consternation they joke about it, if only because sometimes death (or at least killing off Steve Buscemi) is funny. They hazard the randomness of death, even if it doesn’t feel unplanned to the titan who leaps out a window from an improbably long conference table during another business meeting at the beginning of The Hudsucker Proxy. They explore the curious ethics of death that govern Anton Chigurh and the men he haunts in No Country for Old Men. They respect the cosmic balance of death, so that Maude and the Dude’s love child can be born into this world in place of Donny’s left-field departure at the end of The Big Lebowski. Often their movies end the way it feels like lives do—with cruel, inscrutable abruptness. This one is no exception. Davis considers several deaths—the death of the 1950s, the death of folk music’s fringe status, the death of creativity, though perhaps most of all it’s about death’s aftermath. It’s about what happens when you lose a good friend and artistic collaborator and try to make music without him anyway.
The elliptical shape of my own grief agrees with the deceptively episodic, directionless Davis. I’ve lost four people since I set my sights on Madison. Three of those deaths came without warning. My stepbrother Daniel died in a car accident in June 2011, just after I returned to Austin from a trip with my partner to secure housing. My friend Esme was murdered on New Year’s Day, 2012. My grandmother Mildred died suddenly of pancreatitis in spring 2013, a fact my mother imparted with some disbelief as I landed in Portland for a conference. I didn’t deliver my paper. Instead I tried to salvage the trip by catching up with some close friends until I felt steady. I ended up crying so hard in a bathroom stall at Powell’s that some patrons and a clerk checked up on me. The only passing I was “ready” for was my partner’s grandmother, Rita Ann, who we lost last fall following a stroke from earlier that year. Of the four, her memorial is the only one I’ll get to attend.
One of my favorite memories in Austin was catching a matinee showing of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale with my partner and some friends. Prompted by the closing credits, we returned home and one of my roommates threw on his copy of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. We drank beers in a huddle and shot the bull for much of that grey afternoon. It’s a romanticized memory that Baumbach would amplify with hipster neurosis. I’m more of a Linklater gadfly, at least until the conversation turns to metaphysics. But it’s a cherished memory, much like the one I have for my first screening of Davis. Motivated by a productive sadness, I went home and banged out a missing page from my dissertation proposal. If Davis could keep playing music after a disastrous audition with producer Bud Grossman and an impromptu performance for his convalescent father, I could summon my creative energies toward getting on with it too.
I anticipate I’ll treat Davis like a beautiful curio, a cherished, difficult record I’ll put on when I’m shut in on a rainy day. But it won’t be The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the 1963 album with a muted, wintry cover that art director Deborah Jensen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel reference throughout. Instead, it’ll probably be Judee Sill’s Heart Food, the second and final album from a real-life esoteric, withdrawn musical outsider. It’s a sad, longing record that wasn’t widely recognized in its time and—like Davis—doesn’t quite know how to look you in the eye.
I’m having a hard time not talking about myself when discussing my love for Davis, which often happens when you take a work so personally. I’ll offer a brief synopsis. The movie adapts Dave Van Ronk’s Mayor of MacDougal Street, reflecting the odyssey of a disillusioned veteran of the Village folk scene. Captured in February 1961’s washed-out palette, the movie represents Davis (Oscar Isaac) as an adrift, perennial loser. He surfs couches and hitches rides in a futile attempt to turn his stalling solo debut into a career after the passing of his singing partner, Mike Timlin (voiced by Marcus Mumford). He signs away his royalties after recording a novelty song about the space race so he can fund his friend Jim’s wife Jean’s abortion. He braves a trip from New York to Chicago with no winter coat to play for a producer (F. Murray Abraham) who doesn’t see a lot of money in his act. He watches white-bread, inoffensive acts like Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Al Cody (Adam Driver), and Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) capture industry attention while his talents go unnoticed. He’s so broke he can’t even afford to give up music and re-enlist in the merchant marines. He can’t even hold on to a roving house cat who belongs to his patrons, the Gorfeins. And just out of frame, Bob Dylan is about to clear his throat.
I also offer the Sill comparison because Pitchfork would love Davis if he were a real, footnoted character from music’s past. One scene nicely captures the differences between the expectations of being a recording artist in the early 60s and being one today. While visiting with his sister, Joy, Davis asks her to throw away a recording of “Shoals of Herring” that he cut for his parents when he was a kid. He claims that the industry doesn’t want your practice material to get out, as it’ll interfere with your mystique. As much as music has always been about image, it is now increasingly about anticipating—and then immediately reacting to—discovery. It’s about scouring obscure recordings on blogs, releasing beautifully curated box sets devoted to shrouded movements that are larded up with back catalog and unreleased material, unloading deleted tracks on Twitter, and endlessly compressing and recombining elements from a real and imagined past. As my friend Myles astutely put it, “The Internet is all middle.” If a record collector or music critic stumbled across little Llewyn Davis’ “Shoals of Herring” today and wrote about it, that piece of vinyl (and its digital transfer) could be worth its weight in metrics.
John Goodman’s performance as Davis’ Chicago travel mate is a sore point for many people. Personally, Roland Turner doesn’t bother me. Sure, writing in a heroin addict jazz musician isn’t subtle. Neither is Walter Sobchak. Neither is Dan Conner. And as I’ve observed and experienced, neither is professional resentment. To me, Turner is a distorted mirror image of Davis’ own insecurities. I could easily imagine an older, embittered, drugged-out Davis making cutting remarks to some younger version of Troy Nelson akin to Turner’s jabs about cowboy chords and the George Washington Bridge.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Davis sees Turner as a detour. After burying his friend, Davis’ last scene with Turner probably disturbs him. After a police officer carts off Turner’s valet and strands Davis with Turner and the cat and without car keys, he decides to leave them both at the side of the road in the middle of a punishing Midwestern February. Perhaps simply because of his recent passing, I thought about the second movement to Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” when Davis looks at a comatose Turner and a helpless cat in the backseat, averts his eyes, and closes the door on them. In this passage, Reed adopts the voice of a dealer who tells a guest that his suspiciously young companion overdosed and ejects them from his apartment. Reed’s character rationalizes, “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet/And just lay her out in the darkest street/And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.” She, like Turner, is someone else’s problem, a victim of poor choices and bad luck. Davis has to shut the door to keep moving, but there’s no comfort in being a rolling stone.
What’s most interesting to me is that Davis decides to reveal the cause of Timlin’s death to Turner. Importantly, this is how the Coen Brothers reveal the suicide to their audience. Part of this is out of necessity, as Davis and his friends clearly have a short-hand for Timlin. Occasionally, Jean or the Gorfeins mention in passing that they miss him. This reminded me of when my Austin friends and I will say that we miss Esme, post pictures of her, and make arrangements with others when we go out at night. Others might not recognize any significance to these actions. Grossman unknowingly recommends that Davis get back together with his partner because he’s not a solo artist, as if he’s breaking out on his own was a choice.
But part of Davis’ reveal is out of contempt. Timlin’s suicide is a trump card. It doesn’t work because Turner is out of his mind of heroin, and because grief can pass undetected by others. But it’s the only time Davis admits, in unflinching language, that his friend threw himself off of a bridge. It transforms the meaning of an earlier scene when Davis breaks down at the Gorfeins’ apartment because Mrs. Gorfein sings Timlin’s part during an after-dinner performance of “Fare Thee Well.” It provides the electricity to Davis’ solo reprise at the end of the film.
Timlin’s suicide might affect unexplained actions too. It might motivate the reason Davis doesn’t visit a girl who relocated to Akron to raise a child she conceived with him by accident and decided to keep without telling him. As my partner observed, it might motivate the film’s last line, Davis’ “au revoir.” He says it in the direction of the taxi escorting his assailant back to his hotel. He says it over the din of street noise. He says it over Bob Dylan’s singing, which mainly serves as ambiance until the credits roll. For all we know, Timlin might be the reason for Davis’ transience. My partner has a theory that Davis was his roommate. But we can’t be sure. After a point, you don’t want to talk about death anymore. You don’t want to say the words that explain or express the loss. You’re too tired to let those feelings resurface. So you speak in code and choose not to explain yourself to the uninformed. This crucial piece of information is casually but purposely deployed exactly once, and it snaps Davis into focus.