Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.
I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.
Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.
1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.
2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.
3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.
4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.
But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?
Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.
But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”
But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.
Sofia Coppola makes movies I almost love. I’m not sure if Coppola has one in her I’ll love outright. Yet I still think she has vision and am always excited when one of her features makes its theatrical rounds. Dutifully, I went with my friend Cassandra to see Somewhere the weekend it was finally released in Austin. The Virgin Suicides comes the closest to being a movie I love, though at least one friend argues that her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is misogynistic. Lost In Translation would be even closer to my favorite. I think Bill Murray is astounding and really appreciate the tenderness between the semi-platonic leads. However, while I recognize that language barriers are frustrating to all parties in that movie, I still think its baseless racial politics are going to age like Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 50 years. I think the first half of Marie Antoinette is her best work and has a fascinating soundtrack, but is hamstrung by Kirsten Dunst’s failure to convey emotional maturation.
Also, we simply don’t have a lot of accomplished female American filmmakers. Do I wish this were different? Of course I do. Do I think it’s my duty to seek out and comment on their work? Why do you think I put together the Bechdel Test Canon? Do I revere the work of Sofia Coppola? Reread the first two sentences of this post. Would she have an Oscar if she weren’t a Coppola? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean I begrudge her success. Because until I don’t have to outline the entire filmography of a female director who directed episodes for shows like The L Word, Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, or Mad Men to stay in the game when someone asks “who’s Jamie Babbit?,” Coppola’s film career shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand. Regrettably or not, it’s exceptional.
I stress that Coppola’s vision doesn’t belong to her brother Roman or papa Francis. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I reject people’s assertions that she’s Veruca Salt or that men are responsible for her film career. If we want to mount the argument that Coppola is stealing from her father or Italian neorealism with Somewhere and has nothing original to offer, I’ll point out that cinematographer Harris Savides shot it. He also filmed Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Both pictures were shot in Los Angeles by the same person and exist in the present yet look very different from one another.
I also think Coppola has something to say about growing up female. Yes, she’s addressing a particular kind of femininity. She is concerned with white, heterosexual women and girls gilded with privilege–except maybe the Lisbon girls, who are part of a single-income family supported by a school teacher’s salary. Sure, we have every reason to critique the construction of such limited representations. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with people writing and directing what they know. If Coppola adapted Winter’s Bone, completed a version of Tipping the Velvet that the rumor mill attached her a few years ago, or wrote a script about a girl who goes to a Los Angeles private school on scholarship, the same detractors would hate all of these hypothetical efforts. Also, her taciturn characters still possess contours, layers, and ambiguity. Her movies aren’t filled with great people. They don’t or can’t always say what they’re thinking or react in a heroic fashion. Sometimes they can’t react at all.
This might be really frustrating to some audience members and all the gilding might make it harder to relate. I recognize many of the criticisms Dan Kois, June Thomas, and Dana Stevens mounted against Somewhere in a recent installment of The Culture Gabfest. However, Thomas believes Somewhere will destroy American cinema. I think Wes Anderson’s twee influence ruined it first. Kois quotes from Richard Rushfield’s Daily Beast piece on the movie, stating that in films, a $500 silk shirt was once “evident shorthand for the participation of evil” but is now worn by the protagonist. I’d argue that this criticism obscures some of the shallow, regressive identity politics evident in the canonical texts of the French New Wave and the American Movie Renaissance.
I’m also unconvinced that protagonist Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an A-list action star whose daughter visits him while hiding out in the Chateau Marmont, is supposed to be sympathetic. Though the movie doesn’t make this case, I read him to be a terrible person. My understanding of him is informed by a recent slog through Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue, a numbing rock biography that overuses the word “soulful” and reads as a long list of beaches, clinics, drugs, and interchangeable women. Coppola appears in exactly one paragraph. She was involved with the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man long enough to watch them on Saturday Night Live. I’m not sure what to make of Coppola’s depiction of Marco’s bevy of unnamed women who constantly perform and wear embarrassing accessories like sailor hats to excite Marco’s libido. I’d chalk it up to misogyny, but Kiedis’ book suggests that some men–famous or otherwise–really are this shallow.
Coppola’s smart not to write Dorff as an obvious jerk. We can read his bad boy Gen X persona and the vase-throwing cameo in a Britney Spears video into his performance, but Dorff’s Marco is a nice guy. He’s affable and obedient with the press, his handlers, and the strange girls who are always in his room. He got the job simply because he’s a handsome guy who can fill out a tank top. This is subtextual in a brief exchange with a young actor looking for career advice–a scenario I could see Taylor Lautner in at the end of this decade. Yet the unintended moral of Scar Tissue is that the worst kind of bad boy celebrity feigns sensitivity but ultimately lacks the mental or emotional strength to keep good women in their families. To charm is not necessarily to beguile, but to beguile is ultimately to betray. Marco’s ex Layla learns that off-screen. I imagine their daughter Cleo (the remarkable Elle Fanning) did as well.
Yet, for all the bluster and contrarianism that set up this post, I still wasn’t enthralled with Somewhere. I’m fine with the space and silence and boredom of it. I love how editor Sarah Flack lets some scenes play out too long and bluntly abbreviates others. For a quiet movie from a director who uses music (and music supervisor Brian Reitzell) to convey meaning and demonstrate coolness, I appreciate their decision to play out pop songs through stationary cameras instead of employ music video editing. Marco is entertained by twin pole dancers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) on two occasions. One routine involves candy striper uniforms and the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” The other is to Amerie’s “1 Thing” and employs tennis outfits to comic effect. The empty glamor and tedium of fame is best captured in the aural and visual components of these scenes. Yet this is a tired point, and I don’t know what Coppola has to say about celebrity.
Also, for a movie indebted to Italian neorealism, can I just point out that Cleo has entirely too many clothes to fit into her tiny suitcase? I think she wears one sweater twice. Doesn’t scan. Just sayin’, wardrobe department.
The ending to this movie vexes me as well. If I’m right to dislike Marco, the final scene confirms my feelings that he can’t grow as a person. If I’m meant to believe he’s capable of redemption, then Coppola made a mistake. She should have stranded him at the hotel after dropping Cleo off at summer camp. The movie “resolves” with Marco abandoning his luxury car on the side of the road. Sure, he’s walking away from the trappings of fame. But he’s also walking away from his responsibilities as a parent, failing to absorb the meaning of the time he shared with his daughter. Cleo, like Frances Bean, is largely left to raise herself. I bet both of them whip up a mean Eggs Benedict.
But I do think the movie offers up something interesting about the tenuous nature of father-daughter relationships. My favorite scene in the movie underlines it, and Zacharek interprets beautifully in her review. Marco watches Cleo rehearse a figure skating routine set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” I conceptualize the selection as an oldie to Cleo. Perhaps it’s akin to Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” which was a staple at drill team recitals growing up. Though it’s another female performance Marco watches, the intended benefit is probably for the performer instead of the spectator. On the car ride back to the hotel, his daughter will inform him that she’s been taking lessons for three years. But in this moment, he witnesses her talent and realizes they don’t know one another very well. This scene killed me. I wish I could find it, but here’s the music video.
I cried in part because this year I approach my ten-year high school reunion and, with it, the anniversary of my estrangement from my father. As this scene played out on-screen, I thought about how, as a previous version of himself, he’d fly to Houston to see all my silly school musicals. For the most part, he was a good dad between marriages and was concerned to a fault over me becoming the best version of myself. Of my parents, dad was the movie-goer and made his living as a writer. At an early age, he got me excited about cinema and encouraged me to articulate my opinions about what I experienced, so he definitely would have accompanied me to Somewhere. As an only child to parents who tried really hard to create me, I take a perverse comfort in knowing that if things turned out differently between us he would have championed my writing as ardently as my mother does.
But more than that, I cried because this is ultimately a moment of acceptance between two people. Despite genetics and an easy way with one another crafted by the actors spending quality time together during rehearsal, they aren’t quite family. It’s a point made clear in song selection and masterfully executed by cast and crew. I think Coppola empathizes with all sides. Because Marco might have less to do with her father or brother or boyfriend and may be a manifestation of the director’s concerns about herself and the world her daughters will inherit. Somewhere is a meditation on the awkwardness in forging a parent-child relationship. Coppola doesn’t quite make something transcendent out of it, but she makes yet another beautiful picture that by turns floors and frustrates me.