Last Saturday, I checked one major item off a list of things I need to complete within the next month. This coincided with a dear friend’s birthday eve. When the damning reviews of Sex and the City 2 rolled in earlier this summer, we said we’d watch it together when it came out on DVD so we could get drunk and yell at the screen in private. Drink and yell we did, because sweet Southern breakfast the sequel is terrible.
I was a fan of the show. While certainly critical of its racial myopia and its reliance on the credit card to buy female empowerment, I still pull out the DVDs I inherited from a former roommate when I want some questionable sartorial choices and effervescent dialogue. I’m interested in how the show spun off into a successful film franchise, as well as the show’s massive global success, particularly in countries like Korea. I saw the first movie in the theaters with two girlfriends, finding it mildly entertaining until I was five minutes from my house on the ride home and felt like I was cheated. News of a sequel seemed completely unnecessary, even if I think the argument about the double standard between unsympathetic film representations of male and female members of Generation X has traction.
So, how is the sequel so off base? Apart from the racism you already know about that I’ll elaborate upon below, it suffers from a terrible script. Writer-director-executive producer Michael Patrick King knows how to capitalize on the show’s glamor but penning dialogue was never his strongest suit. The sub-vaudevillian puns always get in the way. Part of what made Sex and the City resonant with its core audience was that its predominantly female writing incorporated personal experiences and insights into Carrie and the gang’s storylines and conversations. They effused the girls’ snappy banter with buoyancy. Their scenes together now are down-right airless, their chemistry residing somewhere between non-existent and downright acrimonious. My take is that the other three girls simply cannot stand Carrie any longer. Our whimsical protagonist’s self-involvement and flair for dramatic projection grated on me many times during the series. I always cite the scene in the first episode of the sixth season where Miranda intimates to Carrie that she is still in love with Steve, the father of her son, and her “friend” runs away mid-conversation because a guy she likes may see her in a fashionista’s idea of schlubby attire, but I could recall further back. A weak spot of the series toward the end of its run was that Carrie was intended to be represented as blameless and even somehow noble when she often acted reprehensibly. Now she’s married to that rich bastard I never liked and is upset that he wants to stay in their magnificently appointed apartment and eat expensive takeout and curl up on the couch. Things come to ahead when he installs a flat-screen television inches away from their bed. I would’ve tickled him with glee. She apparently is so disgusted by the gesture that she has to run to Abu Dhabi.
The other girls have problems people just don’t have. Samantha is getting older and thus developing a dependence on hormone supplements. Miranda has a mean boss (played with Texan swagger by comedian Ron White) and incurs guilt from her thankless husband and son, who take for granted that her 60-hour work weeks keep the lights on. So she quits her job and gets A NEW JOB A BETTER JOB by the end of the movie. Charlotte’s problems are the most poignant. She’s clearly suffering from the end of postpartum depression but will admit it to no one. This, like Carrie’s and Big’s decision not to have children, could have created an interesting character arc. She gets one half-decent scene with Miranda where they vent about motherhood, but it is marred by clueless nattering about how they don’t know how mothers without outside help manage. But most of the script sets up really stupid scenarios, like when her daughter ruins a vintage Valentino skirt that her mother is wearing for some reason while icing cupcakes in a crowded kitchen. Oh, and I’m pretty sure King wrote the buxom nanny as Irish in the script so Samantha could land the “Erin Go Braless” joke. Blarney.
Following an introduction that lets us know how the girls met in a very gentrified version of 1980s New York, the movie begins at the saddest gay wedding I’ve ever seen. Carrie and Charlotte’s
accessories gay best friends Stanford and Anthony hated each other during the show. But now they’re supposedly the only two middle-aged queens left on the island and Stanford has to sacrifice Anthony’s infidelity to get his white wedding. Liza Minnelli officiates for some reason, and then launches into a creaky rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Frankly, this scene was why I wanted to see the movie. I love Ms. Minnelli but the whole production strives so hard to seem young and contemporary that it feels manic and desperate. This is beneath the talent who immortalized Sally Bowles and Lucille Austero. Let’s watch her get results with the Pet Shop Boys and say no more.
The movie, as you all know by now, becomes unforgivable in Abu Dhabi. At a movie premiere, publicist Samantha is given the opportunity to potentially take on a Middle Eastern hotelier as a client. He invites her and a few guests to stay in one of his luxurious estates. Miranda attempts to be sensitive to the particularities of Muslim culture and instruct the girls on how to behave. Carrie is forgiven for condescending toward her servant and gawking at Muslim women eating French fries in a food court. But King somehow forgets in his effort to throw Samantha (and Parker’s off-screen nemesis Kim Catrall) under the bus by forgetting that she’s a successful public relations professional and instead represents her as a horny, ugly American. She is an insensitive wreck after customs confiscates her anti-aging supplements. And when she finally finds a (white) business magnate to get her motor running, she has reckless disregard for social decorum.
Again, the franchise has always had a shaky grasp on addressing racial issues. In the first movie, Carrie takes on an assistant named Louise (Jennifer Hudson), which was clearly meant to quell charges against the show for only representing white ladies in a notable diverse metropolitan area. I’m pretty sure that Louise from St. Louis who loves Louis Vuitton (nuanced characterization!) is a figment of Carrie’s imagination, like the martian who hovers by Fred Flintstone’s ear. We only see Louise in relation to Carrie and she never has a scene with any of the other girls. I recently had a conversation with my friend Curran where we discussed how it was weird that the movies’ soundtracks primarily consist of female R&B singers of color like Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Leona Lewis, but none of this is reflected in the show’s casting choices. Again, women of color provide the girls with merely peripheral intrigue.
Catrall endured similar expenses against her dignity during later seasons and the first film. But this movie is nothing but a two-and-a-half-hour pie job. It’s an exercise in vilifying Samantha for being insecure about aging, suspecting that Charlotte’s husband might be cheating on her, and wearing a dress better than Miley Cyrus did on a red carpet event. Thus why I reference a Yoko Ono song in the post’s title. While Samantha isn’t put a brave face to eclipse her true feelings about her lover’s affair, like Ono is in the song, Kim Cattrall is putting a brave face as the franchise’s key players destroy her character’s memory.
I find it especially sad that the battle is waged against someone who I once considered my favorite character. While I identify most closely with type-A alpha nerd Miranda, I always understood why she was friends with Samantha. I believe Miranda could relate to Samantha’s professional drive and negotiating a bullish business world as a successful women. Thus I believe Samantha would have her dossier prepared and would have been on her best behavior in Abu Dhabi, if only for the sake of business. And while Parker gets top billing and producer credit, Cattrall was always a comedienne brave enough to mine sexuality of its humor, abject terror, and occasional splendor. Though it is lost in syndication, Cattrall gave City much of its sex. She is also the most loyal friend of the group, though I think both character and actress are proving themselves masochists by enduring their disdain. It’s time to get out from under the bus.
You know what? If Kristen Chenoweth, Lea Michele, and Liza Minnelli were in the periphery of yesterday’s Scarjo post, let’s make today’s post be all about them and their awesome pipes.
So, if you’re watching Glee, you might have been so excited to see a TV show that closed with a rousing rendition of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” getting at least one person closer to her goal of seeing it performed by an entire dramatic ensemble like the “Wise Up” scene in Magnolia.
More importantly, you might have been won over by Chenoweth and Michele’s duet on “Maybe This Time.” (BTW, thanks Neesha for making me think to spotlight this scene.) Followers know the cruel irony of this song’s inclusion in a series as deceptively sad and desperate as this one. Chenoweth’s April Rhodes is a washed-up former glee clubber with a surprising amount of Jerri Blank’s warped charm. Michele’s Rachel Berry is a talented, go-gettin’ ingenue who is just barely hiding how profoundly lonely she is.
You may also recognize the show’s not-so-secret gift of making the sheer cathartic power and physical release of a pop song or musical number to make both the singer and the spectator transcend to a higher plane (for a more abstract example of how the corporeality of singing can reinvigorate both parties, I’ll point you toward the Patrick Daughters-directed music video for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” wherein the four-piece are so overjoyed by the power of singing, their heads catch on fire as I get goosepimply).
If we dig a little deeper, the Minnelli reference comes in. “Maybe This Time” was originally written for Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s stage musical, Cabaret, which Rachel is starring in (and a real high school would almost certainly never stage, even though I begged our choir director for us to do it). The musical, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, involves the doomed romance between Cliff, an American journalist, and Sally Bowles, a blindly determined British showgirl who makes the decision to stay in 1930s Berlin just as Hitler is starting to get a chokehold on Germany while her partner flees back to the states. In the movie version, Bowles is American, and played with put-upon worldliness and brittle vulnerability by Liza Minnelli, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.
Admittedly, if the song Glee had chosen was “Cabaret,” which was in both the stage and film versions, Liza’s version of it would add another layer of readability, as it’s impossible for me to hear this version of the song, which is performed right at the moment when Bowles’s personal life is going to hell, and not think of Mama Judy Garland.
But I think these twin versions of “Maybe This Time” speak to a few key issues particularly poignant to women and girls’ relationship to musical theater and to the outside world: the gendered masquerade of happiness for the sake of upholding spectacle, the ability to stop time and transmorph because of the aural spectacle of your own voice, and the strength your voice has to keep you persevering. Because the push you’re looking for to get through the next set of insurmountable odds might be found by landing that high note.
Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.
Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.
And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could).
But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.
Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.
Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked.
But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.
Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.
Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.
For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).
My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell” vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.
Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.
But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.
Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.
The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors.
So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.