Dec 15

“Terms of Endearment”: Classic Mom-Daughter Drama

Wesley Morris noted recently in the New York Times that over the last 34 years, only two best-picture Oscar winners (”Terms of Endearment” and ”Chicago”) featured two or more major female characters who actually talked to each other. Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

It just so happens that Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of this year’s highly popular indie movie Lady Bird, recently revealed that one of her favorite movies is Terms of Endearment (1983), which, like Lady Bird, features a conflictual but loving mother-daughter relationship. 

The film was based on Larry McMurtry‘s novel, also titled Terms of Endearment, which came out in 1975 and is briefly summarized on Amazon: “Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma’s hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer.”

Vincent Canby, New York Times, describes the gist of Aurora and Emma’s connection in the movie adaptation:

The film is the story of a possibly smothering mother-daughter relationship that is immediately defined in the film’s very first scene: A young Aurora Greenway ([Shirley] MacLaine) insists on waking her infant daughter, Emma (later to be played by the equally incandescent Debra Winger), to make sure the baby hasn’t succumbed to crib death, while the voice of her off-screen husband tells her, in polite terms, to lay off the kid. Aurora’s problem throughout ‘Terms of Endearment’ is that she can’t.

“It takes all of perhaps five minutes to fall in love with the leading characters in ‘Terms of Endearment’ and from that point on,” states Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News, “the audience is just putty in the extremely capable hands of writer-director James L. Brooks.”

Watch the trailer below:

In a nutshell, over the course of 25 years a lot of interesting things happen. Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels), whom Aurora dislikes, and has a few kids. Flap is unfaithful. And while Aurora has a push-pull romance with Jack Nicholson‘s character, Emma fields interest from John Lithgow‘s. As in the book, Emma eventually is faced with cancer, an experience that, needless to say, intensifies the dynamics between her and her mom.

Just last May Joe McGovern, ew.com, wrote the following accolades:

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, and holds up miraculously today as perhaps the very best huge-hearted Hollywood weepie of its era. Though Terms is often hilariously funny — in large degree thanks to the comic spontaneity of Winger’s performance — it’s the soulfulness and poetry of the movie’s final act which gives it unmistakable classic status.

And back in the day, Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com) had praised the film’s “ability to find the balance between the funny and the sad, between moments of deep truth and other moments of high ridiculousness.”

Back to the present: According to several reports earlier this year, producer/director Lee Daniels said he was in the process of planning a remake that will star Oprah Winfrey in the Aurora (or otherwise named) role. Stephen Galloway, Hollywood Reporter, noted it would take place “in the ’80s and include a storyline about black men who brought HIV/AIDS to their female partners.”

Daniels apparently stated, “I’ve got to tell stories that are important to me, and so many African-American women died. I want to make Flap…gay and infect the Debra Winger character. And then we explore the ’80s in a different way.”

As of this writing, however, not only has Oprah denied knowledge of such a development, but Daniels has offered no further updates.

Dec 13

“The Art of Misdiagnosis”: Investigating a Mom’s Suicide

All I can really do is write my own misdiagnosis of your life. Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis

So states Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, in this brief trailer to her new book:

The book’s title takes its name from the documentary Brandeis’s 70-year-old mother Arlene was working on “about the rare illnesses she thought ravaged her family: porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.”

“Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not,” states Kirkus Reviews, “Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder.” (See this link and this one for definitions of these conditions.)

In an interview with Mutha Magazine, Brandeis states the following about the origins of her book The Art of Misdiagnosis:

My therapist suggested writing a letter to my mom (such great advice!) and that became a thread of the book. The time around her suicide begged to be told in present tense. And as I dug through our old emails and files and the like, certain pieces jumped out at me as needing to be part of the narrative. It took a lot of time and finessing to fit the puzzle pieces together, but the pieces revealed themselves to me with bells on.

What was going on for Brandeis when she lost her mom? Melissa Wuske, Foreword Reviews:

Brandeis’s mother committed suicide one week after Brandeis had a baby. Those deeply contrasting experiences set the scene for the opening of this memoir: a daughter going through her mother’s things, trying to make sense of her death.

And this quest winds up involving a “compulsive, contagious need to know her mother and herself.”

As author Nick Flynn writes in his review: “John Cassavetes offers this: ‘When a character can’t find his way home, that’s where the story begins…’ Gayle Brandeis begins her story where it ends, then slowly—thoughtfully, painfully, lovingly—works her way back. It all circles around a handful of days, where everything happens—birth, death, truth, transformation.”

More about the overall process Brandeis experienced, from Kirkus Reviews:

Desperate for answers, she and her sister fruitlessly scoured their mother’s bedroom, which, much like the woman herself, appeared ‘lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath.’ The author’s reality soon became even more complex: she wrestled with the grief of her mother’s sudden death, processed her complicated history of paranoia, suspicion, and delusions, and nurtured her newborn. This frustration bleeds into the text as Brandeis recounts episodes where her mother’s inexplicable accusations wreaked havoc on her pregnancy and her marriage. The author then reveals her mother’s history of psychosis, which seemed to stem from the author’s pregnancies, with which Arlene became obsessed.

Author Caroline Leavitt‘s review:

Deeply compassionate, and breathtakingly brave, Brandeis’ memoir is a raw, unflinching trip down a rabbit hole, unspooling both the chaotic life of her mentally unbalanced mother, and how her mother’s obsession with physical illness crash-landed Brandeis’ own life—and health—from girlhood to marriage and motherhood. About the stories we desperately need to make of our lives in order to survive, and how the body sometimes speaks what the mind dare not, this is also an extraordinarily moving portrait of a troubled mother, and of the daughter who fearlessly, poetically, writes her way into discovering her truest self. Truthfully, I am in awe.

On her website Brandeis provides resources for others dealing with suicide. 

Dec 11

“Mostly Straight”: Men Experiencing Sexual Fluidity

We hear a lot about the Big Three Sexualities — straight, bisexual and gay. Most of us assume that these three orientations encompass the universe of sexual identities. But there is a new kid on the block: The mostly straight male. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men

The followup sentence in developmental psychologist Ritch C. Savin-Williams‘s new book (excerpt available at Time):

To the uninitiated, mostly straight may seem paradoxical. How can a man be mostly heterosexual? If you’re a young man, you might assume that either you’re straight or you’re not, meaning you’re likely gay and maybe bisexual. Yet the evidence suggests that more young men identify or describe themselves as mostly straight than identify as either bisexual or gay combined.

Key to this revelation is a social climate in which a researcher can ask the right question, and some men can feel open enough to admit their truth. “However,” writes Katherine Heaney, Cornell Daily Sun, “when Savin-Williams asked these young men if they have told people that they are ‘mostly straight,’ most of them said no.”

“This is far less of a matter of embarrassment, Savin-Williams said, but mainly because it is not a recognized term so they do not think people would understand what they mean.”

The author’s research involved 40 young men, mostly students at Cornell where he teaches, who described themselves as mostly straight. Additional description of what this means:

The mostly straight man belongs to a growing trend of young men who are secure in their heterosexuality yet remain aware of their potential to experience far more. Perhaps he’s felt attracted to or fantasized about another guy to a slight degree or intermittently. He might or might not be comfortable with this seeming contradiction, a hetero guy who, despite his lust for women, rejects a straight label, a sexual category and a sexual description that feels foreign. He’d rather find another place on the sexual/romantic continuum, some location that fits him more comfortably.

In a recent article in The Cut, Savin-Williams identifies his major findings, summarized by me below:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of males will use the mostly straight label if given a choice to do so.
  • These men aren’t “closet cases,” i.e., they are not gay.
  • They are more open to the possibility of a gay attraction than men who see themselves as straight, but it doesn’t mean they lean heavily in that direction.
  • In the lab mostly straight men exhibited physiological evidence of attractions to men.

Notably, a comparable 2008 book regarding women’s sexuality, written by psychology professor and researcher Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, has also been covered on this blog (see “Sexual Fluidity” by Lisa Diamond: New Thoughts About Identity) and was actually reviewed by Savin-Williams.

About Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire: “Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time,” she told Big Think. Rather than stability of identity, the norm was changeability of identity, often back and forth.

Dec 07

“The Silence Breakers” Trump Trumpism

An excerpt from Time‘s article on “The Silence Breakers,” who’ve been named TIME Person of the Year 2017:

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.

Trump came in second, disproving his previous boast that he’d be Person of the Year. As Rachel Withers at Slate noted in her headline, “Time’s 2017 Person of the Year Isn’t Trump. It’s a Rebuke of Trump.” And of Trumpism, I might add.

Who are “The Silence Breakers”? Those on the cover represent the many who’ve boldly come forth with recent allegations against powerful men who abuse and “include actress Ashley Judd, singer Taylor Swift, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, Visa lobbyist Adama Iwu, Mexican agricultural worker Isabel Pascual, and one woman whose face cannot be seen” (Vox), who represents the many more victims who are not comfortable being named.

And it’s not only women who’ve been harassed and/or assaulted; some men are also represented.

Below are some of the most salient points made by writers Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards in their Time “The Silence Breakers” essay.

Regarding Ashley Judd‘s admission that she previously hadn’t known how to report her alleged victimization by Harvey Weinstein:

When movie stars don’t know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who’s being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she’ll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won’t take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can’t escape?

Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame. Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it? Was she making a big deal out of nothing?

Nearly all of the people TIME interviewed about their experiences expressed a crushing fear of what would happen to them personally, to their families or to their jobs if they spoke up.

Many of the people who have come forward also mentioned a different fear, one less visceral but no less real, as a reason for not speaking out: if you do, your complaint becomes your identity.

 “All social movements have highly visible precipitating factors,” says Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. “In this case, you had Harvey Weinstein, and before that you had Trump.”

In politics, at least, what constitutes disqualifying behavior seemed to depend not on your actions but on the allegiance of your tribe. In the 1990s, feminists stood up for accused abuser Bill Clinton instead of his ­accusers—a move many are belatedly regretting as the national conversation prompts a re-evaluation of the claims against the former President. And despite the allegations against Moore, both ­President Trump and the Republican National Committee support him.

Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service