Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-Truth Heroine: Miss Sloane

Oxford Dictionaries just declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international 
word of the year. The heart of the definition is how public opinion is
shaped less by objective facts and more by emotional appeals.

Which brings me to the movie, Miss Sloane, directed by John Madden
and starring Jessica Chastain. Billed as a political thriller, I prefer to call 
it a drama filled with plenty of edgy twists and turns, and, yes politics 
are involved. On its surface, the game is about the gun lobby and its 
opposition. The real story is about Power—its pursuit, the avid hunger 
for it, and who can play the game best. The movie is also a character 

Enter Elizabeth Sloane, the Machiavellian heroine/villain of the movie. 
She’s a successful special-interest lobbyist on Capitol Hill, who is driven
to win and appears to give no empathy to the various causes she 
represents, or to the people she uses to achieve her goals. She 
manipulates not only the truth, but the emotions of the people

People in business cultivate a placid demeanor that reveals nothing
of what they might be plotting, I mean, thinking. Women generally 
have to work harder at this since we’re encouraged from childhood 
to be open, amenable, and cooperative. Miss Sloane didn’t get that 
memo. Jessica Chastain not only plays a brilliant, unscrupulous character,
but she manages to conceal all emotion while she’s scheming. Her private 
time is another matter.

I like my heroes and heroines to be a mixed bag of angel and devil: 
Miss Sloane epitomizes this, but it takes a while for the cracks to show.
She’s an insomniac who pops prescription uppers to keep going. So she’s
got a bit of ADHD. Who doesn’t?

She hires a male escort to meet her in bed—sex and no emotional 
exchanges, please. This humanized her for me. Don’t count on erotic 
scenes here, Miss Sloane is on a schedule and while she’s squeezed t
his interlude into her calendar, her orgasm only requires his cooperation.

She’s successful, but what will her next challenge be? For some 
inconceivable reason, she resigns from the most powerful lobbying 
organization in Washington. Her employer accepts the gun lobby’s 
appeal to get the female vote against a bill requiring background checks
for firearm purchases. She leaves to go work for the other side fighting to 
pass the bill, taking her crew with her, all except for Jane Molloy 
(Allison Pill). She remains behind and asks for a raise.

Is there some personal history that would explain Miss Sloane’s decision? 
The story turns on our lack of backstory. No flashbacks, folks. No gun
violence revealed in her childhood. But that doesn’t mean her crew might not
have experienced such barbarity. Miss Sloane is not only willing to use such
a personal history but she’s ready. She leaves no stone unturned, no file 
unread, no internet device unhacked. The most remarkable aspect of the film
is how viewers don’t question this pristine—no doubt Ivy League educated—
female’s access to back alley nerds, the techno-henchman of the 21st century.
The back alley scenes are dark, wet and dirty. No secret knocks, but Chastain
does look over her shoulder before entering.

She appears to be winning public opinion in the gun control battle and her
former firm calls for an “inquisition” into her tactics. Miss Sloane anticipated
this. The pressure mounts. A few more cracks appear in her façade: she throws
some stuff around in the privacy of her office. Still, Chastain makes it a 
momentous desk-clearing. A few exhausted tears, and more pills slide down
her throat while she plans her next move. Make sure you surprise them is her

Miss Sloane is in control of her future. She’s all about choices. Prepare for the
post-truth ride. You’ll be surprised.

Opens: Nov. 25 (EuropaCorp. USA)

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alisson Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, David Wilson Barnes, Dylan Baker, Raoul Bhaneja, Chuck Shamata, Christine Baranski

Director: John MaddenScreenwriter: Jonathan Perera

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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Love, Sex and Class: The Con Women in The Handmaiden

         Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-Wook, provides a delicious mash up of culture, class and cons. Add to this a generous dollop of romance and drizzle throughout with lesbian sex, and you have 144 minutes of a twisting adventure.
            A young Korean pickpocket, Sook-hee, is hired by a master con artist who calls himself The Count to work as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko, a wealthy Japanese heiress. The Count is Korean but has successfully passed himself off as Japanese. His plan is to seduce and marry the solitary Lady Hideko and then have her confined to a mental institution where she will be murdered, and he will inherit her wealth. He needs the handmaiden to help win her trust.
            Told in three parts with a changing point-of-view, we see Sook-hee’s softer side as she empathizes with Hideko’s loneliness. Still, she made an agreement with The Count.
            Chapter 1: Lady Hideko is isolated from the world, practically incarcerated by her uncle, with only his vast library for escape. She and Sook-hee bond. Hideko appears to trust her handmaiden and considers the Count’s proposal, but she is unsure about the details of the marriage bed and asks Sook-hee to show her how to kiss. This leads to fondling and more. Sook-hee is an avid and engaged teacher.    
            Chapter 2: Hideko reveals her hardened side, learned as part of her survival under her Uncle’s control. From early childhood, he forced her to read erotica out loud to his club of avid listeners, all male. She took over this job from her depressed aunt who hung herself from a cherry tree in order to escape this singular literary enslavement. The Count reveals to Hideko his original plan to seduce and abandon her, but says he can still help her escape her uncle. But a few sacrifices will have to be made.
            Who is conning whom?
            Chapter 3. People suffer and die, but love persists.
            The connecting scenes between the chapters are the growing love and affection between the two women intermixed with graphic sex scenes straight out of the western pornographer’s handbook. A hilarious shot of Sook-hee peering at her lover’s vagina appears to be shot from the pov of the vagina. The director loved it so much he repeated the shot twice. Even so, the most sensual and tender scene between the two women involves a thimble and a tooth. This is when they first fall in love.
            We’ve been offered an upstairs-downstairs view of class distinction in British plays, television and movies for decades. Indeed, The Handmaiden is based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, set in Victorian England. By transporting the basic plot to Korea, Park Chan-Wook has made the story more interesting, while still providing plenty of twists and surprises.
            What about the sex? For me, the lesbian sex was geared to a male audience. There were lots of full-body shots of the women in various postures, all overlain with the sound of smacking lips. The most pornographic aspect of the story was Hideko reading to her uncle’s literary porn club of adult males. While they were mesmerized and turned on, the stories reminded me of The Pearl, a collection of Victorian erotica I bought in the student bookstore my freshman year in college. The purchase was a waste of my hard-earned work-study money as the plots invariably had to do with female subjugation at the hands of mature males who called it seduction.
            In The Handmaiden, the women prevail. The setting, the acting, and the plot twists make the film a must see. The official release date is October 21.                       

 Also at HuffPost

Friday, December 18, 2015

Joy, Happy Endings For the Holidays: A Review

Entrepreneurship imbued my childhood with its autonomous magic. Did I hear my father boast about being his own boss? Probably. In college, my lover was a much older man who taught me that people would buy anything for a buck, sight unseen. We'd play the spontaneous game "Business Opportunity" where one of us would have sudden inspiration on a need as yet unmet for the American public. 
I also have a soft spot for dysfunctional families. In novels and movies, the more dysfunctional the better: makes me and mine appear oh so normal. No wonder my heart raced for Joy Mangano, my hero, in the movie JOY, directed by David O. Russell, as she leapt the tallest building and overcame monsters to reach her goal. The tall building was the fact that she had no money. The monsters? Covered above in the word family. The movie also stars heart throb(s) Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. They never disappoint.
Joy had four generations of dysfunction to navigate, all living in the same house along with her ex-husband and their three children. She has a brilliant idea for a domestic convenience and as often happens with successful entrepreneurs: she's in the right place at the right time, and most important-she knows it. QVC is seguing into the Home Shopping Network and Joy not only believes in her invention but she refuses to be passive when confronted with the chicanery of the business world and the negativity of her own family, especially her dad's (Robert De Niro.)
Some of my friends wanted a romance to blossom between Neil (Cooper) and Joy (Lawrence). While there's an intense connection between the two, Joy didn't let that possibility distract her from her goal. You go, girl! 
The story has a happy ending, although it's not entirely bloodless. We don't get to see Joy battle her family for control of her business, but when we're told they tried, it doesn't come as a surprise. Joy doesn't let it happen. Do you have any idea what it takes to love your family, but not let their misinformed jealousy and bitterness control you?
The bloodletting is for another chapter. This is a story of a woman conquering her inner fears and becoming more. In It's a Wonderful Life James Stewart conquers his own inner demons and the movie became a Christmas classic. 
Christmas is a good time for happy endings. Joy, the movie is in theaters on December 25.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Childhood Influences: Where Ideas Are Born

Many of us remember movies from our childhood, their effect on us then and now. Sure, I saw all the Disney releases of my generation, but I was raised by a single mother and old movies shown on late night TV were my babysitters. 
Working girl heroines like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy and so many more surely contributed to my feminist leanings and sense of humor, even while the movie plots confused my understanding of sex: did they do it or not? The fade-to-black was too subtle for me at age eight.
I was eight when I first saw The Belle of New Orleans, originally released in 1933. The print was scratchy and the sound screechy, but even I knew that what I was seeing was something new: the plot involved prostitutes and friendship. The love between the women in the brothel redefined "family" and mixed races.
The camera focused on the maid, something I'd never before seen. I couldn't articulate it then, but the maid's primary role in this film, instead of just for comic relief, had a profound effect on me. My mom was a waitress, and I knew bowing and scraping were involved in her job. My dad was Anglo and my mother Mexican; that would qualify as mixed race for some.
We'd also lived in the South and mom had explained to me the nuances of mixed blood there-Mulatto, Quadroons, and Octoroons-only she didn't use the word nuance. Instead, she applied a nightly coating of bleaching cream to lighten my skin. I understood very early what "passing" meant.
Recently, I saw the play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by playwright Lynn Nottage, which revived memories and revealed lessons from that old movie. It's a play within a movie wrapped in a mystery of Old Hollywood with a heartbreaking and humorous look at Black history in the cinema. Vera Stark was the actress who played the maid in The Belle of New Orleans.
That movie laid the seeds for my enduring interest in 1.) Brothels 2.) New Orleans 3.) Sisterhood 4.) Secrets 5.) Mixed races 6.) Black/White relations 7.) Anglo/New Mexican relations 8.) Mexican/Native American relations 9.) Historical Fiction, and, 10.) Azaleas. All of the above, except for the azaleas, can be found in The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood. There's even a chapter in it called "Passing Good." 

More on Vera Stark here:
More on The Sandoval Sisters here:

Also at the Huffington Post, Latino Voices

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

As Luck Would Have It: How I Became Me and Not Her


     For someone who said she'd never marry nor have children, motherhood and marriage are recurrent themes in my writing. I remain married and have two sons and no one is more surprised than a few friends from my disco days. You read that right.
     Motherhood and family play strongly in The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood. Even though only one sister bears a child in the story, family and the legacy left to future generations is important to the sisters. As it is to me.  The Sandoval sisters look back at preserved memories in the ancestral diaries in order to make sense of their present.  Nothing like that was left for me; I create my present from my interpretation of the past. 

     After my parents' divorce, I lost my mother to 10-hour waitress shifts, six nights per week. I became the de facto “second mother” to my younger brother, even though I was only eight. My mom said I was smart, which is why I was blamed when my brother was hit by a speeding car when I was ten and he was three-years-old.

     It’s true that I told him to cross the street. I remember the car being way down the block. I turned away because someone behind was calling me. The next thing I remember is the screech of tires.

     That accident changed all our lives. My brother was hospitalized for several months and my mother began to breastfeed him when she visited. She also arranged for me to go to work with her at Claude’s, the new jazz hotspot on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, where she worked a 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. shift. Claude’s was a step-up in Mom’s waitressing work. It was 1959 and she was paid only $15 per week (6 nights), but on a good night she could make $25-$75 in tips. Besides the jazz, Claude had live lobster flown in daily. They arrived in wooden crates packed with ice. There were no rubber bands around their claws and they defended themselves by grabbing the tongs with which I poked them.

     I had to stay in the kitchen and out of the way, but other than the lobsters, my entertainment was Claude’s beatnik girlfriend, replete with long, dark hair that fell in a straight line to her shoulders, bangs and big glasses, straight skirts and a turtle neck sweater. And flats. No one wore athletic shoes in those days. Women either wore heels, or they wore loafers like Claude. Did I mention that Claude was a woman? A crop-haired lesbian of the men’s shirt and khaki variety. But her girlfriends were feminine, pretty . . . and smart. They toted slim volumes of poetry and were kind to me.

On slow nights, I got to sit on a chair outside the kitchen and listen to the music and people watch. I learned quickly not to compliment the women. “A tightwad,” Mom would say, “women are the worst tippers,” or, I might get, “She’s cheating on her husband with the saxophone player.” This person was a classmate’s mom. Worse was when she told me that an attractive man at the bar was not only married, but had a male lover. There was no room for crippling romance in my mom's life.

     Yes, my childhood education was nontraditional, so please forgive my eccentricities.

    Three major events occurred which changed my life and which were somewhat maternal. At least that’s how I choose to view them. Claude and her beatnik girlfriend came to our house one day with a gift for me: a subscription to National Geographic. While many people, celebrities and others, choose Santa Fe as their personal nirvana, I learned from that yellow-trimmed glossy that there were other destinations in the world and other ways of thinking. 


 Later, a good-looking young man, a "friend" of mom's, stopped at our home to drop off some LP’s: Gershwin, Ravel, Mozart. Mom played honky-tonk love songs; this music was new and complex. He was on his way to Spain to study flamenco. 

     I never told my mother about the bullying I endured in school, but even with her grueling schedule it became clear to her that I was scared to go to the local junior high. Mrs. Garcia lived three doors down from us and taught at a parochial school. She was stern and distant and kept her daughters in the house while I played baseball and hide-n-seek outside with her son. If I stayed too late at their house in the summer, I’d get trapped into having to kneel on the hardwood floors and say an entire rosary around the furnace grate with all nine of her kids. Somehow Mom worked it out with St. Anthony’s and Mrs. Garcia for me to attend 7th grade at a reduced tuition. I’d commute in with her in the morning. We never spoke. She didn’t smile.

     It was the best school year of my life in Santa Fe.

     American physicist, Joseph Henry:  The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them. 

Pino Daeni, Serendipity

     Writers ask "what if?" Of all the magazines one might choose to give a child, why did Claude and her lover give me a subscription to National Geographic? Why did the flamenco dancer give me those three albums? Mom was the only divorced woman on the block (which meant she couldn't receive communion)-did Mrs. Garcia hope Catholic school would save me from a disastrous future?  

      Who is the her mentioned in the title of this piece?  

      Serendipity prepared me for a different life. I've always thought that if I'd remained in Santa Fe, I would have died young. No future was tangible in my meager surroundings. My mother's youthful hopes and dreams had been squashed and she did nothing to foster any in me. With age and experience, I know now that it's possible I would have just stepped into my mother's shoes, maybe not as a waitress, but as some other hard-working female who never got to live her dreams. This would have been what my mom called "life" but for me it would have been death.                                                                                                 

This blog also appears in Latino Voices at the Huffington Post