Thanks to my friend, Mary M. Dalton, Ph.D. (to my complete joy, she casually mentioned that the festival was happening), I was able to see three films last week at the Reynolda Film Festival. One of those films, The Mask You Live In, is one that I’d anticipated since it was announced that Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation, The Representation Project) would be tackling the issue of masculinity and how the notions surrounding it are brutally damaging and crippling our boys. I shared with Mary a few of my own experiences with the one-dimensional expectations society places on men. (Don’t show emotions. Don’t cry. Never do anything associated with femininity) Unfortunately, not all males are in positions to deal with those challenges. They perpetuate violence and anger (one of the only “accepted” emotions boys can display). They end up in jail. They end up living the most inauthentic of lives.
The Mask You Live In explores the consequences boys face when, at an early age, they hear the most dangerous words a boy can hear: “Be a man.” I don’t know what that means, but if you are going to say, “Be a man,” you better also say, “Be a woman” because I am assuming you mean, “Be strong. Have integrity. Be open-minded. Stand up for what you believe in.” I know that is not what sexist and close-minded people mean when they say, “Be a man,” but I want to do what I can to change the meaning. Mine is much better. Everyone should see this film. Men need to see this film because they need to change their attitudes in order to change the world. It cannot be up to women alone. And it is an absolute necessity that (we) men recognize (our) their privilege and act accordingly. This narrow definition of “masculinity” is hurting and scarring, and the pathology spreads and spreads. It needs to stop.
Right after you see The Mask You Live In, please see The Hunting Ground (2-time Academy Award® nominee Kirby Dick). The very ideas of masculinity and the very culture we have that values men at the expense of women lead to the sexual violence that is constantly swept under the rug. Victims are blamed and perpetrators are protected. Anyone who does not see that this is happening because of the ubiquitous sexism that plagues society is, well, certainly delusional.
The film focuses on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and the appalling reality that administrators work extra hard not to help victims but to make accusations disappear in efforts to maintain a “clean” image of the school for marketing and financial purposes. The problem is so extremely prevalent that if all schools came out and did what is right, everything would change. However, no one is willing to do so, so the violence and victim-blaming continue. Statistics show that 8 percent of men are responsible for 90 percent of sexual assaults. The men in that 8 percent repeat their crimes because they know they can get away with them. This is depressingly disheartening, and this is a representation of our greater society. Women are not listened to, they are not believed, and they are devalued, all for the sake of this unhealthy need to put men on a pedestal. The Hunting Ground also presents men who have been sexually assaulted. These victims face ridicule for “not being a man” and “allowing” themselves to be attacked. It seems that society would rather have men attack and rape than have them learn to be vulnerable, experience and work through their pain in productive ways, and take a healthy place in the world. You’d think we would have evolved further than this.
In unhealthy situations, it can be dangerous to come between people and the pain they suppress. Pain has a way of transferring to unrelated situations and interfering. Some pain is simply too much to face or to bear, and unknowingly finding ourselves in the middle of people and their pain can leave us in all sorts of trouble and confusion. People pull others into their pain, as a “misery loves company” method, or, more seriously, as a means to consciously or subconsciously employ defense mechanisms in order to cope.
In Maps to the Stars(David Cronenberg – A Dangerous Method, A History of Violence), all of this comes into play as characters dedicate themselves to running from and making sense of the past. They are haunted as they attempt to make a way, unfairly inflict pain on others, and get caught in corners that no longer allow them to run. And this is all set in Hollywood, the ultimate setting for the ultimate game of appearance versus reality.
Academy Award® Winner (I am so happy to be able to say that) Julianne Moore (Havana Segrand) plays an actress haunted by her dead actress mother, from whom she suffered (and continues to suffer) abuse. She struggles for validation she is denied, and she makes the error of making her life’s work seeking validation in Hollywood. John Cusack (Dr. Stafford Weiss) and Olivia Williams (Christina Weiss) seek the same Hollywood validation because they are running from their past, something for which they are not to blame. To cover it up, however, they do the unforgivable. Now they are to blame for those actions. While “enjoying” a façade, they look to their child actor son (Evan Bird) to help maintain security. Mia Wasikowska (Agatha Weiss) becomes the link and collision point between the Weisses and Havana, and she is living through perhaps the worst thing a child can live through. She simply does the best she can, but her environment barely allows her anything. The people in her life who are supposed to support her and cherish her project their pain onto her, and she seems doomed. While the film, at the end, seems to be rushing to end and maybe falls into a cliché or two, it is a deliciously disturbing film and forces us to face our demons and consider what we show, what we hide, what we are willing to sacrifice to hide what we hide, and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to reveal ourselves and live truthfully. But, for me, the most deliciously disturbing message (because it is realistic) is the idea that there is always a question when we are dealing with people: to what extent are traumatic life experiences and impossible pain influencing the ways in which they interact with me?
Last month I watched the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens (for the first time). Because of the anniversary, I caught it on Turner Classic Movies. I need to watch it again as soon as possible. There is so much there in the setting, in the conversations, and in the moments of silence. “Big” Edith’s bed, in which she often sits and eats, was particularly striking for me. She keeps everything in this bed. I have a vivid memory from when I was young of once getting food crumbs in my bed. I hated the feeling so much that I never bring food anywhere near my bed. I was intrigued by “Little” Edie’s outfits and scarves. I enjoyed the singing.
But the really moving part for me is that the film made me look inward. While the film can be painful to watch, it is a revelation that should force us to take a good look at ourselves. We watch these two people living in those conditions and wonder what went wrong or what was “wrong with” them. But we all have struggles. What do we show? What do we hide? How does our pain manifest itself? What is the “squalor” that we are harboring inside ourselves, and what are we doing about it?
I find myself looking over my shoulder, especially at work because I am often sitting with my back to the open door. Wild Tales(a 2014 Academy Award® nominee for Foreign Language Film) is a dark, satirical comedy from Argentina that will have you squirming in your seat as you witness the truth about humanity. I enjoyed this squirming because I attend movies in order to face reality, not to escape it, and human experience is more often than not (extremely) farcical. I (very) often find myself wishing that more people felt more liberated to act according to their true feelings and not simply “keep calm” because of the expectation that seems to dominate, which is that people can act ridiculously toward us, but we must not, through our reactions, show them just how ridiculous they are. With these reactions, we are encouraged to do what, in my mind, is the most dangerous action–withhold the truth. In order to stop encouraging disrespectful, uncritical, selfish behavior, we need to react truthfully more often–and sometimes that includes “flipping out.” After all, the perpetrators of ridiculousness have figured out that they can get away with their plentiful lack of decorum, or they are indignant when faced with consequences. That indignation is what causes me to look over my shoulder, hence the “Pasternak” (Dario Grandinetti, Maria Marull, Monica Villa) story. Wild Tales is an anthology film, and the stories are linked by theme, not by plot. “Pasternak” is the first and begins and ends before the opening credits.
Wild Tales (directed by Damián Szifron) is well done and extremely satisfying because it presents people who go through with those truthful reactions. Those reactions seem extreme (and are extreme), but if we did not bottle up our feelings so often, maybe those extremes would not be so prevalent–or maybe they still would be because people are awfully horrible to each other for all sorts of reasons. But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so one better be prepared. Perhaps the worst part of facing someone that has greatly wronged you in the past (to the point of ruining your life and the life of your loved one) is finding out that the person has not changed at all and is as contemptible as before. Should all decency be thrown away in order to teach that person a lesson? (“Las ratas” – Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, César Bordón). You never know what a person is going through in his life when you justifiably throw away all decency in order to let him know he is acting inappropriately. The sheer stubbornness that exists in us cannot be underestimated when we desire to assert our superiority and prove that we will not allow another to have the last word. “El más fuerte” (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado) takes this to a level that started my first fit of squirming (enjoyably) in the theater.
“Bombita” (Ricardo Darin, Nancy Dupláa) is yet another story of someone pushed over the edge who does not simply shake it off and deal with it. It is about how we all often feel when we go out during the day. No matter how much we try to avoid trouble, trouble always finds us, and our only hope rests in the lap of blind followers of the “system” who cannot or will not help us because they are simply focused on “doing their job” and not on justice or simple common sense. In “La propuesta” (Oscar Martínez, María Onetto, Osmar Núñez, Germán de Silva), a patriarch throws up his arms and refuses to take responsibility for his son’s mistakes and continue to deal with opportunists only out for his money. Though able to use money to buy his way out of problems, he realizes it is no longer worth it. He angrily retreats, and yes, he has to face indignation from all around. But, “Hasta que la muerte nos separe” (Érica Rivas, Diego Gentile) reminds us that sometimes if both parties fight it out (in public) until they are mentally (and physically) exhausted and everything is out on the table and out of their systems, they can, in fact, reconcile. And there is that theme again: getting out the truth works.
Mad Men is my favorite television show of all time. Peggy Olson is my favorite television character of all time.
It is only natural that I would be emotional about the end of the series. With the final seven episodes beginning on Sunday, April 5, I have compiled a list of the most pivotal moments (for me) that made me fall in love with the show for what it is–among many other things, a brilliant study in perspective, that we all experience events in our own ways shaped by our own experiences. Whether the story depicts an historical event or one that is personal and, as a consequence, very often universal, Mad Men always makes me consider what truth means and what I should do about it. This list only includes one episode as a whole, as my goal is to highlight moments, not entire shows.
1. The Drapers litter (Episode 207 – “The Gold Violin”). I was a “latecomer” to Mad Men. I watched a marathon of Season 2 on AMC and then bought the Season 1 DVDs to catch up before Season 3 started. At some point I also purchased the Season 2 DVDs just to watch that season again to make sure I’d “gotten it all.” Seeing the Drapers having a picnic in the park was nice. Then, Sally asks her parents if the family is rich, and she is told that it is not polite to talk about such things. Then, as the family is leaving, Don throws his can away–by hurling it into nature. And Betty shakes off the picnic blanket, leaving all of the trash on the ground. This was early in my exposure to the show, and I was shocked. Did people really do this? Certainly the setting seems situated at a time before the anti-litter ethos had taken hold in the nation. Here are these people in their own world taking this action, not considering the future (or not conceiving the concept of it in this context). I was enthralled by this.
2. Pete tries to sell televisions to negroes (Episode 305 – “The Fog”). Betty (January Jones) (brilliantly) gives birth to Gene in this episode. But this moment is about Pete. Yes, Pete has become a chronic cheater (I love Trudy (Alison Brie) for how she handles him) and is very “bad” at it. But there are aspects of Pete’s life and personality to which I can relate, and I root for him while others continue to write him off. And when it comes to race, those aspects make him stand out among people living life through their own perspectives with no intentions of making matters “harder” by recognizing their privilege. Pete realizes that it would be good for Admiral to sell televisions to African Americans. He speaks to Hollis (Le Monde Byrd), an incredulous elevator operator, about his television purchasing habits. He eventually relates to Hollis as a man, and Hollis warms up to him. This is not an ordinary occurrence. In Season 6 (Episode 605 – “The Flood”), when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination reaches everyone, Pete angrily reprimands Harry Crane (Rich Summer), head of the television department, for complaining about the assassination because it is bad for advertising dollars, saying, “That’s disgusting. . . . How dare you? . . . This cannot be made good! It’s shameful. It’s a shameful, shameful day! . . . [to Bert Cooper] Did you know we were in the presence of a bonafide racist?! [back to Harry] . . . Let me put this in terms you’ll understand: that man had a wife and four children.” Back in Season 3, when Pete is reprimanded by the partners for offending the client, who “has no interest in becoming a colored television company,” Pete expresses that he simply cannot understand why the agency would turn down the chance to make a profit. And in Season 6, while there are now black secretaries employed at SCDP, Pete still stands out for his whole-hearted views. I took notice from the start.
3. “The Suitcase” (Episode 407). This is my favorite episode of Mad Men. This episode focuses on the most significant relationship of the series–the relationship between Don and Peggy. They are both at their most vulnerable, and they share in that. The two argue about work–Peggy does not feel that Don appreciates her as much as he should (a common theme throughout the series). Don deals with Anna’s (Melinda Page Hamilton) death. Peggy ends a relationship and sees Trudy pregnant. Trudy’s idealized view of Peggy is not how Peggy sees herself. The two work alone (except when Duck shows up) in a dark office, go get a bite to eat, return to the office to work, and support each other both personally and professionally. While out for dinner, they broach the subject of Peggy’s pregnancy, an event that cements their connection because Don is there when she has no one else. Don tells personal stories from his past, which we all know is rare. And, in a funny moment, Peggy asks, “Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” There is no better episode, and there is no better work than “The Suitcase.”
4. Peggy struggles with intersectionality (Episode 409 – “The Beautiful Girls”). Because we all experience life from our individual perspective, (in my mind) life is about the moments when we realize that there are people who do not experience life the way we do, and no one exactly how we do, and how we deal with and act in those moments. I continue to be, in a profound way, struck by what Peggy says to Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) as they are discussing Civil Rights. While Peggy acknowledges that it is wrong–and not just for business–that a company would not serve negroes, Peggy does not quite grasp the concept that a company would deliberately hold their services and products out of reach of African Americans. Because she is so focused on her own ambitions and trying to navigate the sexist world in which she is paid less and treated like a second-class executive, she does not understand intersectionality, an “unknown” concept in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and before the Women’s Movement. Peggy remarks, “But I have to say–most of the things negroes can’t do, I can’t do either. And nobody seems to care.” “What are you talking about?” responds Abe, who is trying to get her to understand that “they’re not shooting women to keep them from voting.” And that’s the thing. Movements have gone one at a time because of how slowly liberty progresses in this country. Peggy is speaking from her world–her experiences. She has not seen outside it yet because it is all she can do to keep her head afloat as a woman. We see Peggy evolving, but it’s not easy. Life is about choices, and people choose to speak out in their own ways. Others don’t speak out at all out of self-preservation and survival. Because of those minutes of Abe and Peggy in that bar, I look at how all people, whatever their choices, have (in my mind) the responsibility to consider their own privilege, whatever it may be, and act accordingly. This is complicated, but necessary. Thank you, Charlie Hofheimer. Thank you, Elisabeth Moss. Thank you, writers Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner.
5. Don calls Betty a whore (Episode 313 (finale) – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”). There is something about Don Draper that makes me root for him as he navigates his way through life. His difficult childhood, his charm, his brilliance at his work, and, I admit, his picture-perfect exterior (albeit phony) image he portrays are all part of what elicits my empathy. The moments of genuine happiness he shares with his family (which I associate with this absolute gem–This is “The Carousel”–Don’s pitch in the Season 1 finale–Episode 113 – “The Wheel”) make me appreciate his rise from poverty to Madison Avenue, even when there is ugliness beneath. But there is nothing–not even his speech to Hershey’s–which I welcomed even if it is extremely bad for business and ultimately results in a forced leave of absence–nothing that excuses what he says to Betty after she’s finally had enough of his infidelity and decides to leave him. “You’re a whore, you know that?” says an indignant Don. These sexist views are totally his personality, and I have to listen to people who have always hated him, which I don’t understand because the show is about his struggle for the “American Dream,” and everyone knows he is deeply flawed, as we all are. But still, I will never forgive him for that, and while I root for him, those words from him are a lingering and permanent taint, above everything else he has said and done. I thank Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy for writing this truth. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.