What Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

There are few cinematic terms I despise as much as the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG for short).  My problems with this term are legion, so first off let’s have a little history.  Nathan Rabin coined the term when describing Kirsten Dunst’s character ‘Claire’ in the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown.  According to Rabin, Dunst epitomizes the MPDG, a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”  These women are describes as bubbly, childlike muses who exist solely to inspire a male protagonist, encouraging him to embrace and enjoy life.

The MPDG is one of those cinematic terms that was assimilated as soon as it was uttered; a lot of people accepted its existence as fact immediately, as if Rabin’s term was absolute and not to be questioned.  No one seems to care if it’s a particularly useful or accurate term.  The AV Club (which originally featured Rabin’s Elizabethtown review) later published a list of “16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.”

The problem is that I don’t think the MPDG even exists.  The AV Club and other websites have spent a lot of energy chasing rainbows, trying to chronicle a supposed Grand History of MPDGs in Cinema, supposedly proving this trope exists by shoehorning some of film history’s most notable female characters—from Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall and Kate Winslet’s Clementine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to Katharine Hepburn’s Susan (Bringing Up Baby)–into this category.  I can’t possibly think what Claire in Elizabethtown has in common with Annie Hall, except perhaps that they’ve both fallen for neurotic men.  Indeed, if these women represent the MPDG, perhaps we could just as easily dub Orlando Bloom’s’Drew Baylor’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Alvy Singer’ the archetypal Neurotic Suicidal Boyfriends.  Or would that be reductive?

Yes, there are characters like Claire in Elizabethtown, who are childlike and irreverent.  However, not all of the characters considered MPDGs are as one-dimensional as Rabin would have you believe.  The MPDG is not an archetype, but is instead a failure by screenwriters to create multidimensional and realistic female characters.  She represents a lack of interest by screenwriters and directors to develop nuanced and complicated depictions of women on screen, when cardboard cutout women who merely stand, look pretty, and say compelling things would do just fine.  Because, lest we forget it, this is not our story: it’s the male protagonist’s story.  Elizabethtown, for example, is the story of how a suicidal man’s life is saved, not how one girl actively choses to do the saving.

 

The inclusion of so many complicated, strong female characters on these lists illustrate just how arbitrary and useless the definition of the MPDG really is, and how people eager to verify this term via example are actually misreading and/or oversimplifying complex female characters.  Many MPDG lists wrongly include Clementine from Eternal Sunshine, and Summer from 500 Days of Summer.  Clementine, for example, is explicitly not a MPDG: her character actually turns to the male protagonist of the film and says “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”  She explicitly tells Joel (and the viewer) that she is just a girl—she is no MPDG–and yet here we are literally assigning to that character the very thing she makes a point of rejecting.

It’s the same problem with 500 Days of Summer—people imagine that Summer is some quirky girl meant to cheer up and reinvigorate the depressed male protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Tom’.  In reality, the crux of the film is that Tom not only has to take control of his own life, but that he wrongly imagines Summer is his own personal MPDG.  In fact, director Marc Webb was asked specifically whether Summer was an MPDG and denied it, noting: “That is one of the codes of the movie. He falls in love not with her but the idea of her.”

It’s not bad enough that Hollywood chooses to make men the protagonists of most movies.  No, we as viewers have to oversimplify and quantify some of our most well-drawn, unique, and complicated portrayals of women on screen.  Labelling Annie Hall, Clementine, and other female characters as MPDGs serves as a means of dismissing them.  They are written off as manic (emotional) pixie (troublesome) dream (imaginary) girls (not women). In other words, the application of the term MPDG to a breadth of female characters serves as a means of highlighting the many one-note representations of women on screen, while simultaneously reducing any richer female characters to supposed one-dimensionality.  MPDG is a term used to turn women into girls, characters into quirks.  Ultimately, just as Tom did to Summer, American pop culture writers, theorists, and film viewers alike have fallen in love with the idea of the MPDG, when in reality she doesn’t exist.

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A Look at Miss Representation

On Thursday night I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Miss Representation, a powerful documentary that elucidates how negative portrayals of women in media alter the way women and girls perceive themselves, and how these representations lead directly to the under-representation of women in positions of power in America.  It provides compelling content that illustrates how the media encourages the message that a woman’s value lies in her youth, beauty, and sexuality.  Though it runs just a trim 90 minutes, Miss Representation packs one hell of a punch.

The film’s strength is its comprehensiveness; it provides a well-rounded examination of women in media, from how female characters are constructed on film and TV, to the lack of female voices on the Boards of media conglomerates, to how these fictional constructs of women alter the way girls act and are perceived in the real world.  Film and TV clips are interspersed with staggering statistics that illustrate how the negative portrayal of women on screen impacts a woman’s ability to attain a place of power–not just in her own life, but also in the fields of politics, business, and entertainment.  These points are driven home by interviews with well-known and respected women in contemporary media and politics, from Jane Fonda and Rachel Maddow, to Condoleezza Rice and Katie Couric.  There are also compelling contributions from men in these fields, particularly Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and the Lieutenant Governor of California, Gary Newsom (who is also married to the film’s director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom).

My only complaints about the film concern its structure; the narrative of the film is constructed around Siebel Newsom’s concerns as a new mother–how she fears for her daughter coming of age in this media landscape.  While it’s a noble sentiment, Siebel Newsom’s presence in the film isn’t particularly necessary–yes, her voiceover helps propel the film, but the mention of her personal life and her impending motherhood is both unnecessary and distracting.  It’s a directing choice that seems antithetical to the spirit of the film, particularly since it takes a film about rejecting feminine stereotypes and couches it in the rhetoric of nurturing motherhood and maternity.

Structural concerns aside, Miss Representation is a must-see documentary capable of educating and inspiring.  It’s a sure conversation starter that details in stark terms the impact of the media on young girls and women in this country.  It provides no easy answers to the problems it enumerates, but its existence as a documentary is itself a necessary aid in the promotion of understanding and change.  This is a film that could fill a major gap in media studies programs; it would be particularly useful in middle and high schools as a part of a Media Literacy program, showing children how the media dictates what they see, how they see it, and why.  It’s also the perfect film to show anyone who fails to understand the extent to which women are misrepresented and underrepresented in contemporary media.

Miss Representation is screening at universities and festivals throughout the United States and internationally; you can also request to host your own screening of the film by signing up here.

Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure: Witches

It’s time for the sixth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!  As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Witches!

This might seem like an odd time to discuss movies about witches, but they’re on my mind this week since I’ll be screening my Guilty Pleasure pick at a Bad Movie Night this weekend.  So what can I say about witches that isn’t said every Halloween?  On screen they’re usually presented with warts, pointy black hats, and brooms.  Back in October I wrote a Halloween post for Man, I Love Films that mentioned two of my favorite witch-centric Halloween movies: Hocus Pocus and the aptly named Witches (based on the book by Roald Dahl).  For this post, however, I’m taking a look at two other top choices, and they’re very very different from each other.

Cinema Treasure: The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming (and others, including Victor Fleming).  Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton.

I only know one full-fledged adult (you know who you are!) who has yet to see this movie the whole way through. When people talk about The Wizard of Oz, the first thing they mention is Judy Garland.  Her turn as Dorothy Gale is nothing short of iconic, and her performance of “Over the Rainbow” made it arguably her signature song (though some might argue it’s followed at a close second by “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from Meet Me in St. Louis.)  But this is Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure: Witches!, so let’s talk about those cauldron-loving hags!

The great thing about The Wizard of Oz is that you get three witches for the price of one!  First off, you get the brief but memorable appearance of the Wicked Witch of the East, the original Ruby Slipper wearer whose death-by-house is the impetus for the plot.  Then we’ve got Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), a lovely bubblegum-pink-and-glitter confection who heralds in the death of the Wicked Witch of the East and aides Dorothy on her journey.  And lastly, there’s the Wicked Witch of the West, played with cackling perfection by Margaret Hamilton.  For me, the Wicked Witch takes the cake–her crouched body, green skin, pointy fingers, and evil laugh make her the perfect villain.  Add in those flying monkeys and she’s one scary broom-wielding witch.

Things I love: The immortal threat: “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”; the Wicked Witch of the West’s fantastic, water-induced exit; as minions go, flying monkeys are surprisingly effective.

Guilty Pleasure: Teen Witch (1989), directed by Dorian Walker.  Starring: Robyn Lively, Dan Gauthier, Zelda Rubinstein.

Teen Witch stars Robyn Lively as Louise, an unpopular teenage girl who discovers she’s a witch when she meets Madame Serena (Zelda Rubenstein), a local psychic.  As Louise learns to control her powers, she uses them to become more popular and get the guy of her dreams.  Interestingly, Teen Witch was originally pitched as a female version of the popular Michael J. Fox vehicle Teen Wolf.  This might explain why it–like Teen Wolf–is a  movie that is thoroughly, 100% of the 1980s; it’s got everything from teased hair and jean jackets, to leotards and locker room dance numbers.

Louise isn’t your typical green-skinned witch; she’s a pretty regular girl who just wants to be liked.  She’s got frustrating teachers, an insanely irritating and creepy younger brother, and a reliable best friend.  It’s easy to root for her because we’ve all been lonely and awkward teenagers with crushes, and she pretty much does what we’d all do if we had magical powers: she makes herself a hot chick with cool clothes, cool friends, and a hot boyfriend.  The film also features appearances by Dick Sargent (of “Bewitched” fame) and Marcia Wallace (who now provides the voice for Mrs. Krabappel on “The Simpsons.”

Things I love: the “Top That” rap battle between Louise’s best friend and 3 dudes in high-tops; the like, totally rad ’80s soundtrack; the poor man’s Tom Cruise, Dan Gauthier.

Podcastin’ Away

Hi folks!  I’ve recently made some guest appearances on podcasts hosted by fellow film bloggers.  I had a lovely time appearing on The Demented Podcast, where I discussed Repo! The Genetic Opera and All That Jazz with Nick Jobe and Steve Honeywell.  On the podcast you can hear me praise Singin’ in the Rain, diss Hayden Christiansen, and nerd out about Joss Whedon and Anthony Stewart Head.  It’s The Demented Podcast #33, aptly named “Paul Sorvino? What the F*@#!“.  If you check it out you get the added bonus of hearing me embarrass myself trying to conquer The Tower, a fantastic (and fantastically tough) game that kicked my butt.  You can find Nick at his awesome site Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob (“R2D2”); and Steve can be found at 1001Plus, where the crazy bastard blogs about his attempt to see every movie listed in the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” series.

Also, back in December I participated in a discussion of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” for LAMBcast, the Large Association of Movie Blogs‘ podcast.  We had a very passionate and thoughtful discussion, including debates about von Trier’s motives, death, suicide, and the apocalypse.  If you’d like to have a listen, you can find it here (it’s LAMBcast #98).

Be forewarned, folks: spoilers abound in the podcasts!

 

Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Musicals (With a Twist)

It’s time for the fifth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!  As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Musicals (With a Twist)!

I’ve loved movie musicals since I was a little girl.  My maternal grandmother had a VHS collection of classic dramas and musicals that I pillaged on sick days and weekend visits.  More often than not I found myself returning to my regular rotation of musicals: Mary Poppins, Gigi, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Singin’ in the Rain.  (Side note: Gigi loses some of its charm once you’re old enough to really understand what Gaston is asking of naive little Gigi).  Over the years I’ve watched all kinds of musicals, from the classic, graceful productions directed by Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, etc.), to the more frenetic contemporary movie musicals by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballrom, Moulin Rouge). 

As a child I watched My Fair Lady countless times, only to realize years later that Audrey Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Hepburn’s only contribution to the soundtrack was her performance of “Just You Wait,” the most abrasive and aggressive number in the film). Indeed, Marni Nixon is the voice behind some of my favorite musical performances, including the voice of Maria in West Side Story and Anna in The King and I.  As you might suspect, this month’s Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure examines two movie musicals that feature dubbing.

Cinema Treasure: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.  Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

Long before The Artist examined the trauma of the silent-to-talkie transition, Singin’ in the Rain did–and with beautiful songs, complicated dance numbers, and a witty script.  Gene Kelly’s turn as Don Lockwood is probably his most well-known and, indeed, iconic performance.  This energetic, joyful production also features strong performances from the supporting cast, including the charming Debbie Reynolds (as Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden), and Donald O’Connor (as Don’s hysterical best friend, Cosmo Brown).  Jean Hagen is squeaky perfection as Lina Lamont, Don’s costar with a voice that won’t survive the talkie revolution. As Lamont schemes to save her career, Selden finds herself serving as a vocal stand-in for the greedy starlet.

The great irony of Singin’ in the Rain is that it actually uses dubbing quite a bit!  The plot of the film centers around Reynolds/Selden dubbing Hagen/Lamont’s speaking and singing, but in reality Hagen had a lovely speaking voice.  When it appears that Reynolds is dubbing Hagen’s speaking voice, it’s actually Hagen dubbing Reynolds dubbing Hagen!  Meanwhile Reynolds was dubbed by Betty Noyes for the song “Would You?”  Reynolds’ biography also indicates that Noyes contributed the vocals to “You Are My Lucky Star,” as well.  Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Things I love: Gene Kelly’s effortless charm in every scene; Donald O’Connor’s nonstop, full-throttle dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh”; the endlessly quotable script.

Guilty Pleasure:  Cry-Baby (1990), directed by John Waters.  Starring: Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake, Amy Locane.

Like all of John Waters’ works, Cry-Baby is a fantastically campy movie that revels in debauchery and glorifies society’s misfits.  Johnny Depp plays Cry-Baby Walker, the leader of a Greaser gang, who falls for a square named Allison (Amy Locane). Cry-Baby woos Allison with song and dance, and she must choose to either be good (a Square) or bad (a Greaser).  The film takes all the tropes of 1950s juvenile delinquent films and pushes them to their acme, filling the frame with car chases, necking teenagers, and rockabilly music.  Cry-Baby also boasts an amazing cast of real-life misfits, from rocker Iggy Pop to adult film star Traci Lords (and even an appearance by Patty Hearst).

Fans of Depp’s turn as the Demon Barber in Sweeney Todd might be surprised to learn that his vocals were dubbed for Cry-Baby.  Though John Waters thought Depp had a nice voice, he wanted consistency throughout the film (and, presumably, through the demanding number of original songs), so the vocals were dubbed by rockabilly singer James Intveld.  Amy Locane’s vocals were also dubbed, so both she and Depp received lip-synch training. Depp agreed to dance in the film, though viewers will notice that most dance sequences cut away from him or move to medium shots that focus on his upper body (this is particularly noticeable in the “Doin’ Time for Being Young” number).

Things I love: The sexy, ridiculous amazingness that is the “Please, Mr. Jailer” sequence; Johnny Depp’s wardrobe of white shirts and leather jackets; the mix of classic ’50s songs like “Mister Sandman” and original songs like “King Cry Baby.”

The Forgetting Game: Second Thoughts

Back in November I wrote a small post on The Forgetting Game, a documentary (produced and directed by colleagues from my days at NYU) about Beate Kernke, a little girl who became the first person legally and peacefully transferred across the Berlin Wall to West Berlin.  Since that first post I’ve still been ruminating over the film–returning to its themes in my brain and contemplating the issues it brought up concerning both the role of the documentary filmmaker in the lives of his subjects, and in the structure of documentary narrative itself.

As the film progresses we learn the story of Beate’s transport across the Berlin Wall–how she eventually made her way across the border to West Berlin, where she spent a few days with the family of Neil M. Clarke, an American Red Cross representative.  We learn that days later, Beate was reunited with her mother and new stepfather in Burlingame, California.  As the story unfolds we learn about Beate’s life after the move to the States, and discover (perhaps to our surprise) that the Clarkes and Kernkes lost touch after Beate’s move to the States.

Beate was so young at the time of the move that she remembers little, though she remembers enough to complicate the negative portrayal of East Berlin that we all know so well; it was not the gray, forbidding place of cultural memory, but a place where she played and visited with a loving grandmother.  Conversely, Pam and her siblings paint a more traditional picture of East Berlin has a place of violence and darkness; Pam looks upon the story of Beate’s transfer with an obvious sense of pride regarding its place in her familial and cultural histories.

Pam and Beate’s narratives don’t quite mesh, and that’s perhaps the most fascinating part of The Forgetting Game: it illustrates the perils of historiography–how the narrativization of history clouds the truth of the events, and how memory alters the past.  For example, we learn that the famous photograph of Beate and Mr. Clarke is a reenactment–a staged photograph for the papers.  We also discover that the Red Cross does not include this story in its corporate memory.  So for some (particularly the Clarkes), this historical moment has come to define their heritage, while it remains unacknowledged by others involved.

I was also intrigued by the interactions between the filmmakers and their subjects; as the film progresses, its creators become an integral part of the story they are telling.  Partway through the film we discover that the filmmakers will (and do) assist in a reunion between Beate and the Clarkes.  There are glimpses of the director (Russell Sheaffer) and producers (Jim Bittl and Pulkit Datta) within the film because the filmmakers felt an obligation to acknowledge their impact on the lives of their subjects.  Sheaffer told me there was “no way to avoid” becoming a part of their subjects lives, and that the quiet way they hoped to tell Beate’s story led to their naturally becoming “a catalyst for a meeting” between Beate and the Clarkes.  So Sheaffer and the producers both tell the story and become crucial players in its development.  When Beate decides she’d like to contact Pam, she uses the crews’ equipment to record a video message, which they then deliver on Beate’s behalf.  The video they deliver leads to a real-life reunion in the United States, and the crew is there to capture that as well.

Ultimately The Forgetting Game provides a compelling examination of what is lost and gained in the narrativization of both personal and historical memory.  It also illustrates the impact that the documentary filmmaker can have on his subjects, and brings up some important questions about the role of the filmmaker in the processes of filming and editing a documentary.

Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Colin Firth

Happy New Year everybody!  It’s time for the fourth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure! As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Colin Firth.

At first glance Colin Firth might seem like an odd choice for the Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure series.  After all, Firth is perhaps best known for his dramatic performances in the dramas A Single Man and The King’s Speech (he received an Oscar nomination for the first and a win for the latter).  And yet Firth’s filmography is full of absolutely fantastic Guilty Pleasure fodder because he does not shy away from roles in lighter fare, including romantic comedies and movie musicals.  Firth is just as comfortable spouting the witty repartee of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) as he is hamming it up while singing ABBA on screen (Mamma Mia). For this segment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure I’ll be discussing two of my favorite Firth performances.

Cinema Treasure: “Pride and Prejudice” (1995), directed by Simon Langton. Starring: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle.

 

Full disclosure: I’m bending the rules a bit here, since Pride and Prejudice originally aired as a miniseries on the BBC.  Still, it’s probably Firth’s most well-known and beloved performance.  This is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of an Austen work to date–so faithful, in fact, that it runs a whopping 5 hours!  Adaptations of the novel are a dime a dozen, but Firth’s performance is so spot-on that I (and many of my Austenite friends) consider him the quintessential ‘Mr. Darcy.’  In fact, when Helen Fielding wrote a novelization of “Pride and Prejudice” called “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, she based her character of Mark Darcy on Firth’s performance.  In a strange twist of fate, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was later adapted to film, and Firth was cast as Mark Darcy.

Things I love: Firth’s subtle development from haughty snob to tortured lover; the overabundance of cravat’s and sideburns on attractive men; David Bamber’s fantastically greasy portrayal of Mr. Collins; the unforgettable ‘dip in the lake’ scene.

Guilty Pleasure:  What a Girl Wants (2003), directed by Dennie Gordon.  Starring: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Oliver James.

Colin Firth in an Amanda Bynes romantic comedy? Now that’s a guilty pleasure.  Amanda Bynes plays Daphne, a young American girl who travels to England in search of her father, a British politician (played by Firth) who does not know she exists.  What follows is a silly adventure replete with stuffy-British-people jokes, an evil step-sister, and the mandatory hunky musician love interest.  One of my college friend’s introduced me to this film, and it has since become my go-to movie on a rainy day.  What a Girl Wants may be chock full of cliches, but it’s a lot of fun and features a surprisingly stellar supporting cast.  The set-up allows Firth to play both the stalwart politician and the heartwarming father figure, but he’s most fun to watch when he’s cheesing it up.  The movie’s worth seeing just to watch Firth and the other Brits make fun of British life and behavior.  Side note: There are a surprising number of Austen connections in the film, as well.  Whether an intentional homage or not, Firth plays ‘Henry Dashwood’–the name of a character in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”.  Furthermore, Anna Chancellor, who plays Firth’s fiance in What a Girl Wants also featured as Miss Bingley in Firth’s Pride and Prejudice.

Things I love: The scene where Firth dances in front of a mirror wearing leather pants; Eileen Atkins’ turn as the spunky Lady Jocelyn; the role of the Hot Musician Boyfriend being filled by an actor who actually sings his own vocals (Oliver James), including a surprisingly funky cover of “Get Up Offa That Thing.”