Star Wars Virgins

Two Slate writers who wouldn’t know a Jedi from a nerf herder go see The Force Awakens.

Slate sent two staffers who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Note: Spoilers galore below, insofar as our intrepid viewers understood the movie correctly. For a more informed, less spoilery take, read Dana Stevens’ review of The Force Awakens.

Jessica Winter: So, Katy, we have somehow spent decades on Earth without immersing ourselves in the Star Wars universe—but that changed today, forever. How have you managed to elude the Force all this time?

Katy Waldman: It wasn’t easy! I would say I consumed a one-quarter portion (get it?) of the Star Wars mythos just through cultural osmosis. But it turns out a lot of the Facts I thought were Facts were incorrect. For instance, I’d assumed that Luke Skywalker and Princess (General?) Leia were an item, but it turns out they are siblings. Shocking. But what about you?

JW: Yes, there’s probably no such thing as a pure Star Wars newbie—the series is so all-pervasive that I got some of those nutrients simply by consuming other forms of culture. I attempted to become a Star Wars fan at age 6, when my older brother took me to The Return of the Jedi, which my friend Ishaan confirms is the one with the bears. But if I remember correctly, I got scared early on and we had to leave. By the time the second round of films kicked in, in 1999, I think my lack of Star Wars scholarship had hardened into a ideological stance—I resisted the idea that I was pop-culturally duty-bound to confirm my membership in this cult.

KW: Yes! That sounds so familiar. My accidental neglect recast itself as imperviousness to this big dumb galaxy that supplied 80 percent of the kids in my neighborhood with Halloween costumes every year. But I can now admit how wrong I was. I loved The Force Awakens! Star Wars is the culture’s best-kept secret! Did you feel like your novicehood was a problem today?

JW: I did not, and that is all to the movie’s credit. I got the sense that J.J. Abrams split the film’s attentions with perfect mathematical precision, embracing ignoramuses like us while performing plenty of fan service along the way. A few times in the theater where I saw it, the audience laughed or gasped for reasons unknown to me, but I didn’t feel left out—just curious. What did you love about it, Katy?

KW: Well, the two leads—Rey and Finn—are just so courageous and funny and game. And I liked that someone had come up with a metaphysics for the universe, with a Force and two sides, and I liked all the samurai mystical stuff and the cheesy fight scenes and the pilots who had each other’s backs. It just seemed like such a good-natured movie! Also, that little robot awakened all kinds of maternal instincts I didn’t realize I had.

More at Slate

July, 2016

Cracked Actor

The film career of David Bowie.

In the summer of 1983, a man calling himself David Bowie appeared on the cover of Time magazine. With his blond coif and portfolio of smooth platinum hits, this tanned and tailored crooner of what he dubbed "positive music" seemed a man apart from the shape-shifting, gender-melding '70s pop mutant also known as David Bowie, whose spookier guises had included the Lost Spaceman, the Alien Sex Machine, and the Funky Disinterred Corpse. It was as if Lady Gaga had suddenly morphed into Michael Bublé.

But later that same year, this clean-cut, mainstream Bowie did something reassuringly, Bowie-ishly bizarre: He played a lead role in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. To invest one's peak pop-star capital in a bleak homoerotic drama, set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and directed by the provocateur behind the art-porn shocker In the Realm of the Senses—well, that's the kind of loopy career choice you'd expect from the fellow who brought us the Anorexic Centaur Centerfold, the Stewardess as Rock God, and the Human Lightning Bolt.

In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (newly available in excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion), Bowie portrays the soldier Celliers, a beautiful Brit with a slippery charisma and a potent rebellious streak. He is an enigmatic born leader, a delicate object of myriad desires and revenges, a picker of flowers and performer of mime. Which is all to say, he is a close variation on David Bowie—and thus a representative role for the singer-thespian. Bowie always excelled at playing the magic freak: the world-weary, otherworldly outsider who is both adored and condemned for his destabilizing mojo. And because Bowie's insuperable Bowie-ness glitters too brightly for him to vanish into any one part, a close look at his film and theater roles is a case study in the merits of stunt casting.

More at Slate

July, 2016

Absence of Malick

A new DVD of The Thin Red Line suggests Terrence Malick is as much a mystery to his actors and crew as he is to us.

Even before it arrived in theaters at the end of 1998, the World War II drama The Thin Red Line was a film defined by unexplained absences. Its director, Terrence Malick, had made two of the most rapturously regarded movies of the '70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and then vanished from the filmmaking grid. His reappearance after 20 years was an ecstatic, near-miraculous event in the church of cinema, but it left many a missing person in its wake. Well-known actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman did scenes for The Thin Red Line on location in Australia but went MIA in the finished three-hour print. Billy Bob Thornton's narration was likewise scrapped. Adrien Brody, who shot in Australia for three grueling months, brought his parents to an early screening to discover that his leading role had been whittled down to a single line of dialogue. George Clooney, who featured prominently in ads for the film, is on-screen for all of 60 seconds.

We expect star turns from our big movies, but The Thin Red Line (loosely adapted from James Jones' 1962 novel and reaching theaters the same year as Saving Private Ryan) won both praise and scorn for its serene lack of interest in elements of the prestige studio picture. A plot, for instance: The film's stunningly tense and kinetic middle hour traces a dangerously dehydrated U.S. Army company's attempt to seize a Japanese stronghold during the Battle of Guadalcanal, but much of the rest of the action is dreamy, drifty, interior. The beatific Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) goes AWOL in an Eden of singing, swimming Melanesian villagers. Pvt. (Ben Chaplin) takes a walk, thinks of his wife, stares up at trees. Shots of sun-dappled leaves, grass, birds, and the occasional crocodile get more screen time than John Cusack and Woody Harrelson combined—as critic J. Hoberman put it, the film "thrive[s] on the tension between horrible carnage and beautiful, indifferent 'nature.' " Dialogue is often thin on the ground, supplanted by Hans Zimmer's plangent score, the whispers of wind and water, and a rotating, often confounding current of hushed voiceovers. To wit: "Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you've made." What does that mean? And who said it? Perhaps only Malick knows for sure.

More at Slate

July, 2016

Mad Men’s greatest subject was women in the workplace.

Matthew Weiner’s great subject wasn’t masculine self-invention or the advertising business or the 1960s—it was women in the workplace.

here are many ways to choose the best-ever line from seven hugely quotable seasons of Mad Men. You could pick a salient passage from the Draper Doctrine of market-driven nihilism. You could open a pot of Sterling’s Gold. You could tap a maple on a cold Vermont morning or tap a bowl with Peggy Olson. But if you ask this viewer, the honor belongs to Sterling Cooper veteran Freddy Rumsen, who, in the Season 5 episode “The Other Woman,” gave copywriter Peggy a rousing directive to show Don that she’s “not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dyin’ to help out.”

This brief scene crystallizes so much of what Mad Men gets right about the dynamics of being a woman in the working world, whether in 1966 or in 2015. Peggy, who has stuck with one company through the formative years of her professional life, risks being typecast in her original role as the upstart secretary unless she strikes out and finds outside offers. Freddy’s comment manages to be supportive while nodding at the sexism and classism that pervades the WASP-y boys’ club of the midcentury advertising world. It’s a virus that could give even the most determined young woman a raging case of imposter syndrome: the feeling that no matter how many brilliant campaigns Peggy conceives, she’s always really be a secretary; that no matter how many people answer to her, she’ll never really make it out of Bay Ridge; that no matter how much she contributes to her company, it’s always really the company doing her a favor, just by keeping her around. Because SCDP loves to do favors. In the same episode, it grants office manager Joan Harris a partnership on the condition that she prostitute herself to a prospective client, thereby guaranteeing lifelong financial security for herself and her son. Joan’s decision to go through with the lucrative assignation is both correct and wrenching, and it has continued to look like the better of two bad choices even as its reverberations have continued to shock and humiliate Joan right down to the final episodes of Mad Men, which concludes Sunday.

More at Slate

July, 2016

Mother of Invention

On Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation for BookForum.

In 1999, Jenny Offill published her first novel, Last Things, written in the voice of a girl caught between her passive scientist father and her mother, an increasingly unstable fabulist who takes her daughter on the run to nowhere in particular. Startlingly assured in inhabiting a child’s perspective, it was a cousin to another pair of American debuts, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping …

July, 2016

Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies By Hilary Mantel

On Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies (BookForum)

Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, was an extraordinary achievement, a work of historical and artistic integrity that nonetheless managed to be a hit across genders, generations, and sensibilities. I know a twentysomething male worshipper of Thomas Bernhard who loves it, and I know a retired female acolyte of Jodi Picoult who loves it just as much. The book appeared midway through the high-rated run of Showtime’s The Tudors, which grappled lustily albeit ahistorically with the same soapy crisis—Henry VIII’s break with Rome and divorce from Katherine of Aragon in favor of the swiftly disfavored Anne Boleyn—and which, at its gloriously stupid best, suggested a remake of Showgirls set at the Palace of Whitehall. In the Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, which cleared the room of heaving bosoms and bore no taint of faux-Tudor cheese, Mantel provided the highbrow but equally addictive alternative version of the King’s Great Matter.

She also provided a central, sustaining surprise in her choice of sympathetic protagonist: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister for eight pivotal years, typically portrayed as a beady-eyed menace in works ranging from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait to Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. (On The Tudors, Cromwell says things like, “You shameless friar! You’ll be sewn in a sack and thrown into the Thames if you don’t speedily hold your tongue!”) Mantel took this agreed-upon villain and made him into an unlikely hero, much as she did with Robespierre in her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992). And she made Cromwell …

More at BookForum

July, 2016