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« Find and Replace Justice | Main | Yogaguy »

June 27, 2003

Sandra Goldbacher and Her Pet, if Unconscious, Theme

Friedrich --

You know those oddball art experiences, the ones where you find yourself reading an artwork completely differently than how it's asking you to take it? Bizarre, aren't they? Yet sometimes they're OK. "The Wild Bunch," for example, famously asks you to take it as an anti-violence movie, yet what's most memorable about the film is how beautiful the violence it shows is. Finally the best way to take the movie may be as an ambivalent, poetic hymn to violence.

Other times, though, it ain't a good thing. I've just run into such a peculiar case. Peculiar because 1) It isn't just a single case, it's two films by the same director, and 2) Because the warring themes (how the movie sells itself/how I took it) involve dicey and embarrassing ethnic elements. So, a plea here to everyone to forgive me in advance, or at least to postpone castigating me until you've looked at the movies for yourself. Then, lambaste away.

The movies are two serioso chickflicks by the English director Sandra Goldbacher. A warning to everyone: plot spoilers galore ahead. I can't figure out a way of discussing these films' themes without discussing their stories.

The first is "The Governess," a costume drama Goldbacher made five-ish years ago. Here's the setup: a homely-sexy Jewish girl's family loses their money, and she winds up working (pretending not to be Jewish) as a governess for a chilly family of miserable Scottish aristocrats. (I may be scrambling a few of the details -- I'm away from my reference books and stuck with a lousy AOL connection, so I'm neglecting my usual self-fact-checking.)

What follows? Well, if you accept the movie at its word, you take what follows this way: governess (played by the adorable Minnie Driver), endowed with vitality, spunkiness, and brains, brings the almost-dead back to life. Once again the household is alive with warmth. The laird, a dashing but depressed fellow who's also an inventor and is toying with some early photographic processes, can't help but succumb to the charms of the governess. She's the gal he always needed -- encouraging, and also more than a match for him. But then all hell breaks loose, the governess's Jewishness becomes public, and (a victim of anti-Semitism) she's cast out -- only to bounce back and set herself up, in a proto-feminist triumph, as a successful big-city photographer.

Goldbacher is asking the viewer to take this as a rousing tale of self-realization, in other words. (With a sprinkling of message-movie anti-anti-Semitism.) Me, though, I sat there in disbelief, thinking, Gee, if you're of a less reverent cast of mind, you could interpret the film's story much less flatteringly. How so? Well, how about this: hustling, vain Jewish girl fucks her Gentile boss, destroys his family life, and steals his invention. Viewed this way, it's a somewhat less appealing tale of self-realization, and a somewhat less appealing self that's being realized.

OK, maybe Goldbacher lost control of what she wanted to say. And I do know that I can be a little perverse sometimes. I didn't have a terrible time watching the movie, and anyone who gives the wonderful Minnie Driver a reasonably juicy big role deserves to be cut a lot of slack. So what the heck.

Then last night I watched Goldbacher's latest, "Me Without You," and there the theme is all over again. The film's one of those no-plot, two gal-pal chickflicks. Here the gal pals are English friends -- one a Gentile partygirl, the other a thoughtful Jewish writer wannabe -- who grow up next door to each other in the '70s and '80s. Drugs, boyfriends, school and career worries, family train wrecks, nights out clubbing … "Was this as bad as 'Riding in Cars With Boys'?" I asked The Wife. "Much worse," she said.

With this genre, I can't tell. Can you? These squabbling-and-making-up films seem formless to me. They're about life's cycles, its ups and downs, its dustups and reconciliations, its disasters and triumphs, all the laughter and all the tears and, finally, time passing. They're just big blobs, so far as I can tell. But The Wife seems to know which ones are better and which ones are worse. Sigh -- gals, who can figure? They seem to receive signals from a larger slice of the electromagnetic spectrum than we guys do.

A terrible film, although Goldbacher does seem to me to have a little talent. The clothes (by Stella McCartney) and the décor are sensuous and terrif; the movie may meander pointlessly, but visually it conveys an effective and entertaining sense of girly frolicsomeness and houri style.

And the two actresses are first-rate. As the Gentile, Anna Friel is both chic and tart-ish. Her character is impulsive and hard-edged, yet Friel helps you understand her needs and actions from the inside out. As the Jewish girl -- not my fault, this is the way the movie asks you to take her -- Michelle Williams (from "Dawson's Creek") is dark-haired and troubled, and a little chubby and wobbly in the body and face; her emotions are wobbly too. Williams, who I love watching (did you see her in "Dick"?), is terrific at warring emotions; I had a better time watching her conflicting feelings battle it out on her pudgy face than I did at any of this summer's blockbusting action sequences. Williams is especially, and winningly, good at that self-torturing battle royale all boyfriends and hubbies will recognize: "I'm feeling something so intensely that somebody better notice it, but I'm going to do my best not to let anyone see my state, because I'd be so mortified, although if they don't notice it I'll be really miserable and will certainly take it out on someone, preferably someone who's trying to be nice to me … "

The movie's to be avoided unless you're as devoted an Anna Friel and Michelle Williams fan as I am, in other words. Still, as I watched, I got fascinated by something else: the same unstated theme that was so clangorously present in "The Governess." The theme I'm referring to, weirdly enough, is this: "I want what the Gentiles have, but I want to get it in such a way that I feel good, morally vindicated, and sexy. And I want to feel as though in taking what's theirs I've actually done them a favor." Really, seriously, that's the unspoken theme these two movies share.

It may be an unspoken theme, but it's so apparent that I'm stunned no reviewers or critics have noticed it. How does the theme become apparent in "Me Without You"? It's in what binds the movie together structurally, which is the Jewish girl's fixation on her girlfriend/neighbor's sensitive-musician brother. She can't have him -- she mustn't, she just mustn't. Why not? Because the bitchy Anna Friel character says she can't. Why? That isn't gone into; we're left to think it's perhaps a Gentile way of being perverse, or maybe just a way some people have of picking on Jews. And there's the matter of the way the two families are characterized. The Jewish family? Loving, warm, reverent, intellectual. Mom may be a little sharp and wounding sometimes, but Dad couldn't be more adoring. Chess is played; books and opera are revered. The Gentile family? Booze, pills, suicide attempts, chasing after shallow pleasures, craziness. No books or chessboards to be seen.

Eventually the dark-toned, melancholy-but-fervent Jewish girl, despite every obstacle her increasingly malicious Gentile girlfriend can put in her way, does manage to land herself the Gentile boy -- and, really, it's best for all concerned. As in "The Governess," the Jewish woman gets what she wants from the Gentile family, what she was expressly forbidden to have, and also gets to feel good about herself for doing so. Why does the story come to an end at this point? Because the Jewish girl has gotten what she wanted. The film may have no plot, but it certainly has an arc: Jewish girl develops fixation on Gentile guy next door, is prevented by his sister from having him, but finally triumphs. And once again we apparently aren't meant to notice anything but the fact that cosmic justice has been done.

Now, inter-ethnic covetousness and competitiveness strike me as funny, rich, good themes; let's have more movies and books that mine them for entertainment and art payoffs. But doing so would require recognizing them for what they are. Goldbacher, though, seems determined that the audience should take what she's selling quite solemnly, and quite at her word. In "Me Without You," like "The Governess," we're asked to overlook the narcissistic, gimme-gimme moralizing pushiness of the main character, and instead cheer the fact that she gets what she wants, because it's only right that she should.

No, that's not quite right. We aren't asked to overlook the gimme-gimme elements; it's more that it doesn't even seem to have occurred to the director that these elements are present. (Can you spell the words "too self-pleased for her own good"?) I don't know that I've ever encountered this particular brand of self-delusion in the work of a professional feature-film director before, though maybe I'm forgetting someone. (Goldbacher's talented, so comparisons to someone like Ed Wood don't qualify here.) Have you? Watching these two breezily confident, narcissistic movies, I was left wondering if perhaps Goldbacher's own daddy hasn't been a little too adoring.

Apologies for the Jewish/Gentile stuff. Really, not my fault. I'm just describing what Goldbacher has put into her movies. I'd be perfectly content to ignore her work altogether if she'd only stop using actresses I like.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at June 27, 2003




Comments

Where does The Wild Bunch ask you to take it as an anti-violence film? Been a while since I last saw the film, but in the three or four viewings I've had of the film I don't ever recall it being anti-violence; I thought the balletic quality of the gunfight scenes was one of its selling points from the get-go...

Posted by: James Russell on June 27, 2003 04:16 AM



Hey Michael, don't think we didn't notice the virulent anti-Semitic undertone of this piece. The only way you can possibly make up for it is to institute a Jewish affirmative action program and hire a Jewish co-blogger. (Ooops, wait a minute, you already did that.) Well, then, lots of sensitivity training for you, me bucko!

Just as a question, did Ms. Goldbacher write her movies as well as direct them? I mean, what strikes me as a bit unusual about these movies is that they seem so transparently mytho-autobiographical or something (not that I know anything about Ms. Goldbacher.) Does anyone know anything about Ms. Goldbacher?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 27, 2003 09:43 AM



"Too self-pleased for her own good"? You've never seen another---how 'bout Jodie Foster? The Queen of self-pleased.

Posted by: cindyincidentally on June 27, 2003 11:27 AM



You may have forgotten two important scenes in The Governess. First, there is a scene in which Minnie, alone in her room, is eating a boiled egg (I got the impression that it was some sort of religious ritual, though I can't recall now exactly what) and spills saltwater onto a sheet of photographic paper - thereby discovering the process by which an image can be fixed to the paper (which process had thus far stumped Dr. Genius). Second, Dr. Genius invites some hotshot to look over "his invention" - which, as we see in the scene previously mentioned, was actually hers. She watches as he completely cuts her out of the picture and claims all the credit for himself. Given these two scenes, then, I really don't think your "alternative summary" applies. (Not to mention the fact that it is Dr. Genius's son who exposes her as a Jew, so it is not she who ruins their family life, but he who ruined hers, as she is then forced to return penniless to the shtetl.)

Posted by: gilbert on June 27, 2003 01:47 PM



Funny, I just caught up with Me Without You the other night. I adored those two performances. Goldbacher's surely talented to get those sort of balanced performances out of her young actresses. I seem to have liked the movie more that Mr. and Mrs. Blowhard (the Michaels). I thought the direction, particularly of the Michelle William's character's Romantic painting dream sequence was especially well done. While I haven't seen the Driver flick, I did notice the theme you're speaking of ~ and it made me grimace a little. Did you happen to catch that anti-gentile joke from the otherwise noble Jewish dad? He's portrayed as an understanding and loving (if a little nebbish) father, but when he's doing some weeding he, sort of out of nowhere says, "God didn't mean for us to garden. That's why he created gentiles." The tone was one of superiority, wasn't it? Strange for such an otherwise likeable character.

I'd love to see how a line like that would fly with the art film crowd if a noble, sympathetic gentile papa blurted out a similarly themed line about Jews.

The Bizness

Posted by: The Bizness on June 27, 2003 04:56 PM



"I'm feeling something so intensely that somebody better notice it, but I'm going to do my best not to let anyone see my state, because I'd be so mortified, although if they don't notice it I'll be really miserable and will certainly take it out on someone, preferably someone who's trying to be nice to me … "

This is the ultimate and best description of how the not entirely lovely do the drama queen thing. Bravo.

"And once again we apparently aren't meant to notice anything but the fact that cosmic justice has been done."
This the main theme of contemporary chicklit and chickflicks and I thank you for stating this so succinctly.

I have fantasies in which zombified Katherine Anne Porter crawls from the grave and goes after Pam Houston and Wally Lamb and that ilk. The only antidote I have seen so far is the original "Legally Blonde." (Haven't seen the second, yet, but will when it's playing on airplanes.) We have a set up where the privileged sorority girl displays both intelligence and kindness, so we have reason to cheer for her and to be critical of those who judge her by stereotype. So much better than be asked to champion some twat simply because the character is played by Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock or is fat. It's clear that having a movie about a cutie blonde is driven by studio execs, but it's not all clear how good writing and characters crept into the mix....

Posted by: j.c. on June 27, 2003 05:53 PM



Ms. Goldbacher did, in fact, write both of these movies. Apparently she's trying to get another one made, an adaption of Emile Zola's Nana. Hmmmm, wonder what that will be like?

Interviews/profiles of Ms. Goldbacher can be found at http://www.splicedonline.com/features
/goldbacher.html and http://www.indiewire.com/
people/int_Goldbacher_Sand_980729.html.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 27, 2003 05:55 PM



James, As you're right to point out, the case of "The Wild Bunch" is infinitely more complicated than the Goldbacher case, and Peckinpah-ites will never be finished trying to make some sense of the movie's meanings, sigh. But here's my gloss: In terms of its narrative, the film's an ode to a vanishing code of honor and way of life. But almost no one ever seems to have taken the film that way. Everyone takes it as being "about violence" instead. "Violence" became its generally accepted theme. Pro or anti? The funny thing is that Peckinpah was apparently genuinely surprised that so many people took the film's ultraviolence as a kick and a turn-on. He'd wanted to horrify them. I'm away from my Peckinpah bios, but here are a couple of quotes from Peckinpah I dredged up online, which I hope are accurate:

"Violence is ugly, brutalizing, and bloody fucking awful. It's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians, it's a terrible, ugly thing. And yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people, we have violence within us...I think everybody will be a little sickened by it, at least I hope so, or a little dismayed, at least dismayed -- which is the effect that I'm trying for. "

And: "I wanted to show what the hell it feels like to get shot."

As I recall (and my memory may be faulty), the film was semi-intended to be an anti-Vietnam War movie. Then people got off on the violence, Peckinpah became known as Bloody Sam, and eventually became quite bitter about how he'd become stereotyped in that way (even as he kept marketing the stuff).

Not an exact parallel to Goldbacher, but (trying a little desperately to rationalize my comparison here) at least another case where a film's meanings ran away from its director.

FvB -- "Mytho-autobiographical," that's it exactly, thanks. Thanks for the links to Goldbacher info. Goldbacher's got a knack for setting things up in such a way that if you question what she's doing, it can only be because you're anti-Semitic. Otherwise, why aren't you cheering her on? Funny thing I find myself thinking is that I might very well like Goldbacher as a person. I'm often tickled and delighted by out-there, self-adoring Jewish gals, who are often smart, funny and uninhibited.

Gilbert -- You're a more generous soul than I am. I'm prone to look at the elements you point out and say, Sure, but it's not as though Goldbacher's going to encourage us to see her heroine as self-centered and destructive. She's going to put some speed bumps in the way of that interpretation. But I'd argue that the speed bumps don't invalidate the interpretation, they just disguise the facts a bit. But then again I can get perverse.

Bizness - The two girls were terrif, weren't they? Glad to hear you enjoyed them too. I semi-enjoyed the punk settings too, purely for personal nostalgic reasons. Did the aimlessness of the movie bug you at all? As far as the ethnic stuff goes, I rather enjoy ethnic/racial/sexual stereotypes and wish people would stop being so damn sensitive about them, loosen up a bit and allow them to be enjoyable and funny. Easier to make a little room for them than to spend so much energy trying to suppress them. You know some of the Hwood movies from '28 to '32 known as the Pre-Code Movies? Widely loved for being so rowdy and uninhibited, before the Code buttoned things back up? Well, one thing no one ever mentions about those films is that they're full of stereotypes -- yids, pansies, floozies, micks, etc. This fact seems to be politely overlooked when writers go on about how wonderfully uninhibited the films are, by which they seem to mean "sexually uninhibited." Yet the do have a terrifically likable heartiness; they're friendly and frank in ways that are refreshing. And not just about sex. I'd argue (and I could be wrong, but what the hell) that the rowdiness and friendliness are at least partly due to the fact that people at that time were more open and funny about stereotypes -- about seeing them, and about being them as well. (We're all unique individuals, and we're all examples of stereotypes too, or so it seems to me.) And the pre-Code films are as frank about this as they are about sex. All due respect to the tragedy of misusing and abusing stereotypes, of course. Anyway, Goldbacher doesn't seem to be daring enough to use the ethnic material she's so drawn to for comedy -- too bad, huh?

J.C. -- Please give me a call if/when you manage to summon up K.A. Porter. I'd love to see her kick Pam Houston around.

Actually, after putting up this posting and chatting with y'all, I find myself looking forward to Goldbacher's next movie. ("Nana," huh?) I mean, how many ways can one director find to say "I'm entitled" and then demand applause for being so frank, P.C., and adorable?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 28, 2003 02:11 AM



1. I am puzzled by your response to Gilbert's point which seemed to invalidate entirely, on a factual basis, your version of the movie. If Gilbert and you are both correct, there must be two cuts of the film.

2. Your post reminded me of a passage in a book by Nelson Aldrich about his uprbinging in upper-class New England/New York. "Old Money" He wrote, as I remember, about the "obsession" with Jews ("anti" of course) in his group and _their_ sense of a "deadly rivalry" -- his striking words I do believe -- between themselves and the poor Jewish immigrants.

It seemed preposterous when I first read the book that Aldrich's grandfather could have seen mine (figuratively speaking) as any sort of rival. The latter fresh off the boat, speaking no English --- the former rooted on this continent for three centuries of effective accumulation. "Deadly rivalry?" What an odd perspective!

But there is something about this post which brings the whole phenomenon to mind. Though I can't quite put my finger on why.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 28, 2003 10:02 AM



Btw, just to make it crystal clear, "the whole phenomenon" to which I refer above is NOT the anti-semitism but the rivalry. These two things are overlapping but not contiguous circles.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 28, 2003 10:31 AM



Michael,

I completely appreciate films with a good sense of humor about ethnic stuff and stereotypes...I just thought there was something fishy about the way the father delivered that line when put in the context of the rest of that actor's performance (and the way the character was written) that supports your point re: Goldbacher's theme. And yes, I love those pre-Hayes code flicks with their zingers. I think that South Park (especially the movie, Bigger, Loner and Uncut) is the best contemporary stuff that captures that tone. Have you seen the movie? I know you're not a huge animation guy, but I think it'd make you giddy.

Lovely surfing piece, btw. I'm gonna go watch Blue Crush now (again) so I can fantasize about dating surfer girls (which I won't).

And...would you like me to send you and J.W a couple pairs of boxing gloves following that exchange over "books" as "containers"? You should tell my instigating amigo that love conquers semantics.

Posted by: The Bizness on June 28, 2003 12:13 PM



David -- I suspect Gilbert is looking more closely at the details of "The Governess," while I'm focusing a bit more on the larger shape of the film. If you do the first, I think you probably wind up going along with how Goldbacher wants the film to be taken. Doing the second, I came up with a different experience completely. Is Aldrich any good, by the way? I've often been tempted to read him but have never bit. I could never figure out if he was delivering the genuine goods or was just playing to what the lit world likes to imagine about upper-crust WASPs. And then laziness overcame me anyway. Do you recommend him?

Bizness -- Thanks for the nudge, I'll rent the South Park movie soon. This is pure speculation, but I think I'm getting the sense that people generally will be relaxing a bit about PC racial things in the near future, much as they relaxed a bit about PC sexual things after Monica. The younger people I bump into seem to think that all the (Boomer era) anxieties and uptightnesses about racial stuff is plain silly. But my radar is often faulty. What's your sense about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 29, 2003 01:20 AM



It's been a while but as I remember, the Aldrich book is worth reading. He avoids the major trap of making it into a guide-book with list of clubs, schools and secret-handshakes. Of course, as to his accuracy, I couldn't possibly comment.

But I will go see Ms. Goldbacher's movie and I am curious: will I see your cut? or Gilbert's?

Btw, the yoga is _extremely_ good for skiing.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 29, 2003 10:07 AM



The South Park movie is also a musical. Like many episodes of The Simpsons. FWIW.

Interesting of the Biz to bring up South Park - freewheeling is certainly an apt description of Messer Park and Stone's oeuvre.

Posted by: j.c. on June 29, 2003 02:50 PM



Is it not the details which account for the larger shape?

Posted by: gilbert on June 30, 2003 10:12 AM






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