Friday Things: The Grab Bag That Is Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Okja, Haim and Jay-Z

+ Isn’t it weird how carving out a few hours to see a movie in a theater becomes *such* a production when you have a kid? Suffice it to say, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a movie in an actual theater since having Ben.

But I made it a point to see Sofia Coppola’s new film ‘The Beguiled’ in the theater when it came out here. Because 1. it’s terrific eye candy and 2. supporting female directors at the box office, where it matters, because Hollywood speaks only in the language of money and female directors (even ones as privileged as Sofia) have a hard time in the industry.

I loved seeing The Beguiled on the big screen — true to Sofia’s style, it’s really visually beautiful in a delicate, feminine way. It’s also pretty narratively taut as a thriller, especially at the end, and surprisingly gruesome and brutal. (Handled in a tasteful way, of course.) The woman clearly knows where to put a camera, and how to fill a frame in the most poetic yet concise way, and I think her Best Director at Cannes was well-deserved. She also has a great hand with actors, and gets wonderful performances out of her stars, including Nicole Kidman’s flinty schoolmistress.

Lots of people have been discussing race and The Beguiled, as well as how she’s handled it during her entire career. (Not well is the consensus.) I’m glad the conversation is happening — it’s an important one to have, and you can read arguments on the various sides elsewhere.

I’ve mulled it over myself, and while I do agree Sofia isn’t especially adroit at representing race or even gender in an ‘intersectional’ way, I also don’t think she’s necessarily the filmmaker to critique to have a productive conversation about how to improve representation of race in American cinema. Sofia is, above all, a filmmaker whose work is about interiority and privilege — the bubble of it, the isolation of it, the insularity of it and yes, even the beauty of it. All her films are about this — it’s something very inherent in her creative DNA.

Not only is her work ABOUT (wealthy white) privilege, but she occupies a privileged perch WITHIN the industry she works in — she benefits from her family privilege, and is able to maintain a rare and true independence from the industry at large, which gives her the ability to make, really, any film she wants the way she wants it. She has never evinced any ability or real interest in representing the ‘outsider’ point of view, and I think she is a smart enough and self-aware enough artist to know she would be rather terrible at it.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t critique Sofia and make her aware of her blind spots — and often I would love to see her apply her particular sense of beauty to a different milieu. But maybe we should focus on getting other women and POC filmmakers in a position similar to her own, where they too can make and distribute films in the way they want about what they want.

(Interestingly enough, Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ is coming out, and she is a white woman director who WILL tackle race head on as an issue in the movie — so I hope everyone’s critical antennae will be up, and debate will be actually more fruitful around the film, simply because Kathryn is also a filmmaker whose roots are EXPLICITLY political. Her ‘canvas’ isn’t the emotional interiority of white femininity — it’s the social fabric in general, and I think she’s a much better filmmaker to center a debate about film, race and representation around.)

The other point I want to make only makes sense if you know the larger debate about The Beguiled and how Sofia excised the few black characters in the original 1971 film. A lot of people find it inexcusable, and I definitely see that point. But I also feel like people forget that the original film is basically a misogynistic film about male ‘victimhood’ that portrays women pretty negatively, and where a white male soldier actively tries to compare his position in the film to that a black female slave. To me, this feels equally problematic to me, and all around just gross. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine if Sofia had kept the character in her version, but I also have a sense that Sofia wouldn’t be able to fully explore that character’s difference without accusations of either getting it wrong or ignoring race altogether. Again…I love Sofia’s work for its beauty, craft and skill. But I never would look to her for incisive social commentary — I just don’t think it’s part of her skill set.

(By the way, here’s Sofia on her thinking. Think of it what you will…)

+ I loved The Beguiled on the big screen, but I recently saw Okja on Netflix on my TV, and I really wish I had the opportunity to see it in a theater. It was a pretty stunning mixture of children’s ‘animal buddy’ film, action-adventure and dystopian sci-fi-ish world-building. The effects are all amazing — and all serve a pretty taut, baroque narrative as well. Something in Bong Joon-Ho’s work reminds me of both Spielberg and Terry Gilliam, and I’m pretty psyched to see that each of his projects since his breakthrough film ‘The Host’ seem to be getting bigger and bigger in terms of ambition and visibility. I would check it out, though be aware that you’ll probably want to go vegan for a few weeks after seeing the last part…eesh.

+ Suddenly it’s become the summer of music! I’ve been into the newest records by Haim and Jay-Z. Haim is one of those bands I enjoy, but sometimes I find them pretty overrated. Not bad, mind you — just a little more modest in comparison to the critical love that gets bestowed upon them. But with each listen I like their new record more and more. It’s more of that blend of Fleetwood Mac classic rock and 90s R&B, but lyrically what impresses me more this time is their ‘female rake’ persona. It’s not vulgar or anything, but I love the sense that their sexuality is discreet but unruly — and how their songs are always like, “Sorry I was a shit to you, dude, I’m sorry, let’s be friends and maybe make out again?” in a way that’s sensitive yet unapologetic. It’s sort of the way I wish I was when I was in my 20s! Instead I was pretty romantic and dramatic and everything was sooooooo serious…but that’s a story for another day!

The Jay-Z record is concise but maybe pretty powerful because of that reason — certainly more filler would dilute the emotional resonance of it. Because it’s a pretty riveting document of male emotional intimacy — rarely self-pitying, but pretty unflinching and rigorously self-critical when Jay’s at his most open and honest. I kind of think it should be required listening for most dudes for that reason. We talk a lot about toxic masculinity in pop culture now, but it’s pretty amazing to actually hear the emotional practice of reckoning with it in something that feels like ‘real time.’

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