Tuesday, September 23, 2008

“Burn After” “The Women”

There are certain precautions that moviegoers take to guarantee an entertaining experience. They choose a non-busy time of day, like during school or work hours. They buy all of their favorite snacks. They use the bathroom before they’re flanked on both sides by foot-resting patrons. They strategically choose a seat in the exact center of the room. And some—particularly me—choose a specific showing because it ends minutes before another film starts.

These few could be thought of as thieving vagrants or even as the main reason theaters are going out of business, but most are simply pessimists. They’re certain that one of these movies will suck, so they’ve decided that the easiest way to not feel cheated is to go for what my movie partner and I like to refer to as a 2-for-1 special (or a twofer).

Last Thursday night I watched The Women and, in the event it failed to capture the essence of the female psyche, I synchronized it with Burn After Reading—for some good old Coen Brothers dark humor. As I sat there, centered to perfection—not too high, not too low—popping kernels into my gullet with an empty tank, I found myself slightly distracted. There wasn’t a baby wailing in the background, or a feverishly texting glow emanating beside me or a boisterous peanut gallery commentary echoing through the room. The problem was smack dab on the screen, glaring at me…taunting me.

I’m 22 and I’m not judgmental—okay, I’m human, so of course I’m judgmental—but for some reason I could not stop staring at the incredible amount of facial blemishes that were burned to celluloid. Every one of those white women had sagging, rooster-like skin, or the complexion of ripe bananas, or tight foreheads and cheekbones that posed stark contrasts to the aforementioned pelican-like, sagging necks. I understand the attempt to portray women as they are, since men are often bare-boned in every film, but boy was that distracting.

I was actually expecting to be distracted by one of The Women. Meg Ryan has long sported a Joker-like grin ever since she crawled out of that hole that she was plunged into after her affair with Russell Crowe. But then I snuck my way into Burn After Reading, planting myself a little closer than I wanted to—but a good four rows from the screen—and I patiently waited for the off-beat humor to kick in. And while I started to realize that this film’s characters were more on the pathetic side than funny, and that it fit more into the suspense drama genre than dark comedy, I began to notice how smooth Frances McDormand’s skin was and how it showed even more when she put on her doe-eyed expression of innocence ignorance. Even someone as seasoned and respected as Frances gets a tweak here and there.

Then Tilda Swinton comes on the screen. She and Nicole Kidman have the tightest and milkiest hides I’ve ever seen, but her’s seems more natural. While Frances and Swinton flailed around in a sea of testosterone, looking so taut and rested, John Malcovich bore spotty skin, George Clooney grayed by the millisecond, and Richard Jenkins—well, to borrow a phrase from The Women—looked like a meteor hit his face and left tear drop-sized craters in its wake.

Forget what it says about me that I could spend nearly four hours pecking away at someone’s appearance instead of trying to gauge or appreciate the meaning behind these stories. Think of what it says about society that two very different films, geared to very different audiences, and written and directed by very different auteurs would share a thread of similarity—especially this thread.

In The Women, Candice Bergen hypocritically gets a face lift after mocking a socialite by saying she looked like she was reentering the earth’s atmosphere, and Meg Ryan’s 11-year-old daughter smokes cigarettes so she won’t gain weight. Whether she is skinny or fat is irrelevant—she’s fucking 11. Is that when it starts? It apparently has to start, because even in Burn After Reading, Frances’ character isn’t determined to blackmail a CIA agent because of the intrigue, or danger, or adventure of it all. No, she wants enough money to get four different plastic surgery operations that will nip and tuck every ounce of fat she’s accumulated over the last 20 years, because—as she put it—she’s gone as far as she can with the body she has now. And while Clooney and Brad Pitt aren’t as consciously obsessed with their appearance, both are quite addicted to exercise—one to cope with infidelity and escape from intimacy post-sex and the other as a profession and a hobby.

Is this the new Hollywood trend? Screw the excessive airbrushing and bring on the gritty close-ups? I’m all for realism—in a reality show, a documentary, or a news brief—but nobody goes to the movies for realism. It’s like when my dad feels the urge to yell things like “that’s impossible” or “there’s no way he/she could’ve done that” to the TV. I keep having to tell him, “Of course not, it’s make believe.”

I’ve spent the last 20 years watching movies and TV shows where teens don’t have to be sat down for a ProActiv intervention and women over 40 were never zoomed in on any further than their waist, so it’s going to be a while before I can sit through an entire film without wondering why someone’s face looks like its melting down their neck. But, of course, trying to look young or perfect on the screen can also be distracting. A perfect example is that of Ryan’s Joker grimace, which varied during the film between post-Crowe smile and its faintly memorable You’ve Got Mail/When Harry Met Sally phase. Another good example is the collagen-inflated lips that Ellen Barkin pouted in her portrayal of a cougar on the prowl for an inexperienced and eager-to-please Matt Damon in Ocean’s Thirteen. But an even better one is actually on the small screen. I watched the two-hour pilot of “90210” and scrutinized it heavily for any signs of “Gossip Girl” cult-following potential and then stopped short when I noticed how ridiculously skinny the three main female characters were: If the camera really does add five pounds, those girl weighed 15 at best...combined.

Is there no common ground?

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