I finally saw Carol. I’ve been hearing about this film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt forever, but a variety of scheduling conflicts prevented me from seeing it until yesterday. Also, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would connect with an arty film about two upper-classy white femmes fallings in love in a time of repression.I didn’t need to worry. I thought it was brilliant. I connected.Read More
This summer I've been watching Bravo's Work of Art, which is a reality TV show dedicated to finding "the next great artist." It's both ridiculous and engrossing. If you haven't seen it, Work of Art is basically like Project Runway, except instead of clothing, the contestants make art. Next Wednesday is the finale, and I'm really curious to see what kind of show the three finalists put on.
A few themes crop up in every episode of Work of Art: inspiration, process, and autobiography. What's interesting to me is that these are the themes that crop up all the time when I'm interviewed about writing. I can't count the number of times I've been asked where I get my inspiration, or to talk about my writing process. I'm also amazed at how repeatedly I'm asked if Ash is autobiographical.
I know that lots of people are fascinated by artists. I think there really is something magical and mysterious-seeming about the act of creating something meant to be art, whether it's a painting or a sculpture or a novel or a poem. And I admit that I've been completely fascinated by watching these reality show contestants make their art on television.
Are their final products good? I don't know. Some of them are, but they mostly suffer from the thing that reality TV derives most of its drama from: time constraints. I think that it's certainly possible to create on deadline (I've done it many times), but if your aim is to make something that is multi-layered and complicated, you can't always rush it. Ideas take time to settle, and sometimes they turn into something totally different than what you started with.
What's most intriguing to me about Work of Art is the fact that these artists go through a kind of speeded-up version of the creative process. Every challenge, they're given a day or two to make something loosely inspired by a vague theme such as "nature" (Episode 9) or "male/female" (Episode 8). Each episode, the artists grapple with this snippet of inspiration and try to wrangle it into something physical: a statue, a photograph, a weird art installation involving nails and bleach. And each artist seems to channel that snippet of inspiration through their autobiography. There's a scene in pretty much every episode in which one of the artists muses about how he or she can focus that idea through their own experience, whether it's of being obsessive-compulsive, or of being leered at by men, or of growing up in an art commune.
It struck me that autobiography, here, is presented as practically the end-all-be-all of inspiration. Maybe this is because it's a reality show, and reality TV focuses heavily on the personalities of the cast. But in actual, real-world reality, I don't think that autobiography is everything.
I think that the artists on the show are actually trying to take an externally imposed idea (e.g., male/female) and make it their own. It seems as though the concept is then refracted through their personal experience, but I don't think that the end result is actually autobiographical — at least not all the time.
In Episode 8, contestant Jaclyn Santos, who has become known during the show for her nude self-portraits, painted an image of a woman masturbating to represent "female" in the male/female binary. (Her teammate, Miles, made an installation representing "male.") During the critique, one of the critics actually asked her if she had ever masturbated standing up. She seemed stunned and bemused by the question, but ultimately said, "Sure, yeah."
The thing is, what does it matter if she's done that before? I think a lot of the time we read an artist's autobiography in their work, but that's not always an accurate reading. In that episode, Jaclyn started off by photographing herself nude, and then making a painting from that photograph. She covered up the photos with draperies while she was painting because she didn't want others to see images of her naked. I remember one of the artists wondering why she bothered, because everyone was going to see her naked in the painting in the end, anyway.
[Edited to add: On Jaclyn's official blog, she states that she hung the draperies in order to protect her painting from the flying sawdust in the studio, not because she was embarrassed.]
I disagree, though. By the time the photos — which definitely were of her body — had been translated into a painting, the image was no longer of Jaclyn. She had no self-consciousness showing the nude painting, unlike the photos, because the painting was not of her. It was a painting of a concept of "female." Whether or not she personally had ever done the act depicted in the painting was pretty much irrelevant and only revealed that the person who asked the question was thinking with parts other than his brain.
My experience as a writer, working alone at my desk, is obviously very different from the experiences of the cast of Work of Art. But in the autobiography theme, I see an interesting parallel. I do think that personal experience is important in being a writer. I think the best preparation for becoming a writer is having a life. But that doesn't mean that one uses those experiences directly in one's work.
For me, at least, all of my experiences become tools that I use in the service of telling a story. The feelings that are written down on the page in a novel may have been felt by me, but probably not in the situation or context presented in the novel. I'm kind of bemused by these questions, as well, because if I wanted to write an autobiography, I would. I've written autobiographical essays before, and someday I might very well want to write a memoir. ((Of course, a memoir wouldn't necessarily be "real," either, but I digress ...))
Anyway, I'm not sure if I really have a point here, except that I've been hooked on this show. The prurient interest in Jaclyn's personal experiences aside, it's the first time I've ever seen the creative process depicted this way on television. It's packaged for a reality TV audience, sure, but even with that frame around it, I think there are some truths in there about making art, and about finding inspiration.
I feel as though the lesson of the series (if you're looking for lessons), is that inspiration is a slippery beast, and sometimes it wriggles out of your grasp and escapes entirely, but sometimes, if you keep working at it, something unexpected comes out and sticks to the wall in the end. It's not really such a bad lesson.
I saw Salt last weekend. I thought it was awesome. And I kept thinking about it, until I wrote up this whole blog post about the way that femininity is turned on its head in Salt. (Spoilers necessary for analysis ahead!) As the movie begins, Angelina Jolie's character, Evelyn Salt, is imprisoned and tortured in North Korea. We see her stripped down to her lacy white underwear while she's being beaten. Salt is extremely vulnerable in this scene. She may not be giving answers to her interrogators, but she's practically naked, bloody, lying on the floor.
In this opening scene, Salt is woman-as-victim, completely rendered helpless while men, all in uniform, assault her. As I watched, I cringed, afraid that it was going to take another step into rape. Thankfully, it did not. Because her male love interest saved her. ((However, despite playing the hero in this scene, Salt's husband remained a sensitive intellectual type during the movie, because he saved her by being pushy with CIA administrators, not by shooting his way into the prison. And I actually found the relationship between Salt and her husband to be kind of quirky and even realistic.))
After this scene, we fast forward a couple of years to the present day, when Salt is celebrating her wedding anniversary (she married the guy who saved her, of course). She's wearing a grey skirt suit with a high slit on one side, along with 3-inch heels. She's at the office and trying to learn how to fold a napkin properly. There are jokes about how bad she is at this kind of domestic task.
When the action starts and Salt is forced to flee, the first thing she does is take off her heels so that she can run faster. I admit, this made me laugh with glee. I cannot count the number of times I've been flat-out annoyed by action movies in which the female heroine has to sprint in heels. I was very happy that Salt abandoned hers.
Next, in order to obscure a video surveillance camera, Salt pulls off her black lacy underwear and throws it over the camera lens. Not only is Salt removing yet another marker of femininity (those were not Hanes briefs), she uses that feminine accessory to help her escape. ((I realize that this scene might also have given a cheap thrill to those in the audience who liked to imagine Jolie running around without underwear, but since Salt's next move is building a chemical bomb out of cleaning products, I'll give that a pass.))
Remember, at this time Salt is also barefoot. The first thing she does after making it back to her apartment is grab some boots (boots, thank you!!) and put on some jeans (buh-bye, skirt). The rest of the movie is one long chase scene, during which Salt does some extraordinary things like leaping off highway overpasses onto moving trains, surviving car crashes that would have killed ordinary men (and women), and getting in fights with men twice her size yet still managing to defeat them.
She also has a number of costume changes, which I found very interesting. While she's playing the part of an assassin, she dyes her hair black and dresses all in black, but it's not sexualized at all. She's dressing for the job.
While she visits a Russian spy leader, she puts on a Russian fur hat and cloak, looking very Dr. Zhivago. This is the second most feminine moment in the movie for Salt, and appropriately, during this scene she runs into her husband again. Unfortunately for her husband, he dies in this scene, and after this, that's the end of femininity for Salt.
The last big sequence in the film has Salt dressed in drag. Yes: Salt dresses as a man (in uniform, no less! the roles from the first scene have been totally reversed here) to infiltrate the White House. Gone are any vestiges of femininity; instead Salt's hair is short, she's wearing a suit and men's shoes, and she speaks (though minimally) in a lower register. Salt does wears prosthetics to alter the shape of her face slightly, which makes her look a bit odd at first. But she peels that off soon after we (the audience) realize that Jolie is behind that mask, and then it's Salt (clearly) in menswear for the rest of the movie.
In an interview about the film, Jolie said that it was very important to her that Salt not be re-glamorized at the end of the movie. That she stay roughed up (and in pants and a button-down shirt!):
There was even talk for a long time about adding a scene in the end... because, I mean, if you've seen it, I don't end so pretty. And there was a discussion about, do you kind of catch up with her glamorous again because this is what people would want, this is what audiences would want, and we made a definitive decision of no, it's very, very important that we don't do that to her, so we always angled it back into... trying to make it just harder and more raw. (Cinematical)
Tossing aside those trappings of femininity one by one — the shoes, the underwear, the skirt — transformed Salt from the victim in the opening scene to the hardened agent who cuts a path through the rest of the movie. The fact that she becomes briefly feminine for the last scene with her husband was interesting to me because it also marked the end of her femininity. ((Does this imply that without a husband, a woman has no need for femininity? Maybe. I don't think that's true, but it is an interesting statement on the role of femininity.))
After that, she went full-on into masculinity, and without those trappings of femininity, I found Salt to be much more naked in these scenes. She was, ultimately, all coiled action and roiling emotion. She was definitely raw. She felt real — as real as an action movie hero can feel, I think. Watching her climb buildings barefoot and survive insane amounts of explosions was fun, but it wasn't realistic. Real was Salt at the end: bruised, defiant, hurt, desperate, and still going.
Feminine artifice can be truly fascinating. I think that women in real life have used femininity to their own advantage for centuries, but most Hollywood movies ignore (or obscure) the subversive nature of femininity, instead presenting a flat vision of femininity that disempowers women while it underscores heteronormativity.
Salt really turned that vision of femininity on its head. It was openly, gloriously celebratory of Salt's power — regardless of whether or not she was wearing heels and lingerie. I think that might be the most triumphant element of the movie overall.
I'm not saying that the movie is the best thing ever made for women. It's clear that a woman can't just be a woman ((Granted, part of me wants to delve into "what's just a woman, anyway?")) in this kind of movie, yet; she has to be more manly than the men. But I'll accept that, as a step toward evening the field for women in Hollywood.