Sunday, January 14, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

I love a good juicy potboiler, and it doesn’t hurt when the leads are women (played in this case by the superlative Judi Dench and the wonderful Cate Blanchett). It does hurt that Notes on a Scandal’s plot—adapted from a novel by Zoe Heller—trades in stereotypes of the “vampire lesbian,” the frigid spinster, and the bitter, battle axe school teacher, but Dench’s acting mitigates these images to an extent that makes the film worth seeing.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, the longtime school teacher intrigued by the lithe (and blithe) new art teacher, Sheba Hart. Their names set up the basic plot device: through prurient entries in her long-running journal, to which the audience is privy through deliciously deluded voiceovers, Barbara writes that she feels Sheba is “the one I’ve waited for,” and begins to covet her close friendship and even her body, at which she gazes with a barely contained lascivious longing throughout the film.

Sheba approaches middle age with a dawning disappointment in how her life has transpired, undone by what she calls the “gap” between life as it is and life as she imagined it would be. Listening only to her heart, she’s manipulated into an impetuous affair with a 15-year-old student who plays on her beauty and her liberal sympathies to seduce her. When Barbara discovers the affair, she decides to use the secret to claim Sheba’s affections and her intimacy, ever increasing the stridency and unreasonableness of her emotional demands until the secret unravels and both women come to a qualified ruin.

Their class status has everything to do with how far (or not) these women fall. Sheba comes to teaching on something of a lark, desperate for some freedom from her family rather than because she really needs to work. Her much older husband (played with amused then wounded, lanky playfulness by Bill Nighy) was her teacher at university; her teenaged daughter is absorbed in her own romantic angst; and her affectionate 10-year-old son was born with Down’s syndrome. Their clearly upper-middle class home, inherited from a monied family, is full of noise and clutter, dancing and laughter, and the intimate, casual physical intimacy they bring along.

One of the best scenes in the film brings Barbara to Sheba’s pleasantly upended household for a Sunday lunch, keenly highlighting their differences and the reasons why the ascetic Barbara would be attracted to Sheba’s warm, overflowing life. Taking the invitation way too seriously, the usually disheveled schoolmarm buys a new outfit and accessories, has her hair done and her face made up, and arrives at Sheba’s door full of excitement barely cloaked in what she thinks is the proper formality.

Dench stands before the doorbell, wiping sweating palms on her new suit, hesitating before she rings, her face full of painfully absurd hope and expectation. That brief moment captures the desire of the outcast. Even though by that point, we know that Barbara is insane, her girlish anticipation and social awkwardness is wrenching and strangely moving. She’s out of a league she both wants to infiltrate and wants to dismantle.

The husband, Richard, greets Barbara and the daughter scrutinizes her while Sheba romps elsewhere with the son, Ben. When the daughter asks impertinently why she’s all dressed up, Barbara lies and says she has a later appointment, instantly adapting herself to her changed circumstances. When the family stages their after-dinner dance ritual, Barbara watches what she calls their “bourgeois bohemian behavior” with marked scorn, until Richard insists that she join them. She protests weakly, letting him pull her to her feet, then stands awkwardly, watching the family’s bodies moving freely all around her. Desperate to appear to belong, Barbara begins to move hesitantly, pushing her body about with little jerks that make her look ridiculous. This, too, neatly captures Barbara’s desire to be and to have something that eludes her.

These early scenes provide more layered, nuanced observations of character. Once Barbara discovers Sheba’s affair, the film drops precipitously into melodrama and the unfortunate stereotypes that drive Barbara’s character become more evident. In grim voiceover, she conspires to bind Sheba closer by keeping the secret of her affair, but the costs for both women grow large. When Barbara’s beloved cat Portia dies, Barbara insists that Sheba accompany her to the vet, literally pulling her between her own needs and those of Sheba’s family, who wait impatiently in their family station wagon to leave for Ben’s first-ever school performance. Sheba “naturally” chooses her family against Barbara’s unnatural expectations; Barbara flies into a rage and leaks the secret of her affair.

When the boy’s utterly ordinary parents find out that his teacher is abusing him, they drive to the Hart house for a confrontation that’s staged as a cat fight between the boy’s mother and Sheba, precipitating the descent of media hounds who feed on Sheba’s shame. Her daughter screams at Sheba for having sex with a boy younger than her own boyfriend, and Richard kicks Sheba out of the family home. She flies into Barbara’s waiting arms and hides in her small dark apartment until, inevitably, she finds Barbara’s diary and understands that she’s been a pawn in the older woman’s deluded machinations.

Barbara, it seems, has a history of these thwarted relationships with younger women, all documented in hardback journals that line her shelves, inexorably documenting a lifetime of fantasy driven by loneliness. Her last “friend” had a restraining order taken out on her when Barbara threatened her pending marriage. The schoolmaster forces Barbara to resign her post when he suggests he’ll reveal her “perversions” to the community. But his threat is unnecessary, since the press, at least in screenwriter Patrick Marber’s hands, already taunts Barbara, calling her “dyke” and insinuating that her care for Sheba is less than altruistic.

Sheba, too, when she finally understands Barbara’s self-interest, attacks the woman for her desire, asking incredulously if Barbara thought they would be lovers. Barbara begs her not to diminish their relationship with such degradations, but the point is made: it’s not Sheba’s moral vacuity that’s at issue, finally, but Barbara’s perverse longings that the film damns most resolutely.

In the typical vampire lesbian story, though, the older woman’s young “victim” is an unspoiled innocent. Although Barbara here notes Sheba’s creamy, unblemished peach complexion, she’s hardly a virgin. Sheba, in fact, is a spoiled, arrogant woman, who feels entitled to what her whims dictate. She teaches because she’s bored with keeping her home; she can’t articulate why she has the affair with the student, except to say that she wanted him. She unloads her superficial needs on Barbara, who soaks them up and twists them for her own purposes, but scenes of the two women talking in Sheba’s studio clarify that, in fact, the relationship suits Sheba, since Barbara is an attentive, apparently self-abnegating friend.

Ultimately, the film resolves its crisis quickly and predictably. Sheba returns home, where her husband takes her back wordlessly (in a scene played by Nighy and Blanchett with more nuance than any of the spoken dialogue provides) and stands beside her through her trial and sentencing (to a rather paltry 10 months in jail).

Barbara resigns her teaching post, buries her cat, and returns to the hillside aerie where she takes all her would-be paramours, only to find her next young female prey already sitting on her favorite bench. Dench’s sidelong glances at the pretty girl are full of renewed hope and rekindled desire; perhaps, in fact, this is the one.

Notes on a Scandal offers a diverting 90 minutes of watching great actors find depths in superficial, stereotypical material. But wouldn’t it be nice if such skilled women actors could apply their talents to a script that didn’t trade in tired images of female sexuality? Wouldn’t it be a boon to our imaginations if the boy with Down’s wasn’t used by the script to secure the husband’s saintliness and the wife’s martyrdom, to somehow explain and justify her extramarital dalliance? Wouldn’t it be delightful to finally drive a stake through the heart of the vampire lesbian?

I think so.

Ever hopeful,
The Feminist Spectator

Monday, January 01, 2007

"Dexter" on Showtime

The season ended last month for this new Showtime series, but it’s worth watching out for the DVD release and for the new season in 2007. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer (whose victims are rarely found or investigated) who kills for altruistic reasons, dispatching neatly (literally, neatly) with people who for various reasons “normal” society would consider the scum of the earth.

In his day job, Dexter works for the Miami Police Department as a “blood spatter expert” (a new position, at least as far as I know, in my vast knowledge of crime shows), who analyses murder scenes for clues in what the exsanguinated have left behind.

In the PD crew aspect of the show, Dexter is a cut above routine. The lab work here integrates more seamlessly with conventional gumshoe detective work, blending the best of the now heavily edited, effects-laden CSI series with the more hard-bitten face-to-face investigative sensibility of the Law and Order series. The detectives and crime scene analysts are rich characters on Dexter, although each serves his or her own neat purpose in a fairly generic way.

The squad is lead by Latina lieutenant Maria LaGuerta, whose scrappy, anti-authority pose gets her demoted by the season’s end. Her second is an African American sergeant named James Doakes, who carries a large chip of professional and social jealousy on his shoulder and aims his aggression primarily at Dexter. This conflict sets up the central terms of the show’s engagement with masculinity: James is muscled and butch, given to pulling his gun instinctively and quickly, while Dexter enters crime scenes inquisitively and instinctively, his stature smaller, slinkier, and somewhat fey. James’ bald head gleams rather ominously through the season, while Dexter can’t seem to find a decent razor and wears his beard’s shadow like a sign of his apparent disregard for appearances.

The rest of the squad rounds out the now de rigueur rainbow effect of “hip” television shows, yet here, too, the characters rise above their racial expediencies. Batista is a recently-divorced Cuban-American who wears guayaberas and bowler hats and works on more cerebral instincts than James or Dexter. Dexter’s Japanese-American assistant investigator wears his thick, slipping spectacles like a proud badge of his trade and quips at unlikely moments in sardonic, often very funny ways. Both characters serve their functions as smart squad members, and both reveal surprising vulnerabilities.

Dexter’s sister Deb and his girlfriend Rita round out the cast of characters and their conflicts. Deb offers spectators questions rather than answers about Dexter’s past, since the first season’s trajectory aims to reveal why Dexter kills and why blood is not just his profession but his obsession. Dexter, as we know from the start, was adopted. Although he loves Deb (in the extremely limited way of which his character is capable), he’s not related to her by blood, and blood (without spoiling the season’s ending) becomes determining in the relationships Dexter pursues and confronts.

Deb, too, is a police officer on the squad; she’s just transferred in, and has to prove herself. She’s also the love-deluded woman who ends up in grave distress, a rather pat role that actor Jennifer Carpenter and the generally smart script work against by giving Deb an easily provoked kind of seething rage. Where Dexter’s repressions keep him battened down (even though he reports, in his voiceovers, that sometimes his head feels like it might explode), Deb’s emotions run rampant over murder scenes and her personal life (especially when they overlap). Their contrasting characters—he, all secret depths and evasions, she, all surface and heart—and their insistent commitment to each other based on nurture rather than nature provides the show’s heart.

Dexter’s relationship with Rita, his girlfriend, is more fraught, ambivalent, and convenient. Rita’s recently removed herself and her two young kids from a marriage with a drug-, wife-, and child-abusing husband, whose early release from prison makes him a taunting, complicating presence throughout the season. Rita struggles to ward off her ex’s persistent intrusions back into her life, but she’s weak and vague, damaged by history and uncertain how to handle the future. Dexter’s placid, competent exterior makes him a perfect mate for her, and her fluttering femininity and goopy sweetness make her a perfect beard for him, since his sex drive is sublimated into his executions of evil-doers.

Rita gives Dexter a cover for his distinct lack of conventional masculinity. Since he’s played by Michael C. Hall, who spent all those seasons as the gay mortician brother David on HBO’s Six Feet Under, the ghost of David haunts Hall’s rendition of Dexter. People sense Dexter has a secret; what in other narratives would be his homosexuality is, here, his propensity for killing bad people. People know there’s something damaged about Dexter, but his fellow characters don’t have the benefit of the quick, teasing flashbacks the audience is fed of a little boy in a blood-soaked room, screaming as his mother is slashed apparently to death.

We know his murderous instincts come from a traumatic past, but it’s interesting to see the other characters try to figure out Dexter’s “problem,” for which queerness is always a presumption close to hand. That Dexter is not at all a closet case but a serial killer is one of the show’s witticisms, although in the final showdown between Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer—the villain du season—homoeroticism leaks into the scene like a distinct, ineradicable, and rather melancholy perfume.

The show’s blood, guts, and gore no doubt appeal to some viewers and require turned heads for others, but the witty writing and the provocative, twisting, season-length story-line offers another level of pleasure, as the writers strew clues around the complicated narrative. The show’s cinematography is equally eloquent and droll. In the weekly opening sequence, the camera captures Dexter’s hands caressing everyday objects in extreme close up, uncovering the innate if hidden violence of, for instance, a razor dragged down a face, or a sharp knife pressed through the skin of an orange or the flesh of a steak. Dexter establishes these quotidian equivalences as if to suggest that the violence our culture sensationalizes lingers close to the everyday, or that there’s only a difference of degree between shaving and slaying someone, between cutting the flesh of a steak and the flesh of a person.

The script sets out murky moral quandaries without taking them too seriously. Much such rumination is covered in Dexter’s wry, contemplative voiceovers, purposefully Chandleresque in language and tone. But his reveries often subtly point out our culture’s hypocrisy when it comes to how we celebrate empty notions of “family” (Dexter’s adoptive father saved him from the traumatic horror scene but betrayed him by keeping a crucial part of his history hidden); of love (as Dexter goes through the motions of sex and affection with Rita, even as he occasionally feels a glimmer of something like emotion); and especially of vengeance.

In the last scene of the first season, after the villain is unmasked and dispatched, the moment slips into fantasy, as Dexter imagines “what it would be like to reveal everything.” He and Deb move through a mob of people and police, whose faces and hands move in to congratulate Dexter on a job well done. He smiles with delight as the crowd chants his name, and wave pictures of him outlined in patriotic bunting. Red-white-and-blue confetti falls as the crowd heralds Dexter as an American hero.

But as the scene dissolves, Dexter admits that his survival depends on living his life in hiding (like the other vigilante superheroes whom he in some way resembles: Clark Kent/Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman). But he knows and we know that if the crowd knew the truth, they’d appreciate it and want to celebrate him just as they do in Dexter’s fantasy.

That’s the pleasure of Dexter: the wish fulfillment of the ineffectual nebbish who’s secretly smarter than everyone and sees that justice is done, even as his moral landscape is flooded with ethical doubt and emotional ambivalence. Somehow, I can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more in 2007.

The Feminist Spectator