I just spent a good part of the weekend and the first half of this week virtually glued to the Tube until I ducked out to the cinema for a film. I was hoping for an answer, or more accurately, a glimmer of wisdom regarding a question that men have asked for years, and by that I mean as long as there have been men and women. The question: What are women really like when they’re not in the presence of men, and of course the corollary – which is how funny are they?
For the record, though these questions have been asked for eons, a definitive answer has yet to be discovered to the former, and while some are still pondering the latter, I think it safe to safe that yes – women are funny.
My eyes took in a stand-up comedy performance by Ellen DeGeneres, the new Julia Louis-Dreyfus series called Veep, the new HBO series created, directed by, and starring Lena Dunham called Girls, along with the Whit Stillman film entitled Damsels in Distress.
I caught the Ellen DeGeneres HBO Special called The Beginning which originally aired back in 2000. It was shot at the Beacon Theater, long a concert landmark on Broadway and 74th Street on NYC’s Upper West Side. There was a super opening shot, in a single continuous take (no cuts) which took us from the tree tops above Broadway, down to the sidewalk, straight through the street level doors, through the lobby, making a left turn to enter the mostly darkened theater where we then proceeded down the left orchestra level aisle, straight onto the stage, and we finally ended up behind Ellen who had just been introduced as the camera made its way down the aisle. Fabulous opening.
This was back in 2000, and this concert tour were Ellen’s first live appearances since she had come out publicly, three years prior. Ellen’s announcement had made the cover of Time magazine on April 14th, 1997. This time, DeGeneres chose to not discuss that event.
Instead she did an interpretive dance that began with her mouthing the words, Hey Everybody – I’m Gay.
You know DeGeneres – she’s fearless. She’ll do whatever she likes, and then tell everyone that it isn’t up to them, so they can stuff their judgments. Isn’t she also the one that once said – “Procrastinate now. Don’t put it off.”
Well in this 66 minute performance, DeGeneres covers plenty of familiar topics like ants that always walk in a single file, like God is actually a 42-year old black woman, like spiders have families and feelings, like silence is golden, and lots,lots more.
I’m not going to quote repeatedly from a show that was broadcast in 2001. Instead I’ll tell you briefly that my reaction was that DeGeneres is very, very funny. Not that she tells great jokes, or even great stories. It’s more like her delivery is so flawless and comfortable. Yes, she’s a big star on TV, but in this particular setting it’s like she’s a regular in my particular corner bar, or I run into her at the super market often or is it the tennis club – then again, maybe it’s the library. Her style is friendly if not all fuzzy warm, as if all of 2873 people at the Beacon theater that night knew her personally, and she knew them personally and she was on a first name basis with each of them. Of course that’s not the case (about the audience) but it is a reaction, and that’s why I like her.
If you weren’t there, you can still watch this show until the end of May, 2012 on hbogo.com if you have a paid HBO account through your cable provider, or you can watch it via a DVD rental from Netflix, or you can buy the DVD. By the way, this show was nominated for an Emmy. Deservedly.
When the Seinfeld show went off the air – Jerry Seinfeld himself basically stepped aside, at least for a while. He didn’t need to work regularly any longer. But his associates from the show Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Larry David, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus stayed in the game, and each of them found work resulting in greater or lesser degrees of success. Speaking of Dreyfus, she went on to launch a series called The New Adventures of the Old Christine which ran from 2006 to 2010. And we all know how well the ‘enthusiastic’ Larry David fared with his show.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is back with a brand new series called VEEP which airs on HBO. The first episode was aired just a few weeks ago on April 22nd. A bare-bones synopsis tells us that Dreyfus, playing Selina Meyer, is a former US Senator now ensconced as the Vice President of the United States, literally a heart-beat away from the Presidency. As highfalutin’ and as impressive as that might sound, on this show, this Veep’s Vice-Presidency is a far cry from its actual importance. If we can call this Veep ‘well-intended’, we must also call her ‘gaffe prone’.
Yes, she gets a Secret Service detail, and her motorcade can usually get wherever it needs to get without much planning. You know, people tend to pull over for a group of big, fast-moving vehicles with dark-tinted windows which are visually impenetrable, with motorcycle police escorts and lots of flashing lights and howling sirens.
But the thing of it is – no one on the banks of the Potomac, or along the Beltway, or even within the corridors of power that line those riverbanks, or just about anywhere else around the nation’s capital, takes the Veep seriously.
In the first episode, she gathers her staff and rushes off to a ‘very important’ meeting at the Senate that she’s been asked to go to. Only she’s going to find less than a dozen scattered people about at the venue. Our beloved Veep says, “What’s going on? Amy, there aren’t enough people to fill a fucking canoe here.” Things go downhill from there as the Veep finds out that her initiative to switch over to corn starch utensils in all government buildings has offended the plastics lobby. Amy switches to action mode and calls the Veep’s Press Secretary, “Mike, what’s going on here? I’m in a room with three people and a fuck-load of Quiche.” Right about there, you almost wish for a laugh track.
Later there’s a meeting with Senator Barbara Hallowes. The Veep and the Senator duel by the Veep forgetting the Senator’s daughter’s name which is countered by the Senator asking, How’s your kids? She’s fine. Badabing. Finally we get down to business. The Veep asks the Senator to come aboard the Clean Jobs Commission.
“And get plastics off your back. No – sorry Selina, that would be bad for me.”
“Oh come on!”
“Do you know what plastics are made of? Honey, when you piss off plastics, you piss off oil. And you do not won’t to fuck with those guys…cause when they fuck with you, it’s very nasty “
So barely seven minutes in we’ve heard the F-bomb close to a dozen times. Scintillating stuff.
Of course, the show itself is the television equivalent of a foul-mouthed grand-daughter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or the daughter of Cheers which means that the star is in a work environment that’s this time is not a tv station or a bar. Using a political setting in lieu of a workplace is somewhat new to TV (West Wing not withstanding – and in my view this show is definitely west of West Wing), yet it’s still a workplace but it would be a dot.gov rather than a dot.com. She’s surrounded by a wacky group of associates, co-workers, and staff, and that’s just a conservative description.
There’s Matt Mason as Mike McClintock (White shirt – black tie above), the Press Secretary who always says – Don’t tell me. I want to able to legally deny any knowledge. He also routinely begs off from attending meetings as he has to rush home and walk the dog. And he’s concerned that Meyer’s Wikipedia entry has her weight posted incorrectly. The horror…
There’s Amy Brookheimer, wonderfully played by Anna Chlumsky (above). Amy is greatly disappointed by her job. As is most of the staff. She never expected that being this high up on the Nation’s hierarchy could be such a dead-end job.
There’s Sufe Bradshaw, the show’s sole black person in a regular role, as Sue. She’s Meyer’s personal secretary. So far, three episodes in – her main purpose is to say No, right after Veep Meyer asks the question, Has the President called? Of course this is a running gag on the show – He’s never called. Meyer might be the Vice President – but it seems like no one wants to give her the time of day.
Anyway, Dreyfus has a tough role. She’s got to be charming, ‘presidential’ or in this case ‘vice-presidential’, know how to play the Potomac two-step and at the same time, appear to be a well-dressed nincompoop. I wish her well. Season One has 8 Episodes, and I think the show has already been re-upped. A show that skewers Washington has a lot going for it – at least one would think that would be the case. However, a litany of F-Bombs kind of runs out of steam way too early in the going.
But I thought having Dreyfus give a speech at the fund-raiser (she’s filling in for the President) – and the President’s staff has edited the speech to not let her mention plastics, oil, or cornstarch – was kind of cute, albeit in a nearly unfunny way. Selina, looking at the edited speech cards, says, This has been pencil fucked, completely. There’s nothing left but hello and prepositions. Mike, her Press Secretary shrugs, and says – Just wing it. Of course when winging it, Selina tells jokes that are greeted with silence, she blathers on seemingly unaware of the decidedly non-impact she’s making, until ultimately, she self gaffes when she’s referencing her own staff’s tweet about cornstarch. Her comment is – We were hoist by our own retard. Classic. In a Groucho Marx sort of way, but definitely classic.
To sum it up – Dreyfus is way better than the material. As is her Vice-Presidential staff. Actors 8 – Writing – 4.
Our remaining subjects – Damsels in Distress and Girls share a phenomenon which is that both are set in the present but the former (Damsels in Distress ) plays as if it were set in the 1950’s or 60’s, while Girls plays as if it were set somewhere just ahead of the present. And by that I don’t mean futuristic. I’m thinking that on Girls, I’m seeing stuff that no one has ever seen on television before. I’m also thinking that these shows are joined at the hip because for much of the time, in both the film and the TV show we are able to watch these women when there are no men in sight at all. And that’s where the fun is.
Moving along, let’s take a look at the Girls – the Lena Dunham Series appearing on HBO this spring. If the material on Girls is not groundbreaking, then it is at least ground shaking. Lena Dunham has invoked honesty as her mantra. Nothing is sugar-coated, and nothing is hidden. We get honesty by the truckloads or even in container ship dimensions. Often this honesty is brutal, or it is all so achingly true. While quite a bit of what we see and hear on Girls is intellectually shocking, it is jaw-dropping or stunning because we just don’t expect it, and we’re not used to seeing stuff like this, rather than the scary kind of shocking.
The series foundation is about four girls who are friends, and some of them roommates. They are living in Brooklyn, I think, but theirs is the quintessential New York experience. They need money and they need men. And even though they have some of each, the reality is that really don’t have enough of either.
Lena Dunham plays Hannah. She’s just been told by her parents that they will no longer support her. It is time for her to find her own way without their money. At one point she will calculate that she has only enough money to survive in ‘New York’ for three and half days which could be stretched to a week if she cut back down to one meal a day. Later she’ll go back to her folks and again ask for their support. All I need is $1100 a month for basics. They laugh at her and say that’s absurd. Hannah will be forced to quit her unpaid internship which has lasted for three years.
Sorry, I can no longer afford to work here for free is what she says to her boss. He wishes her well, and out the door she goes leaving herself with no job at all.
Hannah has a boyfriend – the slovenly Adam. He claims he is a struggling actor. The struggling part is true, but we aren’t sure of the actor part. He lives in a sordid rat’s nest of an apartment. He’s usually shirtless. You won’t see a thing about him to like. Yet Hannah sees him regularly. Must be for sex as there’s nothing appealing about him at all. And from what we see of the sex between them, that doesn’t look the least bit appealing either. In fact, I think Hannah would do far better with a handy appliance.
In Episode 2, Hannah reveals that she has HPV. She goes for a gynaecology exam and expresses her fears to her doctor who says – You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again. Hannah, laying there on the doctors table with her legs raised and the doctor about to probe replies, I am 24 and no one is paying me. She’s going to confront Adam because she’s not been with anyone else recently. When she does, he goes all bonkers and basically it is chilling to watch him both deny and tell Hannah that he’s been tested. He’ s suddenly stand-offish, and when Hannah asks if they might still have sex , Adam replies – When it is appropriate. My thought is – that if I were a woman, you couldn’t pay me enough to sleep with Adam.
In Episode Four, Hannah lands a job at a law firm. Her boss is Rich Glatter played by Richard Masur. He’s the touchy-feely kind of boss. Not that he’s sensitive or thoughtful. It’s just the opposite. He actually touches and feels the girls at the office. In most cases he’d be described as a groper. But Hannah endures. She needs the job, and her associates at work say they consider Rich’s gropes a fair trade-off for the job, the salary, and the perks.
Actress Allison Williams portrays Marnie Michaels. She’s tall and beautiful and she has a job. She’s an assistant in a Soho art gallery. She’s got a boyfriend Charlie, and if he’s not quite a live-in-boyfriend, he’s at least an overnight boyfriend. He’s a musician and Marnie has been more than vaguely disappointed in him. So much so that’s she confiding to Hannah about her growing dissatisfaction with him. Unbeknownst to Marnie. Hannah included this talk, nearly verbatim in her diary. Said diary was discovered and read by Charlie’s friend Ray when he was over at the girls apartment with Charlie when the girls were out. Ray was poking around – you know looking for anything that the girl might have that he was not expected to see. Ray shows it to Charlie who gets pissed, and writes a song about it which he sings at the club when Marnie and Hannah are around. Which naturally creates a rift between the girls.
Marnie is working at the gallery on a particular night and there’s a gallery opening party there. She meets an artist and she thinks he’s hot stuff. Nothing happens with him that night – but Marnie is so excited about having met him, that as soon as she gets home from the party, she rushes straight into her bedroom, shuts the door, and instantly has her own hand down into her pants. Nothing wrong with that only you don’t see it all that much on television – and she might take a moment to gather herself and to remove her clothes before plunging into self-pleasure.
Marnie is also very willing and able to dispense opinions and advice – whether asked or not. Sometimes this is very funny and other times it seems a bit of butting in. But hey, these are girls, in their natural unadorned state, and when there’s no men around, so only the proverbial fly on the wall might have better insights than me or any other guy – but the fly isn’t divulging anything.
Shoshanna Shapiro is played by Zosia Mamet, the daughter of playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse, so it’s no surprise that she took up acting. Shoshanna so far is the least developed character – we haven’t as much information about her as the other girls. She still in school, she’s still supported by her parents, and she’s still a virgin. We hear about this in Episode 2 which is entitled Vagina Panic. Shoshanna confides this to Marnie, and that begins a very frank discussion about sex – like what Shoshanna has done and hasn’t done. If anything, this confession is quite candid as well as shocking because it was also unexpected.
The thing about Shoshanna is that she talks so rapidly – it is indeed difficult to hear as well as understand everything she says. It’s not California Valley speak, and it’s not New Yawkese. It’s something else. Like a Long Island dialect. Maybe from Nassau county’s South Shore where the Five Towns enclave is. Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Hewlett, and Woodmere make up the five towns and the area is notable for being amongst the wealthiest areas in New York State, and with one of the highest percentages of Jewish residents in the entire country. I’ve not heard of a Five Towns accent before but I offer it to differentiate it from Nassau’s County’s North Shore residents who are known for their distinctive speech mannerisms which have been called the Locust Valley Lockjaw. Examples of which are the styles of Katherine Hepburn, William Buckley Jr., and Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Anyway, it looks like Shoshanna will lose her virginity before season one is over. I’ve no idea about this as I’ve pointedly not read the episode notes in advance of the episodes. But I don’t think ‘will she or won’t she’ would be ideal for the end of Girls – Season One’s cliff-hanger finale.
That leaves us with Jessa Johannson played by Jemima Kirk. The character is British and is the cousin of Shoshanna. She’s gorgeous in a ‘earth mother/ hippie goddess’ kind of way. Diane Keaton as Annie Hall was a kind of hipster too, or was it a hick, sorry my memory fails. Annie Hall was different but Jessa is a real head-turner. Whereas Shoshanna is still a virgin, Jessa has tons of experience. As a world traveler, it seems likely that’s she’s been plundered in the Pyrenees, or mounted in Munich, or she’s gone down on some guy in down under Oz. No score card or statistics have been provided. so kindly avoid taking this as gospel. But what we do find out about Jessa is that she’s pregnant. Well, with no prospective husband/or father of the unborn on hand to step up and do the right thing, an abortion is set up.
Well the absolutely funniest thing is that Hannah, Marnie, and Shoshanna are all there, waiting at the Women’s Health Clinic to offer their support and to make sure that Jessa gets through it and there would be someone there to see that she gets home alright. The funny thing is that Jessa will be either extremely late or won’t show up at all for her own abortion. That in itself isn’t what’s funny. But when Marnie expresses her complete indignation – The nerve of her to not show up for her abortion and leave us here alone – now that’s funny.
Jessa attracts men as easily as turning a page in a book. She chats up a guy at a party and moments later she’s jumping his bones. She’s not got a regular nine- to-five gig, so she works as a part-time nanny/baby sitter taking care of two small girls. You won’t be the least bit surprised that the kids’ father, who is separated from the kids’ mother, has the hots for his children’s baby sitter.
There’s your thumbnails of the four leads. Much has been written about Girls. Some call it controversial, some call it brutally honest, and from some quarters it has been called racist because the four leads are all white girls. Some resent that these girls are all white and in some cases privileged. I’ll add nothing to that except to say Entourage was about white guys, and Friends was about three girls and three guys, all of whom were Caucasians. So if you have concerns about the racial mix of the show – make your own decision. I can’t help with that nor do I want to discuss it.
What I will say, is that I cannot relate to these girls very well either. But not because of race. Instead it is a gender and age issue. But that doesn’t mean I don’t ‘get’ the show, or fail to appreciate its values. And I have another perspective – it is about the guys on the show. Not a one is likable. Almost all are misogynistic, or creepy, or vapid, or dumb. Sorry dudes, that’s no way to treat the girls.
Which bring us to Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. First off, I must admit to not having seen any of Whit Stillman’s films prior to this one. In fact, I’ve since read that this is his first film since 1999. I learned of this film after reading about it on Didion’s Feminéma website (check out her commentary on the film if you like). So with an empty schedule, I went off in pursuit of the film. So it was to be a film about college girls, and it would give me another film to use in this post, which was originally conceived without Damsels in Distress which I’ll call D.I.D. going forward.
The film is set in the present time. You can’t really tell because we see no computers, cell phones, or electronic devices. We also see the girls in dresses most of the time. The only real clue I got was from the cars in the parking lot. They looked current but the look and the feel of the characters seemed a throw back to a different time. That apparently is Stillman’s calling card in this film. Nothing is as it appears to be. Everything seems a tad off – like a quarter turn away from realism. It’s as if we are on the far left of an imaginary graph line in a place called absurd, and to our right is the center which we will call reality, and on the far right of that is another place called fantasy. That might make it easier.
So what does the film look like in terms of visuals. Well I recall Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford as college students in The Way We Were (1973). Those two met after WWII so their college days might have been late 30’s early 40’s. In Carnal Knowledge, a 1971 film, we have Jack Nicholson, Candace Bergen, Art Garfunkel, and Ann-Margaret in their college years and then up to the late sixties – the Vietnam War era. I mention these films from 40 years ago because Stillman has given his film that kind of look though he has also painstakingly removed any evidence that would alert the viewer to the actual time.
As for the actual place, the notes on IMDB say the film was shot in Bronxville, NY, which is actually the location of Sarah Lawrence College. There is a campus shown, albeit a very small portion of it – and it didn’t look like Sarah Lawrence to me. But from another angle, a character in the film mentions the 7 ‘elite colleges’ which might be a stand-in reference for the famed Seven Sisters colleges in the Northeast US. But once again, Stillman has intentionally removed any obvious clues.
The story centers around four or five girls at this school. Violet, Rose, and Heather are at the core. At the school they created a Suicide Prevention Center. When we first come upon their location the wooden sign with the word Prevention is no where in sight leaving us with Suicide _ Center. It wasn’t much of a joke. Which is my point – it was an absurdity – one of many that come with amazing frequency, so much so that you laugh out loud more times than you will be able to count.
Anyway the three floral-named girls scout out the new arrivals, seemingly being able to size up a possible candidate for suicide at first glance without benefit of having even been introduced to them. Hello, are you a new student? Yes. We’d like to help you. The fourth girl isn’t daunted by the newness of college as she is a transfer student. Her name is Lily, and due to over booking, there were more students than available beds, so Lily is asked to room with them and make the threesome a foursome. A fifth girl called Priss will later come on board as well.
As for the suicidal kids, our gals deal with them therapeutically with a serving of donuts, a willingness to listen to their problems and issues, followed by a lot of tap-dancing which Violent claims is a highly effective therapy. One female student who has started the tap dancing suddenly feels that the dancing is ridiculous.
She says, You’re afraid I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad. No, I’m worried that if you kill yourself it will make you look bad.
You see where I’m going – there’s always a step away from reality towards the absurd.
When someone mentions that taking medicine is 9/10ths of preventing an illness from getting worse, they counter with – when we stop you from taking your own life, that’s 10/10ths of prevention.
In case you were wondering, there are no actual suicides on the campus. The few attempts that were made were from the roof of Robertson Hall – a two-story building. Of course this is another Stillman reversal into absurdity.
A girl tell us that they there are no Greeks at this college. The other one says, Well what about the frat boys? You have many fraternities here. Oh no, those aren’t Greek fraternities – those are Roman Letter social clubs. So DU doesn’t stand for Delta Upsilon, it really stands for just DU. Oh that Stillman. What a jokester.
Some of the guys were as dumb as a lamp-post yet were found attractive. One guy didn’t know the color of his own eyes. Another didn’t know the names of even the primary colors – but he thought himself fortunate that his parents had sent him to this school for an education, so he could learn stuff. So with a little prodding from a pretty girl he set about to ‘hit the books’ and study real hard to learn the names of the colors. By the way, his name in the film was Thor.
As for those Roman Letter Clubs – think John Belushi in full toga garb in Animal House (1978). The thing about those guys and most of the guys in the Doar Dorm was that they all stank to high heavens, and our girls couldn’t bear to be around them.
Stillman sets his film up in a series of vignettes and scenes. There are quite a good number of letter placards inserted between these scenes announcing what would come next. Just like they did in the days of silent films. There’s also a good deal of dancing in the film. In fact one of the students is named Freak Astaire. The title of this film is Damsels in Distress which was a play on a Fred Astaire movie from 1937 called A Damsel in Distress. In that film there was a song Things Are Looking Up, a Gershwin Brothers tune, and yes, the same song appears in this film.
I’m thinking that Stillman set about to pay homage to a number of films with Damsels in Distress. In fact every film I’ve named in discussing this D.I.D. have a connection. The stars are Greta Gerwig as Violet, Carrie Maclemore as Heather, Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose, and Analeigh Tipton as Lily.
The laughs come very often and one if the best lines has one gal saying she’s not depressed but she preferred to think of it as a tailspin. Another situation has one of them brought back from the banks of depression by a bar of motel soap, and finally there’s the thought of starting an international dance craze – The Sambola which is how the film ends. This particular flight of fancy is not as over the top as the Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein where Joe Boyle as the Frankenstein monsters donned a top hat, tails, and a black walking stick to sing and dance to Puttin’ On the Ritz.
All in all this was an utterly delightful film filled with many, many funny surprises. Though the characters in the film all play their roles straight and with lots of conviction, their attitudes and the certainty of the characters becomes quite funny when you consider the absurdity of nearly every situation. If you like smart and witty, if you like things a half turn away from what any sane and civilized person might expect, and if you would enjoy comparing this collegiate experience to your own, then is a film that I can recommend to you, that you will happy when you leave the theater.
Why was D.I.D. in this post? Mostly because it fits with the topic of Hangin’ With the Girls., and because we did get a few moments of the fly-on-the-wall when we were in their bedrooms talking.
Well, after 5200 plus words I still won’t be able to successfully answer the question of what are girls like when there are no men around. But I do have a better understanding of what might be expected. Notice I said might be expected, because like Stillman’s film, you never ever really know what will come next.
2 thoughts on “Hangin’ With The Girls: HBO’s Girls, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and More”
Seems to me less that DID sits awkwardly with the others, but that the Ellen DeGeneres comedy show and Veep don’t quite fit with Girls and DID. Except that they’re all funny.
I’m really glad people aren’t questioning whether women can be funny, like they were just a couple of years ago. But it’s exasperating to think of all those great comediennes going back to the 20s — Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn, Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, Clara Bow, Judy Holliday — and realize that women have to keep re-inventing the wheel when it comes to recognition.
So glad you liked Girls and DID so much! now I’ve got to see Veep and the Ellen DeGeneres special.
Bingo – they’re all funny.
You are most correct in pointing out that collectively they form kind of group in which the parts are kind of mismatched. I was happy to put these four disparate female based shows, film,and performance vehicles into one post and I am truly on the plus side of all of them – except maybe Veep – but Dreyfus is great, so I had to include it.
Girls is much more work for a guy than DID. That’s because Girls is honest and real and nothing is kept from the viewer. DID is clever, and smart, and the further into the film you go – you realize that the absurdities are the point of the film. Once you make that leap across the divide – you truly do get a very funny, very enjoyable movie. In that sense I could call DID the Anti-Girls experience. Or the contra – Girls is the Anti-Damsels in Distress experience.
As always, thanks for the comments.
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