Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sex and the City and the Big Screen




As I sat at my laptop at my kitchen table, dressed in my pyjamas, I couldn't help but wonder ... why are women flocking to the Sex and the City movie in such numbers? Why did I line up for a ticket, just this afternoon? And why did both papers I read – The Australian and The Age – choose male film reviewers who admit they never watched the series to review a movie whose audience is made up almost entirely of female fans of the series?

I’ll try to answer the first question first ... Female fans of the series are lining up to see the movie for a reason that has been around as long as stories themselves. It’s the same reason that the king in Arabian Nights stayed wily Scheherezade’s execution over 1001 nights: to find out what happens next.

That’s the answer to the second question, too: it’s why I lined up outside Yarraville’s Sun Cinema to see the movie this afternoon, after missing out last night and heading dejectedly home to eat chocolate and watch a DVD. (I arrived at 8pm and the 8.20pm and 9.20pm sessions were both sold out. As I walked home down Anderson Street, towards the railway line, I passed squads of girls dressed in their best skinny jeans and heels squealing about Carrie and Miranda and co., on their way to get the same bad news as I had.)

And why did we all want to watch the movie so much? I’ve read – with interest – a series of articles in the past month debating this issue. And, love it as I do, I know that, in many ways, the show is shallow and materialistic. And, of course, supremely unrealistic. As if a once-a-week columnist could afford Carrie’s clothes, shoes, party lifestyle and Upper West Side apartment. The best article I’ve read (fittingly, from New York magazine) claims that the appeal of the four feisty women is that they are the female equivalent of superheroes. No, not superheroes with capes and nifty gadgets, but women who can do the impossible. Women living fantasy lives.

“Superheroes exist outside the laws and boundaries the rest of us have to abide by; while men want to see themselves flying and fighting, women are more interested in pushing other limits. How old can you be and still be hot? How many times can you break up and still be in love with someone? How many hours of the day can four working women conceivably spend together? Pointing out that Carrie could never afford her apartment, let alone her wardrobe, is about as useful as questioning Robert Downey Jr.'s ability to create cold fusion in a cave in Afghanistan — it misses the point of the movie entirely. Why is it okay for Iron Man to collect expensive cars but materialistic for Carrie to collect shoes? Surely her carbon footprint is the smaller of the two.”


Genius, I think. Carrie’s gadgets are her wardrobe, apartment, shoes and lifestyle. And the relationships – between the four women and their men – are what make the show so appealing, for me anyway. Personally, I couldn’t give a toss about Manolo Blahnik (I can’t wear heels and prefer to wear my zippered Doc Marten boots everywhere). I like clothes, to some extent, but have no desire to ever attend a fashion show. I’d read Vogue at the hairdresser’s, but that’s about it. But I think I would like to live in a New York apartment and eat out for every meal, be witty and attractive, write a well-known column about pretty much anything I like for a living, have a publishing contract and successful books ... And I tend to analyse relationships as relentlessly as a Carrie Bradshaw.

To drill down still further, the core appeal of the show is that it presents four different but attractive female archetypes, all different in personality and looks. Most fans will identify with at least one of the women. The four have an ideal friendship, one that holds through all manner of crises, one where they can always rely on each other. Is it feminist? Obviously not, in all kinds of ways, but it is in the sense that the central tenet has always been that, while a man is a good thing to have, it’s not necessary. The women can always fall back on each other. With or without a relationship, they will never be alone.

The Age’s Jake Wilson (who I often like) says: “Too bad for those of us who never caught a single episode of Sex and the City on TV, and now find ourselves enduring a round of hasty introductions to a group of people less amusing than reputation would suggest.” At which alarm bells start ringing loudly, for me as a reader. Why would you like a movie that is basically a continuation of a TV series if you have never seen the show? Then he describes Mr Big as “a bland Victor Mature lookalike whose eyes dance ironically without giving any hint of his thoughts”. Again: if you don’t like Mr Big, you probably won’t like the show, or the movie. He makes some good observations, and, as I don’t think it was the best movie in the world either, but that’s not THE POINT. The point is, you should at least start with an appreciation of where the movie is coming from to review it.

Evan Williams (who I also often like) was the lucky male novice to the series who reviewed the movie this weekend for The Australian. “I watched a couple of episodes of SATC on pay TV in preparation for writing this review, which of course makes me an expert.” And yes, I do sense a tongue firmly in cheek there. But he makes some pretty irrelevant criticism as a result of his scant knowledge of the series. “Here is an unashamed celebration of materialist values, an orgy of labels, brands and product placements as sinful, by implication, as the behaviour of the characters.” Bloody hell. It’s a series where the main character once figured out she had spent $40,000 (the equivalent, apparently, of a deposit on an apartment) on shoes. Where she announced that a Vogue fashion column was her equivalent of poetry. The materialism is not new.

He says that “the film has more depictions of sex, in its many athletic variations, than were permissible on the small screen”. Just not true. Remember Samantha on the swing? Or maybe just Samantha in general. It seems to me to be business as usual as far as that’s concerned. Not that it’s a big deal.

And – last criticism here: “Carrie is something of a celebrity and her writings are largely based (to no one’s apparent objection) on the sexual experiences of her friends”. Once again ... it’s the basis of the whole show. Why bother to poke holes in it?

Basically, I would have liked to have read the opinions of women who liked the show, instead of men who were dipping into it. I’m now waiting for when they ask Sam Brett to review Indiana Jones. (A bit unfair – the woman is an idiot and these men are not. But still. In terms of suitability for the material, it fits.)

So ... my opinion ... as someone who loved the show. SPOILER ALERT (I think).

Yes, the materialism did get on my nerves, perhaps because I haven’t seen the show in so long. Perhaps it always did. Yawn, yawn, get on with it. And there was a New York fashion show scene that felt redundant. In the show, there were fashion shows that were relevant to the plot, and funny (remember Carrie stumbling down the runway in tall, tall heels and sequinned undies?). This was just THERE.

I don’t think the film was funny enough: it lacked the sharp wit and observational humour that the show had.

The Jennifer Hudson character – Carrie’s personal assistant – felt embarassingly tokenistic (‘ooh, let’s have a black character’) and had too much of a touch of Mammy to Miss Scarlett about her. Though, to be fair, I guess that the job of personal assistant to a writer with connections would be sought after. Still, as she was the only black character, the dynamic made me uncomfortable.

I thought Carrie over-reacted to Big’s mistake at the altar. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘dumping’. He got nervous about the spectacle of the thing (which he’d warned her about the night before) and took a turn around the block, before coming back to say, as she whacked him over the head with the bouquet, that he was ready now. He was bad, but not THAT bad.

I thought Miranda made a mistake ... but then, so did the other characters, so I guess that’s not a criticism, that’s a comment.

But, criticisms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Don’t know that I’d see it a second time, but it was immensely satisfying to re-enter that world and follow what happened to the characters. I confess to getting a tear in my eye a couple of times about the fates of the couples I liked most (Carrie & Big, Miranda & Steve).

I liked the play on fairy tales. Carrie reads Charlotte’s daughter Cinderella and then turns to her and gives her a solemn lecture about how things don’t always turn out happily ever after in real life and she should know that now. The little girl watches with big eyes, then asks for the story “again”. Carries smiles to herself and opens the book at the start. It’s a nice wink to feminism and to the fact that sometimes women know the whole palaver is a fairy tale, but they want it anyway, as much as they try to tell themselves they don’t. (Not all women – but certainly Carrie.) There’s a nice ongoing Cinderella reference, too.

So, in conclusion: a couple of smart moments, but mostly fairly standard chick-flick stuff that will be satisfying if you like the characters and want to spend a bit of time with them, but not otherwise.

It’s superhero escapism, for women.

14 comments:

Frogdancer said...

I'm so glad you put in the spoiler alert!

I was reading up till then, but got out fast. I'm seeing it next weekend when I'm child-free. Can't wait...

davey said...

Great post Ariel.

Two flatmates of mine, both male, were convinced into going last week and both were surprised by how much they enjoyed it.

Ariel said...

Frogdancer: Come back and let me know what you think! I'm really curious.

Davey: Thanks! And thanks for that info - very interesting. I guess they hadn't watched the show, by the sounds of it?

Enny said...

***SPOILER****






I just wish Smith had followed Samantha. Then it would have tied everything up nicely for me.

One of my friends pretty much cried all the way through - all the talk about getting wedding obsessed, or wondering if you're in the right relationship can hit pretty hard too! I'm trying to track down the line the counselor said to Steve and Miranda - the thing about your relationship being based on the promise that your love will overcome all temptations. I thought it was lovely.

Ariel said...

You're right, the relationships and the observations on relationships (like that line you're hunting down) are what makes the film.

SPOILER ALERT

And re. your spoiler comment ... mmm, maybe, but then again I thought maybe that one was inevitable. And I liked Carrie's line about the 'short story' sometimes being just as romantic ...

Janet said...

I stopped reading because of the spoiler alert, but I'm planning to go and see it with a woman friend soon. Normally I like to go to movies on my own, but I loved watching sex and the city on telly with a couple of women friends, now overseas (sniff) and I think the shared viewing experience is a big part of the appeal. And the sex. Man, I used to love the Samantha character, eventhough sometimes I'd cringe.

Watershedd said...

Yes, thanks for the Spoiler Alert! Having not read beyond that point, I like your super hero analogy. But don't you think Carrie is a modern day fairy tale character akin to Snow White or Cinderella? Aren't we all cheering her on to get the man of her dreams? Ultimately, Carrie, the bastion of feminine independence is headed for a life of married bliss.

It's actually an interesting concept, providing greater depth to the female character than the standard angel/vixen. charlotte could be seen as the angel, Samantha the vixen. Miranda and Carrie are somewhere in the middle, providing the depth that so traditional fairy tales such as Cinderella, with her ugly sisters, have fed us for so long. Yes, i know I've just contradicted myself about Carrie being a modern day Cinderella, but that's the beauty of the show - it breaks the rules.

Penni said...

I too had to abandon ship at the spoiler alert.

Superhero analogy: Nail. Head. Without all the longwinded, tedious 'making' scenes (honestly I tried to watch Ironman and it was the most boring movie, so much making).

I like that it's a series that explores the dynamics of female relationships with each other. Yes it's shallow and voyeuristic and silly, but I do miss that time in my life where looking back it did seem like there was endless time to hang out with friends and eat out or drink in bars and pubs. My life was a different genre of course (more dirty realism in terms of setting, soundtrack and wardrobe, especially shoes) but same basic storylines.

I've felt very silly about wanting to see the movie. I can't wait to go wading in the depths of my shallows.

Ariel said...

Janet, that's funny - I went to see it on my own and ran into a friend as I was lining up, who looked at me with abject pity when she realised I was alone. I had to assure her I was fine. Sigh. I see why it would be fun with friends, I just wanted to see it right then and there and quite like my own company these days.

Watershedd: Absolutely. I think both analogies are apt. Carrie is indeed Cinderella with a twist. I actually had a para on that (it comes up in the movie a little) below the spoiler alert. It's not really going to spoil anything, so here it is again:

I liked the play on fairy tales. Carrie reads Charlotte’s daughter Cinderella and then turns to her and gives her a solemn lecture about how things don’t always turn out happily ever after in real life and she should know that now. The little girl watches with big eyes, then asks for the story “again”. Carries smiles to herself and opens the book at the start. It’s a nice wink to feminism and to the fact that sometimes women know the whole palaver is a fairy tale, but they want it anyway, as much as they try to tell themselves they don’t. (Not all women – but certainly Carrie.) There’s a nice ongoing Cinderella reference, too.

Penni: Yep. That's what I like. The female relationships and, I have to say, the relationship dynamics with the main men - watching the four women find their perfect partner and negotiate all the obstacles along the way. And, importantly, work out how to do that without losing themselves or compromising on who they really are in the process. That's what's really interesting.

The Blakkat said...

Will come back and comment after I see it. Going with my besties next friday for my b'day. SITC with my g'friends on my 35th - what more could you ask for? I thought you made some good points about SITC in general, and I've got a good article on SITC & feminism (by a female) that I'll post about on my blog soon. Nice work, Ariel.

davey said...

>> I guess they hadn't watched the show, by the sounds of it?

Certainly not religiously, and neither would have gone to see the film of their own accord (a persuasive and lovely girlfriend was invloved). But I think the cleverness of the shows dialogue has always appealed the both men and women.

It's the shoe bit we don't get. :D

kirstenjane said...

Great post Ariel – funnily enough the film has received similar reviews here in the UK (i.e. mostly men who haven’t watch the tv series!) I saw it last week with my hubby – I went to the new Indiana Jones movie on the condition he came with me to see S&TC. (btw the Jones movie was very predictable and I spent most of the time making a mental grocery list and other daydreams!)

The hubby actually laughed much more in S&TC! He thought the criticisms of the product placement and fashion label references, in many reviews were unfounded. Even gritty realism tv series like “The Wire” are full of clothing labels and other consumer products, which like it or not signify something about the character – and what is NYC if not the consumer capital of the world?

The series has always used the NYC setting well, it symbolises the contrasts and contradictions of modern life – perhaps in the medium of film this is more apparent.
I thought the film was drawing attention to the contrast between the surface of things and the deeper relationships - especially the opening scene, which is traditionally all about placing the viewer in a specific setting before entering into the more subjective story.

The superhero analogy is spot on – there may be a touch of fantasy on the surface, but the mistakes, concerns, hopes and relationships exemplified by these women are recognisable in most of our lives. Just as Carrie’s self-reflection, the use of myth, literary references (the love letters), and most importantly her friends help her steer a path through life – I think so many women watch S&TC for those same reasons – we need signposts, examples, ideals and an abstract way to explore questions, as we negotiate the tricky business of life!
It may not be profound or art (sadly few films are nowadays) but I enjoyed the story in all it's layers!

Ariel said...

Hey, I really enjoyed your comment, KJ. Interesting to hear the UK comparison ... and the hubby's reaction! (As an aside, I'm keen to watch The Wire - is it any good? Only on at midnight once a week here, which is too easy to miss.)

"I think so many women watch S&TC for those same reasons – we need signposts, examples, ideals and an abstract way to explore questions, as we negotiate the tricky business of life!"

Very well put and absolutely agreed.

BTW, I loved your recent post on Jean Rhys. Haven't commented because I can't think of anything more profound or intelligent to say than that I loved the post and that it's made me want to read the book. I loved Wide Saragasso Sea but haven't read any of her others.

kirstenjane said...

Hey Ariel,

The Wire is good - good dialogue, street slang & gritty insights into urban drug/gang life in Baltimore. We only recently started watching the 4th series (we record it & watch later) - but now that we are definitely hooked we've got hold of the first 2 series to watch from the beginning!
Yes highly recommended!