Saturday, March 7, 2009

Antoinette Doinel, Maxine Tivoli, Josie Gideon

Whenever I get disheartened that everything's been done before and there are no original stories left to tell, I remind myself that I do have one advantage: I am a woman and I want to write about women's experiences. This is not to puff myself up or imply that women are "better" writers than men, merely that historically there have been fewer female artists than male ones, so women writers still have more terrain to explore. Whole sub-genres exist that assume a male point of view, and I'm particularly interested in turning them inside out, seeing how they look from the other side.

The other day I watched Fellini's film Amarcord, which is situated in the (mostly European) tradition of filmmaking where the director looks nostalgically back on his boyhood, the vibrant characters who surounded him, the scrapes he got into with his buddies, the beautiful women he desired. Think of The 400 Blows as a grittier example of this and Cinema Paradiso as the sickeningly sentimental version. I know I'm supposed to be charmed by the boys' exuberance and pranks, and think fondly of my own childhood; but I was a prim young girl who despised rowdy boys, and I still find it hard to relate to these characters. And Fellini never considers what it feels like to be a girl in this provincial town, smiling demurely as the boys hoot and fart and blow raspberries. Are the girls happy? Will they feel nostalgic about their childhood in the same way the boys will? Why are there no Joys of Girlhood films to complement these Joys of Boyhood films? Oh, that's right. Because there have been few, if any, female directors like Fellini and Truffaut, with the clout to get an autobiographical film financed and made.

Or, as I mentioned a few days ago, I probably won't get around to writing the big Benjamin Button/Max Tivoli/Stories of People Aging Backwards post that I had planned. But one thing I do wonder about is why I've never heard of a narrative in which it's a female who ages backwards. Because of that misguided assumption that stories about men are universal while stories about women are niche subjects? However, I think that a gender switch would make the aging-backwards plotline even more powerful, heighten its themes. In our culture, things like aging and sexual attractiveness and the lack of it are more difficult for women than for men.

For instance, in The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Max, aged 17 (and looking 53), loses his virginity to Mrs. Levy, a still-attractive widow in her mid-forties. He's really in love with Mrs. Levy's teenage daughter Alice, so this is all very complicated--and makes for an amusing parody of Lolita. Nonetheless, he doesn't regret his sexual initiation. The "sexy older woman" thing is a standard male fantasy, after all.

Yet it is impossible to imagine this happening the same way if Max were Maxine. A girl of 17 is not likely to wish to be deflowered by a man of 45. Many men, even, have hangups about dating older women, so perhaps Maxine (who looks 53 years old, remember) can get only a man of 55+ years to have sex with her--making it even more uncomfortable for the teenage girl trapped inside the menopausal body. That's another thing: the processes of the female body are more complicated than those of the male. Menstruation, menopause, fertility, pregnancy! And, not to be crass, the physical evidence of virginity loss: when Maxine's first lover realizes he's broken her hymen, he will think she's a freak, a 53-year-old virgin; and this will be agony. Yes, Max's story is cruel, but Maxine's is crueler. There's room for a Lolita parody in this hypothetical novel as well, but it will be more pointed and satirical: toward the end of Maxine's life, she'll look like a nymphet but have the sexual know-how of a woman in late middle age. And she'll learn some hard truths about what makes women desirable to men.

One final narrative that I really want to see in a gender-flipped version is The Artist and His Women. The granddaddy of this genre is probably another Fellini film, . (The Broadway musical adaptation Nine picked up what was inherent in the source material and ran with it: none of the male characters matter except for Guido.) bred other ambitious and personal movies about directors: All That Jazz, Synecdoche New York. Other examples of this genre are the Neil Simon comedy Jake's Women and the stultifying French film Ma vie sexuelle. Even Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing. Creative heroes, all of them surrounded and frustrated by women. Note how the protagonists of these movies/plays, if they have children, always have daughters--never sons.

Now, I admire some of these works very much, but they can also exasperate me. It's easy to criticize them for being self-indulgent. The protagonist is blatantly based on the writer who created him, and shares his creator's neuroses, weaknesses, and bad habits--yet retains an amazing ability to attract beautiful women. (Many times more amazing when it's Philip Seymour Hoffman than when it's Marcello Mastroianni.) Though obviously flawed, the man is treated like a shining sun, with the women merely planets orbiting around him.

So, I would love to see the inverse: The Artist and Her Men. And this wouldn't be the familiar narrative of the lone trailblazing woman who must contend with a cabal of men who want only to oppress her. No, I'm talking about the female equivalent of Guido Contini: a woman in the prime of life, who's met with some successes, who sometimes exploits the men in her life and is sometimes exploited by them, who scorns monogamy, who has as much ambition and appetite as she does faults and imperfections. Even if this turned out as self-indulgent as the Artist-and-His-Women movies/plays, it would still be valuable: affording new insights, and proving that women can be just as over-reaching as men. Men make movies rooted in their sexual fantasies and personal hang-ups all the time; why shouldn't women do the same?

I would love to write an Artist-and-Her-Men play eventually; though that will probably have to wait till I am about forty years old and have lived through adventures of my own!

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