The 24 Hour Woman
directed by Nancy Savoca
Ten years into her movie career, Rosie Perez plays a spoiled white woman’s fantasy in The 24 Hour Woman. This isn’t progress; it’s a trap. As Grace Santos, she suffers arriviste abundance: work at a New York television show, marriage to an up-and-coming actor, a comfortable apartment and fertility. Grace already has everything but adding a baby doesn’t permit enough time in the day to do it all to her satisfaction. You can’t miss the parallel to what mainstream recognition, an Academy Award nomination and hotshot celebrity status have secured for Perez. But her rise from the squeaky-voiced, salty-tongued ghetto queen of Do the Right Thing–she had recognizable rough edges–to blandly representing director Nancy Savoca’s middle-class
aspirations, zaps the charm out of Perez’s difference. The 24 Hour Woman may, unintentionally, be the movies’ ultimate argument against bootstrap individualism.
Similar pandering occurred in Stepmom’s shallow treatment of female parenting–whether homebody (Susan Sarandon) or worldly (Julia Roberts). Director Chris Columbus was mostly in awe of the material trappings of domestic problems (as he was
in Home Alone); he extrapolated average homemaking crises into well-appointed examples that misrepresented the common problem. If most harried American moms had the money the Sarandon and Roberts characters took for granted, they wouldn’t
be harried. That doesn’t stop working-class women from crying along with the Roberts-Sarandon soap opera, but that they so easily accept and identify with such elevated, envy-inducing hogwash is part of the problem independent filmmakers like Savoca and Perez were expected to solve.
Instead, The 24 Hour Woman exemplifies a wack solidarity among privileged women who, having left their working-class pasts with the laundry, only worry about their box-office clock running out. Savoca (who also directed the unpalatable Household Saints and the enervated Dogfight) perpetrates a Stepmom-like ignorance of women’s political circumstances. (Her HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk was simplistic pro-abortion propaganda in which three decades of renters submitted themselves to uterine scraping–it should have been called The Amityville Abortion House.) Stocking Grace’s tv station with competitive/nurturing female workers (as if the Girl Scouts were an employment agency), she serves up the indie filmmaker’s version of Hollywood escapism–offering self-righteousness instead of sentimentality. Taking for granted women’s right to work outside the home, Savoca ignores its advantages (that Grace can afford her own white-girl, grad-student nanny) while also ignoring genuine aspects of parenting. Buying an expensive present or arranging an elaborate first birthday party exposes Savoca’s bourgeois showing-off. For her, purchasing power has supplanted parental instinct–Barbra Streisand conveyed more stressed-out caring with just a look in Up the Sandbox. No single scene suggests a credible maternal point of view, but from Grace’s obviously younger husband (Diego Serrano) to the sex-switch brouhaha finale featuring a husband in drag, “comic” gunplay and a dyke producer (Patti LuPone), The 24 Hour Woman simply tots up specious points–of entitlement and vengeance.
Hollywood feminism has not worked out any form of racial unity. You can’t find female indies or feminist spokeswomen willing to stand up for the portraits of female experience in The Color Purple, The Players Club, Beloved or even Shadrach. It’s as if feminists only support white icons–which is to say female characters who sufficiently represent white middle-class problems and white-middle class privilege. Saint Grace isn’t far from the bitchy prima donnas Jill Clayburgh bored the world with in It’s My Turn and I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. And Grace’s working-mother problems are less entertaining than Diane Keaton made them in the otherwise wretched Baby Boom.
It must be careerism that got Rosie Perez tied up in Savoca’s overindulged polemic. Perez may have regretted missing out on Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That (a fine assessment of the Latino woman’s sense of individuality and home ethic) or even LisaRaye’s role in Ice Cube’s The Players Club. Those movies were convincing proof that black and Latino women pose their domestic dilemmas with cultural and behavioral essences distinct from what Savoca knows. The disappointed bride of Savoca’s first film True Love was a feminist disaster–a spoiled brat. And The 24 Hour Woman hints that Savoca’s still insensitive to the world around her–especially in the slack rapport between Perez (her edges hard but dull) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (who has the friendliest face in modern movies).
Savoca imagines that the special conditions of her success and privilege match the general conditions of female struggle. That may be why white feminist cineastes regularly show themselves indifferent to the differences that make their sisters interesting–and wrapping Rosie Perez in Sandra Bullock castoffs or shunting Marianne Jean-Baptiste to the periphery only keeps the white feminist imperative from expressing the Latino or black experience. Watching Rosie Perez go yuppie you know Nancy Savoca only related to her worst–most assimilated–aspects. That boriqua wildness Spike Lee first showcased was remarkable and fresh but it was Jennifer Lopez who got to be complex and psychological in Out of Sight and Salma Hayek who extended spitfire sexuality into luster (and Revlon commercials). Perez is left seeming an also-ran, like Rosana De Soto who plays her mother here, but once seemed a promising star when cast as Ritchie Valens’ mother in La Bamba more than 10 years ago.
The 24 Hour Woman is not an authentic female story (as was Beloved or even Altman’s Kansas City). Savoca doesn’t understand racial or sexual differences any better than the class differences she completely neglects. That’s what kills so much indie filmmaking: class presumptions that turn the whole world into yuppies and reduce the one-of-all-kinds Rosie Perez into just another star with Pre-Millennial-Selfishness.
Les Dames des Bois de Boulogne
directed by Robert Bresson
In answer to a recent loony assertion that Chantal Akerman, Agnieszka Holland, Claire Denis and Jane Campion made films superior to those of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut and Bergman, consider the tradition of the male European’s high-art view of women–in Robert Bresson’s Les Dames des Bois de Boulogne and Jacques Demy’s Lola. Such insight transcends gender. Same-sex empathy can’t best it and feminist politics can’t (apparently) appreciate it. Bresson’s 1945 submersion into the malaise of soul-sick Parisians shows aristocratic Helene (Maria Casares) using a young nightclub dancer, Agnes (Elina Labourdette), to avenge herself against a faithless lover, Jean (Paul Bernard). This good vs. evil tale (from Diderot, with dialogue by Jean Cocteau) was never so well understood as when–decades later–its fatalistic glamour was borrowed by Demy for his directorial debut.
Lola (1961) is the temperamental opposite of Bresson’s spiritual austerity; Demy’s gaiety filters Bresson’s heaviness. He naturally reinterpreted Bresson’s ambiguous drama of deception and sincerity as a sign of romantic faith–and he’s more right than may be first apparent. I’m exploring an esthetic theory here, but my proof is an image–a vestige–that Demy took from Bresson. A photograph of Elina Labourdette as Agnes in her working-girl costume–doing splits–is glimpsed in Lola propped up on a mantel as a souvenir of Labourdette’s (now playing Mme. Desnoyers) youth. This still from Les Dames suggests a history for Mme. Desnoyers but it also endows her situation as a lonely widow and single mother with a glamorous myth. Working on two levels–as a narrative element and culture residue–the photograph vibrates between dream and “reality.” Demy transforms Agnes’ agony, brightening it into Mme. Desnoyers’ romantic endurance. When his prostitute heroine Lola (Anouk Aimee) appears in a soubrette’s get-up resembling Agnes’ top hat (a blunt statement of what Bresson implied), Demy establishes a continuity of human experience–female endeavor–derived from the movie past but vivid as life.
This extraordinary connection can be contemplated endlessly for the signal expression of love as the most transcendental of earthly struggles–consistent with Bresson’s religious emphasis and Demy’s cinematic references. When Cocteau borrowed from Bresson for Orpheus, he cast Casares in her black, flowing gowns to repeat her performance–as Death. Demy uses Labourdette’s insouciance. Her graceful gestures and radiant smile fondly recall a movie past that is key to the New Wave’s sense of pop as real experience. (You can imagine Demy hoarding his Les Dames still the way the Truffaut character filched the Citizen Kane still in Day for Night.) This effectively takes Bresson out of the high-art ghetto and defies the patriarchal condescension cynics see in the art film tradition. But what could be more condescending than the notion of household or office saints? Demy, like Bresson, shows women’s and men’s souls working through life.
Bresson movies (now showing at the Museum of Modern Art) are not known for their sociability or ecstasy. Though somber, Les Dames has a nominally happy ending yet the dreamlike inevitability of his film relates to what Demy insists upon as joyful and essential in cinema. Fate makes relentless claim on all these characters but it’s Lola (the greater, least hermetic of the two films) that clarifies happiness as indivisible from sorrow. Les Dames is the film that introduced the line that weaves through modernist European cinema: “There is no love, only signs of love.” (Check The Young Girls of Rochefort and Stealing Beauty.) The same could be said for the ubiquitous photo of Labourdette. It’s a reverse memento mori–a significant artifact of how movies capture life.