(CW: discussions of rape and sexual assault.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that Anthony Willis’ string arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” sounds like a swarm of bees, the angry and volatile kind, conjuring a venom dipped revamp of the classic Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composition. It’s the most dramatic attempt in Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman to (supposedly) invert the sugar sweet, pretty pop aesthetic into something darker and more poisonous, from its pop songs (Charli XCX’s “Boys”, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”, etc.) to its romantic comedy tropes. (For the record, “Toxic” was always, I think, a two pronged track, about a bad relationship. It’s in the title.)
Though perhaps, beneath its impressive minimalism and beyond its somewhat on the nose application, it might be on the savvier side as far as the choices made in this film’s finale: it’s not Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the traumatized and vengeful protagonist whose escapades to unveil the way rape culture infects us all won’t revere the fate of the friend she’s doing this for, who’s “toxic”, even though part of the conceit is that she is like a candy apple with a razor tucked beneath its skin. But, she also has, arguably, a “toxic” relationship to revenge itself, never quite realizing that the men she lures and lectures and the complicit women she tricks will never offer the catharsis she desires. For a moment, there’s a hint of self-actualization, on the stoop of her late friend’s house, speaking with her friend’s mother. But it passes, and she’s back, in sexy nurse cosplay (one of many costumes that look like someone read the wiki page for Ms. 45 and nothing else), ready to take down the man, Al (Chris Lowell), who raped her best friend and got off, at his bachelor party.
The whites of Alia Shawkat’s eyes, despite their size, blind and flood the screen, in contrast with the actress’s olive skin tone, painted Seurat-esque with freckles, her head cut and her body dusted in soot. Her eyes, they’re cream-colored, a blank canvas, white enough that if you were to look into them, you would be staring into the other side. And you do, the blackened lungs of Shawkat’s character, Dory, expelling fear and self-loathing, the smoke and bilious parts of herself boiling over. I can still hear her.
Alone in a trunk, alone in a room, alone with yourself. This is all a fever dream, a nightmare. Or, as the ninth episode’s title might call it, an inferno. Or purgatory.
“They Should Feel That Twinge of Indictment”: More on “Circle Jerk” with Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Ariel Sibert
(Author’s Note: You can find my interview with the Fake Friends, where we talk more about memes, white supremacy, and queer aesthetics at theLA Review of Books. These are some excerptsfrom our two-hour conversation which didn’t make the final cut.)
In terms of queer aesthetic being reappropriated or weaponized and becoming a tool of white supremacy. Was there anything within the show that you sort of, discussed or hesitated about as far as that also kind of falling into the same trap?
Michael Breslin: Yeah, I mean we can all talk about this in various ways. But that was the main question in every single rehearsal, and every single writing session. Cat, who plays Eva Maria has this really great way of thinking about this, which is, if you’re going to critique something, there’s a very slippery slope to, falling into doing the thing that you’re you think you’re critiquing, right? So we’ve rewritten this play so many times, because that is a real threat. And I’m still wondering how people experience the play and on that spectrum.
Patrick Foley: Then the other danger is that you don’t convey these men honestly and you sort of defang them and in doing that, you sort of exonerate them, and you make it so that you can’t take them seriously. So there is a seesaw of risks, I suppose that’s we’ve been sort of going back and forth on.
MB: Yeah, I would say the plot, like Jurgen and Lord Bussy’s plot to spread misinformation, had many different iterations of what that looked like. And we had to really discuss eugenics, and how that relates to faces and how that relates to algorithms. There were a lot of conversations around that specific part of the show.
PF: And how specific it should be about the genocidal reality or intent or follow through.
Ariel Sibert: There was some moment during production where I [saw] there was an advertisement on my Instagram feed for a kind of application that would scan your face and based on your bone structure, analyze your personality type, which was just straight up phronology. And this was already at a point in the show where we had put a number of FaceTunes, and of the characters actually editing their own appearance, refining it on apps like Manley, and also on FaceTune. And we were thinking a lot about this idea of facial structure, surveillance, optimization for AI.
How much of our way of presenting ourselves and appearing is actually optimized to be read by non-human vision? And now we’re at a point where the show is reaching so many more people than we thought it would. And our own anonymity is something that we’re starting to talk about, how to own digital security in a way that as the show grows, and the infrastructure around how our image gets used, and appropriated and circulated. I mean, for me, I live tweeted the show last night, I had 12 Twitter followers and used it as a private joke. And now it’s become part of my digital identity because of this show, which is great for me in a networking capacity, but it’s also the way that this show circulates has really changed people’s access to the faces, particularly with Michael and Patrick.
You can read the full interview here.
I opened my work laptop this morning to a collage of Dorinda Medleys gesticulating expressively at someone(s), her mouth silently shouting “I’ll tell you how I’m doing. Not well, bitch!” ad infinitum. An amusing enough, if not especially unique, sentiment to describe the last year, and perhaps discomfitingly auspicious. (Could anyone have predicted that the Real Housewives would become, first, an obsession to theorize and intellectualize, and then its rightful sweet spot as fascinating, pulpy via affluence pop cultural artifact to zone out to while doomscrolling, sans fake thesis titles?)
It’s an absurd image, from this or any year, not just one rich lady asserting herself in loose appropriative body language garb — hand curved like a C, just short of a barrel bent threat or some more rapid and articulate bodying — but an endless scroll of them, wordlessly in sync with one another. I do not know what she is wearing other than a black sweater and pearl earrings, but her aggression implies she’s ready to take them off, finding a queasy cocktail of bizarrely hilarious drag and dystopian lane hopping. (The “someone” was Candace Bushnell, author of the Sex and the City books.)
Anyways, the point is that opening up to the gif of Dorinda from season 9 of Real Housewives of New York is as absurd as the scenario itself. I think, in other images of absurdity, or surreality, one can find tenderness, softness, beauty.Read the rest of this entry »
Recently I watched The Prom and Happiest Season, and I don’t have a third example, so this isn’t useful as a trend piece to be featured in your favorite publication. These are different movies that effectively have similar genre topes, similar politics, similar conceptions of the closet, similar ideas of, as Erik Hinton puts it, “the rosy-cheeked triumphalism that the truth will set you free, the belief that someone can shape the world merely by shaping their picture of it.” Hinton notes that the convergence of personal identity revelation movies and coming out movies highlight the more aggravating parts of the respective types and augment them beyond tolerability.
My sense is that the two films have become foils against one another, depending on whom you ask, either representative of either the failure of grasping a contemporary vocabulary of relational dynamics or the success of a reformed genre that has been stuck in the mud of creakier perspectives that reveal the worst of a society audiences know can be better.Read the rest of this entry »