Vicky Cristina Redux
Are Thinking Women Misguided, or MIA?

Woody Allen has an audience.  How do I know this?  Because numbers don’t lie.

Despite playing on only 700 screens this last week, his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, sits in the number ten slot on the boxoffice charts—up one slot from the previous week.  And when it comes to per-screen take, the film is at number two with over $4000 per screen.  And number three is a good ways behind.

Is the film a runaway hit?  Not by any means, of course.  Still building an audience after three weeks in release, however, and taking in over $12 million so far in the U.S. alone, it’s a solid, solid success.  It’s connecting with audiences, and they’re telling their friends.

The week after the film’s opening, I received the following email from journalist Libby Maeder:

I really enjoyed your commentary and review of the new Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I write a commentary column for two weekly newspapers in a small town near Buffalo, N.Y., and this past week talked about not the film, but the commercials for it, shown around 9 a.m. on a weekday morning (during the Today Show!?). The commercial, interestingly, has since been replaced with several tamer spots that make the flick seem more like the “fun romantic comedy” it is being sold as. (My readers will probably see only the later, tamer spots, and think I’m even more prudish and less European than I admit.)

Loved your comment at the end about the irony of smoking garnering a PG-13 rating, and how the film really should be rated R. Thanks for a great read!

Here’s part of what Maeder had to say in her columns at the East Aurora Advertiser and Elma Review:

These days, commercials show couples raving about how much they enjoy certain gels, women having a deeply personal relationship with their shampoo, and strangers in a convenience store whose clothes disappear as they scope each other out. And let’s not forget those ads for Viagra and its competitors, often during family-friendly football and baseball games; the emergency medical advice in these commercials gives new meaning to the words “educational TV.”

When people complain about the demise of common decency, about vulgarity and tastelessness in movies or TV, they often start with a disclaimer: “Now, I’m no prude, but…”.

Not me. I’m a prude, and proud of it. Prudence is a lovely word, meaning “care, good sense, discretion.” To those who prefer being “careless, stupid and indiscreet,” I know a new movie you’ll probably enjoy.

There’s no doubt that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a tough movie for any critic to review (as I acknowledged in my own piece) given that Woody Allen’s got so much baggage attached. And now that he’s in his “European” phase, things are just getting murkier, I think. It’s hard to know how much he has personally invested in his stories from abroad, and how much he’s just enjoying having his extended world tour (in the company of Scarlett Johanssen and other young stars) financed by movie studios.

But Maeder’s point about the ads is particularly interesting. I avoid trailers, and I don’t watch TV much, so I hadn’t seen them—but it doesn’t surprise me. More and more, what used to be considered a “cosmopolitan” aesthetic is becoming unthinkingly mainstream.

I was just at a major new shopping mall the other day, and it has not only a Victoria’s Secret (which are pretty much ubiquitous these days) but three other shops also pretty much exclusively devoted to women’s slinky underwear. One of them is even styled after a New Orleans brothel, complete with a stoop, theme-park-ride-styled queuing areas, uniformed “hosts” who offer you a personalized greeting, and a series of darkened, spotlight-lit rooms reminiscent of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion… with thongs.

And then, of course, there’s the documentary America the Beautiful, which pointed out that the year women finally got voting rights in America was also the same year as the first national beauty pageant.

I remember walking out of Risky Business because I was offended on behalf of all the women in the audience who were just enthralled with being objectified as either hookers or shrews.  Nearly thirty years later, in the era of Girls Gone Wild, women apparently are just as happy having Woody Allen paint them as either misguided prudes or misguided hedons.

I liked what Darrel Manson had to say about the nihilism of VCB at Hollywood Jesus:

Who is more likely to find happiness and fulfillment: the one who forsakes her desire in favor of a more traditional life or the one who abandons conformist ways to find the freedom of a moral anarchy?  Juan Antonio has a line that sums up the issue: “The trick is to enjoy life, even though it has no meaning.”  This concept may not be far off from that of Ecclesiastes.

Watching this film, I could tell that Vicky was never going to be satisfied with the bourgeois life that lay ahead for her, but maybe she was learning ways to escape that.  At the same time, the film doesn’t allow us to be comfortable with Cristina’s approach of an almost reckless abandon into a wilder life.  Finally, Allen leaves us with a question of whether either way leads to happiness, fulfillment, or meaning.  In fact, he almost seems to have disdain for the belief that someone can find such things.

Manson picked up, as I did, on Allen’s ambivalence about worldliness and sexual abandon. Still, as Maeder notes about the film’s ads, both the director and the studio are more than happy to exploit women along the way.  And where are the men in the midst of all this?  The tacit assumption still seems to be that men are just going along for the ride… and enjoying every minute of it.

I honestly don’t understand why women continue to view sexual exploitation as empowerment. It must be funner to play that game, I suppose, than to invest oneself in “the world of men.” 

Being exploited, after all, at least means being pampered—and it’s got to at least feel like being wanted.