Bring on the LoVe

"That might play with the masses, but underneath that angry young woman shell, there's a slightly less angry young woman who's just dying to bake me something. You're a marshmallow, Veronica Mars. A twinkie!"

So, yeah, you know you're addicted to a show when you start reading quotes on wikiquote to prepare a blogpost...and all of a sudden more than an hour has passed. And what's worse, aside from bringing back countless memories of moments that make the show great, I still don't quite know where to start talking about it.

Maybe here then: aside from being snarky and funny and heartbreaking, Veronica Mars constantly subverts (gender) expectations, and offers an exploration of what it means to be a girl in today's society.

Now, those are big words. But I think I can defend them.

Let's start with the concept. It's not just P.I. in high school, it's girl P.I in high school, and the girl part is just as important as the high school. I mean, just think about it: how many books or movies with a female detective do you know? They're there, actually, just google it and see, but generally, when we think private eye, we think private dick.

Considering this, making the main character female was already quite innovative, and to be honest, would probably not have been thought of were it not for the success of Veronica's big sister Buffy. But the creators went further, and dared to investigate what this gender change meant.

Joss Whedon has stated on numerous occasions that the inspiration from Buffy came partly from the "take back the night" campaign. What would happen, he wondered, if after a cute tiny blonde and a scary monster went into a dark alley, it was the monster who would come out battered and bruised, and the perky blonde victorious?

Rob Thomas took this idea to the logical next step: Veronica is a rape-victim. This immediately makes us aware that she is more vulnerable than the traditional PI's, who ran the risk of getting beaten or killed, but rarely to be violated. At the same time, it makes her stronger, or at least more fierce. Veronica is not just a PI with boobs: she's a PI who has other problems than the traditional ones, and other solutions.

In this way, the show investigates not only what it is to be a girl PI, but also more generally how to be a strong woman in today's society. Veronica copes by putting on her "angry young woman shell", and getting vengeance. In her own words: "Here's what you do: you get tough. You get even."

On the one hand, we can understand why she turns to this technique. On the other, we are presented with some alternatives, girls/somen who deal in different ways. We have the traditional madonna represented by Meg (complete with "immaculate" conception), though it has to be said she ends up dead. On the "whore" side of the spectrum, there are many examples, chief among them Kendall, who's gone so far into the manipulative and out for herself that she doesn't seem to have any emotions (she ends up dead too, incidentally). It seems nobody has found the perfect way of coping, not even Veronica

There is no doubt that Veronica is a role-model, at least in some repects. She is smart, she is strong, she is funny, certainly pretty, and while the most terrible things happen to her, she always stands back up and fights back. The stand up for herself, and for others. At the same time, she is not by far perfect, and she might not even always be the hero. In this way, she is exactly like Sam Spade, Phil Marlowe and all those others. She doesn't even always have the moral high ground. And she struggles with the balance between the twinkie inside and the (often all too ) necessary barrier that protects it.

No PI, of course, without a dame. And of course, here it's easy to run into trouble, and they did at first.

See, the mistake made at first is to intepret the femme fatale as someone who might be dangerous. And hence, we got dreadfully dull Duncan, who had weird "spells" and might have murdered his sister. But there's a problem with this did he or didn't he approach: if and when it turns out he didn't, the character becomes entirely uninsteresting. And let's be honest, nobody ever believed Duncan did it. Furthemore, while Duncan fit well with the overly sweet and vulnerable pre-murder and pre-rape Veronica, there was never any noticeable spark with the Veronica we all know and love, and luckily the writers quickly discovered they had another asset on their hands: Logan.

See, what really makes a femme fatale (or in this case homme fatal) dangerous is that they're in the big grey zone between good and bad. They usually feel real affection for the hero, but they never forget their own agenda, and they can't stop themselves from exploiting the hero's weaknesses.

Still, there remains a problem with the concept. See, the gender reversal here can never be complete. Veronica is a woman who is quite resolutely from Mars, and how could she ever fall in love with a Venus denizen?

They tried "feminizing" Logan in some respects. He is, for example, often the more affective of the two, while Veronica keeps her self-protective impulses firmly in place, as witnessed in this exchange:

Logan: [About Keith] He should feel lucky. I mean, you could be out here with some pretty boy jerk just looking to get laid.
Veronica: Wait, what are you saying? You aren't pretty?
Logan: What I'm trying to say is that I'm in love with you.
Veronica: The things guys'll say to get past second base.
There are more respects in which Veronica is "the man" in the relationship. Witness for example the first LoVe kiss: without a doubt, Veronica is the initiator. However, while Veronica is often the leader and the one who invests less, Logan is never weak, because as subversive as gender roles often are in this show, the makers can't change the fact that while a certain weakness and perceived powerlessness is found attractive in girls (a fact Veronica often exploits), it is not something perceived as remotely attractive in a guy.

I often wonder what it is I find fascinating about guys kissing. One of the explanations I have considered is that when two guys kiss, there can be ambiguity about who's kissing whom. While there are, of course, differences within the particular relationships, the basic premise is one of equality. When a girl and a guy kiss? Not so much. No matter how equal a relationship might be, when it comes to kissing, the girl is always supposed to be yielding.

I'm as guilty as the next girl. When I like a guy, not only do I giggle more, but I also try to appear somewhat softer. More vulnerable, even. I'm not sure how much of this is nature and how much is nurture, but there's no denying it's true. And I'm not even sure it's a bad thing, to be honest. I kind of like the feeling of being protected. But there's no denying a thrill is missing. A thrill often present in scenes of boys kissing boys. A thrill present in that wonderful scene in which Buffy and Spike bring the house down. A thrill present in those first two kisses Veronica and Logan share, because there is no way Veronica is yielding, ever. But here's where my examples stop, simply because I can't think of many.

What about girlpower, you say? What about the surge in female action heroes? Well, because despite their butt-kicking ways, they're often either non-sexual or as girly if not more so in their private lives. In the former category, think of Lara Croft, for example. Yes, she has big boobs. And I am aware she is very much lusted after by boy geeks. But the character itself is a video-game character, and even in a film remains flat and devoid of any true sexual nature. In the latter category, think of Charlie's angels, especially the ones played by Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. They might be able to hold their own in a fight, but in their private lives they're just the same giggly, unsuspecting creatures men love to protect -and deceive.

The closest we've come to a LoVe or Buffy/Spike situation was another Angelina Jolie outing, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", which had some interesting things to say about gender roles as well (note especially how Mrs. is the more professional assassin). And strengthening my theory, I thought that kiss was not bad at all.

Still, no relationship on TV is as consistently fascinating and subversive as the one between Veronica and Logan (currently "on" again, for those keeping track). Theirs is an "epic" story, as Logan says "Spanning years, and continents. Lives ruined and blood shed. Epic! ". They're perfect for each other, and perfectly wrong. Logan's right. No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

P.S. Wow, this was meandering, wasn't it... Oh well, as procrastination, it did its duty. Also, if you don't know VM, don't be discouraged by the above blather: the show is actually a lot of fun, not an exercise in feminist critique. It references "The Big Lebowski" repeatedly, for instance. And it has episode titled "Hi, Infidelity". And basically, it just rules. So watch it. Help keep it on the air, 'coz I can't.



It's strange. My top 4 of 2006, made only in 3 weeks ago, reads:

Brokeback Mountain
The Science of Sleep

Why strange? Because it's already shifting. Brick is fading, was already when I made the list, but I do want to see it again soon, re-evaluate it. As for Brokeback Mountain, I was putting together a wishlist for my upcoming birthday the other day, and I realised I don't really feel the need to own it. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's a beatiful, heartbreaking film, and I loved it, but I somehow doubt I'll see something different, discover something new on a second viewing. That, and I'm afraid the sweeping landscapes won't translate well to the small screen.

Numbers 3 and 4, on the other hand, keep climbing. My love for The Science of Sleep should be obvious now from the previous two posts. And Volver (#20 in cinemarati's top of the year), well, snatches of the film come back to me every once in a while, and I can't wait to see it again. In fact, I think it might be my favorite Almodóvar movie (of those I've seen, at least).

I know that, even among Volver lovers, I'm in the minority here. And I'll admit, it's easy to discard the film as nothing but a piece of cotton candy. But I think that Almodóvar finally found the perfect balance between camp and melodrama here.

Most of the time, when camp is used, when films go so over the top as this one does, when everything in a film is bigger (like Penelope's butt) and brighter than life, it tends to be to undercut the drama, rather than underline it. (Melo)drama is unhip and, more importantly, uncomfortable, so irony is used to put some distance between it and us. To make sure the drama doesn't come too close.

There is a scene here that could be interpreted in that way. Raimunda (Penelope's character) sings, and her mother looks at her hidden in a car across the street, crying. Thing is, it's obviously not Penelope who's singing, or if she was it's clearly overdubbed. It's deliberately fake, and it's tempting to think this is meant to be off-putting. I don't think it is though. It reminds us that we are just spectators, certainly, but also that it's not so much the specific story that matters, or the specific relationship, but beauty and feeling in general. I'm not phrasing this well, and it's hard to articulate, but in a way it's pulling the emotion of the song into the abstract, and it's all the stronger for it. Overwhelming, even, at least to me. Everything in this film is, in a way "fake", except the emotions themselves, with the strongest being the love Almodóvar has for life, for his characters, and last but definitely not least, for his actresses.

Of course, it's not the first time Almodóvar has pulled this trick, but it's the first time he's succeeded so perfectly (again, of the movies I've seen). In Todo Sobre Mi Madre, the melodrama takes the upper hand. And well, it works, I remember crying buckets, but in a way it's a little too easy. The loss of a child is always a tragedy, while the loss of a parent is of course very sad as well, but it's less trick of destiny and more of a transitional phase, not luckily a universal experience but one that hits closer to home, less something that happens "just to other people". Hable Con Ella was beautiful and disturbing, but it was a little too much on the earnest side, missing a sense of fun. On the other hand of the spectrum, there is for example La Mala Educación, which I loved, but which missed the sincere emotion present in Volver.

Despite the hyperbole above, I realise defending Volver as Almodóvar's best is probably beyond my writing and analysing skills, but I doubt he's made a warmer film, or one that's more alive. Words like vibrant and luscious have already been used too often too describe it, but it's because it is. It's a film that makes scrubbing a headstone seem life-affirming, a film where a farting ghost seems like the most natural thing. And it's a film I'd love to get for my birthday to watch over and over again.