Thanks Kelli Marshall for linking.
It’s quite possible the contents of this post will lose me a great deal of respect among my colleagues and perhaps bar me from tenure at most reputable institutions. But I say, why not propose a ridiculous idea?!
I’m wondering whether Nancy Meyers, Hollywood’s purveyor of feminine fantasy, might one day achieve the same level of respectability as the king of melodrama, Douglas Sirk. Meyers is not popular in my immediate social circle, and up until recently I’d thought of her films mainly as cinematic cookies, acceptable only in moderation (of course, as with real cookies, I gorge anyway).
But then Manohla Dargis gave me a way of out my cycle of self-doubt. Thanks, Manohla!
Several weeks ago, Dargis suggested we start thinking of Meyers as an auteur — that’s right: the title typically reserved for Fritz Lang, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and the throng of (overwhelmingly male) directors who make technically complicated and thematically pungent movies.
At the same time there’s no doubt that she is an auteur, in that the films she has directed, including “What Women Want” and “The Holiday,” express a personal vision. Being an auteur isn’t simply a matter of what you do with the camera and why; among other things, pacing also counts (and Ms. Meyers has very good comic timing when it comes to banter) as do the performances. The movie’s best moments may be, to borrow a thought from Andrew Sarris, appreciated as exquisite whimsy (he was talking about a 1935 romantic comedy), but even in such whimsy, Mr. Sarris reminds us, a director’s touch can be “immortalized as a figure of style.”
Is Dargis just being a provocateur? Or does she have a point?
[First, the “auteur.” I’m aware the term is…up for debate. I’m currently taking a course with the reputable Timothy Corrigan, in which we have spent weeks parsing the idea of the “auteur” (simply: the widely held belief that the director is the “author” and creative force behind a film). Many argue quite convincingly for redefining or jettisoning the term, arguments I won’t get into here; some are pretty obvious. Anyway, for the sake of argument, let’s presume the existence of something called an auteur, if only to acknowledge the culture that has created it, and move on. For now.]
The Nancy Meyers Aesthetic
I actually disagree with Dargis’ focus on Meyers’ comic timing and whimsy. I understand why she’s going there (the domain of “comedy” — a la Keaton, Chaplin — has allowed for certain auteurs who would otherwise be overlooked in favor of the more “serious” filmmakers; comedy offers Dargis an easier in). But I don’t think she needs to.
I’d say Meyers is best known for creating lush, saturated (in a beige way, think “fluorescent beige”), worlds of rich fancy and carefree drama that tap into a deep need for the light life in heavy times. Leisure is premium here, and modern citizens, particularly Americans, have a long held love of watching leisure, the lives of the bourgeois. Meyers creates luxurious worlds where leisure is possible, but also frames them in relatable ways. Her films are both aspirational (mythic) and mundane. Characters wear white and beige (Something’s Gotta Give is the perfect example); they are both impeccably clean and yet somewhat lovable. It’s the softer side of bourgeois.
Charm is central. Charm is hard to pin down and changes year-to-year and generation-to-generation. I suppose that’s why critics and scholars avoid it. But it’s important and difficult to achieve. As much-derided as romantic comedies are — they are the lowest of the cinematic low — many fail to acknowledge how hard it is to produce one that isn’t too sugary. Nancy Meyers’ success is unmatched, as the Times rightly points out. The more than half a billion dollars in romantic revenue she has achieved over five films is more than just industrial math. In a genre as much about resonance as about “artistry” (whatever that means), popularity is a sign of perspective and consistency. There’s something quite masterful in producing films well-written and delicately crafted enough to be endlessly re-watchable.
Beyond this, however, Meyers’ glossy (soft and bland) images and her roving narrative style, built around petty dramatic moments and personal crises, are actually rather distinctive. We should remember many rom-coms go for flash and color, sex and sass. Meyers has made a conscience decision to play it down, make it beige, but keep the wit, charm and, yes, fantasy.
The Douglas Sirk Trajectory
I’m giving lectures at the Philadelphia Museum right now, and twice in my lectures — one on Cassavetes, the other on Almodóvar — Douglas Sirk has been a key example. Sirk is known, in shorthand, as the master of melodrama. During his time, his films, aimed at women, were not respected. But critical movement toward camp, ironic and critical cultural analysis called for a reevaluation of Sirk, as an ironic (queer) director critiquing American society while giving it a fantasy.
The subsequent homages to Sirk — Fassbinder, Haynes, Almodóvar, among many others — have positioned him as a canonical figure. Sirk has jived well with postmodernism, and his films, originally dismissed, have become an important aesthetic touchstone.
Meyers is not an ironic director. She is not the anti-Sirk — both indulge in saccharine displays of drama and emotion — but she is his estranged cousin, perhaps a frenemy. Where Sirk sees color, Meyers sees neutrality. Where Sirk sees drama and frisson, Meyers sees compromise and whimsy. Meyers’ softness may exclude her from film’s collective memory, but I wonder if it’s an asset: is it almost strange? This became clear to me during It’s Complicated when I realized Meyers was cruising, copying herself: the music and some motifs were borrowed from The Holiday and Something’s Gotta Give. Was there something oddly Meyersian in the air?
I cannot yet imagine a world that reworks her films. But I’m not living in 2050; I’m living now. What I can say is Meyers is positioning herself as emblematic of (American) culture today. Her upper class subjects are not everyday Americans, of course, but the resonance of her fantasies is meaningful. The desire to see a world where people have time to breathe (and that leisure improves one’s work), where life is clean, simple and vividly beige, tells us something about the complicated, fraught, wage-stagnated and quite conflicted time Meyers operates in. Her directorial success, let’s remember, emerged almost entirely during the aughts, the lost decade.
I imagine we will look at Meyers’ oeuvre with a skepticism — as if we don’t already, given her lily white worlds — in the coming years. But I also imagine her aesthetic is consistent and recognizable enough it could encourage quotation. If such as thing as auteurism exists, I can’t imagine a greater prerequisite.
The Issue of Women Directors
I can’t fully explore in a blog post the issue of women directors, and why there are so many more male directors (and obviously more male auteurs) than women. Needless to say, it’s interesting to think about a genre director like Nancy Meyers in relation to Kathryn Bigelow, who, with hope, will win the best director Oscar in a few days, being the first woman to do so.
Bigelow has reached her zenith by making “men’s movies:” tense, action-oriented dramas about adrenaline and testosterone. Meyers comes from the opposite trajectory: her films are explicitly aimed at women. Preserving this dichotomy for argument’s sake, I want to say that opening up a space for a Nancy Meyers to be taken seriously is a way of expanding what constitutes quality cinema as a way of letting in more artists who have been excluded. This case has been made before.
The truth is, charm and levity are as difficult to execute as action and violence, perhaps more so. Quality first features (the ones that get sold) are more likely horror- and gore-oriented than romance and comedy. If your characters are running around shooting guns, a whole host of camera and editing techniques almost beg themselves to used; innovation slips in. Moments of life and death — the entirety of The Hurt Locker — instantly read as “deep” and “meaningful.” Women, less represented in the police, army, mob/gang organizations have less access to such topics. We’re conditioned to think of personal relationships and everyday life as inherently less profound; maybe they are. It’s no secret that most independent web series (indie films), focused as they are on personal relationships, are cinematically uninteresting; some of the best indie content online is sci-fi, fantasy and horror. It isn’t their fault. Everyday life, even the everyday bourgeois glamorous life, is hard to film.
How does a director consistently and engagingly portray love and everyday, bourgeois fantasy? It’s easier with an eight-figure budget, but it’s not as easy as it looks.