Sunday, June 01, 2008

In praise of female friendships... [Mini Spoiler Alert]

... as portrayed so wonderfully in Sex and the City: The Movie.

My best gal pal and I just saw it on Friday night, as a fitting opening to this June bank holiday weekend :)

We thought it was almost not going to happen at all, as it turned out that ALL tickets for the movie were sold out (?!?) in ALL city centre cinemas for the entire long weekend!! This has never happened before in the history of Dublin cinemas to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, and I cannot believe, even as a SATC fan, that Carrie and co would have such drawing power, such that evening shows were sold out by phone/internet a day before the long weekend. Especially when Indiana Jones is also in town.

Fortunately, there is a new small cinema in the little seaside town that my friend has moved into recently, and miracle of miracles, there were free tickets for Friday evening! My friend was going to pay for the tickets by phone immediately as a precaution, and was pleasantly surprised by the relaxed and bemused tone of the operator, who reassured her that she didn't need to worry about paying over the phone, that the tickets would definitely be held for us, and that we could pay when we arrive, and recommended us to be there 20 minutes before to secure good seats as it was free seating. Such a difference in attitude towards customer care between a small town venue and the city theatres! As I had to get a train to get out there after work, we had just enough time to go for a meal at an (again newly-established, and surprisingly good in both service and food) Italian restaurant right next door, sharing a whole bottle of wine between us in just three quarters of an hour before the movie (it was a pity that the restaurant didn't serve any cocktails, so that we could live it up with a Cosmopolitan a la Carrie and friends before the movie, but beggars can't be choosers in a small seaside town).

I have been looking forward to this film for years, although I have to admit I didn't really get sucked into the TV series until well into its later seasons. I guess I was turned off initially by the show's title. I mean, "Sex and the City"? It just seemed like it was trying way too hard to be this avant-garde show that would blow sexual taboos to smithereens (and indeed, that was its premise). At the time I was in my early 20's and I thought the most post-modern attitude towards sex then was actually not to harp on and on about it. Just do it and spare us the psychoanalysis. And I was also having a sneaking suspicion that the show was all about titilating the senses and playing to the "male gaze" (a term I was only learning to pretend to drop with ease in quasi-intellectual debates with friends, having pilfered it from my gender studies classes) under the politically-correct cloak of so-called female sexual empowerment.

But how mistaken I was. For some reason or other I started catching a few episodes from beginning to end, and before long, I was HOOKED. Seriously hooked. I started to realise that the show was not so much about sex as RELATIONSHIPS (indeed, as the self-proclaimed "sexual anthropologist" Carrie lamented in one of the episodes about her first book deal, her newspaper column was being miscontrued by the agents who thought her work was all about carnal pleasures, nothing more). And it was also not just about romantic relationships, although these figured prominently in the series for each of the four female leads (and which were breezily re-capped in the title sequence of the movie in the space of two minutes - though I was horrified, I mean absolutely horrified, that they saw fit to change the iconic theme music in the opening credits. Sacrilege!).

No, the key relationship that ties the whole show together, that lies at the very core of the overwhelmingly female fandom of SATC (reports said that over 90% of the audience in the opening weekend in the States thus far have been female, and in the little seaside cinema where my friend and I saw this movie, there were only a handful of guys, all apparently dragged in by their girlfriends/wives), is female FRIENDSHIP. Four New York women, each with totally different personalities and different career trajectories, managed to become, and remain, really good friends with each other, in all the ways that a girl can be counted as a friend to another. They went out as a gang to all these trendy clubs and bars (the various nightspots of NYC became tourist traps after they were name-dropped on the show by the fabulous four). They shopped and lunched together (had there been any show in the history of television before SATC that unapologetically revelled in the joys of female shopping? I don't think so. The series was ground-breaking just for this tiny fact).

Most importantly, they talked to each other incesssantly, all the time. On. Any. Subject. That was a true revelation about this show where sex is concerned. These four thirty-somethings to forty-somethings gossiped and analysed their individual sexual escapades over their Caesar salads, as ordinary as if one were merely debating the merits and demerits of Prada versus Louis Vuitton. Even the goody-two-shoes Charlotte was drawn out of her prim and proper self when she was with the girls. Thus sexual taboos were indeed blown to smithereens as a result of SATC, not because of the fact that it showed some full-frontal nude shots or some softcore sex scenes in prime-time television, but because women are shown talking and debating about sex and its various practices openly, nonchalantly, totally selfishly, and as easily as men traded sex jokes with one another. This is not only in relation to the nymphomanic Samatha's trademark unflinching and unabashed discussion of sex anytime, anywhere (one of which was recapped in the film's opening credits, when Carrie, on hearing Samantha's TMI non-sequitur as they waited for the dessert course to arrive, promptly asked the waiter to cancel her rice pudding order), but also for women who would have otherwise been thought of as characteristically square. One of such standout frank exchanges from the TV show was when Miranda wondered aloud with her three friends, again as they sat down to eat in a smart restaurant, about men's sudden interest in the "butt area" ("when did they get the memo that it's suddenly on the menu?"), the particular form of which Carrie, in true sexual anthropologist mode, immediately denoted as "toku... lingus". Before Carrie (B.C.), talk of sex is deemed as too distasteful and degrading for the sensitive female ear. But with the SATC, the FEMALE gaze has well and truly arrived.

And the girls were there for each other when it really, really mattered. The friendships between Carrie (fun and kooky newspaper columnist), Miranda (sensible and workaholic corporate lawyer), Samantha (assertive and sex-crazed PR extraordinaire) and Charlotte (sweet and conservative art curator) are in someway reminiscent of the close bonds between Rachel, Monica and Phoebe from Friends (in fact, one could argue that women like Carrie et al in their 30's and 40's are merely what would become of girls like Rachel et al once they have passed their 20's). And it is this idealistic portrayal of female friendships in SATC from which the later Desparate Housewives drew its inspiration, despite the dramatic change in settings and life circumstances. It is no coincidence that girls within their circles of friends started comparing themselves to these various women "archetypes" on the SATC in the same way that girls in the 1990's proudly proclaimed themselves as one of the Friends' characters. (For the record, I'm apparently Charlotte on the Facebook quiz, and I was apparently Monica in similar quizzes for Friends).

Regardless of which SATC character I apparently most resemble, of the four, I must say that I most admire Samantha. A shallow TV audience will take one look at her nymphomaniac ways and dismiss her as a brainless broad. But to a more observant viewer, it is clear that underneath all her sassy brazenness, she has a heart of pure gold. Samantha was most loyal to her friends. She turned up at Carrie's book-launch despite her face looking like an orange due to an ill-advised skin peel facial procedure, because she had promised Carrie to be her "plus-one" at the party, and didn't mind when Carrie bluntly told her to leave precisely because of how her face looked after she reluctantly unveiled herself. She didn't mind accompanying Carrie to the West Coast on a stupendously long and boring train journey, and grumbled only a little when she was unceremoniously forced by Carrie to leave the hotel suite mid-bath just because Carrie needed the room for sex with Big, when she herself was supposed to be nursing her self-esteem on one of her uncharacteristically low days. She once switched a long-awaited hair appointment with a celebrity hair stylist for a stint of baby-sitting Miranda's colicky baby, in spite of her distaste of young children in general; and she didn't hold a grudge when Charlotte phoned to tell her about her sexual breakthrough with her inhibited first husband, even though Charlotte had earlier insulted her by almost calling her a shameless slut. In fact, it was precisely because Samantha was so uninhibited and unapologetic, not only physically but conversationally, that the rest of her friends - and by extension, the rest of us female viewers - finally got permission to take their rightful place at the sex table without any fear of loss of respectability.

I was therefore relieved that they waited until Kim Cattrall came on board to do the SATC movie, rather than doing without her character as a result of alleged off-screen hostility between Cattrall and SJP. As it has been said elsewhere, it was Samantha who stole the show again in the movie, with the best lines and the best gags. The scriptwriter Michael Patrick King knew what he was doing and stayed true to the on-screen relationship between Cattrall and SJP's characters, despite whatever negative feelings the actresses might actually have towards one another. (Although, at the movie's premiere at London's West End, SJP charmingly said that she considered it one of her life's blessings to have known and worked with all of the other three leading ladies over the past ten years). In the movie, after the big let-down from Mr. Big, it was Samantha who persuaded the other girls (especially the workaholic Miranda) that Carrie needed them to be with her in Mexico; and it was Samantha who persuaded the unconsolable Carrie to finally eat something. And oh, it was extremely satisfying to hear Samantha, confident and assertive, loudly counter-interrupt a smartass guy with a brazen, "Shut up dickwad, I am speaking."

That is not to say that Sex and the City the movie doesn't have flaws. Actually it has quite a few. For my friend, the film was way too long at two and a half hours (though for me, I didn't mind the actual length of the movie, given how long it's been since our last fix of SATC, but they certainly could do a lot better with pacing it). The other qualities that made SATC great as eye candy for women, such as the brilliant costumes and the fabulous shoes, became way too obvious as product placements in the movie (I mean, jeez, do we really need to see the Manolo Blahnik shoe box and the Louis Vuitton gift box in addition to SJP clearly pronouncing what they contained? And do we need to be told exactly which designer created which wedding dress at the Vogue photo shoot?) The "Louise from St. Louis" character was also way too cliched, and some of the scenes between her and Carrie were just too toe-curlingly cringeworthy in their stereotypicality. Also, what happened to the wit and charm of the male characters? Mr. Big became merely an aging place-holder of his former wisecracking self, completely devoid of personality. Steve turned even more puppy-doggish and henpecked by Miranda (although I did surreptitiously shed a tear at their reunion scene). Smith became more cardboardish than was previously thought possible. And Harry? His movie character could be succinctly summed up in one phrase: "lucky bald guy".

Still, it was really, really gratifying for SATC fans like me to see this movie, being rightfully dubbed as "the finale that never was". All four New York gals stay true to their characters, despite the four years that have elapsed since we last saw them. If you have in any way missed any of these four fictional women from your screen over the past four years, watching the movie is like catching up with good old friends who haven't changed a bit, with whom you could pick up right where you left off. In the small cosy theatre that my friend and I saw this movie in, there was no shortage of appreciative laughters from the audience throughout this movie - even the guys accompanying their girlfriends sitting in the row in front of us joined in (although, I would totally understand how, as Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian said, as a male member of the audience you may need to read three Andy McNab novels back to back just to get your masculinity back up to metrosexual level after this movie). If you didn't like the series when it was first out on TV, this movie is probably not going to persuade you to suddenly go hunting for previous DVDs of the show. But to those who care about, or are charmed by, the unabashedly female and (distinctly unfair) privileged lives of Carrie and friends, this movie doesn't - and I mean doesn't (finger-wagging a la SJP) - disappoint.

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At Mon Jun 02, 04:19:00 p.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...


題外話, 妳嘅論文寫成點呀? :)

At Tue Jun 03, 04:30:00 p.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

I think I've said that before, movies are getting longer and longer. It's just that the directors are losing confidence in themselves. They think longer is better (eh ... no double entendre intended...initially.)or trying to give more back as the audience is paying more and more to get the movie experience. It's getting ridiculous. Where is the art of editing gone?

Sometimes, Carrie's obsessive self reflection can get pretty annoying Samantha is almost a tragic comic figure and she doesn't reflect and over analyze much and that only makes her more human in the rare occasions she bares her souls and not just her body. I haven't seen the movie yet and now that you've written a glowing review maybe I just will and of course dragging my wife along. But 2 hours plus is just too much.

At Fri Jun 06, 05:22:00 p.m. IST, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

Sorry, 睇錯咗 tim! :P

At Sun Jun 08, 06:37:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Victor: No worries, and thanks for asking re: my thesis, unfortunately it's going slower than I thought (I couldn't help but be drawn to watch the finale of the U.S. primary season, on top of the fact that I'm helping to organise a conference which is taking place later this week, and on top of the huge amount of papers I have to correct at this time of the year... ugh. Thus apologies for the delay in replying).

LCL: Agree re: directors losing confidence in themselves, and I'll forgive you your rather dreadful pun :) Not sure if you have actually seen SATC by now, but if you're not already much of a fan, perhaps the film will disappoint you (I did state this in my review too you know, just in case you're asking me for a refund!). Anyway, agree also that Carrie *is* pretty annoying sometimes. But I like Samantha's character not so much because she's necessarily less annoying (her banging on about sex anywhere anytime could get tiring also), but more so because she encompasses what a good gal pal would be like.

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