Bs and Hs, or something

13 August, 2007

Moving ended up being much more time- and mind-consuming than I expected, and I obviously haven’t been writing here. This is going to be an unusually spoiler-heavy post, so I’ll go ahead and say now that I don’t see much point in avoiding spoilers in the kind of writing I do and this will probably be true in the future. I still don’t have categories or anything like that, but I’m thinking about how to deal with that. Work in progress, folks.

Last night A and I watched Sorry, Haters on Telly’s recommendation. While A was pretty much fully negative about it, I had a much more ambivalent reaction, maybe because I knew more than she did going in about what the contents would be. What impressed me was that it seemed like such a deep mix of good and bad directing choices. I mean, framing the movie so that it seems to have been financed by its fictional Q-Dog TV MTV-like enterprise is lovely, but then what do we make of main character Phoebe getting a music video director (or was it musician? I wasn’t paying enough attention) credit overlaying the last shot, as if perhaps all that we’ve seen is some director’s violent, semi-sensical fantasy. And that’s what it was, I know, but I’m getting tripped up a bit in what’s meta and what’s not and should probably circle back around to the start.

See, it’s pretty obvious from the start that things aren’t what they seem. Syrian-born cabbie Ashade turns out to have a PhD in chemistry back home and just isn’t able to work in the field here, especially busy as he is with mounting a daunting legal defense for his brother and nephew, who are either in Guantanamo now or have already been returned from there to Syrian captivity. He picks up a tightly-wound white woman who claims her name is Philly and she’s a creative executive at Q-Dog TV, scorning the bean counters in accounting and willing to partake of the odd “marijuana cigarette” as part of her job. But there’s obviously something deeply off about her, not merely in the prudish way she complains about “effing” problems at work and the way her tv channel (and especially the celebrity decadence-display show “Sorry, Haters”) teaches kids to treat women as “Bs and Hs” and drives viewers to hate themselves for not being thin or rich.

Philly’s thin, but since we see her having trouble getting the money she wants from an ATM as we first meet her, it’s not hard to believe she’s not as rich as she’d like to be. Except it turns out she’s not Philly, either. She tells Ashade that he’s driven her out to New Jersey where she defaces a car because it belongs to her ex and their 7-year-old Smitty’s Chinese tutor, which unsurprisingly isn’t true either. Instead, the car’s owner is the real Philly, an exec at Q-Dog, and the faux-Philly turns out to be supposedly mild-mannered Q-Dog accountant Phoebe, who began at the same time and with the same lack of rank as Philly but never progressed into someone who hates and succeeds at her job. While Philly has power, money, family, Phoebe stays in her apartment ordering bomb-making supplies and working on antisocial collages while doting on her little dog, Smitty. Of course, Ashade doesn’t find this out until he’s enlisted the person he thinks is Philly to help spring his brother from Homeland Security gulag and, for his trouble, had her steal all his cash and turn in his brother’s girlfriend and infant son to DHS. By that point he’s on the run from the government with limited funds and not in much of a position to bargain Phoebe down from what she wants him to do.

So what does Phoebe want? She wants to control the narrative, I guess, given how quick she is to lie about everything from her command of French to all the details of her personal and professional life. She wants to create another terrorist disaster, she tells Ashade, because she remembers how powerful she felt on 9/11 in that everyone else was just as powerless as she. I’m not sure whether Ashade believes her or gives himself over to some Stockholm-syndrome sympathetic acceptance because he’s trying to play a player and perhaps save his life, not to mention the lives of the family members he loves.

I don’t believe Phoebe about her motivation, though, and I’m not sure whether we viewers are supposed to. The movie’s set up to make you sympathize and identify with her, but even though I’m also a gaunt, tired white woman with no children and no husband working at what can be a mind-numbing job, I can never forget that this still gives me all sorts of privilege. I mean, yes, presumably I could go out and try to set up a cab driver in a byzantine scheme to create some sort of terrorist attack just like she did (although I don’t think I could pull it off even if I did want to, and the scale of her success is only one reason why) and I could do it because I am a middle-class white woman and that lets me move and act according to culturally prescribed roles without making any waves. But it bothers me that Phoebe basically has to be a white woman, that her particular (to my eyes nonsensical and unrealistic) form of craziness is one that codes as fundamentally female, white, bourgeois; I’m sure a movie I haven’t actually seen was called Single White Female for a reason and it was right there on display in Wicker Park. I get a related vibe from Freedomland and I know there’s another famous movie about a mother looking for a missing child who turns out not to exist, though I think the flipside of that is Flightplan. So what’s so bad about being thin, urban, sufficiently successful but single and not a mother that it drives women insane?

I wouldn’t have trouble with the idea that Phoebe’s a wannabe terrorist mastermind, though I suppose if that were even more obvious from the start the standard viewer wouldn’t have any sympathy for her at all. Or is that even a fair way to say it? I’m sympathetic in the sense that anyone who believed what she did would be deeply delusional and I’d pity her for having to live in such a world. But there was something creepy and annoying in what I read into this, that Ashade is supposed to code as other and we’re supposed to identify with Phoebe/Philly until (OH NO!) we realize that all our assumptions have been turned upside down and we shouldn’t be so closed-minded as to assume all that stuff. Except I never gave myself over to believing this was what was going on and neither did A, who knew nothing about the movie going into it. Instead we were just counting down the timebomb of plot twists until the ending.

And I guess it sounds like I’m saying I also thought this was a stupid movie, which is in a lot of ways true. Yet the acting was excellent, giving the story more depth than it probably deserved. It could have been good if it had addressed things like why Ashade wouldn’t actually feel comfortable casually touching Phoebe the way he eventually did, why she didn’t think that using her connections to free his brother would have given her the same rush of power that killing people might, why she deals with stress by ramming a fork into her hand in a public setting rather than saving her self-injury for a truly private time. I’m looking forward to talking to Telly about why he found it so moving when I found it compelling mostly for what it lacked or hinted at. But maybe it’s just a situation where those who can’t create hate.


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