"Shut Up," Barked the Cat
LONDON, ONTARIO – I rarely miss the Oscars even though it’s been about thirty years since I didn’t hate myself in the morning for handing over four hours of my life to preening narcissistic airheads who are not qualified to tell anybody how to think or live. By now I ought to have shed that impression formed in the first half of my life that this awards show has anything to do with artistic merit or glamour or entertainment. Sub-consciously I think I’ve known the gig was up for decades. How else to explain the self-sabotage which I only commit on Oscar night by pounding back a family-sized bag of potato chips – with French onion dip, no less – before we've even made it through the dullest of the technical awards?
But on Sunday night – thanks be to God and some unprincipled virologists with a sackful of flying rodents – I and millions of others were able to forgo the chips and let the 93rd edition of the Academy Awards slip by unobserved. In a year when the Wuhan batflu kept nearly everybody out of theatres and when nobody subscribes to enough streaming services to have attained even a sketchy idea of the array of films that were nominated (I, for instance, had only seen the rather ponderously bloated Mank which only made me want to see Citizen Kane again) few saw any point in tuning in. Ratings for the broadcast were so disastrously low that some wonder if Hollywood isn't just contending with a glitch in distribution but has somehow managed to permanently decimate their audience.
Ordinarily newspapers run a flurry of preview articles in the week before the Oscars, but I only happened upon one puff piece in Saturday’s Free Press (purloined from Jeff Bezo’s rancid hobbyhorse of a newspaper, The Washington Post) which tried to gin up some pre-show buzz under the headline, A Year of Oscar Firsts. Okay, I thought, let’s see how entertainment reporter Bethonie Butler (who obviously overcame the challenge of growing up in a household where her elders couldn’t spell) makes the case for tuning into this year’s horse race. Perhaps she’ll tell us about some compelling and worthwhile stories that have been filmed, some first rate performances, some directors of rare authority and vision.
But no, she went on for seventeen short and utterly tedious paragraphs commenting on nothing but the skin colour and sex of the people who'd made the nominated movies. Yes, indeed, Bethonie gushed, this was “the first time in 48 years that two Black women have been nominated for best actress”. Well, hallelujah for that, I guess. It’s always nice to see people of whatever race or sex find work. But nowhere within this tallying up of Oscar contenders' pigmentation and genitalia did Bethonie spare a single sentence to explain why any of the movies these people made might actually be worth watching or rooting for. This myopic insistence on exclusively appraising filmmakers' achievements through the prism of identity politics, perfectly encapsulates everything that is so poisonously wicked and so suffocatingly boring about this moment in our civilizational breakdown.
The Washington Post does seem to have a knack for injecting ideological tribalism into every entertainment story they cover. A touchingly bewildered columnist named Kate Cohen penned a remarkably obtuse commentary back in February under the headline, On TV, Abortion Is the Road Less Traveled. Life’s Not Like That. In this ill-tempered screed Cohen expressed her exasperation with an episode of the Netflix comedy series, Atypical, now in its final season, in which a presumably female character, surprised to find that she has somehow become pregnant, decides to have the child without even considering the option of abortion.
Having precious little patience with stories in which conceived human beings don’t get terminated, a triggered Ms. Cohen wrote, “I’m so tired of this. Over and over again in TV shows and movies, female characters discover they are unintentionally pregnant and then make the choice that most women in that situation don’t make. Or worse: They don’t seem to remember that they even have a choice.”
Well, bless her shriveled little heart. Does Kate Cohen really have no inkling why TV and film producers – not to mention audiences – aren’t much drawn to stories about women whose pregnancies are discreetly and hygienically terminated before anyone has to let out the waistband on a single pair of jeans? Regardless of how frequently abortions are carried out in real life, does Cohen really not see the limited appeal of a movie or a show in which a progenitor of life kills that life? As well make a film about an inventor or artist who scribbles a really promising idea on a scrap of paper and then scrunches it into a ball and throws it out; never to be developed. Who would want to watch such a shabby excuse for a movie?
Perhaps Ms. Cohen imagines that audiences would be interested in watching the intellectual contortions by which her main character rationalizes the decision to abort. But the opposing poles in this debate – should I exterminate this new human life which has just begun inside me or submit to nine months of personal inconvenience so that this life can proceed? – are of such unequal gravity that only the shallowest thinker could regard it as a serious contest. Indeed, the callow inadequacy of arguments justifying abortion explains why the pro-choice side shuns open debate and refuses to allow pro-life counselors anywhere near a woman contemplating an abortion.
For what they’re worth, the two commonest pro-choice arguments run like this: That just-conceived human being isn’t actually a human being – not yet – so it doesn’t have a right to life. And besides, that incomplete non-human being is entirely dependent upon the mother’s body; and every woman’s body and its temporary supplements are her own property to do with as she chooses. Conveniently enough, those same two arguments – it isn’t a human being anyway and it’s my property to dispose of as I wish – are also used by tyrants to justify the practice of slavery.
What Kate Cohen doesn’t seem to comprehend is that film audiences love to root for underdogs, for characters who care about more than their own self-interest or convenience; who will go that extra distance for the sake of someone else or a cause that’s worth upholding. Significantly, when producers do green-light stories in which abortions are procured - such as Vera Drake or The Cider House Rules - those films are usually set in a deep, dark past before abortion was legalized. At least in those tales the character has to struggle against something; has to undertake some quest more daunting than booking an appointment at the clinic. To avail oneself today of a legally and socially protected procedure like abortion is to take the easy way out. It's unheroic and all too pathetically unremarkable and wouldn't make much of a premise for a movie that people would actually want to see.
Now cast your mind back fourteen years to a less culturally weaponized time when nomination lists for the Oscars or the Emmys routinely contained entertainments that most people had actually heard of and, perchance, even seen. There was a remarkable quartet of surprisingly successful romances and comedies released in 2007 – Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella and Juno – which all told the stories of young women who became unexpectedly pregnant in less than ideal circumstances, but nonetheless decided to carry their babies to term and either raise them themselves or put them up for adoption.
The simultaneous release of those movies – nearly four decades after the implementation of unrestricted abortion rights in the United States and Canada – highlighted a notable cultural development that no one had been tracking. And that was this: A society which okays abortion for anyone at all with no questions asked, is a society which has also removed any social stigma from carrying your pregnancy through to its natural fruition whether you happen to be married or not. This unanticipated cinematic depiction of four bright, brave and even funny pro-life heroines was not well-received in all circles.
Juno had far and away the greatest cultural impact of the films, garnering four major Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jason Reitman, whose first film this was), Best Actress (Ellen Page in the title role of Juno MacGuff) and – this was the single award which Juno actually won – Best Original Screenplay (Diablo Cody). When those Oscar nominations were first announced, an outraged chorus of older sisters in feminist whinery penned columns which largely presaged Kate Cohen’s dreary argument; none quite so precisely as Ellen Goodman in The Boston Globe: "Here is a cinematic world without complication. Or contraception,” Goodman wrote. “By some screenwriter consensus, abortion has become the right-to-choose that's never chosen."
It’s the funniest darn thing about the so-called ‘pro-choice’ movement: Remind its advocates that there is in fact a pro-life option which any pregnant woman is free to choose, and many of them go all censorious and petulant. It’s almost like they aren’t so much pro-choice as anti-life but don’t have the awareness to realize it, or the courage to admit it. It actually seems to offend them that a responsible woman might choose to make good on the promise of the new life she's perhaps inadvertently conceived, and entrust herself for a while to the full revelation of this utterly miraculous capacity with which her sex is uniquely endowed. And at the end of that nine-month process - regardless of whether she decides to raise her child or not - somebody gets to live out a life which is already underway. It's a great 'choice'. And a true pro-choicer would be more enthusiastic about it.
I remember back in 1980 when we were expecting our first child and I suddenly had cause to question whether abortion rights were really the unalloyed advance for humanity that the media and my schooling assured me they were. As a perpetual freelancer, I’ve never been compelled to avoid certain subjects and wrote a newspaper column outlining some of my recently hatched doubts about the way in which our society was sanctioning the murder of prenatal human beings. I was impressed by the flood of mail that essay generated; pretty equally divided between approval and exasperation.
Of course my denouncers said I was a sexist and a misogynist and claimed that my maleness disqualified me from having any opinion on this matter and the Free Press should have known better than to publish such trash. My very favourite pointed missive in that descending cloud of apoplexy came from a man who identified as a male feminist – a slimy pose of self-flattering defection which has elicited my scorn ever since – and opened with a question of jaw-dropping arrogance: “Doesn’t Herman Goodden realize that the discussion about abortion is over?”
Ah, the discussion is over. The science is settled. The cool kids don't agree with you. It's time to move along. This idea that certain kinds of people are no longer entitled to say what they think is a form of ideological bullying that has madly proliferated over the last forty years, attaining a suffocating ubiquity as more and more areas of discussion are taped off as verboten to those of the wrong colour or sex or generation or religion .It's ugly fascistic stuff that squelches personal liberty, de-legitimizes independent thought and heedlessly overturns historical and traditional understandings of not just morality but reality itself. While it's comparatively easy to shrug off the lip-pursing censure of a male feminist's letter to the editor, it becomes a little more daunting to argue a disfavored corner when the big guns of the establishment - from the academy to the media to the government itself - all start laying on the repressive muscle as well.
I re-watched Juno last month and for the most part it remains an impertinent, at times touchingly funny and overall generous hearted movie about two kids who've wandered into more trouble than they’re equipped to handle and are helped – particularly by her family – to make the best of their predicament. There are a couple aspects of it that haven’t aged so well. Back in the day I excused its minimalist shoe-gazer soundtrack as something the young -uns must like for some innovative reason that I wasn't hip enough to get. But today that sprinkling of embarrassingly modest and charmless songs really had me grinding my teeth. I was reminded of a comment Ralph Vaughan Williams once scribbled on a score submitted by one of his lazier composition students: “Do promise me that if a melody should ever occur to you, you will not hesitate to write it down.”
And as for that perfunctory scene which sets the film’s primary premise in motion . . . what you would ordinarily call the “seduction scene” or the “great consummation” . . . well, it’s more of a “joyless conception by mutually bewildered consent scene" . . . and an even ickier buzzkill than I remembered. I kid you not; the employment of a turkey baster wouldn’t have decreased the erotic charge of this scene one iota. On the other hand, I suppose the awkward incompetence of this not-so-blissful conjugation does lend credence to those alarming reports one keeps hearing about plummeting rates of sexual activity in the rising generations.
But the most haunting thing about watching Juno now is to consider the forlorn trajectory undertaken by Ellen Page over the last fourteen years as she seems to have done everything in her power to wrest the world's focus away from her work as an actress and onto the alternately weeping and raging mess of her private life. In this film which made her a household name and gave her her juiciest role by far, Page was associated in the public consciousness with an impishly independent character who could generously maneuver her way through a minefield of projections and judgements and emerge with her integrity intact.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, while promoting her new film Whip It, she was still being asked how she felt about the controversy arising from Juno and was still making the case for allowing people of different convictions some leeway and respect:
“People are so black and white about this," Page said. "Because she kept the baby everybody said the film was against abortion. But if she’d had an abortion, everybody would have been like ‘Oh my God.’ I am a feminist and I am totally pro-choice, but what’s funny is when you say that people assume that you are pro-abortion. I don’t love abortion but I want women to be able to choose.”
Page has subsequently been landing infinitely less interesting (though perhaps more lucrative) roles in the kind of horror and superhero dreck that really packs them in at the Bijou but can't be giving her much sense of meaning as an artist. Perhaps this explains why she's felt compelled to draw more attention to her private life through a series of jarring public announcements that seem to reflect galloping levels of personal confusion and unhappiness.
In 2014 at a pretty hokey human rights conference in Las Vegas she came out as a lesbian . This of course was universally lauded by the commentariat as a wonderful act of personal bravery. And perhaps it was in terms of running the risk that potential producers might think twice before slotting her into roles that would challenge the movie going public's all-important willingness to suspend their disbelief that this actress could possibly be that character. And Page's subsequent announcements - and her most recent bodily alteration - have jacked up that risk exponentially..
In 2018 Page married a fellow Canadian, the choreographer Emma Portner, and a couple months later appeared on Stephen Colbert's talk show to decry all the blatant homophobia in the world (clap, clap, clap, goes the audience) and expressed particular ire for American politicians like Ted Cruz and Mike Pence who had opposed the legalization of gay marriage (boo, boo, boo, goes the audience). “The Vice President of America wishes I didn’t have the love with my wife,” Page told Colbert. “He wanted to ban that in Indiana. He believes in conversion therapy.” Ooh, what a scary bad man who has a different and rather universal understanding of matrimony and expressed such a thing out loud.
It so happened that the first reports of the phony Jussie Smollett hate crime had just broken and Page fell for it hook, line and sinker, proclaiming to Colbert that while she'd never actually met Jussie, she was nonetheless sending him "all my love". She then lectured Colbert's audience that it was time for people to "connect the dots"; that this horrific attack outside a sandwich shop at two a.m. on the coldest night of the year was all the proof anyone needed that gays were a horribly persecuted minority whose sufferings were being abetted by moral monsters like Pence and Cruz.
In June of 2019 Page and Portner attested to their fulfillment as devoted spouses by sending out a 'HAPPY PRIDE' Instagram which showed the two of them smooching while topless. But big changes were clearly afoot in their marriage and last December Page announced that she was trans and therefore was now identifying as a 'man', that her first name was now Elliot and her pronouns were "he" and "they". "I can't begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self," she wrote in her latest press release. "I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more my heart grows and I thrive."
This was universally hailed as another example of Page's inspiring courage and as congratulations poured in from such esteemed thought leaders as Ellen Degeneres and Justin Trudeau, CBC Newsworld carved out a half hour in its broadcasting schedule and rustled up a panel of experts to discuss the larger cultural implications of our crabbiest actor's latest personal epiphany. Perhaps a little miffed with Page's preoccupation with embracing and loving her own self most of all, Emma Portner (who had stopped co-habitating with Page months before) filed for divorce this January; couching her announcement with mandatory affirmations of undying love and admiration for her soon-to-be ex.
But still Page wasn't through with her wondrous metamorphosis and a few weeks later, assuaged any feelings of marital abandonment she might have been feeling by turning to what’s become the most reliable source of personal validation in her histrionic life, the world media. In February, hair shorn and looking adolescently glum, she turned up on the cover of TIME magazine in her newest guise as a lost male kid. And in the feature-length interview inside, she trumpeted her most depressing announcement yet: that she had just had her breasts surgically hacked off in an operation that was "not only life-changing but life-saving."
Uh huh. Why don't I believe her this time either? Instead, I glance at my watch and sigh, wondering when we can expect the next bold, paradigm-smashing announcement that she's signed up for some surgical mangling below the waist; spurning another of her natural bodily accoutrements which does at least function for an artificially constructed approximation of the other sex's genitalia which will not. Or perhaps she’ll set her sights on a whole new frontier of trans and break through the oppressive border separating species and will opt for a pair of antler implants.
I know; it isn’t nice to make fun of the mentally ill, particularly those whose delusions cause them so much misery. But I’ll be damned (quite literally, I fear) if I quietly play along with a suicidal understanding of compassion which asserts that the profoundest truths of what it means to be human are mere fripperies that we can deny and denounce - to ourselves and our children – so that we can prop up the fragile misunderstandings of the deranged and the sterile.
I find it all quite pitifully sad, this insufferable, self-absorbed pass that Ellen Page and a large part of Hollywood itself have come to. Filmmakers used to entertain and even enlighten us with comedies, adventures and romances that told us something about the world and the possibilities that burble away in every human heart. Where they used to have a knack for taking us out of ourselves and showing us larger realities, now they insist on turning all the focus onto their own embittered selves. They've doused that old life-affirming spark that made movies such fun and replaced it with a tiresome round of "woe is me". And they just can't figure out why all those sexist, racist, homophobic bigots out there aren't snapping up the tickets like they used to.
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