In Which I Muse on Mamma Mia! and Maybe Build to a Point

After I saw Mamma Mia! on stage almost four years ago, people would ask me how it was, and my answer was pretty simple: If you love silly musicals and ABBA, you’ll love it. If you don’t love one or both of those things, you’ll want to rip your own ears off. This is the kind of information I would file under, “Duh. Big duh.” And yet, I’ve read several reviews of the movie version that begin with the reviewer confessing that he or she is not really a fan of ABBA, musicals, or both — then talking about just how much they hated the movie, as if this came as a shock. Really? At least Roger Ebert (who didn’t even like the stage version) acknowledges that his personal distaste for the movie’s central hook diminishes the importance of his opinion to its target market:

[T]here are the wall-to-wall songs by ABBA, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t, not much, with a few exceptions.

But here’s the fact of the matter. This movie wasn’t made for me. It was made for the people who will love it, of which there may be a multitude. The stage musical has sold 30 million tickets, and I feel like the grouch at the party. So let me make that clear and proceed with my minority opinion.

And that right there is one of the many reasons why I love Roger Ebert. He at least gets that he doesn’t get it. (Though for Pete’s sake, he then goes on to bitch about the plot being thin. Once again, this is a MUSICAL based on ABBA SONGS. Are you kidding me?) Contrast this with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, who says:

The brassy, bawdy musical “Mamma Mia!” presents itself as a piece of clever counter-programming to this summer’s surfeit of pounding, effects-driven comic-book movies… But filmgoers eager to sample its sunny, synth-pop pleasures are likely to feel just as bludgeoned: in this case by an Abba-bomb wrapped in a huge turquoise-colored feather boa.

Honey, those eager filmgoers are eager precisely because we want to be bludgeoned by an ABBA-bomb. Er… something like that. That’s the fucking point. If you like spangled polyester costumes and infectious ’70s pop and middle-aged women cracking themselves up every ten seconds, a turquoise-boa-wrapped ABBA-bomb doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all. And if you don’t like that stuff, what the hell are you doing at Mamma Mia!? (I mean, besides getting paid to write a review.)

That’s not to say the movie is perfect even if you do love that shit, which I totally do. If half the fun of the stage version for you is its very stageyness, be aware that like 75% of that is gone. (Some of that’s to be expected, obvy, but I’ve certainly seen movie musicals that retain a lot more of that feel.) There’s not nearly enough dancing in it for my tastes, in part because a lot of the musical numbers involve an obsessive focus on the singer, instead of shots big enough to contain the frothy group energy that makes me love musicals. And the only major actor with a typical Broadway voice is Christine Baranski — the others’ voices range from adequate (Pierce Brosnan) to lovely (Meryl Streep, Julie Walters), but they don’t sound particularly ABBAish or Broadwayish here, which cuts the fun somewhat. Also, this means Baranski often ends up sounding like that one lady in church who belts the shit out of hymns from the back row because her domestic suburban lifestyle affords her no other opportunity to show off her pipes — great voice, but it calls way too much attention to itself. On the other hand, when Baranski gets a solo, it is 100% awesome. “Does Your Mother Know?” would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the movie completely sucked, and that number had me really wishing they’d cast the whole thing with musical theater stars instead of movie stars. (Yeah, I know, there’s overlap there, but seriously, see the movie and tell me Baranski doesn’t scream “BROADWAY DIVA!” while everyone else is screaming, “HI, I’M A FILM ACTOR WHO CAN SING TO SOME DEGREE!”)

Still, the rest of the movie doesn’t completely suck, if you like that sort of thing. No, scratch that — if you love that sort of thing. Al likes both ABBA and musicals all right, but he doesn’t love them like I do, so he went into it with some trepidation (Me: “Where do you want to sit?” Al: “In the theater where The Dark Knight is playing”), and walked out of it demanding that I buy him a drink and quit bitching about having to sit through Crank two years ago. (Never. I will never stop bitching about that.) So if you have any doubts about whether this is your kind of movie, it’s probably not. But I enjoyed it.

And now, I shall attempt to make this post something appropriate to a body acceptance blog, instead of just me rambling about a movie ’cause that’s all I felt like rambling about today. As I said somewhere in comments recently, one of the main reasons I wanted to see Mamma Mia! right away was to support the rare film written, directed, produced by, and starring women — women over 50, at that. And the whole thing surely does have a gallopingly feminine sensibility. This is not just a movie for girls; it’s a movie for girly girls. (I love watching women squeal with delight over each other’s company for like 30 seconds at a time, but I know plenty of other women who wouldn’t, to say nothing of Al.)

Furthermore, it’s a movie that celebrates older girly-girls in a way that invites younger ones — and men — to the party, but never makes it about them. I read somewhere (possibly in comments here) that Meryl Streep said her twentysomething children will be utterly mortified by her performance in Mamma Mia!, and I can totally see that. It’s not just the singing and dancing — she acquits herself perfectly well on both counts — but that the plot (such as it is) hangs on her really, really not acting her age. If it were my own mom up there, I might feel differently, and the movie does occasionally veer a little too much into Red Hat territory for my tastes (i.e., too much self-conscious “Look at us being ZANY! Isn’t it a SCREAM?” action). But mostly, it’s totally believable that once her besties and old boyfriends show up, Streep’s character instinctively starts acting like she’s in her twenties again. That’s kinda what you do. (I end up with a massive hangover after I get together with a certain one of my friends from grad school, every fucking time, and we’re already way too old for it. But somehow, I don’t think that’ll be any different when we’re 50.)

And that’s exactly what’s so charming — and transgressive — about the movie. A bunch of fiftysomething women dance around in disco-era costumes, and it’s meant to look like a good time, not a pathetic joke. There’s not a fat actress in the bunch, of course — or an actress of color, which I forgot to note when I first posted — but still, this is not how we’re used to seeing older female bodies on screen. They’re not desexualized, for one thing — but they’re also not played too far the other way, to the point where the audience is meant to laugh at the old girl thinking she’s still got it. These old(ish) girls do still got it, as a matter of fact. Part of what makes “Does Your Mother Know?” such an awesome number is that Baranski hits the perfect balance between, “Why, yes, of course, a virile young man is hot for me” and “Oh, please, honey, I’m old enough to be your mother.” There’s neither self-deprecation nor self-delusion to it, which is a pretty amazing thread running through the whole movie, actually. Streep and Walters remark on Baranski’s plastic surgery and expensive moisturizer (now with more donkey testicles), but they don’t dwell on being less painstakingly preserved themselves, apologize for looking their ages, or try to tear her down for all the artificial assistance — nor does she suggest they should be doing anything else. They all just are what they are, and they’re cool with it.

Of course, Walters’s big man-chasing number (“Take a Chance on Me”) is played for laughs — she’s the frumpiest of the three and least happy about being single — but the important thing (in context) is, she gets the dude. No matter how baggy her costumes or pushy her character, the message still gets through that any man who would pass on Julie Walters is a stone cold idiot. That’s a message I can get behind. And as for Streep, she gets to make out with Pierce Brosnan. ‘Nuff said.

So okay, let’s talk about Pierce Brosnan — and Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard. It is, frankly, weird to see these three men in supporting roles, while the women completely and utterly take center stage. Though they’re playing Streep’s old boyfriends, these are categorically girlfriend roles; the guys exist mainly to look nice, drive the plot forward as necessary, and sometimes take their shirts off. How fucking rare is that? Although I was thoroughly sick of the phrase “male gaze” by the end of just one feminist film theory class, I must say, I can’t think of another movie I’ve seen that so unabashedly employs the female gaze. Not just because there’s lots of eye candy for straight chicks, but because even male viewers are truly expected to identify with the female characters and see everything through a woman’s eyes. Meaning both that there’s no male hero and that in a movie set on a Greek island, there are no lingering shots of hot young girls in bikinis. Amanda Seyfried is plenty gorgeous in a fairly demure one-piece, but the point is not to be turned on by her, even if you are. Granted, most of the time she’s in a bathing suit, she’s hanging out with men who are old enough to be (and indeed might be) her father, but I can’t help suspecting a male director would have glossed over that pesky little fact and put her in a more revealing suit anyway — ’cause, you know, why waste that body? Meanwhile, when Baranski rocks a somewhat less demure, blazing red one-piece, we are supposed to think she’s hot — but in a way that encourages the viewer to think, “Hey, maybe I’m that hot, too!” not “Yeah, I’d hit that.”

For my money, the female gaze is exactly what throws so many male reviewers about Mamma Mia! The movie, as Ebert noted, wasn’t made for them. It’s not just that the poor widdle straight men are forced to watch a bunch of chicks doing chick stuff to an ABBA soundtrack, it’s that they’re supposed to identify with chicks doing chick stuff. They’re supposed to share in the joy when they hear old girlfriends squealing together, imagine themselves on stage rocking “Super Trouper” in sparkly polyester, and fantasize about what they might do with a shirtless Pierce Brosnan. They’re supposed to put themselves in the metallic boots — and behind the eyes — of a bunch of women, taking the same sort of gender-swapping imaginative leap women are expected to make, oh, only about EVERY GODDAMNED TIME WE GO TO THE MOVIES. Seriously, other movies I have seen this summer: Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Wanted, The Dark Knight. If I tried to identify with the female characters instead of the male heroes in those movies, I’d have been bored right out of my fucking skull. Likewise, the man who watches Mamma Mia! and attempts to envision Pierce Brosnan as someone he wants to be, not someone he wants to bang, is pretty much screwed (so to speak). To enjoy it, you’ve got to want to be Meryl Streep. And men are really not used to being put in that position at the movies because, you know, THEY NEVER ARE.

So, to sum up… It’s nowhere near as electrifying as the stage production, which I highly recommend. But considering a ticket to the movie is a hundred-odd bucks cheaper, I can’t complain too much about that — and the movie has tons of other things to recommend it, including some fucking awesome images of fiftysomething women inhabiting and enjoying their bodies instead of hiding and apologizing for them. I might go see it again just to boggle at that rarity once more.

But, you know, if you don’t love ABBA and musicals, you’ll want to rip your own ears off. That caveat still applies.

Pre-Friday Fluff: Spaghetti language

Several years ago, my brother J coined what has become an eminently useful phrase in my repertoire: spaghetti language. Spaghetti language is what you speak when you’re half-asleep and you think you’re having a real conversation but actually are spewing gibberish. (The phrase, naturally, was coined in spaghetti language: J was trying to have a conversation with his wife and me, but it wasn’t working, and finally in frustration he said, “I thought I was awake but I wasn’t awake and I was talking spaghetti language,” as though that cleared everything up.)

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the phrase because, as it happens, I am particularly fluent in spaghetti language. Mr Machine has recorded my best examples for posterity. Spaghetti language has a rhythm of its own, with conversational peaks and troughs and, weirdly enough, often with punchlines. So, for example, after one particularly long monologue, I told Mr Machine:

I’m gonna go get some, uh, fat cat power in my pants. You know how it goes, you know.

The wonderful thing about spaghetti language is that you can often have what sounds, syntactically, like actual conversations, and the surrealism will spin out ever more wildly. For this reason, Mr Machine and I do all in our power to keep spaghetti conversations going if one of us is in dreamland and the other is wide awake. We carried on the following conversation after I had fallen asleep on our couch one night a couple years ago:

SM: My name is made of balloons, and my couch is made of triangles.
[Mr M somehow manages to get me to the bathroom to brush my teeth.]
SM: If I were marshmallows, would I get to have a marshmallow face?
Mr M: But your couch is made of triangles.
SM: No it’s not. My head is made of marshmallows.

And, my greatest personal achievement in spaghetti language:

SM: What what what?
Mr M: Sorry to wake you.
SM: What’s going on?
Mr M: I’ve been up reading this book.
SM: What’s going on?
Mr M: I’m going outside for a cigarette.
SM: But what about my dreams of making an ultimate lemon machine?

After hearing about this exchange, my friend found us a picture of what he believes may be, in fact, the ultimate lemon machine.

As you can see, my extensive training in poetics has paid off; even in my sleep, I am a wordsmith of uncommon vision. Nonetheless, if there is a champion of spaghetti language in my household, it is unquestionably Mr Machine, due to one now legendary conversation early in our relationship, on a rare night when he fell asleep before I did:

Mr M: If we start eating each other’s arms now, we’ll get to the shoulder at the same time.
SM: But your arms are longer than mine!
Mr M: You’ll just have to eat faster.
SM: Won’t that hurt?
Mr M: [gleefully] Not me!

I cannot describe to you the malicious delight with which he uttered that last phrase. Relentlessly logical, even in sleep.

What’s your best conversation in spaghetti language? Entertain us in the comments!

Beat the winter doldrums: open thread

We’re having a bit of a slow day here at SP. Kate’s fending off reporters left and right, Fillyjonk is unavailable today, and I’m staring down the omg-why-is-my-university-on-the-quarter-system-anyway end-of-quarter blues. I’ve sat here for the last half hour trying to come up with a post full of trenchant, witty analysis of some fat-related thing, but it’s just not happening. I’m both unsurprised and un-outraged by Kirstie Alley’s split from Jenny Craig to start her own weight loss business. (My favorite quote: “I am especially passionate about seeing to it that our next generations are not struggling with the same weight issues that my generation has struggled with.” So are we, Kirstie, so are we. I’m just guessing we define “weight issues” differently.) I’ve racked my brains for an anecdote to entertain you with, but the frozen Chicago landscape has made all anecdotes seem joyless and uninteresting. There aren’t even any pudgy animals on Cute Overload right now!

It is a slow fat day, is what I’m saying.

Given that, I declare this an open thread. A pre-Friday Fluff, if you will. But to warm the frozen cockles of my heart, let’s aim for uplift: what’s making you happy today? For me, it’s the extremely charming Swedish pop singer Jens Lekman. I have a mega-crush on his album Night Falls Over Kortedala. What’s getting you through the bleak stretch of February, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere? If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you lucky so-and-so, what fabulous summer activity are you enjoying right now?

Midweek Fluff: Gooey dogs and prickly cats

Two of us are super swamped and one of us (Kate) is currently out of town, so you may not be seeing a lot of posts this week. In order that there be something to entertain you, however, I introduce this short piece of fluff.

A friend of mine had a theory that everyone is either a dog or a cat, and either gooey or prickly. It’s probably obvious, but to clarify: dogs really like and need people, cats really don’t. Gooey people are emotionally open and expressive; prickly people are somewhere between “hard to win over” and “outright hostile.” Basically, the animal is your inner being, and the texture is your outer shell.

I’m definitely a prickly dog; I crave approval but fuck you if you think I’m going to cozy up to you for it. What about you?

Friday Meta-Fluff: All roads lead to SP

So what with our FAQ-building and our blogwars and all, I’ve been thinking about how this blog turned from an awesome blog to an awesome community. To that end, here’s your fluff question for today: How did you first find your way to Shapely Prose?

Personally, I knew Kate from Fatshionista and also knew that there was this really well written blog called Shapely Prose, but it took me months to put two and two together and realize they were the same person. Once I realized that we lived in the same city, my fate was sealed: I was a (proto-) Shapeling for life.

How did you make your way here? And while you’re at it, are there any new blogs you’d like to recommend to other Shapelings?

Also: Happy Friday! And if you’re in North America today, bundle the hell up!

Weekend Fluff: Chahlie Bit Me!

Stolen from Feministe, this totally kills me:

I think I am finally old enough to admit that yes, sometimes, when I was a kid? I would provoke my sister M. until she beat the crap out of me, then go screaming to my mom about how SHE HIT ME!!!!!!, conveniently leaving out the part where I had indeed started it, and did indeed know what I was in for.

In my defense, M. was bigger than me and usually didn’t need to hit me that hard, thank you very much. But in retrospect, I’m willing to admit there’s some possibility that I might have hit me that hard, too.

So as soon as I saw the older kid slowwwwly, deliberately stick his finger into his brother’s mouth, I started laughing, ’cause I knew exactly what was coming. And… yep! CHAHLIE! How dare you chomp down on that finger I just gave you for the express purpose of down-chomping?!? (And I wonder how many times exactly that sort of thing happened between M. and me before I got big enough to start being the one who started it. See, M.? I must have learned it from you! STILL ALL YOUR FAULT.)

The British accent is just the cherry on top. In case our UK readers weren’t aware of this, children with British accents are the cutest thing in the world, because only adults are supposed to have British accents.* I’m pretty sure that’s some sort of natural law, just so you know. I have friends who say they’ve always secretly wanted to adopt a little British boy, just to make him say, “Please, may I have some more toffee?” over and over. I can relate to that.

*For the record, children with pretty much any accent other than a higher-pitched, sloppier version of the standard American/Canadian broadcaster one — including American southern — crack me up. Because I’ve always lived in relatively accent-neutral places in the U.S. and Canada (sure, you can tell I’m from Chicago when I say “hot dog” or “Wisconsin,” and you can often tell I’ve spent half my life in Ontario when I say “out,” but those things don’t necessarily show up in little kids), I’ve never spent much time around children with any other kind. So in my head, only adults have accents other than a basic, flat midwestern one — ergo little kids with accents other than that sound like tiny adults, which is inherently funny.