Tagged: Pam Grier

Using the L Word to talk about title sequences

Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.

Cast of the L Word (with Shane and Tasha wearing dresses and no Max--FEMME FAIL)

I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.

Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.

1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.

2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.

3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.

4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.

But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.

Go ask Alice . . . if she'll take me out to dinner; image courtesy of flickr.com

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?

Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.

But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”

But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.

Jackie Brown, R&B classicist

I recently watched Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown for the first time. Overall, I really enjoyed it. I seem to remember folks being very underwhelmed by it, but as someone who’s always been what we could call “appreciative” of the guy’s work (re: I’m not in love), I think I was pretty receptive to it. 

I remember this movie was coolly received in the wake of the cultural maelstrom that was Pulp Fiction. I wonder if the “meh” feelings some folks seemed to have toward the movie may have to do with how jarring the decided lack of on-screen violence and spattered blood may be compared to the rest of Tarantino’s filmography, especially his first two films, which established his enfant terrible persona and preceded Jackie Brown.

My enjoyment of Jackie Brown is met with some reservations. My biggest problem is that — source material notwithstanding, as I haven’t read Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and thus don’t know how he wrote Jackie Burke — I would have liked Pam Grier to kick more ass. At the beginning of the movie, flight attendant Brown is arrested for smuggling drugs for crooked gun runner Ordell Robbie (played by Samuel L. Jackson). After he bails her out, she catches wise to him setting her up and threatens him with a gun. But that’s really the extent of any physical displays of whup-assery.

It just seems weird to cast Grier as a means of hailing her stardom via 70s blaxploitation films and then not have her fuck some shit up. If John Travolta dances in Pulp Fiction, Grier can shoot a cop, rather than work with them to set up Robbie. She may use them and run off with Robbie’s money, but she got zoomed before she zooms the system.

That said, I love Grier as Jackie Brown. She’s tough yet vulnerable, a woman who has lived her life on the margins as an African American women and is trying hard to make it out of an unfair situation with her dignity.

Yet, at the same time, she’s proud and has a clear sense of who she is. One of those things, as Robert Miklitsch notes in his Screen article, is a record collector, whose predilection for the funk, soul, and R&B of her youth (i.e., primarily from the 1970s). I think her love of this music and devotion to vinyl potentially orients her as an author or source for the movie’s sound.

In a key scene I wish I could find for you readers, she defines herself for her bail bondsman and potential paramour, Max Cherry (played by Robert Forster) through song. The track is The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.” Miklitsch reads this as Brown’s stubbornness to break from the past. I, on the other hand, read it as a firm declaration of who she is.

While a radio is in the background, Jackie Brown uses her hi-fi to tell Max Cherry who she really is; image courtesy of thisdistractedglobe.com

While a radio is in the background, Jackie Brown uses her hi-fi to tell Max Cherry who she really is; image courtesy of thisdistractedglobe.com

Thinking about Brown’s love and fluency with records is important. For one, it breaks up the tacit assumption that record collectors (real or mediated) are male. Scholars like Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Robyn Stillwell have contended the traditional gendering of male record collectors by analyzing mediated representations of female record collectors, but their examples tend to be white women and girls. Thus, Brown complicates the idea of who a record collector is while also promoting artists of color through generic preferences. You’ll note that she only listens to vinyl and, by implication, primarily listens to work by African American artists.

Of course, Jackie Brown may be the music selector within the movie but director Quentin Tarantino probably had more of a hand in picking which songs he would work with (though, interestingly, he doesn’t do as much virtuosis framing and editing of sound with image here as with, say, Reservoir Dogs, where he indelibly altered how many viewers would remember Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”). In Jackie Brown, a lot of the songs simply exist in a scene, creating a mood or an atmosphere, or providing an orientation point, usually for the heroine.

At the same time, having a white dude center an entire soundtrack around vintage funk, soul, and R&B (and hail the blaxploitation) is not without its problems. The same can be said for Tarantino’s put-on “black” voice when announcing that “Pam Grier is Jac-kie Browwwn” in the trailer. Clearly Tarantino wishes he could be black, for however limited a time and in whatever essentialized capacity.

One may aver that Robert Forster’s character listening to The Delfonics is, like Tarantino, aligning himself with black culture, but I read his engagement — buying the tape and playing it repeatedly in the car — as a way to get closer to Brown, who seems to love her for who she is.

So, the music here really evokes a feeling, a sensibility and, in Jackie Brown’s case, character. And if the soundtrack celebrates a golden age in black music, it’s largely because Ms. Brown pledged allegiance to it. Brown is shaped by this era, specifically by plaintive yet funky classics like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” which bookends the movie, yet takes on different meanings wholly dependent on how Brown is feeling. Here it is at the beginning, as she starts her work day.

And here it is again, at the end of her story, as she embarks on a journey to Spain. It will be a solo flight, as Cherry refuses her invitation (note that he’s a little scared of her). As she leaves him behind, she may be rueful, lip-syncing the words to the plaintive song. But I have no doubt that her records will affirm her resilience.