Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More Notes on a Scandal

The idea that Notes on a Scandal is homophobic - as outlined by yours truly here - has been gaining ground; you can tell because the dead-tree critics have begun huffing about it. In last week's New Yorker, David Denby sniffed that moviegoers shouldn't deny themselves the movie's "pleasures" merely because "some reviewers have priggishly complained . . . that both women behave badly." (What people have complained about is that the straight woman has the film's sympathy, despite behaving rather more badly than the lesbian.) Of course having David Denby, of all people, call you a prig is a little funny, but his review itself is far funnier: "the suspense is nearly Hitchcockian in intensity . . . will Barbara succeed in gaining control of the younger woman?" I'm on the edge of my seat! And how about this doozy: "Sheba is . . . a careless demigoddess . . . she knows that having sex with a cheeky pale boy in a damp train yard is crazy, but she can't stop herself - she's thrilled as much by her own desire to transgress as by Steven . . ." (Funny, somehow I almost replaced "Steven" in that last line with "David"!)

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Caryn James (draping herself over what looks like a TV tuned to the Statue of Liberty) makes a more sophisticated excuse for the movie's tone: it's not the results of the women's actions that should count, but their intents. To her, Notes on a Scandal is "deliciously wicked" and "avoids creating unintentional distate" over its May/December (make that March/September) romance because "the film is so lucid." This lucidity seems to amount to the fact that "Notes gets what . . . other movies don't: the difference between predatory sexual attention (unsavory) and mutual sexual attraction (very savory)."

Yummy! Are you sensing a trend here? James is quite repelled by such recent May/December pieces as Venus (with a Cryptkeeper-like Peter O'Toole drooling over the luscious Jodi Whittaker) and History Boys (with its tubby, repressed gay schoolmaster - played by Richard Griffiths - tentatively groping 17-year-olds). Note that even though both men are sexually powerless (O'Toole is even impotent), James finds their desperate sexual gestures repugnant.

Unlike these films, though (and okay, maybe weakness is a rather lame excuse for their heroes' excesses) Notes on a Scandal has "a strong undertow of morality," even though the young man in question this time (left) is only 15. The difference, of course, is his intent: "He comes on to his beautiful teacher," James points out; "He even dupes her with a false sob story to get her sympathy." Well, who'da thunk. Meanwhile, poor Sheba is "struggling under the weight of a long marriage to an older man and two children." Poor thing - a looong marriage, to an icky older guy (plus two kids)! No wonder she falls for a 15-year-old's line. Who wouldn't?

Sheba's self-indulgence, of course, destroys her family and marriage; still, according to James, "Notes places creepiness where it belongs: not on sex and age themselves but on a predatory impulse." Odd, however, that these "predators" tend to be aged and/or gay, and that James un-self-consciously describes marriage to an older man as a burden. She gets even weirder, however, in her closer: "Barbara demonstrates that icky attention from an aging character can be bracing for a film, as long as the ick is intentional."

Uh - what? Methinks it's Caryn James who's getting a little icky - she seems quick to label Barbara Covett as a "predator" (when the only real predator in the movie is that 15-year-old). Of course Barbara's no saint - but as she stumbles on Sheba's affair, her "blackmail" is offered on the requirement that said affair must end, and as her sexual needs are unspoken even to herself, her machinations are more pathetic than menacing (as is the case in The History Boys - and even in Venus). Surely any subtle moral judge would see that. Yet Notes on a Scandal is structured as a stalker movie, and Caryn James, who seems to have kind of a thing about aging masculinity (and yes, Barbara Covett fits under that umbrella!) still applauds its "strong moral undertow."

Hmmm. Does James realize, one wonders, that reciprocal sexual attraction isn't actually the highest moral good? And that self-righteousness about such an ideal might make her seem like - well - a prig?

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