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Mona Lisa Smile

Seen: 2004.01.05   ¶   Reviewed: 2004.01.22

Can someone please explain to me why the Critical Consensus – Smarter Cinéaste, where are you? – on Mona Lisa Smile holds that it’s a treacly, pedantic lite-feminist star vehicle?

Well, so what if it were? What if it isn’t in the first place?

It’s a star vehicle. Anything with Julia Roberts’s smile is going to be a heavily-scrutinized echt-Hollywood production. (Even Ralph Nader thought “Julia” should get the Oscar. Or actually, that’s what the cover hed on the April 2001 issue of Esquire blared: “Nader to America: Give Julia the damn Oscar!” The single half-column paragraph under his byline on page 115 says nothing of the sort, though. And yes, I do this kind of research.) But on occasion, heavy scrutiny and the Hollywood system produces entertainment.

I have much more of an objection to the fact that Mona Lisa Smile’s sole lesbian is a grieving widow who gets fired than to any claims of warmed-over feminism. (Mona Lisa Smile enacts not one, not two, but three Vito Russo–esque stereotypes all at once: Homosexualists are better off dead, or at least unhappy, or at least discriminated against.) I also don’t see how we can claim J. Roberts is too beautiful and glamourous to know about art. It would be quite consistent with my experience, in fact, plus the girls in her class are hardly ugly, either.

In fact, isn’t it commendable for our art teacher – pretty much the last-ditch candidate the school could recruit, rather like pitching 13 other people before John E.D. Ball agreed to become president of the grandly-named National Captioning Institute – to take her lumps from her bitchy, pompous, upper-crust students, then throw out her entire conventional lesson plan to make sure these tightarses actually learn something? Isn’t it realistic that she should view the on-staff casanova as a cad, yet also have a fling with him? (And also grow apart from her boyfriend, who essentially upgrades her to fiancée status without quite getting her to agree first?)

And what about the chick who cannot quite figure out whether she wants to go to law school or become an housewife (Kirsten Dunst, terrifyingly grown up as Betty Warren)? It seems realistic to us now, because we’ve had three decades of debate on women’s work/home balance. But it’s a dodge for the writers, though, who felt they couldn’t get away with depicting the majority case, in which the art-school grad gets married, end of story. Then again, that’s exactly what another girl does, only to find her husband philanders. Taken together, these cases suggest the writers think any educated woman who chooses to marry and stay home is making a mistake (either by throwing away a career or ending up in a loveless marriage). I think somebody’s projecting here. As Far from Heaven showed, some women lived entirely fulfilling lives as wives and mothers. Some still do.

The girls in the class exhibit the single individual dominant personality traits we expect from Hollywood productions not written by Richard Curtis (Jew floozy, bossy WASP, gossipy WASP) but still get along, more or less, and support each other, more or less, when not sniping bitchily at each other, more or less. Yet they’re all nonetheless competent in Miss Roberts’s art class, and I adored their all-grrrl secret society. (I flashed on Eyes Wide Shut. I’m not kidding!)

And we have the rarest of things: A bittersweet ending. The old-guard university politburo hates Miss Roberts’s scandalous and threatening new teaching methods, so they make her a contract offer she can only refuse. (Not at all a metaphor for the movie business.) And refuse it she does, allowing her to ride away into the sunset, her many adoring students following gamely along on bicycles, her honour and integrity intact. And those are the two most important things for any person to retain intact.

As Jay Scott said about Postcards from the Edge, in the olden days a movie like this used to be called entertainment.

Kooky kontinuity kock-up: The font used on labeled file folders is Frutiger, which wouldn’t be designed until 1968 (and not released generally till 1976 – look it up). Typographic anachronisms of this sort are rampant in cinema. It would have been ever so easy, and fun, to typewrite the labels.

Theatre experience

Well, this was going to be an interesting cinema visit, coming as it does on the heels of being ratted out by a petite fonctionnaire manageress and a very lengthy discussion with the general manager in which neither party was apologetic.

But guess what? Nothing went wrong!

Well, except one thing. The first line of my notes is yet again illegible, which is a bit disappointing, because it reads “Whoa, [illegible]!” and I wonder what that was. Anyway, the playatrix, whom we’ve had before, immediately asks for ID but is also repeatedly interrupted on her walkie-talkie (“No, the lights aren’t on,” she tells someone after being asked about the playa sign-in control panel on the wall). I ask her if anyone had trained them (or did I say “her”?) on the new Privacy Act. Instantly she replied that she had to “get ID” to hand the reflectors out. I guess she was just listening for keywords, like a dog (“Blah blah blah Ginger! Blah blah blah Ginger!”) or perhaps voice-recognition software.

I repeated my question. She was already writing down Mr. X’s information when suddenly she was interrupted again by her walkie-talkie, whose voice tells her not to bother taking down any information. She says something along the lines of “I wish they’d tell us these things.” I ask her if we’re the first people to have signed out the gear since January 1, when the Act took effect, which would make it all understandable. Nope: People were here on January 1. This gave me another chance to mention how unwise it is to let patrons view the sign-up book. (She looked at it herself. I pointedly looked away.)

We got our seats. I don’t think we were even looked at very strangely. Almost no men in the audience aside from us, and the few who were there had obviously been dragged by their gf units or were inverts. (Or, conceivably, both.)

Caption quality

Here’s an interesting speaker ID:

GIRLS (almost in unison):
Good morning.

Commas go inside quotation marks, kids: "Wounded Bison", Altamira, Spain, about 15,000 BC.

Two captions in a row come up with errors, including "what Michelangelo did for the Renaissance", unquote. When people enunciate punctuation, treat it like dictation and write the punctuation. This is not rocket science, period. (Comma inside quotes, kids.)

Why is the word “alumnae” written thus? Because – and I just checked this – it’s one of those vestigial gendered Latinate words (that I otherwise adore!). It’s the plural for a female graduate. I would of course write it as alumnæ, but they ain’t got no digraphs.

Terrible break:

She had a torrid
with a Hollywood

movie star.

Another one of those, plus yet another quotation-mark error:

Did you ever hear the expression

"keeping up with the Joneses?"

Captioning visually obvious sound effects: (keys clacking): Yeah, I see that. (bell dings): That I didn’t see.

Straight As are straight As and not straight A's. Apostrophe isn’t a plural. An extremely weak case can be made for that specific phrase (but not straight Bs or straight Fs, because “Bs” and “Fs” aren’t independent, confusable words the way “As” is).

I think this is rather poor music captioning (errant capitals and missing comma, among other things):

| Ba-boom, Ba-boom |

| Ba-boom
Ba-boom, Ba-boom |

I'm a sucker for war stories in romance languages: It’s a proper noun phrase.

Awhile, seen twice, is two words. Okey-dokey is hyphenated. “Should’ve” – a contraction we don’t write anyway, except in rare cases of deliberate dialect representation – is misspelled twice as should'a, which is absurd.

Oh, you mean, Joanne: Errant comma.

Theme music over closing credits is uncaptioned. (And I’m pretty sure it’s Garamond Swash they’re using.) Mr. X also thinks that the credit cookies were captioned incorrectly, as case of post-postproduction sweetening (captions and dialogue mismatched), but I didn't see that. I think I was trying to take better notes this time and missed it.

Description quality

Lynn Maclean is our narratrix. I’m liking her more and more. I think she’s too casual on The Simpsons, though.

I guess another thing did go wrong tonight: Audio in the headphones was again squelchy, the squelch rising and falling in volume with main audio (and keeping in perfect synchrony with a cello solo). Description audio was fine. It’s the default state that’s the problem.

We describe the opening titles: “Now, in elegant script.” If I recall correctly, it’s Garamond Swash of some kind, unless someone dug up swash italic capitals for Galliard. Credits show important visual artworks (consistently named and captioned throughout the movie’s dialogue): “One slide shows Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les demoiselles d’Avignon.’ ” (Much later: “Holding it up to her eyes, she sees a reproduction of Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Man.’ ”)

“Nearby, a blonde woman greets a [guy]” (notes overwritten – yes, even today, these are still problems). At least we didn’t assume a “blonde” could only be a woman. Oops! Spoke too soon. “Spencer turns to a young blonde and kisses her passionately... Spencer opens the door for the blonde.”

Someone or other “greets Katherine in a floral-motif bedroom.” The next line of dialogue is “Don’t you love chintz?”

We pre-identify Dr. Staunton.

A student looks bewildered, “then starts her essay.” No, she’s still looking bewildered and holding her pencil.

More description of mouthed words: “Betty points to him and mouths the words ‘That’s him!’ ” Lynn really stage-whispers the line, too.

A somewhat complicated anaphoric reference: “She takes off her shoulder wrap, gives it to her dormmates, and walks off.” Who?

Lively writing or over the top? “On the dance floor, Violet, Giselle, and Connie cut a rug with three young male partners.”

“Workmen hold up a crate marked FRAGILE.” It’s also marked THIS SIDE UP, which we had fully 1.5 more seconds to state.

Describing the look of artworks was troublesome here only inasmuch as DVS didn’t have a lot of time to do it. (Described museum tours are coin of the realm, you know. It’s perfectly possible.) “Dark and pale colours flow across the canvas... white, grey, black and red intertwine violently.”

Lynn tells us a coffee pot “perkyulates.” If it keeps perkyulating, does it eventually go nukeyuler?

“He gives her a kiss on the forehead and exits.” He really knocks here head back with that kiss.

“She grins as the Italian professor gets out” read with not enough stress on “Italian.” He’s a professor of Italian, not a professor of Italian origin.

Aren’t “decorative pillows” known as “throw pillows” in previous described films?

“Connie slowly rises from here seat, minces across the room, and turns off the light.”

Not a whole lot of distinction between reading of subtitles of Italian dialogue and description narration. Little pauses and changes of tone were missing.


No problems.

Exit interview

I think I deliberately did not mention the squelch so as not to cause trouble. Maybe I should report it to head office.