The Unsung Nudes of ‘Orange is the New Black’

*NSFW AND SEASON 2 SPOILER WARNING*taylor-schilling-laura-prepon-topless-in-orange-is-the-new-black-04-600x450

As much as I’m sure we, collectively, would love to deny it, the American people are a shameless bunch of puritans when it comes to the brass tax and Standards and Practices on television and in the media. Which is why, perhaps, every time Janet Jackson “accidentally” flashes a nipple or Eva Longoria has a wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet, we latch onto it like jackals (not literally in the case of the nipple, obviously). I would seriously doubt that the majority of American citizens are disgusted, not in principle but on visceral reaction, to seeing a naked body. If they did, then I don’t think private fetish clubs and Hustler Magazine would be such thriving institutions in our National economy. But for us, Americans it seems, sex is only appropriate in the private sector, but is not meant for public consumption. Unless it’s a Budweiser commercial.

So, in cable television, where there is little to no enforcement of any Production Code vis a vis instances of nudity, how is it treated, artistically? Cable programming runs the gamut as far as “taste” goes, but in general it’s a safe bet that most shows on HBO or Showtime are going to feature a lot of naked bodies (by virtue of the fact that they, well, can). And taste in the presentation of nudity sometimes runs counter to exploitation. I would argue that HBO’s Girls is one of the more exploitative showcases of female nudity on television right now, though not necessarily in poor taste; Lena Dunham’s “fictional” alter ego Hannah Horvath is, as every media outlet has covered by now, constantly naked on the show. Notably, ONLY Hannah is consistently naked on the show. I personally couldn’t be more supportive of Lena Dunham taking her clothes off as much as she wants. I think even by the firestorm of jeerers that have rushed to criticize her for being “shameless” about her nudity, she has opened up an important dialog — “Why is this shameless? Because she’s not skinny? Because she’s a woman who’s not subjugated by her nakedness?” etc. But ultimately, in a sense, her bearing her body so frequently is actually hyper-exploitative. Her naked body has become such a talking point and public concern that it feels less and less artistically relevant to the show the more it’s featured. On one hand with Girls, a show thematically about Millennials who are kind of awful but do whatever they want and that’s okay because Jezebel said so, it’s fitting that Hannah’s nudity would be exploited as a way of making a political point. But for me, most of the time when Hannah is nude, the scene becomes about her nudity. Her naked body feels deliberately placed and designed to be remarked upon. If even by the way the shots are framed, her body dominates the shot. It’s a post-Third Wave Feminist “so, what?” moment when she tears off her top. It’s also a necessary one.pingpang21
Netflix’s original piece of programming, Orange is the New Black, tackles female nudity in a much more delicate way. Never have I seen a show where starkly naked female bodies have been so natural to the story that I genuinely forget they’re there. Being set entirely in a women’s minimum security prison, seeing ladies in the buff was pretty much inevitable. And it’s proven to be a pretty common occurrence amongst both seasons of the show. But there’s a sense that the nakedness is somehow sidestepping any kind of gratuitous exploitation. In a recent interview with Vulture, Lorraine Toussaint (Vee, on the show) talked about bearing it all on camera:
 
I don’t do that. I don’t want anyone looking at me going, “Oh my God, she’s so brave!” [Laughs.] Dear God. No. No. No. And then I thought, There’s no way around this. There’s no way this woman would be self-conscious. There’s no way. If I wore underwear, it would actually draw more attention to the moment. How do I do this as simply and as unselfconsciously as I’ve done the rest of Vee? Then I thought, Okay, we gotta do this.
 
This from a 54 year old woman says a lot. It bespeaks a dedication to authenticity on the show. The characters might be, at times, wildly exaggerated, but there’s never the sense that any one is compromised in the interest of being “TV Friendly”. Vee’s naked body is treated very tastefully in this scene. She is in bed with her surrogate son, reeling after an ethically questionable romp in the sack. But only a part of her body is shown. She’s under the sheets and her breasts are shown but are framed so that they’re either partially obscured by the angle of the shot or by the sheet itself. This is also the case when Taryn Manning’s character Pennsatucky is nude in bed in a scene from the previous season. Their bodies feel natural which I think is key. The scene informs the need for nudity and not the other way around.
 
Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 11.56.34 AM
Taryn-Manning-nude-topless-Orange-Is-The-New-Black-s01e12-1 This question of being natural and authentic with respect to female nudity extends even in the characters’ level of comfort in their own body. By example, during season 2, the radical activist and generally annoying character of Brook Soso markedly decides not to shower in an act of protest. When she inevitably starts to smell, she is browbeaten by the guards and other inmates to bathe until she’s literally hauled into the shower by force. She screams and howls and literally breaks down crying when forced to strip down in the communal shower. What this ends up being is a character-revealing moment — while Soso is a headstrong, obstinate and unwavering zealot, she consistently finds the harsh realities of life catching up with her. She’s a young girl who’s been incarcerated for dedication to her political beliefs, but she’s also a young girl who, like many others, isn’t fully comfortable with her own body.  Even Taylor Schilling’s principle character Piper, during season 1, immediately hides her breasts when confronted in the shower by her then nemesis Pennsatucky. While other, more seasoned veterans of the institution are completely comfortable showing it all, there is an nod that body consciousness is a very real part of life for many young women. But even by making this point, the show avoids an “Afterschool Special” moralistic slant. Even Schilling herself has stated that she has had issues with her body in the past. But the characters on Orange is the New Black speak for themselves. Whatever timely cultural archetypes are represented on the show, they feel shaped by the characters’ specific story.
TaylorSchilling_OrangeIsTheNewBlack_1x13

bloody hell! That’s a naked woman!

While no one has an especially strong case for Orange is the New Black being a universally realistic sketch of modern prison life, the show maintains a strong respect for both its characters and its actors for the sake of telling a compelling story, nude or otherwise. I wouldn’t say this is an unprecedented concept, arguing that HBO’s Oz did the same thing some decades earlier for men, but in a world where naked women are either the subject of salacious fantasies or conservative backlash, it’s nice to see the female form, more or less, for what it is.
Advertisements

Behind The Candelabra: Speedos, Poppers and Fur…What Could Go Wrong?

Image

Liberace, man. Am I right? Absolutely. Now, everyone in the world knows who Liberace is. You could be a 17 year old Danish foreign exchange student studying aeronautical engineering in Oklahoma and shriek every time you see a piano and a mink stole (thinking he had risen from the dead, I guess). He was at one point the highest paid musician in the world and could tickle those ivories like some kind of genetically modified, hard-wired…ivory tickling machine. So, his level of fame or legacy is not something that’s generally up for debate. But besides the fact that his apparent homosexuality was always shrouded in secrecy, I’m not sure Liberace was a character that left some unsung and otherwise unpublicized story that the American people still needed to explore. That was my impression, anyway. HBO’s newest original film “Behind the Candelabra” has confirmed this for me.

I don’t know what it was, but something about the general premise of this film just did not interest me. For someone so fabulously extravagant and talented, I just wasn’t compelled to sprint to my DVR and record this film about Liberace. But of course I’m only human and the staggering acting talent they got was a selling point if nothing else. If you don’t want to see an overly tanned Rob Lowe shake his flat-ironed hair around and perform cosmetic surgery on Michael Douglas in a wig who was just getting nailed the scene before by Matt Damon in make up while huffing Poppers…then you’re not someone I want to be associated with. So a few weeks after the film premiered I plopped my ass down on the couch to watch it. And I did, I watched it. My first reaction was: “Did I miss something?”. The narrative clearly revolved around Matt Damon’s character and yet I felt like his actions as a character were so unmotivated I felt like certain scenes were literally cut out. It felt less like I was watching a young man’s slow descent into psychosis and drug addiction and more like I was watching a pinball being blithely knocked around in different directions until he explodes. Now, don’t get me wrong, Matt Damon’s dark turn was beautifully acted and pretty genuinely powerful, but the road to that point just felt so odd and unbelievable. The only thing we know about Matt Damon’s character prior to his first encounter with Liberace is that he’s been raised by Foster parents and he’s really into having sex with men. He seems like a genuine, sweet guy living in the country (via Agoura Hills or wherever he was supposed to be from) working with animals. What EXACTLY draws him into this completely over the top lifestyle? Why is he going to the extreme of  physically altering the structure of his face just for this man? I didn’t FEEL his motivation. If he’s just a lost boy looking for a father figure, then play up how emotionally vulnerable and fragile he is. If he’s looking for a ticket to some fabulous show business lifestyle to pull him out of the soul-consuming tedium of his country life, then show that! I just wasn’t buying his character going from blue jean wearing animal wrangler to Speedo and studded leather vest wearing gold digger in the span of a few weeks without ever facing emotional repercussions. However, having said that, when he DOES face his own repercussions by way of grappling with his obvious drug addiction, he embraces EVERY emotion I wish he’d had from the get-go and he makes you believe it all.

One thing about the storytelling that I really appreciated was how morally ambiguous Liberace’s character turned out to be. I feel like there’s an impulse in some biopics to unearth the truth about some historical figure and either highlight the saint they really were or expose what a monster they became. BTC opted to deftly avoid any sense of “exposé” of the dark goings-on of his secret relationships. He was certainly a flawed character (in the way that human beings tend to be), but at the end of the day he was who he was and sometimes it was lovely and caring and sometimes it was a little cruel and most of the time it was just fucking odd. What I took away from him as a person was that, while a raging narcissist, he just wanted to take care of people and be loved in return. While some of the things he did were a little questionably sordid (the muddled father/lover relationship with Matt Damon, ie.), he had a genuine capacity for unconditional love. Michel Douglas’ performance certainly nailed that. I was a little worried going into it that his acting would teeter on that line between “Oh, yeah, he sounds like him!” and “If he talks any longer a purse in the shape of a penis is gonna fall out…of his butthole” but for the most part I found him respectful of the role. But regardless of the deference, I do feel like the performance was not exactly transcendent. I dare say it was even one dimensional at times. Michael Douglas did his part well but if you ask me, and some of this can be attributed to the writing, the spirit of Liberace died when he did. Whereas Scott (Matt Damon) lingered with a heavier emotional resonance. I suppose to be fair though, fundamentally Scott has more nuance and sense of arc that lends to the power of the role.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film (besides watching the credits and realizing Debbie Reynolds played Liberace’s mother the whole time [whaaaat???]) was Rob Lowe as the plastic surgeon. The character certainly proved to be the comic relief we all expected him to be. I was just so endlessly amused whenever his freshly stretched, leathery face popped up on screen. He really embodied the recurring theme of “wow, this is all really unnatural” and the general feeling ickiness that much of this story seemed to conjure. If anything I say you should have plopped him into a few more scenes. Every time he spoke it was as if his face was so damn tight he could barely form words (let alone see out of those slits that were his eyelids) and it was damn funny.

Another tasteful an tactful artistic detail I thought was the non-exploitative use of gay sexuality in this movie. I would have been personally miffed if the sexual component to their relationship was just tiptoed around in the interest of keeping it family friendly. However I also would have been annoyed if they just splattered anal sex with dudes all over the screen every six seconds to make it more real (because come on, it’s not TV…it’s HBO, right?). The one real sex scene between the two of them was just graphic enough to be a little shocking and fun but never wander into the arena of desperation. And even with the treatment of the sex scenes themselves, the ROLE of sexuality was well handled I think. I’m sure a lot of viewers just assumed that because the movie was about two homos that the characters would just be ALL about boning 24/7 and any interpersonal dynamics would be otherwise incidental (obviously gay men think of nothing else, duh!).

I guess my attitude is that after all is said and done, the essence of the story is about a young man who spirals into an unhealthy relationship and a bout with drug abuse stemming from self-image issues. It’s not the most earth shattering tale ever told by any means. And while there were glimmers of greatness, nothing about the story was quite riveting enough for me. The acting was great, it looked beautiful, it was tastefully conceived, and the crew certainly spared no expense in the wardrobe budget, but I’m not sure going behind the Candelabra was quite as interesting as people had hoped.

Getting To The Root Of The Problem With ‘Family Tree’

Image

Before I get to my thoughts on HBO’s newest pilot, Family Tree, I thought I’d give a little back-story on me: I fucking love Christopher Guest and I think ‘Waiting For Guffman’ is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. In fact, if you snapped your fingers at me right this second and said “Go, fatboy!” I could probably act out the entire film before your very eyes. At least up to the “Penny For Your Thoughts” segment. Phew, ok, so that’s cleared up. Anyway, last night I watched the Pilot episode of Family Tree on HBO. The only concrete pieces of information I had on this show were that it was created by Christopher Guest (check), it stars Chris O’Dowd (check) and it’s an HBO Comedy Series that doesn’t chronicle the lives of Manhattan Debutantes with buckets of money and lifestyles predicated on garnering male validation via sex (double check!). I had heard previously that the premier opened to “soft numbers” in the ratings, but I pay no attention to something as abstract as statistics in viewership! Having now watched the first episode, I will say that this show is not exactly off to a rip-roaring start.

The first scene of the show takes place in a car where Chris O’Dowd and some other British chick are having what I assume to be a conversation although I understood/could intelligibly hear about every 9th word so Jury’s still out on what was actually going down. The thrust of the scene was that Chris O’Dowd’s character had been summoned to see his father for some yet unknown reason and that’s where he and this chick were going. Also, there was a monkey doll in the back seat which to me read like: “Insert quirky element here”. We then learn that Chris O’Dowd’s Great Aunt had passed away and that she left him this chest of dusty old mementos she’d collected over the course of her life. And might I just say that while Michael McKean’s English accent was flawless, there was very little that was funny or dynamic about his relationship with his father. From then on, we see Chris O’Dowd casually decide to investigate the contents of this chest, introducing his somewhat annoying and thoroughly tedious “best mate”, a small reveal about one of the items from the chest, a bad, flatly-written first date and then the show was over. I genuinely felt like there were seven scenes missing.

Generally, It felt like each scene softy and timidly crawled into the next, but there was very little vigor or life-force to the show propelling the story forward. I think the problem that I’M having with this show is that none of the characters are especially interesting or funny. I mean, let’s be a little bit real, Christopher Guest’s films are so hilarious because of that sense of spontaneity, experimentation and obviously improvisation with the actors. I’m fully aware I only have 1 episode to go on here, but that sense of freedom and chemistry certainly seems to be lacking. The whole thing felt very dry, which for any fan of Guest sounds like absolute nonsense. The relationship I really couldn’t get a handle on was Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and his best friend. It seemed entirely underdeveloped and, unfortunately, not terribly compelling. They had this ambiguously pugnacious interaction but had no pizazz or inherently funny details to keep me interested from scene to scene. And don’t get me wrong, I love Chris O’Dowd’s charming, cute “everyman” quality but for Christ’s sake can you give this man SOME defining character traits!? You might as well have put skinny jeans on a shamrock (like because he’s Irish?) and fed the lines through Roger Egbert’s unused voicebox and left more of an impression. Maybe I’m just too loyal to the old gang but I wanted to see some Catherine O’Hara and some Parker Posey and some Eugene Levy! I miss them. I will say by the end of the episode I ALMOST warmed up to the chick with the monkey but she just seemed like such a 1-note that I remain unconvinced.

The story’s delightfully simple premise didn’t really shake out the way I wanted it to either. It just felt there was so little urgency that I kept thinking “what’s the point? Where is this going?”. And the idea of Tom searching through his family history wasn’t framed in anything. Like WHAT was Tom doing before this that would logically drive him to dig through his lineage? Where was the set up? It just felt like the whole show was kind of drifting aimlessly in this contextless world with a very tenuous idea struggling to anchor the whole operation with something interesting. Ok, ok, I feel myself unraveling into a hostility puddle here but the more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing from this show really landed properly. And as I’m sure you’ve gleaned from this, I had pretty high expectations. Let me just say, Christopher, I expected better my friend 😦

Here’s hoping the first episode was a fluke and the subsequent season turns out to be the most genius and hilarious piece of television that ever was!