Monday, April 23, 2007


i do hope at least a few of you managed to catch oleanna on tv last saturday! i would've put up a reminder or something here, but i too had clean forgotten: i was indulging in one of my rare surfing sprees when i realised which movie it was and watched it (thankfully pretty much from the beginning).

for those of you who didnt, the movie is actually an adaptation of a play by mamet. you can read the script here if you like ... i would strongly recommend it! *

('ware: the rest of this post may not make sense if you havent read the script or seen the play/movie. moreover, it may be a series of spoilers!)

oleanna's story is shown through a series of conversations between a student and her teacher. the teacher (john) is due for assessment/approval by the school's tenure committee. carol, the student finds that she doesnt understand most of what happens in john's classes, and finds some of his content sexist and elitist. so the final scene is a confrontation between carol and john, where carol explains some things about sexual harassment and male privilege as she defends her to john her complaint to the tenure committee.

you'd think that that was straight from some movie selling the concept of feminism, right? actually i found it the tone of the play to be highly oscillatory. feminist concerns are voiced alright, but presented in poor light. the patriarchal side may seem to have done alright in the beginning, but the end doesnt say much for it either. i must say, the scriptwriter seems to have been out to put everyone off a little bit! the play appears to be trying in parts, to present a wobbly defense for feminism. but while the arguments and reasoning are those heard in feminist discourse, and ones that you can see sense in, the instances that create the openings for them to be heard, are almost ludicrous at times.

CAROL: ... You tell me, you are going to tell me that you have a wife and child. You are going to say that you have a career and that you’ve worked for twenty years for this. Do you know what you’ve worked for? Power. For power. Do you understand? And you sit there, and you tell me stories. About your house, about all the private schools, and about privilege, and how you entitled. To buy, to spend, to mock, to summon. All your stories. All your silly weak guilt, it’s all about privilege; and you won’t know it. Don’t you see? You worked twenty years for the right to insult me. And you feel entitled to be paid for it.

(right through the movie - since that's what i did see - carol keeps questioning john's actions and expressed beliefs, but this is about the only scene where she coherently says something.)

you hear carol talking about privilege and are ready to nod approvingly, but every now and then when she refers to things that john has (ostensibly) said about her, you feel a little uneasy. she was the one who first used those words. she created the space for any dialogue on that count. sound vague? pardon. im thinking especially of the "i'm stupid" scene.

CAROL: ... But I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand what anything means … and I walk around. From morning ‘til night: with this one thought in my head. I’m stupid.

JOHN: No one thinks you’re stupid.

CAROL: No? What am I…?

john has just explained how its not her fault for not understanding, that the (education) system is pointless and unintelligent, so its ok to not be able to ace by its standards. he is also able to relate to the feeling of inferiority because he had felt that way as a child himself. at the end of it,

CAROL: You think that I'm stupid.

JOHN: No. I certainly don't.

CAROL: You said it.

JOHN: No. I did not.

CAROL: You did.

JOHN: When?

CAROL: …you…

JOHN: No. I never did, or never would say that to a student, and…

CAROL: You said, "What can that mean?" (Pause) "What can that mean" … (Pause)

JOHN: …and what did that mean to you…?

CAROL: That meant I'm stupid. And I'll never learn. That's what that meant. And you're right.

wha...?! i was gobsmacked. where'd that come from? she does this jumping-to-conclusions-to-putting-words-in-his-mouth routine every now and again. so she seems a very illogical, irrational character, who's just heard a lot of feminist discourse, but actually knows and understands little.

also, one of the things that was strikingly contradictory was her sudden coherence in the end. up to the last scene where she talks about privilege etc etc, she just keeps talking in half sentences. (they both keep leaving sentences unfinished, something that really irritates me!) she's in fact shown as being incapable of even framing her own thoughts in complete sentences.

further, she's always scribbling down notes. she's incapable of analysis even to the degree of listening and merely noting the gist of what is said, being the kind of student who just indiscriminately writes down every word the teacher utters. where does she suddenly get the intelligence to write down "proof" of the teacher's misconduct (through statements he makes casually in passing conversation)? - that requires the ability to dynamically process information and generate understanding continuously. the two are completely different levels of ability!

the teacher himself is a weird un. his constantly touching her, however platonically, is established in a very contrived manner. moreover, you wonder why she keeps going back to meet him (alone in his study when the door's always closed) after she's decided his touch is harassing. his role as an intellectual is .... wobbly!

the way the girl turns around to crucify him contrasts very sharply with her stated stance, that none of it is personal, and she's just picking him as an example of a privileged male. imo, nobody who is so ready for dialogue would invoke an institutional authority and keep insisting that there is personal understanding. i dont see a person suing a cop for abusive behaviour and privately teaching him meditation to curb violent tendencies! :)

the whole thing represents a feminist as a raving woman who will just randomly pick on a sample specimen of patriarchy and vindictively crucify him in order to establish the integrity of her ideological claims. if the play was about sensitively addressing women's concerns, why make her out to be such a strawfeminist? i'm not even starting on that atrocious final charge of rape that she comes up with. actually that was interesting. it's a sort of typical assinine representation. the bad press and mud-slinging i've seen radfem getting, is remarkably like the bad press that feminism gets from mainstream culture!

i found it a pretty confusing movie because of the things the script didnt say. and kept contradicting without saying! have any of you folks seen it? any opinions? :)

PS: oh, and i didnt get it. why is he "elitist" for using words she didnt understand? (some of 'em were quite simple ones at that). pompous, maybe. elitist?

*the ending is different in the movie.... oleanna is curled up on the couch, not the floor. john looks at her and says "oh my god...." as realisation of what he has done sinks in. to which carol replies "yes."



Blogger Suzanne said...

I found your blog through BlogHer, and I love it! I just got back from my first trip to India three weeks ago, and I am interested in learning more about feminism in India. This is such a great place to start.

As for Oleanna, I never have high hopes for anything from David Mamet. He is very sexist.

12:17 pm  
Blogger m. said...

suzanne: hi and welcome :)hope you enjoyed your visit here! i've never seen/read anything else by mamet, this was the first. he's quite complicated isnt he!

8:55 pm  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Hi M! I loved my time in India and I am hoping to come back and explore the country more as soon as possible. It was just incredible.

As for Mamet, I can't stand him. I saw Glengarry Glen Ross and nearly fell asleep. I did like your review of Oleanna very much, though.

9:26 pm  
Blogger m. said...

oh blimey, yes! i had clean forgotten GGR.. that's the incredibly boring play about the salesman right? awful.

do let me know if you do manage to make it back here - there's loads to see and experience! :)

11:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! M - that was a good one about the movie! I saw the latter half of the movie late last nite, for the first time, in a half sleepy state and well.. i was kinda lost when the movie ended, relieved though that i could hit the bed at last:)

What exactly happened in the end?
He says "Oh my god!" and she says "yes"?

7:10 am  
Blogger m. said...

anon: hi! ah, left you too stumped huh? that is one weird movie! :) and yes, that's the ending for the movie.

8:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey M...
so is it the realization that this girl actually likes him that dawns upon him (finally!)and makes him say OMG?
..or is it just me:) what's your thought?

Have you seen the play too? I read someone's comment on wikipedia that compared to the play the movie was lacking in "fire and passion"...

12:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK. You do realize that the only thing Carol is good for is regurgitating knowledge given to her. Her "group" of feminist friends who she is making the complaint on behalf of. She wrote down notes, and these people decided that what he did was wrong. If they ask what she feels, she never says, because she has no original thoughts. She can just transcibe. Also, she doesn't really like him, she's just stupid.

And as for John, he's an "intellectual" and the Oh My God is because he was forced to beat a woman to get his point across, and thus. since he beat a student with his bare hands, almost smashed a chair over her. *Gasp* What have I done!? do you see?

10:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am doing a monologue from this play for an acting class I'm in. I have read the play twice, but I haven't seen it performed or the movie. I don't know, but I think you aren't giving Carol enough credit. I think that her character is a lot deeper than face value and although some of what she says may appear contradictory, it is not really. How I perceive her character is that she has been trying her whole life to prove that she is not stupid, something happened to her when she was younger (perhaps sexual abuse)and because of this she blocks her emotions, doesn't want to say something that is wrong, and just kind of sits in the corner like she's invisible. When she meets with her professor, she displays this, but when he puts his hand around her shoulder it reminds her of what happened to her and she kind of snaps. She becomes determined to not let what happened to her happen again, she turns John into the enemy, and she becomes angry. She has stopped "hiding" in some sense because of her determination. But I don't think that she was ever "stupid" she just believed herself to be and in some sense John helps her to break free from that.

2:32 pm  

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