La Politique des Nymphettes? Mean Girls: An Auteurist Critique

About 42 years ago, I published an article in Film Culture entitled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” It was intended as a very tentative discussion of André Bazin’s critique of François Truffaut’s La Politique des Auteurs . I had no idea at the time that this article would create a furor in the film community, and thus I was polemically unprepared for Pauline Kael’s spirited attack in Film Quarterly magazine. Though my piece has been reprinted many times since, few of the people who took whacks at me at Kael’s urging-according to her, I was taking the fun out of movies by talking about “theory”-ever read my article.

Even so, I can be credited (or maybe blamed) for introducing the word auteur into the English language and allegedly enshrining the director as the supreme, indeed the sole creator of meaning and style in the cinema. I say “allegedly” because I never wrote any such thing; instead, I maintained that a disciplined and selective auteurism was the first step rather than the last stop in evaluating movies. Since 1962, I’ve written more than 2,000 pieces seeking to refine my arguments, but I’m still no closer to finding the magic formula for deciding which movies are good and which movies are bad.

Which brings me to Mark Waters’ Mean Girls , from a screenplay by Tina Fey, based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman-a teen movie I enjoyed enormously, much to my surprise. To apply La Politique des Auteurs to a critically unfashionable project like Mean Girls , one must expand the Politique to encompass La Politique des Nymphettes , La Politique des Scenaristes and La Politique des Producteurs . To begin with the nymphettes, this aged but still susceptible auteurist has recently devised an empirically derived axiom: Lindsay Lohan and Alison Lohman, GOOD! The Olsen twins, BAD!

It may be that Ms. Lohan and Ms. Lohman are simply the beneficiaries of better roles- Mean Girls and Freaky Friday for Ms. Lohan; Big Fish , Matchstick Men and White Oleander for Ms. Lohman-than the dregs parceled out to the Olsen twins. It’s too early to tell, and anyway, by the imperatives of the cinema’s relentless time machine, the shelf life of nymphettes is sadly short. So let’s enjoy Ms. Lohan in Mean Girls while we can, and defer any auteurist cogitations on this subject to future revivals.

But to explain the unaccustomed wit and humor in a teen comedy, one must expand auteurist responsibility to the comic heritage of Saturday Night Live , represented in Mean Girls by screenwriter and performer Tina Fey and producer Lorne Michaels. This is not to diminish the directorial role of Mark Waters in molding what might have otherwise been a disconnected series of satiric fragments into a fluid narrative of adolescent temptation, corruption and redemption such as to satisfy even a hard-core Aristotelian auteurist like me. Mean Girls has already been criticized by one of my esteemed colleagues for its “moral live-and-let-live” ending, which is at variance with its savage critique of dominant girl cliques in high school. Unlike such previous teenage horror shows as Election and Heathers , Mean Girls introduces guilt and remorse as desirable outcomes in the process of growing up into a responsible adulthood. Sure, morality on the screen is fairly treacly more often than not, but this film is fortunate in never entirely losing its sense of humor.

The story begins with that eternally useful contrivance, the outsider entering an institution, in order to provide the necessary exposition (as much for the audience as for the outsider in question). Ms. Lohan’s Cady Heron is the quintessential outsider, having been home-schooled by her zoologist parents (Neil Flynn and Ana Gasteyer) in Africa. From time to time, she sees in the tribal rites of American high-school students more than a passing resemblance to the wild animals in Africa with whom she grew up. On her first day in school, Cady is forced to eat her lunch in a bathroom stall because of her inability to sit with any of the innumerable cliques in the school cafeteria. Poor Cady is even unsuccessful in getting the other students to pronounce her name correctly (“Cay-dy” rather than “Cah-dy”). A politically incorrect joke is executed when a teacher assumes that the “new student from Africa” must be black rather than white, thus confusing Cady with one of the African-American students who has never been near Africa.

Yet for the most part, the school is more casually integrated-black/white/Asian and straight/gay-than the cliques that compose it (and, alas, our society at large). After she is initially rejected by the ruling clique, the “Plastics,” composed of queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and her Plastic worker bees, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), Cady is befriended by a goth-tinged, sharp-tongued duo, grungy lesbian Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and her gay pal Damian (Daniel Franzese). They complete the exposition process for Cady and us with a grotesquely witty tour of all the shamelessly caricatured ethnic, racial, behavioral and vocational groups. Janis and Damian inform Cady that she qualifies as a “hottie” and, sure enough, after a few days, Regina invites Cady to join the Plastics-an invitation that Janis insists she accept for espionage purposes. Cady thus begins her tour of duty with the Plastics as a double agent, but gradually succumbs to the snob appeal of being a member of the much admired and much envied group.

The film’s shrewd insight into how the campus is actually complicit in maintaining the Plastics’ swaggering dominance helps explain why George W. Bush is having so much trouble introducing Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq, a country that’s known nothing but autocracy since it was forcibly removed from the Ottoman Empire by Britain. In Mean Girls , Cady eventually liberates herself from the temptation to lord it over others by first undermining the cohesion of the Plastics with mean-spirited gossip and misinformation that eventually turns the school into a riot zone. Even her erstwhile friends, Janis and Damian, and her supremely enlightened teacher, Ms. Norbury (played with civilized wryness by Ms. Fey), are engulfed in the chaos, before

Cady restores sanity to the situation with an imaginatively generous act of symbolic self-sacrifice.

Of course, one must accept the sheer improbability of the scenario, including hunky boyfriend Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), who has a strong enough character to make Cady see the error of her ways when she pretends to be backward in math-she’s really a world-class whiz in the subject-just so he can “tutor” her. In this respect, Aaron is pure girlish fantasy, but I didn’t mind this so much, since Hollywood movies haven’t inundated us lately with examples of noble behavior, male or female. (It was different in the 30’s and 40’s, when too much of the screen was given over to “nice” people.) Nor do I mind Cady’s incredible resourcefulness in mending so many psyches, as if she’d been doing it all her life. It hurt me a little to see her suffer in the beginning, and it pleased me no end to see her triumph in the end. And I don’t need any formal Politique to tell me that Ms. Lohan has the kind of talent that transcends all the politiques .

Samurai Story

Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai , written by Yoshitaka Asama and Mr. Yamada and based on the novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, fully lives up to its status as the 2004 Japanese Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, but not in the way one might imagine from its title. Far from being the samurai equivalent of High Noon , Mr. Yamada’s film explores the tender, family-loving existence of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a conscientiously reluctant warrior-widower trying to make ends meet as a low-paid samurai bookkeeper in the employ of his clan’s imperious overlord.

The picture begins somewhat murkily with the death and funeral of Seibei’s wife. But then the voice of Seibei’s youngest daughter, Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), bursts upon the soundtrack with a memory voiceover from many years later. Ito informs us that her mother died when she was 5, leaving Seibei to care for her, her older sister Kayano (Miki Itô) and their senile grandmother (Reiko Kusamura). Ito’s voiceover is confined to the very beginning and the very end, leaving the rest of the film to unfold from Seibei’s passionately paternal point of view. I simply cannot recall another movie from anywhere in which a male protagonist lavishes so much selfless love on his two daughters. Fathers and sons, yes-fathers and daughters, no. Seibei is mercilessly taunted by his randier samurai co-workers about how he always rushes home after work, politely declining their invitations to go out drinking and carousing.

Seibei’s routine is altered somewhat when Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), a delicately attractive woman of higher birth whom he loved in childhood, suddenly becomes available after being allowed by the lord of the clan to divorce her drunkenly abusive husband. But his lower social and economic status inhibits him for a time from accepting Tomoe’s proffered hand in marriage, even though his daughters have come to love her after she has kindly visited to help with their studies and housework. Seibei is still guilt-ridden because of the way his late wife-also of a higher social class-had to confront the consequences of marrying beneath her, both socially and economically. He doesn’t wish to inflict the same fate on his beloved Tomoe.

Ultimately, Seibei’s delicate feelings of unworthiness cannot conceal his prowess with the short sword when two challenges are thrust upon him, the first against Tomoe’s enraged ex-husband, and the second against a sympathetically defiant samurai who has refused his clan’s command to commit hari-kiri. Far from being a rebel against the social order, Seibei inevitably submits to authority for the sake of his family. He is finally rewarded sufficiently to enjoy three happy years with Tomoe and his daughters before he is swept aside by the turbulent tides of history in the 19th-century Edo period.

At his graveside, the grown Ito delivers her final off-screen narration in tribute to her father’s nurturing qualities, which gave him such happiness despite what seemed a lack of “manly” ambition to others. The Twilight Samurai is also rich in the kind of economic and social detail that explains how most samurai managed to live out their lives with only infrequent bursts of martial glory.

La Politique des Nymphettes? Mean Girls: An Auteurist Critique