Honey, I’m Homo: The L Word

Along with Jill Soloway’s popular dramedy, Transparent, The L Word has succeeded in redefining or widening our understanding of concepts such as family and sexuality within the conventions of American popular culture.

Already in the first season, then, Harron was included on the roster of directors on Showtime’s drama series, and her episode “Liberally” (2004) addresses some of her typical themes (e.g. family values vs. family crises and sin vs. righteousness) while utilizing some of her recurring stylistic devices (e.g. montage editing, counterpoints, mirror motifs and symbolic popular music).





The episode begins with a metafictional cold open, in which we see two young women and a man who are apparently acting in a pornographic movie. In a Harronesque mirror motif (also seen recurringly in American Psycho), we see the crew, as they are shooting their film, and later in the episode we learn that this was more than just a pornographic movie. The mirror motifs are a clear Harronesque feature, yet they serve vividly different functions, illustrating the difference between a character’s front stage and back stage personality (Big Love), emphasizing a character’s narcissism (American Psycho), or functioning as an elaborate ruse to trick the audience (The L Word).

Fig. 6: Mirror motifs and foreshadowing in The L Word (2004, 1:10).

Fig. 6: Mirror motifs and foreshadowing in The L Word (2004, 1:10).

Before returning to the pornographic movie from the opening sequence – and how it relates to the general theme of vice and virtue – the episode deals with different relational issues. Especially, we focus on Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), who has had miscarriage, and in one of the many dialogue scenes of the episode a character suggests that another woman, who has inadvertently become pregnant, should carry her unwanted child to term and give it to Bette and Tina as a gift. This point, then, is later repeated during another dialogue scene where Francesca (Lolita Davidovich) argues that it would be “extraordinary gift […] not just to Bette and Tina, but to all of us. The whole DNA model of family is being reinvented.”

As impolite as it may be, Francesca’s comment serves as a kind of refrain, recalling the central theme of the show.  The philosophical questions connected to abortions and alternative family structures are, then, connected the themes of pornography and sin, as we learn that one of the girls in the pornographic movie was only 17 years old. Recalling the theme of pedophilia in Oz, The L Word also addresses questions of sexuality, pornography and perversion, and at the end of the episode we refer back to the young girl (now seen as a victim of prostitution, not just as an actor in a pornographic movie). “How awful it must be to come from a home life so desperate,” as Bette says.

During a debate in a television show called Insight, Tina is accused of having lived sinfully, and her opponent argues that her miscarriage was God’s way of punishing her. At this point, we hear a modern rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (1984), contrapuntally linking the shots of the Christian fundamentalist and the young prostitute, walking the street.

Using montage editing, popular music and counterpoint, Mary Harron returns to some of her most recurring themes. Across different episodes from various shows, Harron deals with questions concerning family life and disintegration, and her work seems to suggest that we should redefine our understandings of concepts like home and family, disregarding the conservative and traditional ideas of family, without succumbing to individualism, deconstruction and fragmentation “How awful it must be to come from a home life so desperate,” as Bette says.

Alias Grace and Beyond

Today, Mary Harron is known primarily as an independent film director connected to feminism and New Queer Cinema. Harron, however, has also directed a number of interesting episodes from prominent modern TV series, and these, too, have some recurring stylistic, formal and thematic qualities. The same, then, could be said of the miniseries Alias Grace (CBS Televísion/Netflix, 2017) that was written by Sarah Polley and directed exclusively by Harron.

When talking about TV auteurism, we often refer to creators and showrunners (terms that are typically reserved for writers and producers), yet Harron, as an episode director, has a relatively distinguishable style and brand, and she can add a certain pedigree and an aura of art when being brought on a television show. Harron’s work in television has been largely overlooked or disregarded, but, as we have seen, it is worth revisiting and exploring her different TV episodes. As a director, Harron transcends the boundary between network and cable television, and when given a closer look it becomes evident that there are evident trademarks in all of her different episodes, even if her preferred themes and motifs seem more suited for cable television and modern streaming platforms. Without being overly stylized or having an immediately recognizable signature style, Harron often employs a set of stylistic devices that fit her preferred themes in various interesting, yet often subtle, ways. Exploring the inner battle between sanity and lunacy, Harron often uses mirror motifs, and when illustrating the conflicts in society between normalcy and perversion she often uses popular music and symbolic compositions.

Fig. 7: “I will confess to having a wicked thought.” The lines between vice, virtue and sanity and insanity are blurred in Mary Harron’s miniseries Alias Grace (CBS Television/Netflix, 2017), which employs flashback-narration, montages and sound hooks to create a sense of ambiguity, hinting at the dark underbelly beneath the seemingly orderly society.

Fig. 7: “I will confess to having a wicked thought.” The lines between vice, virtue and sanity and insanity are blurred in Mary Harron’s miniseries Alias Grace (CBS Television/Netflix, 2017), which employs flashback-narration, montages and sound hooks to create a sense of ambiguity, hinting at the dark underbelly beneath the seemingly orderly society.

Those recurring themes and trademarks are also seen in Alias Grace which, like the popular show The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017-),  is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood. Atword’s historical novel behind Alias Grace was also adapted into a telefilm in 1974, but Harron’s televisual adaptation cleverly transcends the limits of the historical setting and the short format. The story deals with the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and the feelings and inner turmoil of the wrongly convicted Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon). A story that is turned into a topical high-end television series about the meanings of sin, sexuality and gender in modern society.





“I will confess to having a wicked thought,” says Grace in the opening of the first episode (perhaps referencing the abuse she endured in her youth), and the entire miniseries reflects upon those issues: Where are the lines between vice and virtue, sinner and the saint, sanity and insanity? Using abrupt montages, low-key lightning and flashback-narration, Harron creates an ambiguous story and a multilayered character that keeps the viewer guessing. The title character, herself, reflects on issues like sin and sanity, but the fragmented flashbacks and the cheeky narration are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe and his unreliable narrators and charming, Byronic heroes. Grace is likeable, and she is both clever and charismatic, but what should we make of her many comments on sin and suffering? “There are some that take pleasure in the distress of a fellow mortal,” she says, “and most especially if they think that fellow mortal has committed a sin, which adds an extra relish. But which among us has not sinned?” That question, from the first part of the six-part miniseries, seems like a typically Harronesque motif, questioning the lines between the sinners that are convicted and the societies that convict them. Following Friederich Nietzsche, who wrote extensively about the ascetic moral and the strangely perverted types of punishment that were used for so-called perverted and sinful behavior (e.g. sodomy), Mary Harron is interested in the mental processes of those who commit and those who are committed.[1]

Flashbacks, montage editing and sound hooks are employed to illustrate the hidden world beneath the would-be orderly society, and the minseries seems to allude to a classic motif in literature called The Madwoman in the Attic. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in their 1979-book of the same title, women writers of the nineteenth century were largely confined to create female characters that were either “angels” or “monsters,” and Alias Grace looks like a reflection and a subtle debunking of that binary.[2] Grace herself, in fact, ponders that binary by referring to the strange term “murderess” – a feminized equivalent of the word “murderer.” “I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those were the only choices,” as she says, arguing that the word “murderer” has a gentler and less harmful ring to it. That line, then, looks almost like an authorial comment, questioning the strange dichotomies that are created and repeated in phallocentric societies where women are thought to embody qualities such as gentleness, purity and harmlessness.





Since the 1990s, Mary Harron has put her mark on American television, working as an episode director on different prestige series while directing independent movies in Canada and the US. Her television work, however, has been largely overlooked, and scholarly and critical stories about American television tend to focus, almost exclusively, on a small pantheon of white men (as illustrated in Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men – Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad).[3]

After the success of Alias Grace, this is bound to change, as Mary Harron has gone from competent episode director to being one of the leading women on a director-driven miniseries during a new “wave of auteur TV where networks hand carte blanche and a blank check to showrunners.”[4] If nothing else, her new collaboration with Netflix will add to her visibility, making people remember and recognize her as not just a strong proponent of New Queer Cinema, but also as an avid and noteworthy TV director in a changing mediascape.

By 2019, many scholars, critics and journalists are noting how prominent women directors and showrunners (e.g. Andrea Arnold, Jill Soloway, Lisa Cholodenko, Jenji Kohan, Tricia Brock, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lynch, Jane Campion and Lesli Linka Glatter) are entering the television industry.[5]  Film and TV director Mary Harron deserves to be on that list. Not including her – now that would be a sin…

 


Andreas Halskov (b. 1981) holds an MA in Film Studies from Copenhagen University. Halskov is a lecturer in Media Studies at Aarhus University, and he works as a film/TV expert in different media and as a curator of film historical screenings at Cinemateket in Copenhagen and Øst for Paradis in Aarhus, besides being an editor of the scholarly film journal 16:9. Halskov has published numerous articles in journals like Kosmorama, Series, Short Film Studies, International Journal of Digital Television and Blue Rose Magazine, and he has co-written and edited four Danish anthologies on American television (Fjernsyn for viderekomne, Turbine, 2011), the Oscars (Guldfeber, Turbine, 2013), audiovisual comedy (Helt til grin, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2016) and tendencies in the modern streaming landscape (Streaming for viderekomne, VIA Film & Transmedia, 2019) Finally, he has written a monograph on David Lynch, co-written a book about vampire films and series and written two peer-reviewed books about modern TV drama (TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama, University  Press of Southern Denmark, 2015) and serialization (Remakes, sequels og serialisering, Samfundslitteratur, 2019). An English book about David Lynch will be published in 2018/2019, as will an interview-based book about sound design in film and television, and he has contributed to a British anthology on Global TV Horror (eds. Lorna Jowett & Stacey Abbott, University of Wales Pres). Finally, he has co-created a five-part documentary series about the American TV landscape (Serierejser/TV Travels, VES/HBO Nordic, 2019).

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Nietzsche, Friederich (1872), Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Geneaology of Morality), edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Gilbert, Sandra & Susan Gubar (1979), The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer of the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press.

[3] For more on this issue, see Halskov, Andreas (2013), ”Den hvide mands byrde,” 16:9 #52, September. Online: http://www.16-9.dk/2013-09/side09_boganmeldelse.htm.

[4] Lattanzio, Ryan (2015), ”Lynch, Fincher, ’True Detective’ and the Unknowable Future of Auteur TV,” IndieWire. August 11. Online: http://www.indiewire.com/2015/08/lynch-fincher-true-detective-and-the-unknowable-future-of-auteur-tv-184757/. Conferring Rotten Tomatoes (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/alias_grace/s01/), we can see that Alias Grace is considered a critical success, having a 99% rating on the Tomatometer and an average rating of 8.01/10 among the critics (based on 73 reviews).

[5] One example of this was the panel called ”The Women Behind the Camera,” which was a central part of this year’s the Split Screens Festival in New York. Split Screens Festival is an annual festival, created by Matt Zoller Seitz, celebrating changings in the American TV landscape and featuring prominent people from the industry.