A Case of Subjective Preference

While “Barbie” rings out, “Oppenheimer” is just loud.

A Case of Subjective Preference

Forty years ago, the neighborhood movie theater was a couple blocks from our apartment in a North Cambridge double-decker. The Capitol showed past-prime-time big releases; a ticket cost $2. For new parents, the location and price were right — especially since our landlord’s tween daughter could babysit, supervised by her mom in their apartment upstairs.

The ticket booth displayed a warning: Movies are Art. Art is Subjective Preference. No Refunds.

An evening out alone? Disappointment was not an option. We never tested the refund policy.

Since the pandemic, it’s still a distinct pleasure to go out to the movies. Our neighborhood cinema in DC is the Avalon, where I’ve watched movies since 1962. I can’t remember how much of a dent “To Kill a Mockingbird” put in my allowance. Now we pay senior fare, buy tickets online, and pre-select our seats.

It was a full house the summer night we saw Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” Volume and explosions overwhelmed the dialogue between interchangeable bespectacled male scientists in suits. In bed, Oppenheimer doffed the suit for a discreet sheet toga; his women were nude. It lasted three interminable hours.

I fumed all the way home. My husband agreed but reminded me Nolan is known for action. It’s likely both the film’s content and style are congruent with the director’s vision for the story. The bombast, the male cast and gaze, and the duration may all represent intentional directorial choices.

Movies are art; art is subjective preference. This one didn’t work for me.

Arriving home, I turned to my bookshelf for TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos. Set on the Los Alamos compound (as Nolan’s movie partially is), the novel is told in the collective voice of the spouses of Manhattan Project scientists. The women live on the desert base in flimsy, cookie-cutter houses. They have almost no knowledge of the top-secret project their husbands are pursuing, nor of its objective. But gradually, covertly, they learn or intuit a bit more. Dawning awareness raises questions of complicit guilt by association. Only 200 pages long, this novel, for me, is more thought-provoking and effective than the overblown “Oppenheimer.”

Understandably, I initially steered clear of the summer’s other blockbuster, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” Though I love pink and once played with Barbies, the previews looked silly. But a surprising chorus of friends raved about the film, including my Buddhist sister-in-law. So, as “Barbie” approached the end of her opening run, I made a date with my movie buddy. We’d seen “To Kill a Mockingbird” together in 1962, Gerwig’s “Little Women” in 2020, and many films in between. Six decades earlier, we’d woken up at slumber parties on shag carpets littered with Barbie’s plastic stilettos.

With a bucket of popcorn and years of friendship between us, we swelled the crowd in the multiplex to five. I was hooked the moment Barbie’s high-arched plastic feet went flat. She headed out into the Real World, leaving the sorority of other Barbies behind, with one of the bland Kens riding along as uninvited passenger and aspirant suitor. Off on an epic quest to fix her feet and squelch her unsettling thoughts of death!

Yes, “Barbie” is pink. Profoundly pink. Neon pink. Yes, “Barbie” is silly. Profoundly silly. Seriously silly. I laughed, didn’t quite cry, and left with a lot to think about.

That same weekend, I watched one more movie: our final Netflix disk. Yes, my husband and I are dinosaurs.

“What is it?” I asked the keeper of the queue, the holder of the envelope, as we finished our pizza.

“Well, ten years ago, our first Netflix was ‘Away from Her’ by Sarah Polley,” said my husband. “Remember?”

Of course, the movie adaptation of an Alice Munro story.

“So,” he continued, “I ordered her new one, ‘Women Talking.’”

I’d missed Polley’s adaptation of the Miriam Toews’ novel when it was in the theater. Maybe I missed it accidentally on purpose, knowing it was about Mennonite women who have been raped by the men of their community.

We spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania, where it’s common on warm evenings to see women in long dresses and bonnets strolling barefoot by the lake — rarely wading, never swimming. Chatting, laughing, serene. But my late neighbor, who once employed two Mennonite sisters, spoke of how hard their father used his fields and his animals. She worried about those girls.

So, I didn’t go to “Women Talking.” It came to me.

The assaults on the women and their daughters in the story have occurred offscreen, sometime before the movie begins. The women gather, hidden in a hayloft, and prepare to vote on whether to leave their husbands, their sons, their community. Since none of them are literate, one man — an ally, the boys’ teacher — is present to record their deliberations.

The drama is taut and restrained. The talking is the action. The tension and the stakes could not be higher. The resolution, the irresolution, could not be more satisfying. “Women Talking” is very dark, necessarily dark. And brilliant as a searchlight.

Both “Barbie” and “Women Talking” worked for me. One wears the mask of comedy, one of tragedy. Both explore the theme of deformation and degradation — the cost for women and men confined to exploitative hierarchical roles. Both films introduce the possibility of change.

If you missed — or avoided — “Barbie” and “Women Talking” in the theater, consider making them a do-it-yourself double feature. On streaming, though. No more disks. And no refunds.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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