Friday, March 21, 2008

Behold the Power and the Glory of Vagina Dentata

I FINALLY saw Teeth again. Glory hallelujah! Like I mentioned in a previous post, I got to see it at an advanced Chicago critics’ screening, so it was extra amazing because the little theater has the greatest picture and sound and is all cozy and intimate. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing it. When it started, I was in shock. I had been waiting for so long to be reunited with this modern masterpiece. It was almost ten months since I had seen it at Cannes, and I’ve been hyping it up so much to anyone who will listen. I’ve posted several blog entries about it even. I knew it was amazing, but I was worried that in my Cannes stupor, maybe I got a little carried away. What if it wasn’t as good as I remembered it? I’ve spent ten months anticipating its return. Could anything live up to that?

Well, no worries. It lived up to the anticipation and more. It was just as phenomenal as I remembered. In fact, it was even better. I totally needed a refresher course in vagina dentata. And this time, I wasn’t all groggy and dazed from the Cannes craziness and total lack of sleep. I knew it was special when I first saw it, though. But as the months have gone on, I’ve just built it up and up, and I’m thrilled that it surpassed my own hype. Teeth is an outstanding film. It’s going to end up really high on my list for 2008’s best films. It could easily top it.

Seeing it last week with the critics was just such a great experience. It wasn’t very crowded. There were maybe only 10 people there, with me being the only female. THAT was fun. I felt like an amateur anthropologist. I desperately wanted to see it in that formal setting with a bunch of middle-aged, mature men. I wanted to witness their reactions. And I wasn’t disappointed. They were wonderful, and I think most of them really enjoyed it. There were gleeful moments when I could practically feel every man crossing his legs uncomfortably. Lots of shocked, amused and, if I dare say, delighted looks were exchanged, and the laughter was plentiful. I even got to talk to a couple great men after the screening about it, and it was a blast, as well as totally enlightening. I have to admit – I felt pretty powerful being the only woman in that room.

So, in my Cannes post about it, I tried to avoid giving the secret away, but since everyone knows about it now, I can talk about the plot pretty freely. Teeth is about Dawn O’Keefe, an ultra-religious high-school student. She’s a walking poster for abstinence and chastity. Dawn gives lectures to other religious zealots about waiting and the “gift” that is their virginity. Her eager listeners chant practiced responses in a very zombie-like, cult-ish manner. The rest of the students in the school, outside of this little group, ridicule her constantly. But, naturally, all the jerks making fun of her want to nail her, to put it delicately. She’s a hot, puritanical virgin. What better conquest could there be? Dawn is totally naïve and clueless about her sexuality, and she’s almost impossibly sweet and innocent. She has a step-brother, Brad, who is her total opposite. He’s a drug-addled, hyper-sexualized beast. Her mother is very sick, and it’s amazing that such a movie could make this plot element not only believable, but touching. Dawn’s step-father is also terrific and supportive of Dawn. She’s the good seed; Brad is the bad seed. Hmm, “seed” sort of takes on a different meaning in this film, doesn’t it? And here’s the kicker: Brad is totally in love with Dawn and wants to have sex with her.

So, at these Christian mini-rallies, Dawn meets Tobey, a like-minded, presumably harmless suitor. They’re instantly attracted, and Dawn starts experiencing sexual thoughts and urges for the first time in her life. She’s been so insanely repressed that she doesn’t know how to handle her natural sexual instincts. But, even with the temptation, she still sticks by her vow: “Purity.” One day, Dawn decides she absolutely has to meet up with Tobey because her libido is overpowering, even though she has no intention to go all the way and doesn’t even really know what it all means. She meets him by this secluded cave, complete with a romantic waterfall, prepared for a swim in the least-revealing bathing suit ever, and frisky romping in the water ensues. Cold and wanting to warm up, Dawn climbs into a nook in the cave, and Tobey follows. They kiss a little, and he wants to go further, but she tells him no. Well, no doesn’t mean no for Tobey. He proceeds to attack her and rape her. He doesn’t get very far, though. In her panic and terror and traumatization, Dawn’s…special talent…rears it head. Her toothed vagina bites off his penis. Serves him right. She had no idea this was inside of her, and it only manifested itself when provoked. Dawn was being raped and violated, and she was scared. Then, her vagina took over.

I think that’s as much of the plot as I should describe. She begins investigating what’s happening to her and learns about the phenomenon known as “vagina dentata.” While she’s still terribly confused, her vagina doesn’t attack unless it has a reason to (wow, this sounds ridiculous…I love it!), and she doesn’t know how to control it. It bites when she’s scared or, as the story progresses, angry. When the anger starts setting in, that’s when she begins to harness control of her power. At first, it’s instinctual. It’s proven that she can have sex normally, without incident, if she feels safe. But, when frightened or mad, watch out. Dawn evolves from a very shy, naïve, sexually repressed girl into a confident, strong, sexually-realized woman. She’s no longer a victim of a misogynistic male society, where all the men are lust-fueled psychos. Is this film exaggerated? Of course. All the men are depicted that way to prove a point. Not all men are like that. This isn’t a man-hating film. It just focuses on the worst specimens. And teeth in a vagina? It’s not subtle by any means, but that’s why it works. It’s a cautionary tale, as well as an empowering one. Teeth is very much a coming-of-age story, and Dawn’s character arc is one of the most thorough, profound, and inspirational I’ve ever seen in a film. She’s a wonderful character and a great role model for girls. Yeah, I said it. She’s a great role model.

Teeth is a low-budget, independent film, but looking at it, you would never know. It’s as visually interesting and stunning in its own unique way and as meticulously crafted as any expensive film out there. The cinematography by Wolfgang Held is gorgeous, especially in the sprawling shots of the town. The music by Robert Miller sets the perfect satirically dramatic mood. Writer and director Mitchell Lichtenstein is a genius. Teeth is his first feature, and he only made one short before it. That blows my mind. The script is phenomenal and could easily be placed among the few, the proud, the recent elite. He’s a huge talent, and he displays such style, confidence, and natural ability in his directing. He was born to make films. His eye for composition is impeccable, and his attention to detail is nothing short of amazing.

This is so cool, and I didn’t even know it until I just looked him up on IMDB, but he’s the son of uber-famous pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. There’s no better way to categorize Teeth than pop art. He clearly inherited his father’s immense talent, his flair for the unconventional, his uncanny ability to find depth and meaning in the ordinary trappings of modern life, and his social commentary. Awesome. I pretty much worship Mitchell Lichtenstein now, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do in the future. What a mind to come up with Teeth. What a wonderfully warped, intelligent, brilliant mind.

When I first saw the film way back when, I had some misgivings about the step-brother character and his story and the relationship between him and Dawn. I wasn’t sure if he was developed enough or if the relationship was built up enough to make the ending work, for it to have the punch it needed. Well, I was wrong before. I had no issues with Teeth whatsoever this time around. It’s perfect. Brad is fully developed, as much as he needs to be, and the whole relationship between them makes the ending totally logical. It could ONLY end that way. I was annoyed with Brad initially. I mean, he’s supposed to be annoying, but more than I felt was necessary. This time, it just all clicked. I was annoyed with him in the exact right way and amount, and I even really admired John Hensley’s performance. He makes Brad simultaneously monstrous and vulnerable. I got why Brad acted the way he did because Hensley balanced the character’s two sides so well.

The resting of the acting is really good, particularly Hensley, Lenny von Dohlen and Vivienne Benesch as Dawn’s parents, Hale Appleman as Tobey ,and Ashley Springer as Ryan, another of Dawn’s suitors. I especially loved Josh Pais’ brief but memorable turn as Dawn’s gynecologist. That scene is one of the best in a film ripe with great scenes. But no one holds a candle to the effervescent Jess Weixler as Dawn. This is one of those performances that is so good that it’s Oscar nomination-worthy, but it’ll never get that kind of recognition, because she plays a character with teeth in her vagina. And we frown on that in America, even allegedly liberal Hollywood. Irony? Satire? What are those? That girl has teeth in her vagina! Oh, but I’ll get to the social commentary in a bit. I just want to bask in Weixler’s brilliance for now. She actually did win a Special Jury Prize for a dramatic performance at Sundance in 2007, which is really impressive. The prize was awarded “for a juicy and jaw-dropping performance.” Clever, clever, Sundance. But seriously, that’s an amazing accomplishment, and she totally deserved it. She is going to be a major star, and what a way to burst onto the scene.

Any other actress could have ruined this film. The part could have been played as either too naïve or too vampy, or as too campy or too serious. It needs to be all of those things, so the casting of Dawn was so crucial. Weixler is absolutely perfect at balancing of all those complicated and contradictory aspects of Dawn’s personality and depicting such a dramatic character arc and making us believe it and root for her every step of the way. I think there was a danger in making Dawn a one-dimensional religious caricature. Weixler doesn’t do that at all, and neither does Lichtenstein. Rather than ridiculing her, we empathize with her. She’s a totally three-dimensional character, one of the most fully developed, interesting, sympathetic, and complex I’ve ever seen.

Jess Weixler has impeccable comic timing. She’s so funny when she needs to be, but she’s equally amazing when she has to be terrified, angry, confused, or sad. She conveys a whole rainbow of emotions without looking like she’s doing anything. She makes it look effortless, and that’s the mark of a true genius. Watching her depict Dawn’s incredible transformation is miraculous. She does it all. She’s sweet and innocent, but also fiercely feminine and sexy. I just love her. It’s one of my favorite performances ever. She’s inspiring as Dawn, or rather, she MAKES Dawn inspiring. I really don’t think anyone else could have done it. Lichtenstein’s material was already inspiring before anyone came along, so I don’t want to short-change his role, but the material desperately needed the right woman to bring Dawn to life and to make her such a positive, inspirational character. Just because it’s written a certain way doesn’t mean it’ll come across that way. Weixler wonderfully succeeds. People speak about “force of nature” performances...well, Weixler is the combined tornado, hurricane, and tsunami that blows all of those performances away. I could talk about how great she is forever, but I have to move on some time. She’s simply phenomenal. Exquisite perfection.

Teeth is a horror comedy at its core. The marketing and distribution have been pitiful. It deserves so much better. Just tell people it’s a movie about a girl with teeth in her vagina, and I would think it’d sell itself. If it’s not an instant success, and I wouldn’t think it would be, because it’ll take people awhile to catch on, it will develop a huge cult following eventually. I mean, it was like pulling teeth (ha, I went there) to get it to Chicago at all. And Chicago’s a pretty big, bustling metropolis, last time I checked. The shabby treatment this film has received is just sad. Teeth has everything. Sex, nudity, graphic violence, and gore? Check. Dark comedy? Check. Great performances, compelling story, non-stop entertainment? Check, check, check. Social commentary, feminism, and a brain? You better believe it. What’s not to love?! Hmm, maybe it’s that last part that’s tripping people up. A horror comedy that’s also intelligent and scathing…and pro-woman? Preposterous! The reviews haven’t been too hot. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, and I applaud them for that. A grade of B+ in EW is practically an Oscar. I believe the critics don’t get it. People in general don’t get it. They’ve totally missed the boat. Not only that, I don’t think they even WANT to get it.

So, in addition to this being one hell of a fun film, Teeth is a blistering social commentary. It’s as pointed and ferocious as There Will Be Blood (and there’s plenty of blood in this film, too) or any other great, socially conscious work. And it’s so smart. Obviously, religion is a big target of criticism. Young people have been brainwashed. America is such a puritanical, neurotic, bible-thumping, scary place right now. Well, when people are pushed too far, there are repercussions. Repercussions with teeth. The religious aspect is not the main issue, but it leads into the bigger picture of sexuality in America. We are SO repressed. Violence? Totally fine! But people flip out about sex. There is rarely a healthy depiction of sex in the media. It’s either shown as evil, deviant, and over-the-top (Dawn’s step-brother), or it’s just totally ignored and forbidden (Dawn). When people ignore something fundamental to human nature, that’s dangerous territory. Sex shouldn’t be something to be feared. There’s a way to inform people without making them all want to become nymphomaniacs. It’s either one extreme or the other. For instance, in Dawn’s school, the health book has a sticker over the picture of the vagina. Dawn has no idea what a vagina looks like. She’s too terrified to even examine her own body. It’s absolutely sinful to even consider it. At first, she thinks the teeth could be normal, because she has no idea what normal is. No one ever bothered to tell her.

The treatment and representation (more accurately, the MIStreatment and MISrepresentation) of women are the film’s main issues, but Teeth doesn’t stop there. Even though it would have been more than enough to just deal with feminism, there’s plenty extra to chew on in Lichtenstein’s commentary. That’s why he’s such a genius. He goes above and beyond and attacks the social super-structure, both connected to and independent from the feminist angle. Clearly, he believes America is in need of change, on all levels, and he’s right. Throughout the film, two nuclear towers are seen looming ominously behind Dawn’s house. They’re like sentries presiding over the whole town. This isn’t subtle, and it shouldn’t be. None of the film is subtle, and that’s completely intentional. The vagina dentata is presumably a result of the radiation from those towers, a mutation. I absolutely love the use of the towers. Basically, Lichtenstein is attacking America’s warped, corrupted, mutated ideals, morals, and sexual repression. Like I said, this film mainly deals with America’s fear of sexuality, but it attacks all aspects of American society. The towers also represent big business and capitalism. Teeth definitely criticizes our way of life, what we have devolved to in America, and our loss of values and perspective. It’s searing, powerful, and completely effective.

But the richness and depth keep on coming. Teeth is just a film that gives and gives. I think the most important thing to take away from Teeth (out of so many things to choose from) is that it is a celebration of feminism and femininity. I’ve heard people call it misogynistic. They’re crazy, plain and simple. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything less misogynistic in my whole life. Honestly, it’s one of the most empowering films I’ve ever seen. It transcends even film. It’s just one of the most empowering assertions of womanhood and feminine power and equality imaginable. Dawn is oppressed by a male-centered society. Finally, her vagina has had enough of the abuse, and it fights back. As she learns more about it, she consciously fights back against society’s insistence on labeling her a meek and inferior being. She is woman – hear her vagina roar. With her newly acquired knowledge and personal growth, she learns how to control her power, centered in the very essence of the feminine, her vagina. She’s even a superhero of sorts. Part of the vagina dentata myth is that the teeth can be conquered by a hero. Well, I think Dawn becomes her own hero. She doesn’t need a man to conquer anything for her. It tells women that we should save ourselves instead of waiting for some man to do it.

Teeth is definitely a cautionary tale, on both personal and social levels. One on one, try to abuse us sexually, like men did to Dawn, and we will bite you. Don’t push us. No means no. Only we control our sexuality, and we have a right to embrace that sexuality, not be victimized by it, degraded because of it, or expected to be ashamed of it. That applies to both one on one relationships and society as a whole. Besides the sexual aspect, women just deserve equality and respect in society, period. People believe that sexism isn’t around anymore? Please. It’s just as alive as ever. Equality is a myth. I've never considered myself a hyper-feminist, and I'm definitely not a man-hater, but reality is reality. Men and America, watch out! We’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!

I don’t think Dawn ever misuses or abuses her power. Every instance is perfectly justified. These guys get what’s coming to then. And with her newfound confidence and strength, she isn’t going to go out and be some sort of psychopathic serial killer. That’s not what the film is saying at all. She simply knows what she has and how to use it. She understands her own body and what it means to be a woman. She finally knows herself. I think any guy should think twice before messing with her, for sure, but she’s a better, stronger person by the end of the film. Dawn has found sexual liberation and embraced her sexuality, grown up, and become self-aware and self-assured. She’s an independent woman capable of doing anything. That’s the message that sticks. Teeth is so exuberantly pro-feminism. It’s so refreshing. I just love it! I love it even more because it was written and directed by a man. It makes quite a statement that a man made this ultra-sensitive, progressive film promoting feminism and women’s rights. Mitchell Lichtenstein, you rock my world.

Teeth is an extraordinary film. It’s sheer genius. It’s as towering of an achievement as the nuclear towers that stand guard over Dawn’s town. I have no doubt that it’ll find a home on my esteemed list of my favorite films of all time. And it’s so gloriously, emphatically empowering! It makes me want to burst with happiness. What a powerful, positive expression and celebration of feminism. Few films have made me feel more confident in my feminine abilities. Actually, I’m not sure any other film has. It’s really unparalleled. I’m totally uplifted and exhilarated by the experience of the film and by the beauty and strength of my own femininity. Teeth makes me feel damn proud to be a woman.

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