In his new series, New York-based writer Jacob Seferian dissects the latest film releases, TV trends and streaming sites’ most-discussed new titles. This week, he considers cinema’s current obsession with hollow biopics.
There’s limited vitriol directed towards white-collar criminals, even less so when the victims are rich and stupid. Anna Devley became a New York legend overnight when she duped wealthy socialites, boutique hotels and global financial institutions out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by posing as a German heiress. After all, grifting is an artery of the American experience and New York City, an emblem of what is good and bad about our country.
The inherent intrigue of Anna Delvey, whose real name is Anna Sorokin, briefly captivated the internet and attracted the attention of television’s premier soap opera peddler. I don’t mean to be glib, Shonda Rhimes is a groundbreaking producer, but the defining quality of her work — which includes Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and now INVENTING ANNA — is its ability to manipulate viewers into believing they’re witnessing something more authentic than daytime television. But an accurate retelling of the story of a young woman whose claim to fame is lying doesn’t feel crucial, although since it’s art, it should reveal something: about us, Anna Delvey/Sorokin or American culture. Preferably something the bombshellarticle which broke the story did not, but then again, no one reads anymore.
Unfortunately, the series adds little to the SoHo Grifter saga. Instead, it makes an entertaining case for Anna as a girlboss who, as a middle-class foreigner, is denied access to the circles and cash needed to launch an exclusive, high-end networking club connecting rich people with artists. A striving businesswoman who, had she actually been born into the ruling class her false identity alleged, could’ve achieved her goals without defrauding anyone. Inventing Anna goes to great lengths to humanize the con artist, which feels unnecessary as no one really hates the real Anna. However, to understand her actions as some kind of resistance to the ruling class is bullshit. She was not a Robin Hood, but an outsider who worshipped money and power and defrauded the wealthy to perpetuate the systems they represent. Anna acted in her own interest, brilliantly so, and the exploration of this not quite villain, not quite hero would have been much more interesting than the classic silver-tongued con Inventing Anna presents.
Anna acted in her own interest, brilliantly so, and the exploration of this not quite villain, not quite hero would have been much more interesting than the classic silver-tongued con Inventing Anna presents.
Exploitation was a theme of several releases this year, cinema preoccupied with famous and controversial women. Like THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE, Jessica Chastain’s vanity project chronicling the life of the campy televangelist who, with her husband, mishandled millions in viewer donations during the 80s. If you’re unfamiliar with Tammy Faye Bakker, she — with her insane makeup and Christian sympathy for the AIDS epidemic — seems more RuPaul’s Drag Race fever dream than human. This is sadly how the clunky film portrays her, taking the late personality at face value, never deigning to investigate the woman beneath all that eyeshadow. A stark contrast to SPENCER, an arty probe into the psyche of Princess Diana. Despite the oversaturation of Lady Di content (a musical, seriously?), the film genuinely felt like it shed new light on the late royal who was murdered by the monarchy. Kristen Stewart finally redeems herself and the clothes are beautiful. I watched the film with a date, who during the dinner scene whispered, “This reminds me of dinner with my family.” The royal family reminds you of your family? But that’s the power of Diana, whether by design or projection, she’s relatable to commoners.
This crop of Best Actress contenders, most of whom portray real-life women, doesn’t exactly signal a revival of the Woman’s Picture, a female-centric period of filmmaking during the 30s and 40s when women were the theatre-going majority while the men fought overseas in World War II, making stars of badasses like Bette Davis. For all the representation™, this award season’s portraits of fascinating women — Lucille Ball, Aretha Franklin, etc. — often feel like expensive dramatizations of their subjects’ Wikipedia pages. Nuance only arrives in THE LOST DAUGHTER, a transgressive look at motherhood based on the Elena Ferrante novel. Fiction, telling a new story… there’s something to it.
Then, of course, there’s PAM & TOMMY. The retelling of their celebrity sex tape which received backlash when the internet learned Pamela Anderson had not authorized the project. The appeal is clear, the bones of the story feel like the perfect barometer to showcase how far we as a society have allegedly come: had the events taken place today, Pamela would not have suffered such intense character assassination. Right? It’s hard to say.
Art, at its best, explores the grey areas morality struggles with. The YouTube comment sections of the real Pam’s interviews are now full of seemingly older people admitting they misjudged the actress. Film and television can provide important cultural reckonings, but Pamela Anderson is a woman, not a vessel for a lesson. Do the ends justify the means? Does consent work differently within the boundaries of art? I don’t know, but as Anna Delvey might argue, sometimes the stories we tell are more honest than the truth. What’s flattened in the internet’s understanding of human behaviour are our contradictions. Cinema that embraces the dark can help us untangle our competing motives, illuminating something like a path forward. Thank fucking god for Elena Ferrante, whoever she is.
Jacob Seferian is a writer and editor living in New York City. His work has appeared in over 13 magazines, and he’s allegedly working on a novel.
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