Too much Sex (and the City): a review of SATC2 featuring Susan Sontag
There are many cringe-inducing moments in the second Sex and the City film—the poor jokes, the cheap moralizing, Samantha waving around condoms and giving the finger to an angry mob of locals in Abu Dhabi—but the one that really got me came at the very end of the film when Carrie places her latest book—its subject is marriage, and the New Yorker pans it complete with a cartoon drawing of Carrie Bradshaw—on a shelf next to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation in her apartment. It’s the same Picador paperback edition of the Sontag book hat I purchased when I was fresh out of college and living in New York. It’s an excellent collection with two very well-known essays, the first of which I’ll mention is “Notes on Camp.” The appearance of the Sontag volume finalized what was already obvious: SATC2 went too far—it was Camp that acknowledged itself as such, it went beyond Camp so as to be meaningless.
Sontag’s most famous lines on Camp: “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” and “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” The HBO series of SATC always had some qualities of Camp about it. The characters, while developed over time, remain, with the possible exception of Carrie, archetypes. The jokes and situations were often clichéd and predictable. But the show always had what Sontag considers an essential quality of true Camp: it was dead serious. And that it maintained that seriousness throughout six seasons is what allowed audiences to love it unequivocally, to feel connected to and care about the characters.
I confess to the potentially unforgivable sin of being a straight, white male who fell for the show. I appreciated Carrie’s outfits as much as someone in that position could, which is to say that I thought she looked interesting and I now know the name Manolo Blahnik, but I wouldn’t stand a chance of picking a pair of his shoes from a lineup even if the other suspects came from Nike. Although I’ve lived in New York City twice, SATC probably did more than any other media to shape my idea of New York—the way I think about the City when I’m not there. I mentioned clichés, and it occurs to me that there are good and bad ways to employ clichés in art: you can use them out of laziness because you can’t come up with anything better to resolve a conflict or a silence or you can use them to give a universal quality to some experience, some emotion. SATC the series did both, but more often it did the latter, and sometimes it did so extremely well—nailing the perfect pitch of a line or a break-up or a fight that you, as an audience member with a history of relationships, couldn’t deny of its elemental truth. Yes, sometimes SATC was Camp, but sometimes it wasn’t, and when it wasn’t it was real and relatable and brilliant.
In the show and into the first movie, there were real things at stake for the characters. Sometimes they were disappointed: think of the end of season four—Carrie’s engagement has ended and Big has decamped to the other side of the country, Miranda has become a mother on her own, Charlotte is divorced, and Samantha’s boyfriend has cheated on her. A happy ending was, by no means, assured, and so we watched on for two more seasons.[1. I actually haven’t seen most of these seasons, but I feel I’ve seen enough to have a perspective.] Even in the first movie, it was unclear whether Big and Carrie would ever marry or see each other again after he left her at the altar. It might have carried the prefix of melo-, but this was dramatic tension. Perhaps, as a novice fan, my viewing here is naïve. That, I’ll admit. But I heard the biggest gasps produced by the second film’s plot, and they came when Carrie accidentally left her passport in the stall of a shoe vendor in Abu Dhabi. Did anyone ever doubt she would get it back?
As for the film’s plot, there isn’t much of it. Each character begins the film with a dilemma: Can Miranda have a fulfilling career and her family? Has Carrie’s marriage become staid and stale? Will Samantha maintain her sex drive and sanity with the onset of menopause? Is Charlotte’s husband cheating with their bra-less nanny? That said nanny turns out to be a lesbian at the movie’s conclusion tells you everything you need to know about how low the stakes are in this film—for the characters and, consequently, for the audience.[2. The absence of plot doesn’t bother me. In fact, I tend to find plot cheap and distracting from character development. However, the absence of any sense of risk in this film is inexcusable.]
Before that and other similarly simple resolutions, the girls spend the bulk of the two-plus-hour film in Abu Dhabi thanks to Samantha and a potential hotel client of hers. They stay in a $20,000 per night suite and have individual, chauffeured Maybachs to drive them around until things go wrong and they offend the locals—at least, Samantha offends the locals. Excess is an understatement. Excess is up, but because seriousness is out, the film misses the mark of being even Camp—it’s too awful to be good.[3. Cf. Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” She might as well have cited Carrie’s gold Louboutins in SATC2.] Carrie runs into her ex- Aidan in the souk, they have dinner, they kiss, she runs away. The kiss is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it feels entirely inconsequential. She confesses it over the phone to an impassive Big, but of course he takes her back at the end shortly after she returns to New York and moments before she puts her book next to Sontag’s.
Other reviewers wrong-headedly interpret the placement of Against Interpretation as a nod to the women’s liberation movement, in embarrassing contradiction to the film’s message, as they see it. First, if you read Sontag’s journals, it’s obvious that she was just about as dependent as anyone alive on love and affection and relationships. Second, the title essay of Against Interpretation argues against the marshaling of film and literature and art to serve political causes and for experiencing art as what it is and not what one thinks it might represent. Therefore, I find many of the discussions about SATC and feminism to be entirely off base, especially when it comes to this second film.[4. Jessica Bennett at Newsweek takes this the farthest: “But it’s still sad to see the characters go from trailblazers to conformists, suddenly telling us that work and child-rearing actually don’t mix, that it’s a bling on a ring finger that will prove a union to the world, and that we must worry—no matter how stable a marriage—that a husband will cheat. It’s fiction, we know. But these characters, like the lubrication they inspired, helped legions of women embrace their own fierceness—and here they are, 12 years later, nothing more than stereotype and cliché.”] Yes, three of the girls end up married and yes, the other, Samantha—big surprise!—is on her back at the end of the film. But to focus on this is to miss the point of the film: it’s an extension of the SATC brand.
And perhaps, it’s unfortunate that such a lackluster screenplay will still succeed at the box office by trading on that brand name.[5. Cf. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American Public.”] But for a certain set of fans—those who liked the show more for the clothes than for the content—there’s evidence that this film is actually enjoyable. And by evidence, I mean the oohs and ahhs emitted by girls in the Marina theater on the film’s opening night each time the characters appeared in new outfits—or, to appropriately place the emphasis: new outfits appeared on the characters.[6. When Lori and I left the theater, there were more girls lined up outside for the next showing, girls who would inevitably ooh and ahh in unison at the same scenes because that is what people who stand in line for a film will do. The Marina seems to attract these sorts of people, whom we find hilarious, which is why we went there.] And there’s nothing wrong with a little fun, it just that this sort of fun isn’t really for me.[7. I recently heard Sarah Jessica Parker recount, in an interview, the story of HBO’s refusal to produce the first SATC film. She was convinced, however, as she proceeded to shop around the concept, that the film could be an event for people to get together. Is this a complete dismissal of any artistic value or is the community that the SATC brand created, at the very heart of artistic value? Is it not the very thing that a director or a writer aspires to, to bring people together around her work?] Or rather, I care little about clothes and a lot about character; if it were the inverse, I might have found this film something other than a disappointment.