I just saw independent film writer-director Henry Jaglom’s latest movie, The M Word. Starring Tanna Frederick and Michael Imperioli, it’s Jaglom’s fifth flick to focus on female-centric issues. (The movies of his earlier Women’s Quartet dealt with everything from ticking biological clocks to relationships with fathers.)
This go-round, the maverick filmmaker has set his sights on menses and menopause — the M words — and the ways they empower and disempower women and the people around them.
I just spoke with Jaglom about the film and its themes.
Correcting Hollywood’s Wrongdoing
In his view, The M Word‘s topics are ones the male-dominated Hollywood studios have shunned, much to our collective detriment. Jaglom uses this movie to fill the gap, correct the wrongdoing and stake out uncharted territory.
What we get is a hyper, comedic pastiche that evokes aspects of characters in some of our most beloved TV programs and films, from the quirky newsroom folk in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and animated Disney can-do females to the lovable bungling men and women who speak to unseen documentary cameras in Modern Family and The Office.
The M Word focuses on the employees of a small L.A.-based television affiliate, especially Moxie (played by Tanna Frederick) who stars in the station’s kid’s show while trying to get a menopause documentary off the ground; Moxie’s menopausal relatives whose comments, along with those of her co-workers, provide rich fodder for the doc; and a visiting network boss (Michael Imperioli) charged with doing whatever it takes to boost the station’s declining viewership and profits.
He strikes up a romantic dalliance with Moxie, greenlighting her menopause production due to its likely appeal for the station’s burgeoning 50+ demographic, chasing down an embezzling producer and canning staffers (especially older ones).
Raging Hormones, Manic Comedy
The film is a manic comedic chronicle of the lengths to which people will go to sustain relevance, vitality, attention and allure as hormones rage in and around them. The older female subjects of Moxie’s documentary (a film within the film) explicitly detail biology’s toll while shedding light on the wisdom and higher consciousness that can lie on the other side of crippling cramps, unpredictable sexual urges and hot flashes. Moxie, sexy, caring and ambitious, works on everyone’s behalf, including her own.
The men in Jaglom’s movie struggle to figure out what the women around them want while clumsily confronting the things that corporations, time and hormones steal from them — jobs, energy, virility and stable relationships.
The camera-heavy context of the TV station suggests another, more literal battleground for attention and connection that many of us will find relatable. The M Word‘s characters are engaged in various types of surveillance — they avidly act and shoot for TV and spy on others via hidden webcams even as they’re unwittingly spied on.
Highlights from my conversation with Jaglom:
Next Avenue: Why are you interested in making films that focus on women’s issues?
Jaglom: When I made my first film, A Safe Place with Tuesday Wells, back in 1970, I decided that there was this enormous gap in awareness and that I would start making films about the real life of women — not what a woman is going through in relation to a man but what she’s going through in relation to her own physiognomy, her own growth, her own sense of life, completely separate from men and men’s worlds.
I was not seeing that in any Hollywood movies at that time. There was a very strong prejudice then. Women were meant to be attractive distractions and nothing much more.
So, it seemed to me that there was an opening to tell the truth. Now, boy babies are the ones who are making the movies for studios and they’re usually only interested in subjects that will sell to some 12-year-old in the Midwest. They’re very fearful of dealing with the real issues that women confront throughout their lives and they’re therefore isolating women who can’t see any actual reflections of their own lives in the films they watch.
How did you get interested in the particular issues that The M Word addresses?
All my life men have not understood what women go through when they have their periods. The whole subject was treated with so much subterfuge and indirection and non-confrontation of the realities that for most men it became a sort of mystery. It was something about women that you didn’t actually talk about. You just let it happen and you tried to be generally sympathetic. So, to me, it became a vitally important subject.
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The M Word doesn’t just deal with menopause; it’s really about women’s entire hormonal arc, isn’t it?
Yes, absolutely, because women’s lives trace this profound curve from menstruation to menopause. They are, in both circumstances, attacked and diminished because of physiological changes. With this film I’m suggesting that those changes spur women into a higher consciousness and a greater degree of compassion, for themselves and for others. Women harness all of that to create a much more sensitive and conscious society.
I think men desperately need women so as not to retreat to some sort of caveman-like status. So making films that deal with women in a really honest way is the most valuable thing that I can do — not just for women but also for men who’ll finally be forced to look at women and understand who they are and what they go through in life.
You ask actors in your films to improvise rather than scripting their every word. Why?
Early on I realized that if I’m going to make a movie that’s about women’s lives I’m not going to write it from a male point of view and then ask the actresses to squeeze themselves into that fabrication. I decided to encourage women to talk about what they’re going through in their own language, to be open, to explore the feelings that they have and then I’d shape what they were willingly and happily giving. This empowers women. They don’t have to hide the things they’re feeling that are making them uncomfortable in society or suppress any aspect of themselves.
While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel at times that we’re victimized by our hormonal gyrations. Do you believe that?
I don’t think we have to be victims of it.
If you embrace the biology — and that’s part of what the film is really about — it can empower you rather than do what it appears to do, which is lessen your powers. And the very act of knowing that some of your abilities are diminishing creates an opening for a new kind of power.
I think menopause produces an entire generation of women, one after the other, that can do its best work and make its most powerful sociological contributions.
Moxie’s a creative type who’s resisting corporate unfairness. But she’s also very caught up in how late her period is and, at the end, she’s shrieking with cramps. What kind of heroine is she?
She’s a heroine for every woman I’ve known who’s in their 30s. It looks like she’s not in control. And yet, she’s living in a post-feminist world where women can and do fight back. They don’t have to take to their fainting chairs or undergo hysterectomies. They don’t just say, ‘well, that’s life, we’ll just stay home now because of what we’re going through.’ They use the changes they face to goose them into active social, political and creative lives, knowing that their hormonal processes don’t have to own them, that they can control things.
How about the men in this film? It also makes some bold statements about their issues with aging.
I have Gregory Harrison play Moxie’s stepfather and an anchor of an extreme sports show at the station. He’s a very handsome, powerful man who has to face big changes and we see how he deals with that.
He admits something that is often overlooked, which is that men go through changes of life too. They take a different form, but when all of the energy and power and capacity that’s associated with youth diminishes, men start feeling ‘less than.’
Society pays a big price, because frequently these men fight back by doing something wrong to compensate for the lack of excitement they used to feel in order to stay in the game and still consider themselves young — whether it’s stealing or gambling or hustling.
Women are much more evolved, so while they mostly come to terms with the reality of what their bodies are telling them, the men rebel.
Do you resonate with your characters’ struggles with declining relevance?
No, because I’ve got the escape of being an artist. The great thing about being an artist of any kind is that you can use the subjects that are oppressing you and other people to resist their effect.
They can motivate you to, for instance, make a film like this instead of feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t run that race, or lift those weights any more, or live the life you once lived.
These changes also force you to have empathy. Frequently I’ve found that when men reach a certain age and experience big physiological shifts, they finally begin to have empathy for what the women in their life have been going through for a long time.