What's the Big Deal About High Heels?
With a new documentary, Cynthia and Allen Mondell aim to learn the truth about women and their shoes.
Here are three perennial mysteries about women that baffle even the most sensitive and knowledgeable man. First, why do they go to the ladies’ room together? (One answer: to talk about men.) Second: what is it about cosmetics? Who wears what, and why? Who wears nothing, and why?
But the most important question of all: what is it about women and their footwear? Seasons of watching Sex and the City, of seeing Carrie Bradshaw become excited about her shoes in ways that might suggest other kinds of stimulation, and years of asking lady friends about high and still higher heels have left me only a little wiser. Why are some women—even when age has made it harder to wear them—still obsessed with Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik?
I know some of the answers already. By tightening the calf muscles, high heels make every woman’s legs look great. Dancers know something else: by pushing body weight forward, the elevated heel ensures the right balance for partner-dancing. Several years back, I was climbing up a steep hill in Italy’s Liguria region with a bunch of people. We were heading to a friend’s mountain house. Everyone was wearing walking shoes or what we used to call sneakers, except Maria-Elena, a sixtysomething Milanese painter. I asked why she was doing this, and she reminded me: “I was a flamenco dancer until recently, and I can walk only in heels. My calves can’t handle flat shoes.” Well, as William Butler Yeats observed, speaking through a woman’s voice in a great poem, “We must labor to be beautiful.”
We’ve all seen Dallas ladies get out of their cars at the door of a restaurant and swan all the way to their table with great dignity, gorgeousness, and balance. They don’t have too far to go in either direction, and at the end they glide back into the car the valet has thoughtfully brought back to them. In olden times (and often still today) women of a certain age began wearing “sensible” shoes, which offered in comfort (read: support) what they lacked in glamour. Older women have become younger, however.
So it was with great, almost scholarly, excitement that I saw the notice for the production of Sole Sisters, a new movie about women and their relationships with shoes by Cynthia Salzman Mondell, an independent Dallas filmmaker of several decades’ standing. Cynthia, along with her husband, Allen, has been making prize-winning movies for more than three decades. The couple moved to Dallas in 1973, when Allen took a job at KERA. Then the fun began. Their joint projects include films with local themes: A Fair to Remember (about you know what); this won a Lone Star Emmy. Then came Six Films for the Sixth Floor Museum (about you know what event on November 22, 1963); West of Hester Street (a docudrama about the immigration of Jews through the port of Galveston in the early years of the 20th century). Together, the projects have received four CINE Golden Eagles, a prize from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and a Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association. The movies have appeared in festivals ranging from San Antonio to Milan, Houston to Paris, Los Angeles to Jerusalem.
Mostly, the Mondells work together. One of Cynthia’s earlier solo projects was The Ladies Room, about the very question posed above.
What’s happening with Sole Sisters? I wanted to know, so I went to the source. The Mondells inhabit two houses off Henderson Avenue, one for work, one for living. I saw them in their office. Allen went off into his room, and Cynthia gave me the lowdown. “It’s not just about heels,” she allowed, “but about women’s relationships with their shoes.” Relationships? Who knew?
“Every shoe has a story, and every woman has both,” she says. The idea had been germinating for at least 15 years. When her mother was sick with cancer, Cynthia discovered a new, unworn, beautiful pair of red high heels and told her mother she had to get better so she could dance in those shoes. Her mother, alas, did not, but one legacy to her daughter was the idea for the film, the logo of which is a single, luscious, ruby-red stiletto, seen from the rear, and shining in a spotlight.
It turns out that the project, just getting under way and still seeking funding, is going to be more than just a movie. It will also be a play, a book with women’s stories, and an educational tool. If all goes well, filming will start later this year. So far, an Exxon Mobil grant has provided an intern who has set up websites and blogs that both get the word out and take the word in. On solesistersfilm.com you can see the postings. Cynthia is right: women have stories to share about their shoes. The shoes evoke memories of the mothers who taught their daughters how to walk in these strange contrivances; of proms and dances and boyfriends; of weddings and relationships; of body issues and body images; of illness and recovery. Far from being what many dour feminists would consider a torture equivalent to Chinese foot-binding, says Cynthia, shoes—especially the high ones—are signs of women’s power, especially when chosen out of desire and not out of compulsion. This is the truth of all fashion.
And for Cynthia, part of her work as a filmmaker over the years has been intended to remedy what she calls an age-old truth: “People don’t listen to women, to women’s stories.”
Allen wanders in. I ask both of them what it’s like to live and work all day—almost every day—with the same person. How do they maintain cordial relationships, moving from house to office and back? “It’s work,” says Cynthia, smiling. Like marriage, filmmaking is always a collaboration.
While his wife tracks down women’s stories about their shoes, Allen is revisiting a chapter from his own past. Getting out of college in 1963, while the dew and enthusiasm of the Kennedy administration were still fresh, before the death of hopefulness six months later in our fair city, he set out—two years after it was founded—to join the Peace Corps. He spent two years in Sierra Leone. “I couldn’t afford to travel without working, and this was a way both to travel and do something responsible,” he says.
The new project involves collecting letters, journals, and—from younger Peace Corps members—blogs about volunteers’ experiences in the field. Not memoirs, but words written at the time. The Corps celebrates its 50th birthday next year; Allen would like his project to coincide with the golden anniversary. He envisions a cinematic splicing of people arranged around various topics (he wants actors to read from the original literary sources, with a projection of still and moving images on the screen), sections about food, religion, problems of adjustment to a different culture, politics, and relationships. He wants to revisit the oldest veterans, many of them now retired, who maintain the same enthusiasm for work, good deeds, and fellow feeling that inspired them in their greener youth.
In other words, not just what they did then, but also how what they did affected what they do, and who they are, now. We talk a great deal about volunteerism these days. Allen wants to tap into those money sources that might promote his movie about the subject.
And he agrees with my assessment of the Mondells’ current individual projects: one is working on soles, and the other is working on souls. But according to Cynthia, they may not be so very apart.
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