Film Feministe: 4 Upsetting Films I Adored

"How YOU doin'?"

How you doin’?

(This review is part of my writer’s-hustle to garner support for our Unschooling conference scholarship)

I’m no stranger to films that have squirm-inducing scenes, questionable motives, and bleak morals. One of my favorite films, or it was a few years ago anyway, is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which has amongst other elements a completely objectionable and unnecessarily-protracted rape scene.

That said, I’m a bit selective and capricious when it comes to this kind of thing. I’m never sure what it is that might make me switch off a viewing for what seems cruelly exploitive (as I did recently for the first collection of “Trial and Retribution”), or what I might sit through for the sake of the larger story arc (as I recently did for the film The Long Good Friday).

The following films are intense; some are gory, some involve scenes of torture, some are at the very least highly upsetting. For some they may be triggering. Please do not say I didn’t warn you. Spoilers.

Shame (2011)
I keep thinking I’ll make a list of media that, in my opinion, present the experience of addiction in sublime, convincing, and authentic ways. Shame is one of these, although to my knowledge the term “addiction” is never mentioned. The film centers around an adult brother and sister pair, Brandon and Sissy. Brandon has a good job, a good apartment, and is a good-looking guy. He presents himself as reserved and sophisticated while hiding expensive and dysfunctional relationships with human beings and pornography; his sister Sissy, in contrast, is a free-spirit, an active alcoholic, cannot hold a job, and is prone to codependency and publicly unhealthy relationships.

There are intense sexual manifestations in both brother and sister’s problems. As the movie unfolded I was at first tensed up for, let’s face it, some kind of twisted/noir/sexy/”damaged” incest romp. Shame instead renders, in a poetically wretched way, the roots of addiction: deep emotional pain, obsession, compulsion, and a profound disconnect from other human beings. Addiction and pain manifest itself in different ways and it would seem those responsible for the film know this: Brandon snorts coke, maintains a tight profile at work, and holds a taut repressive anger he only occasionally gives vent to with his sister.  Sissy is sloppy, emotional, willing to be publicly messy, and also more willing to try to talk about what’s bothering her.

Over the course of the film we witness Brandon coming to his bottom – but whether it is his last, the film does not tell us. It doesn’t really matter, not to me anyway. I have not experienced sex addiction and compulsion, but I do know addiction. For anyone else interested in the subject, I’d direct them to view this graphic, and deeply sad, piece of film.

Descent (2007)
Rosario Dawson is thoroughly convincing as Maya, a bright, beautiful college student whose life is abruptly changed after her experiences with a fellow student named Jared. Although initially reluctant to engage with her new would-be suitor, she gradually begins to take a chance, believing that romance might be possible. After all Jared is charming, ardent, and persistent. On a date she talks about her feelings. Alone with him she begins to accept his ardor. But once he is in the position to do so, Jared acts on an intense hatred for Maya (or rather, what she represents to him) based on his own sense of inadequacies, his own internalized racism, misogyny, and entitlement. Maya, shattered after the horrific experience, is lost for a time being until she makes a few new friends.

Unlike so very, very many films centering on a rape – and a resultant revenge – Maya’s experience is not portrayed as exploitive; that is to say, shown as “sexy” in any way – and Maya is not reduced to a caricature of a victim, either. Even better, Jared is not reduced to a caricature; it is clear he doesn’t think he’s a rapist, which is something many films miss while they center on stranger-assaults in alleyways.

In my opinion this film is less about rape and a revenge than it is about power and sadism, misogyny and racism as played out in the personal level. Maya, almost by chance, meets an even more successful sadist than Jared, a man named Adrien. Adrien is intelligent and powerful; he also gives voice to the experiences Maya is struggling with in regards to race and power. Maya gets her power back and makes a plan.

I can’t say enough about the nuance of this film; however not all is subtle. The final scene, which is extremely hard to watch, is best described by the NYT review: “its Grand Guignol particulars resist euphemism”. I ain’t gonna lie, it’s not a happy ending. I suppose to some viewers it might be more terrifying than to others; most women, especially women of color, already know what it’s like to live with the constant threat of, if not the reality of, sexual assault.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Young, preternaturally-beautiful housewife in a sexually-tepid marriage with an older, rich husband meets a young, dashing man and has an affair (Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale, and Tom Hiddleston, resp). We’ve seen it before; it often goes to predictable places. I can tell you this film did not go anywhere I predicted, and for that I’m grateful. In watching it I thought it might be sourced in a play, and as it turns out I was right. Having no familiarity with the original work, I will give you my impressions of the film on its own merits.

The affair and the marriage are showcased in a series of vignettes that are at first a bit confusing. We expect to see the film linger over the forbidden courtship and consummation; largely the film skips this because, we all know lust and infatuation. Early on it is apparent Weisz’s Hester is more deeply in love with Hiddleston’s Freddie than he is with her; however he is not a womanizer nor particularly coldhearted, he is merely a human being. As Hester falls deeper into obsession and depression, he struggles his best to satisfy her, but he is only human (and an alcoholic, besides). In addition, Hester’s position as a British 50s-era separated housewife is a vulnerable one, and the film presents those difficulties in a nuanced, snowflake-delicate rendering of oppressive mores. Weisz is stunning in every way in her role.

I’ve been on both sides – as if there really are “sides” – of obsessive love. That’s probably why this film was so painful for me. The pleading and the promises not to “make a scene”, the cruelties, the suicidal ideation, the self harm. A dense knowledge the other party does not share one’s experience and there is no choice that seems liveable (hence the movie’s title). However, the film provides a few counterparts to Hester’s obsession; first by her mother-in-law who, while not a sympathetic character, cautions Hester that “a guarded enthusiasm” is a wiser choice than unrestrained passion. But my favorite moment in the film was towards the end, when Hester’s landlady Mrs. Elton speaks about the true nature of love.

The film closes on a vision of a blitz-ravaged portion of Hester’s flat’s neighborhood. The scene could be interpreted as sad, ominious, or devastating. I interpreted it as a bittersweet realization of possibility and renewal.

Audition(1999)

Of all the films reviewed here, this is the one I’d like least to discuss in any detail, because it is my belief the themes reveal themselves only gradually in what we originally might think is merely a horror film or twisted drama. So: go watch Audition, if you’re in the mood for a torture scene or two. I’ll wait.

Briefly, the plot: the film introduces us to widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi)). He is a fairly well-to-do man in a position of power at his job, and has a good relationship with his live-in teenage son. At his son’s urging, he entertains the idea of dating again. His friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, a film producer, talks Aoyama into devising a mock casting audition in which young women audition for the “part” of Aoyama’s new wife. Aoyama gets more excited about this process and quickly becomes fascinated with young Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). He takes her on a series of dates and continues to interview her, finding her more suitable for his purposes and quickly, despite red flags about her past, setting his sights on her.

But who is auditioning who? In final analysis, both Aoyama and Asami audition one another and both are convinced they’re getting something that they’re not. This film is probably experienced by some as a Fatal Attraction type of fable, but there is more to it than that. What is Aoyama really trying to hire, to obtain, to buy? Asami, as it turns out, is not who Aoyama wants to insist she is. Yet instead of the common trope of woman-as-(psychotic)-deceiver, the film demonstrates Asami has been telling Aoyama about her past; he has chosen not to see it, instead searching for the compliant, obedient, young, problem-free wife, an accessory for his bottomless vanity.

The film has a notorious reputation of being SO horrible and having SUCH an awful torture scene at the end; if you’ve seen the film you know the sequences I’m talking about. Many male film critics have called out this torture scene as being particularly barbaric or even making the film the worst horror they’ve seen. However, in comparison with the Saw Part 15 HOLY SHIT PEOPLE GET TORN APART IN EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS AND ELABORATE FASHION gore-porn saturating even our Cineplex mainstream market, the torture scene in Audition is very brief. Only a few shots show the subject being tortured; most show the perpetrator’s perspective of the torture. And notably, the torturer is female, the one being tortured is male.

And that, my friends, is why so many, especially men, are upset by the film. We want to believe Aoyama is “the good guy” – especially given the film opens on him as he is newly-widowed. But watch how he speaks about women with his friend, watch the degrading interview process, watch his memory of conversation with Asami versus what she was telling him. Aoyama is not the Good Guy, and his treatment of women and the role of wife is what really should be making us squeamish. Aoyama’s treatment of women and girls and Asami herself mirrors horrific experiences in Asami’s past. It is the reversal of the typically black-and-white concepts of “villian” and “victim”, the willingness to show complexity in these roles, and the very personal portrayal of both individuals, that makes some people uncomfortable.

At a horror level, the film delivered wonderful surprises that no amount of Hostel Caro-syrup and HUGE MUSIC SCORE can complete with. A body discovered: along with three extra fingers, an extra ear, and an extra tongue. The phone ringing, ringing, ringing – and then suddenly movement from a sack on the floor. Audition doesn’t overplay these creepy surprises but delivers them in a most satisfactory manner.

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

Film Feministe: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

It's racially refreshing!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) . spoilers.

A plot synopsis: Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union.

I was born in 1977, ten years after this film debuted. Interracial marriage has been legal, if not necessarily sanctioned or socially-accepted, my entire lifetime. I am white and I have lived on the West Coast my entire life, in mostly white environs (tempered a bit with Latino and Native American non-white families). I was raised by a soi disant “progressive” family and the subtle (and less subtle) internalized racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, and adultist attitudes typical in these kinds of families. While not relating entirely to the social class of the Drayton family – “self-made” upper class – I could relate to the “old-line liberal” family values they were imbued with.

Besides my family environs, I was raised in a so-called “post-racial” America. I was taught in school that racial issues were mostly a thing of the past. You could look up these troubles in a book, then shut the book and you didn’t have to think about it any more. I was taught not only a colorblind approach to solving problems, but also a colorblind way of looking at the world (I’ve written a tiny bit about that before). I was taught being called a “racist” was shockingly hurtful, hurtful enough we defensively denied any such charge rather than approaching it with openness and curiosity. Our own white privilege required that other people were “racists”. Any suggestion we might have these attitudes was met with staunch (or angry) defensiveness. I was raised in an era where people sneered at the concept of “political correctness”, a backlash that, curious enough, continues today.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s where I came from. And for a few minutes, I want to talk about the film a little bit.

Popular film critic Roger Ebert says a lot of good things about the work, and I agree with much he said. (My advice? Stop reading, watch the film, read his review, then read mine.) Like Ebert I also didn’t find the contrived deadline all that contrived, given the framework and usual limitations of cinematic storytelling (although I could have used at least one character pointing out that, indeed, everyone involved had been given ample time to make their mind up about the issue at hand, i.e. their lifetimes leading up to this evening). I didn’t mind the “perfect” Poitier character although I think roles like this deserve some examination within our cultural context.

Along with the contrived plot “deadline” comes the contrived grouping, within the course of the evening, of several duos and trios of all the involved individuals – the domestic worker, the family’s spiritual counselor, both sets of parents, and the intended bride and groom. The movie moved through several of these conversations as each character stated his or her case – in formal language or the most familiar private talk – to one another. Again, this contrivance irritated me far less than what, as it came to pass, it left out (more in a minute).

Now unlike Ebert, I found the study scene between Jr. and Sr. Prentice not only unobjectionable, but absolutely beautiful. I grant the validity of Ebert’s points that within the film one father (the black one) is framed as “lesser” than the other (the white one). However, it is the moment between parent and child that moved me. To me this scene captured the boldness and heartbreak at the moment a child deliberately turns aside from the values of a dearly-loved parent, to make his own future. As both a grown child and a parent myself, this scene – the one my brother cited to me the other day, inspiring me to view the film – hit me in the gut. I’ll transcribe a bit of it here, where Prentice (the son) speaks in refutation to Prentice (the father’s) stated – and very real – sacrifices:

“Listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life? What do you think you’ve been doing?

“You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got… and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me.

“Let me tell you something.

“I owe you nothing.

“If you carried that [mail] bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son, if I ever have another.”

Now if only - if only – the film had managed a similarly spirited conversation where (white) daughter Joey puts her (white) father – the lynchpin in the romance – in his place.

The film generally contained a lot of incredibly human moments – and some wonderfully frank conversations. The performances were at turns subtle and lovely, then dramatic and heavy-handed. Hepburn was, of course, beautiful and glamorous, and her campy but rapier-like sendoff of a rude coworker was a bit of gooey deliciousness.

However, there was something that bothered me about the film, and that was the capital-P patriarchy, which is not challenged by the work – except in the abovementioned father and son impassioned talk, where a black father is chastized – one iota. For one thing, despite the above plot synopsis’ error, both the daughter and the two mothers are for the marriage. They are the voices of gentleness, passion, and optimism, but at the same time, the film lets us know it is not their voices that are going to count.

And along this line, every single character’s opinions, feelings, and interactions brings us to the film denoument, except one crucial interaction – the father Drayton, put in the position of deciding his daughter’s future happiness – and his daughter herself. And at the end of the film we have a speech: the Old White Dude that gets to decide everything, and gets to bless everything (or not), and sums up everyone’s feelings and dresses down every individual there (including telling his daughter to “shut up”), going on at lengths as to how he’s been insulted. Finally (and predictably) he gives his twinkly-eyed pedantic blessing, everyone sighs in happiness at this wonderful wonderful man, and he shouts at the black domestic worker to get dinner served. This is, literally, how the film ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of the film. I thought it refreshing and funny (the daughter’s early line, “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro” made me laugh aloud), human and sweet. But in a film meant to be socially significant, loving, and even a bit sappy, we’re still firmly reminded of who sanctions, and should sanction, our future, progressive or no: big white daddy.

So tell me. Is that how things really are?

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

quick hit: this is why i can’t have nice noir

Drive (2011). Spoilers.

Thinking about picking up a case of Armor-All

Yeah real quick? So I just watched the 2011 action crime thriller Drive. If you have any pop culture sensibility you probably know this is a recent-to-Netflix offering about a stunt driver who falls in love with a Good Girl and, oh-so-reluctantly-yet-heroically, gets tangled up in scary criminal activity because the Good Girl is all haplessly involved with Bad People. (I was gonna image-link to the phrase “damsel in distress” but there was far too much sexually-violent content associated with that phrase. Boo.) Things abruptly go from sweet and ethereal to really grisly and revenge-y. Think Man on Wire or The Professional, except we’ve replaced a sexualized little girl with a sanctified and sweet single mom.

Here’s what I liked about Drive. A lot, really. It was stylish, artsy-fartsy in a distinctly Michael Mann way, boasting a perfect New Wave-y score and a tasteful blend of millennial and eighties production design (although the title character’s muscle car is a seventies model). It showcased sexy cars and sexy driving and sexy cinematography and a sexy locale. We had the obligatory beautiful people. Ryan Gosling wore a cute jacket and a cute little t-shirt and was pretty cute, when he wasn’t stomping someone’s head in (I’ll get to that in a minute). The film took its time to develop a real romantic flair, if the romance itself was rather regressive. And the most fun for me, many of the actors looked like they had a good time making it. Maybe I’m just thinking Gosling and Albert Brooks. They looked like they were enjoying themselves. The latter was pretty good at being a sonofabitch. Last time I watched him I think he was Nemo’s dad.

Here’s what I didn’t like about Drive. By way of illustration: a couple photos of the two ladies in the film. That’s right, there were two. Just two. Who’s surprised? Not me.

First:

Carey Mulligan in Drive

And then.

We can probably guess a lot about who was who, and what happened to whom. Femme Fatale there (as played by Christina Hendricks) is only in the film a couple minutes. But she meets her boilerplate grisly noir demise, expect this is neo-noir so it’s really graphic. However, in traditional-noir fashion, the good guy gets to slap her around first. Yay! And let’s see, before that… yeah, she struts around being very sexilicious and pouty, and then she does a bit of hysterical screaming and crying. Before getting beaten then dispatched. As per her ilk, countless Treacherous Slut tropes who preceded her.

The Angel-Single-Mom (Carey Mulligan) is also great. If by “great” you mean, EXACTLY WHAT WE’VE COME TO EXPECT in this sort of thing. She’s perfect. Virginal, beautiful, childlike. White and blonde of course. A lot of honor and all that. We see her pluckily slap someone for offending her. She’s a nice mom. I assume. We don’t really see her “momming” so much, because her kid is kind of like a cute accessory and less like a child. When the Driver first meets her she’s somehow supporting herself and her son with no muss and no fuss, Strawberry-Shortcake-adorable in a waitressing outfit which inexplicably affords her a cute, spacious, shabby-chic apartment that’s never messy. Her kid is perfectly behaved and mostly exists to be quiet or sleeping or both. You know, like kids in film. Alternatively convenient versus being pawns in peril.

Virgin Mom-Supermodel is also subtly or not-so-subtly at the root of our eponymous Driver’s problems. She’s the Eve, introducing the snake into the heretofore undisturbed Driver’s existence. Nothing new there, either.

Still, when it got down to the thuggery I was a little surprised at the gore and coldblooded killing carried out by our hero. But then, as in so many other films, this is all done in the name of the Great White Male’s Justified Reproductive Rage. How many times at the supermarket have I glanced up and seen another DVD sleeve, showcasing a hulking star in the foreground (Costner or Neeson or Gibson or some such) gripping a shotgun as he protects a blonde white woman and a couple frightened little kids huddling against the doorway. The film’s tagline demands of us, “How Far Will A Man Go To Protect The Ones He Loves?”

You know what? I already know. Pretty far. Like by the end of the film I’m going to see some people getting stabbed in the neck, heads getting twisted off and all that.

So we get an eyeful of that stuff, and you know how that all goes too.

Drive was fun, but I really like noir despite its historical trappings that exclude my ladyness from being the Action, as opposed to the Object. I wish they could change the formula a teensy bit besides just upping the exploitation from the old days, you know showing actual bare breasts and then heads juicily exploding. Heck, maybe even some noir where, in the words of Danny Trejo’s bartender in Anchorman, “Lady’s can do stuff now!”

One can always hope.

Film Feministe: Room With A View OF HELL!, Or How Sometimes I Just Want To Watch An Orc Split In Half, In Peace

Like all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film or television series as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include plot spoilers.

“Game of Thrones” (HBO, 2011)

marriage

Ask Rape what it can do for your marriage!

In a rare coup where Kelly Hogaboom occasionally gets caught up with pop culture hits, I just finished the first and currently only season of HBO’s grim fantasy work, “Game of Thrones” (see: one hundred other popular shows I haven’t managed to get around to: “Sex And The City”, “Big Love”, “True Blood”, “Six Feet Under”, “The L Word”, “Mad Men”, “The Walking Dead”, “Breaking Bad”, etc.). Yeah, so. Obviously I’m no television, pop culture, or fantasy/sci-fi expert and you shouldn’t expect an in-depth analysis here; just a few impressions.

I figured I was none too smart to jump into HBO again, knowing what I do about the intense levels of violence heaped upon women and children, concomitant to insultingly minor and narratively-neglectful roles afforded them. Sure enough, as I tweet within a few minutes of starting the pilot: “we have ‘babies on spikes’ – and now tits in 3, 2, 1…”  Yes, this episode’s first dramatic image depicts a gored child and the last dramatic image is that of a ten year old thrown out a window to die. These bookend, by the way, lots of prostitutes giving blowjobs and a big ol’ rape narrative of a young lady virgin – several scenes of screen time leading up to the rapey payoff. Oh this is gonna be fun.

Robb

So another white-dude "gritty" epic then? Cool, brah.

The show is sprinkled with the usual and typical varieties of kyriarchy. Eating my lunch: race-fail (almost everyone’s white, except horse lords who are vaguely dark and “ethnic”, speak Klingon, are very animalistic, don’t understand how the ocean works, and don’t have a phrase for “Thank You”. I’m not kidding!), oppositional sexism, misogyny (more in a minute), and adultism. As for non hetero- or cis-normative character development, the offerings are grim. The show has several instances of “lady kisses” – that is, pseudo-lesbian sexual behavior showcased only as exploitative sexual fodder and primarily designed for straight males – and one gay male couple, depicted for about three minutes. The season also offers one eunuch, and they have to mention all the time he’s a eunuch, and he’s mocked for not having the beans and/or frank, because that means he’s less of a man and therefore (in the show’s construct) less of a person (he at least, unlike the ladies and kids, is written as an interesting character).

So yeah, it’s the misogyny that really gets me. Like eye-rubbing-really?-they-gonna-go-with-that? levels of lady-hate. Ah misogyny, how do I count the ways? Sure, none of the characters in “Thrones” are particularly subtly written, but the women and children are considerably less so; in the case of women, they are all varieties of girlfriend, mom, daughter, or whore (mostly whore). We have the seductress, the harpy, the mother (either naive and overly-emotional or vengeful sociopaths), and in one particularly irritating depiction of breastfeeding-as-creepy, the batshit-fanatic.

Naked women are aplenty (hey – it’s HBO, after all!), as the show depicts prostitution by the bucketful of young, (mostly) white, nubile, and giggly prostitutes. Many scenes do that particularly chafing thing where these pretty women’s bodies, sexual moans of ecstasy, and nudity are staged in the background while some dude is going on at length about his power/political strategy (see: almost every strip club scene in a gangster movie, ever). You know, to show how GRITTY stuff is. And how women are primarily commodities. And how all prostitutes are young and beautiful and having a great time. No downside, they’re like bowls of tasty Werther’s Caramels on the coffee table.

There’s more. Misogyny, I mean. In general, the few female “players” of the show have a morally developed and fairly monogamous sexual construct, prone to jealousy (natch!); while in general the men happily take advantage of aforementioned gaggle of willing prostitutes. Children are alternatively conveniently out of site, then put in peril repeatedly (hitting maternal viewers where they live). Of course, birth is really scary, sudden-onset, and makes perfectly strong women faint. Birth, unlike death, isn’t shown onscreen which is probably a mercy as usually in these sorts of things we’ve got blood squirting everywhere when it is (again, implicitly threatening women vis-a-vis their sex). Women revenge themselves only in relation to their boyfriends or children; men revenge themselves according to a number of personal agendas. Women are raped helplessly, and men are prone to rape and/or revenging themselves for the rape of the women they believe they “own”.

And the rape. Man, the show is so pro-rape I was thinking they should byline it: “Rape, There’s Literally No Downside”. When they aren’t raping away they’re making intensive rape and anti-woman analogies. You could make a pretty good drinking game.

"Give me ten good men and some climbing spikes. I'll impregnate the bitch."? Aw shit. Again? I'm gettin so wasted.

OK, so, those are a few impressions of the show, and parts that are tiresome, even as familiar as they are.

Now here’s the deal: I want, just like everyone else, to enjoy huge sweeping cinematography and beautifully bleak or lush locales, detailed costumes and fantastic sets, plot intrigue, zombies and supernatural shenanigans, lovable and/or sinister characters, and your occasional grisly beheading coupled with juicy foley-work. Just because I’m say, really really tired of seeing the same old crap on the screen doesn’t mean I don’t want to be entertained like everyone else.

I’m aware if you raise an objection to a portrayals of (Hollywood) Business As Usual you get labeled a killjoy. This”hands off!” admonishment is ironic, coming as often does from fans who spend hours editing the Wiki. As Pablo K points out in “Race, Gender and Nation in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2011)”:

There are two standard responses to these kind of criticisms: that it’s only a story and that these tropes only reflect reality (either because their portrayal of difference is true or because their portrayal of attitudes to purported difference is true). [...] But fiction is an important stage for ideas about war, diplomacy, sex and race, not least because we’re freed to engage in a more fulsome emotional investment precisely because it’s not real.

It’s no accident such offerings reinforce typical mainstream white supremacist and patriarchal narratives (like White People Are Who’s Important To Talk About, Kids are Boring/Subhuman, and Women Get Raped A Lot-That’s Just How It Goes) whilst simultaneously employing liberal doses of creative license, millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours spent in inventing detailed histories and entire languages, and throwing in freakin’ zombies and dragons and giant spiders. Yeah, we can spend all this time imagining a fantasy universe in all its minutia, but we’re still gonna invest in and reify the oppressive and violent strategies that re-victimize, offend, or (worse yet) socialize viewers in the same harmful ways. If we keep telling the story that way we can evo-psyche ourselves into believing misogyny, racism, disablism, etc. are universal (and alternate-universal) truths and not only shouldn’t be messed with, but shouldn’t even be rebuked, let alone examined, in a meaningful way.

After all, in drawing up a different world why imagine, let alone engage in, a truly different world? It’s just too much work.

Meanwhile let me get back to drawing away on this really really detailed map and sketching lots of different kinds of sigils for armor. Toodles!

Film Feministe: Mindless Teen Drama Edition. Well, Specifically Teen Wolf

Like all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film or television series as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include plot spoilers; caveat emptor.

My nine year old daughter and I have a penchant for pleasantly creepy, supernatural television and film. We usually end up watching a lot of documentaries involving cryptozoology or ghost-hunting. In the realm of self-identified fiction it can be quite tricky to find programs that aren’t predominately heaping lumps of horror and violence, often with sexual overtones, on young women and children. So in answer to a question no one asked – No, I won’t be watching the latest gore-fest with cut-up babies delivered to doorsteps or women getting raped (by demons or humans), tortured, murdered, et cetera (P.S. please watch this).

On that note and without further ado… I give thee Film Feministe: Adolescent Lycanthropy!

“Teen Wolf” (TV, 2011)

Tyler Posey, Posing

Grrr.

You know what, I have no business writing this review for a few discrete reasons. One, I grew up in a house without television, so it’s not as if I had the typical vast body of pop culture innundation. Two, I hardly watch any television now, and I certainly do not afford myself the time consuming, synthesizing, and analyzing the vast, sticky-gooey wads of it available. If a program is lucky I’ll watch through a few seasons, but usually things jump the shark big time and I move on.

So as mentioned, the oldest child and I stumbled on last year’s “Teen Wolf”, just ending its first season this summer, and last night we finished the last episode via Netflix instant. Apparently this is from MTV? Can anyone remind me of any other MTV offerings, besides the vintage “Ren & Stimpy”? I’m not sure how much MTV television programming I’ve seen.

You could guess at the story and be about right. Nerdy/shy young man is unwittingly attacked by a werewolf and transformed: now he has a secret to keep while living life as a “normal teenage boy”. What does that mean? I wonder. Anyhoo there is of course the hero’s buddy, a love interest, conniving characters out to expose the Big Wolfy Secret, and a plot involving a family who’s been werewolf hunting (on the DL, natch) for centuries.

Let’s meet our cast of characters. We have first the Wolf Boy himself (there are other wolves but, they are mostly boring), played by Tyler Posey. I think the character’s name is Scott. Anyway, he’s pretty cute. And he’s a nice guy. He takes his shirt off a bit, and no one complains.

Pose-Down

I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, but never come across one of these.

Then there’s Stiles. He’s Scott’s best friend. He has almost literally no life except helping Scott and running around trying to fix stuff.

Stiles, Agape

“I respond to situations by hanging my mouth open alot. I deliver 50% heart and 50% *BOOOIIIING* comedy.”

Stiles drives a really cool vintage Jeep, but the show calls it a “piece of crap”, because another young man improbably drives a Porsche Cayman (pick one up used if you can’t afford new), and that would be:

“Hi, I’m really handsome, but don’t worry, the script will keep reminding you of this so you won’t forget. I am your basic soap opera good-guy-or-am-I-a-really-a-villian? character.”

Jackson. He’s the guy that we’re supposed to wonder, is he a Good Guy or a Bad Guy? I don’t really wonder, because I know each episode the show will just change it around for convenience. One thing I like about Jackson is he has freckles. You don’t see guys-cast-as-hunks with freckles often. h/t Paul Bettany.

I almost forgot to mention. The love interest. But of course, ladies do come far down the list here. They’re still mostly girlfriends and moms. Twelve-ish hours of the show and it barely passes The Bechdel Test, I mean it really really barely squeaks by on that. So anyway here’s the main ladyness:

Damsel To Be Rescued

“I spend most time doing a really good job on my hair and makeup and being alternatively misled by everyone, menaced, and then rescued. Toward the end of the season I get marginally competent, but don’t worry, my subplot is only predicated on the hero’s.”

There are several other characters of course, good guys, bad guys, people who are confused, a few who get eaten.

So, everyone is really really handsome. Moms, dads, kids. Everyone is really really good-looking. Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of British television, foreign indie films, and your occasional HBO – I’m used to seeing people onscreen who look like the people you see day-to-day. Anyway, I’m sure this Good Lookingness business is typical in television, still, it just kind of makes me laugh.

I forgot to mention, there’s one subplot character who looks to be more important in season two, played by the talented and, surprise, really really handsome:

Seth Gilliam

“Hey, I’m pretty sure this picture of me is from ‘The Wire’, because in ‘Teen Wolf’ I no longer have the ‘stache… I’m rockin’ an extended soul patch/chinstrap combo. Anyway I’ll be playing your rather unconvincing vet/perhaps-witch-doctor type.”

So yeah, most everyone in the show is white as the driven snow*… a few exceptions in lead actor Posey, abovementioned Seth Gilliam, and minor character Danny as played by Keahu Kahuanui, a Hawaiian actor who interestingly (but not really that interestingly) stands in as the show’s only gay character. You know, kind of a nicely, unobtrusively gay character, used occasionally as foil for the comedic antics of our main hero set, Stiles and Scott.

There are wolfy and a few human murders, but the show is light on the gore by today’s standards, and there’s about four hundred percent less virginal-maiden-killing than I’d expect with a werewolf plotline.

A notable device I liked, besides the light drama and entertaining running-around-at-night hijinx, is the sweetness by which the high school romance is developed. Scott and Allison (that is the love interest’s name, BTW) have to do their courting while being bitched at and bossed around by parents and teachers, in a way I remember from my own adolescence. When it comes to romance, interestingly it is Allison who is the more adventuresome and sexually frank, while Scott is developed as a very sweet high school boy as interested in sex as she. This is a subtle but pretty welcome change from the teen dramas I remember seeing on my friends’ tellys: girls were allowed to be sexed but not allowed to be sexual (unless they were Sluts).Whatever desire they operated is to this day not shown onscreen, whereas the expression of male libido is dumbed down and practically lampooned – well, you know how it is.  In “Teen Wolf”, Allison is open and playful about sex, and Scott is reserved and romantic (but hardly platonic).

So in Casa del Hogaboom, will “Teen Wolf” get our second season fidelity? I don’t know. On the one hand instead of piling up like a bajillion secrets-upon-secrets and double-triple-betrayals (as USian television shows often do, to my dismay), the end of season one solved a few mysteries and united a few factions. On the other, as far as I can tell the show is just typical television, dialing down on the sex and gore in favor of a more tender storyline. If things stay that way we’ll probably enjoy popping the popcorn and settling in for another season.

***

* Ed. update summer 2012: race drama re: “Teen Wolf”; creator’s response, flounce, etc.

Film Feministe: Ninja Tedium Edition

Ninja!

Sometimes ninja films are hard to take seriously. Wait, "sometimes?"

Like all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include minor plot spoilers; caveat emptor.

A not-so-secret?  I like action films.  Or rather, I watch them, especially when I want to put my brain in Neutral and hand-sew or knit (or in the case this last couple days, to rest – I am fighting a head cold).  One can’t enjoy – let alone critique – an action film without a hefty dose of Suspending Disbelief and a desire to see stuff blown up or punched or perhaps an “ethnic” fruit market driven through by a police car (alternatively said vehicle will annihilate cardboard boxes in an alleyway).  Of further note, action films are often so incredibly and boringly sexist (and racist, ageist, and homophobic to boot) that if I get a heroine who doesn’t show 3/4ths of her cleavage as she stands and squeaks while the menfolk do the fighting (pick up the gun, lady!) I’m at least a bit happier than I otherwise might have been.  So I try to watch an action film that promises a good enough time and a lot of escapism and hopefully some watchable hijinks.  On that note and without further ado…  I give thee Film Feministe: Ninja Tedium Edition!

Ninja Assassin (2009)
Trivia question: do you know what situs inversus is?  It’s a pretty rare condition whereby the organs in one’s chest and abdomen are arranged in a mirror image of, you know, everyone else’s.  It effects less than one out of 10,000 people.

In the case of 2009′s action adventure Ninja Assassin, the relevant point is as follows: in cases of situs inversus the heart is located on the right side of the chest and thereby will resist the kind of stabbing technique you or I, or let’s say your average ninja, would employ to kill this person.  And not to be a Ruin McSpoilerpants but this particular biological anomoly comes up twice via two separate characters in the film (and no, they’re not related).  The fact the film uses this at all, let alone twice, well, it’s rather an indication of the caliber of writing inherant.

Oh, Ninja Assassin. I was so wanting to enjoy you. The first few minutes of the film I felt kind of hopeful we’d have an earnest, campy, over-the-top adventure with perhaps an adrenaline-pumping urban pop/house soundtrack (I felt this way about the partnering of Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino in 1998′s The Replacement Killers, which Ninja Assassin bore a passing resemblance to). Our first scene promises some badass silliness when a bunch of Yakuza thugs are massacred by ninjas as bloodthirsty and lethal as they are creative.  Example: one fellow’s noggin is sliced off right at the jawline so you see his intact tongue and lower teeth bobbling on his neck as the top of his head flies artfully into the next close-up shot (I froze-frame the carnage and it still held up on closer inspection).  So, well done on the gore front.

Yet instead of camp we are treated to an earnest and sluggish film chopped into backstory that then descends into shoot-’em-up, explosions, and prolific katana-fodder.  Not to mention the Ultimate Movie Bad Guy (the ninja-clan patriarch, a douche of epic proportions) has a voice and demeanor totally lifted from Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (perhaps this would lend more gravitas to the film for some viewers; not so in my case).  The story arc?  Not so much.  Let me break it down: secret ninja clan going back 1,000 years, turns out they’ve been behind every cool and mysterious assassination ever, and they’re soooooo badass (as the movie has several talking head governmental types assuring us multiple times), and they raise little kids to be all evil cold-blooded soldiers (who can also instantly heal 2″ deep gashes to their abdomens by using Thinky-Spiritual Magic), which most of the little kids (and later adults) seem to think is just dandy.  No, I’m not making this up.  So one little ninja by the name of Raizo gets a little resentful and for reasons explained in typical romantic-tragedy backstory starts to think the endless abuse and wretched life of ninja-slave isn’t that fun.  He decides to leave and become a ninja-assassin resistance fighter, spending his time avoiding assassination himself and hanging out in his apartment practicing his skills.  Meanwhile a cute cop – I mean Europol agent – named Mika Coretti (played by Naomi Harris) begins to uncover the whole ninja clan conspiracy, so Raizo feels compelled to protect her from the hordes of killers that set on her path.  And Raizo and Mika almost have this romantic thing going on but the movie doesn’t even give us that much.  You know a lot of big blockbuster films seem hesitant or unable to place an Asian male in the role of a romantic lead.  Just sayin’.

Back to Ninja Assassin, ever heard the phrase freshets of blood?  That’s what this film has.  A veritable plethora of freshets, if I may be so inclined to mix fifty cent words (and I may).  Yet unlike Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top deliberate fetishization of arterial spray he used to deliberate and kitcshy exploitive effect in the Kill Bill series, Ninja Assassin seems to take the gushes of blood quite seriously.  The ubiquitous and bountiful gore-splosions aren’t intended to be exaggerations (though they notably are), often showcased by a pornographic slow-motion geyser assisted by crew members offscreen chucking buckets stuff on our stars.

Still, Rain. In case you don’t know, Rain is the stage name of the Korean enterainer (pop singer, dancer, model, actor, businessperson, and designer) starring as the adult Raizo in the film.  Anyway, I didn’t know much about Rain before seeing the film,  but he was nice to watch and seems a talented enough soul if you go look him up online (which I did).  Whatever lacked in the film, Rain made the whole thing worthwhile. The man is relatable, appealing, acts well enough (given the material), and is athletic, sexy and cuddly (the latter adjective probably just shows my age). I didn’t even mind scenes where he apparently took the trouble to set up these elaborate jungle gyms in his apartment and then kick at them and swing his kusarigama around with much fanfare. As in: seriously, it would take you a couple hours to set up the obstacle course and then you’d tap the whole thing out in three-point-four minutes of leaping about (after applying prodigious amounts of chest-grease).

I’ll be looking for Rain in the future – or perhaps re-watching Speed Racer, another Wachowski-produced adrenalin-fest he plays a part in.  I wish the young man a successful Hollywood career, albeit perhaps with a bit better writing and a little less soaking by a Karo syrup concoction.

Photo credit: super green ninja “with lasers“, by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ at Flickr.

Mentioned:

Ninja Assassin (2009)

Situs Inversus

The Replacement Killers (1998)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Rain

Naomi Harris

Film Feministe: Dick Flicks Edition (Part One)

fisticuffs & pipe-smoking

Holmes and Watson in a spat?

Like all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include minor plot spoilers; caveat emptor.

I love Westerns. I love action films. One of the reasons I seek these out and watch them is because more than just about any other type of film I enjoy a well-done “buddy picture”. These seem exceedingly rare; look at your average Hollywood film marketed as a “buddy picture” and you have a couple of (usually white) men punching and shooting because they “have” to or they should; a handful of women serve as either serious love-interest or titillating arm-candy and ogling fodder. Few “buddy pictures” really develop on the nature, integrity, and character of the men therein, although that is supposedly what the film is about. In subsequent editions of this column I’d like to talk a bit about when buddy pictures get it right; here we have an example of one that got it almost completely wrong – despite having some wonderful material to start with.

Without further ado… I give you Film Feministe’s Dick Flick Edition (Part One)!

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

One of my early cinematic memories of a life lived loving movies was my mother telling me of a Sherlock Holmes film rendition in which “Watson and Holmes were homosexuals” (The way my mom says “homosexual” sets my teeth on edge).  My mother identified the gay Holmes film as 1988′s spoof Without a Clue starring Michael Caine and Sir Ben Kingsley.  A cursory review of this older film does not reveal there is any romantic plot or subplot between the two men; knowing my mother, she probably got her facts wrong.

I loved the Sherlock Holmes fiction stories and have read them forward and backwards yearly since the age of ten.  A few months ago when I saw the trailer for the newest Guy Ritchie installation I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Upon first glance the film looked to have stripped away the character of Holmes and the appeal of his stories, supplanting these with explosions, fisticuffs, high-gloss, slickness, and – incredibly – sexual titillation (sex in the fiction series? Zero).  But, as a Holmes-lover, I couldn’t stay away. 

Even with my modest expectations I was surprised how much it got things wrong. In fact, the film got so much wrong it is much easier to pinpoint what it (almost) got right: namely, the bond between Watson and Holmes.  For me it has never mattered much whether there was a romantic or sexual relationship between the two men; this interpretation or a strictly platonic one could serve the stories equally well. An exemplary aspect of the Sherlock Holmes installations were less his so-called “clever” deductions (many of which were impossible for a reader to have predicted or participated in, given they often revolved around implausible and last-minute-delivered minutiae from Holmes’ physical or mental library) than rather the relationship between the two crime-solvers. Holmes and Watson loved one another.  Deeply, loyally, and certainly to the exclusion of actual details in case-solving when such a choice had to be made.  I have always been drawn to stories of deep friendship and fidelity despite adversity – whether between men or women, and including or excluding a sexual element.  Holmes and Watson continue to deeply satisfy me as a reader, even when the stories and mysteries, make no mistake, are often rather silly and contrived.

To say Guy Ritchie’s latest imagining of Holmes was capable of hinting at a sexual relationship between the two men would be understatement. There are so very many visual and verbal clues as to this being the case it would be exhaustive to list them.  Much of the double entrendre is delivered in aggressive, playful fashion by Holmes (played by Robert Downey Jr.) to Watson (played by Jude Law).  The plot and subplot are essentially skeletal framework on which the larger story of the two mens’ relationship plays out: there is a mystery, of course, involving violent, conspiratory elements to fill the run time of the film (Holmes’ mysteries were often only a few pages). The film’s theme, however, is the impending breakup of the active partnership between the two men. Watson is getting married to Mary Morstan and will soon be moving out of the Baker Street residence. Holmes seeks to disrupt the engagement and the move-out date in every way possible.

Watson is a more active participant in the film than he was in the books. When he’s not assisting Holmes on the shockingly dangerous and physically violent errands of mystery-solving (more on this a bit) he spends much of the screentime asserting his agency to leave his obsessively needy companion.  Their bickering is partly old-roommate, partly sexual. In a early moment of the film the two are arguing about Watson’s imminent departure and Holmes lifts a long cane up to his friend’s mouth. “Get that thing out of my face,” Watson snaps at his housemate. “It’s not in my face, it’s in my hand,” Holmes mildly teases back. “Get the thing that’s in your hand out of my face,” Watson snarls in return.  The film is filled with many such in-jokes and allusions although a clueless person might not see them (or wish not to see them – hello, repressed straight males, oddly enough a target audience for the punch-em-up nature of the film).

Any sexual guesswork as to this version of the Holmes / Watson relationship is irrelevant in analyzing other choices the film makes, most of them familiar and namely, a most Drake McManslab series of plot events.  There are a myriad of explosions, poison gases, the destruction of massive amounts of property (really.  lots), electronic torture devices, freakishly brutal henchmen, and perhaps least appealing and most boring of all, endless, slow-then-rapid-motion fight scenes, some of them half-naked (Robert Downey Jr. has a rockin’ bod), many with deadly, terrible weapons.  The fight scenes might go almost unnoticed to audiences used to the simultaneous pornographic exploitation and trivialization of violence – and that’s the point. The film, instead of taking us somewhere imaginative, truly sinister, or realistically scary, merely employs chains, cattle-prods, axes, bullets, and numerous other forms of brutality in semi-comedic treatment that – if witnessed in real life – would have real-life and horrific repercussions (okay, yes, I am aware this is a Guy Ritchie film).

The violence is used often but only halfheartedly informs us of Holmes character.  He is a macho, macho man, sporting fighting-weight abs and vicious fighting skills.  He punishes himself masochistically in the boxing ring and is too emotionally remote and physically tough to notice damage inflicted on his person (curiously, this film version has Holmes drinking alcohol and just about any other stimulating and illegal substance; no mention of cocaine, which in the books was his only chemical dependency).  OK, yes, we get it.  Tough, tough guy.  Anyone read these books?  The literary Holmes was tough, but not Big McLargeHuge-tough – he was not given to sport but an able boxer and a man of tremendous physical strength (that he rarely deigned necessary to employ), by terms lazy and driven, prone to cocaine and tobacco but no other vice – and yes, not even “fast women”, of which the film also takes liberty to add:

Because further progressing a tired hyper-masculinied meme, there are no women in the film.  Indeed all females – including grisly murder victims and the two romantic (yet largely ornamental) leads – are referred to as “girls” (hint: you might realize you are watching a tired-ass sexist film if the female characters are never referred to by name, or as “women”, but rather – girls, or in the case of Mamet, broads.  Seriously.  Pay attention next time).  Mary Morstan (played by Kelly Reilly) shows up so infrequently we’re not sure at all why Watson is marrying her.  Her performance embodies the traits of high-class demeanor yet accessibly sexual – and even though she is supposed to be the love of Watson’s life, she is conveniently absent from screen time (in the books she was instrumental in “The Sign of Four”, one of the more epic Holmes stories).  Irene Adler is even further altered from the character in the book to ill effect, turned from a woman of the world to a cute li’l thing in the casting of Rachel McAdams.  Adler is no longer the intelligent, dignified, and wronged woman-cum-blackmailer of the book (who did not have any physical relationship with Holmes, I seek to ad) but instead one of those Sexy Ninja-Thief Ladies we’ve been enduring with regularity since the Charlie’s Angels revival of the eerily nineties.  She lacks the human traits and character foibles her male co-stars get in spades; her main traits seem to be that of being besotted with Holmes, a whiff of standard duplicitous femme fatale, and being very, very pretty.  Did I mention she’s pretty? Gosh-darn, she really is.

The cast is good, but underused. The talents of Mark Strong, like McAdams, are wasted in the role of Lord Blackwood, a creepy Satanist-or-is-he? of standard fare.  I was surprised and pleased by the role, casting, and character of Lestrade (Briton Eddie Marsan), a minor but familiar customer in the Holmes canon.  Costumes, location, and historical backdrop were used to the effect you’d expect from a big-budget film; namely, with much flare and little depth.  The costumes, naturally, made me drool, but then, I am a sewist.

In conclusion, I could have forgived the glossiness or even the punch, punch, punch, slap, smack – if only we’d had a compelling storyline between the two men, whose friendship is a legendary one.  The last bit of film reveals a character and subplot that will make it near impossible for me, or any other Holmes fanatic, to stay away from the sequel; I’m hoping if the institution is not handed off to a less uber-masculine director we at least slow down.  Less slow-motion super-punches, more of the deep draught of a wonderful friendship between two thrillingly well-rendered characters.

Never judge a book by its movie.
-J.W. Eagan

Mentioned:

Without a Clue (1988)

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

03/14/2010 ETA: Holmes and I, a blog post

Film Feministe: Marriage Most Noir Edition

Tomato, murdered at a peak of ripenessLike all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include minor plot spoilers; in the case of the noir films below, this is nearly a necessity to discuss the film in any detail whatsoever. Caveat emptor.

I like noir film. Except the parts I don’t. And here are a few of those:

1. Women who like sex are Bad Women, but don’t worry, they will die in under ninety minutes, probably as a result of their Evil Sluttiness.

2. People are all basically bad at heart, but if you’re a wisecracking smartass, you’ll come out alright in the end. Oh also, you’re probably a white male wisecracking smartass (and likely detective). Just so you know.

3. Lots of people get killed in a morbid and convoluted plot but somehow this cynical, world-weary hero figures it all out ahead of time – although you don’t know how he could.

4. Additional note: if there’s no “hero” in the noir piece that means we’re in for a double-dose of the old, “people are all basically bad at heart.” And honestly? I don’t find those films interesting.

But there is a lot to like about noir. The camera work! The lovely (often) black and white film aesthetic! The style – sartorial, conversational! – and often the musical score. And that wisecracking dude? Tell me you don’t want to be him: you know, smoking cigarettes stylishly or perhaps ruggedly, socially drinking with ease, living a slightly seedy life that is bereft of any personal responsibility besides sluggishly pursuing your case and getting mixed up with those Sexy, Evil Dames (before they’re killed off).

There’s a lot of wonderful noir out there, and this small selection isn’t particularly representative of a stylistic purity; we have here merely three films made in a nine-year span with elements of noir and a commentary on marital mores.

Without further ado… Film Feministe’s Marriage Most Noir Edition!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

This film tripped me out.  We have what seems a classic gritty tale: a hungry drifter named Frank (played by James Garfield) finds temporary employment and love and/or lust with his employer’s wife; the two of them eventually turn to talk of murder of the husband.  Lana Turner plays Cora, the beautiful, sexy, underserviced (by her husband) Sexy McSexerson waitress/wife (did I mention sexy?), who is trapped in a loveless and from all signs affectionless marriage to the bumbling happy husband Nick (Frank’s employer). Frank might be a basically nice guy, but his brain won’t be able to out-think his penis and he’s going to commit some mistakes – including murder – and end up in trouble: Right? Oh and of course: sexy waitress lady is going to die, natch.

Only, it turns out the young wife isn’t so much a femme fatale as she is in a really bad position (I’ll elaborate in a minute). And the performances of Garfield and Turner lend themselves more to love than lust, which put them me in an at least slightly sympathetic mood regarding their options. Most damning of all, the husband Nick isn’t so bumbly-but-nice after all: he’s a severe alcoholic who cares not for his wife’s happiness, her sexual satisfaction, nor her autonomy.  By way of illustration: bringing the clandestine couple’s murder to a head is a rather shocking and tragic point where the husband (not knowing his wife has fallen in love with the other man) announces personally devastating news to Cora – he has sold the business they owned together (that she loved) and will now export her to Nowheresville up North where she is expected to spend the rest of her days taking care of him and his invalid sister. She objects strenuously but he insists on his unilateral course of action. The scene played very differently than it might in a film made with contemporary mores and concerning modern marriages: I imagined with my blood running cold how many women were really put in such powerless and humiliating positions. Not that these circumstances excuse murder: of course not (see Strangers on a Train review below indicating when a film decides spousal murder is pretty dern convenient)!

Given the douchiness of the husband and a certain narrative sympathy for the couple in distress – and a palpable but not smutty chemistry between Turner and Garfield – I can honestly say it’s the only noir I’ve seen so far where I was hoping the “bad guys” would get away with it; after all, when they finally succeed in offing the offending spouse, it’s disguised as the type of accident he might well have had himself on one of his drinking and driving benders – and at least with Nick and Cora’s plot, no one else dies. Also, I dunno; I found Garfield and Turner rather convincing, human, and oddly fragile – an odd and relatively rare trait in a murder/love triangle twist film.

But, in the end – and in true noir fashion – their evil deeds (and presumably Cora’s sluttitude) end with them served their “punishment”: just not through the expected channels (gee, lots of car crashes in California!). I guess we can’t hope for Happily Ever After for people who have the seed of evil in their hearts.

There is apparently an 80′s version of this film starting Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson as the murderous couple. However I’m willing to bet Nicholson’s drifter character is more of a jerk contrasted with Garfield’s sweetness and earnestness, and that the whole thing is a bit more porny. I’ll pass.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

I’d like to label this film in the vein of “When Douchebags Meet Psychopaths”, and it’s a familiar enough trope. The Douchebag here is Guy Haines (played well by Farley Granger), a up-and-coming tennis pro cum-politician, married to some small-town trollop who won’t divorce him even though he’s now in love with a senator’s daughter (played by Anne Morton). The Psychopath in the story is Bruno Anthony (a fine performance by Robert Walker), a clever and freakishly immoral man who – on the title-mentioned train trip – more or less intuits Guy’s personal problems and decides they can render one another a service: Bruno can murder Guy’s wife, and Guy can murder Bruno’s tyrannical father. Both will benefit from the murder remaining unsolved (since as strangers they will leave no trace of motive) and the ability for the benefiting party to form a perfect alibi. Bruno – who turns out more obsessive, intelligent, and psychopathic than he even at first appears – goes through with his (or rather, Guy’s) murder and then levels this “favor” against Guy for reciprocation. Guy, instead of going immediately to the police (duh!), dithers about and tries to outsmart the very smart Psychopath he’s unwittingly bedded with. All of this proceeds without anyone giving a fiddler’s f**k about the wife who got murdered. And you know what the film reminds me of most in terms of social-sexual mores and film’s “hero”? 1987′s Fatal Attraction – except in this Hitchcock film the Psychopath that the Douchebag finds difficult for his (im)moral convenience isn’t a lover, per se (although the film certainly has that feel between Bruno and Guy… and actor Granger was gay), but a murderous stalker of other inclinations.

Back to the big picture: Hitchcock’s tension and mastery of camera-as-persona are in full effect here, and Robert Walker as Bruno does a fabulous job as a murdering obsessive creep. I would say 80% of my enjoyment was watching his excellent stalkery of Guy. As for the plot, it ambles about in more or less unexpected directions but doesn’t give us too many Hitchcock money-shots: one dramatic climax of the film involves an exceedingly boring tennis match concomitant to several minutes fumbling in a storm gutter (and no those aren’t euphemisms).

And let’s put it out there: I love Hitchcock’s films, but he had some issues around women. With one exception the females in the film are of the following: murdered violently, silly old dowagers, nerdy kid sisters. And then there’s the role of Ruth, the senator’s daughter and Guy’s new arm-candy. Ruth is exceedingly ornamental, taking turns looking either elegant, scared, or, upon aiding and abetting her boyfriend’s cover-u, female-deceptive (eyebrow raised and eyes and voice downcast).

The film is supposed to be less about two separate “strangers” so much as the concept of the Id or psychic doppelgänger – Bruno really is a part of Guy: the socially-unacceptable part of an outworldly very socially urbane man (Hitchcock seems to have directed under a working belief that those in the upper stratum really shouldn’t have to bother with the same rules as the proles). From the film’s perspective Guy in a way is guilty of the murder – not just Accessory After The Fact – because he knows he wanted it to happen (I was reminded of the words of Jesus cited in the book of Matthew: sin in the heart is cut from the same cloth as sin committed in the flesh).

Yet, if the smart film critics are correct and Bruno embodies Guy’s dark desire to murder his wife, and the wife does in fact get murdered – with Guy’s accessory to the fact, if not implicated more strictly – then what is to be said about the fact Guy suffers nothing over this besides a little sweat (while playing tennis), a full pardon, and a new girlfriend Upgraydd? Almost comically, the physical struggle finale in the film takes place on an implausibly out-of-control carousel at a fair: a number of women and children are maimed (some perhaps killed) but the many policemen arriving the scene are most concerned with helping Guy – a murder suspect! – in straightening the whole thing out so he can get back home to his Trophy Girlfriend/New Wife as soon as possible. The last scene in the film we see young Haines with his beautiful and supportive beau on his arm, his tennis victory secure, that whole messy divorce nimbly side-stepped. There is a lighthearted, whimsical musical theme playing and all is Right for Guy.

So apparently, if you’re a white upwardly-mobile dude, it is okay to abet, benefit from, wish for, or cover up murder of an unwanted spouse.

Also: tennis, even when filmed by an amazingly adroit director = kinda boring.

Dial M For Murder (1954)

This is one of my favorite films. It isn’t just the Hitchcockian “genius” we hear about in terms of suspense, tight talky drama, and great camera work. Among other things we have a near-perfect little chess match intrigue, a lot of civilly-dressed viciousness and bad behavior, and an ability to use the camera as storytelling device and suspense mechanism such that a one room play becomes an edge-of-the seat viewing experience. The film manages to win with me despite two absolute cipher performances in two of the lead roles: Grace Kelly as Margot Mary Wendice – the bored (and boring) socialite wife having an affair with Mark Halliday (played by Robert Cummings), her Boring McBoringson American boyfriend and detective novelist.

So who does bring the story to life? I’m so glad you ask. I am a huge, huge Ray Milland fan, and he plays Tony Wendice, the ex-professional tennis player (what’s up with Hitchcock and tennis?) who has ostensibly retired to hang out with his restless and childish (but beautiful) wife and seems contented enough. But what he knows, and we know, is that she had an affair a year ago. And instead of confronting her or divorcing her, his ruthless mind comes up with a plan to appease his cuckolded vanity and keep him on the high hog, financially (by the way, please do not view 1998′s A Perfect Murder starring Viggo and Paltrow, the premise of which was lifted from this far, far superior film). Milland plays his role with a rapier-sharp elegant (and secretive) cruelty that was a pleasure to watch. He is threatened and possibly matched, however, by Chief Inspector Hubbard as played by John Williams. Wiliams gives another pleasurable performance to watch – and one I feel has been copied or inspired many since portrayals.

There is, Kelly and Cummings’ dull performances notwithstanding, so much to like about the film, especially considering the “action” is mostly, well, talking. One scene involving a police interrogation of Margot uses Milland’s striking eyes and intensity, along with brilliant camera work, to create more tension than one would think possible (there’s also, sadly, a later scene involving Margot and a trial that is ridiculously spurious and rushed). I found myself relating to Milland’s villainy just because he planned it so good, and he recovered from mishaps so proficiently. Damn, my man was smoooove.

Another thing: despite the brutality of the subject matter, the film is just so mannered. The greasy low-class would-be killer engaged by Wendice still dresses smartly and looks as refined as a fellow in a vintage ad for Listerine Shave Cream; it is the loudness of the suit jacket, the mustache, and the very subtle coarseness of his demeanor that separates him from the more civilized – if more unprincipled – Mr. Wendice. And the film, I kid thee not, ends with a variation  of “[Queen's English voice] Oh dear, you seem to have discovered I was trying to murder you all along, how frightfully embarassing [insert posh British laughter]!” I would imagine this is nothing like real murder, but in my fantasy world it’s somehow delicious.

Speaking of displays of conversational civility, my family learned a little something for this film: the phrase, “Go on.” As in, a murder-minded blackmailer is explaining to you just how he’s caught you in his web of deciet and cleverness and is now forcing a fiendish scheme upon you? Or perhaps your married, elegant mistress is explaining to you she thinks her husband figured out the two of you were having an affair and he is now acting cagey and suspicious? What to do in the face of such awkward news when you’re not quite sure if your goose is cooked? Take an elegant drag off your cigarette and say, “Go on,” and lean forward interestedly.

My family does this all the time – from the eldest to the littlest. “Go on.” Try it; it works wonders.

Mentioned:

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Dial M For Murder (1954)
A Perfect Murder (1998)

Image above courtesy

film feministe: the cinematic man-child and his perpetual harem of willing, nubile females

Happy Sailing!

Last night my husband and I spent a few sawbucks to watch the latest film starring Will Ferrell, Land of the Lost. Since we have young children and a working class income, a night with just the two of us is usually spent in simple pleasures: dinner together, a bit of housekeeping, a glass of wine and a silly film. Both of us, though we enjoyed this latest inane Ferrell comedy (the meat and potatoes of our mindless entertainment proclivities), were disappointed by the disturbing yet somehow boring repetitions of the same racist, sexist, and heterosexist foibles we keep seeing in today’s featured blockbuster comedies.

Land of the Lost evidences the seminal properties that define what I call the Man-Boy Movie. Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a version of character repeated in countless comedies du jour, including Superbad, The Break Up, Knocked Up, Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Step Brothers, Hot Rod, Old School – I could go on. Marshall may somehow be an advanced scientist but is more importantly a middle-aged man uncouth, stupid – although somehow intelligent enough to create a revolutionary piece of scientific equipment – profane, and socially backwards. Anna Friel plays Holly Cantrell, in a winsome turn at Worshipping Girl Scientist. Danny McBride plays Will, a redneck, substance-abusing, pyrotechnic sidekick (more about him in a minute). Once in the Land of the Lost they are joined by Cha-Ka, a primate-like being played by Jorma Taccone, and the film follows the foursome through various comedic shennanigans based on a mere skeletal frame of a plot.

Ferrell’s potrayal is just as we’d expect (as listed above) – yet still, in my opinion, the performance managed to be very funny. Holly, on the other hand, is something different: her character is composed almost entirely of equal quantities of plucky cheerleader speeches, hero-worship in the case of Marshall (we are unsure as to how he deserves this), and a remarkable patience and fortitude whilst being sexually harassed, fondled, and diminished by all three male characters (including the humanoid Cha-Ka). Supposedly Holly is an empowered, intelligent woman; but she is none of these qualities so much that she’d inconvenience the bad behaviors of the males of the film. For instance, at the outset of the adventure Will comments to her, in so many words, she will find an upcoming adventure so thrilling her vagina will get moist. She threatens him with drowning should he speak to her this way again. But as the film proceeds we see this is an empty threat: similar comments, and an almost incessant amount of unwelcomed breast-fondling, are repeated regularly – and Holly takes no action to stop these. Her pluckiness and intelligence, therefore, serve only as a foil for her male co-stars, in such a way as to always help and never hamper.

She is also, of course, young and heteronormatively mainstream beautiful (she is also, of course, white), typical fare for these kinds of films. We are spared no details in an exploration of Ferrell and McBride’s very human physiques – a pool scene, half nudity, fat rolls, and many closeups on their faces showing every pore, greasy hair follicle, and wrinkle. Anna by comparison is framed through a dewey lense of flawlessness, presented in an immaculate tank top, hotpants, little girl braids, and impeccable makeup (I am skipping over the odd fact that in the orginial television series Holly and Will were Rick’s children; Anna as Ferrell’s romantic and sexual interest resembles something between Science Barbie and a teenage daughter). And most regrettable of all, although we are afforded long addresses by Rick and Will discussing their eating habits, the adventure of collecting hadrosaur urine (don’t ask), their life’s ambitions, their camp songs, their twisted view of the world and their harebrained, silly shemes – all we know about Anna is she went to Cambridge at some point and then attached herself to Rick’s scientific methods. For all intensive purproses Anna is a one-dimensional beauty, not anything approaching a three-dimensional person.

Because, for me, the most disturbing part of the Man-Boy movies is not so much the presence of young, heteronormatively beautiful females, but the lack of character and comedic fairness afforded to them. Part of the “Average Guy / Hot Girl” phenomenan (although, notably, the men featured in these films are “average” in looks and physicality, while their behavior often contains greater than average components of near-sociopathic behavior, personal ineptitude, aggressiveness, and sometimes sadism) – is that the bumbling hero will end up with a woman in some grey area of supermodel / mom – she being afforded only the most superficial character traits of these socially-prescribed categories. Another article refers to this as “the current generation of romantic comedies that pair aged boy doofuses with women who are far more mature and responsible.” Yes, the morality and intelligence of the females in these films is notably more developed than the male, but it’s also boring. They are beautiful, humorless (although they allow poor behaviors to go mostly unchecked so therefore show some tolerance), devoted to their deeply-troubled males, and serve very little besides eye candy and a sort of “prize” for our heroes. It’s frustrating so few moviegoers speak out about this.

Because in film it seems we find old, ugly, fat, comedic or flawed females as either A. the butt of the joke, or B. completely unable to carry our interest in a typical lead role. Taking the analysis, only briefly, up to better caliber of film, consider last year’s The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke was touted as not only giving a good performance but achieving heights of physical inhabitance in his turn as the scarred, battered, beaten-up hard-living professional athlete at the end of his career. The filmmakers’ choice for his counterpart? Marissa Tomei as the “aging stripper”. Really? Is that what an old, blousy stripper typically looks like? Taken as one film, you cannot really find fault; but why is this what we see, over and over, an uninteresting but repetitive variation of Beauty and the Beast? Because we would not find an ugly, “old”, deeply flawed (or all three!) woman relatable or worthy of much notice or interest.

It’s worth a brief mention: Danny McBride’s rendition of Will is also problematic. Within seconds of our introduction to this man he has spewed forth a few varieties of verbal vomit: elaborating on his future plan to build a massive casino complete with huge parking lot, taking a wife to mate with and then, if she’s not pleasing, imprisoning her in the far wing of the gold-leaf massive building which features a prominent racist charicature of a Native American (I am not making this up!). The character of Will bothers me almost more than Anna, because he provides us the opportunity to laugh at “rednecks” and their backwardness, but also get our giggles on the racist, sexist, and heterosexist behaviors (identical to those displayed for decades past) he mawkishly provides. Ultimately during the film Will becomes a far more relatable, if still crude, character. And this, to me, is a good thing. These films are in the final analysis buddy movies; and this is one reason I enjoy and continue to watch them.

Because yes: I laugh with crude, profane humor, I love depictions of playful – and yes, at times asinine – friendships, and I fiercely enjoy random, inane comedy. The funny moments in Land of the Lost – and there were many – were those where the camera lingered on Ferrell or Will as they were allowed to perform as unbalanced and very human characters with their own stories, their own weirdnesses. Why was this not afforded to the sole female in the film?

Too much analysis? I don’t think so. We have seen these same patterns, this same diminishment to the female, repeated in not only today’s Judd Apatow vehicles but movies spanning back through my cinematic memory. Pop culture is both a window into how we view our world and a mirror for which we can gaze, reflect, and self-correct. When we see a slew of same-minded pheomena, it can be informative to investigate why these memes exist, what they say about our culture, why they’re appreciated, and when and why they should carry some misapprehension.

I have decided it will only be when we have more female writers, directors, and producers, and more intelligent, discerning, and fair-minded men involved in the process that I can enjoy these comedies not just in my gut but in my mind and heart. In the meantime, I will enjoy the slapstick moments, the silly references to sexual appetite, the unnecessary and aggressive “fuck you’s!”, the odd impersonations and absurd and unbelievable scenarios Ferrell and his ilk deliver, as best I can.

Further reading: “Ah, Hollywood, where men will be boys”

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Photo credit: “happy sailing” from x_ray_ on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).