Posts Tagged ‘Bad’

Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents – large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.

Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice;  we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.

Anyway.

I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.

And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.

This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.

Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.

In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.

And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers;  how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.

It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.

We, all of us, need to get critical.

*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.

Warning: All The Spoilers.

I didn’t like it.

Here is the short explanation as to why I didn’t like it:

Here is the long explanation as to why I didn’t like it:

Strauss was present at the first seminar, run by Mystery, at which students actually left the classroom to go “in field.” Mystery began by explaining the basic structure of seduction—FMAC, for find, meet, attract, and close. He explained the power of the mysterious “neg,” one of the great innovations of the seduction community. Strauss describes it thus: Neither compliment nor insult, a neg is something in between—an accidental insult or backhanded compliment. The purpose of the neg is to lower a woman’s self-esteem while actively displaying a lack of interest in her—by telling her she has lipstick on her teeth, for example, or offering her a piece of gum after she speaks. “I don’t alienate ugly girls,” Mystery explains. “I don’t alienate guys. I only alienate the girls I want to fuck.”

– Wesley Yang, Game Theory

The above quote comes from an article describing a tactic used by pick-up artists – or PUAs, as they call themselves – to attract women. There’s a reason why I’ve included here. Keep it in mind. We’ll get to it eventually.

First things first: A Scandal in Belgravia is a structurally awkward episode. It starts with Moriarty, but doesn’t end with him. The plot jackrabbits from one point to the next, so that someone is killed with a boomerang, and we’re never told why it matters. The continuity of Adler’s love for Holmes is shoddy to say the least, because if the end result is to be believed, she must have fallen for him before they ever actually met. Half the story falls by the wayside somewhere around the midpoint and is never actually recovered. The whole thing is set over a period of months, but with no real reason for why this needs to be so except that it brings the narrative timeline in keeping with that of the real world, and with the added consequence of making events seem alternately rushed or drawn out.

Next, as this has been my particular point of complaint with the show, let’s have a rundown of how the ladies are treated.

We’ll start with Mrs Hudson, who has three major appearances. During one, Mycroft actually yells at her to shut up, in response to which both Sherlock and Watson yell ‘Mycroft!’ back at him, horrified. This could count as a positive thing, except that, once Mycroft has mumbled an apology, Sherlock turns and says, ‘But really, Mrs Hudson. Do shut up.’ Later in the episode, American thugs break into Baker Street and, having hauled her viciously upstairs, tie her to a chair, put a gun to her head, and duct-tape her mouth. Sherlock comes to the rescue, and in a moment of genuine, angry revenge, having already tied the leader up, calls an ambulance to report the injuries he then goes on to inflict on the man – by throwing him out the window. Shortly afterwards, Sherlock comforts the shaken landlady, and when Watson suggests she go to stay with her sister, Holmes gives her a hug and says, ‘Mrs Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall.’ Which is actually quite sweet.

The Christmas scene, however, where Mrs Hudson reports that she enjoys the holiday ‘because it’s the one day the boys have to be nice to me,’ is much more characteristic. For the second time in four episodes, Sherlock’s callousness towards Molly results in her being reduced to tears – a painful enough scene that both my husband and I had to look away, and which shocks even Sherlock enough that he asks her forgiveness and gives her a kiss on the cheek. Which isn’t sweet, because it shouldn’t have been necessary; it only looks that way because it’s better than the alternative, and given what happens overall, I’m disinclined to bestow a Not As Big A Jerk As He Could Have Been award on either Sherlock or Moffat.

There’s a token appearance from Watson’s new girlfriend, whose name Sherlock has forgotten, and who, later on the episode, dumps Watson when he, too, mistakes her for a predecessor. This does not make me think well of either of them, and nor does the passing reference Sherlock makes that ‘if I want to look at naked women, I use John’s laptop’ – a line which I found disproportionately offensive, if only because it makes Sherlock’s sexuality look crude and porny at a point when the rest of the episode is trying to show the opposite.

And then, most importantly of all, we have the Woman herself: Irene Adler, who in this incarnation is a professional dominatrix. As has been skillfully pointed out elsewhere, the disparity between who Adler is and why Holmes respects her in the original story and where she’s ended up now is breathtaking. Adler is meant to be the only woman who ever beats Sherlock: she has no sexual interest in him whatsoever – in fact, the story ends with her getting married to someone else – but her intelligence and skills impress him so profoundly that he keeps her photo and, as a direct result, stops devaluing the abilities of women. Instead, we get an Adler who acts as Morairty’s pawn; whose love for Sherlock undoes her so profoundly that she loses everything; and who, after unsuccessfully begging Sherlock for mercy and being cast out, is nonetheless overcome with gratitude as he rescues her from beheading at the hands of terrorists in Karachi.

Yes. You read that right.

I just… OK. Look. I’ll start with the positives: Adler and Sherlock have chemistry. Their banter mostly works, and there’s a few genuinely nice moments between them chock-full of well-acted tension.

But.

Adler – this Adler – is a dominatrix. Whatever you make of that choice (and we shall have words on the topic shortly), she nonetheless is one in both a professional and personal capacity. Now, bearing in mind that I know comparatively little about BDSM sexuality and culture, it still seems to me as though being a dom is an intrinsic enough part of her personality that, even had she really fallen for Sherlock in such a short space of time, the idea that she would beg him for mercy goes utterly against the grain; added to which fact, and no matter how sexually naive this series paints him to be, Sherlock does not strike me – nor, to judge by their banter, does he strike Adler – as a sub. Which would seem, you know. Important. Or at least, it should be, except for the fact that Adler is a prime time dominatrix: a dominatrix for the vanilla set, established as such only by her riding crop and aggressive demeanor. Crucially, it’s the latter that’s played as the primary evidence of her sexual proclivities; as though all doms only ever have one mode – conquer – and are never shown at their ease; or, more disturbingly, as though Moffat’s only means of envisaging a sexually and intellectually competent woman is to make her a dominatrix. As such, the climax of the episode is not, as Mycroft suggests, that Adler is ‘the dominatrix who brought the nation to its knees’ – instead, we take away that even a professional dom will submit on all fronts to Sherlock Holmes, because that’s how awesome he is.

Only it’s not awesome. It’s insulting.

As, for that matter, is the fact that he both guesses Adler’s measurements and then uses them as the pin to her vault, because she’s apparently so shallow as to have made them the keycode; as is the fact that he makes remarks about her age; as is the fact that she greets him naked; as is the fact that, given Sherlock’s best and only female adversary, Steven Moffat can find nothing better to do with her than make her a victim of her own ladyfeelings while Sherlock rides to her rescue.

All of these things irritate me – not just by themselves, but because they stand as testament to the fact that, once again, Steven Moffat has taken an existing concept with an established female fanbase and injected a dash of sexism and misogyny into the proceedings. Because of him, I have stopped watching Doctor Who. His are the only seasons I refuse to buy on DVD. I literally cannot bring myself to tackle the Christmas episode. And yet a significant part of the fan community for both series seems, if not exactly unaware of the problems, then unwilling to tackle them, or to let them spoil the moment, because having awesome shows that aren’t sexist is apparently less important than shipping Holmes and Watson. It doesn’t matter that, under Moffat, the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes have both become the same snide, angry, rude, sociopathic, lying genius who mistreats his friends and stays emotionally distant from the people who care for him, or that River Song and Irene Adler are essentially the same person. No: what matters are the quips, the nudity, and the hot young actors. And that bothers me.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable, or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. Either way, I cannot shake the feeling that the fan community is, aided and abetted by tumblr, rewriting the series in realtime, erasing the sexism in favour of focusing on how pretty Benedict Cumberbatch looks when wearing only a sheet; and while I am certainly sympathetic to the attractions of the later, I am fearful that the earnestness and immediacy with which fans are undertaking the former project is obscuring useful dialogue about why the sexism was ever there at all. By releasing sexually loaded clips of naked-Adler and naked-Holmes prior to the episode’s airing, Moffat made the fans invest in their relationship in a context-free environment. But the story he’s written is vastly less equal than the one most fans assumed must, naturally, exist; and because they are committed to its existence, it is the story they will continue to believe – not because it was told to them, but because they have told it to themselves.

Which begs the question: how do I square Moffat’s supposed sexism with the fact that he cheerfully panders to the female fanbase? For whom was the naked Sherlock meant, if not us? And it is at this point, ladies, that I refer you back to the quote above and invite you to consider an unwelcome possibility: that we are all of us being negged. Baiting his hook with ‘shiptease, Moffat has drawn us in, engaged us in conversation, and then insulted us to our faces. If, then, as a fandom, our main response is to continue talking about how hot the actors are as though nothing untoward had happened – instead of calling this bullshit – our reward shall be a shallow, meaningless fuck, the only long-term consequences of which are to leave us feeling dirty and Moffat with a freshly reaffirmed belief that what women viewers really want are men who act like bastards. Specifically, that we want fiercely intelligent (but handsome!) sociopaths whose rudeness is excused by genius, whose inability to display normal human courtesy and kindness is considered further proof of their worthiness, and whose star quality as partners is their ability to rescue their female offsiders from the consequences of having dangerous lady-obsessions.

Or, put another way: the scene in the episode where Sherlock acts like an obnoxious dick to Molly, and then buys her off with a kiss on the cheek when she cries? That is what Steven Moffat is doing to us. It does not compensate for the rudeness that came before. It does not compensate for the sexism. It does not compensate for stripping Irene Adler of everything that mattered. It will not excuse the inclusion of further awfulness in any future episodes.

And I am sick of people acting as though it should.

Warning: spoilers, rant, etc. 

Internets, I don’t know what to tell you.

It’s pretty firmly on record that I was less than impressed with A Good Man Goes To War, which is why I’ve been putting off watching Let’s Kill Hitler. And then I saw this piece in today’s Guardian about whether Doctor Who has grown too complicated, and I decided to bite the bullet.

In retrospect, I’m sort of wishing I hadn’t.

The introduction of Mels is a retcon of epic proportions. If we’d seen her before in earlier episodes or heard her mentioned Bad Wolf style, that would be one thing; but we didn’t, and we haven’t, and that makes the whole setup for the piece feel utterly contrived. We’re with Hitler for five minutes – which is a relief in some ways, because any longer would have been unbearable – but there’s absolutely no reason AT ALL that the episode has to be set when and where it is, except that someone, somewhere thought it would be cool. Which, look: I get that coolness is sort of what Doctor Who is meant to do, but dropping in on Hitler is a pretty hefty way to fuck up the established timeline, and the fact that this is played for laughs – as irrelevant – in a show whose earlier series spent episode after episode making clear the dangers and difficulties inherent in messing with established events is sloppy, unprofessional and stupid. Which means, for my money, that the episode utterly fails at coolness.

In fact, it fails at everything.

Things I am sick of seeing in Steven Moffat episodes:

  • Female characters who are universally either River Song or other girls who’ve known the Doctor since childhood;
  • Robots, robotic processes or other soulless, impersonal creatures as the only villains; and
  • Dopplegangers of everyone. OH MY GOD, THE DOPPLEGANGERS.

With the exception of Neil Gaiman’s excellent piece, these three things define every single episode in the new season. They are also the hallmarks of Moffat’s earlier and best offerings, including The Girl in the Fireplace, The Silence of the Library and Blink. From what I’ve heard, the next two episodes are no different, and it makes me want to tear my hair out with frustration. These were all great ideas the first time around, but after the sixth or seventh repetition, they’re getting very, very worn. FIND A NEW STORY AND TELL IT INSTEAD.

Oh! And then we have the sexism. Did I mention the sexism, internets? Because I’m rather annoyed by it! While regenerating, River/Mels snaps that she’s concentrating on a dress size, rushes off to weigh herself once she’s done, exclaims over the hot clothes she can wear in her new body, and then has her brainwashing-induced personality explained away by the Doctor with the hilarious addendum of “plus, she’s a woman.” AGH. Oh, and we get ANOTHER scene where the Doctor dies (only he doesn’t really) while everyone sits around being sad anyway – seriously, he’s the TITULAR FUCKING CHARACTER, he’s not about to die, there is NO TENSION IN THESE SCENES, JUST MELODRAMATIC BULLSHIT OH MY GOD – and yet more robots whose repetitious dialogue goes on and on and on; and more dopplegangers of everyone to pull focus so that the writers are spared the indignity of actually having to create new characters with actual depth; and then we end with River effectively depowering herself as a TimeLord to save the Doctor despite her brainwashing, and what the HELL? Seriously? She’s been trained to kill him her whole life, but then she mysteriously deprograms herself when he calls her River, even though that makes no sense? WHY DOES SHE SUDDENLY SWITCH SIDES WHEN SHE’S JUST SUCCEEDED IN HER LIFE’S MISSION? I don’t buy that the TARDIS made her reconsider, somehow, magically. No: she’s a main character, we should see this important deeply transformative shit actually HAPPENING and not just be told about it afterwards.

GAH.

So, yeah. NOT IMPRESSED. The Guardian asked if Doctor Who is too complicated now. I say no, unless by complicated you mean narratively disjunct, with new retcons every episode, plots that don’t make sense, and characterisation so thin you could shoot peas through it. In which case, IT IS COMPLICATED.

I’m going to watch the next couple of episodes in the hope that things might fix themselves, but honestly, my optimism is low. If Amy needs rescuing one more time, or another female character gets killed/depowered/hurt for stupid reasons that are never adequately explained solely to advance the arc of Rory or the Doctor, I will get very, very cross.

And now, I’m going to go change into my The Doctor Is In t-shirt, and pretend that David Tennant and RTD are still running the show. Also, there will be wine.

Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.

Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses Emma Browning and Abbie Cornish both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.” 

Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed 300, was on the fence about Watchmen, and liked Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.

Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as  fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

1. Construction 

Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie – Sucker Punch has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles.  (He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”:  a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).

Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which Sucker Punch is no exception: stylistic slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.

As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.

2. Continuity

As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.

And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally dissociative fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.

But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap while Baby Doll dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.

During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d  started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue, but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum. As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.

And then the cops come – literally, they reach the place in about two seconds – and arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway – he still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork. 

Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense) and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.

Yeah. About that.

3. Context

Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic interview, Zack Snyder said that Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:

“She [Sweet Pea] says, “The dance should be more than titillation, and mine’s personal,” and that’s exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care… As soon as the fantasy starts, there’s that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, “Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.””

In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:

“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.””

It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.

In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding nicknames bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.

Great soundtrack, but.

Warning: total spoilers.

By and large, I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof are among my favourite films, and I’m far from averse to cinematic violence. I hadn’t heard much about Inglourious Basterds, but given that it was Tarantino, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is not a course of action I would reccommend to anyone.

Inglourious Basterds is, without a doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is a Tarantino production only insofar as there is graphic violence, and even then, it’s not up to his usual standard. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, before we proceed any further, a plot summary.

Our story begins in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa, central antagonist of the film and nicknamed the Jewhunter, is in the process of questioning a local dairy farmer, whom he suspects of harbouring a Jewish family. Drawn out over roughly half an hour, their conversation serves to introduce three plot elements: Landa’s facility with languages, his conversational eccentricity, and the eventual massacre of the Dreyfus family, who are hiding beneath the farmer’s floorboards. The latter is relevant not only as a means of demonstrating Nazi brutality, but because the teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus, our soon-to-be heroine, escapes and flees for the hills.

Cut to Brad Pitt – sorry, Lt. Aldo Raine – addressing a group of Jewish American soldiers, the titular Inglourious Basterds, as they prepare to head behind German lines. Their mission, as described by the distantly part-Apache Raine, is to collect the scalps of one hundred Nazis apiece, a task they are positively hankerin’ to accomplish. Over an hour passes before these two plotlines meet up, but then, at two and a half hours long, the film is quite happy to take its time. Eventually, however, all becomes clear, or at least marginally less uncorrelated: now four years older, Shoshanna Dreyfus is running a cinema in Paris under an assumed French identity, where a young Nazi soldier, Fredrick Zoller, the subject of a soon-to-be-released propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels, starts to take an interest in her life. Almost instantly, Zoller decides that Shoshanna’s cinema will be the venue for the premiere of his film – at which point, enter the Basterds and some British allies, who, with the help of German actress-slash-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark, are planning to blow up the opening night, thereby killing not only Goebbels, but all of the Nazi high command and even the Fuhrer himself. Shoshanna, meanwhile, having been forced to endure a meal in the company of both Goebbels and Landa, has her own plans for eliminating the Nazis on opening night, operating parallel to, but not in concert with, the efforts of the Basterds.

Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue. Or at least, that seems to have been the general intention. But despite its complex tangential plotting, eccentric supporting characters and bizarre premise, Inglourious Basterds is anything but entertaining. Though usually a master of black humour, witty dialogue and satisfying revenge plots, Tarantino has, in this instance, unfathomably failed to perform in even one of these categories, let alone all three. The grand finale, which features Hitler being shot with a machine gun as the leaders of the Nazi party burn to death, fails on so many levels that it’s difficult to articulate; and when watching Jewish soldiers gun down Hitler in a Tarantino movie isn’t even remotely funny, satisfying or relevant, then it’s fair to say that, somewhere along the line, things have gone spectacularly wrong.

More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds stylistically resembles a Tarantino version of the most recent Cohen Brothers offering, Burn After Reading. Both featured casts composed almost entirely of vile, morally bereft characters, none of whom were the least bit likeable, which consequently made them difficult to watch; both featured loosely interwoven, anti-cathartic plotlines where an excess of human error and mad violence saw everything go horribly wrong; and both starred Brad Pitt as a weird guy with a moustache, although at least in Burn After Reading, he was given a couple of good lines.

At every turn, the viewer encounters a mess of contradictions. We are meant to enjoy seeing Nazis shot, burned and beaten to death on principle, as Lt. Raine’s opening speech makes abundantly clear – a somewhat redunant message, as this will be the automatic position of most viewers. But from thereon in, the Basterds themselves are endowed with no personalities, no histories, no redeeming qualities: they are viscious, avenging demons, which might still be workable were it not for the fact that every Nazi they encounter is given more depth, more humanity and better dialouge than the whole group put together. This makes for some grim, uneasy scenes: there is simply nowhere for the viewer to turn. Raine and his men are faceless brutes, impossible to like, while the Nazis, though more complex characters, are still Nazis. With both sides thus rendered unpalatable, the only hope of narrative salvation lies with Shoshanna Dreyfus, but even there, the audience is denied. Tarantino has a solid history when it comes to revenge films, particularly as orchestrated through the actions of strong, wronged women, but in the final wrap, despite the fact that Landa is directly responsible for murdering the Dreyfus family, he ends up the only Nazi of our acquaintance left alive. Indeed, Shoshanna never so much as singles him out for revenge, instead concentrating her suicidal efforts on bringing down the whole Reich establishment, and while this is not a cardinal sin in and of itself, it stands as a massive and poorly-executed departure from Tarantino’s stock in trade.

Smaller problems, too, abound. Samuel L. Jackson’s token voice-overs are bizarre, given that (a) he doesn’t have so much as a cameo role  and (b) the film is otherwise entirely unnarrated. The deliberate misspelling of Inglourious Basterds is shown only once, carved into a rifle butt, with no explanation. We see one character flash back to being whipped, presumably by the Nazis, in an incident which has hitherto never been mentioned, but which appears only minutes before the subject is killed, thus rendering it pointless. Shoshanna and her lover plan death for the Nazis, but while suicide is never discussed, neither do they try and save themselves. History is completely abused in orchestrating the grand finale, but tiny fragments of accurate socio-historical minutiae, like accents, hand gestures and detailed cinema knowledge, nonetheless prove the undoing of multiple characters. Arguably, this latter point is the straw which breaks the donkey’s back. Having spent over an hour painstakingly building up one suite of characters, Tarantino then kills all save one of them in the type of scene which is best described, in the immortal words of Something Positive webcartoonist Randy Milholland, as belonging to the ‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies‘ oeuvre.

I wish I could say otherwise, but when push comes to shove, Inglourious Basterds is two-point-five hours of my life – and yours – that can never be reclaimed. If you want to see a gripping action film with brilliant scripting, awesome effects, humour, genuine insight and future cult status, then I suggest you buy tickets for District 9. Anything else is folly.