Posts Tagged ‘Cinema’

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed¬†never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her¬†father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency¬†– had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this¬†was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a¬†narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our¬†awareness¬†of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film¬†especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of¬†women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage¬†with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on¬†her¬†physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because,¬†to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing¬†or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality,¬†as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race Рor along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour Рcan provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze Рthose facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story Рis similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t¬†underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force¬†them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began¬†where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer¬†ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of¬†The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption¬†trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the¬†aforementioned¬†rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male ¬†aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze. ¬†And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual¬†voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of ¬†what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM¬†and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Warning: spoilers.

Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s¬†The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.

Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.

From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves. ¬†It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.

As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.

However.

As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.

And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.

The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.

And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.

Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire¬†and Deadwood¬†has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique ¬†our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

Straight off the bat, tonight’s excursion to see Captain America constitutes the most physically uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had at a cinema. My neck has been sore as hell this past week, so sitting on a slight angle that I’d go so far as to suggest was exactly calibrated to exacerbate the problem hasn’t left me in the best of moods. Above and beyond that, the 3D was either appallingly rendered, out of focus, or more likely a wretched combination of both. The whole right-hand side of the screen kept flickering into multiple lines, and every time the camera went to a long shot, the same thing happened. Also, I couldn’t get my packet of seaweed peanut crackers open, and even though I totally loosened it for him, neither could Toby. So! It’s entirely possible my reaction to the film itself has been irrevocably sullied by the circumstances under which I watched it. Given preferential Gold Class seating, continuous neck massage, fully immersive 3D and a complementary bottle of Veuve Clicquot, I might well have been left with a tingling desire to fight for the good ol’ US of A while simultaneously flinging myself at Chris Evans.

But I doubt it.

To begin with, the film has no script, unless shaking the Cliche Bag over a Xerox machine and distributing copies of the resulting wordsoup counts as a legitimate writing process. Still, better action films than this have gotten away with worse, because what they lacked in verbal originality they made up for in character development, narrative coherency and awesomely choreographed action scenes. Captain America has none of these things, instead presenting as a hodgepodge of abortive relationships, nonsensical segues, pointless fighting montages and bizarre decisions. A small example to demonstrate this latter: Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a renegade German scientist on the side of justice, has just been shot dead by an enemy agent seconds after turning Steve Roberts into a super soldier. Roberts gives chase and, after saving a small boy from being used as a hostage, catches the killer, who promptly chews his suicide pill and dies. The very next scene, we’re back in the lab – it feels like later that same day, but apparently not, for reasons which will soon became apparent. Present are Roberts, aka Captain America, the female Agent Carter, head military honcho Colonel Phillips and financial backer Senator Brandt. Their conversation goes something like this:

PHILLIPS: Whelp, Dr Erskine’s death means that we can’t make any more super soldiers, presumably because he’s left behind no notes or formulae of any kind although I’m not going to come out and say as much. The point being, he’s dead, and his brilliant ideas have therefore died with him. Apparently. So now we’re going to head over to Europe and kick the ass of the guy who killed him. Any questions?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Ooh ooh! Pick me, sir, pick me! I want to avenge my mentor’s death – and even though I have no combat training of any kind, I feel I’d be awesome at that, seeing as how I’m a super soldier and all!

PHILLIPS: No way. I asked for an army. All I got is you.* So now you can just stay in the lab, I guess? I mean, even though you’re all awesome now, we’re not about to just let you fight. Because, um –

BRANDT: – because you don’t have a costume yet, and only I can give you one. Give you a chance, I mean. Not a costume.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Um…

BRANDT: You see this newspaper I’m holding? The one with a photo of you saving that boy yesterday or whenever, even though it felt like ten minutes ago? That photo means you’re a SYMBOL TO THE PEOPLE, and even though the colonel here doesn’t want you, I think you’ve got some important work to do. SYMBOLIC work.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Well, sure! So long as I’m serving my country by putting myself at risk of actual death – which is my explicitly stated goal and the sole reason why I refused to take up other jobs for the war effort despite my previously puny frame – I’ll do it.

BRANDT: *coughs* I know I totally just implied that you’d get a fighting role, but what actually happens is that two minutes from now, we cut to an honest-to-god musical number slash montage where you dress up in a leotard to help me sell war bonds. But it does explain your eventual costume, even though it otherwise makes no sense. Did I mention I’m a senator?

CARTER: But why can’t he come with us? Or at least fight with the regular army guys? I mean, he IS a super soldier.

BRANDT & PHILLIPS: COSTUME!

Which, yeah. Makes absolutely no sense. We’re never told why the only available choice is between being a performing monkey and getting stuck in a lab: apart from anything else, with Erskine is dead and his research discontinued, who’d be doing the labwork? Given the experiment’s obvious success, why would it even be necessary? And this is where things start to get really weird, because all of a sudden we’re stuck in a musical montage, watching the Captain appear on stage – over 200 times, we’re later told – while comic books and movies featuring his fictional exploits are released to an admiring public. How much time passes here is anyone’s guess, but it’s got to be months at the very least – films aren’t made overnight, and especially not when the star is simultaneously part of a travelling show. But somehow, this wacky jaunt eventually takes the Captain to Europe under the guise of entertaining the troops. Of course, he’s received badly; of course, it’s his friend Bucky’s regiment he’s performing for; of course, they’re just back from a hellish mission to enemy territory; and of course, Bucky – plus 400 other men – are imprisoned deep behind enemy lines.

Maybe because they’re badly sequenced, maybe because there’s no tension, or maybe because we haven’t seen Bucky since the opening scenes and don’t give a shit if he lives or dies, the end result is some truly unthrilling heroics. Which is doubly disappointing when you consider that this is meant to be the Captain’s glorious moment to shine, the point at which he transitions from Hopeless Dreamer to Action Hero. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since the movie started – so why the hell is it so underwhelming? This is some basic stuff, right here: I mean, I watched Burlesque last week, which is essentially about Fictional Cher teaching Fictional Christina Aguilera how to wear corsets, and the glorious moment when Aguilera’s character finally gets to sing on stage was infinitely more raw, more powerful and better-scripted than the point at which Captain America sallies forth to get his fight on.

I’ll give you a moment to let that statement achieve the proper impact.

(Also, Burlesque stars Stanley Tucci as a wonderful, witty gay man with emotional depth and snappy dialogue rather than as a scruffy German scientist who gets shot and killed to facilitate an already dubious plot point. But I digress.)

So now the Captain has come into his own, we get the requisite Level Up scene where a young Howard Stark presents him with a selection of new and shinier weapons. This is, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous gadget-bestowal scenes ever filmed, and I say that as a woman who’s watched every single James Bond movie. As before, allow me to lovingly recreate the pivotal conversation between Stark and Our Hero:

CAPTAIN AMERICA, inspecting shields: What’s this one? Me likes!

STARK: Don’t touch that! It’s a prototype!

CAPTAIN AMERICA, instantly donning prototype shield: Wow! What’s it do?

STARK: It completely stops all vibrations from projectiles, because it’s made of VIBRANIUM, a completely real metal that’s lighter than steel, but much stronger.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: Why isn’t this standard issue?**

STARK: Because vibranium is the rarest metal on Earth – so rare that we used all of it to make your shield.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: But didn’t you just say it was a prototype and I wasn’t meant to touch it? Why would you make a prototype out of all the metal and then tell me not to use it? Also, you only knew I needed a new shield, like, five minutes ago – did you just have some vibranium lying around, or were you just making shields for the hell of it? This doesn’t make any sense!

STARK: I’M BRAFF ZACKLIN!

The rest of the film makes just as little sense. There’s some disjointed action scenes strung together in slowmo, an entirely pointless motorcycle chase, lots of explosions, the most ridiculous Evil Salute in the history of ever, and the assembly of a Five Man Band¬†to fight alongside Bucky and Captain America. None of these members are never named, developed or given meaningful dialogue, leaving them to be distinguished solely on the basis of race and nationality: one Englishman, one Frenchman and three Americans who are respectively white, black and Asian. This would actually constitute progress, if not for the total lack of any character development and the fact that none of them are on screen for more than five minutes altogether. Oh, and Bucky dies falling off a train, but even though he’s really sad about it, Captain America can’t get drunk to mourn his buddy because of how quickly his new metabolism processes alcohol. Which is just tragic.

And then there’s the Agent Carter, the requisite Female Love Interest who has all the personality of a limp noodle. The best I can say about her treatment in the film is that it’s lead me to coin a new trope term: Kick The Bitch. A feminist variant of Kick The Dog (see what I did there?), Kick The Bitch occurs when a lone female character is inserted into an environment that the audience is likely to associate with sexism, if not outright misogyny, but where the main male characters, despite being comfortable in this environment, need to be shown in a positive light. Thus, because actually talking about sexism would be breaking an unwritten rule of cinema (Thy Manly Films Shalt Not Touch On Feminist Issues), a bitch-kicker character is introduced for the sole purpose of acting like a vile, sexist sleaze – the absolute straw-man epitome of misogynist behaviour. Depending on the story, the female character will then either stand her ground against said cretin, thereby affirming or earning her the respect of her male counterparts and establishing them as Good People, or fail to do so and be rescued, which achieves the same thing, only with even less semblance of equality. In fairness, Agent Carter does punch her bitch-kicker square in the face, but the scene is so textbook as to render it meaningless. Plus and also, she’s subsequently depicted trying¬†to motivate an all-male group of soldiers by calling them girls and ladies as insults. Which, I’m sorry, but¬†no.

It’s a much lesser crime that Carter and the Captain have zero chemistry, but it’s still worth a mention. Apart from anything else, it highlights the film’s failure to find an emotional core. Dr Erskine was a promising character, but then he was killed before anything could come of it; Carter is absent in for long stretches of time, precluding actual banter; and Bucky is almost a non-entity despite his supposed importance in the Captain’s life. By trying to juggle all three relationships while refusing to spend time on any of them, the film has effectively hollowed itself out around a series of narrative disjunctions: just as we’re starting to care vaguely about one person or another, they’re whisked away and replaced with someone else. But then, none of them are terribly interesting anyway: Carter and Bucky are both as cardboard cutout as the Captain himself, while Dr Erskine was seemingly murdered for the crime of having an emergent personality. (Either that, or so the Captain could get a costume. Which is quite possibly worse.)

Finally, after the big battle with Red Skull, Captain America crashes a plane into the arctic to stop it from exploding in New York, which noble sacrifice somehow has the miraculous effect of freezing him in stasis for nearly 70 years. Which, um, yeah. Regular ice. No ageing. In stasis. So he wakes up in our time, just as was foretold in the opening scene. Huzzah! You can’t even blame this endpoint of ridiculousness on the Magic Cube Of Power they’ve all be fighting about, because it fell out of the plane mid-flight. I suspect I’d have felt more outraged, but then the credits came up, and I was just happy I was being allowed to leave.

At the end, my husband turned to me.

‘People should go to jail for that movie,’ he said.

I’ll put it this way, internets: I didn’t disagree.

(Except for Stanley Tucci. He can stay.)

 

*An actual quote.

** Also an actual quote.

This last weekend, I went to see Airbender in 3D.

I enjoyed it.

This puts me in a minority.

As a fan of M. Night Shyamalan films, I’m used to being a minority defender of his work. And before you ask, no, I haven’t yet seen the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender on which this latest film is based, although I am deeply interested in doing so.

Whether or not you like the way Shyamalan constructs his scripts and tells his stories is, right now, a secondary question. Having blogged about his style before, I’ll just add this: he’s not a twist/thriller storyteller, and never has been. No matter how his films are marketed, Shyamalan writes speculative fiction – has always written speculative fiction – and not assessing or even identifying his films as such does them a great disservice. Yes, he sometimes ends up with stilted dialogue, but that’s a small price to pay for characterisation that isn’t conveyed exclusively through the usual methods of American schmaltz, and while his films aren’t traditional three-act narratives, that’s not because they’ve tried to be and failed. Shyamalan is doing something different with Hollywood cinema, and for all people seem to keep missing the point, it’s something I enjoy.

But when it comes to Airbender, there’s another, more important issue to be considered: race.

Let me be clear from the outset: I don’t think turning black characters white is a good idea. Undeniably, racism is part of the Hollywood machine, and it’s something I’d rather change than encourage. For instance: 300 annoyed the everloving shit out of me, because it was basically a film about evil, decadent, heathen Persians being taken down by a bunch of proto-Westerners. Possibly I was occupying the wrong corner of the internets back in 2006, but I don’t remember there being a hell of a lot of controvery over that fact. Instead, everyone was cheering about how faithful an interpretation of the graphic novel it was, and how cool the slow-mo blood looked. Sorry? A racist adaptation of a racist story is still racist. Being faithfully racist is not a state of moral or narrative superiority. And when I say racist, I don’t mean at the very simplistic level of Good White Guys Fighting Bad Brown Guys, which – while relevant to casting, equal opportunities and latent perceptions of race – pays no attention to actual character development, morality and behaviour. No: I mean Xerxes was dripping with gold, acting like God and sitting in a tent with burned, mutilated women who writhed about him like demon succubi, his wars fought by hoardes of unnamed, frequently burned men and his ambush laid with the help of a hunchback whose physical imperfection was stated to be the sole reason for his traitorousness.

Or, another example: the Southron hordes allied with Sauron in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all of whom are both evil and black. Tolkien might’ve written it that way, and we might be willing to take his own society and upbringing into account when criticising his reasons for doing so, but as with Zac Snyder’s 300, Peter Jackson escaped major criticism – why? Because it was a faithful adaptation. Never mind that the Southron are such minor characters that he could easily have cast them as white or a mix of races without drawing ire from the even the hardcore, everything-must-be-perfect crowd, especially as doing so would be in service to addressing a racist narrative function. Was anyone furious at the number of Uruk-Hai being played by people of colour, either? Evidently not.

And then, of course, we have Avatar. Now: I won’t claim to be the world’s most observant person, especially not when my higher brain functions are being distracted by pretty 3D vistas with dragons in them. It took my husband’s comments outside the cinema for me to realise that yes, all the Na’vi had been played by people of colour, a decision that doesn’t seem unrelated to James Cameron’s desire that their whole race look “exotic“. In terms of narrative, Avatar is basically Disney’s Pocahontas in space – there was some nifty worldbuilding and gorgeous scenery, but the script and characterisation were nothing special. When it comes to the racefail issues of Na’vi casting, however, I don’t recall that anyone was calling for a boycott of the film the way some people are doing with Airbender – possibly because, given Avatar’s massive popularity, it would have been a futile gesture, but also, I suspect, because even while people were offended by the recreation of Noble Savages on a different planet, the insult was seen to be softened by the fact that Privileged White People were still the villains.

A slight segue: does anyone remember the episode of South Park where everyone gets up in arms over whether or not their town flag is racist? The moral of which, to quote neatly from the Wikipedia summary, is that sometimes “perceiving things according to race leads only to further racism“?

Yeah. About that.

Cinema is a visual medium. I want to see actors of all nationalities in my films, and I don’t just want to see them typecast because of their nationalities, either. A surprising recent example of such diversity is, arguably, the first Twilight film, wherein various characters whose race was never mentioned in the series were played by non-white actors. That is a positive trend, and one I want to encourage. But in a recent interview, Airbender star Dev Patel lamented the lack of meaty roles for Asian actors, saying he was “likely to be offered the roles of a terrorist, cab driver and smart geek.” Looked at from this perspective, it is notable that his character in Airbender constitutes the most interesting and well-developed role in the film, driven by the most compelling narrative arc – far more so than the supposed protagonist, Aang, and his offsiders. Shyamalan has said as much in defending the film, and while that defence has been roundly mocked as glib in some quarters, having actually seen the film, it certainly holds up.

Which brings me back to the racefail debates surrounding Avatar and Airbender, and the weird double-standard that seems to have crept into their respective criticisms. James Cameron, who is white, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by white actors, except for one who switches sides and fights with the overwhelmingly POC heroes. M. Night Shyamalan, who is Asian, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by Asian actors, except for two who switch sides and fight with the mainly white heroes. Nobody has ever suggested that Cameron might be a self-hating white man, and yet that seems to be the implication when criticising Shyamalan. Neither does anyone appear to be interested in the fact that, by reducing both films to the level of Coloured People Versus White People (note the helpful capitalisation, blogsphere!), actors of colour ended up damned regardless of whether they’re playing heroes or villains. The Na’vi are Noble Savage Heroes, which is denigrating to people of colour. The Fire Nation are Devious Warlike Villains, which is denigrating to people of colour.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or irrational to take offence in either instance. Looked at from that perspective, both films are suggestive of Noble Savages and Warlike Villains still being the dominant dichotomy of race in Hollywood cinema. We need to get past those options, and fast.

But! Remember Dev Patel and his request that Asian actors be given meatier roles? Can we all agree that sometimes, meaty roles are straight-up villainous roles, a la Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men? Writing strong parts for people of colour is not the same as always making them the good guys. Neytiri is a thinner character by far than Prince Zuko: for actors looking to expand their skills, being on the side of righteousness doesn’t matter. Compared to the uniformly despicable Persians of 300 or the evil, barbaric Southron of The Return of the King, the Fire Nation of Shyamalan’s Airbender is awash with diversity – not in terms of casting, but in terms of range; much more so, in fact, than are the Na’vi of Cameron’s Avatar, all of whom are somewhat idealised, empty and two-dimensional.

But then, of course, we have the additional charge of whitewashing to lay at Shyamalan’s feet. Why? Because Katara and Sokka, whose characters in the Airbender cartoon are depicted as having blue eyes, brown hair and brown skin, are played by Caucasian actors with blue eyes, brown hair and white skin. Not having seen the original cartoon, I’m not in a position to gauge how representative these characteristics are of the Water Nation as a fictional race; neither am I going to try and pass judgement about which of these features – eyes, hair or skin tone – is most important when casting a real, live actor in place of their animated equivalents. Understandably, it remains the most contentious aspect of Airbender. But in a debate which has ostensibly been about the failure of Hollywood to treat race with respect, I find it ironic that it’s M. Night Shyamalan – and not James Cameron – who’s ended up copping the most abuse.

Bottom line: I don’t appreciate detailed narratives being reduced to simple forms purely so their detractors can pretend they lacked complexity in the first place. Whatever its failings, Airbender deserves a better critical reception than trial by media.

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The¬†Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d¬†been frightened out of my young life¬†when Haley Joel Osment¬†confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy.¬†Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I¬†considered it, the more¬†it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film,¬†when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to¬†ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind.¬†Might I¬†see something I’d missed before?

I¬†could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable,¬†supernaturally gifted¬†protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain¬†their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village,¬†a community of emotionally¬†scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error Рturn back, turn back! Рwhen, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce,¬†and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation,¬†scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which¬†characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can¬†fix ourselves.