Posts Tagged ‘Fired’

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave¬†– plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally¬†likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself. ¬†Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave –¬†I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave:¬†the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing¬†good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record,¬†Cars 2,¬†can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave¬†is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders, ¬†must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t ¬†to say that Brave suffered on that count, but¬†rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave,¬†a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings,¬†which would seem to be something of a giveaway:¬†it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and¬†eat whatever they want¬†only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but ¬†everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

Or at least, some branches of government.

After less than a week of temporary employ, I was today fired from the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions. My sin: unprofessional conduct. How this came about is, in my opinion, faintly ludicrous, but here, for your enjoyment, is the full tale.

Near the end of my holiday, I was contacted by my temp agency about a potential job. They were not sure I would get it, as the position required an inteview and I was, at that exact moment, in a different state; nonetheless, after describing it as a general administrative position and right up my alley, they promised to do their best. The following day, I received a second phone call, informing me that the client, upon reading my CV, had declared me a suitable employee for the next two months. I would start work on Monday at 9 AM, and thus was the matter settled.

In fact, on the day itself, I arrived early. In due course, I was shown around, introduced, taught the rudiments of using an internal database and then, after approximately two hours, given a very large whack of photocopying indeed. For those unfamiliar with corporate or legal-grade photocopying, understand that it is no mere button-press, on-your-merry-way exercise. Instead, you are presented with a folder (or folders) the approximate thickness of two good-sized Bibles and told to go forth and multiply, which activity involves standing beside a very large, very loud machine for upwards of an hour and not doing anything else. In my case, the magic number of copies was 23, with a side-order of exquisitely time-consuming tricky bits. This project consumed the remaining five hours of Monday, all of Tuesday and just over half of Wednesday: roughly seventeen hours spent in a narrow hall beside a photocopier.

In order not to go insane during this time, I listened to my iPod (having first, as a matter of course, asked for and been granted permission to do so), read snatches of a book and toyed with assorted newspaper puzzles (the crossword, sudoku)¬†rescued from beside a nearby recycling bin, none of which impeded the actual copying. Rather, with no other pending work, it made sense: I copied,¬†collated, highlighted and filed as ordered, making the occasional wry remark as¬†passing office-dwellers exclaimed over¬†my large¬†collection of paper and otherwise getting on with it. On finally completing this mammoth task, I was given more photocopying, such that the¬†promised moniker of ‘general administration’ was beginning to sound a bit thin: five large folders, each to be copied five times. That took the rest of Wednesday and most of this – that is to say, Thursday – morning, whereupon, after a brief excursion to a nearby court (20 minutes, tops), I was given another file to copy.

Needless to say, I was not thrilled; but copy I did. Idly,¬†while the pages printed, I wrote¬†out two poems from memory onto pieces of paper – one anonymously attributed, one by e. e. cummings – and pinned them beside the machine, reasoning that, as I was spending a lot of time in¬†its general vicinity,¬†some friendly words might be nice. Job done, I returned to my desk, typed a letter (or rather, typed less than ten words into an existing document template), printed it¬†and sat, waiting for my boss to return from wherever it was she’d gone. When she did return, it was with a smile and the news that, coincidentally, the head of HR wanted to see me. This was the¬†man who’d welcomed and inducted me¬†in on Monday. Off I went.

Inside his office, I sat down. Stern-faced, the head of HR lost no time in informing me that my supervisor was not happy with my performance and unprofessional behaviour. I had, he said, been chilling out to my iPod, clearly not focused on photocopying. During this time, I had also dared to put my feet up on the bench, a charge I did not deny, although able to see how this, at least, might have caused some contention. Furthermore, I had made disparaging remarks about photocopying, which caused me to blink a bit, given that:

(a) so had several other employees, usually in sympathy to my workload; and

(b) this is a psychologically healthy reaction to photocopying, especially if one is also laughing at the same time. (I was.)

He then drew two pieces of¬†paper from a¬†nearby pile and pushed them, with deliberate slowness, across¬†the desk: the poems I’d put up.

‘Are you,’ he asked, ‘responsible for these?’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘ I wrote them up, yes, but I didn’t write them.’

‘You were seen,’ he said gravely – if somewhat redundantly, as I had just admitted¬†as much¬†– ‘putting these up.’

This¬†behaviour, I was told, was unprofessional. My disdain for the position and the work it entailed were such that I was to be let go, immediately, before the end of the day, as they – being, one assumes, the HR manager and his immediate fellows – would much rather pay somone who was happy to be there, and incidentally,¬†I needn’t come back to his office again. The actual quality and timeliness of my work was not discussed; pointedly so.

All of which gave the distinct impression that, from my CV, the head of HR had been expecting rather a different sort of person: pencil-skirted and sleek, perhaps, with an eye to bureaucratic formality, and not the sort of person to wear a leather jacket or ThinkGeek shirt.

‘Fair enough,’ I said.

Following this frank exchange of views (and trying, admittedly, very hard not to grin, and sometimes succeeding) I went back upstairs to locate my now-ex-boss. Smiling prettily, she agreed to sign my timesheet, laughed over our joint inability to add up my hours correctly, and in all aspects behaved as though she had not just dobbed me in for a dressing-down and firing. She said it had been a pleasure working with me, but this I found hard to believe, given her stern disapproval of my behaviour as recently expressed elsewhere.

In the doorway to her office, I stopped, hand on the frame, and looked her in the eye. I am quite able to endure being dressed-down for possessing corporate eccentricities, because the absurdity of it makes me grin inwardly; but I do not appreciate the jovial pretense that such has not happened Рor rather, the smiling assertion of the velvet glove that the iron hand is nothing to do with them. It is for this reason that, rather than walking straight out, I smiled in turn and related the following (truthful) anecdote, which I will approximate here:

When my father was fresh out of school Рand this is a while ago, because my father is in his seventies Рhe took a job at a bank, as was done back then. In his spare time, he wrote odd limmericks on some of the bank notepads. Nothing rude; just poems. Passing the time. And one day, the bank manager Рyou can imagine, a large, older, balding man, run to fat Рcalled him into his office, demanding to know why my father was writing obscenities on bank property. And standing there, my father decided Рnot out loud, but in the privacy of his thoughts Рthat anyone who would call a limmerick obscene simply for being a limmerick was a humourless person not worth working for. And very soon after, he quit, and found happiness elsewhere.

I finished by saying that I, apparently, was following in his footsteps, except for the bit about choosing to leave. My now-ex-boss smiled her same, pretty smile, except perhaps it was a bit tigher this time, and said ‘Really?’ in what, under different circumstances,¬†might have passed for a genuinely¬†curious tone of voice.

‘Really,’ I said.

And then, without further ado, I went back to my desk, packed up my bag, put on my coat and left.

And that, as they say, was that.