Thursday, 29 January 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Married Couples

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Married Couples. That's simple enough. I've got to find three movies that each feature a married couple of some sort. There's plenty of those. Finding a movie that involves a married couple isn't too hard. The real challenge is finding something a bit more unusual. There are plenty of films that deal with the mundane nature of relationships or difficulties that may emerge, so I have decided for this list to find three more unusual interpretations of marriage.

The obvious choice for me is Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, but I am refraining from using that one as I have done it for a previous entry into the Thursday Movie Picks Meme. Instead, I have decided to find three other less obvious choices for movies about married life that take it in some unusual directions. For each one, I have also attempted to include a picture of the couple in question.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Ordinary marriage can be frustrating enough, how could it possibly get any worse? Well, for one thing the husband and wife could both get addicted to powder designed for killing bugs and blackmeat from aquatic centipedes. Factor in some crazy hallucinations that culminate in the husband accidentally shooting the wife and then encountering a similar-looking woman who may or may not be a product of his imagination, and you have a mess on your hands. This is a bit of a weird one because exactly how the relationship between the married couple plays into the story is not entirely clear.

Solaris (2002)

The Tarkovsky version is too slow. There, I've got that out of the way. Now we can talk about a weird one. This is a bit of an odd example in that even though it centers around a relationship between a married couple, one of them is already dead when the movie begins. It's a complicated situation, one that even Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) does not fully understand (indeed, the uncertainty about what is happening is the driving force of the whole film). What matters is that he made a mistake that led to his wife committing suicide, and now he has a chance to make amends. What would you do if that happened?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

Marriage can be dull and tedious, but there are ways it can also get exciting. For instance, discovering that your significant other is in fact a trained assassin just like you. That's precisely what happens in this odd blend of the action film and the romantic comedy, where boy meets girl and stuff blows up. Of course what really makes this movie interesting is it's hard to tell where the action movie elements end and the romantic comedy sections begin. In other words, the action scenes feel more romantic and the romantic moments feel more like action scenes.... and that's when they're not having a romantic moment during an action scene (or vice versa).

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Blue Really IS The Warmest Colour

In art class, the teacher usually makes a point of emphasizing the distinction between "warm" and "cool" colours. Typically, they say that red is "warm" and blue is "cold". However, in the field of astronomy, it is a whole other story. While light always travels at a constant speed and never stops or slows down, different wavelengths of light contain different amounts of energy. Blue light actually has more energy than red light, and when you look at the stars, there is a pattern that quickly becomes apparent when you look at the main sequence stars in a Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram. Blue stars are much larger, because they have more fuel which allows them to display a greater luminosity and produce more heat. By contrast, the redder the star, the colder and smaller it gets (our own sun is roughly in the middle). Therefore, scientifically speaking, blue really is the warmest colour.

Okay, now that I've addressed the unintentionally accurate title, we can discuss the film itself. Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour is a film I had been meaning to see for a long time, since it got international recognition in 2013. It was even one I considered for both my 2014 and 2015 Blindspot Lists, though in both cases it got removed (first due to concerns about availability, and later in response to several people recommending that I stay away from recent movies). As it happens, I was fortunate enough to stumble across a low-priced copy at a small HMV near my cottage, and I purchased it (alongside Edge of Tomorrow, Fight Club, and both volumes of Kill Bill) using a gift card I got as a Christmas present. 

Recently, I've been watching a lot of action movies, so much so that it has started to become difficult to watch other genres. On the recommendations of my therapist, I decided to set a rule of no more than two action movies per week, and she was suggesting trying to look at more historical films and romances. After finding that I had more free time than I anticipated during the weekend, I decided to finally give Blue is the Warmest Colour a chance, and I'm glad I did. This was an amazing movie that deserved the attention it got. It also cannot be faulted for failing to live up to its name, seeing as the colour blue itself is a significant motif throughout the film (and not just in reference to Emma's hair).

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is an average teenager working through high school. Like other girls her age, she is interested in finding a boyfriend, but can't quite find one who satisfies her. After encountering a nice guy but finding sex with him to be dull, Adèle starts to experience confusion about her sexuality. One evening she goes out with her friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek) to a gay bar where he is revealed to have a boyfriend. During this experience, Adèle witnesses lesbian sex in progress, and encounters an artist named Emma (Léa Seydoux). The two quickly become close friends and Adèle starts to realize the reason she has never been successful in finding a boyfriend is because she happens to be homosexual. Over the following years, Emma and Adèle grow up together and face a variety of challenges in their relationship, ultimately ending in heartbreak.

There has indeed been some great progress made with regards to how gays are treated on film, though disregarding a handful of pre-Code exceptions it is for the most part a very recent development. However, while this is definitely a step up from the restrictions of the Production Code and the mentality that gay characters should either be "punished" or "cured" that came afterward, homosexuals are still under-represented. Hollywood is still making plenty of heterosexual love stories and while they are more open to depicting sympathetic gay couples (i.e. Mulholland Drive, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, The Runaways) the numbers of films depicting such material pale in comparison. 

It is therefore nice to see an effort like Blue is the Warmest Colour, coming from France of all places. In many ways, that might actually have worked to the film's benefit. Because it was made independent of Hollywood, the film is able to explore the relationship in far more depth than might be covered in any American films. The intercourse depicted in Blue is the Warmest Colour makes the famous lesbian sex scene of Mulholland Drive appear tame by comparison. A Hollywood picture might stick to showing the two lovers kissing, maybe with nudity being implied or partially shown. Blue is the Warmest Colour shows the sex in intricate detail with full frontal nudity. This actually gives the sex scenes a heightened sense of realism, and helps to develop a more intimate connection to the leads.

The relationship between the two leads is of course the heart of the film and both girls do exceptionally well with their characters. Both are smart and capable women who are still human and occasionally make mistakes. Once in a while they don't make the best decisions, and when that happens they make it believable. They always have some sort of motivation. The film also recognizes the amount of time that passes (roughly ten years), and allows the characters to make the appropriate changes. Through small and subtle touches the characters gradually experience changes in appearance and shifts in personality while still being  easily recognizable.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is a rare type of film and something we need to see more of. In this day and age we should be making a more concerted effort to present more sympathetic and complex gay characters, and that is precisely what we get here. It is a straight forward (if extremely long) narrative that simply centers on a romantic relationship between two young girls and the difficulties of such a commitment. I would definitely recommend taking a look at Blue is the Warmest Colour, even if you are the kind of person who has difficulty keeping up with subtitles or you are not a big fan of romances. This is one that needs to be seen.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies With Colour in the Title

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies that feature a colour in the title. Lots of movies do. Colors can play a major role in any film, whether it is in establishing the atmosphere, developing a certain emotion in the viewer, establishing a character, or a means to convey a deeper meaning. Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that there are many films that feature a colour in their titles. In keeping with the rules of the event, I'm supposed to pick three movies that fit the established criteria, so here they are.

The Green Berets (1968)

Green is certainly a prominent color in a lot of war films, probably because it is a color very commonly used by the armies of many different nations. It's amazing there are not more films that feature the color green in their title. John Wayne's somewhat (in)famous second attempt at directing is a decent action film if you can get past the political messages. On the other hand, it is culturally significant due to those political messages. What makes The Green Berets so unusual among war films is that it was the only attempt at true propaganda to be made during the Vietnam War, and remains quite possibly the only film directly addressing the war to attempt to justify America's entry into the conflict.

Blue Velvet (1986)

This was a pretty big movie in Lynch's filmography, seeing as it was the one that finally won back audiences after the critical and commercial failure of Dune. This strange exploration of a seemingly ideal community with a hidden darker side is certainly an odd movie, even featuring Dennis Hopper as a sex-crazed psychopath, and that's not even getting into how the movie impacted sales of Heineken and Pabst Blue Ribbon due to one of its most famous scenes. Blue Velvet certainly lives up to its title, as there is plenty of that stuff to go around. There's even a song called Blue Velvet that describes a woman who wore blue velvet which is played a few times throughout the movie.

  Black Hawk Down (2001)

There are no actual black hawks in this movie, but there are some very nice helicopters in Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer's modern interpretation of the combat film. Inspired by a real incident that happened in Somalia back in 1993 (a year before I was born), this film concerns a disastrous military campaign in which a large number of American soldiers were caught in a large and gruesome firefight that killed a lot of people. What began as a simple mission to capture a ruthless warlord quickly turned into a desperate struggle for survival as the men try to rescue their fallen comrades and escape with their lives. The "Black Hawk" of the title is actually a type of helicopter, several of which are seen and two of which are destroyed.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


1818 saw the publication of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and with it the origin of one of the horror genre's most iconic characters, simply known as "The Monster". The story was based on the idea that just because science can do something does not mean it should, in this case through the questionable process of reanimating corpses. The title character of Dr. Frankenstein is a scientist who creates a man by combining bits and pieces from dead bodies and figures out how to bring it to life. Unfortunately, upon doing so he is horrified by his creation and disowns it. The Monster (it is never given a real name) is confused and has a child-like mindset as he is released upon the world. All he really wants is a friend, but he is feared by everyone he encounters leading driving it to violence.

Since the publication of Shelley's book, the character of Frankenstein's Monster has become an icon of the horror genre. He has been the subject of countless movies, not all of them adaptations of the book. Many have spoofed the character in various ways, ranging from H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West: Re-Animator to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, or in some way paid homage. Several adaptations of Frankenstein have been made, but the most iconic is arguably the 1931 film of the same name directed by James Whale.

Whale's film was such a success that Universal Studios decided a sequel had to happen. James Whale was initially reluctant but eventually agreed to take on the project which would provide a "continuation" of the 1931 film, the result being the strange 1935 horror film The Bride of Frankenstein. In order to justify continuing the story, the movie was framed in the form of Mary Shelley herself relating what happens next to her friend Lord Byron and her husband Percy. This whole setup makes one wonder if the creators of the film actually read her original novel, to which a sequel of this sort would be extremely unlikely.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein (who for some reason had his first name changed to Henry in the films) spends the final act of the book travelling the world in pursuit of the monster, only to get sick and die a few days after being found by the crew of a sailing ship in the Arctic (these last few days of his life also serve as a framing device). The Monster follows not long after, deciding to burn himself. Most of the supporting characters have also died by this point, so there is not really any way Mary Shelley herself could have continued the story if she wanted to, at least not with the same characters. The only way the story could really go on is if another scientist figured out Victor's formula and tried to build on it, and even then she would have to find a creative angle to take or else it would just be the first book all over again.

Obviously, this framing device is a somewhat misused, as The Bride of Frankenstein is a sequel to the 1931 film rather than to the book. If anything, the only real contribution it serves story-wise is to provide a recap of everything that happened in the previous film. Mary Shelley begins telling the story but this scene is never revisited. No voice-over narration is incorporated, nor does the film ever return to these three. Mary Shelley claims that her story did not end where it did (which raises the question of why she ended it there) and it reveals that the Monster somehow survived being burned alive in the previous film, with Victor Henry Frankenstein also being found alive but injured.

What is especially strange about this movie is that for a film called The Bride of Frankenstein, she is barely in the movie. There is less Bride of Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein than there was a towering inferno in The Towering Inferno. Most of the movie instead focuses on Henry Frankenstein encountering a mad scientist named Dr. Pretorius who forces him to into a collaboration to create another reanimated corpse. This leads to the idea being proposed to use a female body this time, and to create a "mate" for the monster. A similar idea actually appears in the original book, in which Victor Frankenstein is convinced by the monster to make a woman like him (though he panics and destroys the female monster before she can be reanimated), but in this case, the "bride" only appears right at the very end, and even then for only a few minutes and having no dialogue.

Even James Whale did not initially want to work on a sequel to Frankenstein, so why did he eventually agree to do it? Studio pressure had a hand in it, since his previous film was such a huge success. However, even if Whale turned it down, Universal Studios still had the rights to his film and could have hired another director to get the sequel made. It was actually because Whale was a homosexual working under the Motion Picture Production Code formed by William Hays, something which contained a very strict list of what filmmakers were not allowed to show in their movies.

The code included opposition to a lot of things and can easily come off as offensive today. It contains prohibitions on such things as adultery (unless it is essential to the plot and treated as immoral, and even then cannot be explicit) and interracial relationships. While the code does not specifically name homosexuality as something unacceptable to depict, it does refer to "sexual perversion" which I can only assume was meant to include any depiction of gay sex, among other things. In any case, homosexuality was generally frowned upon, and filmmakers were not allowed to acknowledge its existence. Whale took on the project because it provided a venue to present themes of homosexuality that could go unnoticed by the censors. It worked, and it was not until years, possibly decades later, that scholars and critics began to notice the unsubtle undertones.

These elements form in large part through the interactions between the three central characters: Frankenstein, Pretorius, and the monster. The relationship between the two scientists does in some ways play like a romantic couple. Pretorious essentially "seduces" F. rankenstein into taking part in his experiments. He also has a tendency to visit Frankenstein at night, and invite him over to his place. When they are working together in the lab, there are plenty of scenes in which both of the men are placed very close together in a way that makes them seem intimately connected.

The Monster also displays similar tendencies, with one of the best examples being when he first encounters Pretorius. This is one of The Bride of Frankenstein's weirder moments, set in an old crypt filled with corpses. Pretorius finds the skeleton of a young girl who died as a teenager and for some reason decides this is perfect material for his experiment. He then sends his two assistants out before revealing his brought his own dinner. By that I don't just mean he brought a sandwich, I mean he actually sets up a fancy candlelight dinner, complete with a bottle of wine, and sets it all up using the coffin as a table with the bones he just exhumed placed right next to his food. During the same scene, the Monster encounters Pretorius and is invited to join him. Pretorius shares the wine and they have an intimate conversation. The underlying implication here is actually quite simple: Pretorius has invited the Monster on a date.

At first glance, this actually seems remarkably progressive for a movie made in 1935. The fact that a homosexual not only managed to lead a successful Hollywood career but also managed to make a film criticizing homophobia and get away with it is remarkable in itself. At least, that might be how it appears at first. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to it. The movie might not be as progressive as it initially seems. In fact some might argue that it is outright misogynistic, but more closely focusing on the homoerotic undertones, there is a catch that suggest some... strange worldviews. 

James Whale was a homosexual and littered The Bride of Frankenstein with homoerotic undertones just to see how much he could get under the censors. One could argue that there is a pro-gay message (though one presented in an extremely roundabout way)... for men. Throughout the movie there are homoerotic undertones with regards to the interactions between the male leads, but there is no reference to lesbianism. Not a single woman in the movie ever behaves with the same sort of implications as the men. None of the female interactions display the same homoerotic components, as though James Whale didn't know that there are also plenty of gay women.

Of all the women who do appear, there are only two the viewer needs to concern themselves with, the "Monster's Mate" herself, and Frankenstein's wife Elizabeth. Both serve very little purpose in the story beyond a motivation for the men. Elizabeth is simply there to be captured so Frankenstein will work with Pretrorius (though she later somehow manages to escape, it isn't explained how she manages to get to the lab in the climax) while the "bride", who is barely in the movie, gets no dialogue and rejects the Monster as her "mate". These two women never even interact (ironic, considering they both appear in the same scene), let alone engage in the same sort of undertones that have been driving the men throughout the film.

Funnily enough, the closest thing the film has to a strong female character is Mary Shelley herself, who only appears in the opening scene during which she is praised as a talented writer by the two men in the room. As with the later moments, this interaction between the men allows for more not-so-subtle interactions. Whale seems to envision the "ideal family" as two gay men and a sympathetic woman. Once again, Mary Shelley is kept from partaking in these interactions, as though Whale could not conceive of the possibility that she too could in turn be gay.

The Bride of Frankenstein therefore becomes a strange film indeed. As a horror film, it is campy and not particularly effective especially during the more bizarre moments (it's a bit hard to take the film seriously when we see two guys going on a date that involves a candlelight dinner on a coffin). It becomes more interesting when you strip away the silliness and the obvious disregard for Mary Shelley's own writing despite the opening scene claiming that this is her continuation of the story. Underneath that, there are some bizarre sexual innuendos that make it hard to tell if the film is progressive or offensive.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

On Desk Set and the Implications of Identifying Genre With Gender

I guess I should start by giving a little bit of background on the history behind this awful movie and how I came to be acquainted with it. It all started when I was registering for my classes during the summer and encountered a film class simply known as "Selected Topics". From the description it sounded like an extension of the great film classes I had been taking over the previous year, with a randomly-selected group of film-related topics being covered in more detail. Unless it turned out that they were going to be spending several weeks talking about why Jean-Luc Godard is the greatest director of all time, it should be okay. Boy, was I wrong?

Instead of an interesting film class, it turned out to be a dull, boring media studies class. I found it horrendous and could barely concentrate. At first it seemed to be just a matter of me being confused by it not being what I expected, or me not fitting in. After listening to the testimony of a classmate, I've been led to suspect it was just a poorly-run class. Eventually after a few weeks and a guest lecturer I could not keep up with I decided I couldn't take it anymore and dropped the course. I still have yet to find anyone who had anything positive to say about it.

It did not help that the class in question was three hours long, and the few actually film-related topics were dull at best. Instead we spent a lot of time talking about the internet and computers. We talked a little bit about how computers are shown on film, but the professor kept insisting on showing clips from cheesy movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Rollerball when she could have gotten the same idea across through a good movie about artificial intelligence like, oh I don't know... 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Every couple of weeks, there would be an actual screening, and for the short period of time I was there, every single one was boring. There was one infuriating one in particular that helped draw the line, and that was the movie Desk Set. This was a movie that drove me insane. When I heard Katherine Hepburn was in it I was excited, hoping that maybe she could bring something good to this movie, but instead it was a film with a production history that indicates it to have been made by misogynistic idiots and in general was so bad that even Katherine Hepburn couldn't make it at all bearable. Even more repulsive is that this horrendously sexist movie somehow has a 7.3 rating on IMDB. I would have given it a 5.0 if I were feeling generous, but only because there were one or two scattered moments of actual humor, though they were few and far between.

I should get into a bit of the history behind why we were forced to watch Desk Set. Prior to the screening, we were discussing the history of computers, and it turns out that computers and women have something of a history together. Back in the olden days there was a much stricter division of labour between men and women. It was normal for some jobs to be considered "men's work" and some to be considered "women's work". There was no middle ground. Job advertisements could legally say "men wanted" or women wanted, and it didn't matter how qualified you were for the job, if you had the wrong genitalia they wouldn't take you.

There is a story in the field of astronomy about one Edward Charles Pickering, an American astronomer in the late 18th and early 19th century who got so annoyed with the incompetence of his male colleagues that he told them "my housekeeper could do a better job than you" and brought her in just to prove it. Said housekeeper turned out to be brilliant, and went on to assemble an entire team of female "computers". Edward Pickering and his "computers" would make some of the most important astronomical discoveries of all time. The term "computer" literally originated with groups of trained women like those under Edward Pickering whose jobs consisted of "computing" data.

By the time actual computers were being developed, women were playing a crucial role as they were the ones feeding it data and essentially programming it. Computer programming, of all the possible jobs at the time, was considered "women's work". Unfortunately, the media of the time tried to cover it up, pretending it was a man's job in order to avoid shocking a public that could not handle the idea of women having a part in such an important development.

However, this was the influence behind Desk Set, a movie which aimed to address concerns of women at the time. The film's story concerned an engineer hired to deliver a computer to a resource department in which a group of women apparently spend all day collecting random facts and receive calls from various people asking all kinds of weird questions (basically a more primitive and convoluted version of Google). The women are naturally concerned that having a computer that might be able to do all the research for them could leave them unemployed, but when the computer (finally) shows up it turns out that nobody is getting fired. That's basically the whole story, and all it needed to be. They even personify the computer as female in keeping with the way programming was often considered "woman's work".

Check out this amazingly advanced technology!

That's not such a bad aim, is it? There were some very valid concerns in the 1950's that computers would replace people and leave them unemployed. Women who were already having a difficult time making it in the workplace would have every right to be worried, and it therefore makes sense that companies would want to alleviate those concerns, perhaps by making a film that demonstrates how they can co-exist with the computer. So we want to make a movie that appeals to women and touches on some issues they can relate to, fair enough. However, there is a line between making a movie that is relevant to issues commonly faced by women, and making a film based on absurd misogynistic biases. Desk Set crossed that line and beyond.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers concluded that the only possible way they could make women want to see their terrible overly elaborate computer advertisement was to make it as a romantic comedy. This wasn't just an issue of the movie being a product of its time. They consciously sat down, discussed every possible option, and concluded that female audiences will never go to see anything besides a romantic comedy or something with a romance in it. Apparently they honestly believed that romantic comedies were "women's films". As someone who has enjoyed multiple romantic comedies simply for being fun movies with good humor, I find the implications of this idea particularly offensive. The whole idea of a "chick flick" needs to die.

The idea of identifying genre with genre with gender is easily debunked if you actually talk to some people who have seen some movies. When I took my class about action cinema there was a very large number of women present, and I've known a few women who love action films. I've even encountered a handful of women who are, much to my bafflement, die-hard fans of Sean Connery's James Bond films despite the blatant sexism. I'm not entirely sure I can understand women being fans of Connery's Bond any more than I would a black viewer citing Birth of a Nation as their favourite movie, but the fact that women are in fact attracted to these films shows that attempting to identify "men's films" and "women's films" is absurd.

The sad thing is that this idea still persists today. To provide a simple example, we still have toy divided up into those for girls and those for boys. Girls get to play with princesses, and boys play with trucks. If a boy is seen wearing pink or with a Barbie doll there's something wrong with him. I was very much a victim of this marketing campaign and brainwashed by it (amusingly, though, the Barbie movies were something of a guilty pleasure I had at the time, even if I wasn't always ready to admit it).

As a kid, I was in large part alienated from the Disney animated films (with a handful of exceptions such as Peter Pan and The Aristocats of all things) because of the "Disney Princess" franchise. That left a large number of movies that turned out to be pretty good when I finally gave them a chance seemed cut off from me because I was led to think they were "girl's movies" and that I wasn't supposed to watch them. It didn't help that the whole franchise depicted the "princesses" as submissive women who existed for no reason besides to find a prince.

While this is true of Snow White, many of the later Disney animated films have made a conscious effort to create better images of women. They even play on it in Frozen, where the "true love" required to break the spell turns out to be between sisters, and not between a man and a woman. Despite all this, the "princess" franchise persists and completely strips strong female characters like Belle or Mulan (who wasn't even a princess to begin with) of their dignity.

I don't see why gender-based marketing is necessary in this day and age. Why can't products be aimed toward boys and girls simultaneously? Maybe it's about time that boys started realizing that there was nothing wrong with them liking princesses, and that maybe they aren't always the best role models for girls. It also implies that, much like Desk Set, the only way to attract women is if there is a love story. Why does a woman have to find her man? Why can't a woman find her woman? In fact why does she have to find anyone at all?

Desk Set is a perfect example of this sexist marketing in action. The filmmakers consciously sat down and concluded that no woman would go to see the movie if it were a drama, a science fiction movie, a film noir, a crime thriller, a musical, or a detective story. All the movie was intended to do was address issues that concerned women of the time, and that is all it needed to do. Instead, it barely even touches on them focusing instead on the romance between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The romance gets to an absurd height at the end when Tracy actually enables the computer's self-destruct button to prove his love for Hepburn, making the entire film completely pointless and un-doing the message it set out to present.

If these people really wanted to appeal to female audiences, what they should have done is focus on addressing the issues relevant to women in 1950's America. There was no reason why there even had to be a romance between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. I almost wonder if the movie could have worked better as simply a drama with a strong female protagonist. Take out the pointless romance with the guy who as far as these women are concerned might just be putting them out of their job, and instead perhaps focus more on the bonding between the female employees and their concerns the changes that could come from bringing in a computer. Once the computer finally comes in (which should have happened a lot earlier) we can spend some time looking at how it make it makes their work more efficient.

That could have been a good movie, maybe even one that would still be relevant today. It would have been simple and to the point, directly addressing the concerns of its audience in a serious fashion, creating characters they can relate to. Instead, the film was made by a group of misogynistic idiots who actually thought that no woman would ever go to see that movie. They decided the only logical way to do it was to make a goofy romantic comedy (and there absolutely had to be a romance, apparently).

It completely detracts from the movie's messages, especially when Spencer Tracy tries to prove his love for Katharine Hepburn by destroying the computer, making the entire movie completely pointless. Even disregarding the sexist implications of the film, Desk Set is a poorly written, poorly-directed, and just plain poorly-executed mess. Katharine Hepburn's talent is sadly wasted. She could be a very funny woman, Bringing Up Baby being a perfect example of a hilarious movie she starred in. Here, not so much. Add to that the fact that the movie is based off of an offensive and extremely sexist preconception that needs to end, and you are in for an excruciating experience.

This post was written for the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently

Friday, 16 January 2015

Red Eye and the The Dynamics of Gender

Some people say that men are driven by logic and women are driven by emotion, a notion that is easily debunked but still persists. The assumptions are obviously wrong, as indeed many women are driven by logic and it is not unusual for men to be driven by emotion. This perspective has leaked into many iconic movies, particularly those of the studio era and shortly afterwards (the early James Bond franchise being a perfect example).  More recently there have been efforts to subvert such a notion, and one of the best examples comes from a 2005 film called Red Eye, a psychological thriller directed by Wes Craven of all people.

At first, Red Eye seems like a simple but compelling action film, drawing some elements from the "Die Hard on an X" formula while condensing it into a minimalist confrontation between two characters. Unlike many action films, there are only two characters the viewer needs to keep track of; one male, one female. Most of the story concerns the interactions between these two individuals when they are both seated together on a plane. Besides that, there are a few supporting characters, but at its core, the movie is one big conflict between man and woman.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is the manager of fancy hotel looking to get home after attending her grandmother's funeral, who finds herself encountering a nice guy played by Cillian Murphy. This stranger seems friendly at first, but there is an early sign that he is not someone to be trusted. He reveals that his name is Jackson Rippner. Lisa quickly makes the connection that his name sounds remarkably similar to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial killer who terrorized Victorian England and, even worse, managed to avoid being caught. That alone serves as a sign that something is not right, but there is another side to it.

Jack the Ripper's true identity remains unknown, but what is known is that he (or perhaps she?) usually liked to kill women in particularly gruesome ways. Jackson Rippner might not be planning to kill Lisa right away, but he is luring her into a trap. He is bringing her into his clutches and putting her into a false sense of security. Right from the moment He first "encounters" her at the terminal, he is studying her, watching her every move and waiting for the right moment to strike on his unsuspecting victim.

Jackson keeps his true intentions hidden for the time being, playing as a friend to Lisa. It helps in this case that he looks a bit like the kind of person who might be the hero in any other action movie, and in fact he has been. Cillian Murphy is not as well-known or established and actor as his co-star Rachel McAdams, but he has played a variety of different roles including action hero roles in 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and to a lesser extent Inception (though in a much stranger way). While this is not his first time portraying a villain (he had a minor role as the Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy), it can shock viewers familiar with some of his more sympathetic roles.

Once the plane is in flight, Jackson reveals who he really is, an assassin who has a job that requires Lisa's assistance. Jackson also reveals something else about himself, namely that he is a misogynist who looks down on Lisa in many ways. This particular aspect of his character is revealed when he delivers a line that seems shocking even for him:

Lisa, whatever female-driven, emotion-based dilemma you may be dealing with right now, you have my sympathy. But for the sake of time and sanity, let's break this down down into a little male-driven, fact-based logic.

The sexist implications of the line should be obvious. Jackson is under the line of thinking that women are driven by emotions and men are driven by logic. As far as the story goes, this line only serves one obvious function, namely to give the viewer one more reason to despise Jackson (as if the fact that he was forcing Lisa to help him with a political assassination that will take place in her own hotel and threatening to kill her father if she refused to co-operate was not already enough). However, the subversion of this line of reasoning is a crucial part of the overall movie. Jackson assumes that his assumption is indeed correct, but as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that it is not.

It is established early on that Lisa is hardly driven by pure emotion. While her current feelings do affect her, as they would anybody, she is a professional woman capable of thinking through difficult situations logically. This element of her personality is set up at the very beginning when Cynthia (Jayma Mays), an employee at her hotel struggles to accommodate a pair of infuriating customers. Cynthia proceeds to call Lisa for help, reaching her while she is on her way to the airport after her grandmother's funeral. While it is obvious that Lisa is affected by her loss, this in no way deters her ability to advise Cynthia on how to handle the situation.

While on the flight, Lisa continues to display her skill in mind over matter. She hardly sits around frightened and waits for a man to save her (if anything, most if not all of the people she tries to get help from are also women and none of them are able to save her). She has to rely on herself and find ways outwit her abductor and if possible, call for help. She even manages to find and take several opportunities, even if they do not ultimately work. As the film approaches its climax, Lisa reveals that one emotional motivation that has kept her going: namely that the scar under her shirt came from a man who held a knife to her, and she promised that an incident like that would not happen again. While her reasoning might be fueled by an emotional desire, her method of keeping the promise is carefully calculated.

Specifically, Lisa seizes an opportunity to stab Jackson in the throat with a stolen pen (the one thing she managed to do without him noticing). He survives, but this one action manages to allow Lisa a chance to get away. Once she is free she immediately begins using every resource at her disposal to save both the man Jackson wanted dead and her father, even taking the additional step of telling Cynthia to pull the fire alarm to get the other customers out of the hotel. Lisa even goes as far as to drive a stolen car into her own house just to stop Jackson's associate from killing her father.

Lisa's rationale-thinking character therefore makes Jackson the perfect foil. He delivers an extremely sexist speech in which he implies that women are driven by pure emotion and men by fact-based reasoning (among other remarks). This assumption also proves to be Jackson's own undoing, as he himself disproves his own misogynistic ideals through his actions. While Lisa has to rely on ingenuity and seizes opportunities to make an effort at escaping her predicament (even if they do not always work), Jackson becomes increasingly blinded by his emotions which over the course of the film begin to interfere with his ability to reason.

With every attempt Lisa makes to get out of Jackson's plan, he becomes increasingly agitated towards her. The fact that she resists as long as she does angers him and sends his character arc into a downward spiral. When Jackson is first introduced, he is a cunning and dangerous man who still feigns politeness even after revealing his true intentions. By the end of the movie, he has lost his subtlety and has degenerated to the point where he seems to feel he has only one purpose left: killing Lisa. By the time they meet again in her house, he seems to have forgotten why he even abducted her in the first place, as he barely seems phased when Lisa tells him that she successfully foiled his assassination attempt.

In other words, Jackson basically finds himself struggling with a "female-driven, emotion-based dilemma" while Lisa is applying "male-driven, fact-based logic". Jackson subverts his own reasoning by giving into his frustrations with Lisa and allowing them to control him, to the point where he practically loses any semblance of rational thought. At the same time, Lisa has managed to control her emotions and is now systematically working with every resource available to either evade Jackson or defend herself. Lisa even comments on this development in Jackson's character, pointing out he seems to be moving on nothing but pure anger.

Red Eye is therefore a perfect example of a film that aims to subvert gender stereotyping that is unfortunately still prevalent in modern filmmaking. It is a movie about the conflict between two people, male and female, but it shows that these generalizations are not necessarily true. It is often said that men are driven by logic and women by feeling, a notion that is thoroughly debunked by Red Eye. This movie demonstrates how such assumptions are offensive and ultimately detrimental to those who make them, as emotional and rational characteristics can in fact be found in people of either gender. Women can be every bit as rational as men can be emotional. Neither quality is gender-specific, and that is a lesson that needs to be learned.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Some Thoughts on the 2015 Academy Award Nominees

The Academy Award Nominees for 2014 have finally been announced, and I've got something of a history of never agreeing with their decisions. It always seems that the movie that gets picked is the one movie I never got around to seeing either because of disinterest, not really feeling like I want to watch that kind of movie at the time of its release, or due to poor advertising offering the wrong impression (seriously, look at any poster for The Help and tell me they don't make it look like a cheesy romantic comedy instead of a period drama about racism). So far that has happened with The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave.

Usually I'm forced to watch them at a later time for no other reason than because I want to see what all the fuss is about. Some of them, like The Hurt Locker turned out to be pretty good, while others such as The Artist were just okay. In any case, the movies I usually feel should win (at least at the time) often don't. I can't be the only one that wanted Hailee Steinfeld to win for True Grit (though she should have been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role). Twelve Years a Slave was a well-done movie but Gravity was more deserving of that Best Picture Award.

That brings me to a depressing topic. I've discussed this before, last year, around Oscar Season, and I feel it is worth revisiting. That topic is the Academy's relationship to the science fiction genre. Putting it quite blutly, they seem to have some kind of deeply rooted prejudice against anything that can be considered "science fiction" in the slightest sense. They dismiss it as something that only encompasses 1950's b-movies and pulp magazines (never mind that some of the most beloved science fiction writers, such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, wrote for such mediums).

Then you get into this bizarre and absurd phenomenon known as the sci-fi ghetto where a "proper" author writes science fiction or a critic sees a science fiction movie they actually like but refuse to admit it. Instead they try to come up with some bizarre rationalization about how it isn't science fiction in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. The Time Traveler's Wife, for example, is a movie in which the science fiction aspect was so obvious it was even included in the title, and yet the director still maintained that it was not science fiction. It's a bit like me saying that I don't like musicals but Singin' in the Rain isn't a musical so it's okay for me to like it.

My unborn fetus can pop out of my womb and travel through time! How is this not science fiction?

Naturally, this pointless snobbery carries on into the Oscars. Very few science fiction movies have been nominated for anything higher than perhaps a Best Visual Effects award, and even fewer have actually won. Gravity was a far more impressive technological achievement than Twelve Years A Slave, and it seemed like a partial victory when it did manage to win Best Director. Still, consider the multitude of other films that got missed because of this pointless hatred. Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest cinematic minds of all time received a grand total of one Oscar in his entire career: Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While it cannot be denied that the effects of 2001 were incredible and deserving of this recognition, the movie should have cleared out the Oscars like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2001: A Space Odyssey was not even nominated for Best Picture, and it lost the only other prestigious award it was nominated for, Best Director, to Oliver. The greatest cinematic achievement of its day, and by extension one of the finest of all time, was not even nominated for Best Picture. Now, you might be wondering how this relates to the new line-up.

2014 was a great year for movies, that much is true. The Academy has also released its official list, which for some reason includes a Best Picture nominee in American Sniper, a film that as of this writing, has not yet been released. They got a few really good ones like Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, along with others I have not seen and thus am in no position to comment on. There was one film, however, that seemed to go completely unnoticed by the Academy, one that I would argue was one of the year's best. Apparently is has been ignored for no other reason than because it is a science fiction movie. I am of course talking about Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

When I went through the list of nominees I could not help but think "you have got to be kidding me". One of the best films of the year on every level, and it gets nominated for five Oscars, all among the "lower" ranks. This was a movie that should be nominated for Best Picture. In fact, it should be the one winning best picture, but the Academy would never allow that, would they? They would sooner decide to retroactively give the Best Picture award to The Garbage Pail Kids Movie than permit a science fiction film the dignity of being recognized by them. Seriously, what is their problem with science fiction films?

Speaking of Interstellar, how has Jessica Chastain not won an Oscar yet? She should have been nominated for her performance in Interstellar, but she was also nominated for her brilliant performances in Zero Dark Thirty  and The Help, both of which deserved she deserved to win. She is an actress who was practically born to play strong female leads, the kind of person we need more of in the modern film industry. If there is any recent actress who is overdue for an Oscar, it is her. Of course, now that she's been in a science fiction film the Academy will probably never want to take her seriously again. Oh, the horror!

So those are my thoughts on some of the choices made for the Academy Awards this year. Now that my top pick has failed to get the recognition it deserves, I'll have to find something else. Seriously, what is their problem with science fiction? Why do these people see it as something to look down on and just shove on the shelf next to fantasy (usually ignoring the very clear and mutually exclusive defining features of both genres). I have no way of predicting who is going to win, but based on experience whatever film I actually feel deserves that Best Picture Oscar is going to be the one that doesn't get it.

What are your thoughts on the 2015 nominees? Is there something you feel should have been nominated, or that you would like to see win Best Picture. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Burning Down the House

In 1988, the movie Die Hard was released, sparking a wave of imitators in the 1990's, but what becomes especially strange is the political turn these films eventually seem to take. The original Die Hard had no real political elements. The villains were essentially just criminals planning a heist and disguising it as a terrorist operation to confuse authorities (they even have a bit of fun with it, with Hans Gruber sending the authorities a large number of phony demands for members of random terrorist groups to be released). Similar situations occur in a lot of the later imitators as well. Dennis Hopper's character in Speed was basically a psychotic killer who used money as an excuse for his actions, more in line with Dirty Harry's Scorpio than Die Hard's Hans Gruber. In Con Air, the villains are a group of psychotic criminals who have taken over a prison plane and the hero has to stop them from escaping to Mexico.

However, things start to change once we get closer to the year 2000, and a lot of these movies seem to become more political in nature. The Rock actually gives its villains an understandable (if poorly explained) goal in the form of making a statement about how the government has treated the families of fallen soldiers. Air Force One is notable for bringing in actual terrorists as the villains for once. Instead of being after money or some other petty goal, the antagonists actually have a political end goal in that they are trying to free a brutal dictator in whose capture the President had a hand.

Air Force One and The Rock therefore take a much stranger turn in that they begin to turn patriotic in nature (or at least attempt to, in the case of The Rock). Air Force One helps to enforce the shift in tone by making the central character the President himself, and casting him as an action hero who has to save the day. This gives the film added stakes in that there is a sense of having to save the country instead of simply stopping the terrorists and saving the hostages. It is also worth noting that around the same time the movie Independence Day was released and made famous by its scene depicting the destruction of the White House.

Hollywood seems to enjoy finding ways to blow up the White House, seeing as it has done it several times since. The "Die Hard on an X" formula began to lose its popularity around the same time, but it never truly went away. Die Hard imitators were still made, and they still happen today, just not as frequently much like how there people continue to make film noir and slashers long after the height of their popularity. Movies like Panic RoomRed Eye, and Dredd all have elements of the "Die Hard on an X" formula, with Non-Stop possibly being yet another "Die Hard on a plane" movie. Possibly the most curious development happened in 2013, which saw the release of not one, but two action films that functioned as "Die Hard in the White House".

Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down came out only a few months apart from each other. Plot-wise they were quite similar, using elements of the "Die Hard on an X" formula to tell the story of a man associated with the Secret Service (a troubled agent in Olympus Has Fallen, and a rejected applicant in White House Down) who proves himself when he becomes the only hope after the White House gets overrun by terrorists. Chaos inevitably ensues at the expense of the White House. Olympus Has Fallen is definitely the better film of the two (though White House Down had some interesting ideas) but there is something to be said about the fact that there were two "Die Hard in the White House" movies released the exact same year. 

Both films made a spectacle of  demolishing the building (though perhaps not on quite the same scale as the famous scene from Independence Day. While it is normal for the "Die Hard on an X" formula to prominently feature the gradual destruction of whatever location serves as the setting, be it a shopping mall (Die Hard), a boat (Under Siege), an airplane (Passenger 57, Con Air, Air Force One), a bus (Speed), or Alcatraz (The Rock), Hollywood seems to have a disturbing obsession with  the White House in particular.

The big question is why American films have such a strange love for blowing up their own government buildings, and why the White House in particular? You don't see very many Hollywood pictures that make a display of destroying say... the Canadian Parliament buildings or Buckingham Palace. The answer likely lies in the sense of patriotism that, ironically, is often a crucial part of American movies that feature the destruction of the White House, but why the White House in particular? After all, the American government has plenty of other significant buildings. Why not blow up the Pentagon, for instance?

While the American Government has a wide variety of important buildings, the White House is probably the best known, and is often seen as a figurehead of sorts. That view might not be entirely unjustified either, seeing as it does serve as the home of the President and his family (and indeed it is also the site of many government operations). When discussing American politics with anybody, American or otherwise, more people are likely to think of the White House than the Pentagon or the J. Edgar Hoover building. Because it is such an iconic landmark in the American political scene, it is easily recognizable to most viewers, even people (like me) who aren't actually American.

The fact that the White House is such a well-known image therefore makes it one that will stand out more in the viewer's mind, and a perfect candidate for destruction. If you blew up the Pentagon you might still make an impact but it would not have quite the same impact. By destroying the White House, the home of the President and essentially a figurehead for the entire American Government, you depict the fall of American power. The destruction of the White House in Independence Day, Olympus Has Fallen, and White House Down all symbolize the danger that is posed to the American people, something so great that even the President is at a loss on how to deal with the situation.

However, it is also worth noting that the President himself (he is usually a man) often survives the destruction of his home and tries to fight back. In Air Force One, the President literally becomes the only person who can stop the terrorists who have hijacked his plane. In the cases of Independence Day and White House Down, he manages to barely survive the destruction of the White House and ultimately has to rally together his remaining allies to save the day. In essence, the destruction of the White House symbolizes the President's loss of power and sets in motion his quest to earn it back.

The one exception to the rule is in Olympus Has Fallen, in which the President spends most of the movie imprisoned by the terrorists, and it falls upon a disgraced Secret Service agent to rescue him. Instead of the President reclaiming his power, the journey becomes about a man's quest for redemption by serving his country. While it is not the President himself, the destruction of the White House still serves a similar purpose, as he is rendered powerless and left at their mercy when the terrorists trap him in his own bunker. In the end, The hero regains his honor by saving the President and essentially restoring him to power.

Ultimately, destroying the White House presents an ironic message. Because it is such an iconic figurehead of American politics, destroying the White House takes away the President's authority and forces him to earn it back. Blowing up such an important landmark therefore creates a paradoxically patriotic message by depicting America as a nation that will not go down easily, and no matter what trouble arises they will always find a way to come out on top once again. Putting it simply, the reason why so many American films like to demolish the White House is, strangely enough, to enforce the image of America as a dominant power.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Torture and Terrified Women

In many ways film is about spectacle, and in no area is that clearer than in its many ways of treating the human body.  The history of putting a body on display for the viewer goes back a long way, long before cinema. It goes at least as far back as the "strong man" acts of 19th century circus shows, which would feature a large musclebound man performing "unusual" feats of strength to amaze the viewers. The earliest cinematic example I have found is one of Edison's Kinetoscope films, Sandow the Strong Man. The display of a muscular body (usually male, though female examples are becoming more common) would become an important element of the action film, and the same basic principle is still present in many contemporary works (Taylor Lautner in the Twilight series, for instance).

However, there are other ways to create a spectacle using a human body of either gender. On one end, there is the display of an impressive muscular build, and the display of the body in motion. On the other, there is precisely the opposite, something much darker and more disturbing. Instead of contriving situations to show off the body, situations are instead developed to show its destruction. The appropriately-named The Wizard Of Gore emphasized this very idea. The titular character, Montage the Magnificient, would create "illusions of illusions".

In one scene he performs an inversion of the classic "sawing a lady in half trick" wherein he actually saws a female audience member in half (with a chainsaw) but makes it appear to be an illusion. In the same scene, Montag delivers a speech in which he explains that "terror and torture have always fascinated mankind". He likens it to the pleasure experienced by spectators of Gladiatorial shows in Ancient Rome, which while perhaps not as violent as often depicted in the movies (the fights weren't always to the death) was still based around people harming each other to entertain others.

Indeed, there does seem to be a sort of sick, twisted pleasure to be found in observing the abuse inflicted on another person's body. This makes up an entire sub-genre of horror commonly known as "body horror". The idea behind it is simple, to frighten the viewer by mutilating or distorting the image of the human body. When done right it can be a very effective tool for horror, but in a strange sort of way it also serves precisely the opposite. The abuse or distortion of the body becomes less a mere source of fear and becomes itself a source of spectacle.

The Wizard of Gore gives the viewer a unique view compared to the fictional audience within the film, in that we get to see the violence in its excruciating detail, while we also see the perspective of the film's audience (that watches oblivious to what is really happening). When the viewer watches a body (often female, for some reason) being mutilated in this fashion, it creates a bodily response of sorts, much like watching a martial arts movie.

When watching a movie like Enter the Dragon, there is a feeling that the viewer experiences. When they watch Bruce Lee beating up one of the antagonists, there is a feeling of tension that excites them. It makes the viewer feel as though he or she is part of the action, right in there next to Bruce taking out the bad guys. This concept is known as "muscular sympathy", and has a major role in the popularity of action films featuring martial arts, though it does appear in other forms of action movies as well.

Just as martial arts films rely on the spectacle of bodies in motion, the horror genre relies on the spectacle of bodily abuse. The same basic principal of muscular sympathy applies to the horror genre as well, if in a different form. In a similar vein, the viewer is excited by a tense feeling (which I shall refer to as "muscular repulsion") that makes them feel like they are experiencing what is on screen. The difference is in precisely how the viewer feels. Instead of feeling like they are right next to Bruce Lee beating people up, it becomes more as though they are the ones taking a beating at his hands. More accurately, the viewer feels as though they are experiencing the pain of whatever horror is being inflicted.

A perfect example would be David Cronenberg's The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum's character, Seth Brundle, accidentally has his DNA merged with that of a fly. What makes this particular film so terrifying is watching him slowly transform into something that seems less human. We see the process over several weeks, perhaps months, as he slowly transforms into a disturbing hybrid. As he does, his body becomes distorted, and it becomes increasingly harder to tell where he ends and the fly begins. When watching The Fly, the viewer experiences a sense of pain, because they feel as though they are experiencing the transformation as well. It seems as though the viewer knows what it feels like to be transformed in this way.

This feeling is also especially prominent towards the end, when the final stages of the transformation are taking place. First there is a spectacle of the harm inflicted on a supporting character, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who loses his hand to the titular monster. In this moment, the viewer feels as though they too are experiencing the same pain (and of an especially excruciating sort, seeing as his hand appears to be slowly corroded off his arm). Later on, when Brundle (or "Brundlefly" as he is often known at this point) is merged with the teleporter itself, he crawls out in excruciating agony. The viewer once again gets a sense of the horrendous pain that comes from his final transformation. Just like in the martial arts film, it feels as though they are part of the action.

Muscular repulsion is certainly a major part of the experience in watching a horror film of any sort, especially one with large amounts of gore. Just muscular sympathy makes the viewer feel like they are fighting alongside the hero, muscular repulsion makes the viewer feel as though they are on the wrong end of the action.  It is a major part of most horror films, especially ones that feature large amounts of gore. In a similar vein, The Thing features the same experience of muscular repulsion in specific moments. 

The outdoor scenes make the viewer feel as though they are in the freezing wasteland of Antarctica, while indoors they get the same sense of paranoia, but it is in a few select moments when moments of true muscular repulsion happens. These include scenes such as the infamous scene where Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to use a defibrillator on his fallen colleague Norris (Charles Hallahan), only to discover the man in question was infected. Nobody (including the viewer) realizes this until Norris's chest opens and slices Copper's arms off, leaving him to die presumably from a combination of shock, blood loss, and smoke inhalation. 

Like in The Fly, the viewer is excited by a bodily response in that they seem to feel the same pain as Copper. They experience a sense of shock and experience muscular repulsion in that they feel as though they have just been through the same experience. This is one of the best examples, but muscular repulsion is present at numerous other moments, such as when Bennings (Pater Maloney) is assimilated, and Windows (Thomas G. Waites) is killed by the Palmer-thing. The simplest case arguably happens just prior to the blood test scene, when Clark (Richard Masur) is shot in the head by MacReady (Kurt Russell), when the viewer feels as though they too are on the wrong end of revolver he is holding at the time.

The Thing also provides another method of using bodily abuse as a spectacle, in the form of distorting and transforming the body. In this case, it happens when the characters who have been infected are exposed. With each one, they begin to transform, usually still somewhat resembling the victims but in a mutilated form. During the scene where MacReady performs the blood test, Palmer (David Clennon) is exposed as a Thing and immediately his body begins contorting. His face becomes elongated, his skin shrivels, and turns into a sickly reddish-brown color that almost looks as though he is decomposing. Once the Palmer-Thing breaks loose of its restraints, its head splits in half and turns into a mouth.

Similar approaches happen with the other cast members that are exposed as well. Norris opens his chest like a mouth full of sharp teeth and then proceeds to disconnect his own head (which then drags itself along the floor with an elongated tongue before growing legs and a separate pair of eyes), while the body grows a new one out of the torso (that resembles Norris with fangs). When the Blair-Thing transforms in the film's climax, only half of his face still remains visible (attached to the back of a sideways head filled with sharp teeth). Even Bennings, who is infected much earlier in the film, is shown first in the process of assimilation (his body is coated in a sickly red and wrapped in tentacles), and then partially assimilated just enough that the viewer can recognize him while also seeing clearly that he is no longer human.

At its core, the principle is basically the same as in the action movie. Much the hardbodied heroes of the 1980's or even Sandow the Strongman, the human body is displayed as a spectacle for the viewer to admire. The difference is in how. Much like how a film such as Predator impresses the viewer by displaying the extremely muscular bodies of its actors, movies like The Wizard of Gore, The Thing, and The Fly attempt to impress the viewer by doing the exact opposite. Instead of displaying a muscular build, they display the body being destroyed, mutilated, distorted, or in some other way being abused. This in turn becomes a major part of what makes a lot of horror films work, and how they affect their viewers.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

We're Goin' to be Doin' One Thing and One Thing Only: Criticizing a Movie

I remember when Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds first came out in theaters. It was a huge hit, everybody seemed to be talking about it. I myself did not know of it until I started seeing commercials on TV, ones that made it look like some sort of weird comedy. It wasn't even until I did some further research months later that I even realized it was supposed to be set in World War II. At the same time this was my first real exposure to Quentin Tarantino as a director, and at the time I was not entirely sure about his reputation for violence. Over time he has come to win me over with several great movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Django Unchained.

Still, I felt unsure if I would ever be able to get into Tarantino's work after the first movie of his I actually watched in full. That was Inglorious Basterds. I was in High School at the time, in grade 11 when my teacher was running a film class for the first time. I was trying to work on my independent study unit and needed some footage from one of the movies we watched, so my teacher let me get it off his hard drive. He also told me he had a bunch of other movies on there and I could take any of them if I wanted. I got a whole bunch off of that thing (this was back before I started to develop ethics regarding ownership of pirated movies), and one of the first ones I saw was Inglorious Basterds.

This was a movie everybody was talking about when it came out. My classmates were quoting it, referencing it, and it seems in general to have a surprisingly huge fanbase for a standalone movie. Naturally, when I obtained it as a file from my teacher's hard drive I decided to give it a watch to see what all the hype was about. Sadly, I'm not so sure it lived up to that hype. I've voiced my opinions on this movie before to quite a number of people, most of whom react with complete astonishment and act like there's something wrong with me when I tell them I didn't like it. I remember even in film class afterwards talking about seeing Pulp Fiction and hoping that it would "redeem" Tarantino.

With hindsight, Inglorious Basterds did have a lot of Tarantino's trademarks, and from a purely technical standpoint it is actually a very well-done movie. The camera work is all very good, as is the cinematography and the acting. It does take talent to make a movie in three different languages, especially when your own native language is the one that is used the least. That is not an easy stunt to pull off. Very few American directors even have the nerve to attempt to make a movie in a language other than their own, so there is something to be admired in that area. The problems mostly come from the story and the general themes of the movie, many of which seem to conflict with each other.

There seem to be two different ways of looking at Inglorious Basterds, and I've heard people use both interpretations when describing how much they liked it. The first is that it is some sort of dark comedy about Americans going in to take revenge on the Nazis. To be fair, the Nazis were horrible genocidal maniacs so I can see why many people would enjoy a movie centered around a group of Allied Soldiers going into Germany to induce payback. Unfortunately, that explanation comes into question when one considers the second interpretation: that it is really a drama about how war is not black and white and even the supposed "good guys" are capable of committing war crimes.

This is precisely where the trouble begins to set in. Inglorious Basterds is literally trying to be two completely different movies at the same time, neither of which go together. If it's a comedy in which we're supposed to be entertained by watching the deaths of Nazis, that's fine. Unfortunately it defeats the purpose when you then turn around and try to make it clear that nearly every German soldier encountered is a civilian who doesn't have any particular ties to Nazism. It's hard to enjoy that one man being clubbed with a baseball bat when you've just gone out of your way to make us sympathize with him. Same goes for that scene in the bar where the soldiers are just a group of civilians playing a game to celebrate the birth of one man's son.

On the other hand, perhaps it's the reverse. Maybe the whole point is to show that the Americans weren't always the "good guys" and that they could do horrible things as well, as indeed they historically did (the propaganda films of the time usually left out what the American and Canadian governments were doing to Japanese immigrants during the war). That would explain the efforts to authenticate everything, right down to having the majority of the film be spoken in French or German (as opposed to simply having the Nazis speak in thin German accents, like on Hogan's Heroes). That version of the film also seems to make sense until you consider the campier moments, like the fact that this movie includes a scene where Hitler is shot dead in an over-the-top fashion by the titular basterds, again defeating the purpose.

If your intention was to create a realistic war film that emphasized a message about how World War II was not as black and white as people often assume (which is true, we did after all have an even worse genocidal maniac on our side: Joseph Stalin), why do you end it like that? Trying to authenticate everything and then changing what historically happened makes all the effort seem redundant. It's like making a movie about the Titanic, going out of your way to make sure every single actor is speaking in an authentic accent for their respective background, and then having it end with the ship swerving around the ice berg and arriving safely in New York. Why did you even bother to go that extra step if you were just going to mess it all up?

So which one is it? Is it a comedy about killing Nazis or a serious war film about how the Allied forces weren't always the "good guys". These two ideas don't go together. Had Inglorious Basterds stuck to one or the other, it might have worked. As a comedy it could have been a fun little action movie that perhaps culminates in Hitler being killed in an over-the-top fashion, sort of an American fantasy of how World War II should have ended. As a drama, it could have been an emotional experience that seriously forces the viewer to question their perspective on World War II. When put together, both approaches defeat the purpose of each other.

Also, to add to all that, Michael Fassbender's role in the movie was completely pointless. Why would you go through all the trouble of introducing this character of Lt. Hickox just so you can kill him off in the very next scene? His only contribution to the story is accidentally being responsible for a shootout because he accidentally exposed himself as an Englishman. Any of the other characters that had already been established could have done the same. This guy had no purpose for being in the film at all. Why is he even there?

In the end, Inglorious Basterds is not a very good movie. On a purely technical level, yes, it is impressive. Once you actually look at the content of the film itself, it becomes a mess. It tries to be combine two mutually exclusive ideas that really should not be blended together. Tarantino has made some great movies, some of which do address darker periods in history. Django Unchained was a western that addressed a period of history when slavery was perfectly legal, and that one also ended with the main character taking out a plantation. It didn't try to make you sympathize with the slave owner, so you could root for Django the whole way through. Inglorious Basterds on the other hand, doesn't really work in the same way. I know people think I'm crazy for saying this, but it's really not that good a movie.