Why it doesn’t matter if the cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale” calls it political or feminist and the Codification of the F-Test

Re: MTV, Vulture, VOX, Mashable, and others.

Ah, the press tour. Latently synonymous with female celebrities getting dragged in multiple think pieces for failing to use the word feminist.

It happened with Shaleine Woodley a few years ago: she said she wasn’t a feminist, gave the (yes, uncomfortable, misguided and vague) stock-reasons as to why not (“it creates division,” “I believe in sisterhood”). Woodley has since gotten arrested at a #nodapl protest, one of the most stunning examples of celebrity activism I can recall in recent memory. The word “feminism” was merely a stick to beat Shaleine with. It was no substantive anticipator of her altruism, allyship, or activism.

It didn’t happen with Taylor Swift. Or Amy Schumer. They correctly used the word we liked to hear, and were lauded… until they didn’t actually practice any real, substantive feminism. Swift has been accused of using her white female privilege to sully the name of Kanye West. Swift was silent during the election. Amy Schumer has been accused of enabling rapists and making racist jokes. Feminism was a stick to beat them with, too, except in this case, their mistake was agreeing to identify as a feminist. And, again, the F-word was no substantive indicator of how feminist or not these women are.

(Interestingly, Margaret Atwood has said when people ask her if she’s a feminist, she wants to know what they mean by it. And with those remarks, she explains why people might say they’re not a feminist “because they believe in equality,” or because they believe in sisterhood, or because it’s divisive).

As a female celebrity, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s a frenzy if one refuses to identify herself as a feminist (Kim Kardashian, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even Margaret Atwood herself, at points, have fallen into this), and a frenzy if she *does* (re: Schumer, Swift, but, also, Lena Dunham) but then never does anything feminist, or isn’t sufficiently intersectional enough. Meanwhile, precisely zero male celebrities have ever encluntered the the new celebrity PR trap: alienate half your audience if you say you’re a feminist, alienate the other half if you say you’re not. (Men, by contrast, get fun softballs, like “How do you write female characters so well?” “How do you keep your male allyship award for starting in a female driven media so shiny?”) The question–“Are you a feminist?”–and the well-meaning media frenzy that follows, regardless of the answer is a way to objectify women, by making a sport of condemning someone you will never meet. But it’s somehow been neatly domesticated into a notion of feminism we’re comfortable with. 

Now it’s happening to the cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” who have eschewed calling the show feminist or political on their press tour. But let me burst your bubble for one sec:

It doesn’t matter if the stars of a “A Handmaid’s Tale” think the show is feminist, or political. “A Handmaid’s Tale” is feminist and political. And not by virtue of heavy mining for meaning, or sifting through symbols. It’s glaring, it’s spoon-fed: it’s didactic message is undeniable and in your face and not even up for debate.

Actors perform. I’m not saying I don’t want to hear actors speak. I’m not saying they’re not intelligent (although, I do think performers can get too close to their characters to see the bigger picture, and I’m also sure any director will tell you you don’t direct political messages or theme: you direct cause/result, motivations, etc.). I’m saying what they owe us and what their job is is to perform. Their job is not to be perfect feminist scholars: they couldn’t be if they wanted to. Let’s remember the impossibility of true feminism when, well, they’re selling a Hollywood object for fame and money, not running a not-for-profit activist organization.

We do live in a divided country. “A Handmaid’s Tale” does have a political message and one worth sharing. By shying away from overtly political messaging at the press-tour stage, the cast endeavored to reach a wider audience: the kind of audience that needs to see this show.

But also: it’s gross to take the conversation away from an actress’s work (the performance, the object) and onto the words they said as a candid civilian on a compulsory press tour. Just because Instagram, Twitter, a bigger focus on gossip reporting propelled by so many digital content creators, and the proliferation of fan-conferences give us greater access to our favorite celebrities, doesn’t mean our conversations should stray away from the actual objects from which we know our favorite celebrities.

Do materials, details, interviews, etc. outside of the screen image matter? Yes, definitely. I just don’t think “used the word ‘feminism’ on a press tour” is among them.

This is not a battle cry for complacency. Of course we demand more of our media, and we demand more of our celebrities. If Shaleine Woodley says feminism is antithetical to sisterhood, her young fans will believe her. And of course “The Handmaid’s Tale” cast’s comments on political messaging are cringe-worthy and misguided. But it doesn’t affect the meaning of their show, or how it will be received. And also: we need to let women live.

The trend of putting women on display and chastising them for being a non-identified feminist is not feminist anymore. The F-test is to a modern-day actress what a morality clause was to classical Hollywood actresses. It’s weird. It’s objectifying. It’s a trap. It’s impossible. It merely demands they act exactly as we would like them to. It sure as shit doesn’t get any feminist agenda, anywhere, moving. And it’s patronizing to vilify women on something outside their profession instead of discussing their actual profession. It would be weird and obnoxious if, in a job interview, or a profile on your career excellence, something you did outside of your job was made to de-center a conversation on your career merits, taking away from the assessment of your work, your career, and your accomplishments.

And, most importantly: feminism is not a stick to beat other women with.

REVIEW: The Conjuring 2, is definitely scary but should stick to what its good at

REVIEW: The Conjuring 2, is definitely scary but should stick to what its good at

The Conjuring constituted something of a cultural phenomenon. As horror films go, it was high-budget, star-studded (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and others), and enjoyed the lowest common denominator of being embraced by fans and receiving something resembling critical attention. It’s not that it was original: it took its cues from a mixture of haunting movies (pretty much anything with “Amityville” in the title) and demonic possession movies (pretty much anything with “exorcism” in the title). The language of The Conjuring combined multiple genres: the animation of banal objects, the ventriloquism of otherwise sweet children, the creepiness of the literal house (following a large body of horror films for which Clover’s “the terrible place” is the domestic space), and, quite liberally, shots of scary, gangrenous, ghostly faces, if only for a frame or too. The Conjuring failed to accomplish the dictates of truly good horror (this year’s The Witch brought about interesting meditations on feminine coming-of-age as well as the entire script of good femininity, while 10 Cloverfield Lane dealt with kidnapping, confinement, and apocalypse rendered with staggering ingenuity… last year’s It Follows deployed issues of adolescent sex, and the list of thematically saturated horror goes on), but it did manage the ultimate goal: to be really fucking scary. When I screened it in my living room, I involuntarily screamed, audible genuine screams.

The Conjuring 2 basically follows the same format as its predecessor. The first horror elements come from the animation of different toys and household objects: an empty swing swinging, an empty chair rocking, a toy fire truck turning on seemingly by itself. Soon enough, a sweet girl becomes fodder for demonic puppetry. Finally, jump scares–mostly in the form of creepy faces accompanied by crescendoes in the score and sound mixing–abound in every corner. Unlike The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 gets tripped up in telling two narratives in parallel for the first half of the film. The Conjuring 2 maintains its connection to the first film by introducing us to the life and times of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, the home-exorcism experts of the Amityville horror we witnessed in the first film. We switch back and forth between the Warrens, and a british family, the Hodgens, victims of a London haunting. While their Hodgens story is much more compelling, we’re frequently brought back to the Warrens as Lorraine grows hysterical about a vision that continues to haunt her from one of the Warrens’ cases. Lorraine tries desperately to convince Ed that it’s time for the two to get out of the haunting game, but, when the Hodgens’ haunting is brought to their attention, the Warrens decide to take one more case before retirement.

The Conjuring 2 manages to leverage scores of jump scares before the nuts and bolts of the plot even get doled out, which works in its favor. But, by an hour into the run time, when audience adrenaline and heart rates have been turned up to 11, The Conjuring 2 gets tripped up in explaining an excessively complicated plot behind the haunting, but without any particularly revelational twist. Because the actual plot is entirely unfascinating, I’m going to spoil it in the review: several spirits (The Crooked Man, a character from the Hodgens’ children’s zoetrope toy, an old man who died in the house, and a few others), who have intermittently haunted the family, were really just serving as decoys for this OTHER demon that can be condemned back to hell if you invoke its name, which Lorraine does at a crucial climax, recalling that she’d learned the demon’s name in a vision earlier in the film. Oy! It’s complicated, and boring. It’s far from a satisfying story, and the final revelation (the demon’s name) hardly constitutes an unexpected twist (a la the family was dead the whole time, the events were all told through an unreliable subjectivity, the culprit was someone unexpected, etc. etc.) though the film begs audiences to see it this way. The hour-or-so portion of the film devoted to getting this plot out is nothing short of laborious, and every time Lorraine Warren has a “eureka” moment that may allow her to defeat the baddie  by the end, it’s impossible not to roll one’s eyes.

Not to mention, that the whole plot lacks any real thematic meat. In fact, if there’s anything to be gleaned, ideologically from the film, it’s a pretty overt religious project: the demons in both the films, and the religious impulses of the Warren family, only serve to confirm and uphold the ideologies and beliefs of the Christian faith, which is a far-from-haunting final takeaway, and rings ultimately as cheesy, cloying and contrived. But, what’s worse, is that the plot and abject Christianity of the film, bog the film down from doing what it could truly excel at: scaring the shit out of you. The scary elements are cheap as hell: the opportunities for jump scares are exploited indiscriminately, left and right. It’s not to say that these aren’t rendered in new and exciting ways (one of the scariest moments of the film, actually, is merely a cut after which the ventriloquized Hodgens girl appears directly next to her older sister’s bed, seemingly having teleported, albeit across the cut, a moment which hardly registers as “done” or “trope-y”). The film even directly confronts a number of horror tropes (we see a shot of the entire family running out of the house after an incident, seeming to answer the audience’s most burning question through the ages: “Why wouldn’t you just leave the house?”)

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So, it’s not to say there isn’t some cleverness in the language of The Conjuring 2, merely that the opportunities to scare audiences mostly take the form of shock and surprise. They’re cheap! And there’s nothing wrong with that–horror audiences crave the adrenaline rush of filmic terror, and if this rush can be pulled off without campy bad-acting, even better. But these requirements make up a great valley of horror, being that most horror is either not-scary or so badly written and executed that it’s unwatchable, except maybe as ironic camp, ultimately catapulting the original object into the comedy genre, unintentionally. Here sits The Conjuring saga on a gold mine, but the second film insists on having a convoluted plot in order to lead to cinching revelations.

The film manages to be sincerely frightening. It should just stick with that: an hour and a half of shameless jump scares, and a simple, concise exorcism to introduce closure. As long as the plot it proposes is total garbage, it may as well succeed at what it does best. Even if this were to produce a contrived or silly ending, it could hardly be worse than what the film ultimately proposes.

“LoveFilm: Recut”

LoveFilm: Recut is is a remix of LoveFilm (dir. Istvan Szabo, MaFilm, Hungary, 1970) that imposes linearity and chronology on the source text. The chronologization of the film is fraught with my own subjectivities–in this case, by my lack of historical and cultural knowledge–such that the act of remixing examines questions of cultural specificity and collective memory.

“Collective memory” has fascinated many of the scholars that have approached LoveFilm: the love story in LoveFilm gestures at the personal, while the representation of Hungarian history and memory harkens to the “collective.” My paper, “Putting the Trans in National Cinemas: Mediating Culturally Specific Narratives Through Love in A Touch of Spice (2003) and LoveFilm (1970),” seeks to address the love story as universally legible and the cultural specificities as more esoteric in an international reception context. The remix, and the extent to which other viewers may quibble about the sequencing, makes the claim that the historical events are more accessible and recognizable to those who share in the collective memory of World War II-era Hungary. 

REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

Eye in the Sky opens with a quote on black. “Truth,” the title card waxes, “is the first casualty in war.”

The point is resonant and well taken, but it’s hard to say if the film itself agrees with the adage at all, and, even if we’re to assume it does, whose truth is liable to atrophy in war is extremely ambiguous, if not purposefully obscured.

Continue reading “REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project”

Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Horror movies are the best movies. There. I said it.

Horror’s ability to dramatize larger-than-life threats (monsters, ghosts, demons, psychos) in order to disseminate resonant and cogent themes that reflect and meditate on the very nature of fear itself provides the genre’s Achilles heal and elevating grace. When horror films fail to suspend our disbelief or provide convincing writing and performances, it can fail miserably at its own objectives: to scare and to ponder. But, when horror succeeds at provoking immersion and conviction, and engenders a textured, multi-layered approach to fear, it can soar above all other films in its unique ability to do that which it sets out to do: scare us. tl;dr: when horror films are good, they’re really, really good and when they’re bad they’re rotten. I was surprised and delighted to find Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane situated in the former category.

“10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.”

Wielding the virtues of a stunning cast and a big budget, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds at delivering any horror maven’s desires: 1) effective jump scares, the bounty of which any adrenalin-junkie is in constant pursuit 2) codification of fear towards the film’s central diegetic threats (apocalypse, confinement, kidnapping) and 3) rumination on insidious, non-diegetic fear (which I will soon elucidate). All of these elements constituate the film’s brilliant thematic work.

The film follows Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010]), who leaves her fiancée in the middle of the night in pursuit of greener pastures only to be driven off of the road by an irate truck driver (it’s less trope-y and “done” than it sounds). She wakes up in a cinder block cell, with a now-broken leg chained to the wall. She manages to use an water-drip IV to retrieve her personal affects from across the room, including her surprisingly not-dead phone, but she has no cellular service. She’s underground. Enter Howard, played by John Goodman (who begs no introduction, obvs), who brings a tray of food and benevolently urges Michelle to stay hydrated and “get handy” with a pair of crutches. In the coming days, Michelle learns that her surroundings are but one room in a surprisingly cozy bunker (which looks like equal parts the Dharma bunker from Lost and a studio set from the apartment of insert-your-favorite-sitcom-here) which she shares not only with Howard, but also with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of Short Term 12 [2012]) a Podunk simpleton who holds Howard in nothing but the highest regard for his foresight in constructing and generosity in sharing a bunker built for a doomsday scenario which has apparently taken hold of the nation somewhere in between the inciting car accident and Michelle waking up. The nature of the Armageddon is unclear–Howard offers hypotheses ranging from nuclear blasts at the hands of “the Russkis” to extraterrestrial probes. Michelle is skeptical, convinced that she’s being held for nefarious purposes rather than protective ones. Whether or not the apocalyptic scenario is actual (and, therefore, whether or not the strange and short-fused Howard is a hero or a villain) forms the central mystery of the film.


On paper, it sounds like 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its cues from the exposition of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt minus the comedic impulses and War of the Worlds, but the premise is articulated with what feels like utter-freshness as we are immediately encouraged to think that this is not a film we’ve seen played out before. The film’s relationship with not-so-acclaimed Cloverfield (2008) is only established, rather negligibly, in the last 15 minutes of the film, and its association with the antecedent film is liberated from the pesky shaky-cam and found-footage aesthetic. (The script was developed independent of the 2008 film, and it shows).

One of the greatest strengths of the film derives from its mise-en-scene which successfully impresses upon us the confinement and the sense of always being watched (as well as the contrivance of the bunker’s resemblance to a family home) of the characters, but additionally generates a prosthetic sense of confinement for the audience. The pacing of the film is on fire (save for a regrettable time-is-passing montage that shows Michelle, Emmett, and Howard to be getting along as a content, surrogate nuclear family) with every breath of stagnancy punctuated immediately by a scream-provoking cut, a chase sequence, or a big-reveal. The performances also shine brightly, chiefly in Goodman’s case.


Goodman makes an unlikely candidate for a dramatic, nay, terrifying, role, but his tendency towards comedic timing only contributes to the uneasiness of the film, as much of his dialogue is simultaneously pathetically laughable and highly unnerving. (He treats Michelle to home-distilled vodka, lamenting “I just said I distilled it, I didn’t say anything about it actually tasting good,” and he apologizes to Michelle about the circumstances offering, “I know that this isn’t the life that you prefer, and that it’s been hard for you to come down here… but I really want us to be a happy family, you and me”). As the audience attempts the tenuous process of deciding whether to loathe or root for Howard, Goodman provides the requisite nuance to evoke pity, horror, and above all, confusion. Primarily, we find out Howard is estranged from his daughter, Meghan, a reveal which is likely to provoke a pout in solidarity with Howard even as we are equally suspicious of his motives as Michelle.

Additionally, Winstead makes a great kickass heroine or “last girl.” In the first place, her characterization elides the Sci-Fi/fantasy impulse to masculinize it’s central female characters (re: Ripley of Alien fame, cuz, you know, women can’t be tough unless they’re basically manly). In fact, it is actually the female-coded skills of sewing and fashion design which allow Michelle to triumph over her circumstances–a properly badass gender and genre subversion. But, whatever the moment, Michelle provides a portrayal of the consummate survivor, scrappy, spry, and resourceful: at times, she endeavors to placate Howard, and at others she defies and mutinizes against him. This interplay advances greatly the thematics of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which dramatizes issues of (abusive) father-daughter relationships through the hyperbolized stakes of this surrogate family–Howard is simultaneously the bungling sitcom father, “just doing his best” as well as the twisted and monstrous parental archetype so familiar to horror films (albeit these portrayals are usually emblemized through a woman, see also: Psycho and Carrie). With the threat of apocalypse looming large, albeit somewhere in the background, 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.

SPOILER-SATURATED CONCLUSION AFTER THE JUMP

Continue reading “Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight”

Yamaguchi’s Short in “10 Nights of Dreams”

Andre Bazin once wrote of that “Photography and the cinema… satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence our obsession with realism” (Bazin, 312). While many film writers at the time focused on different aspects of film’s language, it cannot be denied that cinema’s ability to connote the index has been overdetermined in cinematic writings. The far more striking ability inherent to the cinema is not the index, the art of imitation, or “an image of the world… formed automatically without the intervention of man,” but rather, cinema’s ability to depict in real-time the bizarre, absurd, and seemingly uncapturable nature of poetics, dreams, surrealism, and fantasy (Bazin, 313).

Yamaguchi’s 10 Nights of Dreams short brilliantly underscores this point. Using a mixture of editing and mask-work to turn human beings into pig-human hybrids (two fat men snort instead of speak, and Yoshino turns into a pig-nosed woman right before Shotaro’s eyes), Yamaguchi highlights the film medium’s ability to represent something outside of the scope of reality, but animates these fictions in a convincing nature. Perhaps it would be better to say of cinema that it can present images with no referent as if they were born out of reality: Yamaguchi’s dream sequence looks scarcely less real than the realist cinema that fascinated Bazin, yet it has no index. Setting aside even special effects, the logic, or lack thereof, of Yamaguchi’s short elides film language–processes like parallel montage, accelerated montage, montage by attraction, all of which Bazin uses to elucidate his pro-realism writings–instead favoring the manic, nonsensical, nonlinear, and outrageous logic of dreams. For example, Shotaro recalls Genai’s advice to use his magic-broomstick-like staff to get out of dangerous situations at a moment that feels too convenient, in fact, utterly contrived. Going further, certain narrative information is given and then redacted. At the end of the short, Shotaro announces his imminent death. The narrator announces he lived until 138. Cut-to Genai saying he would become an astronaut. Cut-to Shotaro as an astronaut confirming his claims. Finally, the pace of the film is inconsistent, connoting the elusive temporality of dreams rather than reality.

In contrast with Bazin, Benjamin, a contemporary, seemed to predict film’s predisposition to poetic realism above indexical realism and man’s intervention above the concept of film as unmediated by an artist’s hand. Conversely, Benjamin wrote, “The entire process of film is determined by… intervention,” and “Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance’” (Benjamin, 238-240). Yamaguchi’s film shows that film can vividly animate scenarios that transcend the scope of our lived reality, but the image he provides is no less true, to the extent that everyone feels and experiences dreams; the images from our dreams are thus true, yet they elide a rendering that privileges realism.

word count: 462

Works Cited:

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The ontology of the photographic image.”Film Quarterly 13.4 (1960): 4-9.

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.”Visual Culture: Experiences in Visual Culture (2011): 144-137.

 

 

The Persistence of the Gaze as an Unwelcome Other in Le Bonheur

The Persistence of the Gaze as an Unwelcome Other in Le Bonheur

Excerpt–Intro

Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda’s 1965 film, opens with two rotating shots of sunflowers in the French countryside, coupling the opening credits at the beginning of the film. The returning floral motif in the film could be said merely to represent typical notions of femininity, in which the fragility and beauty of a flower are meant to express these qualities as ideal feminine traits. The flowers in this sequence might merely serve to demonstrate the beauty and cheerfulness of a family’s day in the countryside, or to establish the “happiness” of the couple through the bright colors and formal beauty of abounding flora. But, the sunflower sequence does something else, too: the circular, iris-like center of a sunflower in bloom becomes a visual metaphor for the oculus, or eye, itself, and the two sunflowers could be said to be looking at each other, performing a non-traditional shot-reverse-shot sequence. This might seem an incidental, or completely erroneous, observation, but the rapid-cutting employed towards the end of the sequence mirrors a de-facto shot-reverse-shot sequence towards the middle of the film, exposing the true work and coding of the interplay between the sunflowers. In Varda’s vision, 

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 4.42.27 PMThe sunflower sequence (left) is edited precisely like the shot-reverse-shot sequence on the right.

sunflowers, innocuous and ubiquitous, are just as likely owners of gaze as people, positing that viewers and voyeurs are ever-present, as an unwelcome third party witnessing or sharing a private event. Not only do the sunflowers seem to share a conversational interplay like two people in a shot reverse shot, but the second flower take focus (literally) away from the family at the center of the film, interrupting the first sunflower’s beholding of them and obfuscating them. In Le Bonheur, an affair becomes a metaphor for this unwelcome other. Gaze is like a mistress–it is an unwelcome third participant, that, like the foregrounding of the second sunflower, or the sunflower’s apparent gaze itself, detracts and steals from a private interaction between two people.