Archive for March, 2016

15
Mar
16

Song of the Sea

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Christ, what an asshole.

Song of the Sea is by the studio that made The Secret of Kells, and it’s funny, warm, beautiful, and sad, as you’d expect, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

Song of the Sea is about Ben, an Irish boy, and his relationship with his Selkie sister Saoirse, and their race to save her life and the lives of every other fairy or magical creature in the world. It does a lot of things right — the quiet way it lets the family’s trauma play out, the awful (but not quite abusive) way Ben treats his mute sister, his dawning self-awareness about how odious he’s been — those are all handled well, but there are two fundamental things the movie does that bug me:

First, the story is about Ben, not about Saoirse, despite it clearly being her story, not his. I understand this is typical of these kinds of movies, to make the audience stand-in the normal person, but Saoirse is a normal person for the bulk of the movie. She doesn’t have any particular knowledge or insight that would be problematic if it was given or withheld from us, she has the same emotional turmoil and catharsis to go through as Ben, she is literally the person who saves the magical world at the film’s first climax, but she’s consistently backgrounded in his favor, literally deprived of her voice, and it’s frustrating and alienating in a movie that is otherwise so deft emotionally; imagine if Harry Potter were written exclusively from Ron’s standpoint. If there were a gap between the characters — if she were significantly older or younger, say, or bigger or smaller, or more magical, or something — it would have gone down smoother, but the movie has an extended piece through the middle where they are literally tied together (because he has leashed her like a dog, which is simultaneously incredibly assholeish and a particularly well-observed bit of eight year old older brother dickishness), made a narrative unit even as he continues to belittle and berate her. You wouldn’t have had to do much to shift the emphasis here, either — simply shooting the same scenes from her perspective would have done the trick — but that might have made Ben out as too much of a villain. I don’t know. He should have been framed as more of a villain, maybe, and I’m sorry the movie didn’t commit to that empathetic leap. My sympathies as a viewer were entirely with her, but the film kept putting me in his place, and that dissonance was continually distracting.

Second, all the magical creatures go off to the Other World at the end of the movie, like they always do, and that always frustrates me. If your story is about leaving fantasy behind, or transcending it, or going through the harrowing process and returning to the other world informed and enlightened, that sort of thing makes sense, but Song of the Sea was explicitly about accepting yourself for who you are and the people you love for who they are, and not shutting things away simply because they’re uncomfortable. Ben and Saorise go through an entire movie to return her to her true, magical self (at which point she’s finally able to speak!), only for her to cast that away five minutes later because it would mean leaving her frankly terrible human family behind. She gets to keep her voice, I guess, but that’s still pretty paltry a reward. Hell, they get their dead mother back, and she goes off into the Distant West almost immediately. What was the point? That nothing comes without a cost? It feels undercooked. Compare the ending here to Labyrinth — which has a similar “you are a terrible older sibling now go save your kid brother/sister and also magic is real” plot, but which ends with Sarah partying with her goblin friends in the real world, having grown from her experience but not having to repudiate it all to return. That’s satisfying.

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That’s how you do it.

11
Mar
16

Four Oddballs

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Modesty Blaise

There are two of these. The more recent one is actually a pretty decent movie (and definitely worth a look as an honestly feminist spy movie where the action hero draws her power from the connections she’s made, not violent isolation) but the original one is candy colored and BALLS CRAZY. About equal parts Danger: Diabolik and Our Man Flint, it’s inexplicable, campy and fun as heck.

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Ravenous

A black comedy (or comedic horror movie) about cannibals and the Wendigo, written and directed by and starring vegetarians, so there are a lot of queasy shots of meat both animal and human. Featuring Guy Pierce, the guy from the Full Monty and Jeffery Jones (of Howard the Duck fame!). Look for the chase sequence set to the banjo music from Raising Arizona.

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The Revenger’s Tragedy

You just never know with Alex Cox. His influences are all over the map, and sometimes he’s just damn unwatchable. (The dreary, muddy Borges adaption Death and the Compass?) But other times he’s sublimely inartistic—Repo Man, sure, or the even awesomer Repo Chick—or here, where he somehow found funding for an original language version of a Jacobean revenge play set in the grim post apocalyptic world of 2012 Liverpool starring The Doctor and The Master (Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi, if you’re a philistine). Oh, and Eddie Izzard is in it as one of the less flamboyant characters, so there you go. Hard to follow in a noisy environment, but then the dialogue is kind of secondary, anyway. Everybody wants everybody else dead, and there’s some incest too, just because.

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Lemora

I don’t even know about this one. Sort of like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, and sort of like Teeth, and sort of like neither. Lila, a fundamentalist pre-teen girl leaves her creepy pedo foster parent (a really broad caricature of an evangelical preacher) and goes in search of her missing father, a violent 20s style gangster. She runs into zombies, slimy bus drivers and an old witch before falling in with Lemora, who might be her mother, or another witch, or herself as a sexually mature woman. Weird, culty, doing that feminist reworking of fairy tales as a sexual coming of age story thing. Especially great for a scene where Lemora pursues Lila as her clitoris embodied as a burning torch.

11
Mar
16

A Fantastic Fear of Everything

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I’m reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Clover, a seminal (in every sense of the word) analysis of the genre published in the early 90s that looks at the way gender and fear of gender plays out in the horror movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s great, and manages (so far, anyway), the delicate task of acknowledging both the obvious subtext playing out in the movies AND the explicit text that is often disregarded or explained away as merely a thin cover for the subtext. She talks about, for example, the way slasher movies use the female Last Girl to stand in for an adolescent male audience but also how that decision to make the protagonist female is meaningful on a literal level. She also talks about medieval notions of slippery gender, which is catnip to me.

Anyway. Last night we watched A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a 2012 flick starring Simon Pegg, and it’s an interesting parallel to what Clover discusses. The second chapter of MW&C talks about possession movies, and how they are generically split into two parts: the female possessed who is narratively underdeveloped and the male in crisis who is forced to confront his own deficient or overdeveloped masculinity due to the possession. Clover says that the female possession, which is usually manifested as a hysterical femininity or a cross-gender machoness, is necessary to allow the man to embrace behaviors that would otherwise be coded as feminine — she is thrust beyond the pale to open the space up for him, emotionally speaking. Typically, in her analysis, the man starts the film off as emotionally closed, and it is the job of the horror to force him open — sometimes cathartically (as in Witchboard), and sometimes destructively (as in The Exorcist).

A Fantastic Fear of Everything, though, collapses the two into one character, Jack, played by Simon Pegg, who starts the movie off in the normally feminine space of the possessed (in this case by a crippling paranoia and agoraphobia triggered by an overdose of Victorian murder research) and as the emotionally shuttered man in crisis: Jack was a successful children’s author, but he resents that part of his career, which he blames for ruining his marriage, and wants to write a more properly masculine series of television shows about Victorian bloodshed called Decades of Death.

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Jack and Sangeet

The movie plays with his gender throughout: he spends the first major section of the movie in a short robe that reads like a dress from a distance, his hair long and ragged, twitching and shrieking at every little noise. The image at the top is a good example — his knees are even kept decorously together, as a proper lady should keep them! At the end of the movie, after having been harrowed first by a series of domestic catastrophes, then by a traumatic visit to a laundromat, then finally by an actual serial killer with abandonment issues similar to his own, he resolves the major conflicts plaguing him, recognizes how traumatized he was by the loss of his mother, and embraces the unmasculine role of children’s author. At this point his voice deepens, his hair is cropped short, and he is rewarded with a relationship with the attractive women he was kidnapped with; he has relinquished his toxic obsession with masculinity and shed his destructive femininity. His psychiatrist friend, in a bit of metacommentary, congratulates him on how his latest book synthesizes Freudian and Jungian themes in one hedgehog. Despite his newfound gender identity, he is still threatened by relapse, though — his literary agent introduces him to a creepy, ambiguously queer American who is interested in producing Decades of Death (he chides Jack for missing an earlier meeting with him, calling him a “naughty boy,” and claws at the air suggestively), and Jack is washed with the old paranoia, nearly fainting, until his new girlfriend rescues him, both from the literal faint AND from the subtextual gender panic. Jack promises the American to “think about it” and runs away into the credit sequence with her, masculinity redeemed.

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