One of the great perks about blogging is that you get to have conversations with a wide range of people about things you may not have thought about or about which you had not thought of in the ways you do as a result of those conversations. I’ve been joking around for a while now that I wanted to teach a class on novels adapted to film. While many people have done this before, and I get a lot of leeway in my department(s) with my cinema courses, novels to film is fairly clearly in the realm of the English Department, the one place at this uni I don’t teach. The other issue has always been that since my courses tend to meet both the gen ed and the specialization cores in several fields, there are certain expectations about the material my courses contain. In thinking about the novel to film genre, it means that I would likely have to expand to Made for Television movies to incorporate enough diversity into the curriculum and then the discussion becomes not only about shifts from one medium to the other but also the freedoms or lack there of granted television vs film. I did not want to get bogged down in discussions solely about the latter to the detriment of the overarching questions about identity. While I knew I could probably pull this course off if I modified the time-frame, ie set it in the historical period I teach, that would mean having to read novels that would ultimately get us bogged down in discussions about period and expectation around identity vs the movement from one form to the other. Ugh, does your head hurt yet? Mine certainly did. So I let it go.
Enter Scott Pilgrim and his bevy of fans + the book meme, in which I mocked the film “Bram Stroker’s Dracula” for not actually following the story and rewriting some key characters. Like an aha moment, I found these two blogging conversations combining to make me question the age old encoding/decoding debate in new ways. In other words, there is a metaconversation taking place about the meaning of movies that is radically changing the discourse of how see and understand film. This post is about those changes; if you want my movie review of Scott Pilgrim look here.
In talking about my experience of the film/reviewing it and its racial and gender content, I have received multiple comments here and elsewhere that reference the graphic novels as counterpoint. In looking at commentary on the internet, I found the same thing. In other words, people reviewing the movie have largely talked about the movie itself: its content, the acting and directing, and the overall plot, and occasionally, its niche appeal. The people responding to their reviews have pretty much all gone back to the source material to contradict what people say is in the movie. Yet, what most have reacted to in the film: (1) the absence of female perspective, (2) the focus on a largely unlikeable character or characters, and (3) confusing or choppy plot, have all been fairly consistent. Are we to believe that because the original graphic novels make clear that Scott Pilgrim is meant to be unlikeable that the film does a good job of telling its uninformed audience this information when so many did not get it? Or are we meant to excuse the absence of female subjecthood in the film because the graphic novels apparently center them and their thoughts?
brian o’malley/oni press
As I said in my review, should Scott’s supposed growth, reduced to a few minutes in the film that I argue are undermined by the way he once again treats Knives at the end, negate racialized and/or racist depictions of API Americans in the movie? This is an issue that most reviewers and comment makers have yet to address precisely because one of the film’s more stereotypical scenes is taken directly from the pages of the graphic novel without any editing or changes; sadly, the reviewer from the Harold seems to explain it best when he says that as a white surbuban gaming male who fits the intended demographic he was easily able to overlook the bollywood scene until a comment on twitter about race in the film made him think through the movie with race in mind. Like it did for me, the meta-conversation surrounding this movie, ie between novel, film, and multiple internet and social network sites, is creating a radical rethink of meaning on all sides. And for everyone who has gone off the deep end over Dr. Laura’s comments, tell me, what is the difference between Dr. Laura calling a black woman “oversensitive” because she does not like the racist jokes made by her white husband’s friends in her home and white fans of Scott Pilgrim saying “hater” to anyone who mentions the racial depictions of API Americans in this film?
Race issues aside, there seems to be a struggle going on between those who saw the film on its own and fans who saw the film and read the graphic novels or simply read the graphic novels but have not gone to the film. The latter have been quite vocal about the fact that people criticizing the film “don’t get it” despite the consistency of the reviews. This reaction varies considerably from earlier fans who willingly critiqued films for failing to represent the text upon which they were based. Films with huge fan bases in fact, have almost always had to address fan expectations in order to be successful at the box office. When fans say the film is not accurate enough, movies generally tank at the box office.
(note the Asian mom’s broken English)
Brian O’Malley/Oni Press
Scott Pilgrim is tanking at the box office. Yet fans are defending it and the studio is blaming it on Michael Cera. Apparently, several of Cera’s last few films did not do well, so he is an easy whipping boy. Yet I can think of no one better to play a 20 something year old slacker who quips about life, resents having to defend himself, and looks like the kind of guy you expect to see in the arcade and root for when attacked. I think he was a perfect choice and his comedic timing are spot on as always. Even if we factor in the people who have just had enough of his t-shirted, saggy chords, skinny boy schtick, there is still something more interesting going on here.
The cry from fans of “you don’t get it”, seems like a generational issue to me. In this context, the film becomes irrelevant. What is at stake is youth who identified with Scott Pilgrim as a graphic novel and see it as a depiction of their generational angst in the same way people thought of American Graffitti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or even The Big Chill or Diner. Their embrace of the graphic novels at a gut level combines with the total rejection of the movie by accredited film reviews who are all over the age of 30 (to riff on that old adage “don’t trust anyone over 30”). These “older” reviewers have combined their general dislike of the movie with comments about largely negative comments about the slacker generation and in some cases outright ageism. This stance makes them easy pickings for youth who already feel screwed over, ignored, or condescended to by the generations before them. The more these youth respond with “you don’t get it”, the more older people bristle. Yet the mode of this conflict is not one in which either side is openly talking about age and stage but rather cinema vs text, with one group pointing emphatically at the failings of the movie and the other willingly filling in the blanks or omitting those failings with the original text in order to maintain their stance.
I find this fascinating.
First, I do think there is a generational issue in the reception of the film. I walked out of the moving clear that there were at least two cultural reasons why this film did not appeal to me and that they overlapped. I also know there were other people in my theater who felt the same way, because they kept looking over at me in confusion. And when I frowned at the racist parts, they were so attuned to my presence that they reacted as well. Nothing like being a zoo exhibit or a fossil at a movie screening …
Second, I’m wondering what it says about the nuances of marketing that they can graft a film so carefully onto an identity as to make those who identify with it ignore the disconnects present. In other words, when other movies have differed from the text people have complained. These films were marketed as stories or true adaptations not as cultural artifacts. This movie seems to be encoded and decoded by its core audience as the latter and therefore omissions and lapses are forgiven or ignored. Even the feminist viewers in this group have been largely silent about the absence of well-rounded female characters in the movie. Those fans who acknowledge it, only bring it up to once again point to the source material as a way of avoiding the critique of the film.
In some ways, it reminds me of the limited critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite including episodes in which Native Americans were evil genocidal ghosts on Thanksgiving, spreading syphilis and needing to be killed because “they were engaging in genocidal revenge”, resurrecting “the primitive” in discussing Buffy’s origins, or including rape of beloved characters by other beloved characters, fans of Buffy refuse to address race and gender issues embedded in the show. Those who breach them are summarily dismissed as “not getting it”. And like Scott Pilgrim fans, when footage of these events or director’s script notes are actually shown to an audience as proof, as happened at two conferences I went to in the late 90s, fans simply make up elaborate excuses based on the overall storyline of the show. And of course there is always the a line or two that are included in these scenes to mask the overarching racism that they can glom onto.
So what is that spark needed to so thoroughly fuse audience with product? And why does it work so well at erasing or allowing for the justification of marginalization even for audiences who are quite savvy about how marginalization works? What makes something off limits? And why do these conflicts seem to take on generational significance whether it is between reviewers and fans or fans and older non-fan directors?
I’m going to be mulling this over for the rest of the term because, as I said, I find it fascinating but also because now I really am going to teach that course in a way that places it firmly in my disciplines and gets at some difficult questions about race, gender, sexuality, class and fandom. In Spring, the campus bookstore is going to be full up on graphic novels, required itunes passes for videos of tv shows, and classics on Race, Class, Gender and the Media. I can’t wait!
According to Hit Fix one of the reasons Scott Pilgrim did poorly in the box office this weekend was because people were having trouble determining the plot. I never read the graphic novels upon which the film was based, so I think it is pretty fair to say I only had the trailers to go on myself. It seemed fairly obvious to me that Scott Pilgrim was based on a particular genre of graphic novel addressing disaffected youth, counter-culture, and the pursuit of women and/or girls. I’m not sure how you could watch the trailer and not know that.
Just in case:
the plot of Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Scott Pilgrim is a 22 year old slacker bassist in an unsigned band who thinks he has met the love of his life, hipster Ramona Flowers. In order to date her drama free, he must fight her 7 evil exes all of whom have magical or video game like powers. The bulk of the film takes place at video game speed, with power ups, point values, and information bubbles. Visually it is a cross between the arcade games of 70s childhoods and modern day play station lives. The whole thing is also set to music capitalizing on the popularity of guitar hero and indie rock cred to reaffirm its geek + hipster sensibility.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010
The script is full of snappy one liners that in lesser hands would come off as pathetic caricature. Fortunately, from the smallest roles to the largest ones, almost every actor in Pilgrim has the necessary comedic timing and snark to pull it off. Both Alison Pill and Kieran Culkin serve up the best performances in the film, helping keep the pace of Pilgrim moving and entertaining when it could just have easily insulted and fallen flat. Johnny Simmons is brilliant as Young Neal managing to delight in every scene he is in despite having few lines. The only people who don’t seem to elevate this film to similar teen-period-piece classics are Bree Larson, whose comedic timing on US of Tara is always a joy to watch but here seems like she’s been directed to overact to avoid dealing with real female emotions, and Satya Bhabha whose role suffers from offensive stereotype too much for him to do much with it. But we’ll get to that … wait for it …
The music is both entertaining and sometimes really good in this film. Despite failing at the acting end of her role, Bree Larson on stage is a real treat and the song is one of the best in the film. All of the actors take their dual roles as grunge heroes seriously. When they are on stage their parodies play like the real thing. The least effective of these moments is the Asian dragon sequence, but we will get to that … wait for it …
The romantic moments in this film are both visually and emotionally compelling. Scott takes Ramona’s hand in the snow the shot captures the individual snow flakes and the open heart shape of their arms to the soft background music that would make any girl’s heart go pitter-pat. When they walk together in the x in the snow, the shot not only calls up the plot of the film (evil exes) but also speaks to the crossroad both of them have or will meet in the film. These scenes have all the magic of any romance and yet are couched in enough hipster quipping to keep it from making its core audience wonder what they got suckered into. For instance, in the scene where they sit on the swings in Toronto winter, Flowers in nothing but wool tights, mini, light jacket, and fingerless gloves, they both remark how ridiculous it is that they are outside trying to be romantic in freezing cold temperatures; then, they go inside. Take that Hollywood!
Ramona also makes a nice alternative to the leading women that dominate mainstream romantic comedies. While her disaffected attitude toward both the world and Scott has critics stumped, this seemed no more or less disengaged to me than any other hipster film. Ramona could just as easily be Juno or Nora from Nick and Nora, both of which critics loved. More interesting to me was the fact that she has a healthy body. While she is far a cry from a “plus size” model, she has ample hips and undefined arms; in other words, she’s normal. When Ramona takes her clothes off, the camera does not shy away from angles that will make her hips larger or her chest flatter, and no CGI turns her into Laura Croft eye candy either. As much derision as I have for hipster culture, one thing I have always appreciated is that there is room for women of all shapes and sizes in their films, you know as long as they are young, mostly white, and able-bodied … but will get to that … wait for it …
Finally, unlike any number of mainstream and alternative films, this is one of the first studio movies aimed at summer audience with prominent queer characters. Scott lives with his gay best friend Wallace, played by Kieran Culkin. Wallace is hilarious as the non-stereotypical wise-cracking best friend who just wants to live his slacker life and get laid like everyone else. Unlike the chirping snarkfest gay bestfriends of stereotype land, Wallace is compassionate when needed, horny in believable and non-pathologized ways, always has Scott’s back even when that means calling him out sans a single “girlfriend”, and rather than snark he peddles in a fair amount of cynicism that offers the only real moral compass of the film. While his ever increasing sex partners are a consistent joke in the film, this too is depicted in a way that runs against the grain of the hypersexed gay man or the tragically grateful coming out story that dominate queer young adult films these days. And truthfully, I like that he gets laid without much fanfare, struggle, or questioning but instead is just another guy living his life.
Ramona is also not completely straight. Throughout the film, Scott displays typical heterosexism as he works out how exactly he ended up having to fight Ramona’s 7 exes. Every time he says, “7 ex-boyfriends”, Ramona corrects him with “7 exes”. It starts out as a subtle reminder about how heterosexism works and how people with gay bestfriend’s can still be guilty of it. This subtlety-turned-unnecessary-repetition is followed up with Scott finally cluing in with a scene that reaffirms the way the film naturalizes all sexualities; when Ramona says she was going through “a phase”, Scott replies “what a sexy phase?”. While in some ways that rejoinder reaffirms a heterosexist gaze at lesbian sexuality, ie for the entertainment of straight men, it also refuses to judge or pathologize Ramona’s chocies. And while it is not the most questioning -affirming comment in the world, I loved it when Romana’s ex responds to their love affair being called “a phase” by calling her a “has-bien”, we used to call it L.U.G. (lesbian until graduation) in my day. And I don’t think this film used the term to demean bisexuals, which I assume is how it is used in the real world. Instead, the comment markedly calls out women who deny or disavow parts of their sexuality with little regard for the women they ab/use in the process. To me saying a real relationship was “a phase” with all the implied judgment in your tone in front of your ex is a far cry from being confused about what you like or being bisexual and deciding to commit to a man. Ramona is guilty of the former.
Truthfully, as a person who teaches film, if the movie had not failed so horribly in other places I would be comparing it to Fast Times or Singles, for its ability to capture a particular cultural moment in youth culture that people can identify with now and look back on fondly later when, like those other moments, youth culture has moved on,
This movie is choppy. It very seldom lets a scene play out all the way through and has even less transition scenes. While this fits with the overall goal of the film to be like a video game, it leads to some scene splicing that pulls you out of the film and makes you wonder about technique rather than story line; visionary work can use new techniques while telling a story.
The same thing happens with excessive use of pop ups. While most of them are in keeping with the film’s overall feel, sometimes they seem like an unecessary device reminiscent of the decline of Pop Up Video on VH1 than innovation. In at least one scene there are so many of pop ups you don’t have time to read them all. Alternatively, the film uses black marks to cover up cursing to hilarious effect.
Ultimately, the problems seems more about too much and timing than technique. While Director Edgar Wright had an amazing grasp on cinematography and story, his love of his concept gets in the way. Some times I think he does not trust himself with the meatier parts of the story (of which there are few) so he dumps in some graphics instead. This is particularly true when he is dealing with the love story that supposedly drives the film and is unfortunate because he clearly has the chops to make the story line sing.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010
Most of the characters in this film are two-dimensional. Some characters are introduced and then never seen again. Others are given significant enough attention or back story that we want to know about them but they are simply plot devices that appear and disappear in the night. This is particularly problematic with regards to Scott’s ex-girlfriend who is supposed to motivate all his douchebaggery. Of course, the film isn’t invested in female characters … But we’ll get to that … Wait for it.
For the vegan viewers, this film will also enrage. One of Ramona’s evil exes is a vegan who as a result of not eating animal products has magical powers and the condescension to match. For me, his ridiculous banter and ultimate dethroning were deeply satisfying as a critique against self-righteous vegans who act as though they are better than everyone else. Example: PETA’s beached whale campaign that incited an endless barrage of fatphobia and hatred toward large people as non-vegan or self-appointed voices of the vegan movement on the internet who transform multiple conversations about racism, classism, and other oppressions preventing veganism from reaching certain people or changing world systems that impact animals into myopic rants about how everyone who disagrees with them “eats meat” and “hates vegans”. This kind of pseudo-sainthood that targets others and refuses to address one’s own oppressive behaviors makes vegans an easy target and the film is spot on in its depiction of the sanctimonious set within a much larger social justice movement.
At the same time, there is no room in this film for vegans who actually are neither elitest nor judgmental. There is no real vegan in this film. The evil ex, it seems eats chicken occasionally. Even if he did not, there is no other vegan in the film who is sane, committed to social justice, and just trying to live their life in the best way possible. For those vegans this image is a huge slap in the face. It smarts even harder no doubt because in the graphic novel the character is actually a drummer with a bionic arm not a vegan at all … but wait for it …
The article I linked to at the top of this post, has a whole list of reasons Scott Pilgrim did not do well at the box office. None of these include that the film is offensive and thus fails to entertain at a deeper level. However, I would argue that it is the depiction of women and APIs that is at the heart of its failure.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010
Scott Pilgrim begins with a backstory about Scott being on the rebound with a high school girl. He is 22 and she is 17. To get around both legality and the potential morality issues involved in this hook up, the film spends a considerable amount of time pointing out that they do not kiss nor have sex. I know I am Catholic, and so is Knives Chau, the girlfriend, but seriously … Worse than these age differences is the way Scott treats her. Not only does he forget about her regularly, he misses dates, picking her up, and even jumps out of a window to avoid her. (The window scene is hilarious out of context but fails to read the level of the panty scene in the Breakfast Club precisely because the film never takes its female characters seriously and its characters of color even less so.) Worse, he also cheats on her without even thinking about it; the majority of the film depicts his heartless cheating as the great love story for us to invest in with little regard to Knives either. It is one thing if your hero is a douchebag, it’s another if your storyline elevates it to romance.
While Knives is doting on his every word, Scott is trying to get Ramona to pay attention to him. He orders a useless gadget to get her to deliver it after he finds out that is her job. He slides up to her at a party and tries to be witty using the same pick up line he used on Knives a few scenes before. He even goes to bed with her, though they end up not having sex because Ramona changes her mind at the last minute, while still dating Knives. In fact, he is so insensitive that he invites Ramona to the same concert Knives has promised to come see without breaking up with her. When they start to confront him, he simply runs away and does his best to keep them from talking. Only Wallace tells him he is cruel and needs to man up and even then, his answer is to try to avoid it and then simply tell her as she is going on about how wonderful they are, that it is over.
In a scene that should make every girl’s skin crawl, Scott rides home on the train looking pathetic because he had to break up with his girlfriend and that made him feel bad. Poor Scott. And then, his pathetic shell-shocked expression twists into a giddy grin as Ramona’s face pops into his head. His 5 seconds of guilt don’t even amount to remorse since they are really about how much it sucked for him to have to look at Knives teary eyes than about how how he treated her, demeaned her, and took her for granted. Did I mention he makes her pay for their dates?
In typical male fantasy fashion, we are supposed to excuse Scott’s treatment of Knives for three reasons: (1) Ramona is his true love, so of course he pursued her. Except, Scott was a self-absorbed user before Ramona came into the picture. (2) Knives is better than Scott, Wallace tells us so and so does Knives herself so that makes all his neglect and douchebaggery ok. And (3) After stalking him throughout the rest of the film, Knives herself gives him permission to go after Ramona even though he was perfectly willing to take her back as a consolation prize at the end of the movie. You know because Ramona said she was leaving and Knives still has an allowance to buy video games and pizza with on their dates. (Supposedly he learns a lesson in this movie, there is even dialogue saying “I think I am learning something” except the fact he is willing to reunite with Knives when he does not love her undermines the entire thing.)
What is most offensive about the Knives storyline to me is that it does not need to be there. Knives serves no purpose in this movie except as a vehicle for Scott and his friend’s racism and/or sexism… wait for it … and his overwhelming self-absorption. Including Knives seems like a huge mistake for a film that tries so desperately to convince us that Scott is a good guy. In case your smart enough to know better, the movie has Ramona says it over and over again. In this way, I agree with many of the mainstream reviewers who said one of the big failings of this movie is that the main character is not particularly likable or interesting.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010
The premise of the movie is also basically sexist when you get right down to it. In order for Scott to be with Ramona he has to fight for her with a bunch of beefed out men, and one puckish girl, who barely care that Ramona is there. In fact, it turns out that none of them are fighting for Ramona but instead to get her back for the only guy in this movie who is more narcissistic and sexist than Scott himself. Haven’t we gotten past the woman as property or prize days yet?
Worse, it turns out Ramona’s motivation is that she is only using Scott to get her ex to pay attention to her. Seems like Scott and his rival have a lot in common whe it comes to how they treat women and Ramona’s quite the catch with her lust for self-absorbed people who barely care about her.
Despite supposedly being empowered, Ramona does nothing to defend herself or put a stop to the conflict, except when Scott refuses to “hit a girl”. He can use them and ignore them but hitting is where Scott draws the line; I wish the director felt the same.
Hitting girls is pretty common place in this film. Mr. Vegan punches Knives with such force that he “knocks out her highlights”. While the refrain about her highlights being gone is meant to make us laugh, there is nothing amusing about seeing the former Superman punch a 4 foot something teenage girl in the jaw. And there is even less amusing about the fact that neither Scott nor her new boyfriend do anything about it until he insinuates his sexual domination over the two white women in the room. The white women don’t care either by the way, one even seems turned on by it. Worst of all, this fight takes place between two women in the graphic novel, meaning the director decided it would be “funnier” to have a huge, muscle bound, male actor punch a thin teenage girl than follow the existing story line; it’s a “joke” he resorts to too often and it also speaks to the fact that while he does not mind changing the pre-existing story to heighten iniquity, he has no qualms with leaving it alone when the inequity is already there.
Which gets us back to the other major issue in this film: race. The way Scott treats Knives is bad enough on its own. But as he discusses her with his friends and family, he makes sure to mention that she is Asian. Many of their reactions point to the exotic erotic. Just in case we are too dumb to pick up on the unspoken orientalism, Scott spells it out for his sister when he points out that she is both Asian and has a Catholic School uniform …
Throughout the film her race is used to casually express racism. Besides the multiple conversations referenced above, when Scott wants to break up with her he asks if she is “even allowed to date outside her race” as if his eroticization of her is acceptable but her parents’ potential fears about that eroticization are discrimination. At the end of the film, she shows up dressed like a hipster version of a ninja. And when she gives Scott permission to go after Ramona, he says “Chow Knives” you know, cause her name is Knives Chau …
The other Asians in this film fair little better. Ramona’s first ex is Indian and is forced to do an obligatory Bollywood dance with ghost-vamps in the middle of their fight scene. It’s the kind of thing that made me question what exactly does go on behind the doors of 20-something hipsters’ homes when they’ve locked all the people of color out. When Ramona explains their relationship, she says “he was the only non-white jock in the town.” So she did not date him because she liked him; she dated him because he fit into her rebellion against hypermasculinized whiteness that left her no room for female autonomy. In this way, she has something in common with Scott in that she dated a person of color to give her friends and neighbors something to talk about but otherwise could care less about them as people or lovers. She also has something in common with Julie Roberts’ new movie, in as much as her supposed act of feminist enlightenment was bought on the back of brown men. Yippee!
Ramona also dated Asian twins. Their sole contribution to this film is a synthesizer that shoots out Chinese dragons. If that weren’t bad enough, let me just point out that the twins last name is not Chinese, it’s Japanese.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World/Universal Studios/2010
I walked into Scott Pilgrim with the last shred of hope I had left for the summer movie season. I was expecting a sort of graphic novel angst that both entertained and sent up the original in unique ways. While the graphics and the overall gifted cinematic eye were certainly present in much of this film, its tongue-in-cheek hipster angst fell flat in the face of so much unnecessary racism and sexism. The film’s race politics seem to be a fairly faithful adaptation of the graphic novel which means both the racism and some of the sexism originated there and the directors and writers made the decision not to omit it in the re-telling for film. What concerns me most about Scott Pilgrim then is that it is not new in its peddling of either oppression; instead, it seems like a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes visually compelling version of the same old 20-something shlock. While hipsters pat themselves on the back for being completely disaffected with all the evil in our world, able to cut through the bullshit, and take on any number of liberal causes it seems like in their fantasies, and for many in their real lives, the oppressions that do not impact them directly do not matter to them any more than the fascists and neocons they define themselves against.
I understand why young men would be attracted to this film. Michael Cera as average Joe is always compelling and his fight scenes, done mostly himself, and endless supply of women makes him the perfect nerd hero whether playing Scott Pilgrim or the myriad of other versions of this character elsewhere. However, it is hard to know why white women, and a handful of women of color, buy into this culture that does not take them anymore seriously than the sexist society they rally against. While mainstream culture is both blatant and unapologetic about its exploitation and objectification of young women, hipsters do pay lip-service to their empowerment and does so in this film as well. But if all feminism means these days is you get to be as big a douche as the pompous boy ignoring you and you get to have everyone around you acknowledge that you are smarter and cooler even while they do nothing to change their interpersonal worlds to make room for you as anything other than the ignored girlfriend, hated interloper, or object of racialized sexual fantasy, than give me a new movement. And please spare me the transparent cinematic reinforcement that elevates average Joe at Jane’s expense.
I am annoyed. Shocker, I know. But you see, the summer is essentially over for your dear professor and I realized that I did not see a single movie this summer I thought was interesting and very few I thought were even worth more than a mention on the blog. While I still hold out hope for Scott Pilgrim, mostly because I am desperate, I’d planned to write a post about how disappointing this summer has been. And then, I discovered “Nonskweeter” a blog whose movie reviews are even more snarky and disaffected than mine.
The omnipresent moral of Splice is that women shouldn’t do science. They’re all irrational, baby-crazy, bipolar shrews. No, really.
Splice doesn’t employ foreshadowing as much as a giant clown mallet with the words, “DUN DUN DUUUNNNNNNNN!” painted on it. I hate this movie. I want it to give me back that part of my soul that was lost when I watched … (read the rest here)
Even better, they address issues of race and gender, as you can see above and below:
Hi! I’m an upper middle class white woman who doesn’t like her husband. I’m going to let a bunch of cute people with accents change my life. Fix me, brown people! Your poverty & inability to escape your problems centers me.
What person with real ties to the real world can leave their friends and family, their bills, their job, and their responsibilities to meditate for hours and shriek at Brazillian men on a beach because, goshdarnit, they’re just so lovable and they don’t know how to handle it. (read the rest here)
I love these reviews. They make me almost want to go watch these horribly bad movies even though she confirmed everything about them that originally kept me away. Then again … no. But I will read Nonskweeter again and so should you.
For Nolan’s follow up to the successful reinvention of the Batman franchise and the noir thriller genre in general Inception is a spectacular disappointment. On the positive side, Inception is visually stunning. The bending sets, stairways to nowhere, and fight scenes that would make the Wachowski brothers wonder if Hugo Weaving zipped himself up in a Gordon-Levitt suit do not disappoint. On the other hand, if you’ve seen an Escher or gone to any of the major action films of the last decade, you’ve seen everything Inception has to offer before. Even the love plot is rehash, oscillating between epic French drama and another movie starring DiCaprio, Shutter Island, that has barely left the theaters, The plot of Inception is only less thin than the science fiction aspects of the story which, though present, are not the thrust of the story.
In essence, Inception is a corporate thriller in which the head of one corporation manipulates the father issues of the new head of another corporation in order to gain control of his assets. He does this through the invasion and manipulation of his rivals dreams. The love story subplot comes into play because the team of dream thieves he hires is run by the mentally unstable Cobb whose subconscious continually destabilizes his work due to unresolved issues with his dead wife. These issues, though rehash, are far more interesting than the espionage plot particularly because Nolan provides no context for either corporate player and thus, no investment in their success or failure. Worse, while invading the multiple layers of the dream world Nolan’s film quickly loses directions, descending into a completely plagiarized snow battle with literally no point whatsoever.
There are two people of color in this film played by Ken Watanabe and Dileep Rao. While the Asian businessman engaged in corporate espionage is all too familiar in the thriller genre, Watanabe’s character is not an offensive stereotype. His is intelligent, shrude, and holds his own in both the dream world and the real one while never resorting to “wise old confuscious-bastardization” nor “Kung Fu master.” Watanabe’s Saito is, at best, simply a man trying to manipulate business interests through new technology that ultimately bests him. His character is as benign and tangential as Cyllian Murphy’s counterpart, Fischer, the other shrude businessman, who is taken for a ride.
Dileep Rao’s character is equally predictable and yet inoffensive. On the one hand, Yusuf is the dealer who mixes the drug cocktail necessary for the espionage to work. In this sense he could be interpreted as stereotypical in as much as he is an international drug mixer. On the other, his skill is specific to the task of dream manipulation that everyone in the film is working on. He is all an integral part of the team sense without the drug no one can enter the dream world, and without “the kick” he devises and the others help carry out, no one can escape it. His knowledge more science than criminal and his science is tempered by an equally adept engagement in the action sequences. It is Rao’s skilled driving that keeps the dreamers alive in the first layer of the dream.
Inception/ Nolan/ Warner Bros/2010
(the tag for Barcroft Media is inaccurate. copywrite is held by Warner Bros)
There also two women in the story played by Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard. Ariadne (Page) is the brilliant architect who replaces the less competent Nash (played by Lucas Haas). Her skills in design seemingly rival only DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, and his wife, Mal (Cotillard). While there is a very faint undercurrent of sexual tension and subsequently less faint competition between Ariadne and Mal it is never so overt as to become an important plot point. Ariadne sees Mal as a dysfunction of Cobb’s disturbed mind and encourages Cobb to reject her solely for the restoration of Cobb’s sanity and the safety of the group. Mal, on the other hand, has a pathological dependence on Cobb that is acted out both through violence against other people in the dreams and Cobb himself. She is played as an independent character, both in terms of the backstory of his actual wife and as an actor in the dream. Mal is also a projection, a piece of Cobb’s mind whose job it is to defend the dream world against intruders. The complex, Freudian psyche, of the dream world is meant to mediate the crazy-woman in the attic that is Mal’s character in life and dream. Yet the engendering of her madness is only really undone in the final scenes where Cobb admits both that Mal is not real and that he is the cause of her insanity in both the real world and the dream. The cruelty with which he talks to her in the end if supposed to mediated by the fact that she is not a distinct person but simply a part of himself; as filmed, I am not sure that mediation is successful any more than the fact that Cobb is guilty mediates the fact that Mal’s main dialogue, and how we know her, is implanted by Cobb. In other words, the staging of the character retains sexist elements, even while the writing and revelations about her serve to destabilize them.
There are no women of color in this film and no out queer characters. There is the flimsiest of homoeroticisim between both Cobb and Saito and Arthur and Cobb but only if you really, really, reach for it.
While Nolan offers a film that is inoffensive on almost all levels, he also offers us a movie that is entirely too long and too dependent on worlds, techniques, and plots we have all seen before. His actors all do a stellar job but from the cameo by Haas to the starring role by DiCaprio, most of his actors are underutilized. Given the level of acting everyone in this film capable of, from Cillian Murphy, to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to the brilliant Ken Watanabe and Marion Cottilard, the waste is a travesty and never more obvious then when Dileep Rao and Tom Hardy delightfully scene steal. If you like action films and gun battles, or special effects devoid of much compelling plot development, this film won’t disappoint you. It is easy watch, only drags when they reach the 007 moments in the snow, and many of the scenes are visually stunning both in terms of special effects and noir staging. While I would not go see Inception again I do not regret having watched it. In a summer full of bad movies and throwaways that makes Inception better than most Summer 2010 releases so far.
A recent post on The Grio about black superheros and their absence or underfunding in the Hollywood Blockbuster cycle prompted me to point out that not only does Hollywood fail to produce summer blockbusters with black female super hero leads, but the Grio list largely left women out as well. As a result, I sent out links to two of my older posts about female superheroes who might make great Summer Blockbusters on my twitter account. A day or so later, SciFi Wire featured a post about female “superheroes” they would like to see in film; the bulk of these women were white and many of them were actually anti-heroes or villains. Since I don’t have a SciFi Wire account in order to comment on their pages, I found myself chanting “But Some of Us are Brave”. Brave enough to write and then re-post my summer query about why women are relegated to RomComs in the summer when a bevy of female superheros await expense trilogy success. More than that, why are the only women Blockbuster loving audience see seldom full-fledged characters or sexualized, including electronically enhanced (ie they make everything bigger in post-production, pad the outfits, or the actresses cast have strategic enhancements already that are accentuated by the suits they wears)? And why are the most fleshed out of these ones whose story lines fulfill expected roles: wife, girlfriend, or love interest.
Hollywood would like to believe that if they put a few emasculating phrases in these scantily clad side characters mouths we won’t notice their irrelevance to the main plot or that their dimensions rival Barbie. They peddle in soft-core pseudo-feminism that many young audience have come to think of as empowering precisely because they are not given alternative visions of strong women nor taught about them in schools thanks to the Texas School Board. But honestly, if your biggest aspiration is to be the center of attention because of the size of your breasts or butt padding and your occasional snark at leading men, you are selling yourself so short it is a wonder we can even see you so far away from the feminist finish line. So here are some women who had brains, strength, beauty and took center stage, and yes, in some cases they also did it in very revealing clothing but that is because most of the artists drawing them were not women.
The never ending discussion about the role of women in graphic novels and the depiction of women in adapted comics and novels for the summer blockbuster has begun. Rather than fight the good fight this summer, in which I remind people that ideas about women and the depiction of female characters can in fact be updated from the original without violating the basic plot I am just going to point to the myriad of female superheroes in classic comic books that could be staring in movies this summer. In fact, a quick view of the films scheduled to be released this year has only one offering in which women have (as I recall) been seen as equal to their male counterparts: GI Joe. While Uhura in the new Star Trek is actually smarter than many of her male counterparts, she is completely undermined as I discuss in my Star Trek review, so she does not count. And the Director of Transformers II finally saw his way around putting women in, but the graphics show no update of the character; she is still an anorexic looking, neon pink thing, updated only slightly so she has actual headlights for breasts!!! I haven’t seen anything that sad since Tranzor Z’s Missile “Boobs”.
While I’d like to see the women below in more clothes, sans bum shots, if sent to the big screen, don’t tell me we don’t have options. This is what happens when Hollywood favors white heterosexual male producers, studio heads, and directors over the same diversity in Hollywood that we have in the country as a whole. All of these female characters, many of them poc and some differently-abled, fall out. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with having white, male, heterosexual directors (paging Bryan Singer) but I do think there is something wrong when year after year the plethora of big budget summer offerings can only offer me various plays on the same heteropatriarchal driven fantasy. (Not to mention racial narratives that perpetually imagine fantastical worlds without poc in them or poc who are so stereotypical they make me long for lines like “I ain’t birthin’ no babies”.)
the song in the background:
Isis, one of the first all-female rock bands signed in 1964 & homage to Mighty Isis
featured super heroes & villans
Bionic Woman (the real one)
The Huntress (Batman and Catwoman’s kid in an alternate universe, now there’s a blockbuster for you)
Vampirella (whose swimsuit I swear I saw at the shop last week while looking for my own)
Friday Foster (played in the film version by Pam Grier)
The Black Canary
Rose and Thorn
Other women, who might be great for blockbuster films are included in my other post on female super heroes/tv characters (which includes some Latinas from Latin American graphic novels sense the depiction of both Latinas and Asian American women is so poor here in the states).
Or how about a golden age come back like these women from the 1940s? Using 40s comics would open several genres that are popular right now like: Mysteries, Psychological Thrillers, Gangster Movies, etc. all with super heroes (see my explanation of this new combination in my Wolverine post)
Featured heroes & villans:
the domino lad
Woman in Red (a detective who put hard boiled male detectives to shame)
Phantom Lady (not the anime ok)
The Spider Queen
Invisible Scarlet O’Neal
International Girl Commandos
Luna Moth (who one of my friends is named after)
What about gay representation? Wiccan and Hulking from the Young Avengers perhaps?
I suppose this might be a bit much?
But I did really want to see what “Juice Pig” looks like in part 2. And in QAF land, they did make it into a major motion picture at the end.
It seems that Showtime will be offering its own animated regular series starring “the world’s first gay superhero” hopefully in the Fall. It is set to be penned by Stan Lee and based on a novel about a gay superhero entitled simply: Hero. If the small screen can do it, so can the big screen.
Or how about:
Echo (Native American/also once thought to be differently-abled)
Jubilee (Asian-American, X-Men)
Misty Knight (differently-abled)
Dust (Afghani, Muslim, woman X-Men)
Ranma 1/2 (Asian, transgendered)
Dark Angel (Latina)
Sudra Jones (African American, drawn and written by Af-Ams)
Joto (black, and so totally gay even if he is too young to know)
Chandi Gupta (S. Asian)
The Black furies (environmental feminist werewolves; af-am)
Ghost (most popular female character at Dark Horse. ie $$$)
Random 5 (african american written by african americans)
The Menagerie II (Latina)
Arachne (a single mother)
Silver Hawk (Asian; Michelle Yeoh rocked this part in low budge, let’s see it with big American studio backing)
the silencer (african american)
Photon (African American)
Cecilia Reyes (Afra-Latina X Men)
Farscape women (various non-white aliens, including older woman)
Swift (Asian, bi-sexual)
Pathway (African American, autistic)
Dawnstar (Native American)
Heather Hudson (African American)
Sashiko (Asian American)
Hack/Slash (Lesbians, questioning, and taking back the night)
Sister Superior (differently-abled)
Starlight (African American)
Rina Patel (S. Asian)
Jonni Thunder (Genderqueer)
Obviously, some of these characters would need to be updated but the bottom line is that there are a number of strong women and poc that could be featured in the Summer Blockbuster cycle. Very few of them have been considered and still fewer have been centered. Several of the women on these lists actual appear in graphic novels about male heroes or in confederations containing male heroes, many of whom have already had multiple turns at the summer cinema. Despite this fact, most of these women are still absent. When they do appear, they are drained of much of their intellectual or physical powers, turned white when they were written as woc or bi-racial, or turned straight when they were originally bi-sexual or violently killed when lesbian. While many graphic novels and comic books are riddled with misogyny, that is not an excuse to either omit women or fail to update them for modern audiences. Many of the women in this list would likely only need updated clothes and dialogue and very little else. Some of the more modern characters have already been written as feminist and most tackled issues regarding the oppression of women at one point or another. While still others, like Anesta Robins are hardboiled sci fi detectives that would appeal anyone who liked Blade Runner. As I’ve said before, Bryan Singer proved this when he did the X Men and Stan Lee has repeatedly said he wants to do better by women, people of color, and differently-abled characters.
While there are many male viewers and directors who like things just the way they are – men as super human and women as half-naked objects all tied together in a heterosexist bow – the reality is that women and men with a clue are alive and movie going in the summer months too. We don’t all want to watch quirky chick flicks (which do very little for the racial or ability integration of films either) or spend our parenting hours re-directing intentionally misdirected youth. We don’t want to fight with our significant others, less clear friends, and blog trolls about why black face, the absence of visible Latinos, the demonizing of the queer community, and women in spandex undies and stilletos is just not ok. I certainly do not enjoy being called “un-american” on wikipedia.
If basic decency cannot influence Hollywood, then let’s talk $$$. Sex and the City, which also had its woman hating moments and saw the return of mammy, was female led and female centered. It was one of the major box office hits of the summer. And while part of its appeal was a successful tv run first, there were many shows with female superheroes and people of color who can say the same. If the attention the fictional comic book Rage got on QAF is any indication, the same could be said for gay superheroes if they’d actually be given a chance. And the re-release of Bat Woman, a lesbian, garnered so much buzz people were looking to buy copies before it even went to print. And seriously, do we really want to condone a film genre that seems to echo the wrongheaded warning of The Seduction of the Innocent?
Who would you like to see next summer? (PS. No, I am not looking forward to Beyonce as Wonder Woman or Rose McGowen as Barbarella, but I do want to see both of those characters return to the screen.)
Imagine what summer would look like if instead of waiting for jingoistic, self-absorbed, womanizing Tony Stark to play penis, penis, whose got the penis, with some aging roid rager in a metal suit, you could watch an updated version of any of these women.