Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Cinematic Other: Dominatrix

For the past couple of days my husband and I have been watching the mini-series Tin Man which originally aired on Syfy. It is a retelling of the classic Wizard of Oz. Many of the players are the same, Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and wizard. However, each has been retooled to appeal to a modern audience; including the wicked witch, now known simply as "sorceress".

In the original film version of the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West looked like this:
She represented many of the things that I feared as a child - old people, ugly women, long fingernails, warts, disfigurement, and aliens (who are also green). And that is exactly what the cinematic other is supposed to be. The cinematic other is a concept by which we inscribe our cultural fears onto the evil or othered characters in film. These attributes shift with time, but are always from a white, heterosexual, middle-class/upper-class, male position since they are the ones who control American (and global) media. Thus, women, children, homosexuals, foriegners, old people, immigrants, people of color, etc. etc. are generally cast as the "other" or villain in Hollywood films.

Now the sorceress in Tin Man looks a little different from her predecessor:Yep. She's been dominatrixed up for the 21st century. Indeed, even E's Kristen Dos Santos picked up on it in her write-up "Tin Man: Welcome to the O.Z., Bitch!" (C'mon Kristen, do you have to use the B-word?):
Kathleen Robertson's Azkadellia manages to be exquisitely beautiful without sacrificing any of the terrifying that Margaret Hamilton pulled off so well. Think Darth Vader in an S&M corset. Seriously—keep an eye on her cleavage, because this miniseries has some majorly good boob acting.
And it is true Kathleen Robertson's boobs do get to act in this incantation of the Wizard of Oz. Seriously, I wish I was joking.

Aside from Tin Man, the dominatrix as the evil character has been popping up all over the place the last couple of years.

Sienna Miller got to don the vinyl and heels in G.I. Joe to play the villainous Baroness.

Cate Blanchett's character in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is a Russian dominatrix (she is caring a crop whip on her hip, but never rides a horse in the film). Her stereotypical depiction of Russian womanhood actually offended the communist party so much they tried to have the film banned in Russia.Then there is the Disney version of the dominatrix from Enchanted. Now while I can watch Tin Man as an adult and roll my eyes every time I see Kathleen Robertston strapped into another corset, Enchanted was made by Disney for a youthful audience who probably have not studied how film reflects, but more importantly, influences our culture. Thus, they begin to absorb the message that sexual deviance (meaning anything but missionary, monogamous sex with your husband or wife) is evil. Undoubtedly, children's films are usually the most evil when it comes to how they code their villains with all the attributes that are culturally unacceptable to the conservative white men who dominate film production. I will go into this in more in another post since there is so much more to be discussed, but in the meantime think about all the Disney villains you've ever seen and who they culturally represent. Crazy, isn't it.

It is easy to see that with the return of the dominatrix as the cinematic other in recent Hollywood films and television shows that patriarchal fear of kinky sex and powerful women has not diminished one bit (I must confess that I actually have a lot of respect for anyone who can don high heels, wear an outfit completely made out of vinyl and do anything but sweat). Male fear is also now heightened in Tin Man to show how mystical, magical, and confusing boobs are to the male population. So I conclude this post with this ominous message - don't make us mad otherwise we ladies will unleash the full power of our cleavage on society and it won't be pretty. Just think Fembots from Austin Powers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Race, Social Responsibility, and D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms"

This week my colleague Kris (aka WonderYak) and I are talking about D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1918) and its interesting and, possibly, progressive portrayal of race.

R: I wasn't really sure what to expect before I sat down to watch this movie. Birth of a Nation is so racist in its portrayal of "savage" African-Americans that prowled the South after the Civil War looking for young white women to corrupt. It really bugs me. However, in Broken Blossoms, I thought that D.W. Griffith's portrayal of Chinese immigrants was much more sympathetic. Still problematic, but nothing like Birth...

K: I completely agree! In fact, so did many of my students -- almost all who wrote about Broken Blossoms (their other choice was Chaplin's Gold Rush) commented on how it felt like Griffith's penance for Birth... The fact that the villain is a white male, and that almost all white people are portrayed as conniving or cruel or boorish, nearly makes up for the stereotypes that Richard Barthelmess perpetrates as the "Yellow-Faced" Cheng Huan (overly squinted eyes, hunched back, shuffled walk, etc.).

Even Huan's one vice, opium addiction, is portrayed not as something of his own fault, but something forced upon him by Western civilization.

Then there's the fact that the entire narrative is designed to lampoon Western values in general -- "The Orient" is an entirely peaceful, beautiful place in Griffith's recreation; the West is vile and dank. The "chink" comes to spread peace, but even in his earliest attempts (with the "Jackies" at port) he is trampled, both literally and figuratively.

Is Griffith himself trying to claim that he is merely a product of his own broken society?

R: That is an interesting point. D.W. Griffith is from the South and had relatives that fought for the South in the Civil War. Does this excuse his stereotyping of newly-freed African-Americans in Birth... then? And do you think that he could have made a Broken Blossoms-esc film with the same amount of cultural empathy based around the story of an African immigrant?

K: This is all speculative, of course, but I feel Griffith could have made any film he wanted, really. His cinematic creativity was only bound by the narratives he chose to film.

We discussed the idea of "excusing" artists in class. The two main questions I posed were, "can one separate an artist from his or her work?" and "does a filmmaker have a responsibility to be socially conscientious?"

I'd personally say "yes" to the former and "no" to the latter. While I deplore the racism that Griffith perpetrated in his work, I can safely say that I admire his skill and respect his additions to cinematic language. I'd also come to his general defense and say that he had a right to express whatever views he wanted. I think I mentioned this to you, but I am thankful that, for instance, The Westboro Baptist Church exists. What they say makes me want to vomit; but if they weren't allowed to say it, how long would it be before I weren't allowed to say what I felt?

"Does a filmmaker have a responsibility to be socially conscientious?"

A discussion cropped up today w/r/t Buster Keaton's The General. One student was terribly offended by the fact that Keaton used the Civil War as a backdrop for what is essentially a slapstick comedy. "Why," he argued, "use such a terrible event in our history as a playground for antics?" I rebutted that it is because of the shared history, the almost culturally universal understanding of events like War, that they are ripe fodder for art: there is no need for a backstory. It's just there. And then, with Comedy, you get the wonderful underline of tragedy. As love stories are best told against the specter of death, great Comedy is best told in the shallow waters of tragedy.

The same goes for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds -- yes, he makes light of WWII, but it's only because he used WWII that the film functions. Or Benigni's Life is Beautiful, another film that came up today, with equally contentious debate.

Did Keaton or Tarantino or Benigni act irresponsibly?

Filmmakers, and artists in general, only have a few responsibilities (if one can call them that): to entertain (in the classical, escapist definition of the word); to push boundaries; and/or to inform.

And by push boundaries, I don't mean be purposefully offensive...I just mean try to create something new (or, more specifically, tell us something in a new way). Make it funnier, or more exciting, or sexier, or more scintillating, or more pornographic, or more violent, or emotional, or beautiful, etc., than the last work.

And by entertain, I really just mean create a world the audience can escape to. It might be terribly unpleasant (ala Mysterious Skin) or wondrous (ala Avatar), as long as it's compelling.

So, long midnight ramble made short, Griffith does all of those three things with Birth... therefore, can he really be blamed for the work he created? Does he need to be excused?

And he also did those three things in Broken Blossoms, but with the added bonus of being significantly less offensive (though not entirely).

R: I agree and disagree. I don't believe that artists should censor themselves, but I do believe that they should be conscious of the art that they produce and its impact on society. For instance, if we take Birth of Nation, D.W. Griffith may have just wanted to show a sympathetic portrayal of what happened in the South after the Civil War because he had family that lived through that time and it was, by all accounts, a very difficult period in American history. However, his valorous portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan at that point in history inspired the actual Klan in the 1910s to use the film as a recruitment tool. They used the film to sway new members up until the 1990s by some accounts. His intentions for Birth... may have been very different from the impact that it had on the public, but its impact was widespread and devastating to African-Americans in this country. The film inspired people to commit heinous hate crimes in the name of racial purity.

The other thing that we do in Cultural Studies is look for systematic representations. It is interesting that your student brought up how the backdrop of The General is the South during the Civil War. While there were two sides fighting during the actual war we don't have a lot of filmic representations of the North, but we have a fair amount of the South, epic films at that: Cold Mountain, Gone With the Wind, Raintree County, etc. In fact, going from memory I couldn't think of any film that was from the perspective of the North, but then was reminded that Glory was about the first African-American unit in combat. So if we think about how much we want to empathize with the South in film there is something there that says a lot about our culture and what we value. If you compare this to films about World War II you do not have empathetic portrayals of the Nazi's, unless, like in Valkyre, they are trying to kill Hitler.

On the other hand, if we look at Broken Blossoms and its portrayal of a completely high "Yellow Man", it is harder for me to think of other celluloid characters that are Chinese drug addicts. Now if he magically knew some sort of martial arts then he might fit into a cliched representation that is actively working to warp the popular consciousness of the film-going public. Singularly, "bad" representations of people are not harmful. It is when they are systematic that you have this cultural absorption of grains of "truth" from their repetition. And this isn't on a conscious level. I could go on and on about this, but if interested readers might want to check out my posts on "The Cinematic Other: Dominatrix" and "'Avatar' and How White Men Are the Best at Everything".

The one thing that is systematic about his character is that he is actually a white actor in "Yellowface". This is systematic: Katherine Hepburn did it in Dragon Seed (1944) and Mickey Rooney did it (horribly) in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) amongst others. This also fits into the idea that White Men (and women) Are the Best at Everything, even playing cultural minorities. There is a really great article about this on Racebending.com.

Since there is no way we could ever wrap up this conversation I figured that we might put on our teacher hats and maybe list what questions we would pose to students regarding Broken Blossoms, race, and the social responsibility of artists/filmmakers:
• Do filmmakers/artists have a responsibility to make socially conscious work?
• Can you separate the intent of a film/filmmaker versus the impact of that film on society?
• Can you separate an artist's personal ideology/life from his or her work? (Think Roman Polanski.)
• Is it ever appropriate to use Yellowface/Blackface in a film?
* Is there a "caste" system in film? Meaning do darker colored minorities get treated worse than their lighter-skinned peers?

Other Resources:
Slaying the Dragon. Dir: Deborah Gee. 1988.
"Yellowface: A Story in Pictures" from Racebending.com

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things I Love: "Female Agents"

I love Les Femmes de L'Ombre (Female Agents). I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival several years ago and cried my way through the opening sequence; war films tend to get the better of me as I think about the real life death and destruction that they are based upon. However, this particular sequence made me tear up for completely different reasons - it was a series of still images from World War II showing women in uniform serving their countries. Yep, I cry when I see images of women in power. It is so unusual on celluloid that it brings out a lot of emotion in me. Strange, I know. But we all have the things that make us descend into waterworks without control.

In Female Agents Sophie Marceau plays Louise Defontaines. The character of Louise is based on the real life of Lisé Marie Jeanette de Baissac Villaneur, a French female agent in the French resistance during World War II. While the screenplay has been sauced up for dramatic effect, Lisé had a dramatic effect on the success of the resistance and Allies before the D-Day invasion. In the film she is the reason for Allied success at Normandy beach as she races with other female spies to keep information about the D-Day invasion a secret from the Germans. In the film she and her crew get to shoot machine guns (cool), blow up buildings (cooler), work in a team of women without getting catty (seriously, it is possible), and generally make the German commander on their tail miserable. At the same time, the women show compassion for one another and fear in the face of danger ultimately making the film a fabulous mix of action and true emotion. The film also stars Julie Depardieu, the daughter of Gérard Depardieu, so it passes the requirement that all French films are held to - that they contain at least one Depardieu.

Now, unlike Avatar, where women ultimately bow to the power that the white male main character has over them, the women in Female Agents do no such thing. When things get rough they band together. When things get even rougher they think of a new plan. There are men in the story, including Louise's brother Claude, but the women and men stand on equal ground and, ultimately, it is up to the women and just the women to save the day.

While I worry that even with my vagueness has given too many spoilers away, I know that not many of you in the U.S. will ever even see this movie. I am not trying to say there is some sort of conspiracy, but there is - Female Agents is only available on PAL (European format) DVDs. However, those of you with the ability to play PAL in the Seattle area (aka you have a computer with a DVD-ROM) can pick it up at Scarecrow video and watch it in all its glory. Its unavailability everywhere else does make me wonder why? why?! WHY! Why is it not available in the U.S.? Do distributors think we do not want war films based on real life events and people? There are so many of those - Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Band of Brothers, The Great Escape, Pearl Harbor, The English Patient, Patton, etc. etc. Do distributors think that we do not want films that re-invision World War II? Can't be that - the masses turned out for Inglorious Basterds this past summer. Hey, but I see a trend in these films! They are all about men and their forays into the field during war. The women, at best, get to be strangled by psychopathic German officers who are based on real people, but most of the time they are just nurses. While nurses do play a vital part in wartime situations isn't it about time that we show images of women in combat gettin' it done. And not like Courage Under Fire where Meg Ryan fights and, just like so many films with women with any sort of agency in them, dies. I mean really gettin' it done. Like being in the mix and living to tell the tale, exerting their full emotional and physical power, and doin' it like we know we can. Seriously. Someone make this film.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plato is So Gay

"Wow. Those are some gay undertones," states my husband, Geoff, during the first planetarium scene in Rebel Without A Cause. Geoff is not a filmmaker, has never taken a film class, and generally avoids reading too much into media. However, even he is not convinced that Plato is, as he is described by others, just "the youthful innocent."

Quickly Googling for Plato+Gay+"Rebel Without A Cause" produces a myriad of results. Seems Geoff isn't the only one picking up on Plato's vibes. Roger Ebert had this to say about Plato's reaction to the planetarium presentation in Rebel Without A Cause:
"What does he know about man alone?" It is clear now but may have been less visible in 1955 that Plato is gay and has a crush on Jim; at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.

No one brought up the question of Plato's sexuality at "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" where I, and several lucky others, got to listen to stories of old Hollywood and talk with the screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause - Stewart Stern. However, Stern did elude to Nicholas Ray having an interest in men. And that Stern was "so naive" about these things when he first started working in the film industry. Indeed, one blogger even went farther with the suggestive sexuality in the film stating:
Sal Mineo—so affecting as the essentially fatherless outcast Plato—later commented that he had portrayed the first gay teenager on film. There are little clues: the photograph of Alan Ladd taped to his locker door, his longing looks at Jim Stark, his disguised declaration of love in the abandoned mansion. Ray was aware of Dean’s bisexuality and encouraged the actor to use it in certain scenes. Dean instructed Mineo, “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” for their intimate scene in the Getty mansion. It had to be subtle. A Production Code officer had written in a memo to Jack L. Warner on March 22, “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” In real life Mineo was gay, and it is even rumored that he and Ray (who was bisexual) also had a tryst while filming Rebel.
While those of us who have seen the documentary or read the book The Celluloid Closet don't find any of this particularly shocking, the thing that still bothers me about homosexuality in mainstream film, latent or "out", is how much we like to punish the characters for their alleged transgressions. Here is a quick synopsis of mainstream Hollywood films that have come out in the last twenty years, been acclaimed by the masses and critics, featuring gay, bisexual, transgendered or otherwise "out" main characters and their celluloid fates:
  • The Crying Game. Dir: Neil Jordan. 1992. This one is hard to explain, but trust me when I say that this one does not end on a complete happy note. Dead and depressed.
  • Philadelphia. Dir: Jonathan Demme. 1993. Tom Hanks plays a gay attorney with AIDS who eventually succumbs to his disease. Dead.
  • Boys Don't Cry. Dir: Kimberly Pierce. 1999. Hillary Swank won an Oscar for playing a transgendered man who is shot and killed by his former friends once they learn his secret. Dead.
  • Far From Heaven. Dir: Todd Haynes. 2002. Dennis Qauid finally leaves his wife after revealing that he is gay only to be isolated, alone, and depressed in this contemporary re-make of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Depressed.
  • The Hours. Dir: Stephen Daldry. 2002. This film featured several contemporary "out" characters. One was stuck in a loveless relationship. The other threw himself to his death instead of allowing AIDS to take him. Dead and depressed.
  • Monster. Dir: Patty Jenkins. 2003. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen Wournos, a real-life lesbian/prostitute/serial killer, who is eventually tried and convicted for her crimes and sentence to death by lethal injection. Dead.
  • Brokeback Mountain. Dir: Ang Lee. 2005. Jake Gyllenhaal uttered the classic line "I can't quit you" to Heath Ledger in this story of two cowboys who fall in love with each other. However, eventually Jake Gyllenhaal is viciously murdered by men who learn his secret. Dead and depressed.
  • Transamerica. Dir: Duncan Tucker 2005. Felicity Huffman was robbed of the Oscar for her portrayal of a man transitioning to become a woman and the complications it brings with the discovery that she fathered a child. Alive and pretty much happy!
  • Milk. Dir: Gus Van Sant. 2008. Based on the real story of Harvey Milk who, like his fictional and real peers, is assassinated. Dead.
While there are cult favorites and independent films like But I am a Cheerleader (Dir: Jaime Babbit. 1999) and Kissing Jessica Stein (Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. 2001) that break taboos and allow for more positive gay, bisexual, and transgendered main characters it is almost unheard of in a mainstream or co-opted (small film that gets a lot of Oscar attention) Hollywood films. In fact, the only film that I could think of that has come out in the last twenty years, received mainstream critical and audience acceptance, and featured a character that did not die or end up completely emotionally devastated by the end of the film was Transamerica. This, to me, very clearly articulates an issue with how we feel culturally about LGBTQ men and women in our society - that they do not deserve happiness and acceptance like the heterosexual population. And while their presence has increased and "come out of the closet" since Rebel Without A Cause was released in 1955 they are still meeting the same fate as Plato time and time again - death. This is troubling. I challenge filmmakers large and small to think of better ways to deal with sexualities that break the heteronormativity mold than this disturbing trend of death, depression, and/or emotional destruction. In the meantime I will revel in the campy brilliance of But I am a Cheerleader.

Mad love to Lane, who, one night on a slow film set, helped to create the list of modern films and the fates of their main LGBTQ characters while simultaneously doing a handstand.

Rebel Without A Father

Stewart Stern is full of stories of old Hollywood. He is the nephew of Adolf Zukor, one of the pioneers of Paramount pictures, and cousins with the Loews family that used to control MGM. He told one story about sitting down on a couch at a party in Los Angeles and chatting up a bored Marilyn Monroe then told us about how after "Jimmy" Dean died he (and others close to him) felt haunted by his ghost. He described the Tiffany arboretum that was a part of the Loews mansion in Long Island that also served as inspiration for the mansion at the end of Rebel Without a Cause. He spoke of how his house guest, Beatrice Lillie, was so funny that he had to fake taking a trip to Palm Springs to escape her company because her jokes were so distracting to his work. Where did end up? The Chateau Marmot where he hung out with Dennis Hopper and eventually wrote the script for Rebel after meeting director Nicholas Ray. At 88 he is one of the few people left with such strong ties to old Hollywood. So when I raised my hand to ask my one question at the Northwest Film Forum presentation of "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" screening I just really hoped that he didn't hit me with his cane, because it would have been like Marlon Brando (who he traveled through Asia with) and the rest of old Hollywood popping me one for making trouble and that would have been a little hard to handle for this film buff.

In America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies the authors use Rebel Without a Cause as an example of how film in the 1950s was full of images of masculinity in crisis: "The lingering effects of World War II and the new corporate economics of the 1950s were changing the social understanding of masculinity" (274). I had heard other readings of this film, but never that it was about a crisis in masculinity that was spurned by the effects of World War II. So, when spending an afternoon with the writer of the film I had to ask the question: "Do you believe that Rebel Without A Cause represents a 'crisis in masculinity' that was culturally present in 1950s America?"

After taking a long pause he replied, "Well, before World War II you always brought women corsages if you were taking them out on a date. After the war you didn't do that any more."

I have never heard someone describe shifting gender roles in such an eloquent way.

Stern stated said that the fathers in the film were influenced by the monotony that the 1950s man encountered as working life and gender roles shifted in the wake of World War II. He said, "They felt like drones. They went to work. They might play cards once a week. But that was it." One audience member put the blame on the masculine crisis on the Rosie-the-Riveter women who, after working the factories while the men were off fighting, continued to challenge gender roles after the end of the war. However, Stern was not so quick to judge stating that after World War II, "Fathers were loosing ground." He also admitted that there was little emotional support for the men returning from combat and that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a part of society, but not dealt with in a public forum. This undercurrent of emotion from wartime experiences were causing men to display feelings that, before the war, were traditionally "bottled up" and masculinity started to crack under the psychological pressure.

The display of masculinity in crisis embodied in Rebel in the character of Jim's father Frank Stark, played by Jim Backus. In one scene Frank drops a tray of food that he is taking his wife as Jim, James Dean's character, walks up the stairs. Frank is dressed in a gray suit with a flowery apron on which allegedly belongs to his wife. Jim is horrified to see his father on the floor and yells at him "Don't!" When Frank looks confused as to what Jim is referring to, Jim slinks off to his room upset at his father's emasculation at the hands of his overbearing mother. In fact, Stern hinted that the cold bottle of milk that Jim drinks throughout the film upon returning home is supposed to represent his mother - cold, ineffectual.

In fact, Jim's entire rebellion can be traced back to his feelings towards his "inadequate" father. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Jim tells the juvenile detective that "She eats him alive and he just takes it." And later: "If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy, and she'd stop picking on him." Hinting that want he wants out of his father is the traditional role model of violent patriarchy and, in fact, that his mother might like that. In fact, the detective puts Jim into his place after he takes a swing, asserting his own place as an appropriate male role model through physical combat. Towards the end of the film, since Jim does not respect his father as a role model, he returns to the police station to try and find the detective to share his problems with. However, he is let down when he finds out that the detective is not there.

Stern said that to do background research to write the film, he spent several months shadowing a real juvenile detective. Much of the background for the main characters - Jim, Judy, and Plato - came out of this experience. In fact, Stern actually noted in his journal that one of the real-life inspirations was "In his mind searching for a father image..." But it was something that he could not find. True, neither Jim, Judy, or Plato could find the type of father figure that they wanted so they created their own family briefly in the abandoned mansion. So while the film is called Rebel Without A Cause, the truth is that the characters are actually rebelling against the oldest reason in the book - their fathers - and the fear of changing masculinity that they represent to 1950s America.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Avatar" and How White Men Are the Best at Everything

The director of Avatar, James Cameron, has made a living out of making films with paper-thin narratives, cliched characters, but with lots of pretty things to look at. Avatar is no different. I must admit that I enjoyed the thrill-ride while I was on it, but looking back on the film now just makes me ever so sad.

The story goes that the Na'vi, the indigenous population (read: Native Americans) in the way of the progress of a greedy corporation (read: white Europeans), live on a remote world called Pandora (read: pre-colonial America). To try and convince them that they should move so that we can take over their land and cultivate the precious metal that lies beneath their sacred tree-home, we send Avatar Na'vi to integrate with the locals. The "dreamwalkers," as the Na'vi call them, are humans who, through the power of technology, can put themselves into the bodies of laboratory-grown half-Na'vi half-human beings. And thus, the futuristic reenactment of Manifest Destiny begins. However, this time the Avatars side with the Na'vi as the greedy corporation tries to plow down their sacred tree in order to mine the precious metal below and win in the face of interstellar corporate greed.

Now, there have been a lot of comments about how Sully, the protagonist/dreamwalker/Avatar, is highly reminiscent of the character that Tom Cruise played in The Last Samurai and Kevin Costner played in Dances with Wolves. Sully is, in effect, the white man who abandons "his" people to become the best damn minority ever. This is, because, white men are the best at everything. He gets to ride the toughest beast in the sky, he gets the village "prize" in the form of the highest ranking spiritual lady in waiting, and he hatches the plan that defeats the evil corporation that is trying to destroy Pandora's beauty. He proves that white men are really awesome at everything; including being an alien racial minority.

Truth be told, this plot device is not really new, but neither is the one that really bothered me about the film. Admittedly, being female I tend to judge films on the basis of what they let or don't let the women in the film do. The human women in the film, played by Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodruigez, represent two generations of actresses that have been allowed to kick butt and take names on celluloid. Sigourney Weaver totally blew them away in the Alien series (even with James Cameron at the helm!) and Michelle Rodruigez's break-through performance was in a film aptly titled Girlfight.

Spoiler alert in the paragraphs ahead. You may want to stop here if you have not seen and wish to view Avatar.

Michelle Rodruigez, once again, plays the hot-tempered Latina who is a military pilot with a soft spot for the blue Na'vi. Sigourney is relegated to the head maternal scientist role. She really wants to be a Na'vi and enjoys her forays into their world in her Avatar body. This bit of typecasting is not what bothers me (older woman as mother, Latina as "spicy"). It is the fact that for all their agency in the film that they are eventually killed off. Frequently, maybe more so than the white men as the best damn racial minority trope, female characters that embody some sort of power physically or mentally, are killed off because they are threatening to typical notions of white, male patriarchy.

Meeting their untimely doom, does not generally affect male characters who challenge authority in film. Avatar proves no different. Norm (Joel Moore), the other lovable scientist/Avatar survives the battle at the end. Not even the baddie head of corporate (Giovanni Ribisi) croaks. Nope. Once the human ladies decide to fight and challenge authority it is curtains for them and their sense of empowerment.

The only other main female character is also the only one who survives the climactic battle: the Na'vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). And this is because Neytiri conforms to stereotypical notions of femininity. For instance, although she is a Na'vi warrior/spiritual leader, she bows down to the power and influence of the white male outsider, Sully. She is, in effect, tamed by him when she chooses him as her partner and, in a really strange scene, copulates with him in the glowing woods. She literally defends him and his authority during the climactic battle and delivers him to the glowing tree at the end so he can be permanently fused with his Na'vi body and take his place as chief of the tribe. She exhibits a lot of physical, mental, and spiritual authority, but once she meets Sully it is all in service of him and his mission. Lame.

Undoubtedly, Avatar broke new ground technologically with its combination of human actors and computer generated effects. However, I wish that more time had been taken to think about how the story perpetuates very old notions of gender and race that are deeply troubling to those of us who do not identify with the white, male majority. I want to see a movie where women get to kick butt (mentally or physically), take names, don't lament over their relationships with men and survive to tell their tale.

To see Sigourney Weaver talk about her character in Avatar click here.
To see Zoe Saldana talk about her character in Avatar click here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reproductive Rights and Athletics: The Curious Tale of Female Ski Jumpers

Reproductive Rights and Athletics: The Curious Tale of Female Ski Jumpers

From 2002 - 2005 I made a film about female ski jumpers trying to get their sport included in the Winter Olympics. With the 2010 Vancouver Games right around the corner and the women still being excluded I wrote this piece for Contexts.org, an awesome sociology scholarly blog, about the fight of women ski jumpers to get their sport included in the Winter Olympics. It is a strange tale of sports and reproduction. Yeah, I know. I would have never put those two together before my journey as well!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunshine Cleaning Passes The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies!

Over the holidays I met Anita at a party and we were discussing our love/hate relationship with media. We both love Buffy. We are both a little sad at what Joss Whedon has done since then. She told me I should watch Farscape. I admitted to liking the new Star Trek even though it falls into some serious cliches. For instance, we can update the ship and make it look all flashy, but we can't let women wear pants?! To say the least, we hit it off.

I had never heard of The Bechdel Test until I checked out her vlog yesterday. It was developed in the 1980s to test whether or not there are substantial female characters in a film. The test is simple:
  1. Are there at least two female characters in the film?
  2. Do they have names?
  3. Do they talk to each other?
  4. Do they talk about something other than men?
If you are like me then you are immediately racking your brain to try and think of films that pass the test. It isn't easy. If you watch Anita's vlog clip then you can see an extensive list of films that do not pass; a lot of which are modern classics that I grew up on and loved without even thinking about how there was little for me, as a young girl, to identify with.

At the party, Anita and I both admitted that we tend to, as academics, feminists, and media lovers, attack and criticize things without talking enough about there are things out there that we love. So, last night, since it was difficult for me to think of a film off the top of my head that would pass The Bechdel Test, I took my research to my Netflix cue. And I low and behold I found a film that passed - Sunshine Cleaning. And I liked it immensely.

The story revolves around Rose (Amy Adams) who is a struggling single mother in Albuquerque. Through connections that Rose has at the local police department (re: married cop whom she has regular relations with) she transitions from being a maid to operating her own business cleaning up crime scenes with the help of her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt). Even though the work is disgusting Rose finds happiness in helping people at moments in their lives when something horrible has happened.

I am purposely leaving out details here, because there are many very tried and true ways that the characters in this movie could change and grow. However, Sunshine Cleaning at almost every turn refuses to take the easy way out. This makes the main characters, the sister duo of Norah and Rose, more complex and interesting than female characters in the vast majority of films. Additionally, if you were to look at them through the critique of The Bechdel Test, that they are also unique in the fact that most of their interactions have little to do with the men in their lives even though their romantic entanglements are also complex.

I am not saying that the film is superior to all others, but it is touching and a great example of how to follow a classic, plot-driven, screenplay structure that media makers who've been through scriptwriting 101 have had drilled into their head and still come out with female characters who are well developed. It is, in effect, a ray of sunshine in regards to its inclusion and development of multiple, interesting female characters. Also interesting to note, is that the film was written and directed by two women, Megan Holley and Christin Jeffs, as well!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Regarding: For Your Consideration: Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director? - indieWIRE

For Your Consideration: Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director? - indieWIRE

Wow. Not even 24 hours later there are as Bill and Ted would say, "Strange things afloat at the Circle K" known as the internet regarding Kathryn Bigelow's chance at being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director.

However, the article is not as controversial as the title suggests, but rather out there to controversially draw viewers into a discussion of the importance of gender in regards to the Best Director Oscar. Here is a snipit:
“The Hurt Locker” is an action film, a genre typically the preserve of male directors. Many critics have expressed delight that Bigelow is receiving such acclaim for a film that is so atypical to the type of films women are usually allowed to direct. Yet there are two sides to the story - film critic Caryn James recently suggested that “the many nominations for Bigelow play into the old idea that women get ahead by behaving like men, in this case making a movie voters might expect a man to have made”.
Undoubtedly, this person is not very familiar with Bigelow's history as a director. She has actually made a career out of directing non-chick flicks. She is one of the few female directors who regularly directs action films that star male protagonists. Her directorial resume includes: Point Break, K-19: The Widowmaker, and Strange Days. And why should she have to conform to the gendered norm that in film women direct comedies and "women's pictures" in order to be acceptable?

I take issue with the idea that her gender isn't important in regards to her possibly winning an Oscar for her work on The Hurt Locker because it is not a chick flick. While it is a film about men and therefore follows the tradition that to get ahead women "behave like men", there have been three women in the history of the Oscars to ever have been nominated for Best Director. Three. That. Is. It. If Katheryn Bigelow were to be the fourth and if she were to win that would be a huge deal for women in film industry.

But let us not loose site of the fact that the Oscars are a very prestigious award in the film industry, but they are also very biased in what they believe is a film worthy of acclaim. Generally, the major awards (Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress) go the works from the US that are in English. We can also get more specific and say that these films are usually feature-length narrative (non-documentary) dramas that are directed by a white American male and the main protagonist is usually a white male. Narrative shorts, comedies, documentaries long and short do not generally garner nominations for the "big" awards. Experimental films? Ha. They don't even have a category on the big night.

The truth is that the academy occasionally acknowledges great films, performers, and film craftsmen and women. However, there is this whole world of film and filmmakers that they also annually ignore, because they are a self-serving and conservative bunch. And, quite truthfully, there is a lot of great work out there past and present that has been snubbed by the academy just because it doesn't fall into their unwritten criteria of what is "Oscar" worthy. There have also been instances of blatant discrimination for films and performance that were nominated that were a little "out of the box". For instance, in 2006 Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar competition to Crash, because some academy members wouldn't even watch the film due to the fact that the story centered around two "straight" cowboys falling in love with one another. Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine, Academy members, even boasted publicly that they were proud of the fact that they did not watch Brokeback Mountain, because the content of the film "disgusted" them.

The topic of Oscar's tendency to discriminate against large sects of the filmmaking world based on content, form, and genre choice has, ironically, also been brought up at Oscar awards themselves. So I leave you with a link to the brilliant performance from Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly from the 79th Academy Awards as I look forward to the very possibility of seeing just one more woman nominated for Best Director. February 2nd cannot come any faster!

P.S. In case you didn't know, the first three women to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar were Lina Wertmeuller for Seven Beauties in 1976, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003 for Lost in Translation.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"The Cutting Edge" and Feminine Sensibility

Yesterday we wrapped up watching The Cutting Edge in film editing. No, not the 1990s ice skating film starring DB Swenney and Moira Kelly (though I admit rather liking it). But rather the documentary about editors and editing that I believe sets a really good foundation of the history and craft of editing for my class.

Although I have seen the film many times, the one thing that struck me this time around was how much the role of the editor was feminized. Especially in contrast to the very masculine role of the director. In fact, the way that many of the directors in the film spoke about their editors, it was as if they were a married couple; the director was the husband and head of household and the editor was the wife who supported the husbands' endeavors. Truth be told, as a filmmaker myself, I completely realize that the relationship between and editor and a director is intense and intricate. However, the issue was not the closeness of the relationship between editor and director, but rather the insistence by several prominent directors that women make better editors due to an inherent "maternal" quality that they/we possess.

Quentin Tarintino actually said that he wanted a female sensibility and "emotionality" to his films and that is why when he was looking for someone to cut Resevoir Dogs he specifically went out in search of a female editor. Eventually he met Sally Menke who he's now made several films with. Steven Spielberg called Verna Fields, who edited Jaws, an "earth mother" and said that she was very maternal.

Overall, there was an inference that the editor was there to play an important, but supportive, role and that a female "sensibility" fit the role of the editor perfectly. Thus, the relationship of the editor to the director really operate like antiquated notions of marriage; the editors were subservient and supportive, important, but had to be coy in the way that they persuaded their directors to see things their way. Therefore, it is really interesting to me that one of the few jobs in Hollywood that has traditionally involved more women is one which supposedly "fits" us perfectly - that of the editor.

The problem with this scenario is that it implies that there is a female "sensibility"; that there is something inherent within our DNA that inclines us to supportive and nurturing roles. Since this type of mentality is often in contrast to the qualities assumed for film directors - commanding, assertive - it means that though women are "born" to be editors that we are not appropriate for the role of director. In fact, in the documentary The Cutting Edge the only female director that was interviewed was Jodie Foster. Now the director of the documentary is also female, Wendy Apple, and the issue of including more female directors in the documentary is not really the problem. The conundrum is that the Director's Guild of America is currently only about 25% women. However, if you add up the total days that directors work, the last statistical information I could find, put female directors at about 7% of all the days worked by DGA members in a year. It is shameful. Something I hope begins to rapidly change and, also, something I will blog about as we get closer to awards season. Director Kathryn Bigelow has a shot at at least an Oscar nomination for her work on The Hurt Locker and it will be interesting to see what happens.

If I am going to make my students do it...

I am experimenting. I have decided that in lieu of carrying around stacks of papers that kill my shoulders that I am going to get my students to create individual blogs of their media consumption for one quarter. They are going to start an archive of their perceptions of issues of gender, race, and class in cinema history. This experiment is partially due to the fact that I am having issues finding a textbook that specifically addresses issues of gender, race, and class in cinema history. There are books out there that address these issues contemporarily, but not in a historical context and not with the same breadth that general intro to cinema history books do. I also need one that covers American as well as international works, throws in a little documentary, and experimental film and doesn't cost over $50. While typing all that out I realize that my requests are probably an impossibility. However, I would love it if others had ideas and would like to chime in with suggestions. In the meantime, I figure, I will just make my own "text" and then, next quarter, allow my students to chime in with their thoughts as well.