My husband and I had a chance to watch Woody Allen’s latest opus, Blue Jasmine, Friday night, and I came away floored. While I have enjoyed many of Allen’s recent contributions (particularly Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris), Blue Jasmine falls alongside Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters as one of his strongest efforts as a writer/director. The film is timely but timeless, expertly structured, well written, and beautifully performed. In short, it’s one of the best films directed and written by Allen in his entire career.
The film focuses on Jasmine Francis, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett. We meet her flying westward and reminiscing about her marriage to a wealthy financier, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Despite her first class seat, Louis Vuitton luggage, and fashionable aesthetic, Jasmine is broke due to punitive actions taken by the government as a result of her husband’s fraudulent investments. Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), takes her in, despite having been negatively impacted by the investments herself. Both Ginger and Jasmine navigate the rocky terrains of romance as well, with Ginger gravitating toward honest, working class types and Jasmine wanting smooth, wealthy men. This difference in taste causes friction between the two. Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine is a character study through contrasts, but it’s elevated above that earlier effort by thoughtful writing and Blanchett and Hawkins’ pitch-perfect performances.
Blue Jasmine isn’t the first time that Allen has written and directed a piece about sisters. One of my favorite Woody Allen-directed features, Hannah and Her Sisters centers on the dynamic between Hannah (Mia Farrow), Holly (Diane Weist), and Lee (Barbara Hershey), three Manhattan siblings with close but problematic relationships. In that film, Hannah is the center that holds the three together as a result of the stability she’s gained through her successful acting career and marriage; however, both Holly and Lee resent Hannah’s role and, in their own ways, challenge Hannah’s supremacy–Lee acquiesces to Hannah’s husband’s romantic advances, while Holly uses Hannah’s marital problems as creative fodder. By film’s end, Hannah’s dominant position remains, but Holly finds her own artistic voice and both she and Lee find love of their own.
In both Blue Jasmine and Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s writing and the performances of these amazing actresses capture how dynamics between siblings in childhood reverberate in adulthood; but with both films focusing on sisters, those relationships are impacted by gender. In both cases, it is men that get in the way of the sisterly bond; however, Blue Jasmine incorporates an additional dimension to the contrast between sisters: class. Ginger and Jasmine, despite being of the same parents, exhibit very different tastes, with Ginger choosing the funky, laid-back San Francisco for her home, and Jasmine having previously lived a luxurious life in New York. Their taste in men is similarly divergent, with Jasmine swept off her feet by the smooth, duplicitous Hal, while Ginger opts for direct, working-class guys in her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice-Clay–yes, for real), and fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale, my new favorite character actor of the Guido persuasion). These foils reveal interesting contradictions: Jasmine judges Ginger’s men as crude, violent, and ill-educated, but her own husband’s actions have inflicted the most pain.
Here, then, Blue Jasmine questions the social dynamics that allow Jasmine to effectively feign respectability (though the illusion does collapse) while Ginger must defend her choices to her more “refined” sister. It’s an entrancing balancing act that Blue Jasmine plays, one that ultimately tips in favor of the honest sister. And that, ultimately, is what Hannah and Her Sisters and Blue Jasmine share in common: an emphasis on defining oneself authentically, despite the ways in which our familial relationships might pull us back into long established roles. It’s knowing your value outside the family that enables you to survive and thrive.
It may be hard for some to imagine that Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, who died in 1975, might have anything relevant to say about the MTV-popularized spring break partying rituals of American college students. Yet, Bakhtin’s work describing medieval carnival clearly applies to this contemporary example. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin describes “the carnivalesque” as a period in which class structures break down, normally forbidden behavior becomes the norm, and rules get broken without consequence. All of this and more occurs in many a beach town in late March, but this carnival ethics gets taken to its logical extreme in writer/director Harmony Korine‘s latest opus, Spring Breakers.
The film follows four young college women, Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who desperately want to leave their boring college campus for an exciting spring vacation. Lacking the money to afford such a trip, all but Faith rob a chicken restaurant to fund their adventure. With the loot, they travel to a Florida beach town where they spend lavishly and party vigorously until they get caught in a drug raid at a party. A rapper called Alien (James Franco) bails the ladies out of jail. While Alien’s drug dealing, gangster lifestyle repels some of the girls, it attracts others, leading to a violent, but not punitive, end to the spring break festivities.
The depiction of youthful indulgence in Spring Breakers has literary antecedents stretching all the way back to the Renaissance genre that Bakhtin and others describe as grotesque realism. This literature uses hyperbole to depict the depraved behavior that takes place in a carnivalesque setting. Spring Breakers also uses exaggeration in several montages throughout the film. These sequences depict the provocative behavior of college co-eds, many of them half-dressed, simulating sexual acts, and engaging in homoerotic displays. The cinematography emphasizes the grotesque nature of these acts through slow-motion photography and close-up shots. All the more interesting, Korine uses the same series of shots several times throughout the film. This uncanny repetition produces a ritualistic effect, lending credibility to the equation of spring break to carnival.
The film also deploys markers of class and race to signal a breakdown of hierarchies, particularly later in the film. As with carnival, the spring break rituals flout traditionally middle-class conventions around sexuality and respectability, reveling instead in overtly sexual performances. All four girls seem comfortable with the scene, until Alien arrives. At that point, he introduces them to a different crowd, one that is populated by far more blacks than whites. It is at this point that Faith decides to return to her college town, indicating her discomfort in the change in the social scene. Here, then, we get a further breakdown of distinctions, not merely in terms of class, but also race.
While Faith departs, Cotty, Candy, and Brit remain, further embracing the criminality that got them to spring break in the first place. Alien, it turns out, makes most of his money selling drugs, much to the chagrin of his former best friend and local kingpin, Big Arch. Sex, violence, and money, all get wrapped up together in the climax (I won’t give too many details away). In the end, though, it’s the women who most fully embrace this ethos of excess who reap the greatest rewards. In other words, Spring Breakers upends the typical narrative in which young adult characters face grave consequences for their excesses.
While some reviewers have criticized Spring Breakers for its violent and sexual overtones, I read it the way Bakhtin read grotesque realism: as a satire. Spring Breakers, through its excesses, critiques the materialism and hedonism of American popular culture:
Of course, the classist and racist slant of the makes the satire problematic; nevertheless, Spring Breakers can be read as commentary on the ways in which the carnivalesque rituals of spring break reflect a deeper cultural impulse toward money, violence, and sex at all costs.
The title sequence of the TV series Top of the Lake begins with a placid New Zealand lake, surrounded by jagged mountains and a gray sky. This peaceful image shifts as the animation depicts the lake overflowing into darkness. An elk bust tumbles into the depths of the lake, with the shadow of a fetus and a girl’s picture also appearing. This opening sequence clearly functions as a metaphor for the show, which depicts the investigation of the rape of a young girl in a small New Zealand town. Moreover, the title sequence also alludes to the show’s interest in unearthing past trauma, diving deep into the dark past of the primary character, Robin, to explore the impacts of past sexual violence and untold family secrets on the events of the present.
The seven part mini-series, co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and co-directed by Campion and Garth Davis, begins with the attempted suicide of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe). Following the incident, in which Tui submerges herself in the ice-cold water of the lake, a school nurse realizes that 12 year-old Tui shows signs of pregnancy. With the pregnancy likely the result of statutory rape, Robin (Elisabeth Moss) joins the police investigation as a specialist in sex crimes. After failed attempts to get more information from Tui, the young girl disappears into the wilderness around the lake. Robin persists in searching for Tui, but also finds herself revisiting her own history of sexual trauma. Through her relationship with Tui’s half-brother, Johnno, we learn that Robin survived a vicious gang-rape when she was fourteen, which resulted in a pregnancy that Robin’s mother forced her to carry to term. Robin’s experiences of rape, then, become as central to the show’s plot as Tui’s present circumstances.
Crime narratives often align the investigation of violent crime with the exploration of past trauma, especially when the protagonist is a woman. The most obvious example in film and literature would be Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs. In the scene below, we see Hannibal Lector’s astute analysis of Clarice’s psychological motivations for her search for a serial killer:
In the case of Clarice, her trauma is a motivation to help others in danger and, in the process, she works through her own trauma. Robin’s occupation similarly enables her to confront the same kinds of sexual violence that she herself endured.
Such narratives illustrate the ways in which some psychologists theorize that trauma victims use projection as a coping mechanism. Simply put, projection is a psychoanlytic term for the tendency to see in others what we most despise within ourselves; however, the concept was broadened by Carl Jung to mean “carry[ing] something over from one place to another” or “one form into another.” According to Bernard McKenna, “Applying Jung’s theories to the traumatized focuses attention to the way victims of violence project masks of protection (against dealing with trauma or against possible further trauma) onto their identities.” He continues that, “Trauma victims create what they consider to be an authentic identity from the chaos that was and is their trauma. In reality, that identity is simply a reproduction assembled from cues from their society’s history and culture.” McKenna describes how this masking process results in further frustration through “intrusions of trauma memories [and] compulsive reexposure to trauma.” In other words, the attempts of the trauma survivor to combat the trauma become a futile reaction formation.
Top of the Lake‘s Robin exemplifies these concepts, with her efforts to confront the traumas of others causing her to revisit own trauma. Specifically, Robin’s choice to become an investigator could be seen as a way to deny the trauma by assuming a different role within similar traumatic situation. In her cases, she is the authority and expert who can help the survivor. However, Tui’s case reminds her of her own trauma, and she interprets Tui’s situation through the lens of her own experience, believing that maybe Tui also had been gang raped. As a result of this projection, Robin misses clues that point another direction, failing in her assessment of the facts.
It is only after Robin is dismissed from the case and makes a major discovery about her own personal history that her her view on her identity becomes altered (I’m going to stay vague here to avoid too many spoilers). At her low point, Robin asks for help from GJ (Holly Hunter), a guru who attracts a group of women to an encampment on the lakeside. Below is a clip of GJ challenging Robin and the rest of the women to rethink their instincts:
This speech echoes GJ’s suggestion that “there is wisdom in the body,” since she encourages Robin to take care of her physical needs first before attempting to help others. Put another way, Robin must face her trauma, rather than rely upon her coping mechanisms.
Not long after this speech, Robin saves Tui and discovers the mystery behind her pregnancy. The series, it seems, suggests that Robin gains greater insight into Tui’s trauma once she’s able to confront her own experiences. Bernard McKenna states, “in order to recover from trauma, an individual must construct new personal and interpersonal structures of identification that incorporate the violent past into non-traumatic functions of everyday life.” In other words, recovery from trauma comes not from its disavowal but from accepting trauma as a part of ones identity in an authentic way.
Personally, I worry that such discourses place an even heavier burden on the survivor in addition to the trauma itself. The effort to heal proves hard enough without film, television, and self-help gurus criticizing the ways in which women (and men) process sexual trauma. At the same time, I appreciate a series like Top of the Lake for acknowledging the complex ways in which sexual assault shapes identity long after the initial trauma.
Room 237 may be the first documentary of its kind. The film explores fan readings of the seminal 1980 horror film, The Shining, by combining the footage of the films of Stanley Kubrick with the voiceover explanations of five fans explaining their theories. Each reading can be supported, but some pieces of evidence feel like Rorschach ink blots, and all five theories rely heavily on the concept of the auteur. Ultimately, Room 237 fascinates more for the ways it reveals the reading practices of fans than for any great light it actually shines (no pun intended) on the text itself.
The five narrators each explain a theory about the underlying meaning of The Shining. Two theories align the bloodshed in the film with acts of genocide, with one fan claiming that the film is about Native American genocide and the other arguing for the Jewish Holocaust. The third reading connects the text with the myth of the Minotaur, while another fan suggests that the film can be read as Kubrick’s admission to staging the Apollo 11 moon landing. The final reading argues that the film grapples with sexuality and, like all of the other readings, points to images of repression to forward its case.
The interpretations on display in Room 237 vary greatly in terms of validity. The Native American genecide reading may be the most plausible due to the Overlook Hotel’s western decor, lines of dialog (“White man’s burden!“), and the hotel’s location upon an Indian burial ground all lending credibility to the concept. The minotaur reading also seems valid due to the actual labyrinth featured in the film and the formal similarities between the tracking shots within the labyrinth and the Overlook Hotel. The scene in Room 237 certainly supports the reading around repressed sexuality; however, I’m less convinced by the Holocaust argument and find the Apollo 11 theory laughable, as these two readings rely primarily upon minutiae, rather than upon plot points.
Therein lies the fascination of Room 237: all five fans point to incredibly specific details from the mise-en-scene as clues for their solution to the puzzle that is The Shining. Everything from a can of Calumet baking powder, to a German typewriter, to an Apollo 11 sweater becomes a sign hinting at much deeper meanings within the text.
The most absurd examples of hyper-attention to detail include a viewer who insists that a cloud resembles Stanley Kubrick’s face, another who compares a skiing poster to an image of a bull, and my favorite would be the paper tray that looks like a phallus. These examples require the keenest attention of the reader to have noticed such abstract uses of the mise-en-scene. They demonstrate who viewers interpret details creatively to support a unifying theory of the film.
Such specific, detailed readings also rely heavily upon assumptions about filmmaking that overestimate the artistic control of the director in the crafting of a film. The fans describe the pains taken by Kubrick in the placement of objects, and while it’s true that such details can be significant, the idea that the director has control over all of these specifics overlooks the fact that film requires collaboration: art directors, costume designers, set directors–all take part in the decision-making process. In a film of The Shining’s complexity, there are just too many details for all of them to have been intentionally chosen by the director.
One of the fans acknowledges the fact that artistic intention may be difficult to argue but claims that intention doesn’t matter when it comes to postmodern film criticism. This is true–fans give meaning to the text with their readings, regardless of what a filmmaker might intend to convey (think queer readings of The Wizard of Oz). My favorite example of fan appropriation from Room 237 would be the the screening of The Shining with the film running backwards superimposed on top. See the trailer for that screening here:
By superimposing the reversed version over The Shining, fans demonstrate the power of synchronicity and the symmetry of narrative. For me, this use of the text proves far more interesting than the tenuous possibility of an all powerful director placing objects in front of the camera to communicate a message. For this reason, Room 237 as a whole is more compelling as an exploration of fan appropriations of text, rather than its elucidation of The Shining‘s overarching meaning. It demonstrates that the viewer, as much as the director, creates meaning when reading a film.
I’m a coming-of-age kind of girl. No film genre gives me greater pleasure than that which explores the pleasures and pitfalls of adolescence. Boys, girls, straight, gay–I love filmic representations of this tricky developmental stage. It’s no wonder, then, that the recent DVD release of Pariah, the feature-length debut of writer/director Dee Rees, caught my attention. The film stands out within the coming-of-age genre for its sophisticated representation of identity, with race, sex, gender, class, and sexuality complexly portrayed in the story of Alike, a Brooklyn teenager who struggles to reconcile her homosexuality with her family’s conservative conceptions of gender.
The trailer provides a nice overview of the conflicts within the film:
Externally, Alike struggles to meet her parents’ expectations, while internally, Alike spends the film trying to determine how best to express her identity. We see Alike trying out different scenes and expressing her gender and sexuality in different ways through art and fashion. Her mother, Audrey, encourages her to present herself in a more feminine manner, despite Alike’s desire to dress in more masculine cloths. Audrey also expresses disapproval over Alike’s best friend, Laura, requiring Alike instead to spend time with a coworker’s daughter named Bina. Alike initially gives Bina the cold shoulder, but gradually, the two bond over music, art, and Alike’s confessional poetry. Their friendship becomes romantic but turns complicated when Bina suddenly disavows her feelings for Alike. The remainder of the film focuses on Alike’s coming out to her parents and the fallout of that confrontation. While the ending of the film may not resolve all of the external conflicts of Pariah, the final moments leave you with a sense that Alike struggles less internally, more confident now in her identity as a young, lesbian woman.
Let’s be clear, though: Pariah not only focuses on sexuality, but also race, class, and gender, taking an intersectional approach to identity. Intersectionality, defined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, assumes that you cannot isolate the various characteristics of your identity, but that each facet your identity inflects the others. A straight man experiences masculinity in a different way than a gay man would; a black woman experiences her womanhood in a different way than a latina woman; the examples go on, but the point is that no identifying characteristic can be isolated from all others, but rather, they coalesce into a complicated interstices that is who we are and how we experience the world.
Pariah illustrates this concept beautifully by contrasting characters’ experiences. Alike and her best friend, Laura, provide one such contrast. While the two both take on a more “butch” presentation of gender as part of their lesbian identities, Laura’s experience within the black lesbian community differs dramatically from Alike’s. When the two regularly visit a lesbian club together, Laura appears more comfortable in these surroundings than Alike, who seems uncomfortable in the raw club environment where the expressions of sexuality are very overt (see the trailer for examples). Part of this difference between the girls seems to be in personality, with Alike clearly more introverted than the extroverted Laura.
But the girls also differ dramatically in terms of class, with Alike’s family firmly in the middle-class and Laura’s is more working-class. So, even though both girls’ mothers reject them, they experience their exile in different ways: Laura must move in with her sister, barely scraping by financially but able to earn her GED, while Alike joins an early college program at UC Berkeley. As a result, the class-based opportunities and means impact the survival strategies that each girl develops.
Gender also complicates representations of identity within the film. Alike’s more masculine presentation seems to alarm her mother, Audrey, as much as her sexuality. Bina, in contrast, effectively evades detection because of her conventional femininity. To be clear, Bina never identifies as a lesbian in the film, but her affection toward Alike suggests at least some genuine same-sex attraction. In short, Bina’s femininity gives her the privilege to more freely explore these feelings without punishment from her parents. It’s also her femininity that enables her to so easily disavow her attraction to Alike–she can more easily slip back into a traditional, heterosexual identity, as evidenced by a brief suggestion in the film that Bina reunites with a boyfriend shortly after her tryst with Alike. Gender, then, becomes as important to Alike’s difficulties with her family as does her sexuality.
Yet, race is another important factor in the film. The filmmakers draw from a long literary and film history of black “queer” artists, a fact signaled by an opening quotation from an Audre Lorde poem. Rees acknowledges the importance of this literary tradition in her own development, saying “I immersed myself in Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison — all this womanist literature,” and that “reading made me feel like I was OK, like I wasn’t alone.” Pariah, as a result, is rooted in a black womanist ethos.
Pariah‘s willingness to explore race, sexuality, gender, and class, makes it more than just a coming-of-age coming-out film. It reminds the viewer of the interesectional nature of identity and the challenges of being true to yourself in a similarly complex world.
In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, writer Ursula K. Le Guin explains that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” She describes the genre’s conceits as “thought-experiments” intended to explore contemporary phenomena, regardless of the timeframe in which the story takes place. Le Guin’s statement certainly applies to those films contemplating apocalyptic events, especially Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. These two films both explore the nature of relationships, both romantic and familial, using the imminent demise of humanity to highlight the absurdity of social conventions and the drawbacks of optimistic thinking.
While thematically similar, these two films have very little else in common, at least upon first glance. The trailers below showcase differences in style, tone, and genre:
Seeking a Friend strikes a comedic note, following the exploits of neighbors Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightly) as they each attempt to reunite with loved ones in preparation for a catastrophic meteor’s collision with Earth. The unlikely pair forms a bond over the course of the film, ultimately finding in each other the love and companionship each had sought during the film’s journey. It sounds a bit corny because it is, but I also found Seeking a Friend moving in spite of its predictability.
In contrast, Melancholia strives for something more subtle and complex in it’s dramatic approach to the same concept. This film portrays sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The women live together on a picturesque estate when a rogue planet, called Melancholia, appears in the sky. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) reassures her that the planet will merely fly by, despite contradicting opinions in the scientific community. Ultimately, Melancholia subsumes Earth but not before testing Claire and Justine’s ability to cope with the reality of impending doom.
This dramatic challenge to character that the apocalypse brings is the thought experiment at the heart of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia. With the destruction of the planet drawing near, characters must choose how to spend their remaining days and hours. In Seeking a Friend, you see many characters defying the social order in anticipation of death, with one scene depicting an end of the world party in which characters decide to try heroin. Another scene parodies the friendliness of casual chain restaurants, with waiters and customers engaging in orgiastic behavior. More absurdly, some characters cling to routine, in spite of the awareness of death. The drawn out nature and social setting of the film allows for an exploration of both responses, largely to comedic effect.
Melancholia’s more confined setting limits such an exploration of responses. What we do see, however, is a contrast between the sisters, whose roles also reverse in the course of the film as a result of changing circumstances. In the first half, labeled “Part 1: Justine,” we see Justine struggle to enjoy her lavish wedding reception much to Claire and her husband’s chagrin. In “Part 2: Claire,” this half initially portrays Justine as crippled by her depression; however, it is Claire who panics at the realization of the world’s end, while Justine remains calm and in control of her emotions. Her depression, it becomes clear, gives her the ability to cope with a crumbling world, and the pessimism to care little when contemplating the end of all life.
Penny and Dodge’s dynamic similarly plays upon the optimism/pessimism dichotomy. Penny openly describes herself as an optimist, with Knightley laying down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl charm to contrast Carrell’s at times wooden portrayal of the depressed Dodge; however, unlike Justine in Melancholia, Dodge does not initially seem better able to cope with the end of the world, though he does claim that he feels validated in his pessimism by the apocalypse. In their very last moments, though, it is Dodge who comforts Penny, staring into her eyes and asking her questions about her upbringing–he’s so enamored of her and so satisfied in the moment, he seems completely unfazed by the sounds of the meteor crashing to Earth.
Justine similarly demonstrates strength in the film’s final scenes, while Claire struggles with the knowledge that the world will end. After realizing that Melancholia will not merely fly by, Claire becomes hysterical. She suggests that they sip wine together on the terrace, a plan that Justine mocks as a “piece of shit.” As the weather turns volatile, Claire picks up her young son and races away with him on a golf cart, despite the inescapable nature of the threat before them. When this fails, Claire returns to the house with her son, whom Justine takes into the woods to gather sticks and build a “magic cave” for them to sit within. The scene below demonstrates their differing responses:
As in Seeking a Friend, Melancholia’s final moment is one of acceptance, but also of human connection, for the planet’s destruction unites all beings, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, it could be said, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek does in the clip below, that Melancholia in its embrace of Justine’s pessimism, actually becomes an optimistic film:
The same could be said for Seeking a Friend. Instead of surrendering to Penny’s desire that the end be she and Dodge “saving each other,” Seeking a Friend concludes with the two accepting their demise and showing gratitude for the little time they spent together; here, though, the two films part company. Melancholia undermines romantic love by portraying Justine’s wedding ceremony as a joyless sham, while Seeking a Friend seems to reinforce it through Penny and Dodge’s connection.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the outcomes of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia’s thought experiments are not so different. Even with their contrasting generic approaches, both show how pessimism enables its characters to accept the end, resulting in peaceful last moments through connection with others.
For many Westerners, the word “Africa” conjures up a few key images: exotic wildlife, tribal communities, and human suffering tend to be most commonly associated with the continent. Sadly, these things don’t even begin to capture the complexity of the second-largest continent on our planet. Just imagine if all you knew of North America was based on images of Yellowstone wildlife, Appalachian poverty, and Native American tribes. These are all important aspects of American life, but they don’t tell the whole story. Within a single African country (there are 54) you are likely to find multiple races, classes, and religious and political perspectives–just a sampling of the diversity that makes up the continent as a whole. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautifully articulated how oversimplification dehumanizes Africans in her TED talk, which I am embedding here because it should be required viewing for every American.
As a writer, Adichie knows the power of telling your own story, and how empowering people across various identities to share their perspectives creates a greater awareness of the complexities within a broader culture.
It was with this awareness that I watched War Witch at February’s Portland International Film Festival. The film’s subject-matter and Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Language Film) attracted me to it, while the performances and narrative thoroughly impressed me. Nevertheless, I fear that War Witch reinforces the worst assumptions about Africa for the Western audience it targets, even though its story is incredibly important and poignant.
The film follows Komona, a 12 year-old girl abducted by a rebel militia in a sub-Saharan African country (the characters never refer to their location, but the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Komona becomes a child soldier but soon gains recognition within the ranks for sensing impending attacks from the enemy before they occur. These battle scenes may be some of the most effective: Komona comes upon phantoms, eerily covered in white powder that resembles ash. The trailer below features a few clips of these ghostly encounters:
Upon first glance, War Witch confirms the stereotypes of Africa as a war-torn place with more suffering than joy. The trailer highlights these tragic elements of the story, using melodramatic music for greater affect. It doesn’t help that the film comes in the wake of the Kony 2012 campaign, which highlighted the war crimes perpetrated by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and advocated for Kony’s capture. While well-meaning, this effort to draw attention to the plight of child soldiers raised many eyebrows in activist communities for oversimplifying the politics and history of the issues that the viral Kony 2012 explained. War Witch could similarly be accused of glossing over the causes of the military use of children.
Setting aside such concerns, however, one cannot deny the emotional power of War Witch, which results from its singular focus on Komona’s personal experiences. Actress Rachel Mwanza portrays the title character with such maturity and grace, striking perfectly that balance between vulnerability and strength. More importantly, the story develops Komona into a whole person with a broad range of emotions and experiences. Komona may suffer as a child soldier, but she also experiences the joys of first love. She and another child soldier, Magician, defect from the army and develop a romance. This section of the film, which may be the most pleasurable, uses humor to convey Magician’s pursuit of Komona but also treats the teen lovers seriously. Sadly, the violence of the war tragically interrupts the romance–I won’t go into too much detail on this point, but I will say in a movie full of difficult moments, it may be the saddest one. Still, War Witch somehow finds a way to end with a ray of hope without feeling forced or contrived. In short, you may not walk out of the film feeling good about the state of the world, but you will admire the strength of War Witch’s eponymous heroin.
But while I loved the film and was moved by the story, I am bothered by what it says about our film industry and culture that War Witch is the most celebrated “African” film of the year. I put “African” in quotes because it would be impossible for one film to encompass all of Africa, but also because the film has North American roots. The Canadian writer/director, Kim Nguyen, is of French Canadian and Vietnamese descent. While I am not saying we should limit who can tell what kind of story based on nationality or race, I do feel that the details of the film’s authorship raise uncomfortable questions about who gets to speak in the artistic marketplace for whom and why. I would be more comfortable with War Witch if it were one among many films portraying the varied lives of people in the DRC; instead, it fills a vacuum of representation with more of the same images that Americans associate with Sub-Saharan Africa, even if it does so poignantly.
My husband and I did some Spring break traveling this week to his grandparents’ home. While the trip included dining and sight-seeing on the agenda, we also spent quite a lot of time catching up on movies. A theme in our movie selections emerged with Argo, Skyfall, and Zero Dark Thirty all screened during the visit, highlighting that 2012 featured an abundance of spies on the big screen, to say nothing of small screen spies in series like Homeland. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty proved particularly interesting, as both portrayed actual events albeit fictionalized version. Both films focus on CIA agents, with Argo depicting the CIA’s efforts to extract six American diplomats in what became known as the Canadian Caper, while Zero Dark Thirty tracks the CIA’s efforts to kill Osama bin Ladin.
Common themes between the two films struck me upon reflection. Both films focus on a single CIA agent. Argo director Ben Affleck performs as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who devises a plan to remove the diplomats under the pretense that they are a Canadian film crew scouting a location. Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, discovers the location of Osama bin Ladin in a Pakistani compound and doggedly advocates to pursue assassination based on the intelligence she gathered. In both cases, the protagonist leads the charge despite resistance from other spies and the bureaucratic institutions under which they operate. Both spies, however, manage to forge ahead with their plans, and their successes justify their rogue styles.
But in the same way that both Maya and Tony stand alone professionally, each also experience personal isolation as well. We learn of Tony’s estrangement from his wife and child, with Tony struggling to connect with his son through phone conversations and apologetic birthday cards. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty depicts Maya as singularly devoted to her work with only one scene depicting social activity. In that scene, Maya’s female colleague asks about her relationships with another agent, which Maya insists is strictly professional. The women never get beyond work conversation, with the terrorist forces they fight in their work abruptly interrupting the moment: a bomb explodes in the hotel restaurant where they share drinks, literally demonstrating the ways in which the perils of spy work can inhibit other aspects of life. Both Maya and Tony, then, find that their work alienates them from others.
Even in victory, the secretive nature of Maya and Tony’s employment prevents them from being fully recognized for their successes. Following the assassination of bin Ladin, Maya rides alone in an otherwise empty military transport, with the pilot stating that she must be a very important person to be riding in the transport all by herself. The pilot’s ignorance of the reasons for her escort highlight the thanklessness of her work. Tony similarly receives the Intelligence Star for his efforts, but must give his medal back as soon as he receives it–his recognition cannot be public due to the classified nature of his work. So while successful, the agents depicted in Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.
In the end, though, Tony and Maya’s stories differ with each film striking very different tones in their final moments. Tony returns to his wife and son, literally embracing them in the final shots of the film. In voiceover, then president Jimmy Carter describes Tony’s work as exemplary and additional titles explain that Tony has since been recognized with the declassification of the case (Argo itself is a product of that declassification process). We also learn that Tony reunited with his family and continued to maintain those ties in his later years. The last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, shows Maya alone on the transport, a single tear running down her cheek (see below).
Looking at Zero Dark Thirty on its own, this moment resonated with me, because it seems to present Maya’s endeavors as futile and the accomplishment of taking down bin Ladin as anticlimactic. The War on Terror has often been described as futile, with the bin Ladin’s death a symbolic victory rather than a substantial accomplishment. Maya’s response to her success beautifully captures the existential crisis that comes with the completion of such a mission.
Yet, the feminist in me feels that Maya’s short-changed in this moment. I fear that in Maya, we get a classic portrayal of a hollow professional woman who can’t find balance in her life, while Argo’s Tony gets that satisfaction of knowing he succeeded AND mends his relationships with his wife and kid. Loneliness, then, has a very different connotation for a single woman character, versus a married man. With all of the discourses out there telling women that they incomplete without a male partner, it disappoints me that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t allow Maya a sense of fulfillment in her work, even if that work in the name of American imperialism.
Praise the Netflix gods, for they have bestowed upon us the second season of AMC’s The Killing, now available on InstantView. I live in a cableless household, so I eagerly await that moment when my favorite programs release their recently finished seasons. The Killing has been on my watch list for new episodes since I wrapped up the first season about six months ago. I’m now moving through season two at a brisk pace, much like the young couple in Portlandia that voraciously consumes Battlestar Galactica to the detriment of all other obligations. The Killing has been especially addictive for me since it combines the whodunit thriller with a procedural crime drama. In short, if Twin Peaks and The Wire got together and made a baby, The Killing would be the child.
The series begins with the death of Rosie Larsen, a beautiful Seattle teenager from a seemingly typical middle-class family. Detective Sarah Linden (brilliantly performed by Mireille Enos) reluctantly takes on the case despite her best efforts to sever ties with Seattle PD so that she can relocate to California to be with her fiance. The taciturn detective reluctantly partners with Stephen Holder (perhaps the strongest performance, by Joel Kinnaman), a younger detective recovering from drug addiction and willing to bend the rules to get information. The two become quickly absorbed in their investigation, which leads them to investigate the Mayoral campaign of a young city councilman as well as Rosie’s own family. These investigations slowly reveal the moral failings of all associated and hint at the various influences that may have placed Rosie in a position of vulnerability. As a result, The Killing undermines the myth of the American dream by presenting it as facade.
Of course, I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the Scandinavian roots of the series. The American version derives from Forbrydelsen, a Danish series that by all accounts follows a very similar plot-line as the American version. One of the series cast members, Michelle Forbes, noted that this geneaology complicates the comparisons I’ve made, stating, “I don’t know how ‘Twin Peaks’ goes by way of Denmark 20 years later and comes back to AMC,” yet even Forbes says that “the similarities are fairly intense” (see the entire interview here). Promos for both shows highlight the similarities:
Notice that both shows investigate the death of an attractive, middle-class teenage girl. Both shows’ detectives investigate all aspects of the community in which that girl lived. In both cases, detectives find that their victims’ lives may not have been as wholesome as they thought. Laura Palmer and Rosie Larsen both associate with individuals who deal drugs, pimp prostitutes, and facilitate gambling. Even geographically, Twin Peaks and The Killing share the same setting in common, with both stories located in the Pacific Northwest, though granted, The Killing‘s urban focus differs drastically from Twin Peaks’ folksy rural town of the same name.
That’s where The Wire‘s DNA becomes a factor. Like that crime drama, The Killing explores the connections between city bureaucracies as does The Wire, which meticulously presents the investigation of Baltimore drug gangs by a special investigative unit. We also see corruption in government that rivals the criminal elements also presented in the show. Season 3 of The Wire in particular parallels The Killing by incorporating character Tommy Carcetti into the show’s narrative. Carcetti, like city councilman Darren Richmond in The Killing, is the quintessential charismatic young politician trying to climb the ladder in city politics. Both struggle to negotiate between their ideals and their desire for political success. At the same time that each shows’ investigations reveal the seedy underbelly of the American dream, the shows’ political subplots similarly suggest that the American political system has a dark side too.
Of course, The Killing has just as many differences as similarities with Twin Peaks and The Wire. Its serious tone and realist aesthetic dramatically contrast the humorously melodramatic Twin Peaks, while it’s plot-driven narrative full of twists and turns feels convoluted in comparison to the slow unfolding that happens in each season of The Wire. Furthermore, The Killing presents some of its characters as unredeemable villains, differing drastically from The Wire’s humanistic approach to morality. I was especially appalled with the way The Killing presents a group of powerful leaders at an Indian Casino as a veritable gang of thugs intent on manipulating officials by insisting on their sovereignty.
But these very differences reinforce my point: The Killing combines the elements of an urban crime drama with a family melodrama and a political thriller to produce a narrative all its own. Within the American context, the resulting narrative operates as a critique of American ideals, exposing the lies that undergird them through the death of one girl.
You may already have heard hype about Searching for Sugar Man, the winner of this year’s best feature-length documentary award. The film follows several South African fans of the seventies American folk singer, Rodriguez, as they uncover the story of this largely unrecognized talent. But the film doesn’t just explore the story of this amazing artist; it also demonstrates the ways in which an artist’s persona can align with a sense of place through its investigative format, formal elements, and the music of Rodriguez itself.
As the film’s title suggests, Sugar Man portrays a search for the location of Rodriguez. In the process, the film initially presents a sad story of a failed artist. Rodriguez released just two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Neither album sold well in the United States, but Rodriguez’s work found an audience in apartheid-era South Africa. The film portrays the ways in which the political economy of seventies South Africa enabled Rodriguez’s popularity there without the artist’s knowledge of his own success. We see the repressive regimes of the conservative National Party, which censored Rodriquez’s work, making it all the more attractive to youth of that era. The film suggests that young, white South Africans found inspiration in Rodriguez’s work, prompting some to even protest the abhorrent apartheid policies of the era.
In this section of the film, we see how Rodriguez’s work becomes connected with this era for this group of fans. The filmmakers reinforce this connection with beautiful shots of South African scenery whilst playing tracks from the Rodriguez catalog. We also hear the recollections of the fans, who describe their experiences of listening to this music and all of its associations with their experience growing up at that particular time and place. We get nostalgic home videos, news reports of protests, and stills of that period. In short, we see how fans connect the music they listen to with the time and place in which they listened to it.
The story doesn’t end there, though. The filmmakers ultimately locate the artist, revealing that Rodriguez still resides in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, where he lives humbly and works as a manual laborer. Here, as in the introductory sections of the film where we learn about Rodriguez, the artist becomes a proxy for the city of Detroit–working class, humble, and yet imbued with a rich artistic history. The trailer below demonstrates these connections between time, place, and persona quite nicely:
But like Detroit, which news outlets and politicians frequently eulogize, Rodriguez persists, defying the myth of his gruesome public suicide. Rather than the embittered, shell of a man that so many would-be rock stars become when they fail to find a mainstream audience, Rodriguez appears to be a fully-actualized person. He seems comfortable with his position in life, taking pride in his work, both artistic and manual. Along these lines, Rodriguez’s daughters poignantly describe their upbringing, depicting a man of dignity who advocated for what he believed despite failing to achieve socially-recognized success. So while Sugar Man revels in the spectacle of Rodriguez’s first visit to South Africa with sold out stadium-sized crowds and classic acts of fan adoration (throwing bras on stage, seeking autographs, lighting up at the mere sight of the artist), Rodriguez’s zen-like calm and embrace of each moment’s pleasures sets him apart as a subject for a rock documentary.
In the process of viewing this amazing film, I too felt a connection with these beautiful songs and the artist who created them. That weekend, I was coping with some disappointing news and feeling frustrated about life. Rodriguez’s story put my situation into perspective and inspired me to focus on being true to myself rather than dwelling on the setback. So now, Rodriguez’s music will forever be linked to this time and place in my life, especially this song, “Crucify Your Mind.”
It may be Rodriguez’s ability to connect with his audience in this way that enables him to so easily become the soundtrack for places as far flung as South Africa while at the same time representing the Motor City in both sound, lyrics, and personal history. Searching for Sugar Man, then, ends up demonstrating how great art manages to be both quintessentially of its time and place while at the same time transcendent.