Woody Allen and Representations of Sisters

8 September 2013 at 19:34 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

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.

Blanchett and Hawkins portray Jasmine and Ginger, sisters with dramatically different tastes and values. Image taken from Free Press Houston.

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.

The poster for Hannah and Her Sisters. Image taken from Wikipedia.

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Gender and Espionage in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty

3 April 2013 at 20:32 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

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.

Image from Streets Of Lima.

Image from Movie List.com.

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).

Image from Cinemablographer.com.

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.

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Parenting the Monster in Splice

13 May 2010 at 17:13 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been doing a little digging of late to see what’s coming down the pike over the summer and have been pleasantly surprised by what will be on offer. Particularly interesting to me: Splice, a Canadian/French co-production directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube fame. Check out the trailer for Cube below:

I’ve not yet seen Cube, but I can’t help but notice some parallels with Saw. But don’t let that dissuade you–Cube received solid reviews and a small but enthusiastic fan following. In other words, it’s a cult classic.

Some, such as Variety reviewer Justin Chang, expect that Splice will prove more lucrative. For one, the film stars Sarah Polley as Elsa and Adrien Brody as Clive. I am especially excited to see Polley in the lead role. Polley’s no stranger to the horror genre, as her turn in the Dawn of the Dead remake demonstrates:

Splice offers Polley the perfect horror role for such an accomplished actress. She plays Elsa, a geneticist working with her fellow scientist and lover, Clive (Brody), combining DNA for the purposes of gene therapy. Elsa and Clive propose a more radical project mixing human DNA with that of other animals to create a new species, but the corporate powers that be reject the idea in favor of the safer and more profitable route. Elsa and Clive continue with the project in secret; the trailer will explain the rest:

Several things immediately jumped out at me upon viewing the trailer. First, I find it interesting that the film transfers the Frankenstein story into a heterosexual couple. Scholars like Harry Benshoff have argued that by pairing a male scientist with a male assistant to create a new life together, many Frankenstein films can be read as queer texts. With the use of a straight couple in Splice, the implications of parthenogenic birth change. When Clive calls their creation (named Dren) a “mistake” and attempts to gas it, the subtext that comes to mind is that of the unmarried couple faced with an unexpected pregnancy and debating the option of abortion.

Along with the heterosexual coupling comes some pretty stereotypical depictions of gender roles. Elsa appears to be the the most protective of Dren, and the trailer shows her picking her up as if to hold her. She also takes offense when Clive calls Dren a “specimen,” clearly exhibiting an emotional attachment to Dren that defies rationality. Clive’s comment also plays into the tired idea that men make detached, logical decisions while women allow their feelings to determine their courses of action. It’s like Elsa and Clive are a good cop/bad cop parenting team.

In short, I’m excited to see Splice (the early reviews are mostly positive) but more than a little leery about the gender politics it will espouse. Then again, maybe the most subversive thing about Splice will be that conventional, heterosexual parents are the ones who create the the monster that takes down the human race.

The poster for Splice. Image taken from Shockya.com.

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Confounding Gender and Class in Vagabond

22 August 2009 at 20:41 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) begins with its end: the discovery of a female transient’s dead body triggers the film’s quest to understand the young woman and the events in the weeks leading up to her untimely demise. Through flashbacks, we the audience learn about how a girl named Mona (played by the fantastic Sandrine Bonnaire) lived her life on the road and what feelings this non-traditional lifestyle stirred in those who encountered her.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona in Vagabond.  Image taken from ferdyonfilms.com.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona in Vagabond. Image taken from ferdyonfilms.com.

The vagabond as a character in literature and film has existed for well over a century. The term “vagabond” originated from British law and took on political significance during the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th century Europe when, as a figure of suspicion, constables could “collar vagabonds and force them to show their means of support.” While the original French title of Vagabond does not utilize the term (the literal translation is “without roof or law”), it’s use of vagabond as the English version’s title is significant in it’s political connotations. As the title of this entry indicates, Mona represents a puzzling figure to those around her as one who rejects the social norms expected of her gender and class. This early scene demonstrates the ways in which Mona’s status as a young female drifter sometimes results in confrontations:

But while some characters see Mona as a vulnerable target for their advances, others–particularly women–admire her for her strength. Mona’s refusal to remain fixed in one location, to be tied to any particular relationship, defies norms of femininity. By contrast, we learn of Yolande, a maid to an elderly woman and girlfriend of a verbally abusive boyfriend. Interestingly, Yolande confesses to the audience that she admired Mona for her passion and freedom. As foils, Yolande clearly falls on the feminine end of the gender spectrum, taking care of those around her, while Mona worries solely about her own desires and needs, as demonstrated by her breaking up with various men throughout her journey. In this way, Mona reveals Yolande’s desire to break out of the constraints of femininity.

For other characters, Mona also challenges notions of class. While sharing a bottle of champagne, a female professor questions Mona about how she came to be a transient. Mona divulges that she previously studied to be a typist. “Why did you drop out?” the professor asks. “Champagne on the road’s better!” Mona responds. In other words, Mona chooses the pleasures of life on the road over the stability of a regular paycheck. This lack of concern over class also manifests itself in her appearance–her tattered cloths and dirty hair reveal her status to all who encounter her, repelling some and attracting others as demonstrated by the trailer below:

Through its convention of character confessionals, Vagabond reveals the conflicts that Mona stirs in each individual she encounters, and in the process, forces audience members to do the same. That Mona dies at the film’s introduction and conclusion does not resolve these tensions but produces more, for in her early death, Mona’s aspirations remain uncompromised. It’s this inability to compromise that makes Mona a truly radical figure.

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Beyond Film #3 – Horror Set to Music

10 August 2009 at 18:30 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Inspired by Alyx, queen bee blogger at Feminist Music Geek, I am posting links to two fun horror movie inspired music videos. You will notice that the granddaddy of the genre, “Thriller,” is not included in this list. I’ve done this because 1) I’ve already discussed “Thriller” in a previous post (see “Beyond Film – So You Think You Can Dance) and 2) We’ve all seen plenty of “Thriller” since Michael Jackson’s passing, that it doesn’t seem to warrant further discussion. Instead, I’d like to look at some lesser-known examples.

First up, Stabbing Westward’s “Shame,” which I am unable to embed because the jerkoffs at BMG will not let me. Ironically, the fact that I’m not embedding the video is really their loss… but anyway, click on the picture below and it will link you to the video.

The album cover for Stabbing Westwards Blister, Burn & Peel, which features the track Shame.

The album cover for Stabbing Westward's "Blister, Burn & Peel," which features the track "Shame."

I remember this video from one of my brother’s recorded-from-TV copies of 120 Minutes–oh, the “Alternative” years, the nineties! I miss em. Anyway, I appreciate the way the video begins as this typical narrative music video with cuts between the story of the girl stalked by the psychopath and then the band playing the accompanying music. The tone is serious and the lunatic boyfriend frightening; but as the band sneaks away to watch the more interesting events of the story unfold, the mood becomes lightened with humor. The video, in essence, becomes about horror spectatorship, with the band members rooting for the female hero. It also breaks down the expectation that performance and narrative will run parallel and never the two shall meet. Stabbing Westward may not have amounted to much, but this video at least proves they had some interesting contributions to their period of popular music.

Next up: Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” which also cannot be embedded into my post because some douchie record exec wants complete control over distribution. This is really cramping my style, but again, click the picture below:

Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters video Everlong

Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters video "Everlong"

“Everlong” may be one of my favorite videos ever. It combines a terrific song with competing dream sequences. Graphic match editing transitions the narrative from waking life to nightmare. Director Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame establishes his sensibility better in this four-minute video than in the 106 minutes that comprise The Science of Sleep. And once again, as with Stabbing Westward, the video ends with a breakdown between narrative and performance; for me, the key moment is when drummer Taylor Hawkins casts off his wig. And speaking of, the video does an excellent job of satirizing gender rolls through its use of drag, hyper masculine and feminine performances, and Freudian imagery (big hand=big phallus).

If you can think of any others I’ve neglected (excluding those promotional music videos for horror soundtracks) please post a link the in comments.

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In Defense of True Blood

14 July 2009 at 17:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

Slate.com’s excellent women’s blog, Double X, ran a story last Friday entitled “Vampires, and the Sluts and Virgins Who Love Them” by contributor Latoya Peterson. Just as Bitch Magazine argued in its most recent issue, Peterson points out that The Twilight Series problematically depicts the relationship between primary protagonists Bella and Edward as chaste, with the threat of Edward’s vampirism not so subtly aligning sex with violence.

Peterson also discusses the HBO series True Blood as perpetuating these same stereotypes and uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a point of contrast because it depicts its heroine as physically strong, sexually assertive, and generally independent. Before I proceed any further, I want to admit that I have not watched Twilight or read the books, nor am I a huge fan of Buffy in spite of required viewings in my Feminist TV Criticism course. I did, however, recently complete the first season of True Blood, and having seriously considered the series, find Peterson’s assessment of the show’s gender politics to be quite simplistic. Thus, I would like to make a few points in defense of True Blood and its characterization of human/vampire relations through the characters Sookie and Bill.

Image taken from TheTwoCents.com.

Image taken from ch3guest.files.wordpress.com.

First, a brief plot summary for the uninformed: True Blood takes place in a speculative world in which vampires can live amongst humans due to the wide availability of synthetic blood. As a result, some vampires choose to go “mainstream,” such as Bill Compton, a soft-spoken vampire transformed during the Civil War. He encounters Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress in a Louisiana town. Sookie takes to Bill immediately, and their relationship quickly becomes romantic. Because many humans still see vampires as dangerous, Sookie faces ridicule because of her association with Bill. Meanwhile, a serial killer terrorizes the small community where Sookie and Bill live, targeting women who have been sexually involved with vampires. Sookie attempts to find the killer, fearing that she may also be at risk.

I could say so much about the politics of the series, given the obvious allegorical relationship between vampires and homosexuals (a church billboard in the credit sequence states “God hates fangs”), but instead, I will keep this entry focused on the issues raised by Peterson. Below are some of her statements followed by my remarks:

1) “In [Sookie’s] case, being a virgin marks her as different in the Southern town of Bontemps, where sleeping around is one of the few recreational activities available.” – I agree that Sookie’s virginity distinguishes her from her peers. Still, Peterson omits a related difference between Sookie and her friends: Sookie can hear people’s thoughts at will. In fact, Sookie’s telepathic gift is presented as the primary reason for her virginity. Because Sookie can hear what people are thinking, she is particularly sensitive to the male gaze. In one episode when she explains her chastity, a montage depicts Sookie on several dates with men who objectify her mentally, causing her to recoil. Inherent in this moment is a feminist critique of the objectification of women. Of course, the series itself uses camera angles and costuming (or lack thereof) to objectify the female body, but Sookie’s resistance to the male gaze should not be discounted for that reason alone. Furthermore, because the series presents Sookie’s virginity as a consequence of her powers, it resists the impulse to portray virginity as a strictly moral choice; in other words, Sookie has no qualms with premarital sex in principle, it just hasn’t worked for her personally.

2) “Sookie frequently finds herself the subject of Bill’s wrath while he is trying to protect her.” – I did not find this to be the case in True Blood. In general, Bill is a mild-mannered guy with an almost antiquated sense of good manners. I can only recall one scene in which he expresses anger toward Sookie, and that occurs when he discovers her with another man. This seems to be a reasonable time in which to express anger in any romantic narrative. I am sure that Buffy’s lovers expressed anger toward her–that’s the way that romance rolls. Conflict creates drama and keeps the story interesting. Bill and Sookie’s relationships seems pretty typical of similar romances in fantasy films, regardless of Bill’s status as vampire.

3) “After a relatively celibate Season Three, Buffy proceeds to sleep with three more men (two human, one vampire) before the series closes. . . . This seems unlikely for Sookie.” – The series hints at possibilities for romance between Sookie and her manager, Sam. The implication that Sookie is blind to other possible relationships seems to be without any merit.

True Bloods Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension.  Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

True Blood's Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension. Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

4) “In the end, as much as I immerse myself in the worlds of True Blood and Twilight, I still find myself longing for Buffy Summers. She’s the one who subverts the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave. She manages to be both tough and vulnerable, but is still recognized as an object of desire.” – Peterson implies in this statement that Sookie follows “the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave” and does not “manage to be both tough and vulnerable.” In fact, Peterson’s own caveat earlier in the piece contradicts such implications: “Sookie, who sleeps with her undead suitor Bill, ends up marked as bad, although she ultimately gets the upper hand on the killer.” Hence, Sookie does “subvert the generally accepted paradigm” of proper female sexuality in the show’s fictional world.

I would also like to point out that while Sookie can be vulnerable, she also exhibits a toughness and intelligence that enables her to outsmart various criminal elements. After her first encounter with Bill, she saves him from a couple who try to steal his blood so they can sell it as a drug. I also noticed that in the final fight of the season, it’s Sookie who seals the kill, even though Sam assists her. On the flip side, Bill often exhibits vulnerability as a result of being a vampire. Sookie rescinds her invitation allowing him to enter her home; Sookie must untie him from silver wire that burns his skin; Sookie helps save him after he walks into daylight. These moments undermine the implication that Sookie is merely a damsel in distress. Here’s that first scene I mentioned:

Of course, this scene does reveal problematic elements in the series and in the relationship between Bill and Sookie. Notice, for instance, Sookie’s classist language throughout the scene (the criminals are “low rent,” whereas she is a “lady”). Bill also comes off as threatening in these early scenes with his comments about his capabilities as a vampire. But I love that in spite of Bill’s posturing, Sookie never shrinks back. She even laughs in his face when discovering that his name is Bill, rather than something more exotic. In essence, the interaction demystifies Bill’s vampirism and reveals Sookie’s courage in spite of his difference.

I don’t fault Peterson for taking issue with True Blood and it’s mingling of sex and violence; I do fault her failure to fairly evaluate the text on its own terms. By simply lumping it together with Twilight, Peterson fails to adequately account for the differences between these very different portrayals of heterosexual romances between the undead and the living.

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Bill Hader and Judd Apatow Making…a Horror Film?

10 July 2009 at 17:26 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article that mentioned a horror film in development since early this year. It caught my eye because the project features some very unusual suspects at the helm of the slasher. Saturday Night Live writer/performer Bill Hader will be penning a horror script for Judd Apatow to produce. Back in March, Chud reported that Universal had picked up the project, suggesting that the film would indeed be a go.

Writer of House of Joel Bill Hader poses with the films producer, Judd Apatow, and actor Jack Black (not currently affiliated with the project).  Photo taken from blogcdn.com.

Writer of House of Joel Bill Hader poses with the film's producer, Judd Apatow, and actor Jack Black (not currently affiliated with the project). Photo taken from blogcdn.com.

Bill Hader states, “[The film] is definitely about guys nowadays, that idea that you watch fucked up shit on TV, how violence in our culture – this sounds really hoity toity – you watch fucked up reality shows, I love true crime shows. The idea of that thing coming to your house, and what do you do? I would shit my pants. That’s basically what the movie is about. What if that guy decided to come to your house? What would you and your dipshit friends do about it?” From the sounds of it, the project, tenatively titled House of Joel, will be the American response to Edgar Wright‘s similarly themed Shaun of the Dead, in which a group of hapless Englishmen (and a few of their girlfriends) must fight zombies. Hader’s idea similarly revolves around a group of “guys” unwittingly thrown into a horror film scenario, and Hader even joked that they’d considered the title When a Stranger Calls a Dude.

The gendered nature of the project should be of no surprise to fans of filmmaker Apatow. Coincedentally enough, my good friend Peter over at Manvertised gave a presentation a week ago about masculinity in Apatow’s films and those of his associates. These films, including Apatow’s directorial efforts The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up as well as numerous films with Apatow as producer, share the following qualities, according to Peter: all are comedies, they celebrate male homosociality, and the protagonists all begin as failures at ideal masculinity but ultimately come into their manhood as a result of the film’s trials. As a result, Peter suggests that these films are disguised as narratives of alternative masculinity but ultimately reify traditional understandings of gender.

While little is known about House of Joel at this early stage, it will likely follow the same pattern that Peter described. I imagine it will be like Pineapple Express with more blood, gore, and a darker color scheme. In my opinion, Pineapple Express was the best comedy of 2008, not only because it was consistently hilarious from beginning to end, but also because it blended multiple genres (comedy, action, the stoner film) in a way that felt fresh and exciting. If House of Joel manages this same feat and distinguishes itself from Wright’s work, I will be a happy filmgoer! Of course, I could also be sorely disappointed, depending on the ways in which the film depicts masculinity. Let’s hope that’s not the case!

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Screen Gems and the Sanitization of the Teen Slasher

8 July 2009 at 19:10 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Much ink has been spilled over the years about the recent surge in film remakes, and the horror genre is not immune to this trend. On the contrary, horror films trade in recycled products, revamping old franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street), as well as producing unnecessary sequels and prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning). Obviously, there are crude business reasons for utilizing old materials for new products: name recognition, easy access to screen rights, and speedy replication of previous written material all make such productions a no-brainer investment. But such motives for film production often generate a comprimised product, lacking in originality or creativity.

Which brings me to the prime example of problem remakes by production company Screen Gems. This subsidiary of Sony remade two of the worst horror films I have seen in the past year, When a Stranger Calls and Prom Night, and is poised to release The Stepfather, which looks to be an abomination as well. Here’s the trailer for the latter:

Like its Screen Gems predecessors, The Stepfather remakes a cult slasher film of the same name. The original The Stepfather may be one of the most radically feminist, anti-conservative slasher films of the 1980s, and academics Isabel Cristina Pinedo and Patricia Brett Erens have said as much. The original stars Jill Schoelen as Stephanie, the teenage daughter of a widowed mother recently remarried to Jerry Blake (played perfectly by Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn). The somewhat rebellious Stephanie resists Jerry’s efforts to get closer to her, in spite of his projected image as the perfect family man. From the start, though, the audience is in on Jerry’s secret, as this opening sequence below demonstrates:

While such carnage may give away Jerry’s identity as psychopathic dad, it allows the audience to empathize with heroine Stephanie, who faces Jerry’s rage most acutely when he discovers her kissing a boy. From the trailer above, it appears that the new film’s protagonist, now a male named David, faces a similar rebuke; however, the nature of this parental criticism changes because of David’s sex. Instead of David facing criticism, his scantily clad girlfriend becomes the problem. In essence, it seems that the remake’s stepfather finds fault with the relationship based on the girlfriend’s sexuality, rather than the son’s.

Another interesting change: the new mother (played by Sela Ward) is not widowed but divorced, bringing David’s father into the equation. Thus, while the original film challenges the idea that a manly presence is necessary for a stable home, the new version seems instead to be a struggle between various males for domination within the family. These changes do not bode well for the film ideologically, and if the previous Screen Gems remakes are any indication, the stylistic “upgrades” will not likely make up for these alterations.

When I speak of aesthetic changes, I refer to the slick packaging of these films by comparison to their originals. Take the remake of Prom Night, for instance. The original who-dunnit set at a 70s-disco prom remains a classic for its camp value. Check out this rad dance sequence:

Who knew Jamie Lee Curtis had such killer dance moves? Now, check out the trailer for the remake:

Notice the attention to mise-en-scene, with emphasis on stylish dresses, extravagent sets, and smooth camera movement. It’s as if the filmmakers translated MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 into a slasher, and not a very good one at that. With a PG-13 rating limiting the gore to implication rather than depiction, Prom Night‘s kills lack impact. Worse yet, filmmakers could work around these limitations by generating suspense in the manner of Drag Me to Hell (also PG-13), but produce a predictable series of cat-and-mouse games with a bland as white bread killer. Hence, the remake of Prom Night sucks the life (i.e., camp, suspense, gore) out of the original.

Screen Gems’ When a Stranger Calls suffers from the same afflictions. Of these three remakes, When a Stranger Calls is probably my least favorite in terms of source material, but the first ten minutes of the film in which babysitter Jill (played by Carol Kane) fields calls from a creepy killer who, it turns out, is actually inside the house, generates tension as does the closing scene in which Jill encounters the killer once again as an adult.

The original emWhen a Stranger Calls/em poster.  Image taken from impawards.com

The original When a Stranger Calls poster. Image taken from impawards.com

By contrast, the new film’s attempts at suspense fail in much the same way that Prom Night does. The expansion of the first ten minutes of the original film into the bulk of the remake’s running time feels stretched at best and monotonous at worst. As in Prom Night, the mise-en-scene becomes the focus while characters and suspense fall by the wayside, leading one to wonder why on earth Screen Gems filmed a single reel.

Jill upgrades to digital technology in the remake of emWhen a Stranger Calls/em.  Image taken from atnzone.com

Jill upgrades to digital technology in the remake of When a Stranger Calls.

Of course, the reason is very simple: moolah! Both films debuted on top of the box office during their opening weekends quickly making back expenses and then some. Critics hated these films, but neither held advance screenings to mitigate the backlash. But while their originals will continue to have fan followings for years to come, I expect that many of these Screen Gems remakes will fall into obscurity.

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Queer Fear: the children of Orphan and Joshua

10 June 2009 at 13:23 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

The monstrous child is making a comeback in recent independent horror films. For instance, the upcoming film Orphan features a young recently-adopted girl who harbors a deep dark secret and terrorizes her new family. Adoption advocates (including Leonardo DiCaprio) have protested the film, which initially used the tag-line “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own,” a line uttered by the film’s primary antagonist. The tagline has since been changed and the line of dialog replaced, but pro-adoption groups remain frustrated by the film’s concept, title, and marketing.

The new poster for emOrphan/em.  Image taken from joblo.com.

The new poster for <em>Orphan</em>. Image taken from joblo.com.

At this point, I feel that taking a stand on Orphan would be premature–I’d like to see the film first and get a sense of how the text grapples with the hot-button issues. Texts like this can be incredibly tricky to pin down, and readings against the grain are often possible. When I watch the trailer, for instance, I can’t help but immediately interpret Esther as a queer figure in her traditional family, and I am curious as to whether or not such interpretations support or refute the concerns of adoption advocates.

Orphan reminds me of a similar film called Joshua, which plays on many of the same themes of the alienated child within the nuclear family. The film stars Sam Rockwell as Brad and Vera Farmiga as Abby (she is also in Orphan), parents who have just had their second child, a baby girl named Lily. Their older son, Joshua (portrayed by Jacob Kogan), struggles to adjust to his new sibling, while Abby worries that her severe post-partum depression after Joshua’s birth will recur with their new baby. Though these worries seem unfounded initially, tensions in the household rise because of Joshua’s peculiar behavior. For instance, during a game of hide-and-seek, Joshua takes his baby sister from her crib, causing his mother to panic. After much searching, Abby returns to the crib to find Lily safe and sound, and Abby wonders if the whole scenario was hallucinated. These strange incidents persist, gradually leading Brad to believe that Joshua may be a sociopath. After Brad’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances while watching Joshua, Brad asks a psychologist to visit with Joshua. After the session, the psychologist expresses concerns that Joshua is being physically abused, which Brad denies vociferously. At the climax of the film, Brad takes Joshua and Lily to the park, where Joshua taunts his sister by stealing her pacifier. The scene ends with Brad beating Joshua publicly, prompting his arrest and the children’s placement with their uncle, Ned.

Queer elements of the text distinguish Joshua from the standard monstrous child movie. Joshua, with his perfectly coiffed hair, slightly effeminate mannerisms, impeccable wardrobe (he’s always wearing a tie), and interest in music and art, easily reads as queer. Joshua’s relationship with his gay uncle, Ned, reinforces this reading. Joshua gravitates toward Ned whenever he is present, and they share their love of music together by playing duets on the piano. During one of the film’s more effective scenes, Joshua performs “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” periodically hitting flat, high pitched notes that twist the songs angelic sound. While Joshua’s parents look puzzled by the performance, Ned appears moved by the rendition and says he’s hitting every note perfectly. By rendering this lullaby strange, the performance is essentially “queer” in the sense of “differing in some odd way.”

While these touches might make Joshua a queerphobic text since Joshua is both queer and monstrous, a more nuanced reading could also be drawn. While the film heavily implies that Joshua is disturbed, it consistently denies the viewer of scenes which show Joshua enacting violence. When Joshua’s grandmother dies from falling down a set of stairs, for instance, the camera cuts away so that the viewer never knows for certain whether Joshua pushed her or if she simply slipped. Scenes which do show Joshua saying or doing strange things never rise to the level of blatant violence. The aforementioned hide-n-seek scene, for instance, doesn’t really show Joshua physically hurting anyone, but merely playing a game that could be perceived as manipulative. In other words, one could argue that much of the hysteria surrounding Joshua results not from Joshua’s particular actions but from the projected emotions of the adults that surround him.

The final scene could support this assertion: Joshua, now living with his uncle, performs a song of his own creation called “The Fly.” The song’s lyrics refer to the parents’ efforts to save Joshua, and the uncle’s feeling that Joshua “never missed a note.” Here’s a video of the song performed by Dave Matthews (who wrote it specifically for the film):

On the one hand, the lyrics could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Joshua’s sadistic impulses (e.g. tearing the wings off a fly for pleasure); on the other hand, there’s something genuinely touching about the song’s references to a lack of acceptance by the family and a feeling of acceptance from the uncle. In essence, it’s a lullaby expressing desire for a queer family and rejection from the traditional straight family.

There’s validity to reading Joshua as a story of queer monstrosity, but I also believe one could see the film as a quest for a queer family. These readings are not mutually exclusive, but operate in tandem, complexifying the text and offering a range of meanings to the viewer. Ultimately, Joshua demonstrates that even the monstrous figure can illicit empathy and complicate ideological readings of a text.

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