Ten Years Ago: The Proposition

10 Jun
What’s Nick Cave got to do with Cormac McCarthy? Erik Jaccard explains this seeming incompatibility in his re-view of John Hillcoat’s Aussie western The Proposition.


The Proposition
Dir. John Hillcoat/Original Screenplay by Nick Cave

I want to start this review of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition—a film about outlaws in the Australian outback—by talking about my first rock concert, Lollapalooza 1994. This will seem odd, I’m sure, but you will shortly understand my reasons. In the summer of ’94 I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the upcoming festival with the type of enthusiasm only the young and music-obsessed can muster. I harangued my parents about it, explained its certain wonders in detail to my sister, and debated the finer points of the lineup with my friends. Hell, I probably sung its praises to our menagerie of household pets, because that’s how frickin’ excited I was at the mere idea of it. Like many 15 year-olds, I had at that point fixed my identity firmly to my taste in pop music, and particularly to my own preferred ‘alternative rock’ b(r)and—the Smashing Pumpkins, who happened to be headlining the show. However, because I was only 15, and thus couldn’t drive on my own, and because we lived three hours from the venue, my chances of seeing my beloved Billy Corgan croon “Today” out at a rapt audience was slim to nil. So, when my parents announced one day—surely after months of Christmas Story-esque badgering on my part—that they had purchased six tickets to Lollapalooza, I was beyond ecstatic.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit, because the point of the story is not the show itself or which bands I saw, but rather one of the bands I didn’t see: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. It’s hard to blame myself for this oversight, given that I was there to see bands I knew and loved—Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys in particular—and not necessarily to discover those I didn’t. Furthermore, Cave and Co. had received scant mainstream radio airplay outside of specialty shows and the odd cameo on MTV’s 120 Minutes, so they weren’t really on my radar to begin with. I somewhat naturally approached their set with indifference and, if I recall, paid only passing attention to their intense, lyrically driven songs that, while interesting, did not ‘rock’ the way my 15-year-old ears wanted them to. It may also have had something to do with the fact that they came on around 4 pm—the hottest part of a really hot day—and I had hit heatstroke-induced lull in my enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, there I was, sitting in the baking sun on a hill overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, twiddling my thumbs, chatting with my friend, and effectively missing the band, even though it was right in front of me.

To call this a mistake is too obvious—the group was then touring in support of 1994’s sublime Let Love In and my almost willful ignorance makes my adult self cringe. Eventually, though, I would get it. Sometime in 1996 I picked up a cd copy of Songs in the Key of X, a compilation inspired by or in some way evocative of the shadowy, paranoid atmosphere of FOX’s hit show The X-Files. At the time I found the record unremarkable for many of the same reasons the middle part of Lollapalooza 1994 had been unremarkable: it featured songs by a bunch of artists I either didn’t know or didn’t care about. This time, however, something made me sit up and pay attention. About a third of the way through the record was this weird, gloomy song that seemed to be about some kind of menacing, apocalyptic cowboy stalking dark lands with a fiendish glint in his eye. At first I just loved the imagery, which recalled Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. But there was more. The song’s instrumental texture was strange but alluring, featuring ominously pealing bells, spooky ghost noises, anxious, skittering percussion, and what sounded like the organ from an old horror movie. Over all of this a dark baritone voice creaked and croaked and growled, warning of a devilish man I was pretty sure I’d never want to meet. The song was by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and it was called “Red Right Hand.” After that, well, I was hooked.

Twelve years later, in the spring of 2006, I was slouched over my computer in a rented room in the Morningside neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland, trying to think up a title and an epigraph for an essay I’d just written on Nietzsche and Cormac McCarthy’s bloody western novel Blood Meridian. Eventually deciding on my title, I began to type it up, when suddenly the master brain behind my iTunes shuffle mechanism decided to spit out “Red Right Hand.” Listening and singing along, I suddenly realized that the song was perfect as a tone-setting device in a paper dedicated to discussing the Nietzschean dimensions of one of McCarthy’s most notorious and menacing characters, the murderous, otherworldly Judge Holden: “He’s a ghost, he’s a god,/he’s a man, he’s a guru/You’re one microscopic cog/in his catastrophic plan/Designed and directed by/his red right hand.” This lyric—and the song in general—seemed to perfectly express the intersections between metaphysical distress and bloody-minded self-affirmation I’d located in McCarthy’s Wes, and in Holden’s monstrous attempts to exert his will on the world around him. What’s more, the song sounded like a spooky soundtrack to a horror film about supernatural cowboys (again, think The Dark Tower). So I used it, and it worked, or at least I think it worked. In any case, it was a creative stab in the dark that I thought was cool. The point, however, is that Cave’s menacing, gothic lyricism, his ability to communicate a story in short, compelling snatches of poetry, and his attention to impressionistic detail and sonic tone make him a unique and compelling fit to write and score a western. So, when only a few weeks later I learned that The Proposition, an Australian western written by Nick Cave, was playing down the street, I naturally took the bait.

Now that I’m finally talking about the film itself, I feel like I should get to the point quickly, given that you’ve made it all this way with me really only talking around the subject at hand. So here you go: I loved The Proposition in 2006 and I love it still, ten years later. I think that in some ways we ought to assign it a certain ‘classic’ status, even though it will probably never achieve such heights because A) it is a smaller film, produced in and by a smaller market, B) it is about Australia and not the USA, and C) it lacks some of the big-picture bravado of the epic westerns of the Hollywood tradition. Obviously, I think these are all horrible reasons for dismissing it, and if you haven’t seen it yet, or haven’t seen it since 2006, I highly recommend you go and do so right now. You may find yourself wanting some reasons to do so, so here they are:

The Proposition is a piece of incredibly concise, emotionally taught, and densely imagistic filmmaking.

Here, I naturally return to Cave’s script, which I think brings all the grandeur and magic of his songwriting into a cinematic context, where it is surprisingly effective. First, Cave knows how to boil things down to their essential components by focusing on key ideas, refrains, and images. He does a lot within the space of a pop song, and he makes each moment count. Whether unfolding a more coherent concept-narrative, as on 1992’s Henry’s Dream, or collections united by theme or genre, as on 1990’s The Good Son or 1996’s Murder Ballads, Cave is incredibly adept at balancing scope, setting, and scene within a single collection. Not surprisingly, the band’s albums sound like really tight collections of independent vignettes wrapped together under the banner of a unifying purpose that, while necessary, is never so obvious or overdone as, say, a concept album. The Proposition is a film that seems to move with astonishing speed, and I think part of the reason for this is that it is structured as a collection of concise, emotionally dense moments tied together by a simple plot and a few key conflicts (which I’ll get to shortly). Unlike a great deal of westerns, which are either full of action and lacking in depth or so full of depth that you forget why you’re watching, The Proposition feels like a lean, economical hybrid. Clocking in at 104 minutes, it’s hardly over in the blink of an eye, yet it never drags. And even though it’s got an immense geographical-social-historical context to deal with (the colonization of Australia), it refrains from verbose information-dumps or lengthy voice-overs meant to directly explain to the viewer what everything means. The titular proposition is offered about three minutes into the film, which means that the dramatic action is placed front and center from the beginning. We aren’t made to wait until character motivations are established or until a longer and denser backstory has unfolded. We see a bloody shootout in an outback brothel, and then a quick meeting between an Irish immigrant outlaw named Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and the region’s local law enforcement, a former British army officer named Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley offers Charlie a deal: find and kill his psychopathic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), or his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), will be hanged on Christmas Day. There is, of course, more to it than this basic plotline, but the film fills you in slowly, as a by-product of the action.

Second, Cave understands that any great song—and any great album—is an act of narrative and stylistic balance. It’s about knowing when to sing and when to play, and, furthermore, about how to optimally balance a voice, a lyric, and a musical composition so that each component is complementing one another. This symmetry in composition is everywhere apparent in The Proposition. Cave’s script is lean, leaving plenty of room for the actors to perform in ways beyond just speaking, for the director and cinematographer to work with imagery, and for the score to do more than just soundtrack a pretty western postcard. Because so much of the emotional weight of the various conflicts between characters is boiled down to brief snippets of tense interaction, we’re called on to examine them fully in their visual, lyrical, and sonic complexity. This time around I was mesmerized watching certain scenes and kept tracking back just to examine a frame in detail, to find the significance of the bodies in the frame, and to hear—to hear!—the scene unfolding, whether in silence or in the sad moan of Australian multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’ violin. In fact, The Proposition is one of only a few films I can think of that I could likely experience in a satisfying way without recourse to the visual spectrum, and this is due to the film’s various registers. The music talks, the speech sings, the visuals sometimes roar, and at other times boil or bake or moan or whisper. There’s no way to make someone else experience it the way I experience it, and you should obviously watch it all together first. But beyond that, I do recommend giving the score a listen, in a dark room, with candles lit.

Finally, but following on from this, Cave and his band rarely falls prey to self-indulgence. Their albums most often comprise 9-10 songs and stick to a conventional pop song format and length, with only a rare outlier coming in at over 6 minutes. While there is plenty of art to the music, I also don’t get the feeling that Cave is driven to create art for art’s sake, or to belabor an artistic conceit in ways that don’t also benefit a song or album, which is, after all, intended to be listened to by someone else. This is perhaps to say that they don’t let the point of whatever it is they’re doing overshadow their purpose, which is to put a compelling lyric to song so that an audience can participate in its telling. Now, some might call bullshit on this one. What I’m calling deference to the full spectrum of storytelling might seem to another as self-indulgence simply because the film doesn’t give you everything you want or perhaps need to know in order to understand the story. Motivations, for example, are admittedly opaque at times, and I might sympathize with someone who argued that the film doesn’t give the viewer enough. All that said, I think I can provide a counter-argument here by bringing the text’s social and historical context into consideration.


The Proposition
does more than most westerns to really get at the contradictions that drove colonialism and imperialism.

On the surface, the film’s titular proposition is the one described above, which asks Charlie Burns to eventually execute his own brother. Yet, the manner in which the proposition is made transforms it into a far suppler and wider-ranging conditional statement about the history and effects of colonialism in Australia. Staring into the camera, Winstone’s Capt. Stanley quite frankly asks Burns—and all of us—a string of questions beginning with ‘suppose.’ Much of this monologue is directed at Charlie and at explaining Stanley’s motivations for offering a deal and for pursuing Arthur. But he ends by asking, “suppose I gave you the chance to expunge the burden of the guilt beneath which you so clearly labour.” The entire exchange is taut and compellingly written. It establishes Stanley’s desperate need to, as he calls it, ‘civilize this land,’ as well as Charlie’s stubbornness to comply as an object of that desire. And yet, Stanley seems to pose the question not only to Charlie, but to everyone. Charlie is there, of course, manacled and helpless, but so is the viewer, trapped with that question hanging in the air.

The Proposition does about as much as it can to avoid romanticizing its subject matter, its setting, or the great mythological conquest of the Australian frontier, which shares a number of important parallels with similar conflicts with aboriginal populations in the United States. There is no heroism here, and no unproblematic white adventurism which treats the land and its peoples as inherently hostile, and thus in need of civilized taming. Each character shown spouting legitimizations of the European civilizing mission is ultimately interrogated in some way or another. Oftentimes this is accomplished by a simple visual juxtaposition between order and violence, and especially when it becomes clear that civilizing order cannot operate without brutal, horrific violence.

Stanley’s question—indeed, the intent behind Stanley’s proposition—is blunt and direct and also incredibly ironic. He wishes to eradicate a violent criminal and therefore to ‘civilize this land.’ There is sense in this, as Arthur is clearly psychotic, driven to commit horrific acts even he can’t explain. But to reduce the proposition to one man’s psychosis is to miss the much larger context in which violence and horror operate in the film. As we see throughout the film, violence is everywhere, and for those who haven’t yet watched it, you should be warned that The Proposition is at times incredibly graphic. Arthur, while certainly a problem, however, is not the point. Stanley’s quest to take Arthur down assumes that in doing so he will bring goodness and light and civility to a dark and seemingly hellish land. Yet throughout we see that the supposed forces of goodness, light, and civility are the very some ones who bring with them darkness, terror, and barbarism. Midway through the film, we see a party of cavalry ride off to deal with a group of ‘rebel blacks’ who have been sighted off in the bush. We then cut to a clearing full of butchered bodies and then, appropriately, to the group of cavalrymen solemnly singing the anthem of British white superiority, ‘Rule Britannia.’ Similarly, the local effete businessman (an utterly wormy David Wenham) can only demonstrate justice and the rule of law by savagely whipping Mikey Burns—a simpleton who doesn’t seem to know where he is half the time. Even the townspeople, who had before cried for blood, turn away in disgust. Nearly every time we see the light of colonialism’s supposed beneficence, we are treated to images of horror and emptiness. While the connections are contextual only, there is then a certain Conradian logic to the film, which makes clear that the sanctity of the civilizing mission is built on the very savagery it seeks to eradicate.

Ugh, I’ve hit my deadline—literally, as I have a plane to catch. I have more to say, but sadly I’ll have to leave it here. I could probably come up with another half-dozen reasons to watch this film and I have no reservations in recommending it. It is easily the best of Hillcoat’s career and features a variety of fine acting turns (Danny Huston, who I normally don’t respond to, is great, as is Pearce for the majority of the film). But really, if I have to reach back to the beginning, and to that first big point, I’d say to watch and experience it as the song it is, a paean to a bloody history, a vague and uncertain absolution to a gruesome historical crime, and, at the end of the day, an engrossing, impressive film.

Free Floating Thoughts

– Is it possible to have an Australian move without David Wenham? I mean, I ain’t got nothin’ but love for ya, Faramir. But you are in everything.

– It’s worth commending the filmmakers for paying respectful due to the aboriginal culture which plays such a central role in the otherwise pasty white outlaw drama the film unfolds. Not only did they spend quite a bit of time collaborating with the aboriginal communities among which the film was shot, but they also took the time to cast two excellent, well-known Aboriginal actors—David Gulpillil and Tom E. Lewis—in parts which are more than ‘colored’ backdrop.

– Prior to watching the DVD extras for the film, I’d never seen an interview with Ray Winstone, though I’ve probably seen him in half a dozen films over the years. Most amusing to me, I guess, is that he actually sounds more or less like the retired gangster character he plays in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast. I should note in passing that I do not find Cockney speakers ungraceful in any way, but rather that there is a fun disjunction in seeing that particular dialect operating far afield of the East London environs with which it is most commonly associated.

– Another fun fact from the DVD extras is that it sounds like everyone wanted to play the role of the English bounty hunter, Jelon Lamb, whose memorable lines eventually—and rightfully—ended up in the hands of the gleefully disheveled and snarling John Hurt.

– As in almost every film in which she appears, Emily Watson does far more with less here in her role as Winstone’s English Rose of a wife, Martha Stanley. As a figure of public repute, she is mostly called on to look shocked, terrified, or about to pass out (which she actually does at one point), but it’s in the film’s tender moments of intimacy between Martha and her husband that she’s allowed to do some of the subtler and more interesting acting for which she’s better known.

– Early in the film Winstone’s Capt. Stanley looks out into the scorching midday sun and mutters ‘What fresh hell is this?’ The line is perfect for the film and its themes, as I explain above, but it’s also an amusing anachronism. At first, convinced it must be from a famous piece of literature, I did some poking around, expecting to find out it was from a nineteenth century poem or novel. Nope. Apparently it’s a phrase with a lot of vernacular history that was immortalized by the writer Dorothy Parker, who apparently uttered it when faced with new guests at her door.

– I don’t know why I’ve never made the connection before, but listening to Danny Huston interviewed during the ‘making of’ featurette, it dawned on me that he’s one of those Hustons (John’s son, Walter’s grandson, half-brother to Anjelica). I guess I was fooled by the fact that I’ve mostly seen him play English men in the movies, and thus I naturally concluded that he was English. Which he kind of is (on his mother’s side). Anyway, cool trivia fact!

Ten Years Ago: The Break-Up

3 Jun
Burlesque performer/almost lawyer Dizzy Von Damn! proves that time can change a lot of things, especially about relationships, in her review of The Break-Up.

Einstein would probably be disturbed to know that his theory of relativity comes to mind when I try to approach this re-view. Ten years is a strange thing. When I think about this movie, it doesn’t seem like that much time has passed since its release; when I think about my life when I first saw this movie, it seems like forever. I guess a person can do a lot of work in ten years.

In the spring of 2006, I was living in Playa Del Rey, California, in a center-courtyard building named the Twin Dolphins. It was near the beach, which I rarely went to, and had a pool I never used. I had gone west, but I rarely went anywhere. In my apartment lived a dog with improbable skin allergies, two cats deeply in love with one another, a man we’ll call Joe, my infinite sadness, and me. Joe was charismatic, and handsome, and really great in bed. He was also insecure, cruelly adolescent, and unwilling to change. He was a golden boy— everyone loved him for some reason, and he always managed to skate by. He had always been taken care of, so he never put in more effort than that required.

When we met, I had half-black and half-blonde hair; I wore a leopard coat and a septum ring. Two years later he’s asking me, Did I have to always dress so weird? I tried to be less weird. Speaking of weird, I have a thing where pillowcases need to be put on in a certain direction and he knew it, and he would put them on wrong anyways, sometimes carelessly and sometimes on purpose. Regardless, I cleaned (he never cleaned), and I cooked (he never cooked), and I worked and I made sure that everything got done and that he had all the things he needed to be happy, and he existed, and that was in his estimation, enough.

Once, I lost my job and he paid a little more than half the rent and bills for a month because unemployment didn’t cover everything. His job was enough. Once, he offered to buy me something I had wanted for ages for my birthday, and he reserved it and everything, but then he “forgot” about it. But I still wanted it, so I went and bought it for myself. It was still there, because of his reservation. That was enough. And once, our refrigerator stopped working and we had to purchase a new one: I was standing in the aisle of the discount appliance store somewhere on Lincoln Boulevard, and it came upon me in waves, my face hot, throat constricted, I didn’t want to, I couldn’t. The idea of spending months trying to pay off this literal burden, this cartoon anvil, this empty box just waiting for me to be stuffed inside it, a sacrifice. I slid down the side of a washer and sat on the floor silently sobbing. Joe paid for the refrigerator, assuming the cost was the reason for my tears. It was kindness, I try to remember that.

I tried a million times to change him. I just wanted him to really BE there with me. I would be the catalyst for this transformation, and he would stop laughing at me when I sobbed, tired of asking for help, and he would stop drinking so much, and he would stop having secret online relationships instead of just trying to BE in this one. I would be the catalyst, and he would be changed. But I forgot that catalysts get burned up in the reaction.

So after some fight I don’t remember, I took myself to the movies. I needed to get out of the house, and so I went to the Marina theater and saw The Break-Up. It was, I don’t know, there. I don’t love anyone in it, it didn’t seem that appealing I don’t think. But there it was, and there I was. It couldn’t be worse than what was waiting at home, so I bought some sour straws (better than sour grapes) and settled in. I remember: baseball games, the wrong lemons, “I want you to want to wash the dishes,” a naked walk-by, a general feeling of sadness that they couldn’t get it together, them seeing each other a year later. Mostly I remember feeling very deeply that Jennifer Aniston’s character was aggrieved in this movie, that she was right and he was wrong and now I’m not sure if I missed “his side” because did they make movies where the guy was wrong? Where I could just identify with her and not also be crazy or something? And I have remembered that, and the dishes. I guess we’ll see.

This movie is 100% about growing up and emotional labor. Not familiar with emotional labor? Well, let me put it this way. Chances are, if you were raised as or to be a “feminine” type person in America, you’re doing it, a lot of it, all the time. It’s all the things we’re “just naturally better at.” Except we’re not. It’s work, and we’re taught to do it, and it’s exhausting, and we deserve recognition, and for another adult to do at least some of that shit at a certain point.
Emotional labor is the advice and solutions we are expected to always have, the multiple schedules we maintain so that life can go smoothly, the internalized knowledge of what everyone likes/dislikes, wants and needs, the endless patience, the knowing what needs to get done, the asking people to do it because they apparently don’t know even though how can they seriously not know that groceries need to be purchased or put away or trash needs to be put out? So then it’s the just doing it ourselves because it’s easier than explaining and waiting and reminding, the rebranding our feelings about these things so that our partners and families might hear the problem instead of the hurt.This inequity and expectation applies in a million situations—patriarchal, racist, sizeist, ableist… But it is pervasive on an intimate level, in relationships, where one party has been labored over and the other has been taught to labor, and the cycle continues.

While the film as a whole isn’t that good, the serious interactions in it are pretty good depictions of this imbalance. We see Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and Gary (Vince Vaughn) meet, and then a picture montage of their relationship over the opening credits. They each have a day at work, and then in their apartment, she is cooking and he returns home from work, opens a beer, and sits in front of the TV, explaining he’s tired and just needs some time before their guests arrive. This *is* actually a fair request, except that she’s also tired, and has come home from work, cleaned up, and cooked. She managed the dinner in its entirety, planning to execution, and would just like for him to set the table. She tells him what she sees happening, makes a clear request, to which he gives her the ol’ “yes dear,” tells her he will help, and then does exactly what he wanted—that she specifically requested to avoid.

Sometimes it’s not this direct; it’s poorly completed requests so they won’t be requested again. It’s partially completed requests (the lemons, in this case) met with again, what is actually a reasonable solution that just becomes unreasonable in this particular situation. She asked for 12 lemons, he brought three. It was the one thing she asked for, and he didn’t manage to get it done; and his solution was to subtly insult her request and her efforts, instead of apologizing.

After the dinner party, she begins to clean up and he doesn’t want to. This is the infamous, “I want you to want to wash the dishes.” But he’s right — no one wants to wash the dishes. It’s not about that. And yet the dishes have to get washed, so someone’s going to have to wash them. And if he doesn’t want to, it’s always her, which is not an equitable distribution of labor. She just wants him to want to help, to take on some of the crap tasks: aka to see his place in the relationship as an equal, as a partner. But he doesn’t.

From there, we get the breakup. It devolves, turns ugly. There are some funny bits but mostly it’s them hurting one another instead of just communicating directly. They play games, figurative and literal. At one point they host a friends’ game night, and Gary’s in charge of snacks, so they end up with chips, gum, Kraft singles, a package of baloney and water. When Brooke’s turn at Pictionary comes up, she draws a shoe with another smaller shoe-ish thing inside it; Gary keeps shouting shoe and is furious because she didn’t draw something different when he wasn’t right. His refusal to budge from his point-of-view prevents him from seeing that the answer is a sock.
The climactic showdown for Brooke is an all-in, where she once again puts in the effort, setting everything up, making the invitation, leaving instructions, providing everything required. All Gary has to do is show up. Gary’s friend sums it up when he says, “She probably just wanted you to show the respect of not standing her up or some shit. It’s her fault, she should have expected it from you.”And finally he tries after it all, to fix things. He didn’t know, until it was too late. He realizes, he figures some things out. Her tears made a difference. But I have to say that is some bullshit. You have to hurt someone badly to realize you’re hurting them? When they keep saying “YOU’RE HURTING ME,” and ask you to do things differently? Maybe you should get some therapy.

They can’t fix it. She moves away, he grows up. But a while later, they cross paths, and there’s implications of potential to rebuild. They never didn’t love one another, after all. It was just about (as it always is) who had what to give.

I vaguely wish this movie could be remade with a woman writer, with less interest in comedy and more interest in realism. Imagine a movie that focused on the discomforting feeling of wanting someone to do more, and hear more—but never being able to get them to understand that. It couldn’t be a comedy: it’s a tragedy, a horror. It would be brutal.

Catalyzing agents get burned up, but something is created from that energy. The Monday after I saw this movie, while waiting in line for a burrito, I turned to my right and told Joe I didn’t want to be his anymore. It’s been ten years, but to be honest, I still get nervous when I see a red motorcycle, or a striped hat. But I also wear my leopard coat, and I still don’t own a refrigerator. Things aren’t perfect — I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to communicate 100% of the time, or how to divide emotional labor, but when I re-viewed this movie, I watched it with someone on a Saturday night, and when I woke up Sunday morning, he was washing the dishes.

Random Notes:

– The two guys who allegedly wrote this screenplay (Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender) have like zero other writing credits. The story was developed by them and Vince Vaughn—perhaps he wrote the script and gave them the credits?

– In support of my theory that this is an anomaly of a movie that shows a female POV, there is a thread on IMDb calling this “the most male-bashing movie ever made!!!”

– Brooke goes on fake dates on the advice of her crazy art-dealing boss, who tells her, “It’s not cubism, it’s not surrealism, it’s paint by numbers.” – My favorite line of the whole movie: “You can’t take a pitch pipe out of a guy’s hand when he’s in the middle of a very funky groove. You can get hurt doing something like that.”

Ten Years Ago: X-Men: The Last Stand

31 May

Jake Farley, co-creator of Burl-X-Men: Days of Future Ass, hates X3. He hates it so much.

 

X-Men: The Last Stand is a failure on pretty much every level—structure, theme, storytelling, acting, editing, directing, screenwriting, costume design, makeup, uhhh…I’m running out of elements of filmmaking. If you can think of any I’ve missed, trust me, they were not well-represented in the film X-Men: The Last Stand.

Alright, so this is the third movie in the X-Men franchise, the sequel to 2003’s X2: X-Men United, which was, at the time, widely regarded as one of the best comic book movies of all time. (For context, the first Iron Man would come out in 2008, two years after The Last Stand.) By contrast, The Last Stand is so terrible that an entire subsequent film, 2014’s Days of Future Past, was dedicated almost entirely to erasing the events of The Last Stand.

At the time, the studio was eager to get a sequel to X2 out as soon as possible, but the franchise’s original director, Bryan Singer, had just left to work on Superman Returns. Eventually the film was handed to Brett Ratner, of Rush Hour fame, who was, shall we say, not the first-choice replacement. The script passed through about a dozen hands on its way to the screen and is a mashup of two completely different comics storylines—the “cure” for the mutant gene, and the cosmic Dark Phoenix saga. This is not an entirely organic marriage of themes.

Seeing this film originally in 2006, it was a major disappointment. It’s such a singularly bad film, however, that it has remained vivid in my mind, as opposed to fading away as many a technically “better” film has. Let’s explore all the ways in which this movie fails by working our way through the story, such as it is.

We open in a flashback to some vaguely defined history time. It kinda looks like the’50s, but that wouldn’t really make any sense within the context of the character’s history, so let’s just call it The Past. It’s probably the ’80s sometime. Anyway, a car pulls into a suburban neighborhood, and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) get out together. Their faces are CGI’d all to hell, so that instead of the dignified old men they are in real life, they appear to be youthful, vigorous PlayStation characters. They have some of the heavy-with-portent banter typical of the two characters and knock on the door of a house.

It turns out this is young Jean Grey’s house, and the two men are very keen to bring Jean to their private school. Young Jean makes a bunch of cars levitate and we see Stan Lee for a second, as is required in all Marvel-related films. We don’t really see how all this ends up.

This is an early example of one of the key failings of the movie, by the way. It spends exactly no time at all explaining who anyone is, how they’re related to one another, or what their motivations are. “Well it’s the third film in the franchise,” you might say in response. “Shouldn’t we be familiar with the characters by now?” I can see your point, hypothetical reader, but we’re told nothing about the NEW characters either. Also, even the returning characters are wildly inconsistent, both with their portrayals from previous films and from scene to scene within this very movie. We never really understand why anyone is doing anything or why we should care.

Ok. Back to the movie. We’re only on the second scene, here, so buckle up. Now we get a flashback to a slightly more explicit “TEN YEARS AGO.” A middle-aged man in a nice-looking apartment is knocking on the bathroom door, yelling at his son for taking too long in there. We hear some vaguely unpleasant squishing and the sounds of hurried activity, which is just like…hoo boy. I get it, Brett Ratner. I don’t like it, but I get it. Anyway, the dad kicks the door down and it turns out his son was trying to saw two chicken wings off of his own back because he’s ashamed to be a mutant who has chicken wings, I guess. (This is Angel, by the way. He’s one of the original five X-Men from the comics. This never happened to him there.) The kid’s crying, the dad’s upset, there’s bloody tools and feathers all over the kitchen. It’s a bad scene, man. A bad, comical scene.

Now we’re through with the flashbacks, we cut to the actual X-Men. They’re running around a wrecked-up battlefield, and we get some shots of the new mutants using their powers. Ellen Page is there. Of course, all this excitement actually turns out to be a Danger Room scenario. (The Danger Room is basically the holodeck from Star Trek, appearing here in the movies for the first time with no explanation whatsoever.) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, of course) has a little spat with Storm (Halle Berry) for no better reason than Wolverine is just kind of generally anti-authority, and Storm is supposed to be the boss right now. She wants the young mutants to use teamwork, so Wolverine has Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) throw him at the threat, which he then decapitates. That seems like pretty great teamwork to me, but Storm’s still mad so I dunno. That thing where Colossus throws Wolverine is called a Fastball Special in the comics, and it’s usually pretty awesome. A nice touch, even though they never actually use it again. It’s basically Chekhov’s Gun sitting happily above the fireplace for the rest of the film.

By the way, the robot thing Wolverine decapitates is actually a Sentinel. They’re 30-foot tall government-controlled mutant-hunting robots from the comics, but don’t appear to exist in the movies, so it’s a little unclear why the X-Men are training to fight them. Maybe they have other Danger Room protocols for training to fight Bigfoot or Darth Vader or the vampire from ‘Salem’s Lot.

Ok, some more stuff happens. Cyclops (James Marsden) is sad because his wife died in the last movie, which this movie doesn’t really mention. Wolverine tries to comfort Cyclops, but Cyclops isn’t into it because Wolverine kept trying to steal his wife back when she was alive. Cyclops runs away from the mansion.

Now we cut to the White House or something, where we see Hank McCoy, aka The Beast (Kelsey Grammer), a blue furry monster-looking guy. His whole deal is that he’s actually very well-spoken and erudite. It’s ironic, you know. Anyway, he’s the President’s official Mutant Guy, the guy who is brought in to provide official advice on mutant-related matters and whose advice is then promptly and thoroughly ignored. We learn that the government is tracking Magneto (which makes sense, given that he’s a super-powered terrorist who wants to kill all humans), but they’ve captured his shape-shifting spy Mystique (Rebecca Romijn). We also meet Bollivar Trask, who is played here by Bill Duke. He doesn’t really have much to do in this film, but in the pseudo-alternate history created in the subsequent Days of Future Past film, Trask will instead be portrayed by Peter Dinklage, which is quite the change to the historical record indeed.

Not Peter Dinklage.
So then we cut back to Professor X teaching a class at the X-mansion that looks for all the world like it was ripped directly out of Hogwarts. Professor X is teaching two smirking twins, a redheaded girl, a boy with round glasses and a shaggy Daniel Radcliffe haircut…I honestly think this might be deliberate. I think this might be an actual joke, which would mean this weird casting choice counts as the most thoughtful thing in the entire movie.

Anyway, Ellen Page is there too. She’s playing Shadowcat, who has the power to become intangible. She and Professor X get into a little back and forth over the ethics of mutant abilities, with Xavier proclaiming that it would probably be wrong for a mutant to put their mind into a brain-dead person’s body, and Ellen Page kind of pushing back on that a little.

Before they get too into it, though, Professor X psychically senses something is amiss, just before a billion storm-dark clouds appear out of literally nowhere. Professor X dismisses his class and goes to chat with Storm about her sad feelings. She’s sad, but Professor X says she shouldn’t be, so now she isn’t, so the clouds go away. (Given what we later learn about how Professor X manipulates people’s minds without their consent, this scene actually may be creepier than it first appears.) He also tells her that Cyclops is all sad and boring now just because his stupid wife died or whatever, so he needs Storm to step up. Cyclops is old news, Storm’s in charge now! Professor X sucks.

Then Beast shows up to tell the X-Men that the government has actually developed a cure for mutants, so the plot of the movie can finally begin. Storm is stridently anti-cure, expressing the position that mutants are a race and should be protected and that there’s nothing wrong with being one. Everyone else seems a little more ambivalent. Rogue (Anna Paquin, a major character in the last two films who gets nothing much at all to do in this one) is pretty interested in the idea of the cure, given that her mutant power is to gruesomely kill anyone she ever touches. Storm hectors her about this a little bit, but Rogue actually does voluntarily go get the cure by the end of the movie and seems to wind up a lot happier because of it. Mixed messages abound in this film.

Magneto shows up at some kind of underground non-X-Men mutant gathering and starts recruiting soldiers for his gang. He’s a pretty impressive dude, so he’s able to turn them to his cause pretty easily, but his followers are mostly all chumps. One guy has retractable porcupine quills all over his body. He will later use these quills to give someone a Death Hug. Sabretooth he ain’t.

So then Cyclops goes out to where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) died, though the audience is not told this. He gets sad at the water and shoots it with his eye lasers. This (apparently?) causes Jean to return to life. She shows up and they kiss. It’s nice.

Now, I would like to make something clear here—Cyclops just died. That was Cyclops’ death scene. He kissed his wife who just came back from the dead, and now HE’S the dead one. I point this out because the first time I saw this movie, I didn’t realize Cyclops was supposed to be dead for about 45 more minutes. I thought he was just gonna come charging back later but nope. Dead. Sure, go ahead and kill off one of your franchise’s main characters off-screen. What do I care?

Anyway, this causes the Professor to send Storm and Wolverine out to the site to investigate. They find Cyclops’ glasses, but then they find Jean herself and immediately forget all about Cyclops. For all they know, he’s wandering around in the woods, lost, eyes closed to contain his destructive eye beams. (But of course he’s actually dead. But they don’t know that yet!)

They bring Jean back to the X-Mansion, where Professor X confesses that he’s been tinkering with Jean’s brain ever since she was a little girl and he kiiiiiiinda accidentally created a super-powerful homicidal psychotic split personality within her. It’s a mistake any one of us could have made, really. Wolverine rightly points out that this is kind of ethically dubious and Xavier basically tells him to fuck off. Xavier is not a super-likeable figure in this movie, I’m going to be honest with you.

So now the mutant cure is officially announced on television. It turns out the guy who made the cure is the same guy who walked in on his son sawin’ off his chicken wings ten years ago, and has devoted his life to making a magic serum to fix his kid. Beast goes to the facility where they manufacture the cure. (It’s on Alcatraz Island, for no reason whatsoever beyond that it seems like a good place to have a climactic movie fight.) The cure is actually synthesized from the body of a mutant kid whose power is to negate other mutant’s powers.

I’m going to be generous here when I say that this power, as presented in the movie, makes absolutely no sense. There is basically a psychic field around the kid wherein powers “don’t work,” as evidenced when Beast’s hand temporarily goes from being all blue and furry to a regular human hand when he reaches towards the kid. As soon as he moves his hand away, it goes back to being all furry. I’m just going to let you stew on all the ways that doesn’t make sense and move on.

Now we go to a scene where Angel (now grown up and portrayed by Ben Foster) is going to receive the first official dose of his dad’s cure. They try and strap him down to a chair but he has second thoughts and bursts his wings from his restraining harness. That’s Angel’s power, by the way—he has wings. He’s also super-rich, which is why I assume Professor X actually let him hang around, since “having wings” isn’t much of a super-power, really. Angel flies away from all this and winds up at the X-Mansion. He never really interacts with the other characters, though he does fly by and save his dad from being thrown off a building at the end of the movie. I guess we’re supposed to feel good about that.

Also, this scene is my strongest memory from seeing it in the theaters. This is because when Angel spreads his wings for the first time, the woman sitting next to me gasped and murmured, “He’s so beautiful!” She had a lot more fun watching this movie than I did.

Anyway, Magneto then frees Mystique and gets himself a few new henchmen in the process. A guard shoots Mystique with a cure dart, turning her into plain ol’ Rebecca Romijn. Magneto responds by peacing the fuck out, leaving his most loyal henchman nude and convulsing on the floor, simply because she’s “human” now.

This is, far and away, the biggest misstep in the entire movie regarding Magneto. I hate his reaction to this so much that it actually makes me angry. Rather than holding Mystique (again, his MOST LOYAL henchman through the past two films) up as an example of the barbarity humans and their ambitions to wipe out mutants, he just laughs it off. “Sorry bae! LATER!”

Anyway, in the meantime, Jean has woken up and she’s all evil now. She escapes from the X-Mansion and beats up Wolverine in the process. The X-Men (who currently consist of Wolverine, Storm, and Professor X) track her to her childhood home. Coincidentally, Magneto also knew Jean would be there. He brings his slightly larger crew of mutants (including Juggernaut, tiresomely played by Vinnie Jones). The lieutenants all tussle with one another, while Xavier and Magneto head inside to hold a little debate for Jean’s soul. Professor X argues somewhat unconvincingly to let him keep tinkering with Jean’s brain. Jean doesn’t care for the suggestion, so she explodes all of Xavier’s molecules. Magneto then gathers her up and they escape together. There’s no real reason for Jean to go with Magneto, but she does. Who cares, at this point.

We see the X-Men having a funeral for Xavier (no such dignity for Cyclops, you’ll notice), and everyone is sad. They think maybe they should close the school, but then they decide not to, even though the only teachers on staff are a 150-year-old berserker from the Canadian backwoods and a woman whose only expertise is in the toad-and-lightning-related sciences.

Wolverine decides to go find Magneto’s evil lair and try to convince Jean to come back. In the comics, Magneto has had some suitably impressive evil lairs, like asteroid bases, or island strongholds. In The Last Stand, his secret base is a tent city in the woods. It’s pretty pathetic, honestly. I can’t really picture Magneto restlessly shifting around in his mummy bag, trying to find a position on the ground that doesn’t have any roots or sharp rocks poking him in the back. I guess we’re meant to assume that’s what happens to him every night, though. Poor choices, Magneto.

Anyway, Wolverine happens to show up just as Magneto is giving a speech which outlines his evil plan to his followers. (The plan basically boils down to “let’s go trash the place that makes the cure!”) Wolverine tries to convince Jean to come home, but she’s too evil now.

We also get a scene re-establishing the young mutants from the beginning of the movie, because they’re about to become important again. Ellen Page and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) have a mild flirtation which could, under some circumstances, be considered cute.

From here on out, it’s all a bunch of nonsense. Not like it wasn’t before, but now they just throw any pretense out the window in favor of low-budget explosions. Magneto rips up the Golden Gate Bridge and drops it on Alcatraz (which is awesome, to be fair). His “army” of fifty or so crummy mutants starts getting mowed down by guns shooting cure darts, which the military had the foresight to make out of plastic so Magneto can’t tear them up.

The X-Men decide that Magneto blowing up Alcatraz will be bad for human/mutant relations, so they decide to go stop him. They’re a little short-staffed at the moment, though, so they grab some of the underaged teens at the school to act as cannon fodder and take off.

A fight scene occurs.

Eventually the X-Men are triumphant. They stab Magneto with the cure, even though they were kind of fighting to prevent the cure, even though earlier Wolverine told Rogue she should get the cure if she wanted to, but the cure is bad, but maybe it’s good in some situations. This is not a movie with a clear moral position.

At that point, the movie remembers that, oh yeah, this was a Dark Phoenix movie too, so Jean Grey starts going nuts and disintegrating things. Everyone else runs away except for Wolverine, whose healing factor allows him to get close enough to Jean to stab her to death, thus providing a happy ending for all.

So that’s it. The movie ends with Jean dead again, and everything kind of back to normal. I guess the cure still exists, since Rogue got it voluntarily, but nobody seems to mind all that much. Magneto apparently does not have to go to jail for his many murders, but is instead allowed to sit in a park by himself, playing chess. The movie ends with him maybe being able to move a metal chess piece a little bit, so maybe the cure didn’t work so hot. I smell sequel! (No, I don’t.)

Ugh. This movie. It’s just bad on every level, and not the fun kind of bad. Rather, the kind of aggravating bad that compels you to continue watching, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s actually making you angrier the longer it goes on. Character motivations are all over the place. Characters disappear for huge chunks of the movie for no reason. Characters act in direct contrast to their established behavior in previous films for no reason. The story is muddled. Concepts and characters are lifted from the comics with no regard to how they relate to one another. Either the story of Jean as the Dark Phoenix OR the story of the mutant cure would have been fine movie plots all on their own, but mashing them up just makes both weaker.

The cure story alone has so much potential—is the cure bad because it exists? Is it bad because of the potential for it to be administered against one’s will? Is it reasonable for a person to want to change who they are, if who they are is legitimately dangerous to the well-being of others? All these questions are mostly hand-waved in the movie in favor of…well…not really in favor of anything.

So here the main X-Men franchise ends. An ambitious final film doomed to collapse from the beginning, all factors arrayed against it. A punishment to the people who worked on it and the people who watched it. Days of Future Past may have erased the events of this movie, but would that it could erase our memories of it as easily.

OTHER THOUGHTS

– Rogue seriously gets screwed in this one. Nobody cares about her at all. Even when she finally confesses her real name (“Marie”) to Wolverine, he’s literally walking away and just tosses back over his shoulder. “Yeah, great, Marie, ok, see ya!”

– One of the ideas this movie presents but utterly fails to explore is the concept of a specifically mutant subculture. Some of the comics, particularly the Grant Morrison comics, get into the idea that, since there are millions of mutants out there, they have their own fashion and music and art. This is very briefly touched on here, with absolutely no follow-through.

– They never make any mention of the fact that the bulk of the movie’s action takes place in San Francisco, but the X-Mansion is in upstate New York, and the lake where Jean returns is in Canada. The movie treats all these places like they’re down the street from one another.

Ten Years Ago: An Inconvenient Truth

27 May
Maxie Milieu is back to discuss An Inconvenient Truth as well as the high school IB Environmental Science that primed her for Al Gore’s climate change message.
Well folks, it has been 10 years since An Inconvenient Truth showed us the devastating effects of climate change and reminded us that it sure would have been nice to have Al Gore as president. Sure, we thought he was kind of bland in 2000 but boy oh boy did we get karmically bitchslapped for that unkind judgement. So get ready for that post-apocalyptic future outlined in young adult novels, because we are 10 years closer to it!Anyway, climate change. 10 years later are we making any progress? Is there any fucking hope? We are not alone in taking note of this film’s anniversary. It is being celebrated across Twitter and the internet at large. The website referenced in the film as a site to look up solutions to climate change, www.climatecrisis.net, has now transformed to takepart.com. This new site is both a retrospective on the film as well as a call to action and engagement across climate change and intersectional social and political projects.

Before we get too ensconced in the present, let us traverse to the world of 10 years ago. The film itself serves as both partial biography of Al Gore and filmic presentation of his traveling slide show/talk on climate change. 10 years ago I was a high school junior, studiously and politically entrenched in my IB Environmental Science class. This film does a fair overview of many of the tenets I learned in that course. We also watched a lot of Futurama in class so the Futurama reference in An Inconvenient Truth was also quite resonant. However, we also got to watch The Lorax, so IB Environmental Science has one up on you, An Inconvenient Truth.

The world of 10 years ago was a post-Hurricane Katrina world, where the clear evidence of the scale and breadth of environmental damage, and political indifference to communities of color and the poor, in the U.S. was laid plain. Katrina is a major focus of the film, acting as a fulcrum around which the science of climate change can balance. Al Gore’s talk is the main focus of the film. The talk features many impressive graphs, sad pictures of receded glaciers, and animations of rising water levels that make me want to immediately check how far above sea level I currently live. Elaborating on the direct talk are snippets of Al Gore’s personal life, his childhood, and his political career. With transitional shots of walking, or riding in cars, the film parallels Al Gore’s personal journey and realizations with the ones the world collectively needs to make about climate change. When we hear of Al Gore’s young son’s accident, he contextualizes the threat of losing your child as a turning point in his political activism. Realizing all that could truly be lost he vows to fight harder for the planet. Losing his sister to lung cancer when the family grew tobacco shows how we are all culpable and yet can change.

As Al Gore states in the film, he was privileged to learn about climate change and the pending environmental crisis as a young man from a respected scientific mentor. For me, my IB class was my first true discovery of climate change, unless you count some Sesame Street sketches about not using too much water. The film gives you the narrative and the scientific. It is clearly a film meant to inform, to provide an audience at large access to factual scientific evidence and to quash the falsehood that global warming is a theoretical concept. The film is a delivery device. The best way to reach the most people as easily as possible. Al Gore’s narration is measured and direct. These facts are just as useful to experience today, and while I’m sure there is significantly more data than 10 years ago, the graphics and scientific inquiry hold up. However, the film is even more terrifying than 10 years ago. The facts of climate change explained in the film seems like such familiar information to the me of today: melting glaciers, increased CO2, warming ocean currents. But, it is freshly horrifying while watching the film now each time Al Gore mentions that “in just 50 years” xyz levels could be reached, or such and such incomprehensible horrifying change could occur. As I was watching the film again, all I could think to myself was, “Shit…it’s already been 10 years.”

A particularly striking graph, and one of the common promotional snippets for this film, is of Al Gore stepping on to a mechanical lift and rising himself up next to one of his wall-sized graphs as the projections of CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise off the charts. Quite the literal visualization. Quite terrifying. The whole film is shot as a rather literal visualization. Either with archival footage accompanying narration, actual filming of Al Gore’s talk with graphs or computer renderings, or B-roll of him at his family farm, the images of both Al Gore’s talk and the film strive to visually communicate, as clearly as possible, the scale of the problem. It is huge. It feels insurmountable. “Like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” Al Gore assures us that this is not the case. That we have the information we need to overcome this problem. That the perspective astronauts gained when looking back at the earth from space is exactly the one we need to save the whole damn planet. This little blue dot is all we got. There are moments toward the end of the film where American history is used as an example of all that we can achieve and I can’t help but feel that it is too far of a reach 10 years later. The people in power today seem even more frightening than the ones of 10 years ago. That is likely because I am older and understand now how horrifying everything has always been. Climate change is another large-scale human failing. We did this to ourselves.

I will not claim to know everything about climate change, but it seems as though for all the trendiness of energy efficiency and low impact living, (in my little corner of the world), that climate change continues to exceed expectations and scientific projections. If I learned anything about the Gaia principle and entropy in IB Environmental Science, I surely learned this: life itself will continue. The Earth will change, probably drastically, but is it us, the human race that will suffer and be wiped out. Inconvenient indeed. Some of us may live to see a post-apocalyptic wasteland that we will be forced to traverse in our old age if nothing radically changes. Some projections claim it is already far too late. Al Gore believes that by dispersing this information and providing resources, we don’t have to go from denial to despair. Instead, we can do something. I’m a bit less optimistic. I compost, recycle, have a car with decent gas mileage, use energy-efficient products, shop locally at farmers markets, and live in a home with a roommate who has a beautifully cultivated garden full of indigenous plants. It still doesn’t feel like nearly enough, and yet many days I feel I’m doing all I can. Hopefully, we don’t do what the animated frog in the movie does: sit in a pot of water as it heats to boiling. In the film the frog gets saved, but there is no one to pull us out of this, soon to be boiling, pot of water. I hope we don’t end up like the series finale of Dinosaurs.

At the opening of the film we are looking out across a river, watching sunlight catch the water and reflect onto the bright green underside of the leaves. The wind rustles the leaves in the trees creating a shimmering effect. Al Gore begins his narration, describing the beauty of nature as “Like taking a deep breath and going ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about this.’” An Inconvenient Truth is a film that isn’t about itself. It’s about getting people to wake up to a reality that must be dealt with. However, 10 years later, it feels down right worrisome that the scale of the problem still seems astronomically larger than the scale of response.

Ten Years Ago: Just My Luck

13 May
Burlesque performer/almost lawyer Dizzy Von Damn! reviews Just My Luck through her migraine auras, which oddly do not make the film better.

I have always had bad luck, particularly in regard to my health. I have had more stitches above the neck than most people have had anywhere. I’ve had truly freak accidents that required surgical repair—this one time there was a lime—and illnesses that you only read about in books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My luck is so bad it’s good for other people. If we’re ever in a situation together where there’s risk of one person’s catastrophic injury, feel free to relax.

For the purposes of this story, I have chronic migraines; they have always been and always shall be. But there are harbingers: my eye feels “crinkly,” as if my eyelid has gone cubist inside, and/or my mouth feels dry and yet fills with saliva, just as it does when you are about to vomit. I am a desert in this time before, and the taste is mild but tinny, a tooth-shaving of copper dissolving on my tongue, a drop of blood burning at the back of my throat.

I become sensitive to everything. Smells and sound are difficult to bear. Nothing should touch me—I wear only the migraine shirt. It is 19 years old now and looks it, but I will wear it till it falls off my body into dust and then I will be lost without its whisper-thin perfection. My cat won’t lay next to me if I’m topless (long story, he’s a nevernude) so he will have a hard time letting go of the shirt too.

I crawl into bed with a giant bottle of water, some crackers, and a computer or an iPad on the lowest display, and watch absolute trash until I pass out, and hopefully feel better when I wake up. That is where our story begins.

I have watched some really awful shows and movies because of this. I have laid in my bed paralyzed by pain through hours of reality programming. But mostly I watch romantic comedies in this state, because they are so easy and if you miss something it doesn’t much matter and they always end well, which makes me feel a little better about everything.

I have seen Just My Luck at least twice already. Maybe three times really, I can’t recall. It was on HBO OnDemand for a long time. Even still, I don’t remember many details. I think there’s a scene in the rain, and there’s definitely a bowling alley. Lindsay Lohan was timeline appropriate, so Mean Girls but I Know Who Killed Me, while Chris Pine was forgettable. I literally forgot him. The basic premise however is that LiLo is very lucky, while Captain Kirk is very unlucky. And then they switch, followed directly by HIJINKS, and then they fall in love.

So the movie starts with the rain. The one scene I remember is the opening scene. It’s raining, but then LiLo (“Ashley”) comes outside without an umbrella, and because she’s so lucky, it just stops. She’s already relying on luck instead of just planning for the day like a normal person. The doorman hails her a cab, and when she finds a $5 bill stuck to her shoe getting inside it, SHE DOESN’T GIVE THE $5 TO HIM. These two actions are enough to make me want to push her into a beehive.

She’s so lucky she gets to work early. Interesting definition of good fortune. That luck leads to her getting into the one working elevator, meeting a conventionally handsome man, saving the big meeting, and getting assigned the project from said meeting: planning a record mogul’s party. It’s very 2006.

Meanwhile, Capt. Kirk (“Jake”) is very unlucky. This manifests as him being splashed by a cab, stepping in a puddle, splitting his pants, touching dog poop with his hands, and then accidentally falling on some lady with those same split pants so she thinks he’s a sexual predator. He gets arrested. HIJINKS LOL! Such bad luck! His raison d’etre is to get the record mogul from LiLo’s meeting to listen to/sign this band he’s representing. They’ve given him one week before they return to unknown country of origin. Everyone is boring. I am beginning to wonder if this movie could be improved by a migraine.

The record mogul, as played by Faizon Love, is easily the funniest part of the movie. He’s stereotypically into furs and rings etc., but his line delivery is A+. Was this already a stereotype in 2006, or were they very on trend and now it just feels old and dated? I can barely remember last week because I am old and dated. He looks like a Gwyneth Paltrow-colored Popple in his fur coat, I’m sorry (not sorry) to say. Still, I want to crawl into his plush arms and snug myself to sleep. Regardless, his deadpan cutdowns are appreciated.

LiLo on the other hand… Her acting is not great. It’s not bad, just sort of forced at times. She’s certainly likeable, and I think a good chunk of the problem is the stilted writing. Who says things like, “Down girl, you’re drooling on my doormat?” Especially what young “hip” person would say this? And who has a doormat inside? Is this normal? Am I doing doormats wrong? Full disclosure, I re-watched The Parent Trap after this as well, and she was pretty good in that, even with the accent.

There are many many things in this movie that require suspension of disbelief, and this next thing is one of them: LiLo plans the mogul’s party in like two weeks. It’s a huge record label party, in NYC, planned in two weeks. A masquerade, with stilt-walking waiters*, “skydancers” aka aerialists, and people who “feel like anything can happen here,” including her boss who she set up on a date with her neighbor. Basically she made a Cirque du Soleil party, so again, very 2006. She’s got on all the shimmer makeup and a ribbon choker, and looks like the cover of a dELiA*s catalog.

Capt. Kirk sneaks in as a dancer for he MUST. SIGN. THE. BAND., but instead he gives her major elevator eyes, and they kiss on the dance floor in some weird fate moment that has no causation/basis in reality. But you know its fate because the clichéd fortune teller hired for this shitbag party flashes a tarot card with the word “FATE” and two crossed stars across the screen. I don’t think I paid much attention to this movie before because I like to think I would have noticed that it was pretty bad, but I guess maybe migraine auras make giant piles of crap look like quality programming. I’m a little nervous about what other movies I’ve watched that might be terrible. Is Notting Hill a bad movie? Runaway Bride? Guys?

Kirk runs after the mogul (in my head I call him FatCat) and saves him from the certain death of an off-roading taxi. Because he’s so damn grateful, FatCat signs the band. Good Luck! At the same time, LiLo’s shoe breaks. When she bends to examine the damage, her dress rips. Then she gets arrested because it turns out her neighbor is an escort. She gets fired, and for unclear reasons, a lady in lockup punches her in the face. Bad Luck! What I’m learning from this movie is that sex-related stuff is definitely bad luck.

Ten years ago I definitely wouldn’t have noticed that; today, I’m short months from being an attorney, working directly with former offenders of all varieties, and I guess I have to admit that even when you’re guilty, getting arrested is badmaybe the worst—luck. It’s the kind of luck that doesn’t change when you kiss someone, or finish your sentence, or work really hard to prove your worth. In regard to his arrest: It’s not cute, deus ex per accidens raptorem, and it’s not a quick plot device. Accidental theft may be funny, maybe even accidental injury when slapstick and not terrifically violent; but accidental sexual assault, even when truly accidental, just doesn’t strike me the same way. In regard to her arrest, however, well—this section of the movie is particularly interesting given the rumors that have swirled around LiLo over the last years regarding how she supports her lifestyle, with whom she spends her time. For the record, none of it matters—at least until she is arrested, and “criminal” becomes how we define her.

Lilo’s bad luck continues; her beautiful apartment is ruined, flooded and moldy, everything destroyed. Staying with a friend, she gets a zit (quelle horreur!), her hair caught in blow dryer which then catches on fire—putting it out she breaks a mirror, puts out in the tub and short circuits the whole building. But Capt. Kirk is doing well for himself: his new apt with the band is amazing, FatCat’s sexpot assistant asks him out, wants to pay, and casually drops the fact that she’s late for her erotic massage class. She’s a two dimensional dream, like someone bought a Magic Grow Toy that started out as a red pill and it grew into a giant red fedora.

Somewhere along the line, LiLo gets clued into the fact that this is all a supernatural freaky Friday, and seeks out the fortune teller. LiLo is accusatory. “He took my good luck from me!?” But our magical trope of a guide answers wisely (of course), “Maybe he needed it more than you.”

And in the tradition of great movies everywhere, LiLo goes on a montage to get her luck back, kissing all the dancers from the event then scratching lotto tickets to test her luck. This is probably the best part of the movie, because it’s my sort of Sunday. But her friends are less awesome and respond, “You’ve kissed a dozen strangers; I love you but it’s probably best that we no longer touch.” No friends of mine!

This kissing spree ends at an art exhibit where she ends up falling into in a pile of mud, is arrested again, and gets punched by the same lady from her previous jail experience. Now I know a thing or two about pre-trial detention these days, and for that lady to still be there, she’s either recidivating at a vigorous speed, or more likely (since she appears to be wearing the same clothing), suffering dangerously close to unconstitutional processing delays at the hands of a broken system. But all we see is her punch LiLo for no reason. And bonus: she’s credited as “Tough Jailbird.” This is one of two women of color in the movie, the other being the oversexualized assistant.** This bullshit was written by women.

Stuff happens, it’s dumb. She takes on Capt. Kirk’s old job at the bowling alley and has a personal growth period. You can tell she’s grown as a person because she starts wearing task appropriate footwear. She breaks a bunch of stuff, she gets electrocuted. Probably the second best part of the movie is when she screams because it’s very realistic.

Capt. Kirk catches her when she falls off the ladder, and they do some falling in love stuff, like laundry. There’s more rain. Maybe this is the rain I remembered. Who knows. I’m terribly bored. His hair is so awful in this movie; how did he ever get more work looking like this?

Somehow his band has sold-out a huge concert venue even though they have only one song. FatCat audaciously requires that they have another, and LiLo saves the day. She overhears him saying something about Kirk saving his life, and realizes he’s the luck-stealer. She kisses him, and all is righted. She has some good luck for the rest of the day to prove it. But Capt. Kirk’s band locks the drummer under the stage and the show is going to be cancelled. She returns, kisses the Captain, the show goes on, and she leaves for Grand Central, convinced they cannot be together, because all romantic comedies need one last dramatic moment, and if they kiss again the luck will transfer and how can he be happy if he has bad luck??? OH THE HUMANITY.

At the station, all trains are delayed. But he followed her, and they fight over who is going to have the good luck because they will have each other. They kiss over and over and the trains keep going from on-time to delayed until the signs get all jumbly and unreadable, and if I was waiting for a train I would be goddamned furious. Finally they give the luck to his niece and walk off, happy and doomed.

I have to admit that prior to re-watching, I thought this movie was “fine.” I had seen it multiple times, remembered little to nothing, and considered it adequate. I would now describe it only as a movie I have watched. Maybe “not very good.” The icons of luck depicted (eg: black cat, broken mirror, spilled salt) are recognizable, and in some way that makes sense to include them, but there are more creative ways. The movie sacrificed quality for quantity in this respect. Lindsay Lohan was still likeable, so if you’re a fan, maybe you’ll like it, but it’s very white in every sense and the three characters of color are caricatures. Plus there’s a fortune teller who may or may not be Roma (“gypsy”), so do whatever with that one.

Ten years ago I was alone in a job I hated, directionless and unsure of why my body kept failing me. Today many things are different. I am working in a field that often exhausts me emotionally, but gives me a reason to get up in the morning. I still have migraines that can end a day before it begins; my body frustrates me in every sense, but I understand why.

And ten years ago, LiLo was a huge star, and Chris Pine was essentially no one. She had been famous for nearly a decade, and he wouldn’t become recognizable until 2009. But somehow, the premise of this movie became real life. By the time Star Trek came out, Lindsay Lohan was spiraling out of control. Chris Pine has successfully kept making movies and become a part of an enormous franchise, yet she has not been able to get her life back on track. Yet she is still famous, still has money, still has name recognition. She may not have the caliber of luck she once had, but she still has good luck. She’s not in acute medical need (that I know of, of course), and certainly not incarcerated, even though she could have been.

In movies, the person who has everything is always self-centered. When our Movie LiLo had luck, she assumed she always would, that her needs would be taken care of. It wasn’t until she had back luck that she started taking responsibility for herself. Ultimately it reads like the lesson is that you must suffer to appreciate what you’ve got. But was she ever suffering? She still had a place to stay, friends, food to eat, a job even. She got out of jail twice while Tough Jailbird stayed behind.

So while on one hand, I feel for our real LiLo, and it seems prescient and peculiar that the basic premise of the movie would come to pass for its stars, on the other hand, she’s still holding on to that $5 bill. Let it go girl, someone needs it more than you. Put on your task-appropriate footwear and join us, the happy and doomed.

*I feel so bad for stilt-walking waiters! They basically have to toe-touch to serve rich a-holes bougie cocktail wieners.

** Mackenzie Vega, who plays the niece is also half Colombian. It took me 75% of the movie to realize she played Grace Florrick on The Good Wife.

RANDOM THINGS:

– The conventionally handsome elevator guy she goes on dates with is the gay cowboy from Nashville. I think his face is very white/blond-normal. He would have made a great Captain America.

– I enjoyed the line “I’m broke, jobless, and I just ate le jambon d’etranger. Stranger’s bacon—I thought it would sound better in French—I guess not.”

– Referring to the band as “the Beatles meets Blink-182” was supposed to sound awesome, but made me cringe all the way into my kidneys.

– There is a lot of poop in this movie. The bad luck poop touching right at the start, the mogul talks about getting paid to poop, a bird poops on Chris Pine, he has to plunge a clogged toilet, there’s a giant poop at the art exhibit, and LiLo drops her contact lens into the cat litter where there are visible cat poops. I mean that never happens. Is the cat sick? It didn’t even cover its own shit. MOST IMPORTANTLY HOWEVER, she puts that contact lens RIGHT BACK IN HER EYE. As far as I’m concerned she still had good luck because she’s lucky she didn’t get a brain infection and die.

Ten Years Ago: Silent Hill

22 Apr
Jake Farley condemns Silent Hill to the hellscape from which it came, lamenting how it misunderstands its effective and groundbreaking source material.
 

I recall going to see Silent Hill after it first came out. I went with some friends who also enjoyed the video game series, despite the fact that we were all well aware of the fact that there had never been a good film adaptation of a video game. Two hours later, there still hadn’t been. Our primary evaluation of it, as I recall, boiled down to “Man, that was boring.” After watching it again this week, my primary evaluation now boils down to “Man, that was boring and also GROSS, holy hell, jeeze, wow.”

A primer—Silent Hill The Movie is based on Silent Hill The Video Game Franchise—specifically, it’s kind of based on parts of Silent Hills 1, 2, and 3 (though it’s not a direct adaptation at all). Silent Hill 2 in particular is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful, frightening, and adult horror video games ever made, and that reputation made it an attractive candidate for film adaptation. In the franchise, there is a town called Silent Hill. It seems to be a nice enough place and lots of people live there, but there is something…off about it. Bad things happened there. In his writings on the topic of horror, Stephen King often references the idea of the Bad Place—the place where everybody knows you just “don’t go.” Maybe it’s the old abandoned hospital down the road, maybe it’s that one room on the second floor where it’s always a little cold, maybe it’s a whole town. Wherever it is, the place itself is somehow diseased and malignant, drawing in those with bad intentions and corrupting those without. This is Silent Hill. In every game, a guilt-ridden protagonist is drawn to the town for one reason or another and put through the wringer. There are three versions of the town which characters cycle through—the regular, “real” version of the town; a foggy, mostly-abandoned version of the town; and a dark, decrepit, decaying hellscape version of the town. There are also monsters.

Look, I hate to do it (I don’t actually, I love talking about video games), but this movie only makes sense when compared to its video game counterpart. That comparison also makes very clear exactly why the games are a pinnacle of the horror genre and the movie adaptation is a boring, if ultra-violent slog.

First, the plot of the movie. Before we get too far in, I do feel I should note—this movie, for all its bad boringness, contains a lot of really shocking violence against women. Please be warned.

Ok. So. There is a family. Rose (Radha Mitchell), her husband Sean Bean (Sean Bean), and their adoptive daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferdland). Sharon has a bad habit of trying to sleepwalk into traffic and off cliffs, which is fairly upsetting. She also tends to sleep-shout a lot about a town called Silent Hill, though she claims to not know what or where that is when asked later. Rose decides it would be best to actually take her daughter to this town and see if…I dunno, a little sightseeing cures her sleepwalking habit, I guess. Her plan is not clear. Sean Bean wants to get Sharon actual medical help, but that’s a bridge too far for Rose. She kinda-sorta kidnaps Sharon and they take off for Silent Hill, with Sean Bean in hot pursuit.

They discover that Silent Hill is actually abandoned, due to a massive underground fire in a coal mine which is slowly consuming the town from below and emitting poison gas all over the place. (This is a real thing that can happen, by the way—look up the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania!) Nevertheless, Rose thinks this would be a good and helpful place to bring her young daughter. (Spoiler alert: No.)

They’re spotted on the way in by a cop named Cybil (Laurie Holden), who chases them into the abandoned town. In the course of trying to evade the police at night with her young daughter on a small two-lane unlit forest road with which she is totally unfamiliar, Rose crashes her car. (In case it’s not clear, I think Rose is a remarkably irresponsible parent, even for a horror movie.) When Rose comes to, everything is super-foggy and Sharon is gone. She kinda runs around the town for a while looking for her and then the town turns into a decrepit hellscape and Rose gets scared. Then it stops and Cybil shows up and tries to arrest Rose. When they discover that all the roads out of town are now just sheer cliffs into foggy nothingness, they agree that something seems a bit weird around here. Then a monster attacks them. Cybil straight-up shoots it in the face and Rose takes the opportunity to flee. Oh, this whole time, someone (could it be…a ghost?!?!) has been leaving stupid mysterious spoooooooky childlike drawings depicting various town landmarks laying around in an attempt to emotionally manipulate Rose, which totally works because Rose has no self-awareness or impulse control.

Anyway, Rose runs away to wherever the drawings indicate (a spooky hotel? a spooky school? a spooky hospital? trick question—it’s all three!) and sees some more monsters. Then she meets up with Cybil again and this time they team up because Cybil is like “Yeah, this place sucks.” Eventually, after some more monsters, they encounter a bunch of weirdos who have been trapped in the town for decades. They’re members of a crazy witch-burning religious cult, natch, but they seem affable enough until they catch a look at Rose’s locket picture of Sharon. Sharon, it turns out, looks JUST like the little girl they all burned ritually for some reason like 30 years ago because they’re fucking nutjobs. They freak out, understandably, and try to kill Rose and Cybil. Cybil beats the bejesus out of a few of them so that Rose can escape and then just kinda…gives up, I guess because the scriptwriters ran out of things for her to do in the movie. The cultists beat her up and then kind of roast her alive over a spit. It’s really awful, and it’s actually only the second-worst death a woman receives in the movie. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

Meanwhile, Rose finally encounters the big evil ghost that’s been haunting the town—it’s the daughter of one of the townspeople, the one who got burned (but not to death!) all those years ago. Turns out said daughter, named Alyssa, had been…sigh…raped and impregnated by a janitor at her school. She then had a daughter, I guess, who was the manifestation of all the “goodness” left in her soul. The daughter is Sharon! Sharon, it turns out, has an evil ghost twin named “Dark Alyssa,” who is the personification of all the not-goodness in Alyssa’s soul. This information is portrayed via a ’70s filmstrip-style flashback that seriously goes on for like 15 minutes. There came a point where I kind of thought the whole rest of the movie was going to look like Rob Zombie’s home movies. Eventually, the ghost (played by the same girl who plays Sharon, who, by the way, has been captured by the cult and forced to watch Cybil burn to death) offers Rose a deal—bad ghost will help get Rose’s daughter back in exchange for Rose smuggling the bad ghost into the church where the cult lives (their “faith” keeps the bad ghost out of the church specifically). Rose, in keeping with her poor and impulsive decision-making, IMMEDIATELY agrees to a deal with the clearly-demonic creature.

She heads back to the church, confronts the cult (led by a woman named Christabella, played by Alice Krige) and gets stabbed in the heart for her trouble. All her blood falls out, but this turns out to have been part of the plan (though it’s unclear whether the bad ghost actually TOLD Rose she’d get stabbed in the heart). Her now-evil blood corrupts the church, bad ghost shows up, and everyone is ripped apart by barbed wire. Rose and Sharon escape and flee the town. Sean Bean (who has been ineffectively searching for his vanished wife and child this whole time) is sad at his house. Rose and Sharon show up at the house but oh no! They can’t see Sean Bean and he can’t see them! They’re still trapped in the otherworldly Silent Hill dimension! The end, thanks for watching!

This movie is boring and long. There’s no reason for many of the characters to behave the way they do, particularly Rose. It’s not scary, though it is deeply unpleasant. It misunderstands what makes a movie scary vs. what makes a video game scary on a fundamental level.

Take Silent Hill 2, for example. In that game, the main character is a man named James. His wife Mary died of an illness some time ago, but one day he receives a letter from her, asking to meet him in their “special place” in Silent Hill. He is drawn into the town, where he is met with a woman named Maria. Maria is physically identical to his dead wife, but her personality is…off. She claims to have never met James before and have no knowledge of Mary. Eventually, we learn that James himself actually murdered Mary, out of desperation to escape her lingering sickness. His guilt over this act was so immense that he repressed the memory of having done so, convincing himself that she died naturally. Everything encountered in the entire game is an extension of this guilt—the monsters are grotesquely hyper-sexualized, because James had to repress his sexual urges during his wife’s illness. Maria acts in all the ways James believed he wanted Mary to act but is repeatedly murdered in front of James by a horrific monster called Pyramid Head, in order to remind him of his guilt. The endings of the game are determined directly by various elements of player input, not all of it immediately intuitive. For instance, one of the things that affects the ending is how often you, the player, examined the photo of Mary that James carries in his inventory/wallet. If you look at it enough, the game interprets this as James feeling genuine guilt over his act, which is what Silent Hill wants him to feel. (This level of psychological complexity and examination of adult fears would be pretty remarkable even for a video game released today, much less one that was released in 2001.)

Interactions like this are the key to why the games work and the movie doesn’t. The game is a push and pull between itself and the player. The player is forced into the character’s psyche in a way that simply can’t be emulated in film. In a game, slowly walking through a fog-shrouded ghost town is tense, because YOU don’t know when something will jump out at YOU. In a movie, watching someone slowly walk through a fog-shrouded ghost town is…a little boring.

Additionally, so much of what makes Silent Hill 2 scary is that it does a good job of putting you, the player, in James’ shoes and then keying in all the monsters and events of the game to tap on his psyche like a rock hammer. In the game, Pyramid Head is an unstoppable beast, a frightening, man-shaped creature with a bizarre triangular cage around his head and an immense, phallic sword. He directly expresses James’ rage, his sexual frustration, and his guilt and subconscious desire for punishment. In Silent Hill The Movie, Pyramid Head turns up mostly just because he’s famous and kinda freaky-looking. There’s no “there” there, to quote Gertrude Stein.

That’s not to say that video games are automatically scarier than movies at all—it’s just that you can’t directly pull sequences from one and put them into the other, because the mediums don’t offer identical experiences to viewers/players. The same techniques lifted directly just won’t work. It is no coincidence that a common criticism of some movies is “Meh, it felt like a video game” and a common criticism of some video games is “Meh, it felt like a movie.”

So Silent Hill The Movie fails to be scary, it fails to understand what makes its source material scary (the cult stuff is all from the games, but in the games, it’s mostly incidental to the psychological torment of the main characters—in the movie, the cult is the whole thing), and it even fails to be passably entertaining.

That said, the movie does pass the Bechdel Test consistently and thoroughly. The main characters are all women, all of whom have a great deal of agency (or at least as much as possible in ghost-controlled hell town). However, this movie also features three of the most remarkably graphic, gruesome deaths, each inflicted on a woman. Pyramid Head tears a cult member’s, well, her whole skin off at one point, the aforementioned Cybil-burning is really drawn-out and the camera does not flinch away at all, and, at the end, the cult leader gets the Evil Dead-molesting-tree treatment with a bunch of possessed barbed wire (though the evil little girl ghost dancing happily in the rain of blood this murder produces was enough of an unexpected black comedy moment to get a laugh out of me).

These are the only moments that approach true horror in the film, but I don’t think they’re scary in the way the director meant them to be scary. They’re mostly just deeply, deeply unpleasant to watch. I can’t tell whether the director (Christoph Gans, from a Roger Avary screenplay) meant this as some kind of feminist statement or, at least, statement ON feminism, but the effect is so grotesque that it really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re getting there by way of PlayStation Road, Silent Hill is a town to be avoided.

RANDOM STUFF

– There’s a sequence where Rose has to escape from a bunch of freaky nurse-monsters. (Hello again monster that actually makes sense in the context of Silent Hill 2 and James’ fucked-up attraction to the nurses that tended to his sick wife, but has no personal meaning or connection to Rose!) Taken solely as a little bit of tense film-making, it’s pretty effective. They’re attracted to/activated by light, so she has to ease her way through a mob of them in the dark. Then she accidentally gets them all to kill each other. Whoopsie-daisy!- I genuinely enjoyed how quickly Rose agreed to team up with the evil ghost. Lil’ Miss Beelzebub barely got the figurative contract on the table before Rose was signing on the dotted line.

– A surprising amount of the movie is heavily reminiscent of the original Wicker Man, though, again, with at best a tenuous grasp on what made that movie effective.

– If you want to have a creepy kid in your movie, the LAST thing you should ask them to do is ACT CREEPY. What makes creepy kids creepy is their apparent innocence. When a kid walks up and starts breaking it down like Charlie Manson, it doesn’t get scary so much as it does kinda pathetic. I’m an adult man, kid! I could take you in a fight, no matter how much you claim that you are the reaper and this town is the wheat!

Ten Years Ago: Hard Candy

18 Apr hardcandy4

Maggie McMuffin examines the online misandry movement in her breakdown of David Slade’s Hard Candy.

hardcandy1
Let me talk to you about the word misandry.

The modern misandry movement began on tumblr about, oh, four or five years ago. While it is now being bandied about as fact, as the opposite of feminism, it was actually started by Men’s Rights Activists. They were screaming at politically correct “tumblr social justice warriors” (a phrase now used exclusively to insult people) and calling them misandrists; they hate men, they want them all to die, female superiority reigns supreme!

At first there was pushback. No, that’s not what feminism is. No, that’s not what womanism is either.

And MRAs, they just kept fighting. Saying any request a woman made for safety or any criticism of harassment or rape culture was proof the dawn of man had ended long ago.

The response was to go “Actually yeah, fine,” and to fucking brand that shit. Misandrist art, bright and sparkling. “Fashionable misandry” became a popular tag, consisting largely of mermaids and hot pink self-defense items. We took those accusations and parodied them, creating male tears coffee mugs and “Fuck you, pay me” cross-stitches.

Which of course led the MRAs to point more fingers and yell that this was proof of them being correct!

So we pushed harder. “Dead Men Can’t Cat Call.” “Kill All Rapists.” “Valar Morghulis: Yes ALL Men.”

Fine, we said. You want to say we call death to all men. We’ll say that now. We’ll be the biggest worst thing ever and we’ll do it in six-inch heels!

But of course that just made the MRAs more convinced of our blood lust.

And we gave up, tired of the joke, and said “Actually…we do sort of hate men.”

Not All Men.

We never said that.

(There’s actually an interesting time in the misandry movement where intersectionality was called in and white women were told by POC not to say kill all men because white women still have the ability to enact violence on black men and also where do trans men fit into misandry and what about non-binary people who present as masculine and could butch women be misandrists too because is this about men or about masculinity and it’s actually a very fascinating online movement I hope gets studied one day.)

Anyway.

By being strawmanned, many of us were pushed to the point where we did just openly admit that, yes, we hate men as a concept. Not every man. Not each individual. But in terms of the patriarchy? In terms of gripping keys because a man is following you at night? In terms of not knowing if some guy will roofie you? In terms of “Oh, he’s just picking on you because he likes you”? In terms of having multiple stories of relatives, teachers, strangers, boyfriends, friends, classmates, bus drivers, cops, whatever doing anything from whistling at to raping us and being told that was our fault because of whatever arbitrary rule we managed to break that day?

Well, yeah. We kind of hate men.

hardcandy2
But what that meant was we just don’t trust you. Trusting men can’t be the default because men have victimized so many of us and gotten away with it. We are told to fight one another, that girls can’t get along, that
Mean Girls is so true to life, but most of us have never been systematically attacked by women the way we have been by men. Sure. Women can assist in that. Women can bully. Women can physically and sexually assault. Again, we never said that wasn’t true.

All we said was that we reached a point where we’ve got to parody the idea of hating men or we’re never going to make it in this world. We need to laugh so we don’t cry. We need to actually empower ourselves to call shit out even though it’ll get us called a bitch.

And unfortunately, that’s lost. Misandry is held up as being a real thing on par with misogyny and it just isn’t. Not in a world where a man’s worst fear is that women will laugh at them and a woman’s worst fear is that a man will kill her.

As the old (I mean four years is old in internet time) adage goes, “Misandry irritates; misogyny kills.”

And that’s where I’m coming from in thinking about Hard Candy.

Because I remember being 15 and watching that with my dad (who is legitimately “kill more rapists” than I am, or at least more “kill my rapist” than I am) and us talking about how overblown the film was. Like, we both kind of thought it was cool. A film about a 14-year-old girl who seeks revenge on a child rapist/possible murderer. But, wow, does that film not make it clear she’s a hero. I still run into people who claim that the movie was good and they totally agree with her, “But is she any better for pretending to castrate him and making him kill himself?”

Which echoes what I have been told, if I express fantasies of bad things happening to my abusers. Bad things I would never actually make happen or do myself.  That if you fight hate with hate or violence with violence then, obviously, you’re just as bad. If you strike back against someone who struck you first, well, you’re just as evil.

And that’s really not a good mentality when discussing things like pedophilia.

Like, no. There are not two sides to that issue. We have a man raping a child, and we have a child being raped. If you play devil’s advocate to any degree in that, you are a horrible person and I hope your mother shames you in her will.

But that’s the thing! People are totally allowed to play devil’s advocate on topics like this and get upset if people call them out for their hypothetical little argument (seriously, men do this all the time when rape culture comes up on Facebook), but if a member of an oppressed or marginalized group has a revenge fantasy, suddenly they are the person in the wrong and should be ashamed of themselves.

So I am going into this film hoping, really hoping, that it’s a more balanced narrative than I remember. That people were just misreading it. That it will be a great escapist fantasy where Ellen Page is gonna decimate online predators with her freckles and wit.

First off, I want to say that I don’t see how anyone can come out of this movie thinking it’s being presented equally. Because while Hayley’s methods of getting information from Jeff go from harsh to deadly, Jeff’s creep level does the same.

We open with an online chat between thonggrrrl14 and Lensman319. There’s flirtation, sexual innuendo, and then a decision to meet in an hour that’s prompted by thonggrrrl who insists she is NOT a baby because she reads Zadie Smith. But when we fade to a diner, we find someone who is very much a child, chowing down on tiramisu and chocolate that Jeff is more than happy to wipe off of her lips before offering to buy her more.

I mean that. Scene one and dude is offering to buy her candy. Also a T-shirt if she promises to model it for him.

The scene was triggering, if I’m being honest. About a 2 on my scale. Maybe it’s because there were too many similarities between Jeff and my older abusive ex (including a similar online handle, as my ex’s was and is photoj99), or maybe it’s because I came of age during AOL chatroom scares, or maybe it’s because there is no reason a 32-year-old should be meeting a 14-year-old to hang privately, but for whatever reason I went into the rest of the movie with my mind made up about Jeff being a bonafide creep.

hardcandy3

He pulls out all the classic lines: He tells Hayley she’s so mature, she acts older than her age, he can’t believe she’s so interested in reading, yadda yadda NOPE. And the thing is, while Ellen Page was 19 during filming and while I know my father and I agreed ten years ago that this character didn’t read as a real 14-year-old, she totally reads as one in this scene. Ellen Page has super-cropped hair. Not an attractive pixie cut, but a really boyish chop that highlights her freckles and her nervous laughter. While we later learn Hayley is duping Jeff so she can seek some vigilante justice for a missing girl named Donna Mauer (whose poster hangs over Jeff and Hayley’s first meeting) you would never know it here. Hayley may read, she may like Goldfrapp, she may have a big vocabulary, but she’s not confident. She’s unsure, timid, not smooth at flirting, and Jeff is just eating it up and being charming as hell without crossing any huge lines. Patrick Wilson plays Jeff as someone so assured of their own goodness that clearly there is nothing wrong with him taking Hayley home and offering her a screwdriver.

After a tour and Hayley saying she won’t accept a drink not mixed herself, the film shifts to the revenge fantasy we’ve been warned about. Over the course of the next hour, Hayley trusses Jeff up, reveals she’s basically stalked him, and tortures him for info about his pedophilia.

Jeff maintains he can’t be a pedophile or someone who hurts children, because he’s never slept with them. But as a photographer, he is able to photograph half-naked minors and then hang those blown up pictures in his house “as part of my portfolio.” Never the “poignant” and “important” nature shots for conservation agencies, just the “half-naked nymphs,” as Hayley puts it.

In fact, Hayley picks through all of Jeff’s arguments that he’s not a monster until eventually he is left with the one argument that still somehow serves as a legitimate argument in courtrooms:

“Come on. You were coming onto me.”

And while we have half a movie to go, Hayley launches into a monologue that hits home why that’s not an excuse.

“That’s what they always say, Jeff. Who? The pedophiles. ‘She was so sexy,’ ‘She was asking for it,’ or ‘She was only technically a girl; she acted like a woman.’ It’s just so easy to blame a kid isn’t it? Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she is ready to do what a woman does. I mean, you’re the grown up here. If a kid is experimenting and says something flirtatious, you ignore it. You don’t encourage it. If a kid says ‘Hey, let’s make screwdrivers,’ you take the alcohol away and you don’t race them to the next drink!”

But here’s the thing. Rape culture extends to children. A girl going through puberty early and growing breasts makes it easier to say her clothing is provocative even though it’s the only clothing being sold in her size. Children pole dance in beauty contests and people talk about how sad they are before they think to blame the parents who selected and choreographed those routines. A story comes out about David Bowie (and so many other rock stars) sleeping with 14-year-old groupies, and anyone who calls that statutory rape is branded as someone forcibly removing the agency of those girls. Lolita is sold with a pull quote on the cover proclaiming it “The only convincing love story of our time.”

It is easy to blame a child.

And here’s the thing: HAYLEY ISN’T WRONG ABOUT JEFF.

Because here the movie gets more personal, where Hayley begins to ask about the missing Donna. Even through a highly believable but ultimately fabricated castration, Jeff insists he knows nothing about Donna’s disappearance. He just…has a photo of her. And has met her. Because Jeff has a history of going online and specifically meeting 14-year-old girls and impressing them with wit and also lies. No, seriously. Hayley calls him on Googling every band she mentions and pulling quotes from Amazon reviews. He has a system.

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Hayley taunts him and mocks him, calling him lonely, threatening harm but never murder. Mostly, she focuses on a woman named Janelle who Jeff used to have a thing with and is still in love with. Like, he saved all her letters. The date of their “first time” (whether a photography shoot or having sex) is the code to Jeff’s child porn safe.

None of Hayley’s threats work. Not ruining his life, his career (which Hayley argues is a false argument anyway because Polanski), calling the cops, throwing him in prison. Through all of that, Jeff might cry and beg, but mostly he shouts he’s innocent or calmly offers Hayley help. That he’ll hold her, that her parents must not care about her but he sure does and understand everything…

All of that crumbles when Hayley threatens to tell Janelle and ruin any chance Jeff ever has of getting her back.

So he admits to Hayley that he didn’t kill Donna.

But he watched.

That doesn’t make him so bad does it? It’s not like he killed her or raped her.

“I just wanted to take pictures.”

But after this, Jeff is ready to go. He manages to get free, but with Janelle on the way and Hayley packing proof, he’s ready to just kill her. Instead, she convinces him to hang himself after he gives up the name of Donna’s murderer, thinking that by siding with Hayley’s vigilantism he’ll be safe.

“I know who he is. It’s funny. Aaron said you were the one who did it right before he killed himself.”

Here’s what this movie is. While, yes, Hayley is extreme, she’s constantly making good points. Jeff’s only argument is that he never actually raped anyone. He’s just been highly inappropriate and used his career to take photos of naked kids. He was even abused as a child because his aunt thought he molested her daughter! But he didn’t! He just did nothing to stop his much younger cousin from jumping naked all over him!

And people like him exist.

Hayley is a strawman in deeds, not words, but Jeff isn’t. Jeff is real. Guys like Jeff, who skirt the line and trade on charm and handsomeness to not be questioned, totally exist in our world.

And one of the best things about Jeff’s character is that he knows this. “I’m a decent guy,” he constantly says. He’s very careful to never hit on the models he shoots, going online for that. He’s well-liked by his neighbors and does work that’s very admirable.

Throughout the entire movie, he thinks he can have power over Hayley. Even at the end when he turns to force, he thinks he can take her down because he’s a larger man. But Hayley is always ahead of him. During their final confrontation on the roof, he says he’ll get out and find her, her dad is a professor at a famous school, and she’s from a smaller suburb. She throws out that none of that is true. Her name isn’t even Hayley.

And it’s clear that up until this point it had never dawned on him. Jeff legitimately had no idea that a 14-year-old on the internet was just as capable of lying to him.

In the end, even we never learn anything about Hayley beyond she’s got a therapist and also a friend she’s seeing after this. Because teenage girls are screens to be projected on. Society feeds them images of what they should be, things they should do. Jeff and other predators mentally dress them up into the people they need to feel good. Hayley played on this and it was probably the easiest part of her plan.

And THAT is when he gives up and kills himself.

As long as Jeff has his male power to rest on, he thinks he’s good. He thinks he can get out. The only other time he comes close to bending is when he thinks he’s being castrated. And once he learns that didn’t happen, he gets a second wind and is ready to kill, not caring about the consequences. Because he can just say that “she was all over me” when the cops show up.

This is a film about a 14-year-old taking power from a man. This is not a film about a bloody rampage; it is a film about a young woman methodically taking apart a man’s power and ability to defend his bullshit. About her destroying not just his will to live but also his entire concept of how safe he is.

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Is it overdramatized? Yes. But no more than a Tarantino film. Is it problematic that Hayley repeatedly mentions she’s crazy, especially since it’s framed as possibly being her one honest moment? Yeah. It’s also just a weird choice. Are the lighting shifts really heavy-handed? YES.

But the film is good and it makes its arguments. And because if people can watch this and still think Hayley was as much a villain as Jeff, then maybe we need extreme films. Maybe we, as an audience, need to be beaten and electrocuted before we can admit that being inappropriate with children is usually far more subversive than violent rape.

Because all of Hayley’s methods only led to Jeff saying she was right while he stabs out the crotch of one of his portfolio portraits. Because even before Hayley made the switch, Jeff was still trolling the internet looking for teenagers to hit on. There is no good and bad spectrum for pedophilia. There is only a spectrum of “pedophile” and “actually raped and killed a child.” There are not two equal sides to child rape and abuse.

So just remember that even if a guy is as charming as Patrick Wilson was before Watchmen nearly killed his career, he’s still capable of shitty behavior even if he’s not capable of the absolute shittiest behavior.

Random Thoughts

– This movie was the first time I had ever heard of Goldfrapp and to this day I can’t listen to them or hear about them without associating them with online predators.

– Goddamn I love Patrick Wilson and want to live in the timeline where he hit it big and got to be in a truly interesting adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.

– Speaking of which, did you know Emmy Rossum was 16 during filming of that and Patrick Wilson was 32? It’s like this film sort of called that out along with all the other shout-outs to Hollywood kind of supporting this sort of thing.

– Ellen Page is RIPPED in this movie. I swear, she’s all muscle in this and they have her running around in a tank top for most of the film.

– An unintentionally humorous thing: During the “That’s what pedophiles say” speech, Hayley puts on Jeff’s glasses and a few lines later she tears them off dramatically while making a point about him.

– This film had a “production dog” and I don’t know why. I figure it probably did about as much work as Sandra Oh and the other two cast members did (about four minutes of collective screen time).

– If you think this sounds like a weird companion piece to Juno, you would be correct! In the ten years since this came out I still have not seen much a difference between Jeff in this and Mark in that. One is just wrapped up in comedy and Sonic Youth instead of drama and Goldfrapp.

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Ten Years Ago: Kinky Boots

15 Apr kinky2

Performer/choreographer/filmmaker Maxie Milieu still believes the sex is in the heel, and reminisces on how queer culture (and transgender politics) have evolved in the 10 years since Kinky Boots first hit theatres.

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“Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds.”

There are few things I love in life more than a good pair of shoes. Put on the proper pair and the entire person can transform. Or, as the 2005 film Kinky Boots posits, the kind of shoes a person is wearing can tell you everything about them. 10 years ago I was an isolated teenager ravenously devouring movies at 2 a.m. on our limited BBC subscription that came with our new On Demand trial. For me, Absolutely Fabulous, Coupling, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, and Kinky Boots all arrived in my life at the same time. For a child raised on pop culture who could communicate almost exclusively in Birdcage and Moonstruck quotes, these films spoke my language. In much the same way as Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge comprise Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, and Kinky Boots seem to me a complete set of quirky British underdog films. They also would eventually all go on to become Broadway musicals. 10 years ago I didn’t identify as queer, I wasn’t in a relationship with a trans person, I’d yet to do any leather manufacturing, or work as a club dancer or a burlesque performer. 10 years ago I may have just purchased my first pair of heels: teal t-strap peep toes that were glowing brightly at the display in Nordstrom. But here we are, 10 years later. Much like our film’s protagonist, Lola, who retraces her steps skipping across the uneven planks of a pier years after we see her do so in the opening sequence, let’s re-dance our steps. All I hope is that I don’t inspire something burgundy.

When we see Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor!) on the pier for the opening sequence, we are introduced to our film’s central tenants and trials. As Lola covertly slips on some fantastic red stilettos, glancing back apprehensively to make sure her father doesn’t see, she becomes herself. Embodied in one pair of red heels is the promise of the film: the limitless possibility of becoming yourself. When Lola’s father raps on the window snapping us out of this freeing introduction, dismissing Lola as a “stupid boy,” we are reminded that becoming yourself is fucking work.

We are introduced to our other protagonist, Charlie (Joel Edgerton), via the family business of shoes. We get the clear sense that Charlie, in his shitty trainers, is not invested in this business. When his father dies, he takes over the business realizing it is in severe financial trouble. After making over a dozen employees redundant, he is challenged to find a solution by one of the women he laid off. A chance encounter with Lola in London, where in defending herself Lola accidentally knocks Charlie out, leads to the spark of an idea to make shoes for the niche market of Drag Queens.

After an initial prototype failure, in which Charlie makes the least alluring pair of boots in all the land, Lola gives us my favorite monologue in the film. Disgusted at the burgundy color of the boots and appalled by the utilitarian heel. Lola break it down for us: The shoe is about sex, and the sex is in the heel. YES LOLA! “REEEEEDDDD” she purrs, the boots need to be red. The concept of the steel shank is born and we are off to montage land as provincial Northhamptoners, a shoe factory owner, and a Drag Queen work together to create two feet of irresistible cylindrical sex for the Milan Fashion Show. We overcome stereotypes and prejudices, fight the onslaught of progress (Charlie’s fiancée wants to turn the factory in to condos), and make a damn fine pair of boots.

Scattered throughout the film are Lola’s Drag performances. They act complementarily with the montages of boot-making, knotting together this process of manufacturing with the manufacturing of dreams. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable juxtaposition. Though I wish that Lola was not our sole speaking representative of the Drag and Trans world, as well as the only POC actor in the film, the performances give the film the tone of a spectacular in the way a pure narrative couldn’t do. Lola enlivens the possibilities of the boot-making endeavor and makes it something much bigger than just selling a product to a niche market. The boots are hopes, and dreams, and freedom, and truth, and sex, and desire, and power. When the first pair of completed boots rolls down the conveyer belt and we watch Lola gleefully pluck them up and slide that long zipper up her thigh, it is just pure magic. When she flicks the whip THAT HAS ITS OWN BOOT POCKET up the length of the boot, tucking it snugly in to place, the feeling of satisfaction and excitement is phenomenal. I think if I had a pair of those thigh-high, whip-concealing, RED boots, I could do anything.

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Things seems well on their way until Charlie begins to lose his chill. Pushing the craftsmen too hard in his drive for perfection they walk out, leaving the order unfinished. However, the people of the factory come together again to finish the order after they are rallied by our everyman “Don,” who was initially hateful toward Lola but grew as a human being and overcame all his lifelong prejudices in the course of 40 minutes. The order completed, all seems to be going well until Lola invites Charlie to a celebratory dinner and, while she has been “dressing down” in the factory, comes fully glammed out. Charlie hits his own prejudices dead on (gotta watch out for that pesky white male cis privilege always waiting to rear its ugly head) and insults and berates Lola in a way that, 10 years later, I find unforgivable. Charlie and a select few factory people head to Milan, sans Lola. When Charlie’s confesses to his new love interest that he was a douchecanoe to Lola and now they have no models, she challenges him, yet again, to figure something out. Charlie decides to walk the runway alone. In a scene that I’m sure inspired every “Let’s make the models wear dangerously high heels so they fall for entertainment” challenge on America’s Next Top Model, Charlie, quite literally, falls all over himself on the runway. He lies in a crumpled, disgraced, defeated pile, wearing a suit top, underwear and the aforementioned fantastic boots. Mirroring his vision early in the film, while facedown on the catwalk, he sees a pair of shiny red heels glimmering like a vision. It’s Lola! Come to save the day with her choreographed Drag runway extravaganza to “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Fuck yes, this is what I’m here for. The number is a smash, the factory is saved, and Lola closes us out with one more number (after resolving the tension between her and Charlie).

Thoughts on the terminology used in the film. Kinky Boots uses the word Transvestite or Drag Queen to describe Lola. For where I stand in Seattle, WA in the U.S., 10 years later, conflating Drag performance with Trans identity is a no. While trans performers can and do perform drag, the identities are not one in the same. Transgender would also likely be the appropriate terminology for Lola in 2016. Overall in the film, Lola is described by her chosen pronouns of “she” and “her” except by “Don,” our stand-in for all bigotry and hatred. It gets a little muddy toward the end when our white cis dude (Charlie), after berating Lola as someone who is just a man in a dress and calling her Simon and asking her to show up looking like her passport, leaves a moving message to Lola explaining that he doesn’t know what a man is and complimenting that “she is more of a man than [he] could ever be.” It’s almost as if the film is striving to use “man” as a metaphor. Successful? Perhaps partially. Shoes make the man, man makes the shoes, shoes for a woman who is a man. There’s a great deal going on here. 10 years ago when I watched the film, none of these politics were on my mind. Watching 10 years later, my overall thought is that the film is perhaps even more relevant today as marginalized communities continue to strive for more visibility and equal rights. As technogiants take over our cities and begin to make us artists and individuals redundant. Kinky Boots is a true modern Cinderella story. It confronts the discomfort of our cis characters in a way that makes them reevaluate their suppositions. It does not always do this without sparing Lola discomfort, but it demands that we get to Lola’s level.

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Kinky Boots
is a well-acted, thoroughly enjoyable underdog film. It hit me more deeply 10 years later as my age and life experience made the trials of the film far more applicable to my life. Progress is churning ahead even more rapidly than 10 years ago. The fantastic elements of the drag performances seem banal and everyday to me in my current burlesque world. The truly uplifting moments come in the character interactions and the truth of the simple and everyday strife of attempting to be true to yourself.

Also, it has enough shots of feet to make my former ballerina heart happy.

Additional Thoughts:

– 10 years later, we are still very fixated on bathroom issues. The landlady that Lola is staying with asks “Can I just ask, are you a man?” When Lola responds in the affirmative the landlady responds, “Ah that’s fine, just sos I know how to leave the toilet seat. I’ll get some biscuits.” Clearly a moment of levity, meant to show Lola acceptance from an unlikely place, highlights the fixation on gender and bathroom. In fact, one of the major emotional scenes of the film takes place in a bathroom. After showing up dressed down to the factory, Lola hides in the men’s bathroom where she identifies herself as Simon to Charlie and recounts her childhood struggles with her father. Clearly gender identity and bathroom use are just as entrenched today as they were 10 years ago.

– One of the most compassionate moments in the film is when Lola and Don are having an arm wrestling competition. Lola is about to best Don when she looks in to his eyes and realizes that this is all he has in life. That his identity is fundamentally tied to this show of masculinity. She lets him win. #masculinitysofragile

– I am not in to 2005 shoe fashions. All strappy, and kind of low heels. No, just not my style. As someone who has a pair of Jimmy Choos, I hate the ones that the lesbian              ghost from Hex fanned over.

– The older man, George, who suggests the steel shank, is my favorite side character in this film. He is just so loving to those boots.

– I love that the drag show runway spectacular just leaves Charlie flat on the catwalk while they stomp it out over him.

– Lola, don’t give up your show to work in the shoe factory! Look at that stage! Those lights! The costumes!

– I wish Lola had a love interest.

– I am very sad that the original factory that made “kinky boots” no longer does so.

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Ten Years Ago: The Notorious Bettie Page

14 Apr Notorious2

Sailor St. Claire wonders why, even after twice watching the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, she feels just as detached from Bettie Page as ever.

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The Notorious Bettie Page
isn’t exactly a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good movie, either. In this way, it’s a very fitting dedication to its subject. Bettie herself may have made a living as a “bad girl” on film, but wasn’t exactly a bad girl at all. Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s biopic on the raven-haired pin-up queen focuses on Bettie Page as a blank canvas for the projection of other people’s fantasy. Even though a biopic is supposed to tell us something about the subject, Harron and Turner’s film leaves Bettie as an enigma. A religious girl from Tennessee who never wanted to be a teacher, with a natural talent for posing in front of cameras, and no shame about the body she was born into—these are the only three things we learn about Bettie as a person by the end of the film.

I know a lot of people, both in the pin-up/rockabilly/burlesque communities and around the world, wonder why Bettie Page would give up being Bettie Page, and the film does seem to pose an answer to this question. Bettie’s story is framed with the raids on Irving Klaw’s photography studio, and the 1955 hearings which accused Klaw and his wife of distributing pornographic material, especially through the mail in violation of the Comstock Law. Bettie herself waits outside the courthouse, waiting to be called to give testimony, for 12 whole hours, before the court determines she is unnecessary to the process. The film posits that there’s something about her role as a model here—the idea that her voice, her thoughts about any of the things she did on film for the Klaws or other photographers is “unnecessary”—that seems to shift Bettie’s thinking about her work. After the trial in which she is denied participation, she moves to Florida, reunites with Jesus, and becomes a preacher. The final scene shows Bettie telling a stranger that she wasn’t at all ashamed of her allegedly pornographic modeling, but that her God didn’t want her to model anymore, and so she didn’t.

Biopics have a tendency to lionize their subjects rather than critiquing them, and so the detachment with which the filmmakers treat the “notorious” Bettie Page is in some ways very refreshing. The choice to replicate the cinematic techniques of a period melodrama both aids in creating this sense of detachment, I think, as well as actually detaching the audience. Much like the racy photo essays that made Bettie famous, the filmmakers treat her story as a series of images rather than a narrative. As such, we as viewers don’t get much to cling to, which is why even after viewing this film, I still feel detached from Bettie. She maintains her mystery and allure, even though we do become privy to facts about her life: that she was kidnapped and raped in her early days as a model, that a black man was responsible for starting her career (and that she didn’t see a problem with a black man taking photos of a white woman in the 1940s), and that taking kinky photographs for men’s enjoyment was nothing but harmless dress-up fun to Bettie. These vignettes of her early life are presented to viewers via the camera zooming in on a letter to a friend back home, which Bettie grasps in her gloved hands while she waits outside the courthouse at the Klaw’s trial. I thought this was a nice nod to period cinema, and I liked how camera moves like that were paired with a generous use of B-roll shots of the American countryside as Bettie traveled on busses from Tennessee to New York.

The majority of the film is in glorious black and white, save for a few scenes in color—most of which take place in Florida around everyone’s favorite dream femme Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I watched this film with my friend Maggie McMuffin, and we both had a difficult time tracking what the shift to color was meant to represent. Had all of the scenes in shitty old-timey color been in Florida with Bunny, we would have been content reading them as scenes in which Bettie was being seen as a person (i.e. by a woman) than in the black and white way men saw her. But there’s also a scene in color where Bettie, the Klaws, other models, and some of their preferred clients are all playing croquet somewhere in upstate New York (and then taking “edgy” bondage-in-the-woods shots after the game), and, of course, the final scenes illustrating Bettie’s “conversion” back to her Christian life and new career as a preacher are also in color. So I’m not sure how to read the presence of color. Perhaps they’re meant to illustrate scenes in which Bettie’s making choices for herself, but if that’s true, it invalidates not only how she understands her career as a model, but her actual choice in becoming a fetish model (which as a pretty white woman, she had a lot of choice in).

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One thing I think the film makes clear is that the women who worked for the Klaws were not exploited, or asked to perform any tasks that they wouldn’t be fairly compensated for—or for clients not approved by the Klaws themselves. But at the same time, there are many scenes elsewhere that illustrate that amateur modeling is no different now than it was in the 1950s—from the proliferation of edgy bondage photos in the woods, to photographers asking models to do more than they agreed to pay for, it’s as if Bettie Page was on Model Mayhem before Model Mayhem even existed.

The Notorious Bettie Page is a strange pastiche of images from the life of a woman who is better known in pictures than in words, and so perhaps its best to leave her that way, innocent and naughty all at once, decorating Christmas trees in the nude in Playboy.

Free-Floating Thoughts

– Gretchen Moll sure is good at being a bad actress.

– Maggie: “That guy looks like a knock-off Norman Reedus.” Me: “That is Norman Reedus.”

– Jared Harris, better known as Lane Pryce on Mad Men, plays a total scuzzball in this. He looks like Remus Lupin on a bender.

– Jefferson Mays looks terrifying in this film.

– The minute Bettie’s actor boyfriend tells her he thinks her fetish photos are disgusting, Maggie and I both yelled, “Bye, Felipe!” at the screen.

– Not enough Sarah Paulson as Bunny Yeager. I’d have loved to see a more feminist take on Bettie Page that focused on how she and Bunny Yeager collaborated and mutually built one another’s careers.

– Sheriff Andy Bellfleur is Irving Klaw. That one took us a while to recognize.

– I want to live in Bunny Yeager’s house.

– The costume designer for this film did an awesome job. We loved all the 1950s swimsuits and underwear. We loved Bunny Yeager’s sundresses and sensible sandals.

– That holiday pinup from Playboy, where Bettie is decorating her tree while wearing nothing but a Santa hat, is basically the gold standard for Christmas pinups. It is a remarkable photo, and Yeager really does capture something special about Bettie in that shot. I can’t explain why it works so well; it just does.

– Paula Klaw is a hero for not burning all of the images she and Irving shot. Thank you, Paula, for saving the smut you worked so hard to make.

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Ten Years Ago: Brick

4 Apr brick2

Erik Jaccard explores the generic synthesis of film noir and high school dramas in Rian Johnson’s Brick…and makes your editors really want to watch Veronica Mars.

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Brick
Written and directed by Rian Johnson

In starting, I would suggest that it is a remarkable achievement for a film to help us see a genre with fresh eyes. Because this doesn’t occur very frequently, it’s all the more surprising when we run face-first into something that seems refreshingly new. We emerge from a cinematic experience energized and enthusiastic, but not even totally conscious of what we’ve just experienced. All we know is that it was some new thing, or some old thing we’d seen a million times, but this time done differently. Unsure of the what or the why, or of how to think of this new thing properly, we can only stop and feel. ‘YES. That. More of that please.’

This is overly dramatic, but it’s also a fair approximation of how I felt after seeing Rian Johnson’s neo-noir high school drama Brick for the first time. It was June and I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’d finished the coursework for my master’s degree, was living on borrowed money, and had nothing to do but spend the following four months writing my thesis. Quite naturally, I was doing everything but that. Instead, I was hanging out with friends, drinking in the sun, running and reading a lot. I was working a little, sure, but mostly I was enjoying the long Scottish summer days and reveling in notion that I didn’t have much to do except eventually try to say smart things about some books. So, with all of this time on my hands, I started not only going to movies on my own, but taking chances on the smaller, independent films I’d be less likely to convince my friends were worth seeing. And so, on a fine early summer evening I trotted down to one of Edinburgh’s most charming arthouse cinemas—The Cameo—and watched Brick. Later, I emerged into the listless purple dusk outside and stood there, feeling my freedom and smiling ear to ear at the cool new thing I’d just witnessed.

As any who have seen the film know, the central conceit behind Brick is the transposition of the hard-boiled detective story—think Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—into the context of a high school drama. On first viewing I found this idea to be very, very clever. In much the same way that I was bowled over by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s novel fusion of science fiction and romantic comedy, Brick’s blurring of generic boundaries helped me see each component differently. On the one hand, by setting a noir storyline in a high school, Johnson’s film brings much-needed levity to a hard-boiled genre that too often retreats into superficial shadows and straight-faced genre clichés. At the time I’d forgotten just how funny hard-boiled detectives can be, and Brick, as I explain in more detail below, is actually a really funny film in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the ominous tone and subjective uncertainty of the noir thriller ironically illuminates some of the deeper recesses of the high-school flick’s often frivolous or basely comical rendering of teenage life. The best examples from the hard-boiled film noir canon crackle with visual and verbal ingenuity, and Brick, because it stays so true to the ethos of those earlier films, lends the tired high school drama both a new gravitas and also an electric, memorable verve.

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Johnson notes in interviews that he’d been working on the idea for Brick since the late 1990s, but that he’d had trouble gaining traction with reticent studios understandably wary of taking on such a unique project from an unproven director. This probably makes sense, but then again, so does Johnson’s idea. For one, there’s a lot of exploitable overlap between character archetypes in the two genres: the wise-cracking, resolutely determined detective isn’t that far from the sarcastic social misfit giving the popular kids the fish-eye from across the cafeteria; the hard-working PI sidekick easily transitions into the diffident but resourceful nerd; the femme fatale is a differently drawn, and more mysterious version of the teenage drama queen, and so on. Second, the heavily stylized underworld argot of the detective narrative doesn’t seem that unnatural coming from the mouths of teenagers, who already speak in their own blurry and sometimes incomprehensible subcultural patois. Third, and this is a point I touched on long ago in my June 2011 re-view of The Fast and the Furious, both genres are inherently concerned with social dynamics, and particularly with codes of inclusion and exclusion. Just as detectives must operate in the seams between various social strata in order to determine the truth of their case, so, too, must the high school hero learn to navigate the various cliques and clubs—and the power dynamics which separate them—to determine the best route to achieving his or her goal. In doing so he or she often lays bare the unwritten rules and privileges by which some are elevated and others banished. Finally, and this might be the most obvious point, teenage life is full of both real and perceived drama, bickering, back-biting, deception, and betrayal—not unlike the detective story. Adult life contains its share of these things, too, but for teenagers it often seems like a much bigger deal, partly because the average teenager’s world is so small and partly because teens lack the maturity and perspective necessary to see their drama in context. As a result, the teenage years can often seem dark, frightening, and momentous, full of hidden motivations and secret dealings, insecurity and doubt, fragile alliances and naked power plays. (This is also, I believe, why the high school setting works so well a locus for Shakespearean tragedy.)

This is a long way of saying that in 2006 I found Brick to be a thoughtfully conceived, intelligent, and entertaining new take on established forms and that I enjoyed it all the more because it gave me the feels in all the ways I discuss above. While I’m not quite as invigorated ten years later—novelty does wear off, after all, to be replaced by newer novelties—I’m every bit as inclined to rank Brick among the better and more adventurous independent film projects of the 2000s. Watching it this time around I again appreciated its ambition, eagerness, and commitment, even when these qualities sometimes muddle the successful execution of the film’s larger premise. All in all, Brick stands the test of time, and for the next few pages I’ll attempt to explain why.

For those who haven’t seen the film, or haven’t seen it for ten years, here’s a brief precis of the plot. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a social misfit at his Southern California high school. He eats lunch every day by himself behind the school, weary of the world but unable to disengage from it completely. On day, his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin) calls him mysteriously and tells him she’s in big trouble and needs his help. Before she can explain fully, she’s cut off, leaving Brendan with only a handful of vague clues. A few days later Brendan finds Emily dead in a stone culvert which also doubles as a clandestine meeting spot for the area’s affluent, popular crowd. Determined to get to the bottom of what happened, Brendan starts tracking down her known acquaintances. He eventually ends up knee-deep in the school’s cultural underworld and must deal with a shady cast of characters of whom few, if any, can be trusted. There is the devious upper-crust femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), who at first seems only interested in helping; there is the tweaker burnout, Dode, who Brendan learns had been Emily’s most recent romantic attachment; and there is the vamp-vixen actress character, Kara, whose constant duplicity confounds Brendan’s quest for answers. These high-schoolers lead Brendan to the area’s local drug lord, ‘the Pin’ (Lukas Haas) and his truculent henchman, Tug. Through a fairly tense sequence of proverbial twists and turns, Brendan grows wise to the real culprit behind the murder and, ultimately, to the larger systems of power and perversion underlying Emily’s death.

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Now, one of the things I noticed this time around was the way the film’s setting and aesthetic plays against and softens some of the moodier textures of the conventional noir film. One of the disturbing pleasures of the latter is a shadowy grittiness in tone, which in movies like Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil is produced in part by stark contrasts between light and dark, and also by a kind of visual claustrophobia of setting (bequeathed to the genre by German Expressionism). By contrast, Brick is relatively expansive and incandescent. While it certainly references noir’s cloistered aesthetic, it also undercuts it in refreshing ways. For one, Johnson chose to set the film in his hometown of San Clemente, California, a beachside community in southern Orange County. This, combined with the fact that teenagers are afforded very little private space of their own, means that much of the film takes place outside, and is predictably shot at wide angles capable of expressing the long expanses of blue sky, and the rectilinear parking lots, football fields, and well-lit outdoor hallways typical of the SoCal high school flick. Such moments expand the viewer’s perception of the characters because it widens the aperture in which their dramatic potential is understood. Unlike the earlier films, where lighting and setting work metaphorically to express an entropic sense of collapse or psychological pressure, Brick evokes the infinite and open-ended. For every shot of a gloomy lair or darkened culvert, there is a corresponding escape into open space which disrupts stock conventions of noir filmmaking. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Teenagers are notoriously moody, if not gloomy, but this gloom is motivated as much by fear and uncertainty about the open-ended future and about understanding who and what one is going to be when they get older. This time around it was clearer to me that Brick’s visual aesthetic carefully recalibrates noir conventions less to emphasize the beastly horror underneath consensus social life—the darkness ‘in here’—and more the terror of the unknown ‘out there.’

I was also struck this time by the film’s humor, which I definitely don’t remember noticing as much the first time. While Brick plays around with some of the hard-boiled tradition’s characteristic dark comedy—Brendan’s lippy office exchange with the Assistant Vice Principal is a great example of this—its comedy derives mostly from the ironic juxtaposition of conventional teen movie settings and scenarios with the deadpan seriousness of its noir plot. Consider: the hard-boiled noir film offers the viewer glimpses of danger and intrigue uncommon to ordinary lives. Indeed, the strangeness of the seedy worlds depicted and the grave nature of its criminal plots are part of the genre’s appeal. At the same time, the conventional teen movie is utterly ordered and ordinary. Even when teen movies depart from the status quo they often do so only to return to it later, perhaps with the balance of power shifted in favor of the protagonist. But in Brick these two registers co-exist and produce this gleeful estrangement of both noir and teen movie tropes that keeps you oscillating between tension and humor.

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For example, in order to arrange a meeting with the film’s mysterious drug lord—‘the Pin’—Brendan must fight not a group of adult henchmen, but one of the school’s entitled ‘upper crust’ loudmouths in an afterschool parking lot. There’s the crime narrative element: Said loudmouth is one of the Pin’s primary dealers, so Brendan has to get through him to get to the Pin. But there’s also the teen movie trope: the clearly mismatched fight between scrappy loner and muscular jock, the former forcing social recognition by taking on its officially approved proxy. When the meeting finally happens, Brendan is driven to an ordinary suburban house, where the Pin’s mother (he lives with his parents) frets in the background about what kind of juice to offer the boys, seemingly unaware of the gravity of the conversation about to take place. Later on we see the Pin being driven around in a Chevy Astrovan (presumably also his parents’) with the back fitted as a model of his basement den. And even with daylight glaring through the windows, the Pin keeps his ominous lamp (complete with exotic shade), seemingly for dramatic effect. The scene draws the noir-esque imagery out to such an extent that we can’t help but laugh at it, literally exposed by the light of day as a kind of staged farce. This wouldn’t work if the film didn’t fully commit to both of its component genres, but thankfully it does. The actors play their parts with such deadly seriousness that you often forget that what you’re watching is actually really silly.

My favorite comic moment is the following exchange between Brendan and the Pin on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier. Having exhausted their shop talk, the two sit down, Brendan obediently behind the boss. The Pin speaks first:

“You read Tolkien?”

“What?”

“You know, The Hobbit books?”

“Yeah.”

“His descriptions of stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.”

Now, we like to think of our crime-movie villains as having some kind of villainous panache, whether that be intellectual or physical, or even sexual. We’re used to them having something that sets them apart, something to lend legitimacy to their power—even if it’s something horrible, like their willingness to dip victims in corrosive acid. But in this scene everything we know about the Pin’s noir archetype (noirchetype?) is so humanized that it becomes impossible not to see him as an unconfident boy attempting to bully others in his own little corner of the playground. Silhouetted against the setting sun, having a moment on the beach with his new bro, he spouts a line that sounds like the limp crescendo to a really bad paragraph in a freshman English paper. Maybe I laughed because I’m a person who sometimes has to grade bad English papers. However, I also just stopped and thought What? You can’t say that! You’re a mysterious urban myth, a veritable enigma of the streets! In no conceivable universe does a tough as nails noir gangster say “His descriptions and stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.” It drains all stylistic menace out of the scene and, for just a moment, you see the humans in front of you as vulnerable, uncertain people rather than narrative archetypes.

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There is, then, a lot of poignancy to the film’s humor, too. I couldn’t help but picture the end of Big, when Tom Hanks shrinks backs down to his teenage self and we see a shy boy walking down the street in a man’s suit. For the majority of that film the point is to laugh at the magical premise of a boy being transported into a man’s body and then doing childish things in adult form. We feel for him when he’s afraid, alone in the city, crying for his mother, and we delight in his playfulness and creativity in a world full of practically minded adults. We laugh because he’s so out of place, and because it’s a comedy the film nudges us to take this slapstick contrast as the primary point. Yet, there’s a darker irony here, too, and it’s produced by the nagging feeling that Josh is not, actually, that out of place. In fact, as he moves through the corridors of corporate power in New York we come to learn that he is surrounded by a variety of teenage archetypes living in the guise of adults. There’s the jaded popular girl, tired of all the stuff-shirted boys fluttering their feathers around her; there’s the older protector-figure, acclimated to the unforgiving nature of his world, yet willing to take a chance on the underdog; and there’s the aggressive bully, attempting to gain power and influence over others, no matter the cost. These, too, are kids wearing grown-up clothes, just as real-life gangsters, CEOs, and politicians are versions of other playground archetypes whom we’ve convinced ourselves are somehow different or more important because they’ve achieved adulthood. When a child collects all the blocks in one corner of the room we assume he or she is doing it because they haven’t learned to share; when adults do it, it’s because they’re talented, or strategic, or intelligent. Now, after that lengthy digression, here’s the point. The first time I saw Brick I marveled at the humor in people doing grown up things in kids’ bodies; this time I saw it the other way round, as all the grown-ups in my world continuing to do kid things, but convincing themselves it was something else. It isn’t as much that the Pin is a kid acting like a grown-up, though that is literally true, but rather that all the other big-shots are grown-ups who have convinced others their childish behavior is mature, and thus worthy of respect.

If it seems like I’m using the film to talk indirectly about class, it’s because my next point is about class. Watching Brick for this re-view, I kept seeing class dynamics pop up where I’d previously missed them. After thinking about this for a bit, I decided this was because I’d received the film in terms passed down to me by secondary interpretations of the film noir as a genre. For example, when I watched it the first time I was aware that the genre was more often than not interpreted in the psychoanalytic language of unconscious anxieties and desires, and that it thus foregrounded crises of sexuality and gender, and particularly female representation. To this point both of these hypotheses have generally made sense to me, given the genre’s emphasis on dark spaces, damaged anti-hero men, and the infamous and ubiquitous archetype of the femme fatale. To be sure, Brick features all of these things, and one could not be blamed for interpreting the film in light of these concerns. Yet, this time I kept coming back to class. So I did some light background research and eventually came across Dennis Broe’s Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood (2009), which provides an alternate reading of the conditions of emergence for the genre. Contra conventional academic readings of noir, Broe situates the genre in the historical context of postwar labor unrest, the politicization of Hollywood, increasing corporatization, and middle-class anxiety. In sum, he argues that the genre, at least for a brief period between 1945-1950, was a vehicle for the expression of leftist political values and oppositional artistic energies. Rather than see the male protagonist of the noir film as expressive of a masculinity in crisis (though it seems to me difficult to abandon this idea completely), he views him in terms of class struggle. I haven’t watched enough classic film noir to either confirm or refute this reading, but its suggestiveness led me back to Brick, a film whose teen movie element more consistently drives the class element to the fore.

We’d probably all agree that the teen movie, whatever its sub-classification, often foregrounds social stratification, and that this representation often stands as a metonym for the society at large. The allure of the popular kid is, much as in real life, often linked directly to an obvious affluence, and it is in contrast to this ‘upper crust’ element that the teen film’s protagonist is called to define him or herself (at least initially). Class anxiety is thus coded into the architecture of the genre and a character’s ability to succeed often depends on his or her awareness of social fault lines. Film noir, if we accept Broe’s claim, most often expresses this tension symbolically. Brick, however, because it so consciously blends its noir element into the teenage landscape, can’t help but illuminate it.

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The various social strata of Brick’s high school environment are, just like adult manifestations of social exclusion, defined by different ‘worlds’ (as Emily reminds him, “I’m in a different world now and you can’t keep me out of it”). To cross from one to the other is to violate the informal codes of inclusion and exclusion which regulate boundaries and keep the privileged and the undesirable from mixing. The teen movie most often takes such rules for granted, even if it ultimately works to subvert them in a moralistic inversion of real-world outcomes. Because it is a teen movie, so does Brick, at least superficially. For example, we can glimpse the firm class boundaries in both scenes where Brendan is interrogated by the school’s resident braggart, Brad Bramish, who questions why the former is hanging around spaces where he clearly ‘doesn’t belong’ (i.e. around the rich kids).  Because it is a noir film, however, it also forces to the fore a protagonist who exists outside the social spectrum and who, no matter what crime he is tasked with solving, also serves to expose the complex machinations by which social order is reproduced. This is, of course, not what Brendan consciously sets out to do. His main order of business is first to help, and then to avenge Emily, whose fatal mistake is to naively assume social mobility is possible. This hope blinds her to her own instrumentalization at the hands of the wealthy and mysterious Laura and ultimately leads to her death, thus setting Brendan in motion and turning the orderly social universe of the film on its head.

The film’s class awareness is bound up with its cynicism, which is one way in which it really does mimic the emotional morass of the classic film noir. The smartest and most successful characters are those who are aware that they are multi-purpose parts in a larger class system of which most are unaware. While this system cannot be controlled, it can be manipulated for gain. Those who lose in the film are the ones, like Emily, or her tweaker boyfriend, Dode, who hold out hope that a moral resolution is possible, that love or good or justice will prevail. The film’s primary characters (i.e. the ones that don’t die) recognize that this hope is illusory, that they can either reject the system and face lonely exile (like Brendan) or game it at the expense of others. True to noir form, the latter condition is most aptly characterized the film’s two femme fatales, but particularly by Kara, the vamp-chameleon archetype.

I found Kara fascinating this time, because of how clearly the film wants us to see her as perhaps the most socially conscious of all its characters. Never shown outside of a theater setting (and always in various costumes), Kara understands that not only her success, but also her survival, depends on a willingness to play a variety of roles. In traditional reading of film noir Kara would be the protean female whose ability to perform multipole identities exposes the internal schisms at the heart of the male protagonist’s seemingly stable masculine self. Working within this paradigm, Brendan’s ritual disrobing of her near the film’s end would mark the return to normalcy; in stripping her down to her female body, he deprives her of the ability to tell the lie to his own performative masculine identity.

I focused in this scene on the moment when Brendan smashes the mirror over Kara’s head. We hear the glass shatter and then the shot pans up to reveal Kara, in full kabuki makeup, starting grimly upward against the shattered mirror. If we see the mirror as representative of Kara’s power to reflect to the world the identity she wishes it to see, then Brendan’s destruction of it would seem to shatter (sorry, bad pun) and reveal the core identity beneath the surface. Yet, what we see is what is behind most mirrors: nothing. This is where things got a little dark for me, because, as I noted above, while Kara is cynical, she is also intelligent. She has learned how to play a game she’s destined to lose by mimicking the means by which it sustains itself. We’re taught to play roles and we play them. In high school these roles have complex social determinants, but they often revolve, consciously or unconsciously, around class. Kara knows this, which is why she’s not entirely disingenuous when she coyly asks Brendan whether he really wants to know what he thought he wanted to know: There is nothing behind the glass. No redemption is possible for Brendan or Emily, for the Pin or his poor, musclebound hamster henchman, Tug. There will be no redemption for Laura or her victims. The authorities will do their thing and order will be restored superficially, but only at the cost or re-obscuring the more fundamental social issues the teen movie papers over in the name of entertainment. To say any or all of this is not to say that I reject earlier readings of film noir that Brick is doing the genre a disservice by opening it up to an analysis of this kind. In fact, I think this fresh emphasis on class is one of the things that makes the film more interesting than most stock in trade entries into the tradition. Had Johnson not chosen to do something different, we probably would have been left with a very good film working a very familiar premise to moderately successful ends. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable, exciting, or intellectually stimulating.

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