Ten Years Ago: Grandma’s Boy

15 Jan grandma1
Jean Burnet is back at 10YA for a look at the “shit sandwich of a movie” that is Happy Madison’s Grandma’s Boy.
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Simply put: we are all fucked. Seriously! In the past year I’ve read like twenty articles about how online dating is turning us into a horde of unfeeling robots, we use a thing called a “Fitbit” to track our every waking motion which is approximately one step away from being nano-chipped, and now I hear people get paid to let other people just watch them play video games at home. Come on, world! It’s like you’re not even trying anymore!!

This is all a preamble to say that this shit sandwich of a movie very aggressively depicts the fears we have about technology encroaching on our humanity, except ten years ago, in what can only be described as the plight of the beta male. Granted, I’m probably not the target audience for this movie. But hey, I actually like the occasional gross-out comedy! I willingly watched Hot Tub Time Machine twice—and enjoyed it! And I am still a woman that enjoys a good fart joke so long as it is as refined as a smooth crème brulee! (Which, coincidentally, occasionally make me fart!)
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Mmmmm delicious farts

I remember the first time I watched Grandma’s Boy. Let me set the scene: It’s my first year of college, and I’m the only woman in this room covered in Natty Light cans from last weekend’s epic beer pong tournie, and everybody is stoned. Then one guy starts laughing, and then the other one’s laughing cause he’s laughing, and then another guy’s laughing because the second guy started choking on the drag he just took from his bong and so now he’s choke-laughing, and then everyone’s laughing, and then I’M laughing because I. NEED. TO. SURVIVE. THIS. TIME. OF. MY. LIFE. SOMEHOW.

Why did I pick this sad sack of a movie to re-view? I honestly don’t know. I guess I have some unresolved issues with it.

A product of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, Grandma’s Boy features gamers and grannies, partying, boobs, bongs, more parties, and a Tae Kwon Do Master chimpanzee. It’s also a movie so bad that even Adam Sandler wouldn’t cameo in it. (At least this is what I assume, not having spotted him anywhere.) It’s actually worse today than when I watched it ten years ago, and I’ve watched a lot of bad movies since then. For this alone I am astounded.

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Sandler moments after seeing the final cut. (not a still from Grandma’s Boy)

The mitigating event that launches this turd rocket into motion is simple: Instead of diligently paying rent with the money Alex (our protagonist) has been giving him for the last six months, his roommate has spent all of it on Filipino “massage therapists.” This results in a prompt eviction. Alex then commences to bumble through his increasingly weird friends as he tries to find somewhere to crash.

His friend/co-worker Jeff, for instance, is one of those weirdos. We know he’s weird because when he answers the door he’s wearing footie pajamas, and also, he sleeps in a plastic car bed in his parent’s house. Jeff lets Alex crash on his bedroom floor. Alex can’t sleep, so in the middle of the night, while Jeff slumbers peacefully in his vehicle/bed hybrid, he vigorously masturbates in the bathroom to a half-dressed female action figure before being unceremoniously surprised by Jeff’s mom and… um… “excreting” all over her. Understandably he gets kicked out. This all happens within the first 15 or so minutes of the movie. (Note: Jeff aka Nick Swardson is actually the funniest human in this movie and possibly paid someone off to get all the best lines.)

Alex ends up at his Grandma Lilly’s house, where his two other roommates include some additional geriatrics: one a pill-addled basket case, the other basically Samantha from Sex and the City when she hits 70-something. (She also may or may not have had sexual relations with Charlie Chaplin.) I’m not sure why the Partridge family mom and Shirley Knight signed up for this, but maybe they owed Adam Sandler a favor.

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Momma Partridge whyyyy

We learn Alex’s day job is working for a video game company called Brainasium. This is fascinating to me because… I don’t know. Because Seattle! Is this what it’s like, guys? Because it looks like it’s a smelly playground with no women except for the one conveniently hot one that just started as a project manager for their next big game (played by Freaks and Geeks’ nerd-hot Linda Cardellini).

Here we see the beta boy in full: this office is jam-packed with dudes living with their mothers, dudes who need to get laid (but can’t), dudes who measure themselves against the other by their video game prowess—dudes who simply at some point missed the train headed toward “getting it together.” Before you start to think I’m imposing this sad stereotype on them, more than one of them declares from his own mouth just how much he hates himself outside of the context of this video-game-bubble-world. Why is everyone so miserable here?! I’m pretty sure working for Valve is just like free massages and lunch every day. Right? Am I wrong?

The unhappiest among them is also our villain, Grease Hair, a child prodigy that designed some super popular game at 13 but lost his ability to connect with humans in the process. He dresses like he’s in the Matrix and listens to loud techno. I know he’s supposed to be the villain, but why doesn’t anyone like him? He seems pretty harmless and clearly thought about his outfit and—oh, I see, he makes a weirdly insulting robot voice when he can’t handle his shit. God, even his annoying quirk isn’t that interesting?

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Please save your kids from this fate

The boys and hot project manager Samantha go out to dinner to celebrate for some reason I can’t remember—they finished the big game I guess? David Spade makes a great appearance as a sassy vegan waiter. I would watch a movie about him instead.

During the course of the night the boys make lewd jokes and Samantha loves it! Wow, turns out she’s a lot cooler than they all thought she was! Because she’s not a girl’s girl—she’s just one of the guys! I bet she played flag football. She eventually confirms this in a heart-to-heart with Alex: “Growing up, other girls were playing with Barbies—I was beating my brothers at Super Mario!” Excuse me while my eyes roll so far back into my head I can watch my hair grow.

I can’t get on board with the Sam/Alex thing because not only is she way out of his league (seriously way out of his league), but because she starts out as a badass project manager in a male-centric field only to be validated as a character when she wants to party with the guys. Even then, she’s still just the hot girl. Just the cool hot girl. At least Grandma knows the power of female friendship, even if it is with two batshit crazies.

More on Grandma (played by Everybody Loves Raymond’s bitchy matriarch Doris Roberts): she is the OG cool girl. She is good at video games. She defends her grandson. She drinks weed. She plays pranks. She’ll stay up all night watching Antiques Roadshow just because she can. She does almost all of this obliviously, but Grandma don’t give a fuck!

I’m not saying Alex should date his Grandma. I’m saying he should aspire to date someone like his Grandma, who doesn’t need to extricate herself from her womanhood in order to gain social currency amongst this swathe of dudes.

Honestly I totally zoned out during the middle part and did my laundry instead. The grandmas all get high as fuck somehow, then Alex/Sam and the boys invite their overly tan dealer over, who invites a bunch of people, and they have a strange house party where Jonah Hill ends up sucking on some lady’s boob for 13 hours. In many ways the whole movie is like trying to follow a joke someone said while they were stoned which you thought was really funny at the time because you, too, were stoned.

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First search result on “stoned dude” He would have enjoyed this film

I know this is a predecessor to such classics as Superbad and Pineapple Express, but where it truly fails is in giving us a protagonist we want to see win. Sure, Alex eventually manages to wield the technology that’s likely been a succubus on his ability to become a fully-formed and functioning citizen to at last produce something creative and fully his own with his new video game—but he just kinda sucks. He’s not even the one that saves the day; it’s Grandma that does the legwork for him by beating Grease Hair in the final battle royale of gaming.

Alex’s redemption isn’t really a win for the whole team either—while he gets the hot girlfriend, successful video game, and presumably a new place to live, the rest of his dude compatriots seem to be stuck in the same mode they started in: watching somebody else take the victory.

The fact that I hate this movie so much more now than I did then probably has a lot to do with the fact that I would no longer willingly sit in a room full of people I half-like watching something I hate in order to seem cooler than I am. I don’t even have to pretend to like this movie anymore. I hate it. If anything, I recommend showing this film to anyone who needs a reminder about the dangers of living a passionless, stunted life where technology’s potential for good is outweighed by its demon power to destroy us. (Side note: I once dated someone who played a lot of WoW—this might explain my review in its entirety.)

This movie feels dated as hell and the stoner comedy connoisseurs amongst us demand better. In the immortal words of Jeff, “Your shit’s weak! Wizzeak!”

Final Verdict: Exasperated shrug

Ten Years Ago: Hostel

15 Jan hostel4
Maggie McMuffin has complicated feelings about Eli Roth and his second film, Hostel, but that’s not going to stop her from giving it a second chance.
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Let me tell you about disappointment.

I was 16. At this point in my life I had been watching horror movies for, oh, five years. Aside from the Scary Movie franchise, I was pretty much permitted by my parents to watch anything: werewolf movies, vampire flicks, Stephen King adaptations, and slashers for days. I had strong opinions on Freddy Krueger and my love of Elm Street had fostered a need for greater, more creative onscreen deaths. Saw fit the bill but I was getting really desensitized. (I would give up horror binges by the time I was 17.) So imagine my joy when a movie came along that was advertised as being so hardcore people were fainting in the theaters. Full of graphic violence that was sure to leave my innocent self traumatized.

Then imagine my anger when my local theater decided its permission slip policy didn’t apply for their showing of Hostel.

Not only that, but they wouldn’t even permit anyone under 17 to see the film unless a legal guardian accompanied them. My mother was not for horror and so I was forced to wait. The movie came out while I was visiting my father, who had watched many horror films with me throughout the years, covering my eyes if sex happened but letting me watch each bloody moment. I talked up the film, the expectations, how I had been denied my right as a mature young woman to decide this movie was okay for me. We rented it, settled in for some bonding time, and were subsequently disappointed by every point of the film.

They just kill the mysterious Icelandic dude? There’s no twist about him? The douchebag lives? It takes halfway through the film to get to violence? There are more topless women than there are deaths? My dad was busy criticizing the torture scenes because people were trying too hard to cut off toes and I laughed along with him because I didn’t realize there’s a difference between someone viewing inaccurate violence vs someone viewing fantasy violence. It’s funny! I’m being so worldly and mature right now because I don’t take torture seriously! I’m hardcore! Because I could be more creative than these rich clods!  Because violence is always entertaining when it’s hypothetical and the people aren’t real!

I’ve grown less blood-lusty. I can watch violence now but I don’t seek it out. I ask if it’s necessary because often it isn’t. Violence in media is usually cheap and it tends to either hit me hard and make me mad because it reminds me of real life and how violence has consequences in real life, or I just shake it off because I’ve seen it all before. That’s me now. At 16 I was pissed at this film for not being a sensationalist torture fest. There were cutaways from nearly everything. There was no humor. It was just people being cut up. Where’s the enjoyment? I was so enraged I spent five years carrying a grudge against Eli Roth and even thought up an elaborate plan to make him fall in love with me so that I could punch him in the face, yell, “THAT WAS FOR HOSTEL,” and then sex him on the hood of the nearest car. I have complicated feelings about Eli Roth that can, ironically, probably only be resolved through gratuitous sex and violence.

But on my rewatch (which I went into expecting to still be bored) I realized that the movie isn’t bad because it wasn’t more violent. It’s plenty violent. But gratuitous violence isn’t the point, so I can’t fault it for the lack thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a not-good movie but 16-year-old me was too focused on getting her gore-rocks off to realize why this movie is bad. This movie is bad because it’s trying really, really hard to say something. It’s bad because it’s pretentious. It’s bad because I cannot figure out what the message is.

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The movie starts with blood but the opening credits are very subtle and admittedly one of the best parts of the movie. (This is something I will always fault directors and writers for. If your credits upstage your film you need to try harder.) We get water dripping and scrubbing. We get dirty soap. We get something that could be blood dripping. It’s a slow unfold to shots of bloody tools being washed and someone whistling and sets the mood.

We cut to three guys; two friends, Paxton and Josh from America, and an Icelandic dude they picked up named Oli. They are in Amsterdam, which we know because the first line of this film is “AMSTERDAM MOTHERFUCKERS!” They want pot and just after I say, “Ah, remember when we had to go all the way to Europe to get pot?” one of the boys says, “Did we come all the way to Amsterdam just to smoke pot?” Yes, you did, because you are in the past.

But they didn’t just come for pot! They came to get laid. Oli is just a boundary-less machine who manages to pick up chicks left and right and even text pictures to his American buddies of his bathroom stall conquests. Paxton is doing alright but Josh…Josh just doesn’t go for it. He just broke up with his girlfriend. He doesn’t want a sex tour of Europe. He doesn’t want to bang a girl who seems so high she’s “in a coma” (which, granted, is cool of him). He doesn’t want to go to one of Amsterdam’s many sex workers. Josh is presented as being the ‘good guy’ of the group but he’s also presented as being a massive downer.

(Side note: The Amsterdam workers are the least sexualized women in the film. They are either covered up in windows, shown as silhouettes, the one very nice sex worker it’s implied Josh does bang after she smoothly puts him at ease and then shows her boobs, or the domme who shouts, “You watch, you pay!” to anyone who walks into her sessions. I do have to give Roth points for this.)

While in Amsterdam, we see Josh start a fight with someone and Paxton join in. They and Oli are kicked out of a club and shout about how it’s full of faggots and everything is gay. They continue being loud when they can’t get into their hostel and get into a shouting match with the owner. This continues an ever-present theme of everyone hating the boys for being American. But they are saved just as the cops arrive! A sweet guy named Alex lets them climb into his window where he tells them that “not everyone wants to kill Americans” and that if they really want to get laid they should go to Slovakia, which is apparently full of hot, American-loving sluts who will fuck any foreigner who speaks to them. “There are no men because of the war,” he says, and all the poor babes are mourning with their vaginas apparently.

The boys are sold and off they go. They take a train ride and encounter a kindly German man who has odd opinions about eating meat with his hands because “I like to have connection with something that died for me.” Paxton is a vegetarian and says he’s not down with this. 

If you think we’re going straight to murder camo you are wrong. We get more of Oli waving his naked ass, we get Paxton refusing to speak the German he knows and being a willful dick about everything. We get Josh doing…whatever he does. They meet some girls, go to a spa and a disco, and everyone hooks up. Josh takes a break to get attacked by a fucking gang of children who demand bubblegum and dollars. Josh is saved by the dude from the train who tells him that “Here, children commit the most crime. They don’t care. They attack anyone.” He gives Josh some life lessons about choosing to have a family and then Josh is taken away. 

Here’s where this goes from road trip to horror film. In the next 24 hours Oli disappears and we learn he’s dead. Kana, a Japanese girl staying at the same hostel, says her friend disappeared with him. All we get is a shot of Oli’s decapitated head and Kana’s friend screaming and a pre-shot of her toe being cut off. We get Paxton giving Josh a speech about enjoying their lives before going back to school. We get Paxton bringing up out of the blue “Did I ever tell you I saw a girl drown when I was eight?” THE FUCK PAXTON. “We made eye contact which was weird you know and she yelled at me to help her.” FUCK. AND THEN THE LIFEGUARD DIDN’T BELIEVE HE SAW SOMEONE DROWNING AND IGNORED IT. “I just feel like I could have done more to save her.” 

“But what made you think of that now?”

Uh…shoehorned character development for later, Josh. God, I thought you wanted to be a writer.

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So now that Oli has ditched them, so they think, they decide to party on their last night. Unfortunately Josh gets drugged and wakes up shackled to a chair in nothing but his underwear and what follows is a scene that, yes, disappointed me as a child. But now it freaks me out. Josh is at the mercy of that dude from the train who I will just call Surgeon because he gives a speech about how he always wanted to be a surgeon because holding life and death in your hands blah blah blah. Josh is crying in this. Like really crying. These are not manly tears. Josh is screaming, bribing, bargaining, and covered in snot. It’s disgusting and a level of realistic emotion never really seen in horror films. Surgeon drills through his shoulders and then hacks at something on Josh’s legs. When that’s done he saunters over to the door and opens it, telling Josh he’s free to go. Josh, not thinking he should check his limbs, stands up and immediately keels over because that’s what happens when your Achilles tendons get cut. He crawls to the door and gets stopped by Surgeon and you know what, THAT is cruelty. THAT is torture. The point here isn’t getting to see the knife go in, it’s seeing the aftermath. It’s seeing Surgeon toy with Josh and offer him an exit. It’s Josh screaming in pain but determined to take that offer and then getting told NOPE.

Onto Act 3 of this film which has Paxton playing a pretty convincing detective. After getting drugged and passing out not where he was supposed to, he wakes up and is told Josh is gone. He doesn’t believe it and proceeds to use Oli’s last pictures (staged and sent by the murder camp) and hearsay to find out what happened. The child gang shows up a couple more times. Paxton is still an arrogant American but now he’s on a mission and that mission allows him to further yell at the hot girls who lured them in. They play dumb, they play like Josh told them he ran off, and Paxton is too genre-savvy for that. So he gets dropped off at murder camp where he is shown a dead body and then immediately gets shackled and then sold because he’s an American and people love killing Americans! And the hot murder chick gets the best line in the movie: When Paxton calls her a bitch she laughs and says, “I get a lot of money for you. That makes you my bitch.”

And you know, I bet being a murder camp counselor pays pretty well. What do you think the benefits are? Is it just the joy of partying and getting free drinks? How much money is a lot of money in this country? Do all these people just get free board at the hostels where they pick guys up or do they have secret houses full of cool stuff? Do they travel at all? Is Elite Hunting run by a specific person who enlisted the town for help or did the town hold a meeting and decide this was the way to go? I really want to know more about these people. I couldn’t give a fuck about the people paying to torture people but the people who get paid to do it are another story.

I still don’t know what the lesson of the film is exactly, but if you watch it, it is clear that there is one. Maybe Roth is trying too hard. Maybe he thought he was being cerebral. Maybe he was trying to impress a chick with some pseudo-feminist possibly anti-violence dialogue. I don’t know. I don’t. What I do know is that, again, very little actual violence. This dude breathes funny and snips scissors menacingly while Paxton cries. Then Paxton appeals to his murder camp buddy by speaking German (Paxton knows German fluently; he just refuses to speak it) and is then gagged. It’s only through throwing up around his gag after losing some fingers that his captor slips and chainsaws himself. Paxton kills the guard, hides under dead bodies, kills another dude, spots people in the throes of torture but can’t stop, makes it to the locker rooms, and steals a suit and uses gloves to hide his finger situation.

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And then gets stopped in the locker room by a first timer; another American who wants to know what it’s like; who has travelled the world banging chicks but now feels that “Pussy’s pussy. Been all over the world, every whorehouse. It’s all the same… But this. This is something you’ll never forget.” HEY LOOK IT’S LIKE EARLY PAXTON ON COCAINE. He asks for tips, he says he spent 50,000 bucks on this special treat for himself. (Spoiler: it’s Kana, Japanese girl, and also there’s a menu at some point and it has Americans listed as the most expensive at $25,000. Apparently Asian girls are so rare that they just don’t list them.) Paxton, who has gone through a gamut of emotions and is just numb at this point, is trying really hard to put up with this guy so he can leave. But guy won’t let him and asks if he should do it quick or slow. Paxton grunts out “quick” and the guy says that’s “too American, I’m going old school” and goes off shouting “WHO WANTS THIS SHIT!” over and over again.

Esteemed readers, we have our lesson. And that lesson is that…Americans suck? That the world rightfully hates us? That we deserve torture? That we are desensitized to sex and so we move onto violence? Because there are so many tits in this movie but we never see any at murder camp. Hell, we only see the two women there at all. So you get sex or you get violence. And maybe it’s that we as Americans need to try to see beyond our culture, our language, our needs? Because, as my viewing partner Randi Simmons pointed out, this was a film made for a mono-lingual audience. Any non-English language isn’t translated. There are no subtitles. Even with captions on it’ll just say (foreign language spoken) or (German shouted). So it’s intentionally saying something about language (and getting meta since Josh asks earlier how he’s supposed to understand a movie playing in the hostel lobby if it doesn’t have subtitles), but is it that language connects us? Is that why Josh needed to be gagged? Because speaking the same language as his captor humanized him?

ELI ROTH IS TRYING TO TELL ME SOMETHING, I KNOW IT.

Anyway, Paxton makes it to a car with keys but hears a woman screaming. I mean, fuck all those men he passed earlier, this harkens back to his need to save that drowned girl when he was eight! He finds Kana being face-flamed by the locker room douche. Paxton kills him and assesses Kana’s damage which honestly is a shit show makeup job. It is. Her face is burned and her eye is hanging out by a nerve and it looks like ketchup and a cat toy. Then in his most confusing move, Paxton screams that he can’t understand what she is saying (DID YOU LEARN NOTHING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE?) and grabs some scissors. Kana starts screaming NO, which is a word I think Paxton should know, and then he does her a favor by cutting her eye off. DUDE. THE FUCK. HOW IS THAT HELPING? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

They escape, they get to a car, they are chased by another car. They run into the child gang and give them ALL the gum (because it’s all stockpiled in the cars because the people in this town steal everything from tourists) and the gang later kills the pursuers and their car. Just smash everything and everyone to bits with rocks. Paxton also gets to run down the two hot girls and Alex from Amsterdam. Paxton’s violence is righteous because it’s vengeance. I think? Again, I’m not sure what Roth is saying here.

At the train station, Kana gets a look at her ruined face and jumps in front of a train. Just like that. So, sorry Paxton, but you don’t get to save anyone ever. But you do get to overhear train dude giving his food speech and then corner him in a bathroom stall and kill him. Yay!

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So that’s Hostel. A pretty well-paced 90-minute film about how Americans are shit. But they can learn. Through being tortured. But then surviving. But not saving anyone from other countries. And also killing people in violent ways. Which is okay because they’re Americans. I think. Or it might all be meta for American film audiences and our relationship with sex and violence. I mean, what’s worse, the fact that this film has violence or that a 16-year-old girl was disappointed that it wasn’t more graphic?

You know, Hostel isn’t a poorly told story. It has good set up for the murder camp, for Paxton’s growth and also his specific brand of asshole. It has good world-building for the town around the murder camp, with stolen clothing immediately being worn by townspeople and everyone in town clearly having a system of lies set up. The fucking child gang (who Randi speculated are children of the murder victims who are just angry and roaming). The fact that this movie is low-key hilarious? It lampshades stuff and the whole thing with the gum and just how much the hot girls drop liking Paxton once they’re done with him. This isn’t a near-comedy like Hostel 2, it’s just got some laughs thrown in for good measure.

And the violence is eased into. It isn’t gratuitous. In fact, it’s barely on screen at all. The more gruesome something is, the more likely it is to be shown as a blink and you’ll miss it moment or done as a cutaway or shown right as it’s being wrapped up. It’s like how the ass-to-mouth aspects of Human Centipede are what got people through the door but it’s only like ten seconds of the film. The violence in Hostel drew people in, but it’s Paxton’s journey that is meant to keep us here. And honestly Jay Hernandez, who plays Paxton, does a good job of carrying that. The amount of emotions he goes through feels real and there are many reaction shots of him seeing violence, or experiencing it. We see him letting out pain and we see him holding it in because he’s playing dead to survive. The moment where he’s on the body cart and looks up to see Josh’s face hanging over his is stirring. You can see Paxton wanting to feel something, wanting to react, but not being able to because he’s gotta swallow everything down to get through this. Which, again, might be some meta commentary on how we all have to cut out our sympathy for characters in order to revel in their deaths or get through the carnage, but it is, like everything else, very unclear.

This movie isn’t told poorly, it just isn’t told clearly. So while I will admit that 16-year-old me was wrong and missed the point of the film, I will state in her defense that the point is really hard to see anyway.

Notes

— I was pissed about Kana’s suicide ten year ago and I am pissed now. She just kills herself over vanity. Like, wow, how feminist of you Eli Roth. Way to balance the scales back to zero after the goodwill you accrued in Amsterdam.

— The head child is credited as Bubble Gum Gang Leader and every time I think about that I smile.

— The first half of this film is kind of boring. Like I get that it lays the groundwork and it pays off but there’s this layer of bleh over it that I can’t quite describe.

— Oli knows a song in every language they encounter and it’s how he tries to endear himself to locals. He sings very loudly.

— Ten years ago I thought that Paxton’s captor was the best part of the film because dude is just creepy in such a specific understated way. Just the way he mouth breathes and moves his arms in a semi-jerky way is really unsettling but also interesting from a performance standpoint. I don’t think he outshines the whole film but he still stood out to me.

— The suit Paxton steals to run away fits him really well and I think he should keep it as a souvenir of his time at murder camp. Especially since he tries really hard to hold onto his amputated fingers only to lose them to an incinerator.

— I think rewatching this film lessened my grudge against Eli Roth for wasting 90 minutes of my time but I still want to shame-bang him. I just won’t punch him first. Or I might because he seems into that.

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Ten Years Ago: The Matador

15 Jan matador2
Jake Farley refuses to put a hit out on the well-cast but oddly marketed low-key character study The Matador.
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The Matador is almost a great little movie. I remember seeing it when it first came out, thinking it was going to be a very different kind of thing—the sort of thing implied on the DVD cover, with explosions and shooting and so on. Instead, it’s actually a small little character study about sad people finding one another and enriching each other’s lives. (Also, there is some murder.) I recall leaving the theater having mostly enjoyed the film. Really, that’s kind of the best thing I can say about it. This is clearly a movie that somebody (I guess presumably Richard Shepard, the writer/director) had envisioned and dreamed about for a long time and now finally got the chance to make it all happen, and good for him.

The Matador is the story of how the lives of international assassin Julian (Pierce Brosnan) and struggling businessman Danny (Greg Kinnear) intersect. Julian is having a rough year, mental-health-wise (it seems that a workday that consists entirely of murdering strangers for large amounts of money is a high-stress gig), but is in Mexico City to finish a contract. Also in Mexico City is Danny, in town to present some kind of vaguely unspecified proposal to a group of likewise sketchily drawn investor types. They meet in their hotel’s bar one night and sort of strike up an acquaintanceship, if not a friendship—Julian cracks a joke after being told about Danny’s recently-deceased son and Danny, fairly reasonably, storms out. Julian apologizes the next day and the two begin to hang out (both are in town with nothing to do for a few days, conveniently, for business reasons). Eventually, at a bullfight, Julian reveals to Danny what he does for a living. Initially disbelieving Julian, Danny comes around after Julian walks him through the mechanics of a hit. Danny is horrified to have Julian later ask him for actual assistance on his next job, and leaves, again perhaps quite reasonably so. The last we see of them, Julian is drunkenly (he is often drunk in this film, in fact) knocking on Danny’s hotel door, begging forgiveness.

Cut to six months later (Christmastime! How topical, thank you The Matador), and Julian has burnt out completely. He’s having trouble pulling the trigger on his hits and his bosses decide they want him out of the game. In the international assassin business, forced retirement comes with a terrible severance package, so Julian flees to Denver, the home of literally the only person in the entire world he can call a friend—Danny. They haven’t seen or spoken to one another since that last night in Mexico City, but Danny, being an obliging sort, lets Julian in. Danny’s wife Carolyn (Hope Davis), who Danny refers to as “Bean” for unstated reasons (at one point she recalls children on the playground mockingly referring to her as “Plate of Beans,” so I really don’t know what this whole thing is about), is actually quite thrilled Julian is there, having been told the whole story by Danny (who has, amusingly, grown a mustache to match Julian’s). Eventually Bean goes to bed and Julian talks Danny into assisting him with the traditional one last job to get out of the game. Danny listens with a bit more enthusiasm this time around and finally accepts, on the condition that they be home in time to go visit his son’s grave with Bean (it just so happens to be the anniversary of his son’s death—in a bus accident, if you were wondering). They go to Arizona, Danny helps Julian kill a guy, and they both receive self-actualization as a reward. How wonderful. At the end, Julian watches Danny and Bean (seriously, what is up with that nickname?) at their son’s grave, puts a plane ticket to visit him in his chosen place of retirement on their windshield and then the movie is over.

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The thing about The Matador is that it wouldn’t really work nearly as well without Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan. Both of them do a great job playing simultaneously into and against their respective types. Brosnan has all the confidence of James Bond, but dresses and looks more like a sleazy trailer park owner somewhere in Florida. His accent bounces all over the world, and he laughs too much, too often, too desperately. Kinnear, for his part, is a classic straight-laced guy (Danny is so aggressively normal-looking, in fact, that the first time they meet, Julian assumes he must be a CIA agent). They bounce off each other so naturally that they alone drive the movie. It’s really pretty delightful. The comedy writing isn’t sharp enough to work without these specific actors (this is no Grosse Pointe Blank), but the directing is at least attempting to be lively, and the color palate in Mexico City is very nice. Hope Davis is also pretty enjoyable, what with her delighted insistence on seeing Julian’s gun, but the movie pretty much sidelines her for the whole first half. I’m not sure what the intention was for her character, honestly—she seems pretty into the whole assassin thing, but Danny still insists on keeping it a secret from her when he actually goes on a hit. I guess he’s just kind of a crummy guy that way. Communicate with your wife, my dude! Haven’t you seen True Lies? Maybe this could become a whole thing for you two! Anyway.

Going into it the first time, I was expecting a thriller. Knowing this time what was coming, I was able to more or less enjoy it for what it is—a character study so low-key it could almost be a stage play. It’s one of those movies that happens so other, better movies can stand out next to it while it fades into the past, eternally an entirely adequate way to spend an hour and a half.

ALSO:

– Danny’s business partner in Mexico City is played by Leslie Knope’s own Adam Scott, in a role so purely functional in the plot that it could have been adequately portrayed by a wooden crossbeam.

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Ten Years Ago: Cache

31 Dec cache3

Merry Christmas, here’s some Haneke. Yasi Naraghi reinvigorates her love of Michael Haneke films in her re-view of the surveillance drama Caché, with an eye to its colonial frameworks and terrifying banality.

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I find it quite apropos that I’m reviewing Caché at this moment in time. I’m aware that I chose to do so with whatever autonomy I’m allowed intact, but I can’t help but feel—or think—that there is something acutely appropriate about this. I will explain myself and this affective thought, but before doing so, I want to say a few things about Michael Haneke’s films and the occasion of the re-viewing of Caché

 I love, nay, adore Michael Haneke. The first film of his I watched was The Piano Teacher, and although too young to fully comprehend the abstractions of the film, something immediately clicked. I have watched and re-watched [and re-watched] his films ever since. His films are a quiet expanse on which the psyche plays out its desires and its anxieties through all of its perversities. His films are traumatic and mostly depict trauma but, at least in my experience, they also allow you to quietly acknowledge and address your own.

Every time, something clicks but every time, it clicks differently.

On the occasion of watching Caché for the purpose of this review, my loving partner, Stephan, joined me. He hadn’t seen it before. As a matter in fact, he hadn’t seen much Haneke except for Funny Games (the original) so I was excited to slyly—or to be more accurate, creepily—observe his reactions to the film. It would be to experience Haneke through virgin eyes. Like those parents who say they experience the world anew through their children, I was beaming in anticipation of his reactions to the scenes to come. Perhaps, I was over-anticipating.

Before going any further, here is the plot synopsis of Caché although, I feel a bit dirty writing it; Haneke’s films are rarely about the plot and more about all the ambiguities that invalidate the importance of a plotline. So here’s the plot: A Parisian couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche), receives multiple videotapes surveilling their home as well as other familiar exteriors that disrupts their quintessentially intellectual Parisian life. They are such a fucking epitome of intellectual bourgeois. Georges is the host of an evening talk show. Now, the French talk show is a completely different beast than, say, the American talk show. French talk shows are televised salons—featuring writers, scholars, philosophers, etc.—that litter the evening and night TV slots. Georges is the host of literary talk show which could make his marriage one of convenience since his wife, Anne, works for a publisher. To round out this clever family, there is the aloof but incredibly perceptive (and maybe even deceptive) son, Pierrot. It’s truly a pity that their oh-so-clever life is disrupted by these tapes. What’s more, these tapes begin to be accompanied by drawings of a person projectile bleeding. One of these tapes soon lead Georges to what can be construed as the banlieue where he confronts Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a French-Algerian man whose parents worked on Georges’ family farm when they were children. Majid sincerely denies being responsible for the videos…

I think I gave enough plot synopsis and context.

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Caché opens with a static long shot of a residential street in Paris which becomes crowded by the opening credits. The text is small and they follow each other in a slow and steady manner. I remember being utterly uncomfortable and anxious the first time I watched the film from the second row of the movie theatre. The strange thing is that I can’t recall if I watched it in Paris or in Seattle. I do, however, remember renting it as soon as it came out on DVD; sitting no more than two feet from my television in my first apartment having the same sense of anxiety as the opening sequence played on. Over the years as I’ve re-watched Caché, I have come to attribute this anxiety to the banal—and I use ‘banal’ in the vain of Hannah Arendt and what she calls “terrifyingly normal.”

And this opening is terrifyingly normal; the normality of it always makes me anticipate an excessively violent and horrific act. That act, however, comes much later in the film and the opening sequence ends with it revealed as a video footage being watched by Georges and Anne. This occurs frequently; shots of exteriors that are conventionally filmed and read as establishing shots are found to be surveillance footage anonymously sent to Georges and Anne. “Haneke, you devil,” Stephan explained during one of these revelations, “What’s video, what’s not?!” Haneke’s oeuvre is a catalogue of narrative structure perversions and point of view redirections so it’s no surprise that he employs this technique of setting up surveillance footage as deceptive establishing shots. This functions as a mise-en-abime that not only redirects the point of view from us, the viewer, to the Laurents, it also confuses the film’s temporality as the present time is shown to be a recorded past. These tapes form the basis of the trauma toward which the film is moving.

Okay, so the anonymous nature of the tapes begs the question of whodunit as well as to what purpose? There are a few possibilities for who is responsible for the tapes: there is Majid, Majid’s son (Walid Afkir), and/or Pierrot. Ten years ago, I was more invested in trying to figure out the culpable party and I did have a theory that I thought solid but today, ten years later at the insignificant age of 28, I’m relieved to find out that I don’t give a fuck. There are films that provide cues for the viewer in order to get at a closed system. Haneke provides cues that interfere with each other and produce no resolution (or closed system).

This time around, I realized that spending too much energy on the whodunit aspect previously dulled me to the nuanced tensions of Anne and Georges’ marriage. Either that or I’ve learned something from the relationships I’ve been in in the last ten years. This time I paid more attention to the relationship between Georges and Anne as well as their son’s interpretation of it. The Laurents’ marriage is fucked up; even in its subtleties, it’s a bit played out. But the colonial commentary and the subversion of surveillance is a topic through which I can productively think.

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Let’s start with the subversion of surveillance. Majid, a French-Algerian man, is first set up as the source of the videotapes before Georges finds out Majid has an adult son, who quickly becomes the only other possible responsible part. The surveillance of an upper-middle class white family is a perversion of sorts insofar as it is a transgression on their daily life whereas the Algerian man is constantly surveilled to the point that it is part of the quotidian. According to data, Arab and Muslim men are more likely be racially/ethnically profiled by the police. And it is not just an apparatus of the state that profiles these individuals but it also includes the white French. Majid as an Algerian man is constantly watched. As far as the state is concerned, he is always guilty even without any evidence. This point is illustrated in the film when Georges accuses Majid and his son of kidnapping Pierrot. As it turns out Pierrot spent the night over at a friend’s and neglected to (or consciously) failed to inform his parents. His parents’ lack of knowledge about Pierrot’s whereabouts, however, immediately criminalizes Majid and his son without any plausible reason. This time around I noticed that Georges accepts Majid and his son’s not guilty stance in the disappearance of Pierrot but he and Anne are still glad that they are detained by the state. For them, this could mean freedom from being surveilled because the Other they accused of surveilling them has become the property of the state and, thus, under state surveillance.

The funny thing, though, is that Majid and his son are under constant surveillance by the state as well as its hegemonic citizenship. This right here is very painful for me. It’s very painful for me to watch Majid and his son chained to the back of a police van with their head slung low. I want to say a lot about this scene and I wrote multiple versions of what I want to say but find myself incapable of including it here and sharing it. As I mentioned earlier, Haneke’s films are quiet expanses upon which desires and anxieties play out. Caché mainly allows for an overflow of my anxieties; a lot of which I have to work through privately. All I can say is that it’s interesting who inherits the sins of colonialism; it’s rarely the colonizer but the colonized. I was once told I belong to an evil race and that it must be difficult for me to look at myself in the mirror. Unfortunately, that is the legacy left to me, one that has been articulated to me as a sin.

But what of the legacy left to Majid?

Towards the end of the film Anne probes Georges to provide a reason as to why Majid might want to terrorize their family. She suspects that Georges is to blame for something…and he is. Georges briefly tells Anne what became of Majid’s parents. For those not familiar with the history, his explanation is vague marked with a date, 1961, and an acronym, FLN. But to those familiar with Algerian/French history, a whole colonial history spills out of that brief explanation; one that is also being denied. Majid’s parents died in the Paris massacre of 1961. In October of 1961, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), a pro-independence Algerian party, called for a mass demonstration in Paris to oppose the curfew that was ordered against Algerians and French Muslims. Maurice Papon—the then head of Parisian Police and the former general secretary of Vichy government in charge of the deportation and extermination of Jews who was not convicted of crimes against humanity until 19-fucking-98 and released in 2002—ordered the national police to block the demonstrators and later carry out raids against them. On October 17, the police opened fired on the (peaceful) demonstrators and drowned many of the demonstrators in the Seine. In addition to this, Algerians were executed in police custody. Majid’s parents were brutally murdered by the state; the same state that later takes possession of Majid.

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After the death of Majid’s parents, Georges’ parents express interest in adopting him to the chagrin of Georges. Majid suffers from tuberculosis which is intimated in an earlier flashback scene in which he is bleeding from his mouth, an event that was witnessed by young Georges and prompted him to dissuade his parents from adopting Majid. One of the last scenes of the film is a static long shot of Georges’ childhood home in front of which Majid is struggling with social workers who are removing him from the only home he has known. Because of Georges, Majid is criminalized at a very young age. Majid doesn’t forget about this which might explain the scene of his suicide. Majid calls Georges to his apartment before slitting his throat in front of an unsuspecting Georges; “I called you because I want you to be present” is the only thing Majid offers Georges before taking a knife to his throat. In this scene, Majid is asking Georges to be witness to a metaphor for colonial occupation and, subsequently, to France’s colonial history.

The colonial commentary of this film is pretty obvious. The main characters are Algerian and French which is always a point of friction. Let me say this, France magnificently denies its own history. It’s atrocious to what extent this denial runs (one example is the aforementioned Maurice Papon). Georges doesn’t remember what he did to Majid until the videotapes remind him. The memory is there but Georges defers its resurrection. The acceptance of this memory challenges Georges’ life. It challenges it on an intellectual level. After all, he is one of the cultural trendsetters whose liberation of thought cannot be questioned by his childhood actions and adult racist attitude. It’s like the friend you have who says, “I’m not racist but…”. Georges defers or, more precisely, displaces his own guilt by pronouncing Majid guilty. Caché doesn’t end with any resolution. The source of the tapes is never revealed although, due to the final shot of the film which depicts Pierrot speaking to Majid’s son, some argue otherwise. What’s more, Georges actually never admits to any responsibility on his part. I didn’t think much about Georges’ position at the end of the film when I first watched it. This time around though, I was concerned about the consistency of his denial.

Now that I have come to the end of this review, I should explain why it is appropriate that I’m reviewing Caché at this moment in time. The aftermath of the Paris attacks in November and the San Bernardino attack put me back, emotionally, to where I was in 2005 when I first watched Caché. There were several instances in the last month that I found myself incapable of engaging with the world because all of a sudden the temporal and spatial distance that separated me from the self that had to first hear, “you’re just an Arab whore who deserves to be—,” was no longer there.

Notes:

  • I highly recommend watching an episode of the three-hour long On n’est pas couché on Youtube. On n’est pas couché is what talk shows on steroid look like. Georges hosts a very sober talk show.
  • There’s an argument to be made about the audience’s relationship to the film and the anxiety produced by watching a filmed recording. I’m sure many have articulated it better than I could.
  • I felt claustrophobic watching this film this time around.
  • There are a lot of disembodied voices in this film. Some are eventually embodied such as the voices of Anne and Georges. Some are not like in the case of Pierrot’s swim coach.
  • Maurice Papon is a testament of the French denial. A fascinating case that reveals France’s systematized rotten core.
  • As you may have noticed, I soon lost interest in Stephan’s reactions to the film. Haneke does that; it’s just you and the film.
  • Reviewing Caché has inspired me to spend my winter break to re-watch all of Haneke’s films so I’ll be writing my dissertation and watching Haneke. Let’s see how I come out the other end.

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Ten Years Ago: Brokeback Mountain

31 Dec brokeback2

Max DeCurtins explores his complex feelings about “the gay cowboy movie,” and all the sad and lonely silences that make it so haunting.

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I’m not sure by any means that I should have agreed to re-view Brokeback Mountain.

No, not because I don’t share the perspective of those who were all over this film because OMG HEATH LEDGER. I get that. I don’t have any celebrity crushes—never did—but I can see how having one for Heath Ledger (or for Jake Gyllenhaal) would color a viewer’s experience of Brokeback Mountain.

It’s not even because I recently collapsed across the finish line of a semester-long marathon of the most challenging class I can ever recall taking, and I feel like doing nothing except sitting by the fire with a potent potable and daydreaming. (Note to self: it helps to have an actual fireplace.)

No, I’m not sure I should have agreed because, as silly as it sounds, I think I felt intimidated by the movie. At its core, Brokeback Mountain is a story about two people with a lot of friendship and love between them who just couldn’t get it to work, whatever it is. It’s been billed as a timeless love story, but I’m not so sure that’s what it is. It’s a film full of denial and delusion, aspiration and failure. In short, an emotional clusterfuck.

When I first saw Brokeback Mountain, I didn’t have any personal context to inform my experience of the film. I do now. 2015 has been a banner year for emotional clusterfuckage in my life. Mostly, I’d argue, thanks to other people doing their frustrating other people things. And sometimes you’re at the end of some particular rope, and something just has to give.

I suspect that most people have at least some firsthand familiarity with a relationship—of any type—that stands apart from others for its lack of straightforwardness. Whatever it is, it evades our classificatory predilections. There’s love involved, to be sure. At times you feel convinced that the significance of the relationship is mutually felt; at others, you couldn’t be more in doubt. Sometimes you wish you just didn’t care, but of course you do care, for better or worse. The relationship in question lacks not for value, but for mutual understanding, and danger seems to lurk behind every potential remedy for the problem. When it ends, it ends badly, usually coming to a screeching halt that denies you a sense of closure. A unique kind of pain attaches to this scenario; Brokeback Mountain examines this pain in excruciating detail. What’s not to like? I knew that watching it would force me to revisit what I don’t particularly want to think about, and so this re-view has grown into something of a personal challenge. I like to think that that’s one of the better things about 10YA; given the right material, writing a re-view takes me well past reflecting on the movie, to a point where I can process out loud, as it were, thoughts kicking around in my head that won’t decamp until they’re ready to leave.

I first saw Brokeback Mountain alone at a theater somewhere in Goleta or Santa Barbara. I saw it again about two years later, and I haven’t watched it since. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t lend itself well to a play-by-play re-view, so I’m going to skip the recapitulation. Just go watch it. Preferably while sprawled upon the most comfortable piece of furniture you have, in gratitude for the fact that you’re not stuck in a hailstorm on a goddamned mountain in the hinterlands.

For the sake of some basic detail for this re-view, Brokeback Mountain follows three relationships over a period of time: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ennis and his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway). It’s never made explicit how much time passes in the film, but the number is approximately twenty years or so. Twenty years wreaks all manner of changes on people, some welcome, some not so welcome. The story doesn’t really present development of the characters over time so much as snapshots of them at various points within that timeframe. I’d forgotten just how much the narrative flow—again, to the degree the film has one to begin with—ambles along in much the same way as it did a moment before, until BOOM! Serious shit goes down, and then it’s back to ambling. In most cases, I’d doubt that this approach would sustain audience interest throughout the entirety of the film, but here it works without question.

brokeback2This is one of those times when ten years seems like nothing. To watch, Brokeback Mountain feels brand-new, as if it could have been filmed only last year. It feels incredibly fresh, but I can’t say whether that’s really the film or the fact that I haven’t seen it in eight years, coupled with the sea change in LGBT rights since 2005. To read about it, you’ll encounter sweeping descriptions of the film as an operatic masterpiece, or a universal love story, or something similarly broad. Honestly, though, this kind of fulsome praise stands at odds with the totally minimalist aesthetic of the movie—at least for me, anyway. Brokeback Mountain takes place away from everything: away from cities, away from people, away from new experiences and heterogeneity. Even sex has to be conducted far away from other people, lest anyone get caught satisfying the human urge to get off now and then. You’d think that would be easy, given all that open space. At times the vast stretches of land and sky in Wyoming (really Alberta, where the production filmed) threaten to smother us like a heavy blanket; rather than liberate the characters who inhabit them, they confine them through distance and silence.

I had especially forgotten how much silence is in this film. It calls to mind the saying, attributed to half a dozen composers and thus likely apocryphal, that “music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.” Brokeback Mountain does not belong to that club of movies whose score, in the cringe-worthy words of the musically challenged, “builds to a sweeping crescendo” to mark important or emotionally charged scenes. (N.B. A crescendo is simply a dynamic marking that instructs the musician to increase the loudness of the music by some quantity over the duration of time indicated by the marking.)

In fact, the film opens with no music at all; no floofy credits distract us, there’s just an atmospheric image and the name of the film. The first music we hear is a single unresolved semitone, which is then repeated. In a way, there could not exist a better summation of the plot, of the deprivation of certainty and closure that characterizes the kind of relationships I described earlier. The semitone exists to resolve to the tonic. It’s the bedrock principle of Common Practice Western music: start somewhere, go somewhere else, and return. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the saying goes. If we do not return whence we came, informed by our journey, then the music remains unfulfilled. In the world of Brokeback Mountain, we are forever going “there,” even when—to borrow from Bilbo Baggins—we come “back again.” I’m honestly flabbergasted that the film won the Oscar for Best Original Score, for what is essentially musical narration as minimalist as the landscapes it accompanies, consisting of a few solo guitar cues, light string scoring moving upwards harmonically from the submediant to the tonic, and the unfortunate twang of country music. I guess you can’t have cowboys without the twang.

Brokeback Mountain long ago earned its epithet as “the gay cowboy movie.” Except, if you actually watch it, you’ll find that it’s really nothing of the sort. Oh sure, there’s gay subtext to be found beneath many of the interactions—definitely something I missed when I first saw the movie—but as a viewer, you have options aplenty for how to read this film. One thing, for example, I realize I completely missed in my historical viewings is the option to interpret Ang Lee’s magnificent imagery of Brokeback as a paean to a natural world increasingly imperiled by climate change and economic development. The kind of weather patterns that drive the seasonal business of herding, farming, fishing, and logging grow less and less reliable with each passing year. We may have talked about it less in 2005 than we do now, but the intentional presence of these issues in the movie seems unmistakable to me. Brokeback as environmental film—who knew?

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I also missed the amount of material that is left to the imagination of the audience. Mostly it’s material connected with Jack, given that Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite focus as much attention on Jack’s as it does on Ennis’, but even still I found myself surprised at just how much core, plot-related material is at the viewer’s discretion to decide, not the least of which is the fundamental question: are Jack and Ennis gay? Most likely. I don’t know for certain, though, and frankly I’m not sure it matters. They met; their lives intertwined. They love each other; they hate each other. And everything in between.

The two men share much in common but differ plenty in tone and temperament. Ennis can be cheekily charming, as he exhibits during their summer together on Brokeback, but more often he expresses himself as a frightened realist. He remembers his father showing him, as a boy, the corpse of a local man suspected of being gay who got beaten and then dragged by a pickup truck until his penis ripped off, and that memory informs Ennis’ entire character. “This thing grabs hold of us in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and we’re dead,” he warns Jack. Which brings me to another point I missed the first time around. Ennis never refers to his relationship with Jack as such; it’s always “this thing.” Language choice matters, and Ennis knows it. Jack, on the other hand, is more earnest in acknowledging his love. He admits: “Truth is, sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.” Preach. He’s also more direct about the harm done to him by perpetually unfulfilled emotional and sexual needs, yelling at Ennis that “you have no idea how bad it gets.”

We’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward them on account of the social repression that overshadows their torturous relationship, but neither Jack nor Ennis come off as wholly likable characters. They both knowingly inflict suffering upon their spouses. Ennis, by his reluctance and occasional shows of favor, manipulates Jack into staying invested in the hope for things impossible. It’s a sick reminder of the Power of Least Interest—he who withholds himself from the relationship has control. For his part, Jack simply doesn’t grasp the consequences that his actions and desires have on others. And he persists in hurting himself: when Jack learns of Ennis’ divorce, he drives all the way up to Wyoming from Texas, thinking that Ennis has finally made the decision to be with him. Ennis declines, to no one’s surprise, leaving Jack to drive off in tears, except it’s his own damn fault. Jack made this idealistic, grand gesture that he had to know, somehow, would ultimately fail. This isn’t some lofty Hollywood romantic drama at work but rather the mundane tragedy of miscommunication; Ennis keeps trying to tell Jack that he won’t commit to a life together, but Jack just isn’t really listening.

Speaking of listening, I swear I’ve never had to work so hard to make out a character’s words as I did with Ledger’s Ennis, when he speaks at all. Nobody talks very much in Brokeback Mountain. There is SO MUCH DAMNED SILENCE in this film.

I also didn’t necessarily remember after eight years that Ennis and Jack’s first sexual encounter is also the only one actually depicted on screen; they kiss far more than they have sex. And when I watch them in that first encounter, I honestly think it’s to the film’s benefit that there isn’t more man-sex. Still, Ledger and Gyllenhaal handle it as best they can. In fact, watching the two of them makes me kind of uncomfortable. The logistics of it are also . . . Er. That shit doesn’t just happen, folks. It takes some serious fortitude to attempt bottoming with no preparation and just a spit of saliva for lube. It’s ambiguous sex though, which is of a piece with Ennis and Jack’s entire relationship, and it’s yet another reason that I’m reluctant to call Brokeback Mountain a love story.

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Whether or not you think Brokeback Mountain is primarily a love story, there’s little question that the film’s secondary focus centers upon what my academic colleagues would call the “performance of masculinity.” When Jack and Ennis first meet, they stare silently at each other, as if sizing up their plan of attack should killing each other become necessary.  They declare to each other on Brokeback that they’re most definitely not queer, reinforcing their masculinity, despite all later evidence. (It’s also worth noting that their intended meaning of “queer”—i.e., homosexual—differs from contemporary usage, which applies the term more commonly to questions of gender identity.) For what it’s worth, Ennis does code that he’s gay at least three times:

  1. Early on, when he and Jack discuss the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals, Ennis quips of Jack that he “may be a sinner, but I ain’t yet had the opportunity,” and the sin in this case is clearly homosexuality, or more directly, gay sex.
  2. Later, in one of his extramarital trysts with Jack, Jack asks, “What are we gonna do now?” Ennis replies, implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of his love for Jack, “I doubt there’s nothin’ we can
  3. Finally, during the fight that has been twenty years in the making, Ennis identifies with precision an experience known to anyone who’s spent time in the closet: the sensation that complete strangers somehow know you’re gay. It’s unnerving at first, particularly if you’re not out, but you get used to it. Still, the fact that he can articulate this seems fairly indicative of Ennis’ sexuality.

Repression of feelings, abusing your wife (Ennis), or lashing out at your wife’s asshole father (Jack)—these all offer examples of acting out within the parameters of rural Midwestern masculinity. Broadly speaking, that masculinity still holds sway over a large swath of society; despite gains in legal protections, plenty of places still exist where Brokeback Mountain’s culture is alive and well. “Bromance,” that bon mot of our time, gets lampooned so often that it can be hard to spot real love between two men not in a “traditional” romantic relationship, and straight guys most of all seem to have taken up the bromance as another way of “performing” their particular masculinity. For Ennis and Jack, their masculinity links inextricably with the formal boundaries of their relationship, and the implications the blurring of those boundaries has for their sense of themselves as men engenders considerable confusion.

As for me, when I finally realize that I’m in love—to some varying degree, and yes, there are degrees—with someone, the feeling isn’t elation, or giddiness, but rather dread; from the recesses of my mind comes an ugly little voice that tells me: You’re not supposed to be in love with this person. You’re not allowed. You might think I’m referring to a straight guy, and with good reason—there’s certainly an urban trope of sorts, involving the young gay man who falls for his unattainable straight best friend—but I’m not. The most confusion arises when the other guy is also gay (and if you don’t believe me, just google “can two gay guys” and watch the auto-suggest list). The performance is not of masculinity but of the formal boundaries of relationships. The anxiety comes from hoping that you don’t cross them in the wrong way, whether purposefully or inadvertently. And as much as I have learned to navigate life openly as myself, I still have a long way to go.

I rarely view—or re-view—a film with as much personal context as I have for Brokeback Mountain. I understand now how it can elevate one’s experience, like watching a movie on steroids, and have the result be a viewing that sticks with you and becomes memorable. My recent struggles differ, of course, from those faced by Ennis and Jack, but there’s a lot I can identify with now that I’ve had to grapple with it for myself. I don’t know if Brokeback Mountain will always mean something to me, but at the time of this re-view it certainly does, and that’s honestly a pretty novel thing for me.

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What I do know is that Brokeback Mountain is one fucking beast of an amazing movie. It reaped accolade after accolade, and the controversy surrounding its failure to capture the Oscar for Best Picture rivals that of the actual content of the film itself. It makes you wonder a little, and the enthusiasm that people express for the movie makes watching it that much more engaging, as you put yourself in the shoes of film critics. Its strengths are such that teasing out the weakest parts of the film is an enjoyable challenge in the subtlety of analysis. Is it a love story? No . . . and yes.

If you haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain, you should. It’s not just that it will feel as familiar as your favorite pair of broken-in shoes to anyone who’s struggled, or still struggling, with an unfulfilled relationship that defies all easy classification. It will make you instantly grateful for all the relationships in your life that are not like those presented in the film. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, I don’t mean it to. This is one of those films that holds up on its merits alone, and doesn’t pander to its audience. I feel certain that it will still fare as well after forty years as it has after ten.

Free-Floating Thoughts

– When Ennis flips over the final postcard and sees what’s stamped on the back, I was all: Fuck, well that’s ironic.

– I’m pretty sure now that Aguirre’s sheep herding was in fact illegal. He makes a couple of references that imply he’s trying to avoid detection by the forest service, because it’s great that the government pays to maintain ecologically healthy wilderness, just as long people can use it for their personal profit. I’m too tired to take a swipe at pathological anti-government types, so I trust y’all will think of one your own.

– Sure, boys, just go ahead and eat any old wild creature you shoot with a rifle. Because there’s no chance said animal might be diseased or carrying parasites or anything. Nope, not a chance.

– Do you just learn to stop having hangovers if you drink that much whiskey that regularly?

– When the contraception runs out, Ennis and Alma stop having sex. Here’s a lesson, kids: condoms.

– Poor Michelle Williams. Having drawn the short straw on the poster child show for teen angst on Dawson’s Creek, she still can’t get ahead, this time in the angst-ridden world of gay cowboys.

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Ten Years Ago: The Producers

31 Dec producers1

Maccewill “Elizabeth” Yip rewatches the movie version of the Broadway musical version of Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning 1967 comedy classic The Producers and has words for director Susan Stroman and a focus on the film’s portrayal of campy gay characters.

producers1I’ve always had mixed feelings about the 2005 version of The Producers ever since I heard news about it during production. My very first thought was why the hell would they want to remake the 1968 movie? At this day and age, why would they do this story in particular? However, as I read further and as more news came in, I begin to change my opinion and got excited for the news. Mel Brooks would get involved! This is going to be based on the stage musical (*There was a musical version?*)! Most of the people from the original cast are going to be reprising their roles! Will Ferrell! Uma Thurman! Now I couldn’t wait!

Before I continue let me say that at this time I hadn’t known much about or watched any live stage musicals, so I was completely oblivious to The Producers, “The Musical.” But after reading about the new film and learning about the live stage source, especially after reading the rave reviews and the awards it won, all I could think of is, “Cool! Since I never got the chance to see the show live, this film would be a way for me to catch the magic of the stage since they brought back most of the original cast for the movie!”

So a friend, a fellow Mel Brooks fan, and I went to see the new film. Two-plus hours later we came out agreeing that it was a good film but not as great as we had hoped. The main thing I remembered we pointed out was the performance of Matthew Broderick. In particular, I felt that Broderick was just doing a terrible, over-the-top imitation of Gene Wilder’s hysterics from the original film. I was worried that that was how the whole movie would be like, but luckily it was only in the early scenes. We liked the songs, especially the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number and the use of the adding machine cranking sounds into the score. We liked Will Ferrell well enough, but not as much with Uma Thurman. Overall, I felt that there was something in the movie that didn’t gel properly, and it didn’t help when we compared it to the 1968 film.

Re-watching the movie now, after more experience watching musicals and working on stage productions myself, I now understand and can better voice some of the things that were nagging me. Some of it can be explained by the director, which is not actually Mel Brooks, who this time took the position of co-writer and producer. Instead, it was the person who had directed the stage production, Susan Stroman. Stroman have had a lot of credits as director/choreographer for her stage work, but The Producers is the only film in her record as director, and there are several parts where it shows. One was the blocking. Sometimes blocking on stage has to work around restrictions of space, or sometimes it has to be exaggerated to make an action or situation more understandable and to be seen clearly. However, some of these don’t translate on film. One scene that sticks out to me is the one when Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock is with one of his “financiers,” Hold Me, Touch Me, when Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom comes out, holding his jacket in front of his head, and walks towards Bialystock and the old lady before reacting to the action on the couch in front of him and running off. Why did Bloom have to walk towards the couch when there is so much space to realistically sneak away behind the couch? It’s an action that is understandable and probably more hilarious onstage, but with film, you can do close-ups, wide shots, and editing to show him trying to get away all while capturing his reaction to the frisky romp in front of him.

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Another issue I see is how some scenes seems a little static and stagey. Part of it is from the blocking problems mentioned before, but mainly it’s (a) not being able to take advantage of the environment, and (b) hesitancy of experimenting with the camera. Let’s start with the first reason. If you look at the original movie where Max is trying to convince Leo to go with the scheme all around New York, you see Max takes Leo on a ride to the carousel at the park, a ride in a boat at a lake, taking a view on top of a skyscraper. In all these shots, you see the characters engaging with the actual outdoor settings of New York. However, looking at a similar sequence in the 2005 movie, we see very little engagement of the characters to the environment. The only thing close is when they go from building to street to cab in the “We Can Do It” number, and later on at the fountain, which I will come back to momentarily. Watching it, I have the feeling as if they could have just put the actors on stage and do everything while just projecting the background behind them. I can even imagine one of those fake prop cars coming by as they do the part of them jumping into the cab. For the second reason, camera movement, let’s go back to the fountain scene. In the newer film, Lane and Broderick are seen mainly in a close-ups and regular two-shots, or shots where we see the two characters. We see a little movement, but it is mainly at the same straight angle. What was great in the original movie was that there was a shot where the camera is lower and we look up at Wilder on top of the fountain as he makes this great speech, all the while the camera follows him at that angle while he strolls around the fountain. It is a wonderful, more dynamic sequence that’s harder to capture on stage.

The music numbers overall were pretty good, like the “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop” and “Along Came Bialy,” but the two I felt were done particularly well in the film were “Springtime for Hitler” (of course) and “I Wanna Be a Producer.” However, those last two examples were effective because they were set on stage, real (in the play) and imagined (in Leo’s daydream), respectively. The ones I didn’t like as much were those that were meant to be located in a real setting, but suddenly feels staged and static, a good example being “That Face” with Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman. They are dancing in Max’s office, which was cluttered, until it became a clean and open space for them to dance in. Plus, the scene is shot a little boringly, adding to the staged feeling. But as I said, I liked most of the songs well enough, and I found that most of the ones I liked had interesting additions to the soundtrack (adding machines in “I Wanna Be a Producer,” walkers in “Along Came Bialy,” and pigeons in “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop”).

Another mixed reaction I have with the 2005 movie is the casting. Most of those returning from the original Broadway cast were good. Although I still prefer Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, I felt Nathan Lane did pretty well with the part and made it his own. Matthew Broderick on the other hand I still have problems with. He’s a good singer and works well with Lane, but it just felt like he was trying to channel Gene Wilder, but instead went over-the-top. Since this was a translation from stage to film, it felt like Lane was able to pull back appropriately, whereas Broderick is still trying to project himself to a larger audience in a Broadway theater. Proof can be seen in the documentary Recording the Producers, which shows the original cast going into a studio and recording the songs they have done on stage. You can see almost all of them by second-nature inadvertently re-enacting their reactions and movements they have done on stage, even though they are only producing audio tapes in a studio. That is what I think happened with Broderick. Also from Recording the Producers, I was able to see a bit of the original Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar) and Ulla (Cady Huffman), and of the little I’ve seen, I wished they would have used them in the film. Will Ferrell was not too bad as Liebkind, but I didn’t think Uma Thurman work at all as Ulla. Ulla needed to have a sweet but mischievous innocence, but Thurman has more of a strong, intelligent quality that doesn’t quite match. [Ed. Nicole Kidman dropped out before shooting, and I’m not sure either would have been much better.]

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The last thing I wanted to touch upon was something that was on my mind for a while and a reason why I chose this movie to review. In all iterations of The Producers there are the characters of Roger DeBris, the director, and Carmen Ghia, his common-law assistant. They are flamboyantly gay stereotypes, probably more so in the musical and the 2005 movie with the music number “Keep It Gay.” When I first watched this scene, I thought it was fun and hilarious. When I re-watch it now, I still get the sense of fun and hilarity, but now it’s tinged with some awareness. I watch it thinking of how I felt being Chinese and having to watch films with Asian stereotypes and yellowface, or white people made-up to look Asian. So how can this get by, whereas everything from the musical onward had dropped the hippie character Lorenzo St. Dubois (LSD) because: (a) anachronism [the 1968 film is set in 1968, the musical and 2005 film is set in the fifties] and (b) the hippie flowerchild stereotype is now dated. In a time where openly gay Neil Patrick Harris can make jokes about gay culture and theater at the Tonys, but it is now verboten to tease about Caitlyn Jenner (remember that one of the explicit jokes in the play/movies is Roger wearing a dress), how do we know when we cross the line?

Before looking into this particular case, one of the usual justification is the need to understand the context and intent. In recent times, this explanation have occasionally been coupled with the critique of the current state of political correctness. Another way it is justified is noting how there is not only gay jokes, but jokes that poke fun of other groups. As Christopher Wallenberg said in his review of the film:

“It doesn’t hurt that the stereotypes spring from the warped mind of Mel Brooks, an equal opportunity offender if there ever was one. In The Producers, Brooks also skewers showbiz hucksters, sex-starved old ladies, various ethnic clans and, most famously, the Third Reich, with the same politically incorrect outlandishness.”

This explanation seems to be the one brought up the most in my research, especially by actors who are openly gay and playing a major role in The Producers on stage. Also popping up in my research was this little explanation from tvtropes.org of why the camp gay perception is persistent:

“The stereotype still survives because for some fraction of the gay male population, this is in fact Truth in Television. As such, this fact is greatly exaggerated by media, and this trope is made out to be more prevalent than it actually is. This can result in Unfortunate Implications, as it can lead one to believe that all gay men are (uber-)effeminate and, say, like flowers.”

After looking into it myself and evaluating the initial reason this scene was a little problematic for me, I have come up with one of my own reason. Over the years, a gay character wasn’t really openly visible on film. There have been a few that were implied, but you couldn’t explicitly show it. It is only recently in the last few years that we have out-and-out gay characters, and for many it is embraced as something to be celebrated. However, my hang-up was comparing this to the portrayal of Asian characters in American cinema, as well as what I know of the same with black characters. Throughout film history, Asian and black people have been shown on film more openly than gay people. However, with this visibility also comes the years of the presentation of the cultures’ stereotypes. Asians felt more of the sting because we had to deal with the additional insult of yellowface to this day, something that was found unacceptable in black culture as blackface many years earlier. So right now, the big movement is to portray different people as real people, to present the different cultures respectfully, or to just have a minority playing a character without the need make a point our or take note of his or her ethnicity.

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Currently, there is more awareness of gay culture in film, and so now we are beginning to see the turn of portrayal out of demand for better representation, just like those from the Asian and black communities. The spectrum of sexuality is broadened now to not only separate gay and straight, but bi- and transsexual. Recently, there have been criticism of Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal of a trans model in the newest trailer for Zoolander 2, which makes me wonder what would the reaction of the 2005 The Producers be if it were released today.

I still have the mixed reactions of this film as I had when I first viewed it ten years ago. There is just so much I loved from the original version that the 2005 really hadn’t had much of a chance. I’m glad they dropped L.S.D. (pun intended), Dick Shawn’s hippie character that has become dated in this and when he played a similar character in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. Although I still view the characters as a little too stereotypical, I like how Brooks was able to rework Roger DeBris character into the Hitler role in replacement of L.S.D.  Also, the 1968 film seems more grounded in reality, whereas the 2005, with some of its outlandish gags and meta jokes, seems closer in nature to Brooks’ later films like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Overall, however, I feel that I might have enjoyed this more when it was onstage than what I saw them try to translate into film and wouldn’t mind catching it if there is a revival.

Random Notes:

-Favorite song lyric: “Oedipus won’t bomb, if he winds up with mom.”

-The 1968 film made the Springtime for Hitler show seem like a full show, whereas the 2005 film, and I’m guessing the stage musical, made it seem to have just the one song number.

-The auditioning Hitlers feels like parodies from the ones in the 1968 film.

-Bing Bong (Richard Kind) is a juror! [Ed. He was one of the Bialystock replacements during the long Broadway run. Cameos abound in this movie from NY and LA alums.]

-Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from Doctor Who and Torchwood is the main tenor in Springtime for Hitler!

-In Recording the Producers, Brooks said that, when asked what his favorite film is, he is tempted to say Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, but realistically he would re-watch Top Hat or Shall We Dance. 

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Ten Years Ago: Memoirs of a Geisha

31 Dec geisha1
Rob Marshall followed up his Oscar-winning Chicago with an adaptation of Arthur Golden’s international best-seller. But did the translation to screen work? Sadie Rose doesn’t think so. Not one bit.
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10 years ago I was super excited to see this movie because I love this book. I’ve read it multiple times. It’s a basic story. (If Cinderella was a sex worker, which, come on, she totally would have been.) The book is well researched and beautifully written. Go read the book.

I saw this at the Guild 45 in Seattle. When I first tried to recall my movie experience, I thought, “I remember turning to my old roommate, Dani, and telling her how disappointed I was by the adaptation.” But then I did the math and realized I wouldn’t meet Dani for another two years. So whom did I see this movie with? I don’t know. I’m beginning to notice this pattern in my retrospectives. I always remember where I was, but have yet to remember who I was with. Very curious trick of the memory.

No matter who I was with, I remember thinking Rob Marshall captured none of the magic of the book. It was like vanilla missionary sex. Sure it was good. It was sex. But there was no messy passion or excitement or risks that could turn into rewards or embarrassment. It was all played very safely. Which isn’t to say it was bad, just underwhelming. So I was excited to watch it again. I haven’t seen it since 10 years ago in the theater with whoever that was, and it did win a few awards, so maybe I was too hard on it because I loved the source material. (It’s easily in my top 10 books.)

Then I watched it and oh, I was wrong. This movie is unnerving. Yes, it is a very accurate (maybe too precise) depiction of the book. It even uses (or over kills) the themes of water that are present in the book. And it is beautiful. The cinematography and art direction (which both won Oscars) tell much more of the story than the poorly written script filled with exposition (so much exposition!), which is an easy trap to fall into considering so much of the book is about a culture and time we Americans know little about. But there had to be a more artistic way to accomplish this task than dialogue of one character explaining the world to another character. The action that is kept in the script ends up making the book look like a poor man’s Lolita. And that is not what the story is about.

But don’t take my word for it (Reading Rainbow!). Let’s just explore the plot, not as it is presented by our leading lady Sayuri, but from the point of view of her love interest, the Chairman. He meets a crying nine year-old, Sayuri, on the street. She has beautiful blue eyes and he offers to buy her flavored ice to cheer her up, while talking to her about how much his children, presumably her age, love flavored ice (aka candy. He buys her candy! Straight up grooming behavior.) He lectures her on kindness and perseverance, which she adopts as virtues for the rest of the film. He then sees her six years later and orchestrates a way for her to become a geisha.* Once she becomes a geisha he mostly ignores her because the man who saved his life (Nobu) likes her. Nobu is a kind, hard working and moral man but disfigured from saving the Chairman’s life. The Chairman thinks this geisha is Nobu’s only chance at a little happiness. Then years later, the Chairman confesses his “love” for Sayuri, but only after Nobu tosses her aside. Technically the Chairman actually confesses his love for her nine-year-old self, telling her how he made her a geisha and then calls her by her childhood name. She was NINE! Ew. Not to mention she has spent every moment since he bought her candy trying to gain agency over her situation, only to find out he’s been coordinating her entire life and she’s actually been a pawn in his creepy “I want to have sex with that nine-year-old” plan.  I know this plot is technically in the book, and that this summery is antagonistic, but how they chose to adapt it to the screen really grossed me out.

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The audience is undoubtedly supposed to be happy when they finally get together. It’s what the whole plot is driving towards. We are supposed to feel the love and admiration, but instead I felt like I needed a shower. And sure, if you’ve read the book, another way to read all this is that a major theme is the façade geisha woman put on. They are not seen as complete people but as performers, entertainers, shadows of woman, and the Chairman sees Sayuri as she was both before and throughout her journey, therefor he really loves her, not her artistry. The movie does try to get that idea across, but it just doesn’t stick, because Sayuri has spent more of the 138 minutes of the movie lustfully staring at the Chairman than speaking to him. The two have had, maybe, four conversations over the past 15 years. And while these conversations are the most deep of the film, they are super brief and really only as deep as a stagnant rain puddle.
*What is a geisha? They are high-end call girls. But don’t tell anyone who worked on the movie about that, as they won’t believe you. The script is filled with expositions like “We are not prostitutes,” “We do not work in that currency,” “We are not courtesans,” “We get clients on our feet not off them,” “We are true artists!” They don’t sell their flesh…um, but, they literally do. An important plotline in the film is the selling and bidding over Sayuri’s virginity. In fact one is not a full geisha until one sells their virginity. Sure, sex is not the only thing they do. They are trained in art, tea, and conversation. However, most sex workers will tell you companionship is what they are paid for, more than the physical sex. Just one modern day example: “cam girls.” They aren’t even in the physical proximity of their clients, but they are still sex workers. And trying to dismiss that work is a little insulting to the profession.
A positive is that the cinematography is rad. My favorite part is as young Sayuri tries to make her escape over the terracotta roofs of the city and she falls, the crack of her fall is the crack of Mother’s abacus in the following scene. Which considering Sayuri has been sold (into the sex trade – but is absolutely NOT a prostitute – ya, okay) and is in debt to her “Mother” (or madam or slave owner), it is just a really smart transition that explains how Sayuri’s fall will cost her. But in case you didn’t get it, or don’t know what an abacus is, Mother will explain it for you, in some hewn dialogue.
So this movie is one you can probably skip, unless you want to study cinematography, or how not to write exposition. However, if you haven’t read the book I do recommend it. It’s a page-turner, it gives you the feels, and you develop an understanding and compassion for a past culture and the sex workers who lived in it.
Extra floating thoughts:
Can someone explain why the movie opens with everyone speaking Japanese, then transitions into English with Japanese accents? It makes even less sense when the Americans occupy Japan by the end of the movie.
Chairman’s first words to Sayuri are “To pretty a day to be so unhappy…” Seriously, dude, you don’t know her. Her parents sold her into the sex trade. She doesn’t have to smile for you! But yes, by the end of the interaction he asks her straight up to smile, and she does it, and he pays her a large sum of money. For that smile. But not sex. Nope none of it is about sex. SMH.
Film Title: Memorias de una Geisha.

Ten Years Ago: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

15 Dec narnia2

Just in time for Hanukkah, Max DeCurtins re-views the smack-you-upside-the-head Christian allegory of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is perhaps not as delectable as either a Turkish Delight or Tilda Swinton’s White Witch.

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It’s an unfortunate truth that anyone who spends any time in Boston – that is to say, more than two hours – eventually must contend with the MBTA. The MBTA stands out to different people for different things, probably chief among them its perpetual tardiness, the fascinating way in which it takes you at least 45 five minutes to go anywhere no matter the route, and its habit of ceasing to function for much of the winter. For me, when I think of the MBTA, I think of train cars 20+ years beyond their service lives; and I think of C.S. Lewis.

You see, almost any trip on the T will reveal ads plastered about from a particular church that has apparently decided to make quotes from C.S. Lewis, in which he declares not only the importance but also the legitimacy of his religion, the centerpiece of its marketing campaign. (Never mind that faith shouldn’t really need advertising, much less with the kind of pseudo-profound phraseology characteristic of way too many posts shared on Facebook.) At any rate, I find it fitting that I associate the T with the world of Narnia; after all, both stop working in winter. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is like the T: you want it to work, and sometimes it does, but not nearly enough to call it functional in any reliable sense of the word. When the T does work smoothly, it does a fine job of approximating what public transportation should deliver under “normal” circumstances in a city as old and gnarled as Boston, but most of the time it’s a marvelous example of How Not to Get Somewhere On Time. And when it fails, it fails in spectacular fashion. But everyone wishes the T would work.

I first saw Narnia with a few friends who, like me, had little recollection of the series of books. I certainly haven’t read the books since I was in elementary school, so I can’t say how closely Narnia hews to Lewis’ body of work in the series. The movie shares some of the classic escapist elements that we find in Harry Potter and some of the same heritage as Lord of the Rings – Lewis and Tolkien were colleagues, after all – and yet Narnia carries little of the merit that the former two possess. Its fantasy inherits from a different sort than Tolkien, though both he and Lewis make war a central component of their respective literatures (more on this later). Lewis’ story and the world of Narnia rely on much thinner base material than does Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and it shows. By the time we’d finished the movie, we’d stifled any number of snorted laughs and rolled eyes at the screen or each other at least once every fifteen minutes. We’d just witnessed a train wreck, albeit a train wreck with some very pretty railcars. Narnia sucks pretty hard as a movie, but not all the time and in every way. It doesn’t lack for some nice visual artistry and cinematography, and it has a musical score that honestly shouldn’t work but somehow does. I wanted to like the movie, but its flawed source material holds it back.

For those unacquainted, the first installment of the Narnia literature describes the flight of the four Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy – from the aerial bombardment of London, their life at the manor of Professor Kirke, and their subsequent discovery of the magical land of Narnia, which they access through the imposing, handsomely carved wardrobe that sits upstairs at Kirke’s fabulous manor in the English countryside. The wardrobe, sitting by itself in an otherwise bare room, is actually one of the things that Narnia sort of gets right: it feels a little like a character in its own right, but sometimes the simplest transitory devices work best. First Lucy, then Edmund, and finally Peter and Susan pass through the wardrobe—in ascending order of age, for those keeping score. Each of the Pevensie children gains access to Narnia only when they are willing to believe that there’s a world beyond the wardrobe, even though they cannot see it. Sound a little like a religious claim? That’s because it is.

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I feel silly writing that Narnia suffers from a thoroughly religious subtext; most people familiar with the books and/or their author already know this, and those who don’t but know how to read between the lines will find the mapping inescapable. Once you see it, you see it everywhere (as is subtext’s wont). Aslan, meet Jesus. White Witch, meet Satan—or possibly Medusa, because the Witch’s wand turns people into stone just as Medusa’s stare does. Pevensie kids, meet the Apostles. Narnia is not exactly Heaven, nor is it Hell, but it’s a place that could be either hellish or heavenly, depending on who’s in power. It’s another realm beyond the world we know, and it’s there for the person with the right type of faith. Biblical references are at least partially responsible for the weakness of the story, but other narrative faults abound as well. There’s an almost comical premise for how all the Pevensie kids finally get to Narnia: they lose control of a cricket ball, which goes crashing through one of the precious stained-glass windows in Kirke’s manor house, inviting the irritation of Kirke’s housekeeper Macready. Let’s get real here – avoiding the punishment of the dour Macready for a mundane case of a cricket ball through a window really provides sufficient motivation for Peter and Susan to suspend their disbelief enough to be granted access to Narnia? It makes about as much sense as spilling a glass of milk on the floor and going, “Oh shit, I guess I’m ready to believe in Eternal Damnation after all.” This suggestion that anything mundane – and in fact perfectly explainable otherwise – could be just the push you need to believe in the promises of faith, and that those who believe in the promises of faith are rewarded, is something that Lewis wove throughout the Narnia series, and it’s one of the things that bothers me most about the church ads on the T that have deputized Lewis as their main marketing gimmick.

Not only could Lewis not separate his faith from his literature, he could not separate the concomitant narrow attitudes toward women from his literature either. Susan hardly ever seems like more than a naysaying future housewife and, if I remember the other parts of the Narnia literature correctly, she basically loses any ability ever to return to Narnia as soon as she’s grown up enough to be interested in boys, or at least enough to be aware that society had expectations of her. (Shortly after meeting Aslan, Susan rhetorically asks Lucy, “We used to have fun together, didn’t we?” Lucy chimes in: “Yes, before you got boring.”) Lucy, I would venture, doesn’t even figure into Lewis’ thinking except to provide gender balance among the Pevensie children and to play the role of the unquestioning believer. When Susan and Lucy get ambushed by Maugrim, they cower up in a tree, and apparently it’s Peter’s job to come running in with a sword and save the day. In fact, pretty much the only example we have of a physically strong, independent female who fights is the White Witch, but of course she’s the villain, so that’s not exactly flattering.

Tilda Swinton, as the witch, turns in perhaps Narnia’s only compelling performance, and while Jim Broadbent and James McAvoy do dispatch their roles well enough, the parts don’t appear in most of the story. And as much as Liam Neeson can be . . . Liam Neeson, one can’t help sometimes but wonder why he occasionally goes for the limpest, driest of roles (here’s looking at you, Qui-Gon Jinn). The rest of the personnel frankly don’t rise above forgettable, possibly because their characters run into the limitations imposed upon them by Lewis and/or the thinness of his story. Mostly this means the Pevensie kids, but it applies equally to the various legions of talking creatures that inhabit Narnia. Peter and Edmund, for example, have something of a fraught relationship as brothers, a perfectly fine opportunity for a bit of character exploration and development, but sadly Narnia leaves this bit under-addressed (it’s suggested only in momentary flashes that Peter and Edmund really do have brotherly love underneath it all). It doesn’t help the credibility of Peter’s character either that William Moseley has a Justin Bieber-level case of baby-face. 

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Narnia not only suffers from an overbearing religious subtext and generally leaden acting within under-developed characters, but it fails to address the main thing that shaped both Lewis and Tolkien as writers: war. Very little real discussion of war, death, and the reasons that either might be justified or not justified happens in this movie, which is honestly a shame. Even ten years ago, one could hear plenty of talk about war, as we do today (the 2016 presidential election notwithstanding), so it certainly would have been a relevant subject to explore in some depth. I don’t buy the argument that it’s inappropriate for the target audience, namely, children and tweens/teens. If Inside Out can manage to communicate, to this same target audience, an abstraction of identity and the idea of memories having mixed emotions, surely some of the philosophy surrounding war and death isn’t out of the question.

Moreover, Narnia perpetuates something that really gets my goat when it comes to escapist fantasy: the Pevensie kids end up back in the real world, after all that’s been said and done to establish this fantastical realm. Why go back? There’s literally a whole magical world out there in which the Pevensie kids have a greater destiny than the one that awaits them in the real world! That’s one thing that made escapist fantasy so attractive to kids like me: in the place to which you escape, you have a greater destiny than to suffer social awkwardness in school and a boring job as an adult. The premise that people in the real world need to believe that another world exists as a condition of that other world’s existence also brings with it the implicit value judgment that the real world is “better” somehow. Maybe it’s just me, but I really dislike this notion and the influence it exerts over escapist fantasy, meaning the kind of story that starts out in the real world but later shifts to the fantastical world. The whole point is the escape, and how the escape elevates us from a humdrum existence to a significant existence. If Peter Pan left Neverland and returned to London, he’d just be a boy – no more, no less. He would grow up and live a good, but probably unremarkable, life. Having the Pevensies leave Narnia – and having them cut off from it as they grow older and lose their capacity for faith, as happens later in the series – strikes me as anti-climactic and more than a little unfulfilling. Still, I don’t necessarily blame Andrew Adamson for this; he made a choice to adapt Lewis’ book, not rewrite it. And while, as I’ve said, Lewis’ flawed material accounts for most of what makes Narnia a mediocre movie, I also stated at the beginning that not everything about the movie is bad all the time. The music is one example.

The score sounds unlike almost any other score I can call to my mind’s ear, but what’s interesting is that I remembered the music in very broad terms over the course of ten years, while most of the acting and dialogue had long since vacated my brain. To be honest, I don’t know what I think of the music in Narnia. It’s a bit of cocktail: some Celtic music, a little basic orchestral underscoring, and a hefty dose of pop. It’s surprisingly good and yet somehow uninspired. About that hefty dose of pop: the beats – what Hal Sparks’ Queer as Folk character lovingly called the “thumpa-thumpa” – certainly do make themselves heard and felt, which by most measures should have been enough to trigger my pop allergy. (For those that missed it, The Atlantic has a fantastic recent article on commercial pop.) And yet. It kind of works in Narnia? I think? Certainly the popified and the “exotic” music sound far more polished than the straight-ahead orchestral cues, but composer Harry Gregson-Williams seems out of his element when trying to stitch together larger sections of material. But overall, it’s relatively coherent. Most of the main themes divide neatly into compact antecedent and consequent phrases, and they tend to reappear without much development. The whole point of leitmotifs is to develop them, to add the nuance that hints at complex emotions; the music is transformed just as the characters are. Still, much of the score for Narnia features lush harmonies and orchestration, with quite respectable use of non-standard orchestral instruments such as the trad flute, the hammered dulcimer, and a folk violin (possibly with sympathetic strings). Mr. Tumnus’ “Narnian lullaby” gives its solo melody to a muted trumpet, showcasing a classic technique for making standard instruments sound exotic by blocking or altering the sound leaving the instrument. It’s effective, as is the film’s single use of pre-existing music, the popular rendition of the song – now almost a century old –  “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” by The Andrews Sisters. We hear this as the Pevensie kids play hide-and-seek, but when Lucy first enters the upstairs room and spies the draped wardrobe, the song distorts, echoes, and fades out, a sonic representation of the wardrobe capturing her attention, and ours. It has an almost overwhelming potential to sound cliché, yet somehow it doesn’t. The score, like the movie, isn’t especially daring or original, but it’s not terrible and provides ample material to be reused in the following movies in the series, which is honestly a big part of its job—at least, if the series is to have any artistic cohesion. I frankly surprised myself when I concluded that the score counts among the better things about Narnia. Apart from this, some sweeping cinematography, and amply atmospheric CGI landscapes, there’s not a whole lot to recommend the film. 

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Narnia isn’t so terrible that I wouldn’t consider idly watching it again, especially if someone else elected to see it, but it’s hard to see ten years later how it deserves the 76% fresh rating it enjoys on Rotten Tomatoes. Ah, well. I suppose it’s all relative, right? If the MBTA worked normally during three out of every four trips, we in Boston would see that as a mild success. It still wouldn’t get rid of the church ads, though.

Free-Floating Thoughts

I realized only after a couple of re-views that it’s pretty unclear (perhaps intentionally so) whether the Pevensies’ father is actually alive or not. Adamson should have played this up a little, as it could have added something interesting to the movie.

Man, does this story date itself: Turkish Delight, a type of gelled confection dusted in powdered sugar, used to be hugely popular in Europe but most likely would have been difficult to obtain and expensive during wartime. My lone surviving grandmother likes to talk occasionally about the rationing of staple foods during WWII, and something like Turkish Delight, especially if made with more exotic flavorings, would have been a rare treat.

Did J.K. Rowling steal the idea of a steam engine train out of London from Lewis? The more I consider it the more plausible it seems.

When Father Christmas shows up randomly and gives the Pevensie kids their weapons, I literally wrote in my notes: “IS SANTA AN ARMS DEALER NOW?!?!”

Do you think any of the secret police dogs ever peed on the lamp post?

I’m guessing that C.S. Lewis probably never envisioned this scenario:

 

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Moments later, the White Witch rolls up and, confused, tries to tempt the probe with a firmware upgrade.

 

Ten Years Ago: The Libertine

3 Dec

Maggie McMuffin reviews the sexiest of Thanksgiving film releases, The Libertine, a nearly forgotten part of the Johnny Depp oeuvre which, Maggie contends, really ought to be remembered. Because how can you forget John Malkovich talking about tiny pineapples? You can’t.

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I need to talk about my mom.

I mean, in order to talk about this movie, which I went and saw in theatres at the age of 15, I need to talk about my mom.

My mom is not the slutty parent. My mom is not the parent who gave me the birds and bees talk or bought me my first tampon. My mom is not the parent who had the revolving door of partners until I was 14.

And yet, my mother was the parent I watched sexy films with.

My mom did not want me looking at porn. She did not want me on birth control lest I start having sex. My mom had her own rough relationship with sexuality that meant she couldn’t really talk about it outright or tell her very interested in sex teenage daughter about it.

But like every former Catholic, my mother had found loopholes. Things that allowed for safe exploration with minimal guilt.

My mom’s personal loophole for raunch was period films. She never was one for bodice rippers that came in book form but you give her a glorified Masterpiece Theatre and she is on it.

I should mention here that in high school my mom was my best friend. My friends all loved her. I was not considered weird for spending full weekends with my mother because my mother was referred to as “Mrs. Weasley” by my peers. My mother and I frequently saw movies together, the exception being horror films (which I will talk about next month), and therefore I got to see a lot of R-rated films. It was sort of an unspoken bonding exercise to go see movies that titillated us both but for us to then discuss the costumes and the sets.

The Libertine was billed as a racy film but surely it could be no worse than, say, Dangerous Liaisons or any film from the ‘90s starring Ralph Fiennes. This had Johnny Depp in it, so it would be smoldering but not explicit. And the character was a playwright so it was probably like Shakespeare in Love or something similar. Me and my mom, teenage hormone cluster and single 30-something, were sold.

Let me tell you, this is not a film to watch with your parents.

It’s not just that the film is blatantly sexual, with Johnny Depp finger-banging his wife in a carriage while recounting the story of their Meet Cute (he kidnaps and rapes her) in the first half hour. It’s that this film has consequences to that sexuality. You get a weird tree orgy (I think? I always write these sections before my rewatch and I am convinced this film has an orgy under a tree and there’s fog and a bajillion people but I also feel like maybe I made this up) but you also get Johnny Depp pissing himself and losing his nose to syphilis.

So it’s a double hit. You get all the sex that’s awkward to watch with your parent but then your boner gets cut off at the knees in the third act so you can’t even enjoy it.

Come to think of it, maybe this was the perfect film to have watched with my repressed lapsed Catholic mother.

Twice actually.

Because we ended up buying it on DVD. From K-Mart. Since WalMart deemed it too explicit to sell. I had no idea that even happened.

I watched it more than my mom did. I think it was a bit too hard for her. There’s no happy ending or weddings. But proto-kinky me? This movie was candy. I read through all the info on it online (it’s lit entirely by candles! No electric lights used at all! That has nothing to do with sex, it’s just really neat!) and rewatched the scenes where they spoke of abduction.

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But then guilt crept in on me and I felt really weird watching that movie in our small house. It wasn’t subtle enough to just watch and get a little turned on and leave it at that. When your daughter, who you know has an interest in sex, is watching a movie about a historical figure famous for slutting it up and then dying of syphilis, well…my mom never said anything because she’s always done this thing where she didn’t want me to have her hang-ups and just sort of ignored stuff I did in case she accidentally shamed me and gave me a complex. Silent support. But it was easier for me to ignore her ignoring me if I could plug headphones into a computer late at night or read a book with a nondescript cover. Knowing she was ignoring me and just letting me get on with my life was…it was weird. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t that I felt guilty about learning about sex and kinks and grabbing any straws of them that I could; it’s just that I felt weird having my mom know about it. She’s my mom. She didn’t need to know that I was having dubcon fantasies at 16 any more than she needed to know that I hadn’t even kissed anyone yet. That is my business. Parents just don’t need to know your sex stuff.

This movie was the first time I had ever really thought of that. I had always known my parents had sex lives but the idea that they could realize I had one, even a strictly fantasy one, had never occurred to me. Before I would hide stuff because it was “bad” that I was reading sex scenes (even though I got them from grandma’s bookshelf or the public library) or it was “Oh, just this great play!” when I was studying monologues for acting class. This was different. This was real sex. This was legit pants feelings. This was adult feelings. And adults can’t just go around yelling about what they want to do with their genitals.

Anyway, I haven’t watched The Libertine since that realization, despite the fact that I remember it having plenty of other merits. I’m really looking forward to re-watching it though because while my taste in sexual outlets has changed (as in, I can just have sex now rather than relying on Hollywood to fill in the gaps) this movie still has things I like: witty banter, Johnny Depp before he became a caricature of himself, and John Malkovich talking about pineapples.

I really like that last one.

Before I start the review portion I would like to say that I am drunk because I chose to emulate Rochester and not because I waited until the last minute to finish this movie and write this up and that last minute happened to be Thanksgiving and I sat in a corner of my friend’s apartment watching the last half hour and trying not to cry into my champagne while the rest of the party watched YouTube videos.

That did not happen. I was totally on top of this masterpiece.

And a masterpiece it was.

Why don’t Johnny Depp fans talk about this film? Why doesn’t anyone talk about this film? It flows well, has great performances, stellar female characters, fantastic back and forth, and amazing pacing. It legitimately makes me wish I knew more about the history of England because I’m sure that could only enhance the viewing experience. This movie is, granted, very depressing in the end, but it is also hilarious in a biting way and it has a musical number about dildos that doesn’t feel anachronistic at all.

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The film opens with a slow fade to “produced by the Weinstein Company.” As my partner said, “That’s how you can tell it means business. It’s not Miramax.” And indeed, this film is not fucking around. We continue our slow fade to a candlelit history lesson (giving it a flickering filtered quality that really works) about the Restoration. King Charles II has created an England where “theatre, the visual arts, sciences, and sexual intercourse flourish” but so do war, economic shit, binge drinking and war. “By 1675 the hangovers kick in, A desperate Charles turns to one particular friend.”

And then Johnny Depp kicks off the film with “Allow me to be frank…You will not like me.”

What follows is a monologue about how women will want him but should stay away, for he is a scoundrel who is always up for sex. Men will dream of him and live vicariously through him and think him more enlightened. He waxes about orgasms being the source of inspiration and knowledge, that some will think he must find his genius at the end of his cock. More importantly than us not liking him is the fact that “I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and I DO NOT WANT YOU TO LIKE ME.”

This could have been a bad attempt at grittiness, a male lead who manages to be admired despite being an asshole. This isn’t that film. People love Rochester despite themselves and his behavior and as the film progresses their love diminishes. Whether the King, his playwright peers, or the various women he lays and loves, in the end they all at least have him at arm’s length and pretty much tell him they’ll make sure to speak well of him when he eventually dies of syphilis.

I don’t even want to do my usual style of straight-up synopsis for this film because I want everyone to go see this movie. It’s 3 bucks to rent on Amazon instant and 6 bucks to buy.

But I should tell you some of what makes this film great.

1) Johnny Depp should be remembered for this role

Seriously. He is a revelation and I firmly believe this is his last great performance. (I have heard arguments for Rango but have not seen it.) It’s all the best parts of Depp. His charm, his bad boy charisma, his ability to make any suggestion sound sexy. Also his ability to just be fucking foaming at the mouth indignant and lash out at people around him. He pisses himself and cries and makes it tragic despite having played a total jerk for the last 90 minutes. You never feel safe with Rochester but you feel compelled by him at every turn. Who won the Oscar the year Depp was nominated for this?

[Editor: Depp’s only nominations are for Pirates: CotBP (2003), Finding Neverland (2004), and Sweeney Todd (2008). 2005’s noms were Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), and eventual winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote).]

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2) The women ROCK

This film doesn’t ever pass the Bechdel Test but the women do tear Rochester apart. Rochester’s favorite sex worker (who is also an actress, like most of the prostitutes in this story) propositions him in front of an entire theatre and later on meets him in a hallway after he says he brought his wife.

“Did you miss me?”
“I missed the money.”
“Good. I hate a whore with sentiment.”

Later they develop an honest-to-god worker/client relationship with her advising him on a budding romance and her asserting the boundaries of her emotional labor. She says that she will not care for Rochester and if he made her do so she would never forgive him. But they are friends, even if she will not be his true mistress.

His wife, Elizabeth, is played by Rosamund Pike. I think this or Pride & Prejudice was the first thing I ever saw her in and this role stuck with me. She stands dutifully by as Rochester debauches his way through London, eventually losing it when he says he would prefer to sit in portrait with a monkey than her. Their Meet Cute is literally a rape that is discussed as “abduction” and clearly a game they play. He asks her to speak of it and she does, fondly, leaving out graphic details but not being shy. On the way to London he finger-bangs her in the carriage to orgasm and has her suck his finger after she relays the whole story of him abducting her, being thrown in the tower, and then her refusing all other suitors. She tells the story gleefully. It’s really hot. And it is equally sad on Rochester’s death bed when he asks for the story and dies after the point where he takes her. Between those two points we see Elizabeth confront him about his alcoholism, his inability to care for her in person, only in letters, and flat out tell him that she could “bear our marriage more if there were no pretense.”

But the most important woman in Rochester’s life is perhaps his mistress, Lizzie. He turns her into a brilliant actress on a bet. She tells him upfront she will not be an accessory to his genius, something he can brag about creating. Through their mutual love of the theatre as a tool to stir admiration in others, they fall in love. True love. Rochester truly falls for her in a way that is heartbreaking and the dissolution of their relationship is entirely on Lizzie’s terms.

She tells him that if he wishes to see her she’ll always be on stage and until then she hopes that “May I be ever in your heart, sometimes in your thoughts, and never in your debt.”

They are two people who teach each other how to live life better without truly teaching each other to just become better people. Rochester never stops his bad habits and Lizzie never loses her ambition. They push each other and change each other and perhaps if they had met earlier in life they may have had a happy ending together. As it is, their breakup is honest (for he has learned to be honest but gentle and she has learned to be honest entirely) and one of the best I have seen in a film of this kind.

3) MALKOVICH

Charles II is obsessed with science and considers it the true sign of men’s abilities. His utmost proof of this is the tiniest pineapple, grown in England, which he hands to Rochester with a flippant air.

Malkovich also originated the role of Rochester in the play the film is based on, so I imagine this was fun for him. He approaches Rochester with patience, even when he’s at his end, and rarely raises his voice. Malkovich feels like a king and, more importantly, an actual politician who must navigate budding wars and economic recessions. He tries so hard to get Rochester to work for him and be his Shakespeare because he believes in his talent but also because he really needs someone to help his image.

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4) THE TREE ORGY HAPPENED AND IT EVEN HAD A POINT

But like all the other sex in this film it’s not explicit. It could be shown on TV easily. And the sex scenes read more like certain nude paintings (which I can’t name due to my lack of knowledge) thanks to all the fog and dust and candle flickers. They are all sexy in different ways without straying into being gratuitous. Which is great because there is eventually a play where the actors are expected to have sex and where a chorus of women go to town with some dildos. There’s a giant cock wagon ON FIRE at one point. In this film, theatre is more fantastic and interesting than life and so it makes sense that the most graphic things we see are on the stage. Even Rochester’s death is portrayed with more beauty and dignity on stage than it is in reality.
“I cannot feel in life. I must have others feel for me here in the theatre.”

But the thing that really makes this film is that it is not a narrative about a lovable asshole. Just as the abduction story comes round again, so does the concept of being liked. Rochester tells Lizzie that she should ignore what people think of her as they fall into the categories of “stupid” or “envious,” but by the end of this film people dislike Rochester not because they are stupid or envious (though some are) but because he’s a selfish dick and the self-proclaimed “cynic of the Golden Age.” Charles tells him early on that “anyone can be against everything but there comes a time when you need to be for something.” The film is about Rochester learning to appreciate life, albeit far, far too late. His gruffness and hatred of the world, his inability to be pleased by anything more substantial than a monkey dancing to a violin, really does go to the core but it is also a shield against the world hating him back. He is a rightfully hated person, but what does that matter if he hates society more than it hates him? If he is smarter, quicker with an insult, and able to con his way into credit despite having no money, who cares what people think of him?

But he does care. He tries to win Lizzie back. He cries in Elizabeth’s arms. He repents over the death of a peer. And in the end we leave him asking us “Do you like me now?” before fading into nothing more than a character to be played on stage.

This film muses on the conflict between personal depiction vs. fact and Rochester lives that, making his own life into a spectacle until nature tears him down and brings him back to harsh reality.

Seriously. I cannot recommend this film enough. Yes, re-watching it I could totally pick out each and every scene that counted as formative or my sexuality but I also picked up on so much that my precocious and smart but still 15-year-old self missed out on. Like Rochester this film is more than debauched sex and depravity. Hidden under that is hurt, heart, and the ability to have people hang on every word.

All the said, I am probably never gonna watch it with my mom again. I did recommend it to my boyfriend’s mom though!

Out of Context Lines That I Liked:

“I love you, Johnny. Don’t fuck it up.”

“My name is Alcock. ‘Little Clitoris’ is above my range.”

“Now. Bring me the monkey.”

“I believe that men are hurdles to be negotiated.”

“Any experiment at life will be carried out at your expense.”

“I am condemning you to be you for the rest of your days.”

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Random Thoughts

— Rochester’s mother is sadly not fleshed out more. She’s mostly just there for religious flair.

— Jack Davenport is in this and I love it and I love him.

— Everything in this film is filthy. I love period films where things are actually dirty and you understand why people got sick and died all the time.

— WIGS. WIGS AS FAR AS THE EYES CAN SEE. SO MANY WIGS. But none made of pubic hair as far as we know.

— Pretty much every actress we meet is also a prostitute but they are presented as getting to set their own rates and services. Their manager is an older woman who is invested in women getting to be on stage. The actresses also fucking patrons (as was common in theatre for a pretty good amount of time) is never presented as a hurdle to women being respected as actresses either, just a matter of business.

— Two of Rochester’s peers balk at services and prices but seem to at least pay what they are asked and are never shown as arguing with the women, just complaining to each other about things that displease them. It’s pretty rad.

— There is a lot of stuff that Lizzie says about being truthful and how much it hurts to be truthful. In the end her art is better because she is being natural and honest on stage. The trade-off is that she too becomes an honest person and she’s got some cold stuff to say. However, I love her. I love her so. And I love that her eventual honesty isn’t used to turn her into a hateful bitch but just a woman standing up for herself. It contrasts with Rochester’s honesty which is selfish and cruel and, while it does hurt him after he’s near death, he accepts it and respects it because there’s no real comfort in lies.

— They never show the portrait that they paint with the monkey and I understand that’s probably a budget thing but goddamn I wish they had pulled the cash together for that. [Update: Monkey portrait found!]

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Ten Years Ago: Žižek!

25 Nov zizek1

In her re-view of Žižek!, a much-more-well-read-when-it-comes-to-philosophy-than-she-was-ten-years-ago Yasi Naraghi considers retitling her dissertation “I hate Žižek” – or at least using that as a chapter title.

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Žižek! (2005) dir. Astra Taylor

I’m not quite sure as to why but the early to mid 2000s, as I remember it, saw an influx of films about celebrity-philosophers (or should it be philosophers-cum-celebrities), three of which, for better or worse, have stuck with me. There was the 2002 Derrida, undeniably the superior of the three, and then a horrendous Deleuze documentary whose title escapes me but I clearly remember seeing it with a couple of my friends in a small theater. We should’ve known it was going to be a painful experience when, before the film, it was announced that we would be issued refunds since the theater decided it should be a free screening. But instead we endured 80 minutes of artists, scholars, and scientists merely say the word “connectivity” every 30 seconds. We relieved our discomfort by snickering throughout the film to the dismay of the Deleuze cult seated in the row ahead of us. And then there was 2005’s Žižek!, a film not as pointless as the Deleuze one but quite close.

I had blissfully forgotten about its existence until I saw the title on the 10YA page and said to myself, oh yeah, that shitty movie. What the hell, I’d watch it again. So I did. If you are familiar with the polished and glossy format of Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to… duology, then you would be decidedly disappointed in Astra Taylor’s Žižek! While Fiennes’ films are sleek, structurally succinct, and whimsical, Taylor’s Žižek! is, to put it nicely, a fucking mess. The cinematography and camera work are beyond amateurish, there is no narrative structure even though the film is divided under subheadings, and Žižek, the man, rambles on too much. You might say, of course Žižek rambles on, he’s a narcissist, that’s what he does. To which I will reply with a series of film terminology such as editing and script – and yes, documentaries are or at least should be scripted. It’s clear that Taylor belongs to the cult of Žižek and is more than satisfied to be in his presence and listen to everything he spews out.

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The documentary, or rather Taylor, follows the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as he travels around, mainly, South America giving lectures. Before the opening credits Žižek conjectures on the universe and love, “what we call creation is a kind of a cosmic imbalance, a cosmic catastrophe, that things exist by mistake. And I’m even ready to go to the end and to claim that the only way to counteract it is to assume the mistake and go to the end. And we have a name for this and it’s called love.” I’m not quite sure if the intent of this framing is to establish the film’s line of inquiry or if Taylor simply liked it as an assemblage of words. I’m sure I didn’t care either way when I first watched this film at the age of 18. But now I care and I care fiercely because since it is a preface to the film, I’m desperately searching for any semblance of continuity. There is no continuity and if there is one, it is accidentally established because Žižek repeats himself too much.

10 years ago, I let Žižek! wash over me unbothered by its inconsistencies. 10 years ago, I was finishing up my Bachelor’s degree in literature with a survey level knowledge of theory and philosophy. I planned on going to graduate school to study Polish literature so I wasn’t very invested in Lacanians or postmodernists. Fast forward 10 years and I’m in grad school, writing my dissertation. I have a basic knowledge of Polish, I still read Polish literature but my desires are definitely more aligned with philosophy and critical theory than Romantic Polish poetry. 10 year ago, I didn’t bother much with Žižek’s philosophical propositions. Now, I passionately disagree with monsieur Žižek and I don’t come from an analytical philosophy perspective. I would go as far as to say that I hate Žižek and his brand of philosophy and have successfully maintained this hatred even though there is no shortage of Lacanian Marxists around me.

Let me explain my distaste for Žižek: I find his work repetitive, uninspired, and ideologically contradictory. If this wasn’t a re-view of a film, I would in detail defend my position by citing evidence. But for now I will be as crude as Žižek in Žižek! (and elsewhere) and say, although his insistence on a return to class analysis is noteworthy, it is not only the means but the goal itself which nullify his claims of being a radical communist. My problem with Žižek is that his leftist rhetoric is a pretense that cunningly masks his liberal elitist position. This is obvious in the film as long as you don’t belong to the cult of Žižek. What’s more, his analysis more often than not returns to justify the same system[s] of which he is seemingly critical. It’s as if he’s incapable of imagining another framework through which to speak. His philosophy is a perverse exercise in the perpetuation of hegemonic powers.

Other Thoughts:

– The most entertaining part of the film is a segment from Nitebeat in which Barry Nolan interviews Žižek on his new book, The Puppet and the Dwarf. Not only does Nolan atrociously mispronounce Slavoj Žižek but he also offers us this gem in his introduction of Žižek, “Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst. He makes Freud sound like a simple Valley girl. Lacan’s theory of how the self works is so complicated it makes my teeth hurt to think about it.”

– I once dated someone who definitely belonged to the cult of Žižek. On my 25th birthday, he gave me Less than Nothing with an inscription along the lines of “every scholar needs a Žižek on her bookcase.” When we broke up, I gave it back. I wholeheartedly disagree with his sentiment and my bookcase is better for it.

– I checked out the film from the University of Washington libraries. Here is an image of the cover:

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– Žižek doesn’t think he can find red wine in Argentina but he can definitely find “pretty girls ready to have an affair.”

– Žižek keeps his clothes and bed sheets in his kitchen cabinets. How tiresomely eccentric.

– At one point, Žižek says, “Every time I talk about politics my heart isn’t in it.” My response is, “Then stop talking about politics!”

– If interested, Žižek’s analysis of the current Syrian refugee situation is a testament to his perverse exercise of perpetuating hegemonic powers.

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