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.


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.


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:

– 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.

Ten Years Ago: Pride & Prejudice

25 Nov pride4

Sadie Rose isn’t big on the hair or the costumes, but what makes she of the rest of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice? I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer. Here is her re-view:


Pride & Prejudice
Dir Joe Wright

10 Years Ago I did not see Pride & Prejudice in the theater. Why? Because a brilliant trusted friend with impeccable style told me it was rubbish. And I believed her. A few months later I saw it on the new release wall of Scarecrow Video.

An aside for Scarecrow Video Rental: for non-Seattleites, Scarecrow is the best and largest independently owned movie rental store in the country. It is a mecca for film nerds. It has everything. Even Quentin Tarantino has been known to go there for research. If you like movies (duh, you’re reading this) and find yourself in Seattle, go buy a coffee from their barista and peruse the movie selections. In 2005, Scarecrow was my happy place. Now that I live in Virginia, I miss it, but am delighted to see it is now a non-profit. Long live Scarecrow!

So I picked Pride & Prejudice up off the wall and took it home. I was ready to hate it, hate Keira Knightley, hate the costumes, hate everything because my friend said I would. Lesson here: Don’t listen to your friends. They have a lot of baggage that allows them to misread good work. (But to be fair, she was right about the costuming. We’ll get to that later.)

I recall I enjoyed it, however I dismissed it because the bar was set so low. I didn’t like it enough to watch it again, or chose it over the 1995 BBC version (that I’ve owned for 15 years and have left on in the background for many a cleaning, crafting or sewing day). But I didn’t hate it. I actually really enjoyed Keira Knightley’s Lizzy. I recall thinking Keira made bold choices as an actor portraying a classic character. Some of Keira’s choices could have gone very badly, but somehow worked. I remember being really disappointed that my friend had rejected this adaptation because of preconceived notions.

Speaking of prejudice, I’ve never really read Jane Austen. I know. I tried to read Emma once, but about 60 pages into it I quit because the idea of being a woman in the 19th century pissed me off. These books are all about the rules of being a woman in this constructed society. Yes, I know, Jane Austen is critiquing it. However, I hated the constructs of being a girl in my modern time, so making me imagine being one in 1800 was enough to make me burn my bra. So I put the book down and walked away. I did read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies when it came out because, duh, zombies. I don’t recommend the book, but I do appreciate that it used Jane Austen’s writing so I have been at least exposed to her prose. It also allotted me the knowledge to recognize the famous speeches in every adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. And I do admire and swoon at them. Nevertheless, Matthew Macfayden rushes through every single one he has in this film. On one hand I appreciate him not holding them so precious but on the other hand he’s just throwing these great words away. It’s a hard thing to balance.

Now that I’m mature and sensible and less likely to let my anarchist tendencies run the show, I should try to read her again. This movie inspires that in me. This movie is good. Obviously it’s condensed and modernized, and maybe made for people like me who hate Jane Austen books, but Joe Wright did an amazing job for a debut film. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Why did I dismiss it 10 years ago?


The movie opens on a foggy English morning. We listen to birds chirp and watch the sun rise behind the opening credits. It’s a new day! Then we hear piano music and follow Lizzy as she walks the fields and yard to her house. Here we are introduced to all the Bennets and their messy house. Lizzy is obviously an outdoorsy kinda girl, evident by her being outside the house while her sisters run, play and read inside. Maybe she’s a little wild? There are many visual cues to this idea, of Lizzy loving nature, and being outside of conceived society throughout the movie. Most notably when she walks three miles to see her sick sister, with her hair down, which I’ll talk about in length later.

We receive news of Mr. Bingley’s arrival, we learn that the Bennet girls are unmarried, their mother (who is the worst!) is desperate to marry them all off to wealthy men because without the men they have and are nothing (I mean, seriously, my 15-year-old self is contemplating “is my bra supporting me right now or is it there to help me appear more worthy of men and life and existence in general? I should burn this thing.” Such bullshit, how did woman deal with this?) The scene is good, we see all the girl’s personalities, and I love when Lizzy makes a disgusted childish face as her parents kiss. She thinks she has it all figured out, but she’s about to grow up and embark on a journey of self-discovery. I know, cheesy, but cheese is good.

At the country party we are introduced to Lizzy and Jane and their super close sisterly relationship. In the 1995 version Jane is sooooo dull. She’s a sweet boring doormat of a woman while Lizzy is her cool confident sister. I much prefer Keira’s Lizzy who makes thoughtless faces and teases everyone and doesn’t seem to give a fuck what anyone thinks of her, and in comparison Rosamund Pike’s Jane gets to be this really cool joyfully sweet charming sister. A girl you can totally see awkward but adorable Bingley (and every other man) falling in love with.

At the country party, all the characters meet and greet. Darcy insults Lizzy, which she just can’t stand, so she puts him in his spot in front of his friends and her sister. Which men love. As Taylor Swift says, “Boys only want love when it’s torture.”(yeah, yeah, I know #notallmen, but remember Jane Austen’s preferred writing voice is tongue-in-cheek which, coincidently, so is mine.) And Lizzy likes to torture Darcy (well everyone) with her words. Darcy in return has no idea what to do with a girl like this. Just let her be and see what she does next? Smart man.


The next morning Jane is invited to call on Mr. Bingley’s sister. So Mrs. Bennet (who is THE WORST! I wrote this note no less than seven times while watching the film) sends her on horseback in the rain. Mrs. Bennet doesn’t seem smart enough to have a real plan, but whatever she thought it was, it worked even better because Jane is now sick and must stay at Mr. Bingley’s house for days. Hearing the news Lizzy invites herself over, which seems pretty crass for society, but we must remember Lizzy doesn’t give a fuck. Which is also evident by her wearing her hair down.

The whole hair down thing bothered me so much. It is historically wrong for Lizzy’s station in life. Wearing your hair down in the 1800s is just as bad as hogging the piano at a ball (Mary) or allowing your 15-year-old to flirt with every officer in the room (Mrs. Bennet) or talking about other people’s money (Mrs. Bennet!) or begging someone else to throw a party (again Mrs. Bennet you are the worst! And Lydia is just a mini you). It is so low class! And isn’t Lizzy supposed to be a lot better than her mom? I really hate this decision in the film, but I actually hated all of the costume and hair decisions. But, whatever, I get it, most viewers didn’t take a history of dress class. Lizzy’s hair down is another signifier of her wild-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and Joe Wright does show Darcy being floored by seeing a woman with her hair down (practically undressed!) and Bingley’s sister does harshly judge Lizzy for it, as the times would expect (although in the book she also judges Lizzy for her hair, but not because it is down!). Between the hair and Bingley’s sister’s ball gown (also historically, very very wrong. I don’t know what period it’s even from!) I was starting to lose it. AND all the women should be wearing gloves, and why are the men unbuttoned? Where are the Regency curls? Who the hell designed this?!? ARGH!

I had to just stop thinking of the costumes. It could ruin an otherwise good film.

Wright did a delightful job of capturing the electric feelings Darcy and Lizzie have for each other. Wright uses the lens to draw your eye to a touching of a dress, the moment you get caught staring at someone, or the awkward feeling you have after you have held someone’s hand, after you have let it go and suddenly your own hand feels foreign. How do you explain that feeling with only pictures? Joe Wright nails it.

At the Bingley ball, Darcy and Lizzy dance and she insults his reputation with rumors so now it’s his turn to put her in her place. He tells her she knows nothing and I was like, these two hate each other this will never work. Wright uses this moment to make everyone else in the room disappear and they are left alone to dance in silence. I probably wouldn’t have done it this way, it’s a little bit of hand holding, but they are two beautiful people in beautiful lighting, so why not.

Speaking of lighting. The lighting in this movie is gorgeous! Sometimes a little theatrical, but always crazy pretty. Pretty shading, pretty halos on the hair, pretty catchlight in the eyes (which really make Donald Sutherland’s blue eyes unbearably exquisite). It’s all so pretty. I wrote “the lighting is so good” as many times as “Mrs. Bennet is THE WORST!”


The next morning Mr. Collin’s asks Elizabeth to marry him in the poorest way possibly, which makes it easy for Lizzy to turn him down flat. She rants about how they will never make each other happy and runs out of the room. Obviously in the 18th century marrying for happiness is not a thing, especially for a girl with 4 unmarried sisters. It’s rather impulsive and reckless but it’s why we love Lizzy.

Her best friend Charlotte marries Collins instead, and after their union Lizzy travels to see Charlotte at Collins’ house. There she runs into Mr. Darcy again. He conveniently happens to be visiting his aunt, Lady Catherine, who owns Collins’ and Charlotte’s home. Here Lizzy just runs her mouth and says all the honestly dumb things she wants for the mere pleasure of getting a rise out of Lady Catherine and the men of society. Lady Catherine hates her for not following the rules and the men love her for being a rebel.

During Church that week, Lizzy prods Darcy’s friend for gossip on Darcy. She discovers it was Darcy’s idea to separate Jane and Bingley and she is distressed. On some level she must know her family is an embarrassment but she does not like hearing it.

In the worst timing ever, Darcy finds Lizzy after the service, in the rain, while she is processing all the new information. This is the moment he confesses his love for her. Bad timing dude! He reiterates how much her family and position in society sucks but how much he doesn’t care because she’s awesome. Seriously, not the right time for that, man. Obviously it doesn’t go well, Lizzy just heard all this and doesn’t want to hear it again. She lashes out at him and they have an honest but brutal conversation where they both do their best to hurt each other. It’s like a one-upper game, you hurt me with this, I’ll hurt you with that, and lets continue until we hate each other for being so cruel. You can only attack another’s weakness if you know them. They know each other.

Back with her family Lizzy suddenly knows when to hold her tongue. She doesn’t divulge all she has learned about Bingley or Wickham. And is rewarded with a vacation with her aunt and uncle. (“Oh, let’s just go see Mr. Darcy’s house. NBD. Lizzy is going to love the country and the gardens and the marble statues.”) In the book, after seeing Darcy’s stuff, Lizzy suddenly decides she loves him. (Ew, gross, right?) But again Wright (or maybe it was the screenwriter, Deborah Moggach’s idea?) makes a great choice of filming Lizzy enjoying Darcy’s marble collection. It is opulent and sexy and leads her to a marble bust of Darcy where she is seeing him as a possession. It’s true to the source material while also making it a more palatable modern romance. So smart!

Lizzy sees Darcy in the house and runs. He runs after her and we have a lovely scene where Keira gets to play both pride and humility at the same time. I love when actors get to work with two opposing forces. It’s always so interesting and difficult, and creates a relatable feeling.


Darcy performs some romantic jesters that involve securing men take care of the woman in Lizzy’s life. It’s patriarchal but obviously a big deal 200 years ago. These “romantic” jesters by Darcy toward Lizzy create a rumor that spreads to Lady Catherine. Lady Catherine comes storming in, in the middle of the night (which is also historically unrealistic, but whatever the movie is almost over.) Lady Catherine confronts Lizzy and tries to make her promise to never marry Darcy. Of course Lizzy refuses because she still doesn’t give a fuck what Lady Catherine thinks of her and knows she’d have it all (love, respect, passion and money) if she married Darcy.

Lady Catherine storms off. The next morning (probably not really, but it feels like the very next morning) Lizzy goes for her morning walk only to run into Darcy! They confess their love for each other as the sun rises on another new day and you feel as if they are beginning a grand story. Because Wright essentially started the movie in the same time (dawn) and place (field.)

Before the two can run off into a sunset they must spend the day convincing Lizzy’s family that this is a good idea. Keira Knightley gets to quote some classic Jane Austen and Donald Sutherland gets to be the best dad ever. Everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s a good movie and a smart modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. On this viewing I noticed what felt like three sluggish moments. They were three moments when Lizzy is alone as time passes around her. They work as beats between acts but I’ll once again wildly speculate (it’s my thing) that with all the other smart shots and intelligent choices, Wright used them visualize Lizzy’s inner self-realizations.

The first is directly after Charlotte tells Lizzy she is marrying Collins. In the scene Charlotte tells Lizzy off a little, for being foolish and not thinking of a woman’s future in this society. Pretty much “Grow up! Stop being a child.” Then we watch as Lizzy sits on a swing (so childish) as rain and time move around her.

The second is after her fight with Darcy. She is literally reflecting on herself in the mirror as the rain stops, the sun sets, and the candles come on around her. She has just learned that not giving a fuck has consequences for her family and her beloved sister, Jane; that the pride and prejudice of herself and others has hurt her and the people around her. Which changes her actions for the rest of the film: she holds her tongue with Jane, stops saying every little thing that pops into her head, and councils her father to think before sending his youngest daughter on vacation with officers. She actually calls it dangerous. Younger Lizzy would have not thought anything of it, she probably would have made a face and let it go.

The last is Lizzy standing on a cliff taking in the world while the wind whips around her. It’s a little cheesy, maybe unnecessary, but again beautiful. It seems to represent her desire to see the world and have mobility (the wind). Maybe it’s the moment she realizes that to achieve her core desires of freedom and being her own person she will have to work within the system around her. Which means actually being someone else’s person (Mrs. Darcy) but having a mobility and freedom that most woman in 1790 couldn’t even dream of. Which may also be why the movie ends in a super lovely-dovey scene where Mr. Darcy calls Lizzy Mrs. Darcy over and over and over again. She has achieved her goal, and we as an audience are happy for her, even if we think they should just stop.

So 10 years later, the movie holds up. The costumes and hair are bad, I could write 1,000 words on that alone. But the rest is beautiful. The acting and character choices are far more interesting to me than the BBC version. The lighting is art in it’s own right and maybe my favorite part, because I’m weird like that.

Free-Floating Thoughts

On the word “quite”:

I just learned that in England when someone says something is “quite well” they are saying it is “mediocre,” while in America we use “quite” interchangeably for “very.” So it was amusing when Darcy calls Lizzy’s piano playing “quite well” and everyone chuckles. He’s teasing her back, finally! Would not have known that two weeks ago.

On Darcys:

Ask a woman about her preference on Darcy and most I know lean toward Colin Firth’s adaptation in 1995. It was a phenomenon at the time. Firth Fever hit hard. However now I’m a little torn. On the one hand I love Firth’s Darcy because Lizzy changes him as much as he changes her. He starts as a truly snobby ass and ends realizing he shouldn’t make assumptions about people. As an actor he get a character arc, which is important. In comparison, Matthew Macfayden’s Darcy doesn’t get an arch. He seems genuinely shy and misunderstood and overly generous throughout the film. His performance is vulnerable and guarded at the same time. Which is, as I’ve said before, something I love to see actors do. Act opposing ideas. So, on a personal level, I really liked Macfayden. And when you only have two hours to tell someone’s story you can’t examine the pride and prejudice in all the characters. However I do like Firth’s for showing emotional equality in the sexes (gotta love some feminism), and for being true to theme and source material. And for actually reading the book. (Macfayden didn’t, but neither have I). It’s a hard choice to make.


Ten Years Ago: Saw II

31 Oct saw21

Stevi Costa is bored by Saw II and wonders about the budgeting and real estate technicalities when building a murder house.

saw21It’s Halloween again, which means it’s time for me to re-view the next entry in the Saw series! My husband tells me this one is his favorite Saw movie, and that one of the reasons he likes it is because it wasn’t originally intended to be a Saw movie. It was just a script director Darren Lynn Bousman had lying around that he could never get made, and so after the success of the first film, he and Leigh Wannell doctored it to make it fit the franchise. The story for thisSaw film is that a cop, Donnie Wahlberg, is being tested by Jigsaw, who is dying of cancer and is “cooperating” with the police. What Cop Wahlberg doesn’t know is that Jigsaw has kidnapped his juvenile delinquent son and has placed him in the game inside a warehouse with a bunch of other ex-cons who have been burned by cops . . . some of them specifically by Cop Wahlberg. This is all revealed to be an elaborate game not perpetrated by the Jigsaw we have come to know as Tobin Bell, but by his disciple Amanda – the final girl from the first film who embeds herself in the game in this one. This final reveal is not as cool as the final reveal from the first film, as it struck me on this viewing as very obvious. Jigsaw would never make someone who survived his game play again, even if Amanda had, as she said, “stopped being good” to herself. Amanda’s goal is to punish Cop Wahlberg for locking her up on an erroneous drug charge, and embedding herself in the game with Wahlberg’s son is a plot to lure Cop Wahlberg to a spooky abandoned house and begin to exact her revenge.

In my re-view of the first entry into the Saw series, I applauded its loopy narrative and multiple storytelling perspectives. I noted “these interlocking stitches of narrative go to show that Saw, as an experimental, low-budget horror film, is anything but linear, and these temporal, spatial, and narrative disruptions make it much easier for viewers to invest in the bottle narrative of the two men trapped in the dingy bathroom, being tasked with death.” But what’s both interesting about Saw II and a narrative problem for the film is that it’s a bottle narrative without the interlocking narrative structure to make the bottle story engaging. I found myself pretty bored by Saw II, which is weird considering its stark contrast to the first Saw should make it interesting to watch. It’s bogged down, however, by ill-formed characters that we never really get to know. What works for me about the original Saw is its inherent sense of character drama. Two men trapped in a room, waiting for death, allows for an in-depth character study. Seven strangers, reduced to stereotype and devoid of depth and characterization, waiting to be picked off one by one, is pretty boring. I suppose I should credit Saw II for avoiding typical horror movie character tropes here, but nothing about these flimsy characters seems subversive, just lazy writing.
saw22Here are some of the characters you meet in Amanda’s game: Cop Wahlberg’s son, Amanda herself, a hothead macho asshole named Xavier, some blonde woman apparently named Laura, a hot girl called Addison, a dude named Gus, some dude named Michael, some dude named Jonas, and a tweaker named Obi. I actually had to look up all these names because I don’t remember anyone but Obi and Amanda saying their names in the film. All of these folks have somehow been wronged by the law, which is the connecting thread among them. Most of them, as I mentioned, have some specific connection to Cop Wahlberg. This is notable only because it marks Saw’s first entry into an attempt at social commentary, basically amounting to the claim: “The law harms those most vulnerable and in need of its protection.” But there’s nothing in Amanda’s game that teaches a lesson to these ex-cons. She’s just using them as pawns to get to Cop Wahlberg, and that’s not only pretty fucked up, but also denies the film its ability to have any larger stakes than just the personal for Amanda and for Cop Wahlberg. That I couldn’t remember any of these characters names, or virtually anything they do in the film other than a couple of noteworthy deaths, is a major problem, though. Who are these people? Why should a viewer care that some injustice has been done to them? In some ways, the viewers are forced to see these people as disposable as Amanda sees them. And if I really meditate on that, that’s meaningful. But if I don’t, I’m just bored and wondering why Saw II just sucked away 90 minutes of my life without providing one ounce of the joy of the first film.

I suppose if there are any ounces of joy at all it lies in a couple of good gore moments. The bait kill at the beginning with the informant who just can’t dig a key out of his eyeball in time is a pretty good replication of Amanda’s bear trap-on-the-face scene in the first film. It’s also very satisfying when some middle class white dude within the game immediately disobeys a female character telling him not to do something and then takes a bullet to the eyeball. It is uncomfortable to see macho motherfucker Xavier throw Amanda into the pit of needles. It is satisfying to see Xavier cut the identifying number off of his own neck rather than possibly turning his back on Amanda. It is then immensely satisfying to watch Cop Wahlberg’s son slice Xavier’s throat with the actual saw from the original film.

But I otherwise found little fun in this entry into the Saw series.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

Who even are the other cops in this film? They are even less developed as characters than the ex-cons in the spooky house.

How much does it cost to rent a house in which you plan to murder a ton of people? Do you bother to rent it, or do you just assert squatter’s rights?

Also: how does one budget to retrofit a house for murder?

Also: how does Jigsaw finance all of his games? Does he have a patron somewhere we don’t know about?

This entry into the Saw series is pretty much the worst escape room game ever played.


Ten Years Ago: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

31 Oct

Jake Farley kisses and…bangs(?) out another viewing of Shane Black’s uproarious and twisty neo-noir Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

kisskiss1bKiss Kiss, Bang Bang was Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback vehicle in a lot of ways, despite the fact that it was not a huge hit. It’s easy to forget, in the wake of his massive, worldwide success playing Tony Stark, there was a time when RDJ literally could not get any work in Hollywood. Insurance companies wouldn’t touch him, afraid that he would wander off the set halfway through the shoot to go score some crack. In fairness to the insurance companies, they probably weren’t wrong. Downey had an incredibly rough time with drugs and alcohol throughout the ‘90s—the kind of rough time most people don’t come back from, which makes his current stardom all the more impressive. Even now, his contracts typically retain about 40% of his salary until the movie is wrapped, just in case. This movie, though…this is where it all started to go right for him. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang kicked off a string of strong performances from Downey in movies like Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly, and Zodiac, before culminating in 2008’s Iron Man, and the rest is, as they say, history.

I remember the first time I heard about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It was on a movie website I used to spend a lot of time on, and the writer (whoever it was is lost now to the mists of time and memory, unfortunately) raved about this weird neo-noir written by the guy who tells the dirty jokes before being murdered by the Predator in Predator and starring that washed-up actor from Ally McBeal. It had a pretty small release, and I wound up being lucky enough to live near a theater that showed it. I left the theater feeling that rare buzz you get sometimes from a movie that just clicks with you. I went back two more times over the course of the following weeks, each time dragging different friends with me (other movies which have inspired this reaction in me—The Departed, Dredd, Fury Road, Ong-Bak. Apparently I’m a fan of the old ultra-violence). I hadn’t seen the movie since then, though, and came to it this week concerned that it might not hold up as well as I remembered.

Happily, that did not prove to be the case.

In order to discuss the movie more fully, here is a brief rundown of the plot—Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small-time thief in New York City. One night, a toy store robbery (this is a Christmas movie, by the way—Harry is trying to find a specific action figure for his nephew) goes badly wrong and Harry’s partner winds up being shot by a trigger-happy bystander. Harry himself flees and inadvertently impresses a Hollywood casting agent, landing himself a screen test in Los Angeles, all expenses paid. A private detective named Perry van Shrike (or, as he’s known, “Gay” Perry, a pun I only just now actually got—superbly played by Val Kilmer) is hired to give Harry some on-the-job training for his potential film role. Harry also runs into an old crush from high school named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who had moved away from their mutual small-town Indiana home to become an actress years before. Between the two of them, Harry winds up being pulled into a classically twisty neo-noir plot—bodies turn up unexpectedly, murders both successful and attempted abound, and leather-jacketed toughs gruffly threaten our hero. To say too much more would ruin the fun of the film, as well as just go on for far too long. The fun of noir movies (really, this is true for most genres) isn’t necessarily in WHAT happens as much as it is HOW it happens.

kisskiss2As I mentioned earlier, the movie is a neo-noir. Plotwise, it reminds me of nothing more than a James Ellroy novel (though in fact it’s actually very loosely based on a Brett Halliday novel, which I have not read), where the heroes are morally ambiguous and the glitz and glamor of Hollywood just wallpapers over the meat grinder that is Los Angeles. What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. Shane Black wrote and directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and it feels like a culmination of much of his career—this is, after all, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. He’s clearly interested in action/mystery movies and just what makes them tick, what makes them appeal to an audience. In Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black flagrantly breaks the fourth wall over and over, and the beats of the plot are called out by Harry and Harmony via their shared love of a series of fictional formulaic pulp crime novels starring a character named Johnny Gossamer (the titles of the books we see in the movie are amazing, by the way—Die Job,Vein Attempt, You’ll Never Die In This Town Again, Straighten Up and Die Right, Kill The Big Ones First). The directing might best be described as “sure-handed”—Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance.

The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another. This is one of those roles that reminds you that, oh yeah, Val Kilmer can be great. I laughed harder at his irritated questioning of why, exactly, Harry peed on a corpse (because its presence startled him, basically) than I recall having laughed at any comedy film I’ve seen all year. They have the kind of rare on-screen chemistry that Shane Black seems to try and bring to every film he writes, but this is easily his most successful attempt at it since Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first Lethal Weapon movie. I’d watch a whole series of movies just about Perry and Harry together but, shockingly, this movie would be the last thing Shane Black wrote and directed for nearly ten years, until he was tapped for Iron Man 3.

Harry himself is a fairly interesting character, as Robert Downey Jr. is in full Tony Stark mode throughout the film. It’s a testament to Downey’s charisma that you almost instinctively root for a character who is clearly a shifty, thieving liar. Really, he’s so down on his luck that it’s hard NOT to like him. In the classic noir tradition, Harry is mostly armed only with a smart mouth, which gets him into and out of trouble throughout the movie. This is, in my opinion, where Downey first established himself as a genuine movie star, in the way that someone like Bruce Willis is a movie star, with a natural ease and charisma on-screen that compels you to not just watch him, but to like him as well.
kisskiss3Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan also deserve particular mention—both are fantastic. Michelle Monaghan initially seems like she will be a classic femme fatale, or at least a damsel-in-distress, but she winds up being just as competent and action-minded as Perry. She plays Harmony as tough, weary, world-wise, and excited by the fact that she has been drawn into a real-life mystery. Kilmer, as mentioned before, is as good here as he’s been in anything else. Perry’s constant exasperation and annoyance deliver the biggest laughs of the movie.

If the film has a major failing, it’s that the villain of the piece is largely regulated to a couple brief appearances at the beginning and end of the film, so he doesn’t make much of an impact. It’s easy to forget that as you watch, though, swept away by the banter and the action. It’s definitely not enough to sink the film, but a strong villain would have been nice.

I was glad to find that, ultimately, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang remains as fizzy and fun as it was when I first saw it ten years ago. Make no mistake, though, plenty of truly ugly noir-esque bad things happen throughout. This is a mean movie, but, like Harry himself, its heart winds up in the right place.


– Shane Black has had a kind of amazing career—he alternates between writing and directing some of the weirdest and best action movies in modern history, and appearing in tiny bit parts in movies like As Good As It Gets, Predator, and Robocop 3.

– Larry Miller also makes the most of a small appearance as the casting director who brings Harry out to L.A.

– Harry does not get the movie part he is initially brought to Los Angeles to audition for; he ultimately discovers that he was brought in as a negotiating tactic to get Colin Farrell to shave a few million off his price tag.

– The action scene that closes out the film is legitimately impressive. Even Harry seems a little surprised to pull it off without dying.

– “And to all you good people in the Midwest; sorry we said ‘fuck’ so much.”


Ten Years Ago: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

31 Oct Wallace1

Cracking job, Gromit! Max DeCurtins considers friendship, the bygone days of his hometown, and the expiration date of youth in relation to Nick Park’s thoroughly enjoyable claymation spectacle. 

Wallace1Earlier this year I turned 30, and while I know that’s hardly noteworthy in and of itself, I’m forced to admit that I’ve started to become more aware of just what it means to be able to speak of the passage of time in terms of decades, to have a sense on a greater scale of what’s beginning and what’s ending. Lest you think, however, that that’s just some post hoc, ergo propter hoc bullshit, let me just state that this is nothing new for me; I’ve always been somewhat middle-aged at heart. If this were a badly written OkCupid profile, I’d be calling myself “an old soul, I guess” in my self-summary. I can’t believe I just typed that. Fuck. My OkCupid profile is awkward enough as it is already, even without clichés.

Generally speaking, though, I think I’ve started to become more aware of the finite nature of what’s familiar, the things and people that I know and with which I have grown up. My grandfather’s death and the death of Robin Williams in the same year certainly contributed to this, as did the recent shuttering of two iconic food joints in my hometown, Su Hong and Foster’s Freeze—one of the earliest locations. Several years ago, my middle school—hardly a place most of us remember fondly, but memory’s funny that way—was demolished, along with all the student-painted murals that had adorned its buildings, depicting friends, enemies, and onetime crushes alike. It’s still Hillview Middle School, but with no character or history, just new, architecturally drab buildings compacted together. Maybe this all sounds incredibly naïve. Maybe it is. I grew up a white kid in a mostly-but-not-all white liberal area where the kids you went to school with may have had, variously, one parent, barely making a (then) living wage; two middle-class, but divorced, parents; or both parents, married and working as lawyers, engineers, or medical specialists at Stanford. The ship seemed to sail on placidly and steadily, even if we didn’t always see choppy waters around us. It was an obviously unsustainable bubble—if admittedly a useful one—that has been dissipating slowly for years. Things and places I’d never really thought of as being absent from my life suddenly seem to have an amorphous but very real expiration date. I know that more of this lies ahead, as xkcd brilliantly captures:
Wallace2One of the chief pleasures of writing re-views for 10YA lies in the googling, in finding out more about these movies that we either loved, hated, underestimated, or just plain didn’t fucking remember. It wasn’t until after I’d re-viewed Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—or, as the esteemed editor of this blog refers to it, “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of Some Shit”—that I learned that Peter Sallis, the actor who has voiced Wallace since the series’ inauguration in the 1990 short A Grand Day Out, relinquished the role several years ago due to declining health, making The Curse of the Were-Rabbit likely the only feature-length Wallace and Gromit story we’ll ever see. The short A Matter of Loaf and Death, released in 2008, is probably the last Wallace and Gromit story ever to be voiced by Sallis, or perhaps the last Wallace and Gromit story—ever.

Wipe that affected horror off your face, Reader. Nobody said this was going to be a comical, gushy, lighthearted re-view.

I first saw the movie in Campbell Hall at UCSB with a friend who, if memory serves, had never encountered Wallace and Gromit before, and who possibly didn’t even have much of a taste for British humor. (Way to be a thoughtful friend, college self.) I distinctly remember feeling excited at the time to see a full-length film based on two characters with whom you would been familiar only if you’d grown up in households of a certain level of geekiness. I guess you could call it pride? Anyway, the point is that I knew these characters and my friend—I don’t even remember who it was—didn’t. To have The Curse of the Were-Rabbit be your introduction to the world of Wallace and Gromit strikes me as akin to introducing your children to Star Wars with Episode I: The Phantom Menace or to Harry Potter with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In a word: criminal. This is, however, not because The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is as lamentably dismal as the former two films. Quite the opposite—what we have here is a movie that stays true to all the endearing details of Wallace and Gromit, and executes them flawlessly.

Let’s be honest here: it’s a pretty silly story—but then, all of the Wallace and Gromit storylines are pretty silly. In this adventure, Wallace and Gromit operate a humane pest control service, “Anti-Pesto,” that protects the town’s residents from ravenous rabbits who would otherwise ravage the prize vegetables the townies grow for their giant vegetable competition. The duo do their job so effectively that they start to run out of storage space for the ever-multiplying rabbit population. Despite the town’s abundance of fresh veg, Wallace continues to be an inveterate lover of cheese, and can’t seem to bring himself to consume the locally available crops. As a solution to the rabbit storage problem, Wallace hits upon the idea to “brainwash the bunnies” with anti-veg inclinations. Naturally, this plan doesn’t quite go according to expectation. Shenanigans ensue.
Wallace3After a week in which two close friends endured serious emotional hardship, and after three straight weeks of stressing myself sick trying to get a grip on the most crucial class of my degree, I sorely needed the loving craftsmanship and levity of Wallace and Gromit. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit may not constitute a work of genius, but I found myself laughing at its many, many puns and references more than I probably had any right to. (Pointing out all the puns and references would easily double the length of this re-view.) Ten years on, I can feel the creative inspiration and taste for the fantastical that director Nick Park shares, I think, with the likes of Tim Burton and Bryan Fuller in Pushing Daisies mode. Park doesn’t miss a single detail in this movie, be it Gromit’s knitting, the wallpaper in Gromit’s bedroom, the appearance of Wallace’s slippers, the sound the buttons and levers make on Wallace’s inventions, the brown teapot, or the way Wallace gets dressed every morning. I marvel at the consistency. Every detail is meticulously observed, and not out of some slavish replication of a text, a criticism usually leveled at movies that adapt written works. Not only that, both Wallace and Gromit have themselves grown in substance and sophistication as the physical modeling of their characters has grown more polished. You get the sense that Park deeply loves every aspect of his characters and their world, and that love comes through in watching the movie.

Ten years on, I have the tools to articulate how the music for The Curse of the Were-Rabbitworks and just why it’s so satisfying, in ways that I didn’t back at UCSB. (Thanks, grad school!) Park again engaged Julian Nott, who scored all of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, to write the music for the movie. The bright, anthem-like main Wallace and Gromit theme unapologetically celebrates the friendship that is the bedrock of their entire world. Like everything else in Wallace and Gromit, it has a retro feel that takes us back to the mid-twentieth century and earlier. The bombastic theme that plays in the opening sequence as the duo get Rube Goldberg-ed to readiness also has a flavor that would not be out of place in a WWII-era propaganda film for the RAF. In fact, just such a reference appears at the climax of the film. Gromit, flying a RAF biplane, gallantly swoops in to save Wallace from certain death, ready to sacrifice himself for a just cause (Britain does so ever enjoy seeing itself as an underdog—no pun intended). Instead of the adventurous theme, we get music that is simple but majestic—and I, Reader, have no shame in admitting that it got me a little choked up.

Finally, with another decade of life under my belt, I can see anew how all the Wallace and Gromit features ultimately showcase the close friendship between these two characters. Yes, there are the adventures, there are fleeting love interests for Wallace, but they never stick, and every time we revisit Wallace and Gromit they’re running some new business scheme. They complement each other, challenge each other, and complete each other. They’re a team; in the end, it’s just the two of them. While some aspects of Wallace and Gromit’s world are intentionally ironic, this part is intentionally and overwhelmingly earnest. I mentioned earlier that two close friends have recently experienced hardship; one has just been dealt a career-altering setback and the other is struggling with a new teaching job. The first friend I’ve only known for a year and a half; the other I’ve known since those college days when, among other things, I first saw The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. And while some friendships have joined Su Hong and Foster’s Freeze in Memoryland, token reminders of bygone eras, other friendships both old and new continue to strengthen, and I hope that one day these friendships may have something of the Wallace and Gromit essence in them. Ten years on, these things don’t change my opinion of the movie, but they do alter how I appreciate it.
Wallace4After watching The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I went back and watched all of the shorts from the 1990s, blessedly available for unlimited streaming on Prime Instant Video. Jeff Bezos may be a maniac, and Amazon a living hell of a work environment, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel grateful for being able to call up these gems in just a few clicks. Truly, friends, we live in amazing times.

I realize, Reader, that you too may remember this movie as “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of Some Shit.” It’s hardly the most groundbreaking animated feature ever made, but I promise you it is worth your time to re-watch. Don’t believe me? Kiss my ar . . . tichoke.

Free-Floating Thoughts

– Wallace doesn’t know how lucky he is. He should visit a food desert in the U.S. A lack of fresh produce that’s both easily available within communities and affordable is a major contributor to American dietary problems. Obligatory public health policy mention over.

– OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE HAS SO MANY SEXUAL PUNS. CORRUPT ALL THE CHILDREN. Produce and penises and brassicas, oh my.

– Baby Gromit picture in the opening credits. I’m not usually one to squee, but . . . squeeeee!! Ok, back to adult mode now.

– Pirouetting bunnies in the credits. There are pirouetting bunnies in the credits. When I say no detail has gone overlooked, I mean, no fucking detail has fucking gone fucking overlooked.

– If you have Amazon Prime, go watch the short features (there are four of them). Go watch them right now.

– Wallace’s exclamation that “it must be the toxins coming out” made me snort out loud. Gluten-free shit, juice cleanses, intermittent fasting . . . it’s amazing to me how vague and unscientific people can get when they’re eager to pin something on a dietary factor. I’m getting a crash course in statistics in my current class on data science, and lemme tell you, there is no fucking correlation between those two things. By all means, eat a generally healthy diet. Just don’t get stupid about it. But y’all enjoy. I’ll just be over here eating my brioche—with butter and jam, no less—and not giving two shits.


Ten Years Ago: MirrorMask

29 Oct mirrormask1

Jake Farley is just…*sigh*…Jake is really disappointed in you, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Here’s MirrorMask.
mirrormask1MirrorMask is an empty, frustrating experience; a monument to wasted potential. It’s the work of two supremely talented individuals at the top of their respective games, assuming that because they know how to do one thing well, they must obviously know how to do another thing well. They do not. I was hoping that perhaps time would be kind to my impression of the film but, sadly, I feel the exact same way now that I did ten years ago—this is not a good movie.

MirrorMask is a collaboration between comic book/fantasy literature legend Neil Gaiman and his long-time collaborator Dave McKean. They worked together for many years on the excellent fantasy comic The Sandman (which is absolutely worth reading, in the unlikely event that you were not already aware of it). Dave McKean, specifically, contributed the striking covers for every issue of the series, while Neil Gaiman provided the scripting. They’ve also done a number of other projects, both together and separately, but The Sandmanremains their best-known work.

Anyway. One weekend, the two of them were hanging around at Jim Henson’s old house (because of course they were) and they got it into their heads to make a movie. I can only assume some amount of alcohol was involved in this decision. They worked out a script over the next two weeks and then the Jim Henson Company handed them four million dollars to actually make the damn thing.

Alright, let’s just push through this—the plot of MirrorMask involves an ambiguously youthful girl named Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who enjoys juggling and drawing in a style that suspiciously resembles the artwork of Dave McKean. Helena’s parents run what appears to be a distinctly low-budget circus—her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) operates the ticket booth and wears a gorilla suit during a mildly racist juggling act, while her father Morris (Jason Barry) is the ringleader of the circus. He also pretends to be from “darkest Peru” during the aforementioned juggling act, in which Helena also performs. Helena is having typical teen-feelings and has, all things considered, a fairly mild conflict with her mother prior to the show one night. Helena’s mother eventually collapses later in the evening and is hospitalized with what is alluded to be a brain tumor.

The night before her mother is due to have surgery, Helena falls asleep and wakes up in a tedious fantasy land that suspiciously resembles the artwork of Dave McKean. There she meets an untrustworthy (or is he?! Spoiler: Yes, he is, but he gets better) con-man named Valentine (Jason Barry). Everyone wears masks all the time and sometimes everyone treats Helena like some kind of monster because she does not have a mask, but other times nobody seems to really care all that much. This movie is so inconsistent. They put the barest amount of thought into everything that wasn’t the visuals. There is a Good Queen who is in a coma. There is a Bad Queen who is not in a coma. There is a Missing Princess who suspiciously resembles Helena. You can see where this is all going, because it is literally fairy tale fantasy boilerplate. At one point Helena obtains a really useful book which is literally titledA Really Useful Book. It’s like they weren’t even trying.

So Valentine and Helena team up, it turns out the Missing Princess is also a Bad Princess who has stolen Helena’s life while Helena is in the dream world and is using her newfound existence in the Muggle world to start fires and do makeouts with boys. Valentine and Helena must locate the mirror mask in order to return Helena to her own world before the dream world is destroyed. (The Bad Missing Princess is busily tearing up and burning all the drawings Dave McKea—er, I mean Helena made upon which the dream world is based). They find it and Helena goes home and everything is fine, she likes the circus now. Happy happy.

mirrormask2The story is the absolute bare bones of a plot. It’s essentially an outline of a first draft. Characters make reference to things that seem like they should have been fleshed out in a later draft of the script—at one point Helena says to Valentine that she knows they haven’t always gotten along, but she wouldn’t have gotten this far without him. All well and good, except they’ve been fast friends the entire movie. Why haven’t they always gotten along? We don’t know. It’s just a thing Helena says for no particular reason other than to, I suppose, limply attempt to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.

Bleh. This movie.

Ok, here’s the thing—fantasy is a wonderful genre. It allows us to literalize metaphor in a really fun, engaging way! It’s fun to let your imagination run wild and dream of places that could never exist. That’s wonderful. But fantasy is also an extremely dangerous genre if it’s done poorly. The audience’s suspension of disbelief can be shattered in an instant, which is why it’s incredibly important to establish the rules of the story’s universe, and then stick to those rules. How does magic work? Why is the world this way and not another way? Is the social hierarchy similar to the one in our world, or is it something new and different? If the audience feels like anything can happen at any time for no particular reason, they will lose interest rapidly, because there’s no reason to engage with the plot. Why bother getting invested with what’s going on if there’s just going to be some random bird-gorilla-flying-squirrel-hybrid who appears out of nowhere to save our heroine and then disappear without another word? Yes, that is an actual plot point from MirrorMask, thank you for wondering.

The visuals in MirrorMask are striking, no doubt (despite the large number of dream-world masks which are clearly made, at least in part, of duct tape). It can be a fun movie to just look at, even with the somewhat rickety CGI, and with the actors all experiencing what I like to think of as Phantom Menace Syndrome, where they are obviously standing in front of a green screen while someone shouts at them from off camera “Okay, now duck! There’s going to be magic sparkles hitting you in the face now, act like there are magic sparkles!” Dave McKean is a graphic stylist with a unique vision, and that’s easily the movie’s strongest point. It’s just so utterly, utterly let down by the script and story that a movie that clearly wants to be a lighthearted whimsy becomes a tedious slog. The whole movie is the equivalent of that scene in The Neverending Story where the swamp of sadness eats the horse. You just want it to be over.

Ultimately, that’s what makes MirrorMask such a frustrating experience—it has “first draft” written all over it. It could have been something good, something interesting and consistent, had Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean not been content with the first ideas that popped into their heads. It’s worth noting that elements of everything about MirrorMask recur frequently in the works of both creators. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book and Sandmanall contain similar thematic and story elements, and Dave McKean’s multimedia art style and weird thing for fish are all over MirrorMask. Gaiman and McKean are both clearly very talented men, and I think that their own talent ironically blinded them to the ways in which the medium of film and screenwriting would require something very different from them. They went with their first instincts, the instincts that had served them well up until then, but they didn’t look any deeper or try any harder. That’s a shame. MirrorMask could have been something special, but, as it is, you should probably just re-watch Pan’s Labyrinth instead.


Ten Years Ago: Serenity

30 Sep

Jo Jo Stiletto — Professor of Nerdlesque, producer of Whedonesque Burlesque, category: Human — got legally stoned, brewed up a kettle of Sereni-tea, and rewatched Serenity.

serenity1This is not my 10-year review of the movie Serenity. This is my 10-years-and-four-month review. I first saw Serenity at a special sneak preview screening in Portland, Oregon several months before the official September release. I didn’t call myself a Browncoat back then. I still don’t. But I’d have called myself a budding fangirl. I was pre-obsessed. I barely knew who Joss Whedon was nor had I watched any of his other properties.

Oh, lord, how things have changed since then. To give some perspective on my mental space while attempting this re-watch, I have compiled a list some of these changes.

• I eventually married the man who surprised me with the tickets to see the sneak preview.

• I often cosplay as Mal.

• I also listen to nerdcore rap about Firefly.

• I have produced three rounds of the show Whedonesque Burlesque: Burlesque Inspired by the Works of Joss Whedon. I have even talked to the Wall Street Journal about this experience.

• I have now watched all of Buffy and Angel, plus Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible, and pretty much everything else Joss has touched. Except his Aliens movie. Ew.

• I have read many books on Joss and attended an academic conference dedicated to his work. At this conference someone who wrote one of those books I read presented a paper onWhedonesque Burlesque.

• Joss Whedon has directed two of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time.

• The tenth anniversary special of the series was aired in which it was revealed that Inara would have been gang-raped by Reavers and saved by Mal. I have opinions about this. I hope Firefly never ever returns.

• Nathan Fillion became even more ruggedly handsome in his role on Castle, which is in its eighth season and I can’t stop watching it despite my better judgment.

• The Tea Party movement is a thing people have actually heard of now. If one looks hard enough, one can find some interesting similarities to Browncoats. I need to stop looking.

• My Christmas tree has a Firefly theme. I have an ornament for every major character.

• I once held Fillion’s hand as he said, “Hi, my name is Nathan.” His hands are so soft they are like baby hands.

• Adam Baldwin. GamerGate. Need I say more?

• I sat on a GeekGirlCon panel with Firefly writer Jane Espenson and called Joss a pervert in front of about 200 people.

• Many of my close friends know me because of our shared interest in Firefly.

serenity4bAs you can see, a lot has happened. My original response to the movie never was that it was a great film but that it was a whole mess of fun. That fun drove me to the level of super fan. Possibly beyond super fan. Maybe a Stupor Fan? In becoming a this new level of fan over the years, I found myself wanting to learn more, analyze more, make more. In doing so, though, I possibly went too far.

I burned out, man. Like, big time. In analyzing all these Whedon texts for their meaning, in ruminating over the nature of fandom in general, in finding faults along with new joys, I acknowledge it has lost a little bit of its charm. I was reminded why I put Whedonesque Burlesque to bed this last summer. I felt like I was like squeezing blood from a stone. I had nothing left in me. I used up all my fandom.

I admit I had re-watched this movie originally over a month ago with a big group of friends. While it was fun hosting for guests, I found re-watching a bit of drag. I was the kill-joy. I was SIMON!!!!!!! I barely wrote a single note for this review during that night.

Something did change in the last few weeks, though. On September 19th I spoke at the Seattle Maker Faire about how I made a burlesque show based on Joss Whedon. It was a weird little speaking gig, forcing me to focus on my own work instead of presenting on the larger topics of burlesque, fandom and feminism, like I normally do. I had to force myself back into my process of creating a show that, at one time, made me deliriously happy and proud.

Do you know what happened? I ended up falling back in love with that experience. The cast—my friends—had done amazing and impressive work. The texts that inspired our show, texts like Serenity, may be imperfect but I still can enjoy it. I like Joss. I can’t help it.

His work specifically inspires me to want to tell stories. He hits me right in the feels with his characters and their humor and their faults. Yet, watching Whedon’s work reminds me that racism is a huge problem in Hollywood and by loving his shows, which have some big issues with race, I’m probably part of that problem. That’s a hard thing to reconcile. But I also appreciate how many of his characters subvert gender expectations and how these characters have been cited as the source of a paradigm shift in Hollywood as well. Buffy is a big damn female hero.

In re-kindling my appreciation (in a really selfish way), I sat down to re-watch again. I pretended I was not burned out and let myself escape into a sci-fi western future world with more big damn heroes.

Here are my jumbled, happy re-watch thoughts. I also may have been lightly stoned, thanks to Washington’s decriminalization of weed. Oh, that’s something else that has changed. I can legally watch Serenity stoned. I’m also drinking Sereni-tea. Yeah, I bought Firefly-themed teas online. I aim to misbehave.

serenity3b– I never acknowledged how absolutely dashing Simon is in the opening escape sequence. He’s a babe. Simon on the show was first perceived as a possible villain, then a prissy jerk, then a loving brother. In this opening, he’s practically leading man handsome.

– I will never apologize for liking Whedon’s dialogue. I even liked Speed. No, I loved it.

– I see Baldwin as Jayne and I realize I hate him now. Baldwin has ruined a good character. Jayne made us believe that maybe even the most deceptive and self-centered asshole can change. Baldwin takes that away from us. Maybe there is still hope.

– Mal, on the raggedy edge, is the most fuckable. I want to slap him in the kisser…then kiss him.

– Clearly, another thing that has changed is my libido.

– Mid-watch, I remember that this is the first movie Joss directed, right? This movie happened…then he directed The Avengers. Then Much Ado. Then another Avengers. That’s it. I guess he’s doing okay for himself.

– Fillion looks like a baby otter. So slim. So brown. Hairs so silky.

– The bank robbery-turned-chase scene is, in my opinion, crafted very well to create tension and humor and fear and release. [10YA editor] Marcus sent a well-timed text message during this sequence that read, “Go forth and watch shit get blowed up.” This movie is a god damn action movie. Fuck yeah.

– Simon socking Mal is glorious.

– Zoe asking Mal about leaving a man behind is really hard to watch. There is no winning “out in the black.”

– Why are all the Operatives black men?

– Did they run out of budget before the training house sequence?

– I appreciate that in the training house fight scene Inara keeps trying to get in on the fight. She’s not so delicate.

– The Mal/Inara “You spin me about” scene still makes me feel all fluttery. It’s heavy-handed, cheesy and I lurv it.

– When we return to Haven to find everyone dead, I screamed “FUCK YOU JOSS!” at the TV. Ah, I’m back in the spirit officially.

– How can any actor say “confound these bungers” with a straight face?

– Fact: Girls cry and barf over seeing the horror of Reavers. Men will drink from the space hooch directly from the bottle to unify a team. And Jo Jo will now punch a pillow.

– Joss kills Wash once. I’d like to point out that I killed him at least three times (inWhedonesque Burlesque).

– “A world without sin.” That line never stuck out to me like it did in this rewatch.Whedenesque Burlesque, all burlesque, exists in a world with sin. Delicious, decadent sin. Screw you and your better world, Alliance.

– I’m probably very stoned.

– New meme: “Zoe’s husband just died. Still does her DAMN JOB.”

– We never actually see the boundaries of what River is capable of.

I have achieved a full reversal on my burn out. I have done a Crazy Ivan on myself. Good night.


Ten Years Ago: Corpse Bride

18 Sep

Maggie McMuffin unearths Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, detailing trauma, the “learned bullshit” of society in relation to love and marriage, and high school years fraught with emotions worthy of Wuthering Heights.

corpse1I feel like most people of my generation had a Tim Burton movie that meant a lot to them at age 14. For me, that movie was Corpse Bride. It technically came out when I was 15, but close enough.

15 was the age that a lot of shit went down for me. My depression, inherited from my therapy-hating mother, began to appear. I started the slow slide from honors student to “advanced but disappointing” and I was about to have my heart broken for the first time by a boy who I would, no shit, end up spending the next three years performing a modernized version ofWuthering Heights with. Seriously. We hit points none of the adaptations do.

Corpse Bride came out when all of this was under way. The boy had, without telling me, decided to take another, younger girl to Homecoming (quite a feat since I was a sophomore). We were all working on a school play together (she had beaten me out for the lead and I ended up working props) so it was awkward and I had decided not to be mean to her since she had no idea this was all going down, which meant I was spending my days sort of stiff upper lipping the whole thing.

But damn was I a teenage wreck.

My mother took me to see every single movie paying at our three-screen theater that week. I don’t remember the other two films. But I remember having been excited about Corpse Bridebefore this happened. Stop-motion! Johnny Depp! Dead things! Victorian era! My mom, not being into that stuff, had remembered me mentioning the movie before and suggested we go see it after school one day. That was also the first day I ever utilized the “feel shitty, look pretty” principle. I was wearing an ankle-length semi-formal skirt, a stretchy red top, my early attempts at makeup, and sunglasses (to hide the constant crying). People constantly asked what I was dressed up for and I said “Just because” and felt cool. When the time came to go to the movie, I asked my mom if I was too dressed up to go to the movies and we decided it was okay to dress up for mundane things sometimes.

Looking back, that outfit is what I would now think of as casual.

I can’t remember if I cried during the film. I was crying a lot then. But I know I left the film thinking how great it was that Emily got to turn into butterflies at the end. How wonderful it would be if I could give my blessing to the happy couple and just disappear.

While I now maintain that the film’s happy ending is mature because it’s good to say ‘hey, I’m not the one for you, she is’ and then get ultimate closure from that, I do think I took it to heart a bit too much since that boy ended up leaving me for about five other women over the course of our high school time together. Each time, I was pleasant to them, aware that they had no idea who I was or why I maybe seemed a bit terse around them. When I began dating again at 21, I still ended up with partners who would find someone new (this time semi-consensually in poly formats), slowly or abruptly inform me of my inferiority to them, and then I would leave. At first I romanticized this pattern, seeing myself as the embodiment of the ‘I Want My Beloved to be Happy’ trope. Later on, it became clear I was just intensely guarded, unable to trust, and quick to throw up my hands and go ‘FINE’ the minute my partners showed an interest in anyone after me. I’m a very bitter polyamorist. I’m working on it but in preparing to watch this film, I really do have to wonder if like so many teenagers I looked at a Tim Burton movie and took the wrong lessons to heart.

I haven’t seen the movie much since then. I rewatched it over the years. I asked the movie theater to give me the glass stick-ups and they lived on my mother’s microwave for the next three years. Funnily enough, that Halloween, the girl who the boy originally dumped me for dressed as Emily. We took a picture together. I smiled as best I could in my drugstore Wicked Witch face paint.

The point is, I haven’t seen it in years. My go to Burton flick is Big Fish and honestly I haven’t found many people clamoring to watch Corpse Bride the way they do The Nightmare Before Christmas even though I remember it being a solid movie.

But maybe I just saw it at the time I needed to and now, as a more mature and adult woman who understands Wuthering Heights is unhealthy, it won’t mean as much or seem as poignant.

Aw hell, Danny Elfman plays a drunk skeleton in it. It’ll probably still be good.

Okay the Danny Elfman skeleton is kind of problematic. I didn’t notice that before. As my partner said “Let’s acknowledge Danny Elfman’s ongoing obsession with being a black jazz musician.” We can get to that later.

corpse2The film opens on a drab and gray stop-motion city and people are singing about the impending wedding rehearsal of Victor Van Dort and Victoria Everglot. We learn that Victor’s family is nouveau riche looking forward to elevating themselves, while Victoria’s is bankrupt aristocracy who are gritting their teeth over aligning themselves to commoners in order to avoid the poor house. The song “According to Plan” is also the first time we hear that particular phrase, which will show up enough to qualify as a drinking game rule. The song also includes one of my favorite lines, “Our daughter with the face of an otter in disgrace,” which is also one of the many things in the next couple of scenes that show off that Victor and Victoria are both controlled and degraded by their parents. Both bride and groom worry they won’t love the other and are simply told that marriage is not about love and to buck up. Lord and Lady Everglot go so far as to scoff “Of course not!” when Victoria says that they must love one another at least a little.

The Everglots and Van Dorts don’t get along, merely playing nice, but Victor and Victoria manage to fall in love immediately. Victor plays the piano well and Victoria is entranced by it, never having been allowed to learn for herself as her mother deemed it “too passionate.” They share a touching first scene that manages to show that while both of them are individuals who have yet to fully come into their own, they are far from fragile and broken. Victoria more so than Victor, who bumbles his way through the wedding rehearsal and is kicked out after setting Lady Everglot on fire.

The rehearsal is interrupted by one Lord Barkus, who you can tell by his large chin and smarmy voice is probably going to be some sort of antagonist. He immediately starts schmoozing the Everglots, laying the groundwork to become fiancé understudy.

Victor wanders off into the woods, dejected at his inability to remember his vows. He spends what seems to be hours practicing and fucking up before realizing that he does love Victoria and, bursting with newfound confidence, delivers the vows so perfectly and passionately that he raises a lovelorn corpse from the dead. Here we have the titular Corpse Bride, who is lovely and blue and, as my friend Brooke once described, “That time when Tim Burton put his second wife’s head on his first wife’s body.”

This mysterious woman whisks Victor away to the land of the dead, a colorful alternative to the land of the living. There’s a bar, a welcoming committee, and comic relief. There’s still women with impossibly corseted bodies though because being dead doesn’t mean being free from society’s beauty standards. Seriously, with one exception every single obviously female character is shaped the same, regardless of actual size. Emily, the Corpse Bride, even has visible ribs and her tit-to-waist-to-hip ratio is ridiculous. Though, again, she does have Lisa Marie’s body and that woman is legitimately built like Jessica Rabbit.

We get another exposition song, played by the aforementioned problematic skeleton Bonejangles. We learn that Emily eloped with a handsome stranger, family fortune in hand, and waited for him in the woods only to be murdered by him. The story is acted out with silhouettes and those paying attention will note that Emily’s fiancé sure look familiar. Spoiler: It’s Lord Barkus. I would be mad about how simple this is but I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a family film so I’ll let it slide.

Victor runs out horrified and Emily follows, laughing. Emily is…a little dense to Victor’s panic. She’s just happy to be married after years of being buried in the woods. All she’s wanted was a husband and she made a vow to “wait for her true love to come set her free.” As far as she’s concerned, she and Victor are happy. They’re married, aren’t they? Surely that’s what love is. Also, giving your new spouse the gift of their dead dog which is, admittedly, quite nice. Then he gets the idea that Emily should meet his parents and gets her to tell him how to go “upstairs.” Emily, who seriously never stops smiling and is aggressively cheerful to the point of it being unnatural, happily takes him to Elder Gutknacht, who fixes them up with a Ukrainian haunting spell.

corpse3Once above ground, Emily muses about the beauty of the sky (she was just up here abducting Victor but okay) and dances about. It’s lovely and also shows off the character design. Emily may have that figure, but she’s also dead. Aside from the ribs and her loose eye, she’s got a bit of skin around her bone leg that bags like a sock and it’s touches like that that make this movie for me. Also, stop-motion is expensive but this film has a lot of visual gags and dance sequences that make everything come alive (sorry). It makes the film seem less like a cash in on The Nightmare Before Christmas nostalgia (as I’ve heard it accused of) and more like its own labor of love that said damn the money we want to make something good.

Victor leaves Emily waiting in the woods which seems a bit callus given that she got murdered while waiting for a man in the woods. But, oh well. Victor runs off to find Victoria, who has been sad that he’s been missing. She’s also been told he ran off with a mystery woman and refuses to believe it. She refuses even harder once Victor climbs her balcony to see her, the first of several increasingly brave acts he commits. He tried to explain the situation but before he can two things happen.

1) He and Victoria declare that while marriage frightened them that morning, they are both in love with one another and can’t be wed soon enough. Is the timeline fast? Sure. But it’s a kid’s movie and their first scene, as well as their silent interactions at the rehearsal, actually did enough work to make it believable that they feel something for each other. It’s very sweet.

2) Emily shows up and gets really jealous. Victor manages to tell Victoria “I seem to find myself married and you should know it’s unexpected” before Emily reverses the haunting spell.

Once back in the land of the dead, Emily berates Victor for lying to her so that he could get back to “that other woman.”

“But don’t you understand? You’re the other woman.”
“You’re married to me! She’s the other woman!”

And we see Emily break into tears as Victor explains that they’re just too different to be married!

Also, he proposed on accident.

She removes her veil, tears apart her wedding bouquet, and refuses to accept the musical pep talk from two supporting characters. This is where it becomes clear that this movie actually has some things to say about love and marriage. Because if you look at the story as a funny misunderstanding between man and corpse, it’s a weird romp through life and death. But if you look at this as two people raised by a society which throws people into marriages and expects and demands them to be happy with each other, who have both experienced love outside of marriage, one of whom has experienced some pretty heavy trauma as a result vis-à-vis being fucking murdered and one who has never had the freedom to go for what he wants and then had it snatched from him well…you’ve actually got a story about two young adults trying to figure out what the hell love looks like and fighting against a lifetime of learned bullshit. These are people who really want love but have been told to want marriage, two things which are not always the same thing.

corpse4But there’s a third person learning that lesson too, and Victoria is frantically trying to convince her parents that Victor needs help. When they lock her in her room, she climbs down the balcony to visit the pastor and demand answers, as he is the only person in the village who knows what happens after someone dies. He responds by taking her home and accusing her of speaking in tongues. Victoria’s hair is also loose from its tight bun at this point, giving us some nice symbolism of her breaking free. Things get worse when she’s informed that she’ll be marrying Lord Barkus after he gave her parents a charismatic speech about how he would shower Victoria in riches. Victoria is less than pleased. Oh, and Barkus went off to talk to the air about how he’s going to kill Victoria once they’re married. So there’s that.

Meanwhile, Victor finds the sad and silent Emily playing piano. He tries apologizing to her but she doesn’t want to hear it. He starts to play along and she gets upset but it soon turns into a duel and then a duet. By the end, her hand has run off.

“Pardon my enthusiasm.”
“I like your enthusiasm.”

It’s similar to Victor and Victoria’s meeting in the way that many things nicely parallel between Emily and Victoria and at the end of it Victor and Emily have made up. However, they don’t seem to be in love, merely friends. This is important to note for the big lesson at the end.

Meanwhile, Victor’s parents’ driver has also died and shown up in the land of the dead to relay that Victoria is getting married. There’s no way to stop it and we see Victor mourn below while up above Victoria sits, refusing to hide how utterly crushed she is. “I feel like I’m being pulled out by a tide.” Her maid, offering more comfort than her parents, offers “The sea leads to many places. Maybe you’ll land somewhere better.” Which is…actually a very understanding thing to say. It acknowledges Victoria’s pain while also offering hope. It’s one of the first cases in the movie of someone being genuinely kind to another person, not just pushing them into what they feel is best for them. The parents don’t care about their children’s happiness, and the dead don’t care if Emily marries someone good for her, just that she fulfills her wish of being married. Above and below people don’t really listen. Victoria accepts this kindness but goes through her wedding with a wide-eyed pout that is as aggressive in its sadness as Emily’s smile was in its joy earlier. Victoria is doing this because she has no choice but goddamnit she is not going to pretend she’s anything but destroyed.

Right after we see this, we learn from Elder Gutknacht that Emily and Victor’s marriage is invalid. The vows are only valid until death do them part and “Death has already parted you.” He says that if they resaid their vows and Victor drank from the wine of ages, they could be wed, but Emily could never ask Victor to do that. Too bad! He listened and since he can’t marry the woman he loves he’ll do this! He’s warned that “If you choose this path you can never return to the land above,” which is a pretty unsubtle way of saying there’s no way back from romantic suicide. But life above will suck anyway so let’s have a wedding! And another song! Everyone in the land of the dead is excited and helping and also heading to the land above even though Elder Gutknacht said this vow renewal needs to happen in the land of the dead.

corpse5The dead crash the living world as Victoria and Barkus’ dreary wedding reception takes place. It is really sad, you guys. And it’s really heavy-handed and kind of worrisome to frame death and this big party and life as this drab affair, especially since we have a character who is actively planning to commit suicide in order to find happiness. That’s a problem, mostly because it’s not the point of this story, but this scene legitimately made me sad to watch. And when it all goes to hell and Barkus tells Victoria that she needs to grab the money and go, she informs him that he’s supposed to be the rich one, gives our last echo of “‘did things not go according to your plan?” and marches out after snappily telling Barkus that “in disappointment we are equally matched.”

The dead coming up turns out to be a good thing, actually. Loved ones are reunited, fear turned to elation, and we still get to have a wedding!

Victor and Emily start the vows and Victoria slips in to watch. Emily notices and stops Victor before he can drink the wine, realizing that what she’s doing is wrong.

“I was a bride. My dreams were taken from me. Now. Now I’ve stolen them from someone else. I love you Victor but you are not mine.”

She ushers Victoria over and then Barkus shows up to claim her because if he can’t be rich, at least he can still have this wife. Oh yeah, and this is when the actual reveal happens. Emily’s face goes through a remarkable cycle of realization given this is stop-motion and once she says “It’s you,” Barkus replies “But I left you.” No guilt though because he’s a conniving ass. Victor stands up to him and they swordfight. Barkus nearly wins but Emily leaps in front of his sword and catches it with her torso, pulls said sword out of said torso, and points it at him. She commands him to leave but he decided to be cruel. He toasts to her, “Always a bridesmaid,” and asks if a “heart can still break once it’s stopped beating” before downing what turns out to be the wine of ages. Once he’s dead, the other dead go after him and we don’t see what happens but it’s probably not good.

We’re left with our triangle and some random villagers (Hey, if there was a living dead wedding happening in my dreary village, I would show up too). Victor tries to marry Emily, saying he made a promise.

“You kept your promise. Now I can do the same for you.”

She gives Victor his ring back and goes outside where she transforms into light and butterflies. Victor and Victoria embrace and watch as they dissipate.

And that’s it.

corpse6Here’s the thing. This story is simple. It’s super straight-forward. I often forget that some Tim Burton movies are made for children. I think he forgets it sometimes. And I don’t know who wrote this but I know it’s based off of a folk story. Folk stories, much like children’s stories, are meant to convey lessons and that’s easier when you aren’t bogged down with tons of minutiae.

This is a story about three people growing up. Emily is an abused woman who realizes that latching onto the first nice man she meets post-trauma isn’t going to heal her, that what she needs to do is confront her heartbreak. Also being abused is not an excuse to hurt or manipulate others. Victoria is a woman who has been raised to avoid passion and do as she is told learning that she is passionate and that following this passion will lead to happiness. Victor is a terrified young man who learns he has to be brave to be happy.

Most importantly, the film has an overarching message that you cannot plan love. People constantly have plans for marriage in this film and none of them work out. NONE. Because while you can plan a wedding and rehearse it and get all the details right, that’s not the same as falling in love with someone or being right for them. Those things can only happen naturally. And if you want to show you love someone, a better way to do that is to commit genuine acts of love. Be brave for them. Be brave enough to fully commit to them emotionally, not just monetarily or with words someone else wrote for you.

And love is on a spectrum! It is clear at the end that Victor and Emily are fond of one another, that they’ve developed an actual friendship, but it’s not romantic love. It is important to show that two adults not being in love doesn’t mean they hate each other, it just means they aren’t getting married. Emily being friends with Victor and realizing she shouldn’t marry him isn’t second prize, it’s the thing which allows her soul to move on. It’s first prize! It’s great to see this in a family film but god knows there are tons of adults out there who could stand to see that more.

Oh, and another important lesson. Don’t marry strange men who brag about money but never show that they have it. If a man tells you about all the money he has but you never see proof, he doesn’t have money. Just walk away. I already knew that because I worked as a stripper but it’s always nice to have a reminder.

And in case anyone is wondering if I got anything out of the story now that I’m not 15, I did.

Emily didn’t sacrifice herself at the end for someone else. She made the decision that was right for her and it just happened to also be right for the other party. There’s a big difference between those two things, and in the future I’ll try be a little less of a sacrificial martyr and a little more of a healthy friend.

corpse8Additional Notes

— There are a lot of parallels between Emily and Victoria. Emily is first engaged to Barkus and then married to Victor while Victoria is the other way. Victor climbs a balcony to reach Victoria and another to escape Emily. His first conversation with Victoria has her saying he can call her by her first name while his first with Emily has him asking for hers. There are other smaller ones but I think it’s nice that there are similarities between the two women but that they are different enough. You can’t just replace one fiancee with another after all.

And I love this since at the end Emily is so kind to Victoria. Emily must be far older than Victoria (otherwise her disappearance would probably still be talked about in that village) even if she died around the same age and this time around the final scene felt very much like watching an older woman defend a younger one. Since both of them are going on arcs that end counter (Emily letting go of her idea that love can grant her freedom, Victoria believing that romantic love can exist for her) and are so heavily connected to the same romantic interest it makes sense for them to mirror one another. I also like that Emily realizes in the end that her actions don’t just hurt Victor, but Victoria as well. This film may not pass the Bechdel Test, but at least it’s got female solidarity and isn’t just about Victor.

— Victoria is a straight-up badass and despite her small scenes is a pretty well-developed character. She’s also the only living person with a blush in her cheeks, another small detail I enjoy.

— This movie has songs but they’re spaced out kind of weirdly so it feels wrong to call this thing a musical.

— Emily’s song “Tears to Shed” is also a damned fine example of love hurting. While her friends mean well telling her she’s got a wonderful personality and surely Victor will love her if he just gets to know her, she reminds them that their supportive lies don’t matter because the pain she feels is the most real thing. Sometimes you just need to let your friends mope and move on.

— There is a maggot who lives in Emily’s head who is clearly Claude Rains. But, like, the version that was in Scooby Doo episodes. You will notice I didn’t mention him in the summary and that is because he disgusts me.

— This movie has an amazing cast. The moms are Joanna Lumley and Tracey Ullman. This was Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter playing to their strengths. Albert Finney being pompous. Emily Watson is in it. Michael Gough (god rest his soul)! Christopher Lee (and his)! And of course, Richard E Grant, who plays a rakish Masterpiece Theatre villain like no one else.

— Someone spent a lot of time designing Lady Everglot’s hair and half the time it’s so tall it’s out of frame.


Ten Years Ago: The Constant Gardener

6 Sep constant1

In 10YA’s first transcribed conversation re-view, Erik Jaccard and Yasi Naraghi tackle Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener and discuss capitalism, the nature of evil, hegemonic systems, racial equity, the white savior complex, cinematic portrayals of Africa, and if this film is truly dangerous.

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is a film I’ve had my eye on for a long time, long before 2015 and before I found myself considering which, if any, of 2005’s films I wanted to re-view. I knew it was coming, and I knew I wanted to talk about it, though I felt less certain of what I would eventually say when I did. Then, late last spring, while enjoying a couple of beers in the sun with two friends, I mentioned to one them, former 10YA reviewer Yasi Naraghi, that I’d signed on to re-view the film. As it turns out, Yasi also had plenty to say about it. Generally eager to explore the possibilities of the blog format by experimenting with it formally, I suggested we review in tandem, not as co-writers but as co-speakers. In other words, I suggested we re-view it as a dialogue. What follows is the end result of that suggestion. In addition, we have each added reflections on the process and result, as a way of both clearing the air and of drawing concluding connections between our two experiences. These appear after the end of the transcript below.
—Erik Jaccard

E: I saw The Constant Gardener for the first time here in Seattle in 2005, with my sister, in a cinema downtown. And I loved it, and I kind of remember being moved by it at the time. I don’t think I let any of the narrative choppiness bother me. I think that I was fully willing to play along with the ‘love at any cost’ romance of the story, and being an appropriately conscientious liberal, I was fully willing to participate in the ‘guilt’ the film invokes in white Western viewers concerned about Africa.

Y: So you were 25?

E: 26. I was just about to start my Master’s program in English Literature. I had been out of school for about three years at that point, and I’d been working and traveling a bit. When I saw it I was actually home because I’d been living in Prague and I was home to visit my family before I started my program in Scotland. Also my grandmother was dying, and I had come back to see her one more time. So then I saw it again in Scotland. I think I saw it again because I’d been so excited and, I suppose, moved by it the first time, so I wanted my then-girlfriend to see it, too, and share in my excitement. So we went to this cute little boutique-y movie theater in this posh part of Edinburgh and I liked it again, naturally, and got a little misty again, because, you know…romance. Because…Justin’s love for Tess. And then I kind of forgot about it, which I think is important because this time around I spent tons of time thinking about it afterward, but back then I didn’t have any conscious ideas about Africa, or about my own position in relation to the film, or to its representations of Africa. So I let it go. This is funny, because I think it’s nearly always what I say about my original experience of the film. It’s like, ‘I watched it, and I liked it, but I didn’t have nearly as much to say about it as I do now!’ But what about you?

Y: Well, I have questions for you. I know you work with Laura [Chrisman, Erik’s current PhD thesis advisor and an Africanist scholar]. Did you at any point study any African literature or postcolonial theory?

E: Absolutely.

Y: Ok, so when did you start to do that?

E: About two months after I saw the film. One of the classes I took that fall at Edinburgh University was called ‘Decolonization and the Novel,’ and we read Achebe and Ngugi, Soyinka and Armah, etc. Then I wrote a paper on a couple of African novels, then I wrote my Master’s thesis on an African author. And during this time I’m reading theory and criticism and kind of starting to dip my toe into the subject. And it kind of went from there. So even if I’d watched it a year later it would have been very different. I was on the cusp of forming opinions that would have changed my experience of the film, but I hadn’t at that time. Anyway, tell us about your experience. You were in a class?

Y: Yeah, I was 16 or 17. I watched it in a class, and the class’ focus was mostly on non-linear narratives in film, but also women in film. Not women directors, but women in film.

E: Did you realize at the time that the subject was kind of vague?

Y: I did. But I hated everything at that point in my life, because I was a teenager, and I had just moved from Boston to Seattle, and I didn’t want to be here, and I was just wrapping up my undergraduate studies. This was important because when I was watching it, I was definitely one of the younger students in my UW class. It was a summer class, it was every day, it was at the old Savery building, which was basically a fascist hellhole. And it was hot and everyone was older, and I hated life and I watched this movie. And honestly I think I was the only person in that class who was not a type of liberal, West Coast white person. In this class we watched a lot of Romanian films and Czech films, and then we watched The Constant Gardener, which was kind of the odd film out, and it ended up being the film I wrote my final paper on because I hated it the most.


E: I feel like we ought to just start with that. Because I’ve started with the fact that I kind of loved it despite its inability to engage meaningfully with Africa or Africans, so what did you hate about it? It’s ok, we won’t hold you accountable for things you hated at 17.

Y: Yeah, I was a teenager. This needs to be told multiple times. I did not want to be where I was and I wanted everything I watched not to be in the English language – this was also around the time that I begin to predominantly think in English which terrified me. I hated white people without knowing it. I guess that was the problem with me. I did not recognize the fact that I had a huge problem with…I’m gonna say white people for lack of a better phrase. So, I moved at the age of 16 from Massachusetts to Seattle. When 9/11 happened, a flight went from Boston to New York, and I was in Massachusetts, the only fucking person with an Arabic last name. It was horrible. At that age I started having an understanding that I was different racially. Because I didn’t have that before. This was really significant in high school. In middle school I hadn’t had an understanding of myself as different in that way, but in high school I suddenly did. So when I first saw this there was a resentment I couldn’t name until I saw it again this time around, and I knew exactly what it was.

E: You knew that unconsciously at 17?

Y: Yes.

E: And that was a response to anger at how you were treated by Joe Q. American Patriot?

Y: Yeah.

E: Ok. So, the first time it was inexplicable, undefined rage…

Y: Again, I was 17. I had other 17-year-old rage.

E: Sure, sure. And even though you’d been to college, you hadn’t been to grad school, and grad school teaches us how to categorize all sorts of things.

Y: Yeah, we learn the process of naming.

E: So this time you were equally angry?

Y: Maybe even more angry; I had to stop the movie a bunch of times to just say ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.’ But then again I’m a rage-filled, hateful person. But let’s talk a bit more about our reactions to it this time around, since that’s where we’re going. I’d actually like to talk about capitalism, and in particular how the film engages or, more accurately, does not engage it. I thought this film wanted to implicate capitalism but couldn’t because either it couldn’t imagine an alternative to capitalism or had an anxiety over the alternative.

E: Well, I think we can’t say that capitalists aren’t blamed in the film.

Y: Ok, so the politicians are blamed.

E: And the corporations. They’re faceless and abstract, so we don’t ‘see’ them in the same way.

Y: Ok, the problem with that is that it doesn’t implicate capitalism.

E: Well, you remember in the film, Arthur, Tessa’s cousin, reads the letter near the end as a eulogy for Justin, and he asks the relevant question of who is to blame for both the tragedy at hand, and also for the ongoing suffering of Africans. He asks whether the politicians are to blame, or the corporations who continue to use Africans as disposable sub-humans. And I absolutely agree with you that the film doesn’t come out and say that the logic behind this constellation of forces, which is capitalist, is to blame. If it were to do that, it would probably not be telling the same story. There is, though, some mention of that logic in the idea, brought up a couple of times, that ‘fixing’ the problem through official channels is unappealing precisely because it is so expensive. Remember, it’s first Tessa’s German friend, Birgit, and then Sandy, who both say that the delays would be crippling because they would dull the company’s competitive edge, drive up costs, etc. The logic of capitalism, efficiency at any cost, gaining market share, beating everyone else, is definitely alluded to, at least.

Y: But I don’t think it does. I think you’re smart and that’s why you think the film says that. Most people won’t see what you’re seeing because they won’t look at it the way you’re looking at it.

E: Well, we kind of accept as a condition of us doing this re-view at all that we’re going to discuss it in a way that the majority of people will not. Also, we’re both academics working in the humanities, so we’re trained to pay attention.

Y: Ok, so the film definitely mentions it. But there’s a structure to this kind of film, where you get the big Sherlock Holmes reveal. In this film it’s Ham reading the letter, like Holmes, where he’s standing in the salon reading the letter, even though you have seen it already. This type of structure is for the type of viewer who the film assumes cannot put the pieces together by themselves.

E: Well, what I think you started out trying to say is that the film is not critical enough of the capitalist world system which promotes the very localized instance of oppression we see here in the form of pharmaceutical companies in the film.

Y: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.


E: All I was saying is that there are moments when the film acknowledges this logic, even if it is, as you say, and as I agree, not critical enough. But there are those two moments, which also point to the larger question of why Arnold and Tess were killed. The answer, I think, is because it was cheaper. I think it’s ultimately too easy an out to look at this film and see it terms of good and bad guys, so to speak. The logic behind the main dramatic event is presented in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. Tess, Arnold, and all the innocent Africans are killed so that a corporation can continue testing a flawed drug. In effect, they’re killed because it is cheaper and easier to kill them to do the ethical thing and redesign the drug. It makes me think of that bit in Fight Club, where Edward Norton’s character, an insurance investigator, explains how car companies calculate the cost of initiating a recall. They essentially compute how much it will cost to settle in court versus doing a recall, because a recall is expensive and oftentimes dealing with the unfortunate deaths of relatively ‘disposable,’ voiceless people is cheaper. In the insurance scenario it’s just your average schmuck who’s bought a new exploding car. In The Constant Gardener the cost is killing a few dozen Africans that the company and their partners assumes nobody will miss, along with this white Rachel Corrie figure and her European doctor partner.

Y: This is the point that I brought up earlier about Tessa’s actions being justified. This is the whole point. The white savoir complex and capitalism are very much related. Because after a point it becomes about her bravery rather than the system. That’s a problem here in this film. It’s about her bravery, it’s about their love story, it’s not about the system that’s corrupt.

E: I agree. And I was just saying that there are moments when a critique is visible. You just can’t expect them to tell you that they’re talking about it, and that it’s more an implicit critique from within capitalism itself. It’s not meant to change anything, really. But capitalism throws up its own critiques because it has to, because it’s generally not amenable to a happy human existence. But I agree with you that there is a point to be made here about how visible the critique may be.

Y: I think the idea of evil is a good thing to introduce here, because there is capitalism, which, given my politics, I think is evil and the root of all despair.

E: But you don’t mean actually evil, right? You don’t mean literally evil? Like, in a theological sense.

Y: Oh, no.

E: Even though capitalism is about as sacred as it gets, seeing that there’s no reality beyond it. It encompasses everything, like a theological system.

Y: Well, yeah, I guess it could be evil in a theological way if you pray to capitalist gods.

E: Everyone does, every day, when we all go shopping.

Y: But in the class I was in when I saw the film people talked about evil as something different than capitalism, which I guess it is. Evil is a force that exists and we don’t necessarily have the capacity to overturn it. Only a few privileged men of history, the historical man, who can seize the zeitgeist can maybe do it, but then again that could be evil itself. If you think about it, capitalism can totally come crashing down and change the system. But if you think about it in relationship to evil, a force which will always prevail…

E: Why does evil always have to prevail?

Y: If you have a moral sense, evil will always prevail. And I mean prevail as not necessarily proving superior but merely existing or continue existing.

E: So what people once called evil we now call capitalism, because it’s a force we feel we don’t have the power to change. You’re saying evil is something we don’t have the power to change, whereas capitalism is something we do have the power to change, but we act as though we don’t.

Y: Yes, and that what we call evil is something that is not as abstract as we think it is.

E: Ok, so you’re saying that the film makes it seem like the motivations and the power behind this is some vague, dispersed, abstract thing that sometimes acts through state representatives, sometimes through shadowy corporate structures, but always through something that you probably can’t see and when you do see it you’re only seeing the henchmen nine layers removed.

Y: Right, you see the Kenyan police.

E: Or the German guys who beat up Justin.

Y: Yeah, or the last shot of the jeep going by and you see the guys with rifles.

E: Interesting side point, then. From the standpoint of a conceptual Marxist analysis, this all makes perfect sense. But from the standpoint from someone who just experiences this ‘evil,’ how do we talk about it? How do we talk about this thing that you see lurking on the periphery of your vision at all times, but can never glimpse directly? I mean, in the film there’s this vague sense of something ominous lurking around off to the side, these kind of Kafka-esque moments. It makes me want to make a Žižek reference, you know, it’s the whole anamorphosis thing. You only see the truth if you’re not looking right at it…So do we blame the film for not doing something about this, for not being more open about its critique? It seems like you’re doing this to a degree.

Y: Well, we’re being critical of it right now because, as you mentioned earlier, is part of the re-view and a nature of our fields. You understand anamorphosis as a theoretical concept and I understand the reference. This film wants to be serious but has to be entertaining too. It’s the type of film that your parents will go to in order to feel good about…themselves?

E: Hmm. Maybe not my parents. I think the film is too self-consciously artistic to appeal to my parents. Let’s shift gears a bit and talk a little bit about Tessa, the young activist character played, in an Academy Award-winning turn, by Rachel Weisz.


Y: She’s supposed to be 24 years old!

E: I think we could start with that surprise. Because when I first saw it, I just kind of read the character as Tessa, I didn’t read her as Rachel Weisz, and I just assumed that she was supposed to be a bit younger than him.

Y: But not 24!

E: No, not 24. Maybe 28 or something. And he in his mid-to-late 30s.

Y: Yeah, I thought she was mid-to-late twenties, and Justin was meant to be in his late 30s.

E: I think Ralph Fiennes is older than that, actually. But he looked younger. They gave him some nice hair plugs maybe.

Y: He looks young from so much time spent not moving his face when he acts.

E: Haha, right. So, he meets a 24-year-old Tessa. First of all, where did you think he was meant to be meeting her, where he was giving that talk?

Y: I thought it was a university. I thought it was a political science graduate seminar or something like that.

E: So that makes more sense, now that I know she’s supposed to be 24.

Y: Yeah, and everybody seemed to know her and were telling her to shut up. They know her.

E: Right, they seem to have seen this before. You know, the only reason I thought it wasn’t a university and was maybe a government building was because of the shot of the skyline when they open the blinds at the end. But now that I think of it there are plenty of universities in central London.

Y: I thought it was the London School of Economics.

E: Oh, you’re totally right. That’s totally right. Even the view makes sense now, with St. Paul’s in the background, which is further east. I think the LSE is due west of there. Nice catch. So she’s 24 and at university, which means she’s probably doing a postgraduate degree, a master’s in whatever. But you don’t read her age really, or, if you do, you don’t read it as young. She’s so much more confident and she kind of bowls Justin over that she seems on par with him age-wise.

Y: That’s an interesting casting decision, then.

E: Yeah, and she doesn’t seem to be playing a flirty, seductive pose, which you might associate with someone younger than him.

Y: I disagree. She’s being flirty. She tells him that she owes him a drink. That, to me, was flirty.

E: Ok, yeah, I suppose.

Y: Also, she doesn’t just buy him a drink, they actually go home together. That’s the same day.

E: Yeah, she says, ‘Oh, please come in.’ And then it’s cut to that weak/blurry light shot of them having dimly lit sex. But the thing he says to her there seems to reinforce this distinction between them, because he says ‘Thank you for this wonderful gift,’ which is both bumbling and funny and a little sweet, but also a remark on her power to give or not to give.

Y: He sounds like a virgin.

E: I can see him not having had tons of sex, poor Justin. His reaction to her ‘work,’ her activism, is interesting. You know, he’s in her place and picks up the Amnesty booklet and is like ‘Amnesty, ooh, rabble rouser.’


Y: We can come back to the activism bit. I want to go back to that scene at the university, where we see Justin kind of stumbling when reading the speech prepared by his boss, Sir Bernard. He’s nervous and stumbling as he merely recites someone else’s ideas. This is important because it establishes him as this meek middleman who’s not really high but not really low. He’s the guy who does what you ask him even if it’s uncomfortable, because he doesn’t have thoughts of his own. He’s reading someone else’s lecture, which is very important, especially once we learn who Sir Bernard is later in the film.

E: Well, doesn’t he say that in response to Tessa’s charge that he was the one delivering the lecture, speaking for Sir Bernard? He says, well, diplomats are just supposed to do what they’re told, and she says ‘so are Labradors.’ And then, when he’s been detained by the Kenyan police, they say that for a diplomat he’s not a very good liar and he answers that he hasn’t risen very high.

Y: But it needs to be pointed out that he’s risen high enough. He’s not high but he’s not at the bottom of the food chain either.

E: But he’s there and he’s useful precisely because of who he is. He’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of consciousness of his own role in the world or of his identity. There’s the bit where he’s lunching with Sir Bernard and the latter has that great line where he says ‘Quayles have always made reliable foreign servants.’ Delivered as only Bill Nighy can do it. It’s almost like he’s saying ‘You are a part of a long line of these weak-willed, spineless creatures who have been doing this for us for years. Why trouble that?’ Right, so we kind of register Tess as this massively opinionated and engaged person and then Justin as totally weak and disengaged.

Y: Yeah. I think he needs to be in a position that has the veil of importance in order for that system to work.

E: But he can’t be like Danny Huston’s character, Sandy. We’re given no cause to believe that Justin would act out of anything besides procedure or decorum. When Tessa wants to give a ride to Kiyoko Kilulu, the boy, he says ‘We’re not supposed to get involved in their lives, we’re not supposed to help.’ You know, it’s like he’s reciting out of a manual. While callow, he doesn’t seem to bear anyone ill will because he’s relatively ignorant of what goes on behind the scenes. Whereas Sandy has kind of mastered both the manual and the shady background stuff that goes on. He knows how colonialism works in ways that Justin doesn’t, partly because Justin thinks that he’s doing his job, helping people kind of. So…what do you think Tessa means to Justin?

Y: I want to answer that question by going back to when they meet during the lecture, when she starts questioning him and afterward he calls her ‘courageous and impassioned.’ Those are two terms I think are slightly insulting. If you think about her age, 24, right? There has to be some understanding that he knows how old she is…

E: You think it’s condescending?

Y: It is condescending. You call someone ‘courageous and impassioned’ rather than a good thinker or ‘correct’ or ‘brilliant.’

E: So you’re looking at the gender dynamics in this one scene, outside of other levels on which it might be playing out.

Y: Right, so ‘courageous and impassioned.’ It’s funny to me, too, because her political stance hides behind the United Nations. She cites its role in global affairs, which I found to be very naïve on her part.

E: Ok, but to what degree do we then see her 24-year-old self as being somewhat naïve? Because she’s definitely idealistic. I mean, Justin’s not wrong when he says she has passion and courage. I mean, in relation to the people in that room?

Y: Yeah, she does. But he says she’s impassioned, not passionate. There is also a difference between being called ‘courageous and impassioned’ by someone whose ideas you just challenged and being engaged in a dialogue because of that passion.

E: So he’s talking about the moment rather than character in general. Makes a little sense, given that he doesn’t know her and she just scared him by challenging him in front of all these people, and he’s generally a pretty diffident guy. Wouldn’t it be weird for him to condescend to her there, given that one who condescends would need to have a stronger conception of himself?

Y: But he can condescend, because of his position. He’s older, he has a job at the high commission, and he is a man.

E: He could just be nervous, though. I mean, there’s this pretty girl who just asked him to have a drink. Anyway, I take the point. There’s a gender dynamic there, though I do think she immediately reverses it and that he is not the powerful one between the two. She’s not that much more powerful than him across the narrative arc, but…

Y: See, this goes back to me having been in academia for too long, and seeing shit that I shouldn’t be seeing, and knowing stuff I wish didn’t exist. The idea here is a younger woman seducing an older man, and then we assume she has power, but she doesn’t. We see this in academia all the time; how many professors have dated their students? I’m just saying that sometimes there is an idea that the woman is seducing or being seductive, but in reality the man is always in power.

E: But in this case, she picks someone who has just enough power, but really very little.

Y: But he’s still using her.


E: Which gets back to my question: What does she mean to him?

Y: “Oh great, this young, beautiful, ambitious woman has come into my life.”

E: “She likes me! She really likes me!”

Y: Yeah, ‘She likes me!’ Exactly, and she’s sexy, definitely, and pretty smart. I think that she legitimizes him, insofar as he gets to have a wife, he gets to show her off, etc.

E: But is it then just a ‘marriage of convenience,’ as Tess calls the relationship she uncovers between the British government and the drug company? They both use each other, then, right? Justin’s just not conscious enough of the world around him to be…scheming? But he absolutely takes advantage of the residual effects of having a pretty girl around him.

Y: If we assume this is a marriage of convenience, then Tessa’s pregnancy is peculiar event in that a child is not the logical end their convenient arrangement. Also, the way her character is set up, she would not be pregnant. She has too much stuff to do to be pregnant. The first time I watched this, when I was 17, I asked why she was pregnant and that’s true today as well. Is it just to justify the clinic scene?

E: Right, but saying that the way that she is with Justin is some kind of act, or that their real motivations are somehow false.

Y: Well, it’s not about whether they’re having sex, but whether she would think that having a baby wouldn’t somehow jeopardize her work.

E: Maybe she doesn’t think having a child and pursuing her work need be mutually exclusive.

Y: Have you ever carried a child?

E: No no, of course not. I’m not saying it might not set back your ability to work, only that some women would say that pregnancy and life, including work, can coexist. Otherwise, pregnancy becomes this special kind of delicate condition justifying an ideology of separation and pathologization, etc.

Y: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that, if she gets pregnant, their marriage no longer becomes a marriage of convenience. Once they have a child they have something they can share. They both have their individual work, and this is a situation which works for them. But then if they have a child, Justin would be involved in her work, which would then be of concern to him because they would then have this thing together, that they’d created. In a sense, it’s not the child jeopardizing her work but rather Justin’s involvement in her and the child’s life. Introducing a child into the marriage ultimately restricts her freedom and ability to do what she wants.

E: The child needs to exist in order to justify the film being a love story, I think. You said it yourself. You need to have a reason for two people to come together and form a lasting bond. It’s not as business-like as we’re making it sound, or at least the film doesn’t want us to see it that way.

Y: See, I think you’re way more sentimental. Or maybe that you have a more sentimental relationship to this film.

E: That was definitely true ten years ago, though I’m not so sure it is now. I’m just trying to take your claims and read them against what we see in the film. That said, I suppose half of my re-views for this blog are about men and women and relationships. The other half are about sci-fi movies and colonialism.

Y: Or Scotland.

E: Or Scotland, exactly.

Y: It’s not even that you’re more sentimental. It’s that you’re sentimental and I’m not. I watched the love story in this film and for me it was just something there. It was slightly in the background.

E: Well, I guess you have to be receptive enough to it to notice what it’s doing. I’m not agreeing with the fact that the love story takes up so much of the foreground of the film. I fucking hate that. If I’ve done a few primary things in my time here, one of the big ones has been to chide films that unnecessarily turn interesting material into love stories. And I would probably say the same thing about this one because I’m with you. This film has its two registers – on the one hand it’s a serious political story that gets told as backdrop to the dramatic foreground, and on the other it’s a story of political intrigue read in retrospect as a story of love.

Y: I had a hard time believing – or understanding – the love story because before we see them in Africa, before we see her pregnant, we see her come into his office and ask him to take her to Africa under whatever identity he wants. I took it as Tessa performing whatever identity Justin wants but she is not bound to being it. Right? “You can introduce me as this to people, but I’m not necessarily going to be it.” So, I thought that if she were having an affair with Arnold it shouldn’t be shocking to Justin because she’s merely performing an identity. She’s merely performing the role of a wife so that she can be in Kenya; this in return somehow legitimizes Justin. But it’s a love story, so they have to be monogamous, she has to be faithful.

E: I suppose. I think the presentation of their relationship in the film is vague enough that these a kind of uncertainty accrues and needs to be taken into account. The question you’re asking – whether Tess is the role she claims she will perform – isn’t really answered by the film, and this has something to do with the way the film itself is put together. We see them meet, cut back to present; we see her come to his office and entreat him to take her to Africa with him under whatever pretense, cut back to present; we see them in Africa, time has passed, and it seems like maybe she’s no longer playing. If she is playing, then that is a massive blind spot in the film’s self-awareness. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s a huge contradiction between the story and the way the film was marketed. I guess she could be unfaithful, given what we see, but she could also just genuinely find Justin sufficient for her needs, or she could genuinely be head over heels in love with him. The film supports all three possibilities, I think, but the way it’s put together leaves them as possibilities.


Y: I was also interested in why Arnold has to be gay in order for the film to prove that an affair didn’t happen?

E: That’s an interesting question.

Y: But what I want to say…I don’t know how to put this. I’ll put it in academic terms, I guess. The issue is that hegemonic systems need to be preserved.

E: Sure. Can you say more?

Y: If Arnold is gay, that’s fine. What bothers me is that his sexuality is trivialized and is defined to assuage Justin’s anxiety. When I watched this the second time I was more aware of what bothered me, and why it was necessary.

E: Yeah, I agree with you about this. There’s nothing else in the film that suggests that he’s gay. It’s kind of pulled out of thin in order to convince Justin of her fidelity. There’s nothing we see; we see him with no other men, he’s always kind of attached to Tessa.

Y: And is he castrated? He’s castrated, too.

E: By other Africans.

Y: This is interesting, because if we trace that history to why slaves were castrated, it’s because of the idea that they were sexually voracious and after your women. It was thought that they posed a certain danger, which is why castration seemed necessary. So there you have the idea of castration.

E: The way I thought about it was in the local context, where we hear from Gita that homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, and then we see Africans taking down Arnold’s body, just as we see Africans come to kill Justin, as they presumably killed Tess, so we’re led to believe that there are Africans committing these crimes in the service of higher powers. So, the punishment is meant to be ‘African,’ rather than ‘colonial’ in a, say, nineteenth-century sense. I guess you could call it neocolonial perhaps.

Y: Yeah, but I think there’s a clear line between the way that he’s killed and the history of slavery.

E: I think there’s a line, but I’m not sure it’s clear in this story.

Y: I think it is. Why would you do it that way? I saw it as a colonial legacy.

E: Well, I agree that the environment in which it occurs lends the act a colonial connotation. But here, I’ll throw out a tentative alternate answer: If you’re traditional and conservative and a man is using his penis in a way that is not culturally sanctioned, you might cut it off to show him that what he’s doing is wrong.

Y: It is clearly connected then, because the idea is that it’s not culturally sanctioned.

E: Right, but it’s not as though European colonizers have a monopoly on cultural sanctions. I think you’re oversimplifying the act. You have to at least admit that another possible context for interpretation here is traditional African culture, or some dimension of it. I’m not saying it can’t be an allusion to the historical fact of European brutality in Africa.

Y: But that’s the thing. They’re killing him on behalf of the higher power, the British government or whatever.

E: Yeah, but it’s never explained that anyone was instructed to kill him in any specific way. I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that the murder is motivated by race or by a kind of historical colonial superiority. It’s more likely that the henchmen who were told to kill him did it in their own way. Just from a purely grotesque, strategic angle, if you’re a European boss or corporate henchman or something, you’re not going to send your guys to kill a black man in a symbolically meaningful way when your goal is only to get rid of him because he knows too much. Maybe the issue here is that you’re seeing a kind of absent cause or motivation for this killing. You’re tracing it backward from the act itself to the motivations, and I’m not seeing the motivations. Maybe that’s a fault of the film.

Y: Ok. Point taken. Anyway, I do find the whole idea of castration is that the person is sexually dangerous, and Arnold is seen as someone taking advantage of Tessa sexually. The idea of the fact that his sexuality needs to be removed from him is interesting because we see him as someone maybe having an affair with her, but that’s about it.

E: Kind of. A lot of the time he’s just her inside guy who has connections and knows the scene. I think it’s worth pointing out that the bit with Arnold is one of those scenes wherein, if you look at from the perspective of a white Western viewer, or even just a ‘Western viewer,’ whatever that means, wherein we’re offered something that we’re meant to look at and immediately find reprehensible. I mean, there are a lot of things we’re meant to find reprehensible in this film, but this is one of those moments where his death is offered up to us as an example of a kind of barbarity that wouldn’t happen where ‘we ‘are. We’re supposed to see it and log it as something we know goes on in Africa – horrendous brutality – and then move on, in a way feeling a kind of catharsis that we’ve been able to internally think ‘shameon you for being so cruel.’ Or maybe another type of person wouldn’t level a judgment, but would just shake their head at the sadness of it all. The point is that this movie offers up a number of those moments, whether visually or verbally, where it calls to the viewer to identify with positions which have been designed for their consumption. The presence of neo-colonial African politicians would be another one. You don’t see Africans as much as you see yourself being outraged by things you already think Africans do.


Y: Ok, well, let’s go back to that.

E: Are we getting to the white savior complex?

Y: Yes, well, kind of. We’re going to make a transition between Arnold getting castrated and the white savoir complex. So. We are writing a ten year review of something, something we watched ten years ago. So it has to do with our initial perception of it. First time, I saw it in the US. First time, you saw it in the US. Second time, you saw it in Scotland. Pretty white places, you have to say.

E: Very white. Scotland is the whitest.

Y: Right. I’ve never seen this movie anywhere that wasn’t the West. I think it’s pretty pathetic when you hear about Arnold and not make a connection to lynching in the South. If you live in the US.

E: Really? But it’s really just a connotation in the film. At most.

Y: It is a connotation, but I think it’s pretty pathetic if you as a viewer do not see that. It is. I think there is so much denial of what the “West” has done to the rest of the world.

E: I’m not sure I agree. You say above that I see things that not everyone else will see, which is probably true, but if it’s true of me then it’s also true of you. I guess if you generalize and say that ‘the viewer’ here is American, and that any allusion to racial violence ought to prompt a connection with histories of racial violence in the USA, then maybe you have a point. But I honestly think you have to overgeneralize in order to do that. However, I do think that there is a general sense here of a large, abstract history of violence that is played out in Arnold’s death. I think it’s more like what you were saying before about evil. Most liberal people in the ‘West’ live with some kind of awareness of what ‘the West’ has done. The problem is—

Y: No, they don’t!

E: Give me a minute. I said ‘some kind.’ It’s not a perceptive consciousness of what the West has done, and it’s certainly not radical or intended to change the situation in any way. It’s more like a vague, abstract guilt that’s arranged in opposition to a vague, abstract evil.

Y: It’s guilt, though.

E: Sure. But it’s like, I know this happens, or that it happened, and I feel bad about it, but at the same time, you know, it’s not something that I feel I have the power to change so the best thing I’ll do is arrange my attitude in such a way that’ll make it seem like I’m not complicit. This involves ideologically arranging your relationship with Africans in such a way that you can critique all the bad things that happen to them on the one hand and never have to change your life to accommodate theirs on the other. To me it seems like a classic liberal conundrum.

Y: Yes, and that comes back to capitalism. You’re complicit because you uphold this system that inherently negates racial equity.

E: Sure.

Y: You’re definitely complicit. But also the idea of guilt…does Tessa feel guilty?

E: I don’t think she believes guilt is a profitable way to approach the relationship between the West and Africa.

Y: Because the idea of white savior complex always comes from guilt, personal guilt. It’s the idea of repenting or rectifying something so it always goes back to ‘I want to feel better about myself.’ You just think this movie should stand as it is and I think this movie is dangerous.

E: Well, I’m coming at it saying, ‘Here we have this object; what can we say about the things it’s doing?’ It would be hypocritical of me not to agree with the point that I wish it had done things differently. But my focus is on what it does do, as much or more than what it could or should be doing.

Y: But this object is hurtful because this object gives the false sense of – and I just don’t know how to name it.

E: And that’s why we’re here. That’s one of the things we can do as reviewers; we can criticize it, which we have been doing and yes, you are more angry about it than I am…partly because, I think, partly because it opens doors that a lot of similar films do, by which I mean that it shares problems with other films about Africa. I find myself standing somewhere in between what we can ask of something that has already been made and what we can take away from the act of talking about it. Are we blaming it for not adapting Le Carré in a different way or are we blaming Le Carré for not being more conscious?

Y: Well why keep making these films? This is the year that we get so many of these films.Syriana came out that year. When did Hotel Rwanda come out?

E: End of 2004, actually, so less than a year before Constant Gardener. You’re right, though, this was a big period for ‘African’ films. The Last King of Scotland was 2006, I think. There were two movies about Rwanda that came out around then. There was Hotel Rwanda, which had more distribution and more push and there was a film called Shooting Dogs, I think, which starred John Hurt and another English guy I don’t know. And I think there was something else that coincided with that. Blood Diamond came out around that time, maybe 2006. You asked why keep making these films. My first answer is because Americans like watching films about Africa which validate their guilt, even ones that make it very clear that their guilt is harmful. I think the scene with Dr. Lorbeer is meant to be critical in this sense, for example. He gets this massively important moment of exposition where he explains how the West ‘fucks Africa’ by never fully committing to it. Their attention is all attuned, in his estimation, toward assuaging guilt. I wonder if the move towards a different kind of ‘African film’ represents a shifts in the larger guilt complex. These films are all about guilt. The Rwanda situation offers the white liberal viewer a ‘why didn’t we do something?’ moment, even if they don’t like the answer. Blood Diamond is another one that foregrounds its guilt narrative in the story about conflict diamonds. I guess what I’m seeing is that the idea of white/Western/liberal guilt has become embedded in the stories, rather than just being an effect of them. Maybe what you’re saying is that you see The Constant Gardener taking the next step in ‘African’ film and not being happy with that fact.

Y: That’s an interesting point you make about guilt being embedded in the film. It’s this embedded guilt which reinforces colonial structures in a post-colonial film. This sort of guilt still sets up the distinction between “we” and “they” and somehow “we” positions itself as above “they.” We can see this distinction in the cinematography of this film, it has an uncomfortable aesthetic that fetishizes the other as if they’re mere props. I have a problem with these processes that seem necessary for making visible serious problems to a predominately white audience. We could call it the white savior complex aesthetic that relies on the suspicious position of guilt.

E: Agreed.

Y: It just tries to rectify or appease individual feeling. It’s about feelings, it’s not about the system, it’s about goddamn feelings. It’s whether I have been courageous or impassioned enough to stand up against this.

E: I’d say yes or no, because most people who we’re talking about having a white savior complex don’t do what Tessa does. They may go on some type of sponsored African field trip or they go visit an orphanage or, at best, use it to send money to sponsor a child. But they don’t fight drug companies in Africa.

Y: I disagree with that because the white savior complex is about taking over the voices of the people you’re trying to help. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a small scale or on a big scale. What I’m thinking of is Game of Thrones. I’ve only seen one episode of it.

E: Which one?

Y: The one with the blonde lady crowd-surfing on top of all the brown people.

E: Oh yeah, that one.

Y: That’s an interesting image that we are accustomed to. Why do people have to see this? It’s the idea that she has to be the voice of these people; she has to be the leader of these people because these people are not ‘equipped’ to ‘save’ themselves.

2009:12:07 --- Batch Resized

E: Ok, that makes what you’re saying clearer to me and I think I’d agree. I guess my response is still to ask whether we can blame the film for doing what it does with the character, which it receives from the source material. The book is definitely written in concordance with the accepted conclusion that ‘these people’ are not capable of saving themselves, and the film accepts this to a degree. The only Africans we see who are in positions of power are those who are corrupt. It definitely, totally, embeds the assumption that empowering Africans is a dangerous thing. That’s in the movie. But you’re saying that ultimately what Tessa is doing is disempowering Africans?

Y: In a way, yes. In a way it’s similar to mission work. She is trying to reveal the truth about the drug trials but is not trying to answer why these predatory systems are possible in Kenya.

E: Interesting. Do you think, then, that Lorbeer’s condemnation of the West’s guilt complex includes Tessa, that he is meant to be a critical voice in the film, from within that same complex, of her otherwise unblemished character?

Y: I don’t think it includes Tessa in his action because, in a way, turning to religion is in itself carrying out a guilt complex. I do, however, think that he is condemning her in his intention. He completely distances himself from the pharmaceutical company but he finds any resistance to that system futile which is, in my opinion, why he turns to religion and goes to Syria. He is enacting the same savior complex that Tessa is.

E: But he seems conscious of it.

Y: Honestly that doesn’t mean shit.

E: It means shit in this case because that’s part of the film’s message. On one hand the film gives you Tessa and on the other, this doctor.

Y: But I don’t have to choose between either of those characters. I think this polarity is what makes this film dangerous because it privileges intention and intention should not have any place in human rights because you can have good intentions that cause harm.

E: Absolutely. It’s one of the main contradictions inherent in liberalism.

Y: This is why this film is dangerous, because these people had good intentions and they didn’t necessarily see the outcome.

E: The only person in this film with good intentions is Tessa.

Y: Except for the doctor at the end because he says so and that’s why he needed to remove himself from that. In this film, there are people who have good intentions and there are those who are evil. Good and evil.

E: Would you connect this to the argument that white liberals are able to distance themselves from the concrete effects of racism and systemic oppression by convincing themselves that by believing that race thinking is wrong they are able to absolve themselves from its effects?

Y: Certainly. First of all, they can distance themselves from racism’s concrete effects because they’re not the subject of them; they haven’t had the lived experience. Second, believing race thinking is wrong does not eradicate it; it purely works to assuage the individual guilt. In some cases, believing race thinking is wrong doesn’t mean the individual believing it is not engaging in it. I see Tessa as this latter individual.

E: So what you’re saying is that the film is not doing enough; it validates the idea that there are people who exist in relation to Africa as white saviors but then it also doesn’t do enough to critique the person who is being offered as an alternative to the white savior complex.

Y: Yeah, it doesn’t critique Tessa because she is our heroine, our savior, or the saint that died too soon. And there is a sense of hope at the end that negates a critical perception of the film which might promote an awareness of this conclusion. She is also memorialized at the end, through her death, through Justin’s death, through the love story eulogized.

E: That part is validated. I think if there is hope it’s in the romantic part. The funeral thing is very ambiguous because it essentially says that nothing will be resolved.

Y: And that’s the problem, nothing systematic is resolved; it’s about this evil. It’s this individual evil guy, Pellegrin, he will be ousted. What about the next guy? This is what I find dangerous. At the end, you have the guy facing public shaming and being ousted but you still haven’t gone through how this is a systematic problem and that it’s not enough to only expose Pellegrin because Pellegrin himself is probably a middleman.

E: But everything Ham says after he reads the letter is not about Pellegrin. It seems to pan back to at least try and take in the whole scene.

Y: But we see Pellegrin getting in the car.

E: That’s the last thing we see.

Y: Here you have to take into consideration the deliberate nature of the shot. The viewer and the film ends on Pellegrin in the car while the speech is being given by Ham. The logical understanding is that Pellegrin is being implicated and all will be well.

E: With the exception that after that – and I think the letter ends as he’s running out and we see him in the car with the cameras flashing – and then there is the rest of Ham’s comment, the ad hoc bit where he asks who we are to blame. He asks whether we blame the government, the corporations, the individuals? He tells us that the corporation has moved on, moved their testing facility from Nairobi to Harare in Zimbabwe so that the tests can continue. At least, that tells me that if something goes wrong in the corner of this system, the system will readjust and move to another corner.

Y: The center always moves.

E: It’s not just the center, it’s the center’s relationship with a periphery conceived as inhabited by disposable guinea pigs.

Y: I just wanted a Yeats reference.


E: I think it ends without telling us anything that can be done about—

Y: Again though, you are a smart individual and are not the general audience that this film is pandering to.

E: No. I think if I were to write this up like more of my re-views, I would blame the film, as you’ve done, for not doing enough and for not being more intelligent and critical.

Y: I’m sorry.

E: Why? That’s what we do and what we bring to the blog. You’ve brought me around partly, and I have no problem with that.

I keep thinking of the last scene when it actually shows us and give us; that the system continues.

Y: But it does end with hope. When I saw this film, I thought of its intended audience and the effect of the film on its intended audience. There is always that hope that you would be remembered as that courageous and impassioned person. The story of Tessa and Justin ends with them being justified at their funeral. They’re justified and put on pedestal and are immortalized in their mortality. That’s the whole point of eulogies, right? What Ham does is actually immortalize them because they did something courageous. Because they did something passionate. That’s their love story. They did something out of the ordinary through their passion, because we’re supposed to believe that Tessa actually loved Justin. I have a problem with that because when the center moves – and the periphery is only the periphery with a defined center – there will be more courageous and passionate people going around trying to fix things. The idea here is that I have to travel to Africa to fix things. And then people go google pharmaceutical companies and Africa, maybe donate some money to a charity. But the problem isn’t over there. It’s with us. We’ve set up predatory systems.

E: So here’s a more direct question, what is it about the movie that impedes the viewer from recognizing that what the film is critiquing is themselves? What stops people from seeing that they are part of the problem?

Y: Tessa and Justin’s romantic relationship. When you have a romantic element in the film, it becomes the only thing about the film. You talked about the poster, what does it say?

E: ‘Love at any cost.’

Y: The cost is not important, the love is.

E: The cost is ironic.

Y: The cost is unmarked mass graves.

E: So what we’re saying is that by the end of the movie, the cost is interpreted by the audience as Justin’s courageous, heroic quest.

Y: And Tessa’s too.

E: I think I agree with what you’re saying and maybe we can come around and fully agree on the fact that, because the film foregrounds its love story, we lose the ability as viewers to engage meaningfully with the political dimensions of the background narrative. So what we take away from it, and what makes it damaging, dangerous even, as you say, is the idea that love, romance, and passion are the appropriate contexts through which to interpret the systemic injustices foisted on and perpetuated in Africa. I think ultimately it can be brought back, again, to your observation about good and evil. Tess and Justin are abstractly good in their intentions and their love is equally as abstract, but also good. The film ends, maybe, with the idea that if you have enough love you can save the world. And now that I think about it, that sounds really facile. It sounds like bullshit.

Y: You won’t save the world but, at the least, you can understand your lover fully. Isn’t that what Justin says before he is killed, “I understand you now?” Now I can understand your initial sentimentality – not sentimentality itself but why one would be sentimental. But this sense of sentimentality that certain audience members (maybe even the majority) experience ignores the nuances of post-colonial globalization that only benefits a few privilege groups at the expense of a large plurality.


I really enjoyed this process and I’m happy with the re-view it produced, however unorthodox it may be. Yasi is convinced that she ruined the film for me by interrogating it so aggressively, but I don’t think this is true. Before I’d even started I was suspicious of my younger self’s uncritical acceptance of much of what the film says, directly and indirectly, about the capitalist West’s relation to Africa. I’d learned too much as a student and scholar in the ensuing ten years not to be. But she was also right to point out that at times there was a still a vestige of that earlier experience clouding my ability to really push and think and articulate what was, as she puts it, dangerous about the film’s role as a vehicle for the dissemination of an ideology to which I do not subscribe. While I was able to distance myself from the film intellectually, I still clung to it with some part of my affective being. I see now that there is value in this recognition, because it shines light on the different dimensions of the re-view process. Knowing what you thought then and what you think now is one thing; understanding how you felt then and how you feel now is another. If part of the premise of this project is that we carry the past with us when we attach ideas and feelings to cultural objects, one of the things I’ve learned from this collaboration is the value in allowing another person to illuminate the blind spots which accompany that process.

I’ll start with this: I don’t do well in conversations; I digress and get stuck in the inability to name that which I think. I have to rehearse my thoughts as I just don’t have a linear mind. So I can’t really say that I didn’t expect our conversation to move the way it did but I truly didn’t. I meant to be calm and patient but that fell apart pretty quickly. As a result, I became fodder to Erik’s calm and lucid conjectures. (It should be noted that Erik embodies the calm, critical, lucid scholar of whom I’m envious. I was very conscious of how I will never embody this affect during our conversation.) This dialogue was fruitful in that it forced me to think through the discrete ways in which I could express my discontent but I was very conscious of the tone I was taking in opposition to Erik’s, an issue with which I have been preoccupied. During the conversation, he is the more succinct critic. I’m envious of that and it has taken me a few reads of the transcript to realize that at the moment of our conversation my thoughts were muddles with insecurities over language. It wasn’t until a few informal chats after the initial conversation that I was less sorry for my tone and more proud of my position as a fodder, even if my position is guided by impassioned anger.

I am confident that Erik was not aware of my limitation in carrying out a composed conversation. Unfortunately for Erik, he had to re-experience our conversation as he transcribed the majority of the recording of it. So here is my sincere apology.


Ten Years Ago: The Brothers Grimm

28 Aug grimm1

Long-time reader and first-time contributor Sadie Rose revisits Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, hoping to find a moral, any kind of moral, and how the film may comment upon America’s political struggles.


The Brothers Grimm

Dir. Terry Gilliam

Heath Ledger is dead! UHG. I hate that.

As none of you may know, I love Heath Ledger. I mean really, truly, this is tangible, love him. My love for him started about halfway through 10 Things I Hate About You, not only because of his charming smile but because I knew he was the real deal. A real craftsman of character. I told everyone how he was going to be the next big thing. How he was going to win an Oscar someday. How he was the Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino of our time. I was relentless.

The year was 1999. And I was so adamant about my love for this actor that my email address was HeathsFutureWife@hotmail.com (100% true story! You can ask anyone who had to send me an email between 1999-2005). And you may be saying “Whoa, Sadie, TMI. That email is embarrassing.” But I have no shame about it because I was on the RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. (Well mostly, he was on track to be the next brilliant creator of characters before he died. Uhg. I hate that.)

Summary thus far: Heath Ledger is amazing and I love him.

So although I know I saw The Brothers Grimm in the theater in 2005, I don’t remember where or with whom I saw it. I may have gone by myself. After all, most of the people in my life didn’t get how awesome Heath was. It was dark times (did anyone watch AND stay awake through Four Feathers? I mean I did, but it was for love, not pleasure). Nevertheless, Lords of Dogtown had been released two months before and Brokeback Mountain was about to be released in December and all the people who shamed me were gonna eat crow.

But, okay, enough with the Heath Ledger stuff!

On to The Brothers Grimm.


The movie opens with the obligatory “Once upon a time…” and we meet a young Grimm family in 1796. The father is absent, the mother is caring for a dying daughter and the oldest brother, Will (who will grow into Matt Damon) is reassuring everyone that Jake (who will grow into Heath Ledger) will return from selling the cow, to get the money, to pay the doctor, to save the sister. (Anyone else try to sing that, or was it just me?) However Jake returns with magic beans instead. Will instantly begins to beat on him for being so gullible and killing their sister.

15 years later, we find the Brothers riding into Karlstadt. They consult with the town’s people about a witch who is haunting the old mill. 100 years ago (it’s always 100 years ago), the Miller’s wife was a witch and burned for it, but she has returned and is terrorizing the current Miller. It will be expensive and dangerous, but the Brothers can exorcise the spirit of the witch.

Then we have the action of the exorcism. This scene sets the pace and tone for the whole movie, which is so fast that at times it becomes jumbled. Nevertheless, it’s also funny. When the action is complete and the Miller runs out of the mill with the remains of the witch and a real fear for the mystical, we as an audience discover it’s all been a hoax. The Brothers are not saviors or heroes but con artists. Creating monsters, hauntings, and other mythical evils in order to charge a vanquishing fee.

I don’t think this reveal worked 10 years ago because all the advertising told you The Brothers Grimm is an action-comedy about con-artists. However, I think it is still a well-crafted scene. As a skeptical audience who doesn’t believe in witches or ghosts, the sell that “this is for real!” is very effective and we get to see why the victims are so taken in by the Brothers’ cons.

My favorite scene is the very next one, the Little Red Riding Hood scene. Her red cape against the dark tangled surreal forest is stunning and director Terry Gilliam’s use of camera movement to tell the story of the chase is dazzling. Through very little dialogue and a whole lot of action, we discover there is something taking little girls in the forest of Marbaden.


The movie moves on and we get to see the character development of the two brothers. 10 years ago, I remember being put off by Heath’s appearance, the glasses, facial hair, and scarf were just weird, but now he looks like the original hipster and I give kudos to a costume team that was before their time. Heath’s Jake is physically bumbling, awkward, and boyish, which is a brilliant way to communicate to the audience that he is also a gullible, reckless romantic and the opposite of his older bullshit artist of a brother, Will. I recall 10 years ago finally being impressed with Matt Damon. It’s not that he is terrific in this, but I felt I was seeing a different side. There is no denying his talent, especially then, but I never got the dreamy heartthrob thing for him. However his Will is a very charismatic snake charmer. He is composed and always selling his listener something they don’t need. Matt Damon’s English accent (although uneven) adds likeability to his cad of a character and his comedic timing as the duos straight man is remarkable. He is outlandish at all the right moments.

The Brothers are captured by the French (oh yeah, this is all taking place in Germany during Napoleon’s First French Empire) and given the choice to die for their thieving lying criminal ways or go discover what is going on in the forest of Marbaden. Not really a choice.

The Brothers come to Marbaden and begin to investigate the 10 missing girls. The brother’s assume they are up against a person like them, not trolls or enchantments like the village people believe. They meet brunet, slightly less bitter, Cersei Lannister Angelika (Lena Heady), a female trapper who knows the forest and reluctantly helps the brothers.

We hear of the legend of the area through a flashback. Angelika’s huntsman father is telling Young Angelika the story that happened, you guessed it, 100 years ago. The rumor is a vain queen who loves her reflection/mirror marries her King the same day as the arrival of the plague. The King dies and she locks herself in a tower (resembling Rapunzel’s) to escape the plague, but much like the crows we see throughout the movie, the plague rides the wind to her. She dies and rots away, alone, in the tower, that still stands. (Did you follow that? Because it is actually not that important.) Jake is eating up the fable while Will is trying to figure out logically what is really going on.


What is really going on is that the Mirror Queen never left her tower and is in possession of a whole lot of magic. Real unexplainable magic. She has been waiting her time until just the right blood moon, when she will need to drink the blood of 12 young girls (who are sleeping in crypts and dressed in gold rings and glass slippers) and live forever with her beauty and mirror and tower. The plot is a struggle train as the kids today say. Which is probably why I couldn’t really remember it 10 years later.

While the tension between the brothers is interesting it feels I’m being beaten with it. I get it. Jake wants to believe in magic and love and Will wants to believe in nothing, yet wants people to believe his cons. Contradictions are interesting. Yet in the end Will, the most selfish character who once ran to save himself and leave his brother, now sacrifices himself for his brother in order to break the very real magic.

Of course the good deed is repaid, the good live, the bad die, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The whole story is an inventive hodgepodge of fairytales with a happy ending but no obvious moral, which on both viewings (10 years ago and last week) I felt I was missing. Terry Gilliam really examines and questions what we see and what we believe and how that is different than what is true. This is most clearly stated in a small scene with the non-magical antagonist, the French Gerneral Delatombe (hello High Sparrow, Jonathan Price). As the General welcomes the Emperor’s advisers and speaks to them of deceit and ignorance, you see the guests at a table surrounded by gilded mirrors and you can see that the table extends for-almost-ever. As Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) interrupts the General, the illusion is broken and we are shown the mirrors are in a dark unadorned room surrounding a table that only sits six. It’s a nice moment. It drives home what Terry Gilliam is trying to examine about perception, self-deceit, and truth. Yet still while examining these ideas, the plot seems to say very little of substance about them.


Conversely, the original Grimm stories are tales meant to tell children how messed up the world really is. The original Brothers Grimm stories were so brutal that many didn’t think they were suitable for their intended audience, children. Considering this film was written (bySkeleton Key’s Ehren Kruger) and rewritten (by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) during 2003, I’d like to believe that Gilliam was examining how disastrous our fear of the world is vs how our world really is. How at the time, American’s blind belief in their government was possible because we were being sold modern fairytales by a con-man (or con-military-industrial-driven-government). We were not examining the reality, which may or may not have been much much scarier. Let’s just say it, there were no weapons of mass destruction hiding under anyone’s bed. That was a fable.

There is also a small moment near the end of the movie that I found to be a funny and poignantly pathetic dig towards George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech. You remember the one, where he declared the end of boots on the ground in Iraq. The same Iraq we had troops actively in until 8 1/2 years later. While the Right thought he was poised and as Lisa Schifferen wrote in the Wall Street Journal “really hot. Also, presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as a commander-in-chief. But mostly ‘hot’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.” Most of us on the Left (and in other countries) thought it was foolish and ignorant to declare victory on a war that hadn’t even really started. Well, in The Brothers Grimm we have General Delatombe, the bastion of ignorance, set fire to the Brothers and the forest they claim is enchanted. The General watches at a dinner table as the fire begins to burn and states “This is the life, eh, Cavaldi? To be victorious in the field, with one’s troops around you, enjoying a simple meal, a soldier’s meal… by firelight. Romantic, eh?” Perception, kids. What some find romantic others find unreasonably ignorant.

I would suspect that Cavaldi, the Italian torturer working for the French, was a comment on Abu Ghraib (the prison is Iraq where human rights were seriously violated with torture). Cavaldi always follows orders but he is mischievously and gleefully slow when following the order to stop. And when he resigns because he doesn’t want to kill someone, he is rewarded with a shot to the chest. Cavaldi could also have been Terry Gilliam’s excuse to hack up a kitten with a torture devise. (That happens and Terry Gilliam loves machines and cat abuse.)


I enjoyed the movie a second time around, more than the first.

The Brothers Grimm is stimulatingly dressed and shot. The acting and character development is worth a viewing if you’re into that stuff. The plot is magical but not “magical,” if you catch my drift. The special effects are really enjoyable.

Terry Gilliam is an original member of Monty Python (despite being a bloody American. After this film was made he renounced his American citizenship, supposedly for tax reasons). His movies always have moments stolen out of the old-school British humor manual. The Brothers Grimm strives to fill two hours with Pythonesque loose one-liners, wild pacing, and stream-of-consciousness ideas. If you enter this movie with that in mind, I believe it is a much better film. Even the jumbled ridiculousness of the fairytales suddenly becomes humorously absurd. Although since you have to enter the movie thinking of anything, that means it fails in what it is trying to achieve on its own.

If I had the chance to theorize wildly and, well, I guess I do, I’d guess that Ehren Kruger’s script was trying to reach summer moviegoers with an entertaining action-comedy. Then Terry Gilliam folded in challenging questions, ones that all high art and great movies have. The two become muddled and you walk away feeling both kinda entertained and kinda wondering whether the message was missed or just missing. Which is a shame, because they are great questions that American audiences need then and now.

Extra Tidbits

– There is a moment in the beginning, after the hoax is revealed when one of their helpers, Hidlick (Mackenzie Crook) complains as he takes off his witch costume, “Why must I always play the girl?” Will, in full salesman mode, replies earnestly “Because you have talent and range.” I had a good laugh at this because Terry Gilliam always played the girls in the Monty Python skits and movies.

– This was Tery Gilliam’s first film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

– Ehren Kruger wrote the spec script and Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewrote it. The Writers Guild of America refused to let them bill themselves as the writers, probably because, come on, it was Ehren Kruger’s story with different words. Terry Gilliam credited himself and Tony Grisoni as “The Dress Makers.”

– The Weinstein brothers produced this film and Terry Gilliam hated working with them. He has said, in a great interview on Sense of Cinema, “They created a situation at the beginning of the film that was very unpleasant. And so I started working in not the happiest of moods. And they were still determined to control me. And when they didn’t allow me to cast who I wanted [Robin Williams], I was getting more and more upset. I don’t like this. And by the time Matt’s nose came up, that was it: I just didn’t want to make the movie. I went to work on the first day of shooting and I just wanted to go home.” The Weinsteins wanted to give Matt Damon a prosthetic nose, they wouldn’t let Terry cast how he wanted (he wanted Johnny Depp as Will, Samantha Morton as Angelika, and Robin Williams as Calviar—Robin would have been hilarious) and they fired Terry Gilliam’s preferred cinematographer, Nicola Percorini, four weeks into production. Thankfully, Terry won out on the nose.

– While fighting about final cut of the film with the Weinsteins, Terry Gilliam walked away and filmed Tideland (2005) with Jeff Bridges, then came back and finished editing The Brothers Grimm.

– Wikipedia claims that originally Heath was cast as Will and Matt as Jake. They both petitioned to switch. However the link to the cite/site is broken so it could just be a rumor.

– Miramax is asking Ehren Kruger to develop a TV show based on the movie. This was announced in March 2015.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers