Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maleficent, the First Draft Review

[I tried several times to crystalize my thinking about this movie, and while I think I got some traction on it, I left a bunch of stuff out of the other review. So I'm preserving this for what it has that the final one does not.]

Of course I went to see this. Have you seen my avatar?

Yesterday, I posted a sort-of review/deconstruction of this movie, which goes to the heart of my ambivalence about it. It is hard to review, because it's hard to slot it appropriately. It's too dark to be a kids movie, it's too generic to be a world-building fantasy, it's too obligated to it's source material to be a coherent story in its own right. It might primarily be a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who carries the film on the strength of her facial angles. It's a feminist cri de coeur, but it's punches are pulled because it's a Disney move.

Here's the trouble--it's a revisionist retelling of the original Disney Sleeping Beauty, which rehabilitates the villain by giving her a back story to "explain" why she places a fatal curse on a newborn. Generally, I like these kind of stories, the way they shift the perspective that forces you to re-examine the assumptions of the earlier work. This one doesn't really do that. In the 1959 movie, Maleficent was simply evil, and her evilness explained why she was excluded from the baby's baptism and why she reacted by leveling a curse on the child. Over on io9, Meredith Woerner does a great job articulating why the protagonist of Maleficent (the movie) isn't really the same character as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, and the changes ultimately diminish someone who was originally a strong and powerful character.

When you decide to do an "origin" story, isn't the point to explain the how and why of the character as already depicted? This is Woerner's point--the Maleficent we see in the new movie just isn't the same character.

Furthermore, I believe that in the new movie, Maleficent is herself the victim of unexplained evil--the nature of evil hasn't changed, it's locus has just shifted to the Evil King Henry.

At the beginning of the movie, we are told about two kingdoms--the evil and greedy human one, and the improbably beautiful and resource rich fairy one. Evil King Henry decides to attack fairyland, gets his ass handed to him by Maleficent, so makes killing her the condition for being his heir.

Sure, I've been reading a lot of feminist web writing, and in the days after the Isla Vista shooting, it's an environment of sensitivity to sexism, but I don't think I'm over-reacting. Evil, greedy, monarchist humans attack the peaceful matriarchal realm, then wounded male pride (King Henry gets defeated personally by Maleficient) leads to further lashing out. This is a textbook indictment of patriarchy.

Then there is the rape. The "rape"--the symbolic act of physical violation. Maleficent met Stefan when they were children, they had a connection that apparently culminated in "true love's kiss" when they were sixteen. But as a 30 something adult, Stefan sees the chance of becoming king, so he returns to fairyland, lures Maleficent into trusting him, feeds her a drugged drink, and cuts off her wings. I guess we are supposed to feel like he's not horrible, because he did intend to kill her but couldn't.

(Not sure where this one goes--perhaps it's to keep Stefan from being too scary for the presumptive kid audience. Perhaps it's to give us some hope that Stefan might be redeemable.  Perhaps it's simply required to keep the story as close to the original as necessary. Uncharitably, it's a diminution of the rape allegory--it could have been worse, she wasn't killed.)

I saw it as a set up for Maleficent's righteous anger--she was roofied and raped by someone she trusted. No wonder she was angry. Furthermore, the double violation was done so Stefan could prove his manliness to other males, to demonstrate his own worth in a violent hierarchy. The woman was simply an instrument for his own advancement among other men.

Read this way, this is a timely echo of the experiences shared on #yesallwomen in response to the Isla Vista shooting: women can be abused and damaged by those they trust, and until they violate that trust, there really isn't any way to predict who will be the violator. Maleficent thought she could trust Stefan right up until she learned she couldn't.

The trouble with putting this into the context of a fairy tale with a rigid structure is that it risks the opposite reading--that the symbolic rape, represented by the removal of her wings, sends the message that rape is either necessarily disfiguring (the logic behind honor killings and the "chewing gum" abstinence sex education), or that it's only rape when it's visibly violent and there are maiming injuries involved.

The other problem with the fairy tale trope is that it traffics in tropes of "true love" and "one-itis"--Maleficent moons around her fairy land, missing Stefon after their one kiss (and before he returns to steal her wings), despite the fact that he goes missing for some two decades (based on the actor's apparent ages at least). Why wouldn't she move on? Why wouldn't she have enough to do without obsessing over him for all those years? The structure of the pre-story gives the actual story a gloss that "wimmins be crazy, emirate"--after pining and obsessing over him for two decades, she gets jealous that he has dumped her --oh yeah, and taken her wings--and so she invades his live afterwards because she just can't let it go.

Lindy West, over at Jezebel, sees the patriarchal elements, and to her, they overwhelm whatever feminist message the movie might contain. Which I get--one can easily see that, as contextualized in our culture, Maleficent has been loved and abandoned by Stefan, and she never gets over it. We see her sitting alone, lonely, and we are told she often wondered about him and if he would ever return. We don't see her getting on with her life, filling her hours productively, doing the kind of things that would tell us that sure, she thinks about her first boyfriend once in a while. Instead, we seem to be told "she went on to live her life in regret about the end of that relationship, and she always loved him and missed him."

Now, sometimes I wonder about my first boyfriend, and what he is up to. Also my second and third boyfriends, etc. Some of them I run into now and again, some of them have disappeared off my radar entirely. I also think fondly about my first grade teacher (who I loved), the guy who taught my driver's training course, my first dentist, people who show up on my Facebook feed that I have forgotten about. What I am saying is that there is a range of emotional investments in people who have touched our lives, and while it is denotatively true that Maleficent probably thinks about Stefan under any circumstances (he was her first boyfriend after all), there is something deeply disturbing in presenting her as someone who never loves anyone else, who spends the intervening years existing as the "scorned and spurned woman."




Maleficent, a Review

[I have been trying to write this review for an incredibly long time. After multiple attempts, I am just starting again and hoping that a blank page and fresh start will make this happen.]

This movie should have been great, or at least hitting all my pleasure centers. When I was very little, Sleeping Beauty was my favorite fairy tale, and the Disney version had some stickiness in my life. Perhaps we had a record that tied into that version? In any event, it was my movie.

Later, after growing up and having kids, I transitioned to adopting Maleficent as my alter ego. My kids accepted limits and parental "no" when it came from "The Mistress of All Evil"--it gave us a way to negotiate disappointment without getting all wrapped up in each others' self-worth. I mean, you have looked over there to the right and seen my avatar, right?

Add to that the way that an alternate take on a familiar story gives fresh insights. I love the way my brain feels bigger when I realize that there is another perspective on something that I hadn't considered before. Alternative fairy tales can be really enjoyable.

Plus--Angelina Jolie. She looks like the cartoon version. Seeing a living actress embody something so stylized creates such an opening for humanizing the character. Centering Maleficent herself into the narrative offers the hope of a movie really coming to grips with the nature of evil. In the original movie of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficient is elemental in her evil. She's never explained, no one seeks to understand her, in some ways her malice is like weather--it's not personal, it's just that you got in the way. Telling her story using a live action actress promises to humanize her, and to explain the nature of evil.

Which the movie does--kind of? Except in telling her story, it drains some of the real magic out of the character. At the same time, it does open up the story to more nuanced elements. In the end, it ping-pongs between enhancing and diminishing the original, which is not really a winning combination. This may explain why it is hovering around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes--it gets some parts very right, gets some parts terribly wrong, and satisfies as many people as is disappoints.

Quick synopsis: Two kingdoms abut each other--the human one and a fairy one. A human boy, Stefan enters fairyland and befriends the child Maleficent. They grow up, eventually share "true love's kiss" Years later, the human king decides to annex the fairy land, and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) leads the magical creatures against the invading humans and personally mortally wounds the king.

On his deathbed, the king promises his crown and daughter to any man who can kill Maleficent. So adult Stefan (Sharlton Copley) returns, plays on their former relationship, drugs Maleficent and saws off her wings. (Yes, this is a barely veiled date rape. In a Disney movie.)

Mutilated and pissed, Maleficent bides her time until Stefan's daughter is born. She shows up at the christening and enacts the familiar revenge. Before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and [not die! This Maleficent doesn't curse her to die] fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss.

Spinning wheels are banned and stored in the castle dungeons. Aurora is sent to live in a cottage in the woods with three incompetent fairy guardians. All as you know. But Maleficent lurks and spies on the child as she grows, victim of the child's charms and falls in love. She even tries to withdraw the curse, but it was cast too firmly. Helplessly, she watches the girls doom arrive, and tries to avert it by delivering a handsome prince to the sleeping princess's bedside.

But--ha ha! Plot twist! (Which you saw coming if you saw Frozen.) Aurora and Philip barely know each other--it's not True Love! Maleficent, resigned to having lost the girl to her own curse, kisses her  farewell on the forehead, and she opens her eyes!

There are some boring fight sequences against King Stefan, Maleficent turns her minion into a dragon (but not herself! Boo!) Stefan falls to his death, and Aurora is crowned ruler of both the human and the fairy lands. Happily ever after!

Let's look at the ups and downs, shall we?

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
She's tiny, but strong--apparently a diet of scenery chewing gives you super powers. With the prosthetic cheekbones and the slash of blood red lipstick, she carries off the role, despite being about three feet too short. Which is to say--Jolie is fierce. Like Dirty Harry fierce. She takes justice into her own hands, and you believe that the threat of her is enough to drive Stefan mad over the 16 years he's just waiting for her to show up again. It's a star vehicle, and she owns the screen whenever she is on it.

Which means that all the rest of the scenes are kind of bland and flat in comparison. The "magical wonders" of fairyland are less interesting than watching Jolie act circles around everybody else on screen. So the casting is excellent for Maleficent, but she is so good she makes the rest of the film feel lackluster.

That date rape scene
Honestly, I am of two minds on this one. Jolie plays it straight and tragically--her howls of pain and anguish when she wakes up and discovers what he has done to her are compelling. He has mutilated her, left her bloody and mutilated, then run back to the man's world to show off his conquest.  It's obviously deeply traumatic, and it certainly makes her vicious revenge feel proportionate to the crime. Also, have a mentioned--date rape in a Disney movie?

At the same time--did we really have to go there? It's kind of a cliche, or at least it veers horrifyingly close to one. How many cultural products use rape as a plot engine? Too many, that's how many.

I mean, I appreciate how the scene tracks what current research shows about sexual assault--it's predatory, perpetrated largely by men the victims already know, in which alcohol is used as a weapon. It's disorienting, it's violent, it leaves the victim vulnerable and without recourse. There is no justice system Maleficent can invoke, no retribution other than what she makes herself. In some ways, it's refreshing to see a "rape" scene not used for titillation, not used to be "edgy," not reinforcing old tropes about stranger danger or "what was she wearing that caused it?" In that way, it's a deeply feminist deployment of folklore as lesson and warning--the world is effed up, and this is how it happens.

On the other hand--she's a flying, magical being! She isn't human, and having her be subject to precisely this female human situation is kind of disheartening. It risks reducing her from a powerful and alien being to--a scorned female dumped by a boy? It doesn't help that after they kissed, he disappeared for years (decades?) and the movie tells us she would sit around and wonder what happened to him. Pined, even. She's got all the magic in the world, all the power, wings to fly, and we see her mooning over a boy. Why reduce her to something so cliched, so powerless? And then reinforce it with her getting roofed by the same boy and getting dumped. Again.

The movie makes this narrative too easy. I don't agree with it, but the elements are all there, and rather than adding sophistication to the plot, it simply makes the story too easily reduced to "girl without agency over-reacts and goes psycho over bad sexual encounter." The power and the majesty of the original 1959 Maleficent gets siphoned off into a depressingly common story of a girl getting revenge on the boy who dumped her.

I don't want this narrative to have any support in the story. I deeply wish the script hadn't tried to make the betrayal a personal one. I mean, if anybody had come into the fairy land, drugged the most powerful fairy and sawed off her wings, she would have been pissed. It doesn't add anything to her anger that it was someone she had kissed once, a very long time ago. In fact, the whole Stefan-Maleficent paring doesn't really work, so it doesn't add anything to the mix of fury and injury she experiences just because she knew him when they were kids. At least, I don't think so.

Think about how this might have been done differently. Instead of a pre-existing "relationship," Stefan had been shown to be a sly courtier, perhaps mocked and disliked by the knights and generals. He is not brave, but cunning, a characteristic not valued by the vaguely medieval/chivalric humans. When the king tasks his generals to kill Maleficent, the others are shown to be drawing up invasion plans, or building siege weapons, while weaselly Stefan uses his distasteful skills of manipulation and deceit to get the job done.

One can imagine that he might have feigned injury, hobbled into the fairy kingdom and drawn Maleficent's attention by seeming weak and helpless. A Maleficent who hadn't ever encountered human perfidy (one who was as trusting as the child Maleficent the movie did show us) would likely have fallen for the ruse and the movie could have continued as plotted. Stefan would have been just as despicable, his death just as satisfying, without the "jilted and jealous ex-girlfriend" meta-narrative.

I'm just saying. Make her terrible and awesome through the whole movie, and drop the "faithful spaniel awaiting her master's return" elements.

The nature of evil
Face it--1959 Maleficent was evil. She wasn't invited to a christening, so she goes full metal postal on a baby's behind. Disproportionate use of deadly force, really. And there was no appeasing her, no reason to think that inviting her would have made the situation any better, really. So you just left her off the guest list and hoped she didn't hear about it. Because there was no telling what kind of sadistic mischief she might decide to enact, given any excuse at all.

Her plan for the drawn out emasculation of Prince Philip in the original movie, for example, was a loooong game played for her own satisfaction. She was going to keep him in her dungeon for the hundred years that Aurora slept, releasing him when he was too old and decrepit to be the hero any longer. That was a stone cold beyotch-y move, that was.

The movie tries to explain why she was that way, what led her to her vindictive cursing of the baby. By offering a backstory of personal trauma, the implicit contract of storytelling is "See! She's not evil, she is injured and misunderstood." Evil is only the lack of explaining the circumstances, and once you know the backstory, you can't see her as evil any longer.

But this doesn't explain the nature of "evil," it merely moves the locus. Instead of residing in Maleficent, Evil lurks in the heart of the first king--the one who attacked the fairy lands to start the plot. He's got no explanation for his attack, there's no indication that he had any reason to grab for the land other than "it was there." There might be some gender politics in this--the human land was a kingdom, ruled by hierarchy and male power, while the fairy land was a kind of anarchy-syndicalist commune, overseen (but not ruled) by female power personified by Maleficent. The king's military assault is a coded sexual assault perhaps?

But that again just makes that king Bad, the same kind of fiat evil that Maleficent had in the first movie. It doesn't illuminate anything other than--bad people do bad things because they are bad.  I was hoping for something more complicated than that.

Which, face it, isn't that what Game of Thrones is doing on a weekly basis for four seasons now? We see how people's actions have unintended consequences, that the "bad guys" have their own reasons for doing what turn out to be Bad Things (although Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Snow might be major exceptions), and even the Good Guys' actions sometimes have bad consequences. Danerys freed slaves, but then her dragons killed and ate some of the people, so Not All Good to be rescued by her perhaps. For example.

In Maleficent, the titular character is no longer Simply Evil, but the king now is. Which is unsatisfying, and has ripple effects. Why do humans hate the fairy kingdom? The voice-over narration claims because humans are jealous of the beauty of The Moors. Srsly? "U R so jeeluz" is the explanation? Humans attacked because "Reasons?" Not good enough, Movie.

Gender Roles
This is an issue that runs all over this movie, from the contrast between the stereotypical male hierarchy of the human kingdom contrasted with the horizontal arrangement in fairyland, to the way Stefan seems to have no emotional attachment to the women in his life (his queen, Maleficent and Aurora) compared to how they frequently seek his attention and approval. The big one is of course the rape, but even before that, there is a powerful scene of how a man won't respect a woman. Again, Maleficent is the victim.

The perpetrator this time is the king--the one before Stefan, the one who decided for no apparent reason to invade and annex The Moors. He assembles his army, he attacks the border, and he gets his ass handed to him by Maleficent. Personally. She actually delivers the injury that ends up eventually killing him.

You might think that this would be enough to change his mind about the wisdom of his plan--but you would be wrong. In fact, he doubles down, requiring all his generals to swear to continue to try to conquer The Moors. Since there's never been any season given for his imperialist drive, we just have to accept it as his nature. But it gets gendered when he singles out Maleficent for assassination.

Sure, annex and colonize The Moors for the glory of the fatherland, but make a personal point of bringing in the head of the woman who dared to defeat the king. Because a Real Man doesn't take something like that as a final disposition. No way. The woman's "no" is just the starting point, and escalation and deceit and murder are all appropriate responses to being (temporarily) thwarted by a woman who won't just roll over and give a man what he wants. Which for this king is land and power. It's really just another form of rape, one that foreshadows Stefan's violation.

This is also something that might go toward explaining the 50% rating this movie has on RT--if I were a man watching this film, I would feel really uncomfortable. I mean, there is nothing any man does in this movie that isn't violent and disgusting. (I'm excepting Diavlo, the raven sidekick, because he may not technically be a man. Also, I haven't really thought this through about him.) Even Philip is a laughing stock. There aren't any male figures to identify with--welcome to women's general movie-going experience, dudes!--which might be why as many as 50% of the RT critics didn't enjoy the movie and can't recommend it.

It's Not Maternal Feelings That Save Maleficent
I have read at least one disappointed review that reads Maleficent's arc as one of maternity--that she loses her anger by embracing her role as mother(-substitute) to Aurora. And if you read it that way, sure, it feels dismissive and reductive--that a pissed off woman just needs to find her true calling as a mother to get over whatever has happened to her. I get it--again, the movie is a bit too sloppy and so it makes this reading too easy to slip into.

Which is disappointing for several reasons, a big one is that Maleficent hasn't been intriguing for over 50 years because she's motherly. She's a badass woman with power, and there are just too few of those in our lives. It's a fundamental betrayal of women's power to make Maleficent a story about how women just need to have babies. Second--I don't want Maleficent to get over Stefan's betrayal. As long as she is wingless, she has every reason to hate him and plot to destroy him as he destroyed her. His act has irretrievably damaged her entire life, and there is no question but that she is forcibly reminded of it every minute of every day, and "giving" her a baby to care for is not any kind of compensation.

Yet the movie kind of makes that claim, doesn't it? Her righteous fury gets tamped down and ultimately becomes less important to her than watching Aurora grow up. (Don't even get started on the passive life Maleficent spends most of the movie living--she just watches and stalks Aurora for years, with no other activity shown for most of 16 years!) (After all the time she spent mooning after Stefan, now she moons over his daughter, which is not the behavior of the fairy who turns into a 70 foot tall fire breathing dragon when she's pissed.) I fully understand why plenty of people are pissed at this movie--it's so easily experienced as the systematic dismantling of female power and agency. Instead of a commanding and powerful fairy, she's turned into a hippie who wanders around the fields, unfulfilled without the man and child to "complete" her.

Fortunately, there is another way to read this movie that is more in line with the feminist line I think Jolie and Woolverton were aiming for. Part of it is classic fairy tale irony--Maleficent falls victim to her own curse. By imbuing the baby with the "gift" of causing all who see her to fall in love with her (not something that will make it easy for her to walk down streets or past construction sites, for example), Maleficent finds herself falling in love as well, powerless to escape Aurora's charms, which Maleficent herself gave her.

But more empowering, and honestly, the way I experienced this movie as I watched it in the theater, is that Maleficent realized that her revenge on Stefan was damaging an innocent young woman, and that was simply unfair. Sure, in her rage, Maleficent struck at the thing more precious to Stefan than anything else, which at the moment of the christening was the baby. As a baby, Aurora had no real existence of her own, independent from her relationship with her parents. She was--as an infant--an object that existed in relation to Stefan and his queen. As she grew up, however, she became a person with her own agency, her own autonomy, a young woman who deserved respect for her self. To continue to use her as a vehicle for revenge would be to treat Aurora as Stefan had treated Maleficent: merely as means to an end, not as an end in herself.

[Because fairy tale movies need a little Kantian philosophy now and then.]

Secondarily, by this point, Aurora doesn't seem like a good vehicle for revenge anyway, since Stefan seemed perfectly capable of sending her away and never trying to see her for 16 years--not sure that a curse placed on her would have any real effect on Stefan anyway. (In fact, his spiraling paranoia and madness seem caused by his belief that Maleficent was going to return and attack him directly, not because he was worried about what was going to happen to Aurora. Arguably, his dismay at seeing her back a day early was strictly about self-protection--he wanted her far away from him when the curse struck.)

Which is rather cold hearted but practical--go ahead and take the curse off of Aurora, since it's not actually affecting Stefan in any real way, but do it because Aurora doesn't deserve to be cursed, and Maleficent is not willing to erase another woman's personhood the way Stefan did to her.

I like this explanation, but I fully understand that it's not really presented by the movie in a very strong manner. It's certainly not clear enough to overpower the narrative that "maternal feelings make her better" that others have seen and properly object to.

The Geopolitics
At the start of the movie, we see a hierarchical human kingdom, and are told it contrasts with the co-operative, jointly run fairy world. I was seeing this as a kind of "male versus female" set up, and I don't think that was a mistake. Much of this movie can be read as working out fundamentally feminist concepts about gender difference, gender violence, and the consequences.

So what are we to make of the ending of the movie? Where Maleficent places some kind of crown on Aurora's head and presents her to the magical creatures as "your new ruler." I mean, I guess Maleficent assumed some kind of role as ruler, seeing as how she led the fairy army against the humans? We don't really see her as somebody who has any enforceable authority, so if she does have it, where did it come from? It's not like she spends a lot of time doing anything like "ruling" after all. She's mostly hovering over Aurora, hiding in the brush. If she did get some sort of authority over The Moors by her military leadership, then that makes fairyland a military dictatorship, which also isn't either supported by the movie or very feminist.

This question only matters because of the "reconciliation" the movie tries to achieve in the last few moments, when Aurora "unites" the two kingdoms by ruling over both of them. We don't see any mingling of the two worlds--are we to believe that magic crosses over the border into the human world? Do we really think that opening The Moors to human colonization is going to look anything like a wholesale land grab that will make the settling of Oklahoma look like a child's party game? I just don't believe that the hierarchy of the human kingdom will accept its own dismantling on the orders of an underaged teenage girl who technically is the "ruler," but has no military experience or any allies in the human world.

What would really happen is that Aurora would be swiftly married off to the son of the most powerful general, and that general would rule as "regent" while allowing Aurora to be no more than a figurehead and mascot. Her "real" job would be to produce a male heir and to give legitimacy to the male dominated shadow ruler. Her people would "love" her, but there is no reason to believe that a "good" girl is necessarily a "good" ruler.

The genocide of the fairy would certainly start small, with settlers grabbing land and resources and then forcing the fairy into smaller and smaller reservations. Any sympathy Aurora showed toward the magical beings would swiftly be cast as "evil bewitchment of our Queen" or "blood treason" for failing to side with her own species. Obviously, she would be found unfit to rule, and further marginalized and/or imprisoned for her own good.

I mean, look what happened when magical creatures came into the human world--a giant dragon was turned loose in the castle, burned the place down, and King Stefan was brutally murdered in his own home. You can't trust those magicals, and certainly you can't trust Maleficent, who caused all of it. No, obviously, The Moors have to be dominated and magic suppressed.

I don't see why Maleficent would think "uniting the two kingdoms" would be a good idea at all. I mean, by crowning Aurora as ruler of The Moors, she has just completed the invasion the evil first king attempted, just as a bloodless coup rather than a military action. This is not going to end well for The Moors. Just saying.

Maleficent as Angelina Jolie
It is incredibly tempting to read this movie as a recap of the career of its star. Angelina Jolie burst into fame as the young and talented star of Gia and Girl, Interrupted. She was odd, beautiful, powerful, and distinctly witchy. She made out with her brother, was estranged from her father, tattooed and wore a vial of Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck. Her extended tabloid role as "Jennifer Aniston's nemesis" was kind of the apotheosis of her eerie and unsettling phase.

(Personally, I took issue with this--why was Angelina at "fault" and not Brad Pitt, who was the actual person in a marriage with another woman. Thank you, patriarchy.)

After divorcing Thornton, though, Jolie entered a maternal phase, ending up with six children, and a more "normal" life as a mother. She has apparently indicated that Maleficent might be her last acting role, as she steps aside (as Maleficent does for Aurora) for her UN good will ambassador work and directing and producing.

A Final Word About Sleeping Beauty
On the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, one of the gabsters expressed disgust at the essential inertness of the Sleeping Beauty myth. "She has no agency, because she's asleep" sums up her position, and she opined that there was no need to ever make another movie about this particular fairy tale.

And I get it, but again, I think it misses the real story of the fairy tale--which is easy to do, because the story itself misdirects us. After all, it's called "Sleeping Beauty," so you might very well think that's who it is about. From that perspective, it is pervasively passive. I mean, Aurora has no achievements of her own--her beauty, her kindness, her lovability are all bestowed on her by fairies, and require no effort on her part. Then she falls asleep, and she simply waits to be picked by a prince who at least has to take the action of seeking her out. But even he just falls passively "in love"--again, through no effort on Aurora's part.

It's the same part of the culture that gives us Miss America pageants, or The Bachelor, where women display themselves in the hopes that their inherent characteristics will cause others (the ones who do have agency) will pick them out of the line up and make their dreams come true.

That's if you think it's her story, or even the story of her generation. I submit that the real reason this story exists is for the older generation--her parents.

Think about it. The story starts with the abbreviated acknowledgement that the king and queen long wished for a child, and Aurora was finally born. This is a story about dynastic succession, expectations of performance and national stability (how can you not think about Henry VIII's life-long quest for a male heir), as well as personal heartbreak, fear of personal inadequacy and failure, as well as relationship stress. Infertility might be understood as a sign of divine displeasure, a failure as a "true" man or woman, a threat to the continuation of the particular nation-state, as well as the loss of a dream of family. In the quasi-feudal state, childlessness may be a sentence of death once the parents are too old to care for themselves as well--there is no Social Security or Medicare, only your children to care for you in your dotage. This is a rocky road the king and queen have been on, one only temporarily alleviated by the birth of their daughter.

Their only child. They aren't likely to have another one as well, as this one was so difficult to achieve. All their hopes have to be pinned on her.

Whatever fragile stability her birth might have granted, it is immediately threatened by Maleficent's curse--the child will die.

Now imagine the rest of the story as experienced by the parents, shorn of the "by attempting to evade the destiny, you only cause it" fairy tale trappings, and it's pretty obviously a comforting tale with Christian overtones.

You daughter died young. But she's not really dead, she's only asleep. She will never age, or fade, but will lie peacefully until her resurrections, when the Prince (of Peace, a/k/a Jesus) will come and awaken her with True (godly) Love's kiss. Then you will be reunited with her, to live Happily Ever After (in heaven)! Sure, time will pass (a hundred years), and your castle will be overgrown and forgotten (you too will die, everyone you know will die, no one will remember you in the future) except the prince, who will come, and will awaken all of you, and you will live again.

Seems pretty obvious to me, once I thought of it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A Screenplay Thought Experiment

If you were going to write an explicitly feminist* movie, what would it look like? Especially in the immediate aftermath of the Isla Vista shootings, how could you present female experience in a visual form, one which might even show a strong woman in adverse circumstances responding in a manner that could be empowering?

You might decide to present gendered experiences broadly, using archetypes rather than specific, individuated characters, so you might decide to draw on fairy tales and myths. That way, you could concentrate on broad patterns rather than specific details.

You might start with adjoining territories to represent the different genders. Men would be represented by a kingdom, ruled by a warrior king in shining armor, surrounded by his generals and army--an image of privilege, hierarchy, and power, with the traditions of oath-taking and honor associated with it.  There would be a castle, there would be armaments, there would be the harnessing of resources to forge the weapons that support the power of the king: forges, smelting ovens, the sweaty and dirty work of provisioning the army.

In contrast, the female realm might be entirely the opposite--in order to highlight the different ways of being. So, lots of nature, beings living in nests in trees rather than stone castles, for example. There would be interactions with nature, maybe (to pursue the mythic themes) represented by magical creatures: water creatures, things that live in the air, sentient plants, things like that. Maybe even a land that had no fixed governmental system? Cooperative co-existence even.

Then you would have to bring the two into conflict, right? Because there is no story if there is no conflict, and "the battle of the sexes" is a handy metaphor.** So you might send the king and his army to conquer the adjoining kingdom, which has the advantage of being an exciting visual that will help get your movie green lit. It deepens the dichotomy--the men invade, the women defend.

[This part of the screenplay says "war, war, war; stabbity stab stab; fairies defend, king gets defeated and mortally wounded." Next scene, king's death bed.]

When women refuse, men escalate.  Although he is dying, the king passes the battle down to the next generation, offering his crown and his daughter to the man who kills the fairy who defeated him. But you don't want a repeat of this particular battle set-piece, plus, there are more strategies possible, so you make the next guy more subtle, yet creepier. So why not a roofie and a rape.

Well, not exactly "a roofie and a rape," because who's going to make that movie? Fortunately, fairy tales have a vocabulary, so you can make it a "magical potion" and "bringing back an identifiable body part." Then, when the fairy wakes up, she can get mad and avenge herself, setting up another battle set piece.

But, a single woman who complains of her treatment at the hands of a man isn't going to be supported. The  bros will close ranks and she's going to be told it was her fault. So she has to do something sneaky to get her revenge--and since she's a fairy she can use magic against him, or against someone close to him so he has to watch and suffer.

But it's going to turn out that this doesn't make the fairy feel better at all, as an time passes and her revenge grinds on, she has a change of heart, and finds her ability to forgive --for her own happiness. Because forgiving is something you do for yourself, not for the person you forgive. You do it because it's tiring to carry around all that anger and fury. Like the monk who carried a girl across a river: he set her down at the other side of the river, but you are still carrying her miles later. So, for the fairy's own peace of mind, she has to outgrow the need for revenge.

So let's write the scenes that show the fairy as she calms herself, and does indeed outgrow the need for revenge. [The first draft of this screenplay says "How does she do this? What does she do? Fill this part in later."] These are intercut with scenes of the kingdom falling into chaos in response. In the end, the women's mode of being--forgiveness, moving on. The family members used as weapons to get to the man--see them as people in their own right, not stop using them as if they are mere accessories to the man who raped you.

Of course, there will have to be a couple more fight sequences, this is a Hollywood screenplay after all, but then have the man cause his own destruction from his paranoid response, and let fairyland return to it's organic balance.

But who is going to want to see this movie? It needs a hook, right? So the screenwriter looks around for a property that already has cultural capital, has a built in audience, can be positioned as a sequel or a franchise.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Maleficent.








____
*For a given value of "feminist."

**And also, because you are angry perhaps. About what? Just pick one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Once On This Island--Death Wins, You Guys! Open Your Eyes!

Saw my younger daughter's production of Once On This Island over the weekend, and guys--how does storytelling get this bad? It's a gloss on Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, but set on land with added Haitian/vodoun flavor. The music is catchy, the lyrics less so, the plot--uff da!

Shall we? First, I think we can all assume we know the basic plot of Little Mermaid, so now just make it on an island. Instead of living in the sea and looking up onto land, Our Heroine Ti Moune is a lowly peasant looking up the socio-economic ladder to a wealthy boy-man. Instead of a boat, she sees him in a car. As when the boat sinks, the car crashes in a storm and she saves the wealthy son of the island, Daniel. She goes to him, only to find that while he's happy to keep her in his room (where she makes him "rise like yeast" and she "heals" him), he's going to marry the socially appropriate woman he has been betrothed to since childhood. When offered her former life back if she kills the boy, she can't bring herself to plunge the dagger and dies instead. She gains an afterlife of sorts, as a tree.

When Andersen did it, it was a romance deeply enmeshed with questions of soul and salvation. The mermaids had no immortal soul, and turned into foam on the shore when they died. By becoming human, The Mermaid (did she even have a name?) could earn a soul, but she died before then. Instead, she became a spirit of the air, living in a sort of purgatory of good works, with the promise of earning her way to salvation. This is complicated stuff.

Ti Moune sees a boy in a fast car and falls in "love."

Oh, but wait! He's unconscious for days, and she watches over him, never eating or sleeping. So again, what about him is lovable? Is it the drool seeping from the corner of his mouth? The way he has to be cleaned up after, since he's unconscious and can't use a bedpan? Because that doesn't sound all that attractive to me. Unless she likes the power differential, where he's essential a baby or a doll, with no agency of his own? The more I try to figure out what there is that makes this "love" the more disturbing the story becomes.

Oh, but there is a Broadway Explanation! See, there are gods who rule this island, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, has intervened. She has (arguably) caused Ti Moune to fall in love, and then she makes Daniel fall in love--for a given value of "love." Because Ti Moune knows nothing about Daniel and doesn't get a chance to, because "unconscious" and Daniel doesn't love her enough to marry her. Okay.

Also, the gods have a bet that Love can conquer Death. So the whole car accident thing is a set up so the two meet and they can test which is stronger. It's like a Immortal version of arm wrestling?

So "love" here is "seeing a guy in a car" then "cleaning his butt"? To be fair, there is a short duet they sing before he goes back to his big mansion. She decides she needs to go with him, saying "he is in my blood and I am in his." Not sure why she's so sure of this, as most of the time, he's been UNCONSCIOUS.  Maybe she's invented blood transfusions?

Anyway, she is convinced that if she goes to him, he will marry her (why?) and she leaves. As a grumpy old soul with a cold dead heart, I look at this and I see "oh! She's young, so she is stupid." But the play doesn't really back this up, and it doesn't ever ask her to stop and see if she is making good choices. In fact, the play barrels on, encouraging her to chase this boy (but--if he was really interested, he could come to her. He knows where she lives!) to the degree that the Earth Goddess actually leads her to him, while the trees and frogs and breezes etc. sing along. Very lovely musically, but seriously messed up. She is making a bad decision for herself, and nothing in the play really acknowledges it.

Once in the Hotel Beauxhommes, she finds Daniel, and he doesn't remember her. At all. In fact, he threatens to call security on her. "But, I'm the one who made you well," she says. "The gods sent me to you!" Yeah, well, maybe they did, or maybe they didn't, but Daniel has a beautiful young woman throwing herself at him. A peasant, in fact, so not even a "real" person--not someone he has any responsibility to, because of class and/or racial lines. In fact, there is a history of his ancestors who came to the island and took their pleasure from the women who served them, before going back to France, leaving the mixed race offspring trapped on the island. So--we don't think this is marriage plot still, do we? Why does Ti Moune?

(Because she is young and stupid--even if nobody on stage really knows that.)

Then comes the slut shaming. "What does he want with a woman like THAT" is a song, in which the gossips make demeaning sexual innuendoes about how she is "healing"him. Daniel's father makes a short cameo, sympathizing that he understands the appeal of a peasant girl, but making clear that Daniel will be expected to do the right things when the time comes--which is not going to be marrying Ti Moune. Obviously.

Well, so far not so good. We have sexual opportunism, we have slut shaming of Ti Moune (not so much of Daniel, because the Double Standard is alive and well and living On This Island), and we have major social barriers between them that Daniel understands and that Ti Moune apparently does not. But--there might be hope, right? I mean, perhaps they are like Romeo and Juliet, who stand together against the artificial barriers placed against them, and by their example change the social mores. That could happen, and that would be a way for this play to comment on the deeply misogynistic and classist assumptions and critique them.

Or, there could be this "love" song instead. Daniel wraps his arms around Ti Moune and sings this:

Some girls take hours to paint every perfect nailFragrant as flowers, all powdered and prim and pale.But you are as wild as that wind-blown tree,As dark and as deep as the midnight sea.While they're busy dressing, you lie here, warm and bold.Some girls you picture, some you hold.
Some girls take courses at all the best schools in FranceRiding their horses and learning their modern dance.They're clever and cultured and worldly wise.But you see the world through a child's wide eyes.Their dreams are grand ones, you want what's just in reach.Some girls you learn from, some you teach.
You are not small talk or shiny carsOr mirrors or French cologne.You are the river, the moon, the stars.You're no one else I've known.
Some girls take pleasure in buying a fine trousseau,Counting each treasure and tying each tiny bow.They fold up their futures with perfumed handsWhile you face the future with no demands.Some girls expect things others think nothing of.Some girls you marry, some you love.
It's creepy! I mean, it's completely entitled and spells out that Daniel doesn't see Ti Moune as a real person--he likes her for all the demands that she doesn't make, the dreams she doesn't have. This is almost a form of grooming--she's not like those other girls, with their demands to be taken seriously, to be educated and to have their own interests and needs. No! Ti Moune just exists, with none of her own wants, just to fill Daniel's sexual needs!

This song would be bad enough if it were presented as a dilemma song, where Daniel was really considering the choice between the two women, trying to understand his own mind. But as a song presented as a love song, actually song to Ti Moune, it's a series of red flags that if the girl had even an ounce of critical concern for herself, she would at least catch on. She's not the "some girl" that you marry--that's going to be someone else.

But no, Ti Moune gets blind-sided when she is finally let out of Daniel's room and introduced to his fiancee. To the play's credit, the fiancee does scold Daniel for leaving the situation unexplained to Ti Moune--she's not a bitch, and she's genuinely sorry for the circumstances, but she is the fiancee, and what Ti Moune is, well there isn't really a word for it, is there. (Mistress. Lover. Concubine. These are choices.)

What should Ti Moune do now? Well, for a play written in 1990, shouldn't she do something proactive? Expressive of her personhood, her right to be treated with dignity, acknowledging her agency in her own life?

No, what happens is the demon of death shows up, and tells her that she will have to die unless she kills Daniel. (Yes, this was set up earlier, where Ti Moune offered her soul to the demon in order to spare Daniel, and now he is coming to collect the debt.) This is sort of the moment when love and death are tested--I guess? Death points out that Daniel has betrayed her, so why should she die for him? If she kills the love she had for him--literally, by taking the knife and killing Daniel--she can have her old life back, as if she had never loved at all.

In the Andersen story, the mermaids sisters come and offer her the chance to return to the sea. Killing the prince will turn her legs back into a fish tail, she will have her 300 year lifespan back, and she won't die when the sun rises. She's got big stakes here.

By contrast, Ti Moune kills Daniel and--she goes back to being a peasant? This is the offer? Contrary to what the play says, this isn't the choice between love and death--it's the choice between being a murderer and being a martyr. Ti Moune is confronted with a choice between a violent and criminal act, or dying for love. There's not really an opposition of emotional states here. I think Death has mischaracterized the win condition for himself. It's more like he's shooting the moon in hearts--he could win on points, but he's decided not to.

So, Ti Moune doesn't kill Daniel, but gets thrown out of the Hotel and plants herself by the locked gates for the next two weeks. The point of this is? It's like she's doing the Nice Guy™ thing, where if she's just around long enough, he will reward her. Does the play really expect that he is going to ditch his fiancé? Does the audience expect Ti Moune will get anything but the Madame Butterfly treatment? Now it's just humiliating for the poor girl, a humiliation which is driven home by Daniel and his new bride coming to the gates to pass out coins as for good luck.

So, Ti Moune dies. Before we tally up the win/loss results for the gods, let's look at the lyrics of the penultimate song:

And the gods began to cry- tears of compassion for the orphan, Ti Moune, Who proved that love could withstand the storm, cross the earth, and survive even in the face of death.

Erzulie took her by the handAnd led her to the seaWhere Agwe wrapped her in a waveAnd laid her to her restAnd Papa Ge was gentleAs he carried her to shoreAnd Asaka accepted herAnd held her to her breast.
Regardless of what is happening on stage, the words tell us that the Goddess of Love basically takes Ti Moune to go drown herself. Love hands her over to Death. Love has her kill herself, because that's a victory for love? No, a victory for love would have been for her to go on living, instead of seeking oblivion from the pain of thwarted love. What the play shows us (as opposed to telling us) is that it is better to die from heartbreak, and by dying, you prove the strength of your love.

Again--Love and Death are not in opposition--they reinforce each other. Love is so strong that it invites Death, Death is preferable to Love unrequited. I call shenanigans on the lyrics that "Ti Moune proved" anything like what the plays says she proved. In fact, it's just the same tired trope of an exotic girl deemed to be socially inappropriate to marry (but not to sleep with) so she dies.

But because we are in theory more enlightened than the Victorians, we are going to claim that her death changed things! Not just the "girl who dies for the man she loves" but that her death broke the racial/class divide between the peasants and the Grands Hommes. How does this happen? Well, the dead Ti Moune gets turned into a tree (yeah, I know) that breaks the gates of the Hotel Beauxhommes so it cannot be closed.

Well, maybe that's a start, but what about the wildly unequal distribution of wealth? The peasants are still going to be the ones laboring in the fields, right? The existence of a tree and a broken gate isn't going to accomplish any wealth redistribution or land reform, doesn't compel the Grands Hommes to give up their cars or champagne necessarily. The capital of the island isn't suddenly held in common as an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

The lyrics tell us this:
And one day as Daniel's young son sat in the shade of the treeHe noticed a beautiful young peasant girl high in the branchesLooking out at the world
And the spirit of Ti Moune touched their heartsAnd set them free to love.
But--but--but--"love" was not the problem. The Grands Hommes were "free" to "love" the peasant women, and had done so for generations. The problem was social conventions, family alliances, religious and cultural isolation, economic disparities, which little boys playing under trees aren't dismantling, no matter how upbeat the music is.

And really, Haiti remains a desperately poor island, with poverty remaining intractable for generations. Wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the very very few, while the majority of the population remains essentially peasants. Telling the story of Ti Moune doesn't challenge the fundamental causes of economic mismanagement, and seems to actually reinforce the idea that human effort is futile in the face of the whims of uncontrollable supernatural forces. But with a lovely samba beat!

The moral of the story is not that Love Conquers All--the real moral of the story is that humanity is mere meat puppets to the gods, and we all die anyway. But we are welcome to delude ourselves about that by singing in a major key.

The End.


Sunday, May 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a review

Did this movie make sense? Or were the holes really as big as they seemed to me.

I will admit upfront that I am not versed in the Marvel Comics Universe. Actually, I never really read comics because--as a word person--they only lasted about 6 minutes. I blew through them for the dialog, and the pictures might as well have been white space. So I don't have the background knowledge that might have been obvious if I read the source material.

That said, I have seen all of the current Avengers-adjacent movies, dating back to the first RDJ Iron Man, so I'm not completely ignorant. I am also a sentient being who lives in 21st Century America, so I do know about superheroes.

But this one? So much going on, and so much plot, which is never quite explained in a way that makes any sense to me. Some of this is probably going to be nitpicking, but some of these failures go to the whole premise of the movie.

1. What was the deal with that ship that was attacked by French mercenaries?

Many/most/all action movies start with an action set-piece, establishing relationships between characters and setting the plot into motion. In this case, Captain America and Black Widow are rescuing SHIELD hostages from a SHIELD ship which is cruising around the Malaysian seas. There is one officer, the bald, ethnically ambiguous "Jason Sitwell" (if he's an officer, why doesn't he have a title?) and some number of unnamed people. The French mercenaries stalk around, screaming threats that the killings are going to start in two minutes. None of the SHIELD employees makes any effort to free themselves, distract the mercenaries, scuttle the ship, anything. They all sit quietly--even the alleged "officer" Sitwell--hoping not to get picked as the first hostage to be killed.

Meanwhile, the head mercenary is allegedly trying to contact SHIELD to negotiate a ransom. But the offices are closed for the night? He's getting a busy signal?  Perhaps his call has been transferred to the night messaging service, which will take down his number and pass on the information in the morning?

I guess we are supposed to recognize that "Officer" Sitwell is a shady character, because he doesn't do anything to protect the people he presumably is leading. He does mutter under his breath a lot, though.

Cap and his team arrive, pick off the mercenaries, rescue the the hostages, and are about to get away when Black Widow fails to make rendezvous. She is busy downloading a bunch of data from the ship, "it's always a good idea to back up your hard drive" which leaves an opening for some more shooting and jumping through windows.

So--what the hell was that all about? Why does SHIELD even have a ship that cruises around the Malaysian peninsula anyway? What data does it have that doesn't exist elsewhere, and how did it get it?   What is this MacGuffin anyway?

Then, given what we know by the end of the movie, perhaps it was a Hydra run ship? So the Good Guy SHIELD faction thought it was fishy and staged the whole thing as a way to get to the data? That's the only thing that makes any sense to me, and I'm not sure it does make sense. but if the ship had information that was hidden from regular SHIELD access, and Nick Fury figured that out, then HE was the one who hired the mercenaries, AND he is the one who sent in Cap to "rescue" those hostages, BECAUSE the whole thing was an elaborate scheme to get Black Widow onto that ship to make copies of the data--then that should be much more clearly spelled out. Because it goes to the whole premise of the movie: that you don't know who you can trust.

Even that is heavily retconned, based on the fact that Robert Redford (in a comic book movie? Obviously, he's going to be the Bad Guy!) tells Cap that Fury is the one who hired the mercenaries, thus setting up Cap's dilemma. As such, it had to be true that Fury set up the situation, because otherwise, it just looks like a smooth dude in a suit doing what government officials always do in these kind of stories--try to make achieve their evil ends by making the Good Guys look bad.

So I think there was supposed to be a double twist there, but because it was so badly explained, it didn't look twisty at all. Robert Redford shows up in a comic book movie, wearing an expensive suit and handling glamorous technology, as the "Secretary" of some unnamed department, and he talks smack about Nick Fury. Nick Fury! The guy who has been behind the entire assemblage of Avengers; who has lost an eye in the service of Goodness; who is Samuel L. Jackson--and this movie thinks we are going to suspect him of doing nefarious Bad Guy Stuff? I don't think so!

2. Who is in charge here?

Redford's unnamed department raises questions as well. He's part of a "World Security Council"--but who is that? They clearly are not part of a single world government, since they talk about "national waters" and threats to their individual countries. But where does SHIELD get all this money to build all these incredibly huge helicarriers, to train all these quasi-military troops? I could kind of understand it if they were a strictly American operation, but the determinedly international nature of the "Council" makes it seem like it's like a U.N. force? Again--where does all this money for all this equipment come from? And how does this version of SHIELD line up with Tony Stark's ethical refusal to continue to sell arms?

At the end, when Black Widow is being grilled by blowhards in some kind of committee hearing, it's not a Congressional hearing (which is what it looked like it should be) because there was a huge logo on the wall that said "Department of Defense." But that was not a court martial--it was definitely people posturing in front of cameras. So who is in charge of SHIELD anyway? Given how much money they obviously have for technology and weaponry, somebody is going to have to have oversight to make sure the money is not wasted, at least.

3. Who ARE these SHIELD employees anyway?

Okay, so HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD. . .somehow. And turned people who thought they were working for an organization that kept people safe from Bad Guys, into people who would impersonate DC cops, use automatic weapons in the street, against their own boss, without question? Not one of those guys ever even questioned why they were using SWAT tactics against Nick Fury? In the middle of civilian DC???

Not one guy ever said "hey? Let's not attack him when he's inside his armored SUV on a public throughway. We know where this guy lives. We know where his office is. We know where he buys his suits, eats his lunch, takes his mom out for Mother's Day. Maybe we could be just a little less conspicuous about this?"

Nobody says "Wait, why are we attacking Captain Freaking America inside our work elevator?" Did anybody--anybody at all ever ask about "if we are the good guys, why are we trying to kill the symbol of our nation?" I can kind of understand why a guy like Robert Redford's character would be interested in preemptively killing identifiable bad guys--the whole Insight program just makes his job a whole lot easier, with a lot less paper work to boot. Sure--he can see that this is a way to clear that pesky in box, permanently. He's removed from the situation. He can sit back and pretend that the people he identified as "problems" (including Fury and Cap) just "go away" on his orders. So clean, so bloodless.

And then, there are the thugs who actually have to execute the orders. All the people who. . .acquired. . .the fake DC police cars and uniforms, the ones who pulled out the huge guns and the tripod for the battering ram, the ones who shot through city buses to try to hit the fleeing Fury, the ones who conducted the high speed chase through the streets--none of them ever once pulled a punch, thought better of maybe not incurring civilian casualties? Nope. Total ruthlessness.

So where did these guys come from? These are not people who were recruited after the aliens attacked New York, or thought they could help battle a power mad Loki. Because those people would have Fury's back. Those people would not just accept Pierce's order to murder their own people.

4. Teaser, or proof HYDRA is still evil?

Once the algorithm is loaded onto the helicarriers, a bunch of targets show up. They flicker by fast, but they are all on the eastern coast of the US. I saw the name of the President (Marvel version) show up as a target, and apparently "Tony Stark" was there as well. So--does this just prove that the "evidence" of future crimes is just wrong? Or are we going to see a criminal President in future movies?

This matters, because if the algorithm is wrong, or HYDRA is really just plotting to get into power, then the whole ethical question of preemptive strikes goes away. Pierce tries to sell the Council on the idea that Project Insight can prevent obvious evil by doing away with the criminals before the crime happens. If such a thing were possible, it is at least a compelling ethical dilemma. But if the whole system targets innocent people, then there is no dilemma, there is just killing and a huge power grab.

Which leads me to the next point.

5. What is all this "data" you think you have?

Natasha Romanoff downloads a bunch of "data" from the ship in the first set piece. What "data" was there? Who collected it, what was it used for, why was it being stored on a ship anyway? Later, in a stand-off with Pierce, he tries to talk her out of publishing the "data" because it will be damaging to her reputation as well. But what is it?  Oh, never mind, it's a much a MacGuffin as the "Tesseract" and "Aether" were in other Marvel movies.

But the big plot hole here is the problem of the "Zola Algorithm." Somehow, this guy seems to have dumped his brain into a bunch of computers which are housed in a secret underground bunker in an abandoned military base. From there--somebody (who?) has patched a USB port and presumably an internet connection (is this even possible? I doubt it) so Zola can data mine the world's digital trails to pick out which 20 million are security threats. (We have to also hand wave the possibility that there may be "threats" by people who are not on social media--hello Afghanistan!)

Apparently, nobody tested the algorithm? They just uploaded it onto weaponized helicarriers and accepted that whoever was named was worth killing? But. . .but. . .but--surely there were some big money donors (those helicarriers are hella-expensive!) and cronies and HYDRA leaders whose names WOULD have come up. Kind of awkward if the algorithm identifies somebody on the helicarrier itself and shoots into the body of the aircraft! Or reveals somebody's divided loyalties, right there, out in the open.

There is no way even an Alexander Pierce would authorize the uploading of an untested algorithm. That would require (among other things) absolute trust in Zola. And there is famously no honor among thieves. That program would have been vetted for political reasons, as well as routinely beta tested for bugs. Which again increases the number of people who would have had to be aware of the program, thus increasing the number of places it would have been challenged or leaked.

6. Winter Soldier, where have you been all my life?

According to several reviews I have read, the Winter Soldier is "Soviet trained"--presumably this is from the comics canon. But it raises some problems for a movie franchise that is set in the present/near future. Namely--there is no longer a "Soviet" bad guy, which is increasingly problematic the farther away we get from 1991, the date of the formal dissolution of the USSR. Scarlett Johannson --I mean, "Black Widow" would have been 7, far too young to have been KGB.

But let's assume we can also retcon an underground KGB that simply went underground, and while not officially KGB, was effectively so and that's who trained Natasha Romanoff. And Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. How did Alexander Pierce get his hands on him? Where has he been being kept, and how did all that mind-wiping equipment get transported to the US, where he could be deployed? I'm absolutely not understanding how this guy gets from where he "died" in 1944 to where he's recognizing Steve Rogers while punching him out on a helicarrier. Is Winter Soldier part of HYDRA? Is he part of top secret SHIELD? Where has he been--physically--for the intervening 70 years? If he was a Soviet answer to Cap, what happened to him after 1991?

Yeah, I know. Just relax, it's only a movie.

Sure, but it's a movie that aspires to a bit more than just blowing things up. The script does take on questions of drone warfare, domestic surveillance, the costs of war, and the lost values of mid-Century America. I am asking for the mechanics of the plot to be explained, because unless they are explained, this is just a boxing match between two essentially invincible characters, and that's not something I would bother to go see. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel, a Review

Charming. Delightful. And possibly more than that.



Synopsis: a nested series of framing devices move us from the present day back to the fall and winter of 1932, in a fictional country of Zubrowka in what appears to be eastern Europe. The eponymous hotel sits atop a mountain like a giant pink pastry, reached (via stop motion animation, it appears) by a tram that itself is built like a series of steps to accommodate the extreme angle of the mountain.



The interior of the hotel is gorgeous as well:



In 1932, the hotel is run to exacting standards by M. Gustave H (Ralph Finnes), a man with fanatical devotion to detail and a willingness to provide sexual comfort to the wealthy elderly ladies who come to the hotel precisely for M. Gustave.




Prominently featured is Madame D (Tilda Swinton) with a bouffant swirl of white hair perched like a Dairy Queen ice cream atop her head.





 Her devotion and reliance on M. Gustave is quickly sketched, and then suddenly, she is dead. Gustave takes newly hired Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori, one of the few actors not already hugely famous) to her estate and arrives at the reading of the will. Madame D has left him a priceless painting, and her grasping son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) accuses Gustave of murdering her.



Imprisoned and awaiting trial, Gustave continues to bring his full personality to the job of wheeling a "meal cart" to the cells, offering the mush as if it were a carte de patisseries. He endears himself to a group of four men who are plotting their escape. Gustave manages to obtain "digging tools"--the most delicate and ridiculous looking tiny items--by having them smuggled inside the pastries made by Zero's fiancée, Agatha (Saorise Ronan).





One Great Escape later, Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ruthlessly murderous Jopling (Willem DeFoe) who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Upon their return to the GBH, they see it is being converted to military use by the the fictive ZZ, the proto-Nazis of this movie.





 No surprise, Dmitri is apparently a high ranking member. (And Owen Wilson cameos as the Quisling concierge.)




After Dmitri and Gustave accuse each other of murdering Madame D, a second will comes to light (to be executed only in the event of Madame D's murder) which leaves her enormous fortune to Gustave, including the Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave has a few years to enjoy his new wealth...


 ...before being shot by the military. Agatha dies a couple of years later of the "Prussian Grippe" with her infant son. The hotel remains open, but becomes drearily "updated" with plastic chairs and wood paneling in 1968.



The story of the hotel, told by "Author" becomes a classic in the country, and the Author's headstone is a pilgrimage site, where people hang their hotel keys in homage.

The plot, of course, is in some ways an excuse for the extravagant visuals, which are themselves meticulously planned. Each of the three time periods (present day, 1968, and 1932) are shot in a different aspect ratio as one way of conveying the passage of years. And even a non-visually adept view like I am began to giggle at Anderson's resolute insistence on framing everything symmetrically. Forget any "rule of thirds"--everything was placed as close to the exact center of the frame as possible.

On the surface, then, it's a comedy murder/caper film, gorgeously staged and highly stylized. In some ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel nails the tone that Muppets Most Wanted tried and failed to achieve. Cartoon villains, stylized violence with some real emotional power (what happens to Jeff Goldblum's character is surprisingly upsetting), and a stylized visual vocabulary constructed in large part via forced perspective--all in service to a story with some heart constructed around an unlikely protagonist: a green felt frog or a sexually ambiguous concierge.

Except--Nazis? Sure, technically, they are "Zig Zags," their logo two lightning bolts forming the letters, and they are brutish, violent, but ultimately easily vanquished.  Still--it seems like the presence of even ersatz Nazis would be a serious tonal misfire.* Can comedy Nazis even exist?

Which brings me to the humanity at the core of this highly artificial work. M. Gustave is a clown in a circus created by Wes Anderson, but he is also a man of fundamental values. He embodies hard work, attention to detail, treating everyone around him with respect and dignity. Over and over again (and almost always played for laughs) he treats others weight deep respect, regardless of their situation. Madame D, while incredibly elderly and ridiculous looking, is mocked as an object of sexual desire by everyone except M. Gustave. His performance of fine dining that he brings to the job of passing out prison gruel creates a bond between him and the giant inmate. The gracious way M. Gustave offers the mush--"it needs a bit of salt" he says, seasoning the bowl and then handing it over to the physically intimidating man--embodies the values of hospitality and graciousness. It is paid back to him when the giant's cellmate spots the jail break and tries to raise an alarm. The giant silences the man, and allows Gustave to escape.

Similarly, the mix of high and low is what allows him to enter into the escape plan. He appears at the visitors' station with his face beaten up. He reports that "Pinky" got the worst of the fight, "and actually now we are quite dear friends." Later, he shares his Mendl's pastry with Pinky and the cell mates, using "the throat slitter"--a fairly disturbing switchblade--to divide the dessert. He brings the imperative of running a hotel--welcoming everyone who crosses the threshold--to prison life, and the respect he grants is repaid to him.

And in a world descending into brutality--the ZZ--it is these small graces that make living possible. Literally, when the favors M. Gustave does are repaid, but also to save the world from becoming merely horrific. It is the small pastries, the proper manicure, the spritz of the signature cologne "L'Air de Panache" that provide the means for continuing in the face of destruction. These gestures stand for the larger virtues--loyalty, honesty, humanity. These are not small things.

The trailer does give a taste of what the whole movie is like. I recommend it!






____________
*Speaking of tonal misfires:

In what may be a signature gobsmacking move, Vogue.com offers a slide show of characters from the film, followed with sourcing for a similar look. For M. Gustave, they chose his prison wear--as if that is a look one would want to emulate--and the total cost of the purchasable version is in the vicinity of $2000. Because of course! Who doesn't want to drop two grand to look like a Middle European convict? (Or, more disturbingly, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas--a concentration camp inmate?)


Rochas striped silk trousers, $1,073
The Elder Statesman monster seed cap, $500
The Row Amautio top, $990
Escadrille striped seersucker espadrilles, $125

And, to be pedantic--M. Gustave doesn't wear espadrilles. He very obviously wears wooden sabots. Do your research!

_________

Some boring context and disclaimers.

I have seen several Wes Anderson movies, and I see some common threads, but I can't say I have any systematic understanding of his work. Grand Budapest Hotel has what appears to be some stop motion animation that feels like it grew out of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I saw that movie so very many years ago, and at the time watched it as a movie to see with my kids rather than as a "Wes Anderson film" so I have certainly missed lots about what was going on there.

Similarly, The Royal Tennanbaums was my introduction to his work; I saw that even longer ago. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I have only seen parts of, and thought of as a Bill Murray movie. Probably the closest I have come to watching a Wes Anderson movie as a Wes Anderson movie was seeing Moonrise Kingdom when it first came out. This is how I approached GBH.

My thoughts here are also influenced by the conversation lead by Dana Stevens on the Slate Spoiler Special podcast, which started scratching at the larger meaning behind the movie. Stevens was disappointed by this film, because she felt that Anderson failed to connect with the emotional content of the subject he was playing with. My understanding of her point is that he failed to acknowledge the import of the killings and brutality. To her mind, the movie failed. I don't agree, although I think I understand why she felt the way she did.  I think Anderson is actually saying something, but the message (such as it is) is embedded in the exquisite production design. Looking for meaning and emotional power is to kind of miss the point of this movie.

There is a tendency for critics to address the object under review as if the critical assessment is objective, and the missed connections and the flaws exist in the movie (or book, or whatever). The participants in the Spoiler Special make statements like "the movie failed to connect with the emotion." My experience was very different--I felt that the emotion was there, but was deliberately underplayed. Which leads me to believe that the movie and the watcher attempt to meet somewhere in the middle, between the director's intention and the watcher's expectations and readiness. When the two fail to connect, it is a missed communication--what the director was trying to say and what the audience understood of the message may not line up. It is not the "fault" of either party, it is the random nature of human attempts at connection.


So while I may fall into some habits of "the movie did this" or "the director did that," what I am trying to do is to communicate what my experience of the movie was. I may well have gotten it wrong. I may well be so entirely idiosyncratic that I am not a fair measure of whether anyone else will enjoy what I saw. I can say that I believe that Wes Anderson is both seriously playful, and playfully serious, and that there is more than mere surface decoration to this movie. The surface beauty of the film might well have been enough for me--but there is more than that to be had.