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."

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