Saturday, June 21, 2014

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.

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