Film Thoughts: Tarantino’s Borrowed Vengeance

Even without knowing that he is a classic scumbag, it can be hard to know what to do with Quentin Tarantino.  From where he began as an indie-darling ‘auteur’ to now, his films have developed an undeniably unique voice, primarily with the aid of ‘chapters’ segmenting the film (also common to Wes Anderson) and most recognizably, highly stylized violence (Wes Anderson, not so much).  The ease and lightheartedness that Tarantino brings to blood and gore make it difficult to distinguish if you’re enjoying yourself or if you’re disgusted.  And perhaps the point is that he lures you into both.

I first watched a Tarantino flick (Pulp Fiction) in the dorm room of a group of boys I knew in college.  I enjoyed it, but I knew immediately that this was a film not only not targeted to me, but I would go so far as to say that it is a film that indulges everything masculine and makes that the point from which the world unfolds.  (Is this the way that straight white men see things by default?  Because – oh god, that’s a terrifying thought.)  Odds are, even 23 years later, you can walk into any odd dorm room inhabited by a man (a boy?) and find Uma Thurman staring off mysterious and lustful on a poster.

The second Tarantino film I saw was Django Unchained (2012), for a history class focusing on violence in pre-Civil War America.  We were meant to watch it and explain our thoughts as they related back to the course, particularly in relation to Tarantino’s revenge narrative.  I remember watching it with alternating confusion and horror in the library on the 3rd floor, totally baffled by what I was supposed to be getting out of this.  With due respect to Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, (and a little to Leonardo DiCaprio’s dedication in that one scene, I guess) I hated the whole thing.  I had a hard time articulating why, other than the feeling that movies about slavery are supposed to be somber and important.  Especially as a white American, I knew that slavery is the thing you are supposed to hang your head and be quietly sad (or, actually, sadly quiet) about.

The reviews raved that Django was a slavery revenge fantasy.  We could all delight in Foxx destroying the unquestionably evil Calvin Candie and his plantation because we know slavery was wrong and bad.  No moral gray area means you can get on board with the blood and guts with no qualms.

On the one hand, this is totally legitimate.  Slavery is and has been and will always be an incredibly heavy part of American history.  What one can argue Tarantino is doing here is providing a recourse, an alternative history, wherein the enslaved recoup the power and literally take back the agency denied them in real life.  By making it over the top and unthinkingly, amusingly violent, it can be said Tarantino takes that pain and translates it into power, confronts the traumatic past and owns it, sort of like the idea that if we can face our suffering, we can overcome it and tackle it into place in a narrative of our choosing.

I don’t mean to say on some level this isn’t true, or that there are no redeeming qualities to Tarantino’s depictions of slavery and the South, or whatever fantastical, exaggerated facsimiles he created thereof.  But for me, it rings hollow.

The reason is because Tarantino is a white man.

It’s one thing to have and to create a revenge fantasy, but it is another entirely when the revenge is not your own.

Tarantino’s Trio of revenge

Tarantino’s politics are another thing that make him a bit of a slimy character.  I recently rewatched Resevoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), and I was admittedly taken aback by the language that he used – not just the prolific amount of f-bombs, but also the liberty he took with using the n-word and the word ‘bitch’.  He has argued in the past that his lexical freedoms are a way of representing historical accuracy, which, maybe he could get away with in Django (although please call up Steve McQueen for a lesson on tact, pronto), but really doesn’t hold water for Resevoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, set as they are in the present (or, now, the 90s).

Some have accused Tarantino of wanting to be Black and/or acting it out, somewhat farcically.  But the truth is, Tarantino is not black, and Django is a revenge fantasy appropriated to earn him nearly $450 million worldwide.

I have a problem with Tarantino, a white man, making a slavery revenge film because (and do I really need to say this?), he has never had to deal with the cultural baggage and the historical trauma inherent in this period of American history.  It means almost nothing for him, again, as a white man, to make light of the past.  White people have been trying to claim slavery ‘wasn’t that bad’ since before slavery even got going.  Tarantino can disregard the complex systems that have continued to oppress African Americans in present times and make up a slave revolt that is more ‘bloody romp’ than ‘righteous revenge’.  And the really skeevy thing, of course, is that he is making money on this, selling shallowly entertaining, ultra-violent, surface recreations of stories that are not his own.

Additionally, Tarantino is neither Jewish, nor a woman, and yet we have Kill Bill (2003) and Ingloious Basterds (2009), another set of revenge narratives.  (Full disclosure, I actually liked Inglorious Basterds and in light of recent news, do not ever see myself watching Kill Bill).

What I mean to say is, there is a double-edged sword to a white, Gentile man making a film that not only avenges the Holocaust, but in its insular timeline, erases it altogether.  Punching Nazis is good.  Assassinating Hitler is great.  Alternative histories are tricky because they’re just that, raising the question of how much of reality we can eschew without disrespect to the past.  Can violence and alternate narratives, then, be cathartic?  And if so, does it matter who the retelling is coming from?  Can Tarantino trim the narratives of others (specifically, marginalized groups to which he does not belong) to fit in his spaghetti western package and sell them back, whether or not they’re fulfilling/cathartic to watch?

I don’t know.  And obviously, many of these are experiences I can’t really speak to.  I do believe it’s a problematic little set-up though.  Especially now, with TimesUp and #MeToo, and literal physical violence Tarantino committed against Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill.  Or the comments resurfacing in which he defended Roman Polanski’s assault of a young girl, claiming that statutory rape isn’t real violence (see the link to Jezebel above).

Oh, Mr. Tarantino.

Have you considered that the villains in your films are really just you?


Film Thoughts: Reflections on Moonlight and Hype, One Year Later

A year ago, when we were gearing up for the Oscars, I don’t think anyone truly believed Moonlight – the vignette re-telling of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,  the heartbreaking and poignant story of a young gay black man’s struggle with masculinity, poverty, and internalized homophobia – could win Best Picture.  Nobody saw it.  And by nobody, I mean, for all of the “importance” heaped on it by the media, people didn’t flock to the theaters.

If you’ll excuse the presence of Aziz Ansari, this SNL sketch basically sums it up. 

La La Land was the big film of the year.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I  love La La Land.  I saw it twice in theaters.  It makes me so happy, I’d even go so far as to use the word ‘giddy’. And everyone expected La La Land to dominate at the Oscars, and to very likely win Best Picture.  Everyone saw it.

And then came the Oscar ‘flub’.

(I mean, at least Damien Chazelle and everyone was gracious about it, but.)

Here’s the thing – Moonlight was the better and more deserving film by far.  It is beautiful and thoughtful and carefully paced, but more than that, it commits to film a story that is almost never told, one of a queer black man coming of age and how the intersections of his identities are compounded into invisibility.  Not only does he contend with toxic masculinity, but he must do so in a way that also deals with what it means to be a young black man.  This film fleshes out the stereotypes of black poverty and refutes them, showing us humans where caricatures reside – Juan deals drugs, but takes care of Chiron when he is Little, makes painful small efforts to protect him from the homophobia he is already beginning to feel.  Teresa is warm and self-sufficient.  Paula, Chiron’s mother, realistically swings between attentive to Little and frantic in her drug use, to ultimately on a path of redemption as Chiron becomes Black.  None of them are one note characters who inhabit the mythos of black criminality and primitivism America likes to sell.  This movie struggles with what it means to be visible/invisible, to suffer the internal conflict of self versus society, this movie is so, so, so, so important and beautiful and painful, and words cannot even express the significance of its having been made, much less having been awarded Best Picture.  (Just listen to the end credits suite. This music encapsulates the feelings of the film so well) ( Also, as you’re listening, give a thought to the three part structure of the suite and the three part framing of Chiron’s life.  Damn, that’s powerful.)

Last year, I was surprised at how angry some people got at the Best Picture flub, given that it was what I saw as an honest mistake.  But I’ve come to agree that there is so much more laden deep within these confusing 2 minutes that speaks volumes about the devaluation of black artistry in America.

First of all, consider the fact that everyone involved in announcing Best Picture took it so far for granted that La La Land would be the winner that no one even noticed at first that the wrong name was read.  This is the kind of movie that the Academy loves, with its Hollywood-darlings as stars, its inoffensive and accessible (for white people) premise.  People didn’t believe in Moonlight’s Best Picture potential, not because it wasn’t good enough, but rather because it is so far out of the ken of the people who reliably bring you #OscarsSoWhite every single year.  Moonlight is uncomfortable, particularly for white people, and it doesn’t try to make nice and end with a bow and wrapping paper.  It leaves serious questions asked and unanswered that force us to consider empathy and otherness.  So it seemed obvious, it seemed default, that even though Moonlight is the superior picture, La La Land would win.

In and of itself, this is deeply insulting, because it means we know as a society, that regardless of quality, whiteness wins.

And so, yes, it was a big deal that La La Land overshadowed Moonlight’s victory, because it is a symbol of our communal lack of respect for black artists.  It tells us that when we recognize black excellence, we do it tongue in cheek, a sly pat on the back that says, ‘Thanks for making that to be consumed by us white folks, now move along’.  We don’t allow it a platform to shine for what it is.  Moonlight‘s Oscar win will never be completely its own – it will always also be ‘the year La La Land didn’t win’.

Today (because somehow I’ve missed this until now) I watched the video for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” off of 4:44.  

It rips on a fictionalized African American version of Friends for claiming to be ‘subversive’ (though, I’ll be honest, I’d definitely watch Issa Rae and Tiffany Haddish if they did do some kind of Friends sitcom reboot… but that’s way beside the point).  As it dawns on Jerrod Carmichael that what they’re doing is essentially acting out a pantomime of whiteness (what’s up, Patricia Hill Collins!), he walks off the set and through a kind of portal into a park under a full moon.  The audio of La La Land ‘winning’ best picture plays over the title card of both the song and the rightful winner – Moonlight.  The one to do the work and get little of the credit.  It’s intense.  And if you consider the sitcom Living Single, which featured a similar setup to Friends, and actually pre-dated it, with an all-black main cast, the point is pretty clear.  Look at this lyric:

We stuck in La La Land,

Even when we win, we gon’ lose

I’ve been thinking a lot about Moonlight as we’ve gone into awards season.  I watched it again recently, the first time I’ve seen it since I went to see it in theaters, and it impacted me more, if not just as much as the first time.

The thing on my mind has been how Moonlight was production company A24’s first best picture, but this year, Lady Bird became the company’s highest grossing film.  For some reason, I can’t get my head around that, because even though I think it’s spectacular to see a female-directed, female-fronted movie garnering so much support, it doesn’t tell a new story.  It’s white-teenage-girl-unpopular-and-misunderstood-grows-up-and-learns-to-love-her-mom.  Do I need to go see this movie?  Man, I’ve lived it, and it wasn’t even all that exciting the first time.  The movie version was… okay.  Mediocre.  I’ve seen it before.

I can’t find the article I read a while back, but essentially, it argued that Lady Bird, like La La Land, is a far less accomplished and significant film than Moonlight, but because Lady Bird centers around a white protagonist, it can get away with it.  Lady Bird, because it is about a white person, does not have to be as good as Moonlight in order to win.

It’s a common thread you see when you examine race and black success in any field.  To be considered good at what you do for a person of color, you don’t just need to be great or talented – you need to be damn near flawless.  This attitude of black exceptionalism destructively claims talent for white people alone… except for those few guys who did that one good thing one time.  But again, we move them right along.  It ignores that black excellence and artistry exists everywhere, and is often the precursor to something white people think is great.  (See: jazz, hip hop, rock and roll, Friends, comfort food, LGBT activism, etc.)

And this is why, still, a year later, Moonlight‘s Oscar moment matters.

It’s a white person’s world… even when black people win, they lose.


My Love/Hate Relationship with TV True Love

I haven’t written in a while, because of Big Life Changes… moving, working, learning how to be an adult in this strange, sometimes kind of apocalyptic world.

Life, personally, and on a worldwide scale, has not been easy lately. But early on in my journey with depression, I learned that sitcoms could be a great coping mechanism.  In sitcoms, things are funny when the news is devastating, love exists no matter what, drastic changes never disrupt life for more than 20 minutes.  I’ve been working my way through the pantheon of the modern greats: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Friends, 30 Rock.  I started with How I Met Your Mother (which is not in the list of the greats, because I have more than a couple of bones to pick with that show), but you get the point.  So, with all these recent Big Changes, (and because my building has pitiably terrible internet, Netflix on a regular basis is out of the picture), I’ve been watching The Mindy Project on DVD from the library.

It’s a great show – I love Mindy Kaling’s style of comedy.  Finding it felt like coming home, since she was the producer and writer of so many episodes of The Office.  The Mindy Project has all the stuff I love in a sitcom: original plots, heartfelt and dynamic characters, legitimately funny writing, and of course, the romantic subplot.

In The Mindy Project, the whole premise is that the romantic subplot is more of the A plot, as Mindy wanders her way through quirky relationships in search of rom-com perfection.  Except that somehow, despite Mindy’s search for a relationship being the entire point, the show still includes sitcom subplot staple, the true love plot.

Does that make it sound like I’m annoyed about it?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love the true love subplot.  The true love subplot is my bread and butter.  I only started watching The Office because I had heard of the magical wonderland that is Jim and Pam.  Chandler and Monica are uncontestedly the best part of Friends.  And it’s not just sitcoms… the smoldering Scully and Mulder, the originators of true Unresolved Sexual Tension, are half the reason I love The X-Files so much.

I love love.  I love true love, especially.  I love TV love because it’s so obvious, it’s so present, because the actors embody these characters created especially for each other.

Earlier tonight, I finished the second season of The Mindy Project.  I’ve been slow in getting through the last few episodes because (spoilers, I guess:) Danny broke up with Mindy just after they’d begun to date, and though I know it’s too easy to just let your leads get together without the whole dance of misunderstandings (it is called a situational comedy for a reason, you know), I was so mad.  I was so mad at Danny for calling things off because he was scared of commitment and then setting us up for several episodes of a confused dynamic and awkward “are we still friends?” game.  And as you do, he made some pretty poor choices, that, had this been real life, would have caused me several breakdowns, at least one anxiety attack, and a damn good screaming session.

Of course, they got together, and things ended well for now.  That’s how TV works.

Here’s the thing though – I get so, so emotionally invested.  I live pretty much alone, I’m a quiet person in a new city, and I’m not ashamed to admit that these characters become my friends.  I think that we all feel that way to some extent, or else these shows wouldn’t work the way they do.  I love TV love because it’s comforting.  It says, yes, this does exist, yes, people do end up together, yes, everything is okay at the end of the day.  That’s why I watch sitcoms to cope with negative feelings.  I don’t expect realism, I expect safety.

I’m also demisexual/demiromantic, which means my romantic love & attraction feelings toward others are pretty minimal.  True love subplots provide me a way to feel represented or participatory (or something) within the heteronormative narrative, because they are characters I’m emotionally invested in “transcending” just physical attraction.  In most plots about true love, we see physical affection as an expression of emotion, as opposed to the ‘real world’ where (so I’m told) people feel attraction first and then go on to develop emotional rapport.

So when it doesn’t work out, if even for just a few episodes there’s no relationship resolution, it physically hurts me.  It’s actually devastating.  I cannot rewatch a good portion of season 9 of The Office because the out-of-the-blue conflict between Jim and Pam gives me such bad anxiety.

I take these shows (probably) way too seriously, but I do so because I’m looking for confirmation of love and happiness in the world.  I went through the break up of my first and only major relationship almost 3 years ago now, but still when I see a TV portrayal of a relationship I love put in peril because of a man who refuses to communicate, panic seizes a part of my heart.  Particularly when it’s uncalled for in the plot or is at odds with the tone of the show (looking at you, Jim Halpert).  Between my anxiety, my depression, and my weird defensive neuroses about love, what can I say?

This isn’t an article to say TV romances are good or bad, that they aren’t realistic enough, that they give impressionable young girls (ie, me) terrible expectations toward relationships or anything else even vaguely argumentative.  I don’t even know what I’m really trying to say, other than I’m trying to understand my own relationship with media & romance and why they are both salving and triggering to me.

Film Thoughts: Prisoners

An hour into this 2 1/2 hour long film, I’m getting bored, and that’s generally not a good sign in a revenge thriller.

I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for Prisoners at one point or another, but recently a video blog I follow mentioned this flick.  It follows a maybe somewhat played out story, but the addition of Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and frickin’ Viola Davis among others made it seem like it would go on to do greater things.  Slicker.  More thoughtful.  Director Denis Villeneuve does go on to make Arrival, after all, and though I would’ve toned down the melodramatic somberness that sometimes bogs down the clever storytelling, I thought it was a pretty good film.

I can’t say I’ve seen any other Villeneuve films off the top of my head, but Prisoners takes the somber mood and coloring of Arrival and multiplies it.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the story to make it great.

The premise is, two families get together for Thanksgiving and their children (who miraculously happen to be of equal ages, just sayin’) stumble across a van.  Both families have a little girl, and the two sneak off together a little later to go back to the first family’s house.  They never come back.  From there, you can probably guess.  The police get involved, Jake Gyllenhal shows up as the perfect yet hardboiled detective who eats alone on Thanksgiving, the families are desperate and distressed.

(Also, side note: how do these people even know each other?  Why are they friends other than for plot?  There’s literally zero backstory and it really bothers me.  I can’t tell if they actually have anything to do with one another.  I’ve never been that chummy with my neighbors.)

(Second side note: what’s up with Gyllenhaal’s frickin’ incompetent boss? Also also: what detective has a 100% solved case rate?  None, that’s what.  What a completely useless piece of dialogue.)

And yet these decent actors are plopped down into these one-dimensional, stereotypical roles.  Maria Bello becomes the emotional incoherent mother.  Jackman’s persona is straightforward and easily stapled together: white, working class, religious, patriotic, and Masculine with a capital M.  And the further the film progresses, the less and less we hear from the other (black) family.  Literally, the voices of the only women and people of color in the film are covered by Gyllenhaal’s frankly kind of lazy performance as the on-the-case cop, and Jackman’s yelling and punching.  Terrance Howard’s character, who is the father in the Birch family, is initially seen refusing to participate when Jackman’s character, Dover, kidnaps the principle subject in the case.  The next time we flash back to them, Birch is silently and willing holding the guy up while Dover beats the shit out of him.  Where is the autonomy?  Where is the decision making?  There literally is none, because the only character we are supposed to be concerned with is Hugh Jackman’s.  What a waste of poor Viola Davis.  One of the most contrived bits of dialogue I’ve seen in a while was when Dover is trying to comfort his wife and she sobs, “You were supposed to protect us!

Image result for prisoners movie

Wow.  Didn’t you just feel that threat to your masculinity kick in?  Time to go reclaim your virility by literally kidnapping the guy who may or may not have kidnapped your children.

For all the positive reviews I’ve seen for this film, I’m pretty sure I’ve watched this exact thing before, just in B-movie format.

Image result for The Tortured

It’s even the same color scheme!

Oh well, there ya go.  A crappy film with lesser known actors (made three years before Prisoners, just so we’re clear), where a couple whose only child is abducted decide to take matters into their own hands by torturing the prime suspect.

I realize this isn’t the same, because Hugh Jackman doesn’t know for sure that the guy he abducts is the killer, nor do we, the audience, know whether or not the girls are still alive.  And the twist at the end.

But I mean, at least in The Tortured, the woman has a significant amount of agency.  And she, like, makes decisions and has actual conversations with words and time spent on screen.

It’s Dover’s masculinity and the things that that implies in American society that cause him to become a torturer, a monstrous un-empathetic being on a level similar to that of the people who kidnapped his daughter.  The values of strength, action, decisiveness, paternalistic protectiveness.  Is that what the film is trying to say?  Given the flat female characters, I think not.

Even when these people are doing things, they’re straight up crazy.  Who goes along with this?

Reviews say this is a heart-pounding, profound drama with an underlying commentary about terrorism or modern America or something like that.  I can’t say I watched the same movie, maybe because I skipped through ten minute segments in the second half and filled the rest in with the synopsis.  Or maybe because a B-movie with some convenient caricatures filled by big names is what makes for Oscar-bait material.  Jackman is better in Les Miserables.  If you’re going to spend 2 1/2 hours with him, it may as well be heart-wrenching a a good way.

Film Thoughts: The Shining and Shelley Duvall

I want to start by getting the Stanley Kubrick hagiography out of the way, because this post is not about him: The Shining is a brilliantly realized film, the use of colors, angles, and space are all innovative and smart, and it succeeds at being very creepy.

Okay, done.  Enough of that.

If you’re not familiar with The Shining, here’s a quick recap: based on Stephan King’s bestselling novel, the film is about a family of three – Jack, Wendy, and their young son Danny- who move into an old Colorado hotel for the winter, where Jack has been hired as caretaker.  They are completely isolated, which isn’t so great, because the hotel is kind of evil, Danny is kind of psychic, and Jack, a kinda recovering alcoholic with anger issues, slowly descends into murderous insanity.  You might notice that Wendy is nowhere to be found in that last sentence.  Keep it in mind.

Horror films are infamous for their poor treatment of women, including weak characterization, sexualization and objectification, and subsequent bloody deaths.  The tropes are so standard in the film industry that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, a parody of the teen horror genre, specifically lampshades the virgin/slut, life/death dichotomy.

Of course, The Shining is not a teen horror film, and Kubrick’s approach to the film was specifically to break the molds of horror movies that were cementing even in 1980.  However, misogyny plagues the film, from its making to its characterization, to its reception even today in the viewing public.

In the book, Wendy is, yes, a mother and wife, doing her best to deal with the issues of a tenuous marriage while taking care of her son.  She stays with Jack through his anger and alcoholism, not because she’s stupid, but because she legitimately has nowhere else to go.  She stands up to her husband and keeps an eye out for the return of reasons for divorce, although she simultaneously hopes for the best, trying to ignore the discomfort of potential dangers ahead.  She is allowed significant chunks of narration, and we know she doesn’t simply just follow her increasingly abusive partner around unthinkingly.

Image result for the shining

In the movie, Wendy is played by Shelley Duvall.  Kubruck characterizes Wendy as indecisive, jittery, and weak, and I get the sense he blames her for just being in a bad relationship.  She stays because she’s impossibly fragile.  What’s more, Kubrick centers the blame on her lack of ultimatums toward Jack, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Jack’s abusive behavior itself?  Even as Jack becomes more and more violent, we don’t hate him, whereas it’s easy to condescend to the pathetic and sometimes blandly frightened reactions of Wendy.

Stephen King, who famously hates the popular 1980 adaption of his book, has said of Kubrick’s Wendy that she is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

Watch practically any YouTube video about The Shining, and you will see plenty of hate directed at Wendy/Shelley Duvall.  Some people out there like Kubrick’s Wendy and Duvall’s performance; however there’s no lack of viewers that consider Wendy to be weepy, overplayed, and boring, and they tend to blame this on Duvall as an actress.

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It has come out over the years that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized, verbally abused, and isolated Duvall.  He refused to give her any praise for her acting, ordering other not to “sympathize with Shelley”, constantly criticized her performances, ideas, and suggestions, and condoned her when she didn’t have the latest version of the constantly changing script.  Duvall told Roger Ebert that their were periods where she spent ’12 hours a day crying’, and she can be seen on behind-the-scenes footage showing Kubrick and Jack Nicholson tufts of hair she was losing due to the stress of filming.  And that’s not even mentioning the scene where Wendy confronts Jack on the stairs with a baseball bat, which Kubrick forced Duvall and Nicholson to do 127 times.

By contrast, Nicholson described Kubrick as “warm”.

Do I even have to say it?

It honestly enrages me that people have the gall to critique Shelley Duvall.  If her acting is indeed weak, it’s because she was being terrorized by a misogynistic director for months on end.  If her character is weak, it’s because Kubrick wrote her that way.

In the meantime, the brilliance of the film has been accredited to, (who else?), two men.  Praise is lavished on Kubrick for his control and style.  Fans say that it is Nicholson’s impeccable acting that make it so frightening and exciting.  Duvall sits through all of the adoration of the men around her (she actually calls it sycophantic) and demurely says only, “Of course, I get a little jealous.”  Kubrick and Nicholson have monopolized the narrative surrounding the making of the film.  The months of intense work Duvall put into The Shining have been washed over, or worse, labeled lazy, bad acting, annoying.

Image result for the shining

And even worse than that is the posthumous adulation that Kubrick receives, while Duvall’s mental illness is exploited on daytime TV, like her recent appearance on Dr. Phil.  Did filming The Shining cause Duvall’s mental illness?  No, probably not entirely.  But was there an underlying condition she had that was gravely aggravated by Kubrick’s enforced ‘method acting’?   I don’t doubt it.

One of Kubrick’s daughters has sought to raise money on Duvall’s behalf, speaking out against her Dr. Phil appearance.  I may be wrong, but in this I see an act of repentance.

Just one more thing: while researching for this post, I stumbled across a short essay by Danielle R. Pearce (you can find it on her Tumblr).  In this essay, she argues that Kubrick’s “complex use of misogyny can be attributed to his authorial signature – one of using cinema to explore and develop understandings of humanity and the self.”  Pardon my french, but this is bullshit.  Kubrick’s ‘understandings of humanity and the self’ are not about humanity, they’re about men.  And believe it or not, you can make movies about men and misogyny without making them misogynistic.  Rather, Kubrick uses women across his canon as mainly objects and plot points for his male protagonists (in The Shining, we have only Wendy, who’s there as helpless audience surrogate, the female doctor, and if you really want to stretch it, the woman in the bathtub).  This isn’t a complex use of misogyny.  It’s just plain ol’ misogyny.  The fact that he has been lionized and enshrined by the academy does not make this acceptable.

Shelley Duvall deserves far better.

Film Thoughts: Get Out and the horror of the ideal slave

*WARNING*: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR JORDAN PEELE’S NEW FILM, Get Out.  I highly suggest seeing it before you read on.

Okay, so you’ve been warned.  Welcome to the twilight zone, motherf*ckers.

Let’s begin: Get Out takes the horror genre and spins it on its head with a good dose of comedic timing, a seemingly innocuous suburban neighborhood, and, oh yeah, a nice dose of racial commentary.  The story follows Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) , an African American photographer, and Rose (played by Allison Williams), his white girlfriend, going to meet her family.  He’s nervous, he admits, because Rose hasn’t warned them that he’s black.  She quips that her dad is just going to talk about Obama.  It’s harmless.

But trouble besets them from the beginning.  A deer smashes into their car as they are on the way, and Rose steps up to prevent a cop from demanding Chris’ ID, even though he wasn’t the one driving.  When Rose and Chris get to the house, they find out that Rose’s parents are throwing a neighborhood party the next day.  Between dinner with the family, and conversations with the all-white neighbors, we’re treated to an onslaught of the most cringe-worthy micro-aggressions possibly ever committed to film.

“What’s your sport?” father Dean asks.

“Is it really better?” a neighbor asks with a wink as she squeezes Chris’ arm.

And that’s where I want to pause it.  On one level we’re cringing at the sexual innuendo, but it’s right there, in this moment, we go beyond awkward and blatant stereotypes and this random white woman invades Chris’ personal space and squeezes his muscles.  This not the first time in the film where Chris’ bodily autonomy is disrespected (a few scenes earlier, Rose’s brother attempts to put Chris into a headlock after talking to him about wrestling), but this is the one that registered immediately with me.  What this woman is doing is examining him.  Inspecting him.

You will see this scene in any movie about slavery ever.  The enslaved are led out, placed around a pen, a room, and white folks come up and open their mouths, slap their muscles, determine their strength and their fitness in order to determine their interest in purchase.  Here, Peele doesn’t make it obvious, but he’s not exactly subtle either.  A game of bingo is actually a bid for his body.

Now there’s a lot to be said about the fact that even the white people we’re led to trust turn out to be beneficiaries and supporters of this system, and about the ending when the cop car pulls up on the road where Chris is the only one still standing, and above a bleeding white girl no less.  I’ll come back to that in another post.  Right now, I want to talk about the fact that the crux of this horror movie is a form of neo-slavery imposed on kidnapped, duped African-Americans by a seemingly liberal enough community of white people.  It’s brilliant.

A few scenes after Rose and Chris arrive at her parent’s house, Rose’s father takes Chris into the backyard.  As promised, there’s mention of Obama, then Dean continues, “I know what you’re thinking… A white family with black servants?”  It is, of course, and Dean’s frankness about it almost makes it forgivable if it weren’t so damn in-your-face.  He explains that Georgina and Walter were hired to take care of Rose’s aging grandparents and that Dean didn’t have the heart to fire them after the grandparents died.  “They’re part of the family,” he says.

The echoes of slavery are here, in these odd, almost banal moments.  You could take what Dean says at face value, but it reeks of the paternalistic rhetoric that Southern slaveholders dispensed at every turn.  White masters were viewed as the fathers of their estates and as caretakers of the poor, inferior slaves.  They were part of the family – sometimes literally, given the high rate of sexual assault on female slaves – but that didn’t stop these ‘father figures’ from whipping and torturing their workers.  Paternalism was a way to justify the holding of slaves, but rarely extended any further in practice.

And then there’s the behavior of Georgina and Walter themselves.  In the 1800s, white thinkers theorized that blacks were biologically  predisposed to servitude.  Theoretically, because slaves were fulfilling their purpose in life, their disposition was supposed to be sunny and constantly blithe.  Not only did this help white people to feel less monstrous for the fact their lives were built on violence, but in addition, any sign of discontent could be the precursor of resistance.  The perfect slave would be unquestionably obedient and unthinkingly cheerful about it.

Slaves were people though and people even in the most soul breaking of conditions are variable individuals.  Their cheerfulness was forced for the benefit of their survival, their obedience for the safeguarding of their bodies from additional violence.  And while many slaves did not escape, they exercised small acts of resistance to create enough psychic space to survive.  They might skip work for a few days, drag their feet, act sullenly, sing, perform their own religious ceremonies with their own interpretations of Christianity and folk religions.  I promise I’m getting back to the movie, so just follow me here: despite the constant and relentless dehumanization of enslaved African Americans,  the enslaved never turned into objects fromy people, meaning the ideal slave could not exist without omnipresent violence.

Georgina and Walter embody content and obedience.  Peele’s horrific reveal is why: hypnosis and surgery succeed where Southern slavery did not, eliminating independent black consciousness  (the Sunken Place) and making the bodies of black people literally the objects of white owners through brain transplants.  Every 1800s planter’s dream.  No need for a whip, just a teacup.  This is one of the things I found most disturbing about Get Out.  It’s deeply  unnerving to watch the total and complete dehumanization of a person for another’s use.  Peele reminds use that slavery was not so long ago, that these ‘historical’ tensions are eerily recognizable, and that those ‘ideals’ are not so far away from the surveillance and stereotypical expectactions American society puts onto black bodies today.

Film Thoughts: Saving Private Ryan

Hi!  Welcome!  This is the part of the show where Larry sings a silly … wait, sorry, no.  Wrong thing.  This is the part of the blog where I discuss movies new and old, good, bad, and mediocre.

So I’ve been on a kind of WWII kick since I read Atonement recently and it was one of those where I didn’t want to leave the world of the book just yet.  Saving Private Ryan (as well as Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List) are on my Required Film Viewing catch up list anyway, so I figured we’d start out with what sounds like the least heart-wrenching of the three.

Some context: Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, one of the first movies that Stephen Spielberg had not developed on his own, but was inspired to direct due to his father’s service in the Second World War.  It has a pretty great rating across the board, with an 8.6 on IMDB, a 92% for critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 95% for us average audience folks.

All that being said, the first two minutes made me think this was a 90s sports movie.  The inspirational horns in the background, the plain black placard with the title… As the family approaches the cemetery,  I almost expected the classic 90s voiceover to come in,a la Stand By Me, like, “When I was a young man, I was called away to serve my country in one of the most horrible wars humanity has ever seen….” Etc, etc.

I was wrong.  Soooooo wrong.  Maybe the first shot has aged, but the rest is brutal.

But Saving Private Ryan doesn’t waste any more time as we flash back to the beach at Normandy.  In a $70 million budget, this sequence alone cost $12 million.  The realism, rather than the exploitation, of war caused the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to set up a hotline for veterans who found the battle scenes too painful to watch.  Soldiers are suddenly, literally, exploding, they can’t even move fast enough to defend themselves, and even when they make it into the water, they’re not safe.  We see Tom Hanks delivered into the chaos, wondering how he’s supposed to carry any kind of strategy out when just staying alive is nearly impossible.  He attempts to drag a wounded soldier with him up the beach, but looks back only to discover he’s holding on to exactly half a body.  (Why am I trying to eat something right now??)

And that’s only 15 minutes in.  Did I mention this is really f*cking brutal?

In a lot of ways, this could have very easily been your run-of-the-mill war movie, and sometimes it falls back on those tropes: the soundtrack (once again, sorry), the hyper-masculine talk between the soldiers deployed to find James Ryan, but most of the time, it transcends the places where it might have gotten cliched and faltered.

The scene where the group arrives in Neuville comes to mind: the sequence involving the little French girl is heartbreaking.  A slight reprieve, and then a wall gets knocked over to reveal a group of German soldiers.  Part of the power here is in the way that the scenes follow one another, absolutely relentless.  Like Miller and Caparzo and Reiben and all of the others, we struggle to find coherence, to take ‘reasonable’ actions when the shouting and misunderstandings and danger are continuous.  Frankly, it’s immersive.

I will probably never be closer to being a soldier in World War II.  Unless something really weird happens, that’s probably true.

The question of the movie: Is it really worth it to save Ryan?  I mean, it’s a war after all.  People die.  And it sucks that all four of his brothers have died, but can you imagine being the one brother who makes it back?  The pressure of being the only son to return?  What that would do to your relationship to your mother?

Is it worth it when they lose Caprazo and Wade?

And then, how do you reconcile yourself to getting out of the war early just because somebody in the war department noticed your name?  Matt Damon plays Ryan beautifully, given that he only shows up in the last quarter of the movie.  He gives us the heroic refusal to leave his ‘only remaining brothers’, his small squadron with its suicide mission.  You don’t hate him for being the guy who gets to go home.

But when the Germans show up and try to take the bridge the Americans are protecting, it seems that everything is validated.  In the brutality and the chaos of this final battle scene 90% of the characters don’t make it out.  It changes the dynamic of the mission, so that Ryan’s survival no longer seems so contrived – everyone is just trying to survive.

The greatness and the durability of Saving Private Ryan are in its battle scenes above everything else.  Spielberg treads the line between melodrama and exploitation,  which results in moments of profound humanity for the soldiers (think Upham’s cowardice, Miller’s sacrifice) as well as a realistic taste of warfare.  I kept wondering how you could possibly know who to target with so much going on and everybody in similar uniforms.  That alone would stress me out.  There, in the dirt and the mud, between the concussive blasts and the sheer luck of avoiding bullets.  The bittersweet phyrric battle.  This movie, unlike many others, engages with the humanity of its soldiers, and for me, that makes all the difference.

Random Things of Note:

  • Is that a young Nathan Fillion sighting?
  • Is Wade Frank Jr. from Friends?  (The answer to both of this is yes!)
  • Title drop at 1:53
  • Matt Damon…. come on, man.  You’re cute and all, but you have to stop needing rescue.  It’s kind of a weird way to be typecast.