This movie is probably racist, sexist, and homophobic. And I'm gonna talk about it, even though it's not remotely current.

Femmebot: Bringing you the creme de la crap since 2010.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Horror V Romance #2: Horror Encourages Fluid Identification

A monster is a being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances. - Bhanu Kapil

We have already seen that when one does not subscribe to compulsory systems such as heterosexuality and monogamy, the conflicts and outcomes of a vast proportion of romance films can feel extremely contrived. But there is more to my love of horror and dismay for romance than this. Horror offers, for me, an opportunity to suspend disbelief, and in turn produces a much larger world. In terms of finding characters I can identify with, even the most contrived horror flick offers something far more complex and messy than romance is able to do*.

Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, was kind enough to put this into words for me. There is already a tremendous feminist body of criticism of the slasher genre in terms of tired tropes, particularly with respect to psychoanalysis and gender: the slasher genre is the very origin of the girl in the tank top screaming. And commercial horror may be no less complicit in the gendering of monsters (masculine) and victims (feminine) than commercial romance is complicit in the coding and enforcement of gender roles. On one level, they are equally culpable in the enforcement of gender norms that tacitly shapes a sexist culture that harms both women and men, as well as erasing anyone who does not fit neatly as either. The difference is that horror offers multiple ways of relating.

As Clover puts it, "We are both Red Riding Hood and the wolf; the force of the experience in horror, comes from 'knowing' both sides of the story." This means that I may not spend my time watching a horror movie rooting for any one particular entity: I can shift from empathizing with being the monster, the outsider, the hero/ine, the victim, indeed, any archetype that is present. Sometimes the camera does this work for us: whether by default, to build suspense, or by necessity of storytelling, we are often treated to the perspective of the monster as well as the authorities, the victims, and the heroes--and these roles may all blend with one another as a plot progresses, illuminating an identity that is more hybrid. Take The Cell: a lush, oversaturated, intensely symbolic story about what makes humans into monsters; a large portion of the story takes place within the interior world of a demented killer. Here the idea of shifting identity is even more elucidated when the killer is fragmented into selves at odds: one, the monstrous, conflated MC of power and violence, the other, a child, pliant, and vulnerable. Within the world of these conflicting selves, Jennifer Lopez's Catherine embodies the empathy that horror demands of its viewers. In doing so, she herself is transformed into a monster, into one who kills.

Horror has gender roles, racism, sexism, transphobia, homo-antagonism galore, but it still makes identity a site of multiplicity and shifting roles. By contrast, romance encourages weddings: especially for women, the ultimate gridlock of identity. Even romances professed to take a women's point of view, or marketed to women as such, films like Bridesmades, Juno, Knocked Up, and whatever Tina Fey did last, fall into these heteronormative family-oriented traps. Indeed, the women actors and comedians actually manage to achieve some semblance of humor and humanity in these films. But it is only by some incredible acts of accomplishment and/or godforsaken miracle, and not by virtue of writing. In Bridesmaids, every woman wants a man and in the great tradition of straight women, the principal characters can only relate to one another via competition. In Juno and Knocked Up, pregnancy is treated as this wacky catalyst for enforcing romance & coupling (rather than a practical opportunity to asses a situation, get to Planned Parenthood, and delete Seth Rogen's number).

I am not saying that married women don't have complex shifting identities or that no film treats them as such. Frida, while not a perfect biopic, is a great example of a bisexual, non-monogamous activist with a complex and shifting marriage. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find Frida's primary categorization as romance. Romance as a genre may occasionally capture nuances of intimacy and create characters worth rooting for, but leaves me wanting when it comes to my urge to be able to see something of myself in a film. Where horror would seem to treat women even worse, that is when I'm usually relating as much to the monster, at once capable of great destruction and by design an outsider; this is, to me, a secondary definition of my womanhood. It's a matter of taste for sure: I am a person with a complex relation to identity. When I watch a film, I am looking for mirrors. With horror, the mirrors are not necessarily in obvious places, but they are there.

*Even one of those God-awful celebrity medley romances that offer multiple perspectives & storylines as everyone falls in love on the same fucking day

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Horror V. Romance: 1 of 5 Reasons It's Horror Every Time

In a recent issue of Bitch Magazine, Mary Elizabeth Winstead spoke about her work in the horror genre, trying to distance herself from the typical slasher, quantifying the typical (I would add young) women's horror role as "running around in a tank top, screaming."

A young woman in a tank top, running around screaming. I run those words over in my head as I look at my sordid Netflix queue. I think about the catalog of rape-revenge and other 'sploitation movies I have sat though. My international love of movies about people (almost exclusively men) responding violently to the sex trade, or kidnapping of wives and daughters, or an assassin becoming enamored of an orphan girl and killing a whole crime syndicate for sed girl. This in contrast to the number of times I've hit "not interested" to virtually every romance film that I see. It is fucked up that I will watch a zombie flick-- even a mediocre, rapey sci fi flick with Sarah Polley (Splice) rather than give the admittedly interesting love-themed indie film that she herself directed (Take This Waltz). I'm a feminist. I have survived just about every kind of awful fucking thing that can happen to a woman simply because she is a woman. And given the choice, I will take blood over romance every damn time.

 1. I'm Just Not That Into Heterosexual Monogamy

A major problem is that I really don't give a fucking shit about marriage, soulmates, or monogamy. I don't get in the way of lgbt activists working to legitimize our presence within that institution. I simply want nothing to do with it myself. Frankly, I don't think straight people should be allowed to get married.

I know I'm just not in the majority here, even in the lgbt community: I believe meaningful, loving relationships are not only possible outside of traditional structures, but for me, that is the only way they are possible. I have known since puberty that my sexual desire was not limited to one category of person, and that my standing with someone I love has more to do with honesty and respect than some sort of arbitrary sexual allegiance. I am, to borrow an old phrase, an ethical slut. I do not lie, I do not cheat or otherwise break agreements with the people I am involved with, but I am polyamorous to the core. In the history of my relationships, I have found that every time I have tried to be "normal," and to allow another person and/or a cultural default to set the boundaries of my relationships, I have been at greater risk of misery, abuse, and death at the hands of a partner. My experience has been that I cannot successfully "fall in love" in the sense of two people becoming one anothers' worlds, meeting all of the other's emotional needs, and sexually sequestering themselves.

I am capable of great love, but I never see myself represented in the men and women on screen. Traditional relationships and marriage represent, for me, emotional and social annihilation.

So there's that. Given the choice between watching people fall in love so they can do the hetero monogamy thing, I will choose a good face-kicking or a slow supernatural standoff in space every time. I have a lot better odds at identifying with people who just want to live to the end of the day than with people who want to grow old with someone.

"I'm Stupid, and He's Gay": Why I Didn't Hate Goon

On a snide day, I would characterize Goon (2011) as Rudy gets renovated for the Aptow crowd: your average underdog sports movie populated with dick-and-fart (ok, more like piss-and-herpes) jokes and "edgy," gladiator-esque hockey violence. And truly, any demonstrable value Goon gives us is delivered via these crass mechanisms of violence and lowbrow humor. Which I personally enjoy, to a point. I was about 50% sold on the artless fistfighting, the overdone "triumph of the human spirit: SPORTS!" narrative, and writer/supporting cast member Jay Baruchel's over-the-top obscenity. At first I dismissed Goon as the McFishandChips of film: cheap, forgettable, quick to leave the system, and maybe a little unpleasant as it does so. But I am pleased to report that there is at least one secretly gourmet aspect of this film for a low-culture-loving feminist to enjoy.

Masked in the hypermacho raunch of Goon is an alternative expression of masculinity. A quick glance at lead actor Sean William Scott's IMDB page and I realize I have not enjoyed a single movie I have seen him in: from the American Pie Franchise (Four white suburban boys learn the true meaning of Christmas sex? It's the kind of movie that makes me wish Affirmative Action worked the way my racist grandma thinks it works: every single white dude involved in the making of that film has to give up their spot in cinema to a more-qualified, under-appreciated disabled trans person of color), to Old School, to Cop Out, virtually everything in his filmography feels like overgrown adolescent heterosexual white male commercial filler: the blandest haddock of cinema. Despite the absurd overpopulation of these sorts of films, which are made at the expense of nonwhite, nonstraight, And The Rest (TM), kinds of stories that would really benefit English-speaking cinema (Pariah! Girlfight! Whale Rider! The Fall! Get On The Bus! Smoke Signals!), Scott brings an earnestness to main character and goon Doug Glatt, and it is largely this earnestness that makes this film redeemable.

Doug's lack of ulterior motive is often played for laughs; he's the not-so-bright nice guy who never has a witty comeback to an insult. His single "typical" masculine feature is the result of genetic lottery: Doug has an absurd tolerance for punching and getting punched. He's not full of rage, he's actually quite sweet; he just happens to fight well. This is the ticket price, the nod to the idiotic and condescending notion that all commercial films must be made for boys and men ages 14-60; this is how Doug wins the dick-measuring contest and the movie earns its dudely revenues. Physically, he's a rock.

Interestingly, Doug is not dumb. Even moments that are played for laughs at his expense reveal what is truly wonderful about Doug Glatt: he is atypically honest, and has zero ulterior motives. He doesn't play macho, or all-knowing, or studly, or any of the other costumes that men are asked to wear in this culture. It's part of the joke of his character that he lacks these things, and the way he approaches his hockey career shows that he has always felt like a failure as a man in the traditional sense: he just wants the chance to be good at something, and accepts that opportunity with dedication and without question.

One way of understanding Doug's failed-masculinity-as-strength comes from examining his family dynamics. Doug comes from a prominent New England Jewish family of doctors. Early on, we see the family coming out of Temple, and the parents express a kind of wistful dismay at both their sons: they introduce Doug's brother Ira to a nice young woman in the community, and then watch, half in denial, as Ira races to embrace his boyfriend in full view of the community. Between Ira's clear disinterest in women and Doug's unimpressive bouncer career, both parents are clearly uncomfortable with their sons; the scene ends when Eugene Levy as Doug's father, with a mixture of humor and shame, quips (or maybe just mentions deprecatingly) that both are adopted.

Ira "the gay brother" is not a central character, but his gayness functions in the plot as half-embraced and half exploited. Doug's major hockey breakthrough comes when a minor league player calls him a faggot; he responds, "My brother is gay!" They come to blows, and Doug's cement head/fist combo is captured on film and brought to the attention of a local minor league coach. Despite all the latent homophobia of the Aptow-style bromance (seen mainly in Baruch's sidekick, and in Doug's teammates), it is in taking a stand against a homophobic slur that Doug gets his big break. 

Homosexuality is similarly both embraced and mocked when the Halifax coach gives a speech that culminates in urging his team to be "Greek fuckin' underground gay porn hard!" It's somehow adorably subversive AND idiotically homophobic: it reads as training wheels for straight dudes who may be uncomfortable with atypical masculinity and/or intimacy between men (more on the latter in a bit).

Ira is never developed as a character, and really only has one moment of rejecting the tokenism inherent in the way he is treated by the film. Still, a pivotal scene for Doug comes when his parents and Ira visit him in Canada, after he has been transferred and begun to earn acclaim and popularity as a minor-league enforcer for the Halifax minor-league team. His parents urge him to give up on hockey and follow in their footsteps, and Doug has a pivotal moment of tender defiance. Doug, in his typical direct and somewhat inarticulate manner, repeats a mantra of, "I'm stupid, and he's gay," to his parents, exacting a discomfort necessary to get through to them. 

"I'm stupid, and he's gay," he exclaims repeatedly in a crowded restaurant. He uses this phrase as a chisel to chip away at the hardened layer of expectations placed on him: it is his way of owning that he will never be the man that his parents wanted him to be, that he is atypical, and that if he is not a "man" by their definition, he is still a person worthy of love and respect. Doug argues that if his parents are capable of the magical thinking that allows them to push him to go to medical school, than perhaps they are capable of equally magical thinking that would support him on his own terms. This scene could have flopped terribly, but, assuming one is willing to wade through the mask of gay jokes used to pad the theme of failed-masculinity-as-strength, it is actually quite touching. And contrary to his characterization as stupid, it is actually quite a smart speech. Crude, but smart.

Whether I see it on women, men, or people who identify as both/neither, I LOVE seeing alternative styles of masculinity. That is why, for me, sometimes a bromance is better than a romance. While I am absolutely overdosed on the fish-and-chips of the overgrown het male comedy (and the only thing stopping me from explaining why The 40 Year-Old Virgin is the nexus of everything that is wrong with our culture's approach to gender, sexuality, and romance, is that I would have to watch it again), there are some wonderful things that come out of the I Love You Mans and Superbads of this male-dominated genre: Parting the waters of all the tomfoolery and skullfuckery of the hockey team, and even within the excessively obscene performance of Jay Baruchel as the supportive best friend, we get to see Doug breaking down some of the basic isolation that keeps men from getting to be fully human

Doug's main challenge as the Halifax enforcer is to protect his roommate and fabulously named teammate Xavier LeFlamme, who is profoundly talented at hockey, but was dealt a concussive hit to the head by Doug's seasoned rival (played by Liev Schrieber) that knocked him off his game, possibly permanently. 

The sports story at its core is about a man who is strong (Doug) who has to find a way to develop a relationship with a man who is skilled but not strong in the same way (LeFlamme), and who is so shaken by the violence of the sport that he is on the verge of self-destructing. The hostility LeFlamme demonstrates for the better part of the movie is an obstacle that Doug slowly melts with his earnest, good-hearted honesty, and [spoiler alert] Doug's ultimate accomplishment in his short hockey career is to redeem his more talented teammate, so that LeFlamme can cease self-destructing and resume his craft of being a great hockey player. 

It's a story about men's intimacy, best typified by the wordless scene where Doug, following one of several pregame blowouts with LeFlamme, responds to a foul against LeFlamme by grabbing the offender's collar, punching him in the face, all the while making steady "I will protect you" eyes with LeFlamme, from the first hit to his skate to the penalty box. 
Just punches the guy like fourteen times.


"We are gonna have to work in some more dick jokes,
because I am really feeling the love, here, fellow straight guy!"

It's gross, it's overblown, it's bloody and violent and face punchey, but what Doug does is to restore LeFlamme's sense of safety. And it is goddamn touching.

And I fully admit the possibility that this is just fucked up and jaded of me, but the same violent trope told in the average romcom, where a strong dude comes along and restores a woman's sense of safety so she can succeed in life, is highly likely to simultaneously offend and bore me.1

Final thoughts:

*Allison Pill does a terrific job as the love interest, despite that the entire barrier to their burgeoning romance lies in her sense of sexual shame, and her self-loathing for not being awesome at monogamy. So kudos to Pill for instilling a sense of humanity in a character whose declaration of love is literally, "You make me wanna stop sleeping with a bunch of guys.

I'm not going to discuss the romantic aspect of the movie any further because it's not a strong aspect of the film and generally gives me a bad, bad case of The Disinterest. So, you know, thanks, Goon, for couching some alternative masculinity in your gladiator momfuckjoke movie, but fuck you for being another one of the millions of movies with no good parts for women.

*Liev Schreiber did a great job as the veteran Apollo Creed/Megaboss character, and gave great energy to the film in his short bursts of screen time throughout the film. A great example is the very casual, calm conversation he shares with Doug when they meet prior to the third act; the conversation remains respectful, blunt, but absent of macho posturing. This is contrasted with a later scene in which he steals Doug's best line from that conversation, word-for-word, in a pregame speech. Schreiber brought the precise combination of likability and dislikability that was missing from his role as Sabertooth in that really off-script Wolverine movie from 2009. (Also, long live MTV Laertes amiright, Shakespeare fans?)

*Also there is this subtext element of Doug's taboo-like resistance to sharing food or drink with people that breaks down after he conversates with Schreiber in a restaurant, and I think this demonstrates the respect he has for Schreiber's character, but might be about his germphobic doctor-upbringing and signifying a subtle relinquishing of some vestigial upper-class behaviors. Or something.

*Ultimately we need more diversity in filmmakers, in casting, in writing, and every other aspect of commercial cinema. And I'm pretty sure we've made enough bromances for the century. But part of dismantling kyriarchy is that men need to learn how to be closer to other men. And if what it takes for that to happen is that men need a cushion made of 1,001 dick jokes, I can deal with that, for now. It's still more interesting to me than watching any movie about a straight woman trying to get married.

1 I don't know this for sure, though, because men and women in romances are so rarely equals the way that Glatt and LeFlamme are as teammates. If anybody can think of romances involving restored senses of safety (NOT involving Manic Pixie Dream Girls or Twilight) that aren't really awful and Safe Haven-looking, please let me know some titles, and in half a year I will get back to you with a full report.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Revenge Porn Isn't Porn. Stop Doing That.

Author's Note; I don't usually write about real things. I apologize to the four friends and twenty spambots who comprise my readership for talking about a current event, and I promise to throw you a list of "Top Five Action Movie First Aid as Foreplay Scenes" next week.

So this is one take on the existence of revenge porn. I like feminists and I'm all for a healthy dialog, but I get really uneasy when something happens that mean the existence of porn is innately bad.

You know how rape isn't sex? Revenge porn isn't porn. 

To be sure, this is an extremely alarming website/bullshit cultural misogyny event-of-the-week. It's evidence that the law needs to keep up with technology as far as abusive conduct, harassment, and our greater understanding of consent. And I think it's important to have an ongoing critique of mainstream porn in terms of its underlying assumptions & artifices. Still, I disagree with is the idea that "it isn’t possible to separate ‘revenge porn’ from ‘porn,’" or the assertion that "When women are objectified, they lose power and men gain power." or: "The male gaze is a disempowering one." Taking that stance allows for no complexity whatsoever, and ignores a history of resourceful resistance by women & others who find ways of working with, making money off of, critiquing, and directly addressing the male gaze. 

The stance taken also polices desire in a way that ultimately makes me uncomfortable.

Murphy writes: "Just as revenge porn isn't simply about naked bodies, neither is mainstream porn. It’s the power dynamic that’s ‘sexy’ and it’s the degradation that separates both revenge porn and ‘regular’ porn from straight-up nudity and sex." That seems to me a highly personal interpretation of porn that simply cannot be applied across the board, and robs all sorts of pervs and gender nonconforming and otherwise atypical people and sex workers and queers and trans people of their ability to make their own judgments and decisions about how they use their bodies.

So... not ultimately on board. Just as rape isn't about sex, online harassment like this douchebag's site is not about porn. It's about breaching trust and consent: it's an extension of harassment and stalking, and should be criminalized. It's about entitlement to women's bodies, which I think should be resisted on all possible levels. But dragging PORN ITSELF into it is like blaming death metal or hip hop for youth violence; there are much bigger, more life-threatening cultural patterns at play--concepts of masculinity, structural violence, and interlocking oppressions-- that need to be addressed rather than the mere existence of adults interacting sexually on camera for money.

Stop doing that.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Reverse-Obsessed Vixen

Name your favorite, torrid little thriller in which the hero is seduced by a vixen who, obsessed, behaves with escalating psychological and physical violence toward him. She undermines his relationships, she gets him in trouble at work, often she "cries rape"; she systematically harms him until everyone thinks he's crazy, and then the pair fights to her (inevitable, relatable) death. I call it the obsessed vixen plot.

There's some old little arthouse flick called Fatal Attraction, and from the same era we also have Disclosure. My generation turned obsessed vixens out en masse: Swimfan. The Crush. All three Poison Ivy's. There are even some post-millennial up-and comers! Watch Beyonce play the normative wife in Obsessed! Variations abound.

OMG you guys, there are so many killer vixens.

Aaaaand then there are the movies with female protagonists and their male obsessives. I can think of only a few psycho vixen plots with women as the central characters, and the formula changes perceptively. We have Sleeping with the Enemy, J-Lo's deadly Tae Bo in Enough, and who could forget Mark Walhberg's breakout performance as the psycho in Fear. I'm also really sad to admit I sat through all of "The Resident," an ooze of a film that pants over Hilary Swank's every bathtime.

When this story happens to a man, a young, sexually appealing woman entices the poor hero into some sex on the sly, and eventually reveals herself to be a murderous, obsessive psychopath. The narrative for men pairs aggressively sexual women with loss and violence. They seem to say, If you give in for even one moment to the forbidden but aggressive vixen, she will undo you.

That's not a very interesting story when the roles are reversed, because one of the most generic and idiotic ideas we have as a culture about masculinity is that men are sexually aggressive. A movie about a sexually aggressive murderous woman gets made and remade and nodded to and remade again. A movie about a sexually aggressive murderous man is a Tuesday.

In the killer vixen genre, men have to fight for their families, their jobs, and their reputations: their status is always threatened by the lady vixen. Women in the same role have to fight for these things, and also for their bodily and sexual integrity. And guess what? While the manipulations and deceptions are just as elaborate, and the women equally sexualized, the tone when a woman is the main character is much, much darker. It's not that children are more often involved; it's that the male psycho vixen resorts to overt manipulation from the very get go, often staging elaborate events in order to appear heroic. His violence gives a much more menacing tone to the films, and unwanted sexual contact is the norm, if not an explicit plot point. Also? He's usually her primary partner or an acquaintance, not some side indiscretion.

Perhaps it hits a little too close to home to be campy. I haven't met a lot of men who have been stalked by a relentless hot girl, but I have met many, many women who have been stalked, beaten, raped, and chronically abused by men. It happens to people of all genders and orientations, and GOOD GOD, WE SHOULD TAKE EVERY INSTANCE SERIOUSLY, but there is a huge, compelling epidemic of violence and hostility against women that changes the dynamic of the fun little sexy thriller.

The killer vixen phenomenon is scary when it happens to men because it's novel. It's scary when it happens to women because it happens ALL THE TIME.

I've always thought the problem with commercial movies is that they are made, painstakingly, for a caricature of a thirteen year-old boy. But maybe it's more sinister than that. Maybe Hollywood is setting a trap for me, anticipating my every thought in an effort to make me question my very sanity, and then, I don't know, later it will pop out of a dumpster with a gun to my lover's head.

I think it would be great if we made more stupid, campy thrillers in which a woman relatably kills her crazed, relentless stalker. I think there should be ten Enoughs (unwatchable as it was) for every Fatal Attraction, every Swimfan. I would enjoy the shit out of a woman-dominated, woman-told story that echoes the campy vixen thriller genre that men get to have. Let's do it. Let's make films where women kill their stalkers in hundreds of creative, thoughtful ways. Let's line them up like heads on spikes.

I'm not saying it's the way to end gender violence; I'm just sayin', I will make the popcorn.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Virgin Spring/Last House Part 1: The Moral VIP Pass

It starts with a virgin. Doesn't it always?

There is an arm of rape-revenge movies in which revenge is taken, not by the victim, but by her family. Taken is a great example of a movie that is a single pube's breath away from a rape-revenge film: Liam Neeson gets to do anything he wants, which includes not just shooting the wife of an old colleague, but also sticking nails to an informant's thighs, clamping them to the wall outlet, and electrocuting the shit out of him. Why does Liam Neeson get a free pass to kill, drive over, and blow up things all over France? Because his snow white virgin daughter has been kidnapped into the sex trade. Poor Kim (played by Maggie Grace, who, fortunately, looks like she might do something in the sequel other than Be About to Get Raped for an hour and a half) functions as a moral trump card. She is Neeson's executive account, his VIP pass to deploy whatever gritty violence he deems necessary against people of whatever nationalities, and to still remain a card-carrying Good Guy. The movie only reinforces this weird "My daughter is a virgin, god damn it!" VIP pass when Neeson rescues his daughter at literally the last minute possible to still save her "purity"; it couldn't have come closer if there were a stopwatch installed in her hymen.

It's a refreshing story on some level: that some girl's father, somewhere, would go to great lengths to restore his daughter's sense of safety, because so many fathers are oblivious or behave with ignorance when their children are raped. But the villains that real families face are not so much "Albanians" or "Possibly Saudi Sex Trade Customers" as they are rape culture, fear, silence, and denial.

You can hammer a nail into the leg of the dude from the conveniently unpopular Eastern European country, but you can't electrocute silence. You can't intimidate it. You can't empty your clip into it and watch it die.

In my work with real families of real survivors, I have seen that paternalistic, murderous rage. The chief difference is that in real life, it never helps the fucking victim. It usually serves to add to the victim's burden, so that s/he feels like s/he must take care of her family (and possibly mitigate more violence) in the aftermath of one of the worst human experiences that exists. When a parent or relative is angry enough to kill, and can't keep that in check, at minimum they disturb the process of the survivor restoring a sense of safety. It can be damaging to the family relationship. It is ultimately a way of looking away, of emotionally distancing oneself from the victim and/or the inescapable, broken heart of the matter: you can't un-rape someone.

Can't be done. Not with a nail under the kneecap, not even with a movie gun.

The vendetta trope can be an insult to real victims, because if she discloses or if the violence is uncovered, the first thing a sexual assault victim need is to feel like s/he has choices about what happens next. Unstable, vicariously traumatized family members inevitably have to be reminded to shut the fuck up about their own reactions and listen to the real injured party. It's Not About Them. (Which is why I went cross-eyed and smoke came out of my ears for that half an hour of It's All About Clive Owen in the otherwise fairly solid drama Trust).

So, putting reality aside and turning back to the symbolic in horror and suspense movies, a threatened virgin is an emotionally backward shorthand for a moral shield against doing really shitty things. In 1960s, Ingmar Bergman made The Virgin Spring, which took a Medieval Swedish Ballad about a man who kills the men who killed his daughters, only to learn they are his estranged sons. Feeling sad about killing his own kin, and presumably the bloodshed in general, he vows to make a church. In the old ballad, a man is forced to see the full humanity of his victims, realizes he shouldn't kill and, makes a change in the culture: not the worst story of all time, even if it's a little overtly Christian and parochial.

Bergman's version either invents or makes explicit the rape aspect of the story. One way of understanding it is that Bergman wanted to test that righteousness, that sense of entitlement to violence: in order to evoke regret, he makes it so that the audience feels aligned with the urge for violence, no matter what. That is not the end, however. The humanizing moment in Virgin Spring comes when the father realizes he has killed not his kin as in the old stories, but simply a child, any child. From there he must address not only his new grief but also deal with his daughter's body. Bergman's story stays with the morally rebuffed character through his righteousness, his remorse, and his redemption, indicated by a miraculous spring that forms at the site where he vows to make a church.

Redemption is the aspect to which that neither US remake felt any allegiance.

Wes Craven plays with the theater of the sexual in more than a few of his projects. While Bergman had already established himself as a director, and did not regard this film as a seminal product of his legacy, 1972 marked Craven's directorial debut when he updated and "remade" Virgin Spring into Last House on the Left. Long before there was Freddy Kreuger, there was his distant predecessor, the psychological tormentor and killer, Krug. Krug is the patriarch in a family of psychopaths: he's got his stabby pal, his enthusiastically violent lady friend, and Junior, his adult child-in-tow, who is not as violent as the rest and requires frequent manipulation. This is pretty much Bergman's bandit formula, with the except of the enthusiastically violent lady (The closest Bergman had was a witchy bastard daughter who got her shit together at the end).

Last House 2009 has a similar construction. The "three bandit men" from the medieval tale have become Krug, his stabby brother Francis, Sadie, his enthusiastically violent lady friend. They also have Krug's just-barely adult child, Justin, in tow, though Justin shows a stronger moral compass that Junior.

Both Last Houses juxtapose the psycho family with a more normative family, a family with (you guessed it) a virgin daughter, Mari. Both Mari's get mixed up with the psycho families on an innocent pot run with their townie friend. (LHOL '09 has a nice tongue in cheek moment where Paige, her friend gives such a deadpan after school special line, "One joint won't hurt you.")

The bad guys are established, intercut with idyllic family scenes with their respective "Mari"'s, mid-teens; in '72, Mari bonds with her townie friend over her freshly-developed breasts and some good old underage drinking. Last House '72 is marked by a campy violence that is menacing by nature of the gleeful nature of the psychopaths. At one point, in addition to the sexual humiliation and assault, they literally chop off one of the girls' arms with an axe. The bad guys are almost comically vile, even for their time. To be fair, there is a decent and fairly compelling moment of remorse among the violent trio when they have finished with Mari, and exchange looks with one another while wiping the blood and straw from their hands and bodies. After that, it's the good old "shoot her while she collapses into the stream" scene, which seems to be the default mode of killing a woman you just raped in a commercial horror movie. Then the families meet under the guise of the psychopaths needing hospitality, the parents find out Mari is dead, find her body, and they kill the shit out of Krug's gang. The father uses his military background to rig up some serious Home Alone-type kills, but it is the mother who really puts her heart into it, not only slashing the throat of the violent lady-friend, but also biting off the dick of the stabby bandit-pal.

So, yeah. Rapesploitation is really fond of seduction that leads to castration of the adult male. Damn, do movies like to cash in on that shit: gross. It's the visceral, visual consequence of being a movie rapist. It's the most distilled, symbolic phallic nightmare: being severed from your wand/weapon/power thing.

Also, interestingly, exponentially WAY less common than sexual assault.

Anyway, for all its campy arm-severing and raucous bad people and comical sheriffs, Craven shows two moments of remorse that show an emotional faithfulness to Bergman's story: the first is the criminal remorse over Mari, already mentioned. The second is the end, which lingers in stark contrast to the pulp-y buildup of the film. It's the tragic punchline, the Oedipus-level of pain that culminates when the cops get to the normative family's home, finding the husband and wife covered in blood. The credits come in fast, but not so fast that we miss the point: as much as they will never get over the violation and loss of their daughter, these two people are never gonna get over what they've just done.

The Craven version holds huge appeal for thrill-seekers, for squalor aficionados for folks who just want to see a grotesque theater of human pain and misogyny: it draws its audience in, and delivers a moral slap in the face: you could miss it, but the heart of Craven's Last House on the Left is not the pulp that fills out the movie; it's a stance that tacitly challenges the same audience it draws in. It argues that all that separates good people from bad is their capacity for remorse. The movie doesn't seek to redeem itself for being made, but it does accuse its audience for watching. It seems to say that the audience got what they wanted, just like the "good" family got what they wanted; and if you're not affected by that, not able to appreciate the misery of that, than you're no less a caricature of humanity than Krug.

Stay tuned for part two, in which I justify my love for LHOL '09, even though it is probably the worst one of them all.

Heroic Trio/The Executioners

A short trip to Hong Kong because my friend has Netflix, and we both love Michelle Yeoh.

The Heroic Trio (1993)

We are talking so many shaken babies. Like 30 minimum.

This fabulous Hong Kong action/superhero/martial arts/gun fights movie should be pre-empted by a PSA about how newborns don't have necks and can't withstand excessive impact (and maybe set them down before you fire an automatic with your free hand, for the eardrum factor?).

Everybody's stealing babies from the submarine dystopic baby room. Michelle Yeoh is in love with a man dying of radiation but serves many masters. She is so consistently convincing about such weird shit. There are some sisters, a tape recording that is never listened to, a super cop married to a way cooler superhero whose name translates to Wonder Woman (no relation), and a renegade derby girl named Thief Catcher. Other than that, all you need to know is babies are flying around, there are some fascinating stunts/fights/special effects/really colorful gels on over the lights, and the 1990's were awesome.

The Executioners (1993)

You thought the sunless battleship-interior baby ward was bleak? Nuclear war has come and nobody gets to have water. Wonder Woman can't rescue her own husband because she has to be a good mom. The Heroic Trio that bathes together, stays together. Quoth The Venture Brothers: "The president isn't the real president anyway." The world is in trouble? Give me eleven days to form a mask in my cell and I will get right on that. There was a bad guy, or something, but he exploded. Everything's going to be ok, even though Michelle Yeoh died. Thief Catcher triumphantly produces a fish from her bra.

Lie With Me, Pt. 2: I Finally Finished It, Wish I Hadn't

No one got hit by a car, but I started to wish they would.

I think what killed this movie for me was the scene in which Eric Balfour's character acted alternately jealous, controlling, and forceful, then initiated anal sex without any semblance of consent while repeating "Promise you'll never leave me." The scene reads easily, way too easily, as rape. And from that scene on, Lauren Lee Smith's character begins to use the word "love" about him.

Disturbingly, this becomes a happily ever after story with a hornier than usual princess narrator. It's the taming of the shrew with a weird nod to rape culture.

Sometimes when you think you've found a bisexual sundae, you find that the brown stuff isn't really hot fudge.

I'm just sayin', if there is going to be rough sex in a movie, set it up with enthusiastic consent rather than abusive behavior (I'm looking at you, Twilight.).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Required Reading: Shirley Jackson

"The best horror movie ever made is a drastic re-write of a Shirley Jackson rip-off. The Shining, as Stephen King wrote it, is essentially a bigger, ‘splodier, more dudely version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House."

Through, brilliant piece exploring Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick at Superworse.

"Ghosts, demons, witches, haunted houses, killer bushes: In Kubrick’s Shining, and the work of Shirley Jackson, these are all distractions. The real horror lies in being human."