1 January 2013
This is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.
I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.
Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.
Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.
But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.
If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?
When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.
Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.
Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.
Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?
The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.
Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.
11 June 2012
It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?
As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.
To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.
The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.
In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?
More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?
Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.
NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.
JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?
Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.
So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?
JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.
Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?
JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.
Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.
Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.
JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?
Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.
Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?
JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.
Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.
I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.
JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?
Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.
I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.
JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.
Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.
Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.
JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.
Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.
Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.
Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.
Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.
Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?
JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.
So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.
*** Spoilers to follow! ***
*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***
Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask!
I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?
Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.
But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:
- The film is too short to do justice to the plot
- The film becomes an action film too abruptly
- The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film
I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!
JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.
We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.
Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:
This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.
I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!
Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.
Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?
JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.
These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.
Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?
Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.
Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.
Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.
JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?
Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.
Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?
Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!
The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.
I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?
This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!
JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.
Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.
But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.
Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)
I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.
JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?
Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.
How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?
JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.
But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.
But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?
Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.
That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.
I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!
Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent
Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent
Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent
Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent
Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent
Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!
But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!
JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.
But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.
Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?
8 May 2012
I’ve been thinking back to my first semester of college, when I met a confident, gorgeous, funny 3rd-year woman student in my dorm named Maria. She had long, beautiful, straight hair and a penchant for practical jokes, and she was a standout geology student (which made me, temporarily at least, also a geology major).
The fact that I refer to her as a woman is because of her. “There was this woman in my high school,” she’d begin a story — and for someone like me who’d grown up refusing to call myself a woman, this casual reference was mind-blowing. At the first reference, I actually found myself wondering if this “woman” in her high school was a middle-aged mom who’d gone back to school. Gradually, it occurred to me that embracing the notion that I was a woman rather than a girl could be liberating. “Want to go out with me and a couple of women from the frisbee league?” she’d ask, and I’d feel like I was part of a new and very, very cool club. A club of not-girls.
Is it corny to believe that adopting Maria’s term woman — and abandoning girl — was one of the most meaningful moments of my feminist education?
I got onto this line of thinking because of Lena Dunham’s show Girls, of course, but also because we have an epidemic of girls underway in film and especially TV:
- Two Broke Girls
- New Girl
- Bad Girls Club
- Girls Gone Wild
- Gilmore Girls
- Gossip Girl
- The Girls Next Door
- Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It strikes me that my ongoing use of woman won’t have the same effect on my 18- or 19-yr-old students because I’m not one of their peers. I’m a 40-something professor, not a 20-yr-old with long, straight, glossy hair. But I wonder if I should bring up this topic explicitly.
Corny or not, I still think that teaching that simple linguistic shift could be mind-blowing for young women. Oh, if only Zooey Deschanel (TV’s New Girl) or those glamorous bitchez on Gossip Girl referred to themselves and their friends as women. That would be interesting.
I was getting a haircut the other day, and the woman sitting next to me spoke about her reluctance to see The Hunger Games. “I just hate gorey movies,” she explained. “And the idea of children eating other children grosses me out.”
“They don’t eat one another!” I objected. “They’re forced to kill one another as part of a state-run reality TV show in a dystopian future!”
Okay, this is kind of a big difference, eating vs. merely killing one another — and for squeamish readers I can assure you that the gore factor is fairly low considering the subject matter. It’s strangely difficult to explain what made the books so compelling. Yet compelling they are: I’m pretty sure my set of books ricocheted amongst 9 different friends over the course of a 4-month period, each time resulting in late-night emails from those friends that said, “OMG The Hunger Games!”
Chalk it up in part to a powerful, driving narrative and a terrific central character in Katniss Everdeen. To quickly sum up the plot, Katniss has grown up in one of the nation’s poorest districts — so poor, in fact, that she and her best friend Gael have taught themselves to poach animals from the off-limits woods near home. Without her skills with a bow and arrow, setting traps, and scavenging for berries and other foods, her family would have starved long ago.
But then the annual Hunger Games begins. Long ago the nation’s 12 districts rebelled against the capital and when the federal government regained control, it instituted these “games.” Two children, a boy and girl, are chosen randomly from each district to compete against each other in a fantasy wilderness arena until only one is left alive. That battle is projected to every TV with the notion that it will somehow bring the nation together as they root for and celebrate the winner. But it also demands that the “tributes” make themselves TV-ready and appealing even as they kill one another or simply fight to survive — because the richest or most charismatic can get special gifts throughout the course of the games from sponsors who might tilt the balance between life and death with a packet of medicine, matches, or food. When Katniss is chosen alongside a baker’s son named Peeta, she is forced out of her “anything to survive” mentality, and must decide how much she’s willing to play the TV game.
Spoilers ahoy as you proceed!
As the blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to discuss the film, my first question to him is, have you read the books? and does the film seem to be the compelling document that I’ve described about the books?
JustMeMike: Thanks for the brief intro and plot outline. I only bought the book this past Thursday and did my utmost to keep it closed. I brought it with me on my trip to New York, but I should have left it home, as I never opened it on either flight. I will admit to reading the first three pages before I left. So at most, I went in with scant knowledge. So go right ahead, and call me a noob.
Now that I’ve seen the film, I will readily agree that it is compelling, and that I’m 100% certain that I will go through the rest of the books that follow in the series — asap.
Since you’ve read the book, and I haven’t — can you give me a sense of how the film and book compare?
Didion: That might wind up being the most talked-about subject of the day! And that’s too bad, since I’d theoretically like to think of this solely as a film, but let’s face it: I can’t.
I’d say two main things. First, I walked out feeling impressed that the film had done such a great job of covering a lot of ground in the books — my partner and I were really happy about the film overall. I especially thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was just amazing — and I’d been skeptical, as she’s clearly a curvy 22-year-old, whereas Katniss is a skinny, half-starved 15-year-old.
I do have one criticism comparing the two (and this is my second point). For me, the most moving thing about the books was that Katniss agonizes about appealing to TV viewers; she’s spent her whole life feeling defensive and protective of her family, so she hates smiling and pretending to like Peeta in order to gain TV fans. I felt the film gave short shrift to that storyline. Yet again, I still feel satisfied with the movie overall.
JustMeMike: Ok — my question was really too broad for a short answer or even a longish one. But I was lost about the coal mining aspect of the Seam. The Capital seemed so advanced and Katniss’s area seemed so deprived. How does the Capital have super technology and yet there are still functioning coal mines?
Didion: The future imagined in the book is one in which many of the “districts” (states) are poor and conduct basic services on behalf of the few richest districts and the Capital. Her district mines coal; other raise wheat or whatever and are just about as poor.
So part of what the book does is to juxtapose the super-rich, superficial people in the capital of Panem (there’s a Latin phrase, panem et circenses, that means “bread and circuses”; capturing its superficiality and its likeness to Rome before the fall) with the incredibly poor, manipulated citizens of faraway districts like Katniss’s. When she gets to the capital and sees everyone with their elaborate clothes and makeup and plastic surgeries, it’s like a freak show to someone who couldn’t afford to buy bread.JMM: Okay, I’d like to talk about Katniss. What impressed me most was her strength before the games or even before the Reaping. She was the protector, the provider, and at the core of her family. Yet as the Hunger Games process begins she seems a bit weak at first but it’s only temporary. She is simply a rock going forward. I simply loved that part of her.
Didion: Doesn’t she make a terrific heroine? Especially in our age of Iron Man and Spider-Man and so on — without a single super-hero skill or supernatural gift, Katniss has been forced by circumstance into obtaining precisely some of the skills she’d need to succeed at the games.
Lawrence does a great job with this role. There were a couple of strange moments that perhaps make best sense vis-à-vis the book, but she made me cry. Fantastic. Did you think she managed to be her own person?JMM: I thought she went beyond gender. I think that if you think of the sister Prim, who was weak and timid from the beginning — then Katniss seemed even stronger. But what I meant was that it was her youth and the strength of her will and determination that was so impressive. My point is that if Katniss had been a boy with those same qualities, the film would have worked just as well. Yet, I was most glad that Katniss wasn’t a boy.
In fact, I didn’t much care for Peeta at the beginning, and I had no sense of what he would reveal later on.
Didion: Oh, that’s interesting — “beyond gender.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think there’s a part of me who sees a female form with a bow and arrow and it’s such a direct reference to Diana that I can’t help but think about all those classical myths. But you’re so right that she embodies a kind of strength that goes beyond typical representations of women in film.
Obviously the book takes a lot longer in telling the story of the Games, and during that time Katniss wrestles with the job of killing other kids. You see a lot less of that here. Ultimately she kills, what, one kid? the one who kills Rue? I wonder if perhaps her reluctance to kill also makes her seem more humane/feminine in the books.
Argh, I hate to keep making reference to the books, but Peeta was quite hate-able at first and then becomes a total mensch. Didn’t quite play out fully satisfactorily here, but oh well.
JMM: Of course he turned himself into something to be admired. But backing up a bit — the reference to Diana from mythology is correct but it might not fit all the viewers of the film. I watched the film and didn’t go there myself.
I think that since I hadn’t read the book, and came to the film without that background — I didn’t have the sense of her unwillingness to kill. In fact I thought that she bought into Haymitch’s strategy right away. He told her to run the other way — don’t go near the Cornucopia — so she was in a defensive mode from the jump. Sure enough, half of the Game’s participants were seemingly slaughtered immediately. When she did kill it was also an act of self defense — someone rushed her position. Didion: So I’m curious, JMM, since you hadn’t read the books, did you see important themes coming through in the film? Or does it just seem like a really great action film?
I ask because the book lends itself easily to metaphorical readings. I have now referred many times to the tenure process for young academics as The Hunger Games. And grad school. But when I watched the film I was so nervous about it doing something “wrong,” that I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to tell whether the film throws itself open to multiple readings like that.
JMM: Of course it is an action film, but it’s clearly more. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of how consumption and inequalities could lead to rebellion, and I don’t believe that it was submerged or clouded over in the film. The President made it clear that the games were both a reality show as well as a way of keeping social control. By televising the Games, and by making the 24 tributes look and act their best (to attract sponsor support as well as fan interest) made everyone a participant. By having a rooting interest or a favorite — that meant tacit support of the system which really means that the Games were just another way to control the people. Didion: That’s a relief — because I think the broader meanings of the story are one of the reasons so many people refer to this as a phenomenon, something broader than just a film.
When I first read it, the deep fears and distrust of the government at Panem almost made me wonder whether this book was going to be a Tea Party or Libertarian favorite. But as the Games progress there’s a fascinating progressive tale — all those viewers in other districts get so attached to a couple of the tributes, like Katniss, that they start riots when the Games seem to tilt against them. Fascinating during an election year, eh?
So I’ve got another question for you: apparently the filmmaker did a lot of work to ensure a PG-13 rating (by not putting much gory detail into the killing scenes, for example) — even the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are quite fuzzy and oblique — such that kids might attend in greater numbers. But the fact is, this is a pretty dark tale even if you don’t see guts spraying all over the screen. Is this one of those cases in which parents should be wary of taking their kids to see it, even if their kids loved the books? (I’m remembering our conversation about the rape scene in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.)
JMM: No I don’t see parental concern arising at all. I’m an adult, and I just bought the book 4 days ago. Which means that 25 million books were sold before I bought mine. I think that in most family situations, the parents became aware of the books after their children did.
As for the lack of gore — I rather liked that. I don’t think the film needed a drop of blood except after the fact. We didn’t see the spear hit Rue, but instead saw what had happened only after the fact — and that worked fine for me.
But getting to the last part of the your reply — for sure it is a dark tale. What surprised me most was that a few of the characters like Rue and a few smaller boys seemingly had no chance at all. They were slaughtered seconds into Games. How was it that there were no volunteers to protect them?
Didion: That’s one of the most brutal and depressing parts of the book — who in his/her right mind would volunteer for something that means you’ve got a 1 in 24 chance of surviving? Some of the previous Games were particularly sadistic; one was set in a desert where no one could find any water and virtually everyone died of thirst within 24 hours. So if you’re poor and skinny and all your peer-age kids are skinny too, who’s going to volunteer?
But then there are the richer districts (as the film teaches us) who train their children from the earliest ages to be ridiculously powerful and skilled so they might win — and thereby bring back food and a certain degree of riches to their districts. No volunteers needed from districts where everyone looks like Cato.
Katniss’s love for her sister is the one true passion she feels for another human. It’s that love that makes her sacrifice herself.
JMM: Yet we heard in both Effie’s speech in District 12 as well as the President’s speech at the Games, talk of their “sacrifice.” So Katniss was the only one who would change places and enter the Games as a volunteer tribute. None of the other random selectees had that happen. I’m not objecting to Katniss being the heroic girl who protects her weaker and younger sister — I just thought other districts might have had similar events. From the author’s perspective, Is it possible that Katniss volunteered as a way or reason than to make her more ideal and heroic. On the other hand, maybe the sacrifice of the young and the weak would not be as significant as when a vibrant 17 year-old was the one to go…
Didion: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it’s just a function of Katniss living in District 12, and they choose the tributes from that District last.
So I’ve got another question for you. I sat next to a couple of very, very over-caffeinated girls (or were they just high on too much sugar?) who had an enormous debate before the film about whether Peeta or Gael was best. In fact, my 12-year-old TX neighbor had a t-shirt that read TEAM GAEL. After the film, these girls walked out surrounding themselves with a cloud of “OH MY GAAAWWWDD”s and “HE WAS SOOOO GORGEOUS”s. (Indeed, the dude who played Gael seems to have been created in a test tube by scientists from Tiger Beat magazine.)
But I liked the fact that the film scaled back on the lovey-dovey stuff — as the book did, I thought. Did you feel that the story was going to devolve into a story of “torn between two lovers”? Or was the love interest stuff less significant? You mentioned that you liked the way the Peeta character developed; does he seem like romantic hero material for the long haul (aka, 4 projected films altogether)?
JMM: I don’t even want to think about Peeta in 4 more films (at least right now). Not having read the book, I was shocked when right at the outset (after the mass killings at the Cornucopia) that Peeta had aligned himself with the biggest and strongest kids. Not that he joined them, but that they took him in.
As far as the crowd of 12 year olds who were gaga over the male leads — I had the opposite experience. I sat next to some older guy who got up and headed for parts unknown (but easily guessed at) three times during the show.
Now I have a question for you: For about the first twenty minutes or so, I watched and I wasn’t moved by anything — but when when the clock announced thirty seconds to go, and Katniss stepped onto the pedestal — at that precise moment I felt my pulse quicken, and my heart raced. It was so electric a moment for me physically that I could not fail to notice it. Did you have a precise moment which gave you a strong kickstart?
Didion: I probably started getting jittery when they started training while in the capital. I quite liked the way the film handled the way each of the kids tries to adjudge the others, show them up, etc. I quite liked the way they showed Katniss and Peeta arriving in the stadium with their costumes on fire (even though, honestly, that fire looked like pretty cheap CGI).
But yeah, the beginning of the Games ratchets everything up when everyone’s life is on the line. That initial slaughter at the Cornucopia is pretty gritty. So are the fireballs that send Katniss back into the area where the other tributes are.
The film is also full of prominent character actors — from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the designer; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and so on — what did you think of them?
JMM: When we first meet Woody’s Haymitch, he seems dissolute, like a man who cannot escape a terrible past — much like the Tom Cruise character Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai. Yet, seemingly, that was abandoned rather quickly. He took his role of advisor quite seriously. So why was he presented initially like a guy who didn’t care much about anything except where was his next drink coming from?
Didion: In the 75-year history of the Games, Katniss’s district has only had one winner — Haymitch. And now he’s a drunken, mean-spirited lout. You’re right that he’s a difficult character to fathom, and even more so in the books. You sort of intuit that the Games did this to him; he’s like a soldier with PTSD.
How about any of the other characters — Donald Sutherland as the very scary President, or that guy with the flame-like facial hair who did the behind-the-scenes work on creating the Arena?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask. Strangely enough Sutherland’s scariness wasn’t on his surface — it was his attitudes below his grandfatherly looking exterior. I didn’t care for Seneca but his role was pivotal no matter what kind of fancy beard he sported. In fact I was distressed when I realized that he and his staff were doing more than just monitoring and tracking — I was so surprised when he and the staff woman decided to send in the dogs. I thought that made the whole aspect of the games a bit false. I literally wanted Katniss to win a fair game. But the game was anything but fair. Seneca and company were actively participating in the creation of circumstances to alter the outcome. And that’s not even mentioning the rules changes.
I did rather like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman character. He was so manipulative. That blue hair — those teeth — quite scary to me.
Didion: You have usefully fallen straight into what I was leading up to: the wonder that is Stanley Tucci. I suspect that his role is unusually generous vis-a-vis the roles of Haymitch, Cinna et als — but every time he appeared on-screen I just grinned and thought, ahh, I could look at that man hamming it up all day! There are a couple of scenes in which he’s framed by multiple screens, each of which is projecting his face with a slightly different self-serving and/or grinning expressions, and it was all good. He also has an eerily insidious quality, as if he’s got his own agenda beyond his state-appointed role. Fabulous!
JMM: Maybe he was just thrilled by being paid to talk about the Games. Not bad work if you can get it.
Interesting comment — you can answer by referencing the book — was the character the ham, or the actor doing the hamming?
Didion: No, this seemed accurate to the way the book characterized him — it just seems we got a lot more Stanley than Haymitch, who was a much more crucial character in the book.
Okay, I have a confession (and this allows me to take one big step backward to look at the big picture here): it’s making me slightly depressed that you’ve got so many questions about the storyline, because I fear this returns me to one of my initial questions about whether this film is for True Believers (readers) like me and not newbies. The film version glosses over so much detail/context — and thank god, right? it would’ve been two times longer otherwise — that one feels a little lost in the shuffle.
You’re the perfect viewer in this respect: tell me, how would you ultimately rate the film on its own terms? Because as a reader (and using your own 5-star ranking system), I would give it a solid 4 stars; if I were grading it as an undergraduate paper, I’d give it a solid 86%. Of course, I can be a tough grader.
JMM: Great question. We approached this film from 180 degrees of difference. You read all three books, and I read none. So you have built-in reference points that I don’t. My questions about the film are not just about storylines or plot points. I gather that you’re saying you liked the film but won’t give it top marks.
I’d likely rate it similarly. But I think I have more gripes about the technical side than the gaps in the story. For example I hated the jittery, handheld effects whenever director Gary Ross showed the crowds.
Do you have any gripes about how they showed us the story?
Didion: I tried to avoid listening to any reviews of the film before seeing it, but the one I did catch called Ross a “hack” for the hand-held camerawork. So perhaps I went in fretting that it would look sloppy — and you know how going in with low expectations can lead you to like a film more than you’d expected.
Maybe I’m being unimaginative here, but the fact that Ross was trying very hard to maintain his PG-13 rating was always on my mind. The hand-held camera and the blurred, kinetic fight scenes were disorienting, but they conveyed the hellishness of those fights and those killings without showing explicit blood & guts. I don’t want to defend this as an artistic triumph by any means, but I wonder if maybe the real enemy is the US’s ratings system that forced Ross into making such choices in order to make sure that the book’s most loyal teen readers could see the film without their parents along. Or is there a better way of doing it?
JMM: I agree that he had to help sell the tickets – and that meant making sure the 13 and ups could go by themselves. And I’m okay with it because I understand it. Yeah, I would have like it better if there had been more explicit violence…but I don’t think that was the reason for giving this a 4 instead of a 5, or giving it a B+ rather than an A.
The story is really about Katniss’s heroic and brave character. We knew she would emerge victorious. But how she got there was not the key feature of the film. In fact when she first took to the high ground (up in a tree) I knew she’d wait for the action to come to her. And I was fine with it: more chances to have quality time with her. Even when she did nothing, her mind was still so alert. She was so admirable, and positive. That’s why the books sold so well, and why the film will also sell.
Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would have not missed this film for anything. I would have crawled to the theater if necessary. So basically, the flaws can be laid at the feet of the director and editor. That’s where I’m placing my blame for an 86 or a B+, or a 4.0 rating.
Didion: This is a perfect opportunity for me to ask my two final questions — but not before teasing you for your great line: “Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would not have missed this film for anything.” I like the way you sound like a horror film aficionado here, when in fact I know for certain that you have a wide appetite for many kinds of film, including the sweet and bloodless!
First question: setting aside the possibility that David Fincher would pick up this franchise and make a couple of brilliant films a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is Ross’s problem inherent to the struggle of bringing a rich and dynamic book to the screen? Or do you think his directing choices and the editor’s cuts made the film look amateurish?
And last, you say you would have crawled to the theater (cheers to that, as I saw it on opening day): this film made a record $155 million on opening weekend. That set a new all-time record for a non-sequel, and marked it as the 3rd most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Meanwhile, it also made the most money on opening day ever for a non-sequel and the most money for a midnight premiere of a non-sequel (it ranks 5th and 7th overall, respectively, in those categories amongst films that are sequels). This film made money.
First, as you said, I like many kinds of films but there is one exception – and that would be horror films. I don’t think Ross’s work in this film was amateurish, but yes certainly, some directorial choices were weak.
As to whether it’ll make money down the line, or in the long haul. Yup. I think I see a Potterish future for The Hunger Games and its sequels.
My last question: the way the story played out, and the the way that the film was designed that by film’s end, there only two likeable characters. Katniss and Peeta. Obviously this is the work of the author, Suzanne Collins. But do you think this was fair? Did you feel manipulated?
Didion: Quick Q: do you mean that other likeable characters like Rue are all dead?
JMM: I didn’t mean it that way. To rephrase: excepting Cinna and Rue, who else was likable and was that fair to the readers/viewers?
Didion: I kind of loved Rue, and I would have liked even a teensy bit more of some of the other Hunger Games tributes whom Katniss fears but respects (like Cato).
But you know what? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question — because it points out to me how much this is really the tale of a girl whose early life has already been hard, and who gets put into the most terrifying situation possible. We can’t help but root for someone who’s so determined to survive — but the book being told in Katniss’s voice also makes it a somewhat self-centered tale. And when I say self-centered I don’t mean to sound dismissive in the least — any tale told in the first person would be focused on one’s own emotional responses to horrible situations.
So ultimately the film rests on who they got to play Katniss. And here we come back to the fact that Lawrence nails the role. Peeta comes through as a very strong secondary character by the end; perhaps even more so because he has an almost feminine set of weaknesses when it comes to survival (I mean, he makes his cake-decorating skills work for him!) but he has a stronger sense of self, particularly in the books.
So in the end, this is a film that really is all about Katniss — and to a lesser degree about developing a Peeta who’ll get stronger as the films unfold.
Does that answer your question, or just raise new ones?
JMM: I’m satisfied with the answer. This is just the first film. As for the perspective of Katniss telling the story so it would carry the first person construct – I believe I read that Collins intended this to be a 3rd person narrative in the outlining and planning, but when her fingers met the keyboard it came out differently. I forgot one thing I meant to say – I said I would have crawled to the theater – want to know why? Because I wanted to be able to have this discussion – and that required me to see the film!
Didion: Aw, man — you mean you weren’t as excited as I was in anticipation?
JMM: Sure I wanted to see it – but I’ll bet, if it could be quantified in any way – that I couldn’t have matched you anticipatory-wise. I’ll let you have the honor of the final words.
Didion: Here’s my final thought: I’m so intrigued by your idea that the director is the reason for my giving the film a B+ that I hope this franchise takes a cue from the Potter empire: those films got infinitely better when they hired Alfonso Cuarón to do the third film. So I hope the producers hire someone more visionary to do the next one.
But speaking as a major fan of the books, I was IMPRESSED with the film, and particularly with Lawrence’s Katniss. My only hope is that Jennifer Lawrence continues to get Winter’s Bone-style art-house roles as well. I can hardly wait to see the next installment of The Hunger Games.
JMM, I can’t tell you what fun it is to chat about these movies with you! Let’s keep our eyes on the summer schedule as it becomes clear, and plan another one of these conversations. And I look forward to hearing what other viewers think of The Hunger Games.
JMM: Thank you so much. I do love this chatting about films with you.
Didion: One more thought: don’t you think it would be fun to review a film that we both hate? I’d love to do a pile-on.
JMM: Now that would be a novel idea. A pile-on. We’ll see. Cheers.
23 March 2012
My branch of academia is surprisingly often termed a “social science” — which funny if you know what most of us actually do — but I admit: I love numbers. (If you knew how bad I am at splitting a restaurant cheque between 4 people, you’d also find that pretty funny.)
Numbers are satisfying for feminists because they show conclusively how rampant are the inequities in today’s film industry. And here’s what I’m wondering: will the box office ultimately alter the skewed gender balance in film?
Have I mentioned recently how much I pour over statistics of women’s roles in Hollywood? Because it’s one thing to complain anecdotally that female characters are more heavily stereotyped and sexualized in film than male characters, and another to look at the numbers. And on the eve of the premiere of The Hunger Games, a film that pre-sold more opening-day tickets than any other film in history, it’s worth wondering why those numbers remain so skewed.
Let’s tick through a few numbers, shall we?
Women get fewer roles than men. Women get only 32.8% of speaking roles onscreen, meaning that there are more than 2 men for every 1 woman with lines appearing onscreen. In children’s film and TV the numbers are worse — about 2½ male characters for every 1 female character.
Fewer than 17% of films have a balanced gender ratio of male to female characters, as defined by featuring women in 45 to 54.9 percent of speaking roles. Only a tiny number of films have a majority of female speaking characters (2007=5 movies; 2008=6 movies; 2009=5 movies).
Female actors receive significantly lower pay than male actors. Just to give one example: as Melissa Silverstein points out, Jennifer Lawrence is making $500,000 for the first Hunger Games, despite having been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Winter’s Bone, while Chris Pine of the recent Star Trek reboot made $3 million for his second big feature, Unstoppable. (See here for a nice assessment of the Forbes account of top-earning actors; for middle- and low-range earners the gender gap is just as stark.)
Behind the screen the numbers are, if anything, worse. In 2011, only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films were directed by women. That number has dropped since 1998, when the percentage was 9%. When it comes to nominations for Best Director, an even tinier number gets noticed by the Academy. In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, 4 women directors have been nominated for Best Director. Considering that there have been some 413 nominations in this category overall, that means that women directors have received 0.9% of all nominations. The number of female directors of films screened at film festivals is significantly higher but still a fraction of overall films — 22% of all films screened at major film festivals between June 2008 and May 2009. But let’s keep in mind that sometimes festival films fail to get picked up by distributors, no matter how appealing they are to festival attendees.
Women make up 28 percent of TV writers and 17 percent of film writers, as a Salon story indicates. Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: white men $98,875, versus women $57,151 — for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.
These number differences are just as stark at other levels of the industry — in children’s film and TV content, in animation — and behind the scenes it worse; it is estimated there are 4.8 men for every 1 woman in that area of the industry (see the Geena Davis Institute’s findings in various fields).
Yeah, I wondered about gender disparity when I saw the ads for Chris Pine’s new movie, This Means War, too. Now I know why.
So why — how — can I possibly ask a question like the one I’ve posed about the box office changing things? Because The Hunger Games isn’t the first box office hit to feature a female star.
Johanna Schneller of Toronto’s Globe and Mail (thanks again, Tam!) has a great piece that analyzes the Oscar-nominated films and shows wide discrepancies between what the women-oriented films earned and those prominently starring men:
The top three films starring actress nominees were The Help, Bridesmaids and Dragon Tattoo, which made $170-million, $169-million and $101-million respectively (all figures U.S.). The top three films starring actor nominees were Moneyball, The Descendants and Extremely Loud, which made $75.6-million, $71-million and $29.5-million respectively. You don’t even have to be able to add to see that discrepancy.
And remember how I don’t like to add?
Schneller concludes: “So what does this mean? Well, it seems to suggest that pictures headlined by women are finding a way to be both commercially successful and lauded by their peers. Perhaps women’s pictures have to try harder – to be richer, more thoughtful, more satisfying – to get made in the first place, but, in general, those are the kinds of films Oscar favours.”
And, we might add, audiences like them too.
So now The Hunger Games is due to open. As a big fan of the books, I’m bracing myself for disappointment — how could they possibly do justice to this novel, with its rich interior monologue? But here’s the thing: whether or not the film succeeds with the critics, it’s obvious it’s going to sell a hell of a lot of tickets.
Here’s my question: at what point will the box office force Hollywood executives recognize that films with female leads sell tickets AND often get Oscar love? When will they get over their obeisance to male audiences between the ages of 13 and 45, as if those viewers only want one sausage fest after another?
Maybe you’re ambivalent about this film, too — but believe me, buying a ticket to see it on opening weekend makes a difference to how Hollywood views female-oriented films. If you’re going to see it, see it this weekend — and make a point.
11 February 2012
It’s about time, eh? Alert readers know that after posting Part 1 of these awards — awards dedicated to those women bosses of 2011 films — I got mired in a snit about the fact that I couldn’t get access to a couple of major films that were contenders for awards. Problem solved: if I couldn’t see your film, it’s been pushed into 2012 contention.
Too bad for those filmmakers, because look at the gorgeousness of these statuettes!
Just to bring you up to date, the first round of La Jefita statuettes went to a number of terrific films everyone can see:
- Film of the year (and female-oriented!): Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry
- Best actress: Joyce McKinney in Tabloid
- Most feminist period drama that avoids anachronism: Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre
- Sexiest scene in which a woman eats food: Sara Forestier in The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)
- Most realistic portrayal of teen girls: Amanda Bauer and Claire Sloma in The Myth of the American Sleepover
- Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress: Nina Arianda in Midnight in Paris
- Most depressingly anti-feminist theme in female-oriented film: Fairy Tales
Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.
Check it out, that is, when you’re DONE reading the following. Because these awards are specially designed for the discerning, frustrated viewer who just wants to see more lady action onscreen — lady action, that is, in all its beautiful and interesting and nubbly diversity.
And now on to the last round of 2011 winners!
Most Feminist Film:
Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground. I was so impressed and touched by this film about a woman’s life as a Christian that I’m still vexed I didn’t take the time to write about it extensively. Farmiga isn’t a showy director, letting instead the story take center stage. She stars as Corinne, a young woman whose faith grows stronger as she and her husband build their family and become part of a hippie-ish community of strong Christians during the 1970s and 80s, including the earthy Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk, below) with whom Corinne has a rich and happy friendship. For many of these years, her faith gives her a deep sense of self and identity.
What makes this the most feminist film of the year is not just its portrayal of how Corinne’s faith infuses everything about her life and enriches her friendships, but how hard it is when she begins to lose that faith and her previous closeness to God. Instead, she begins to notice all the inequities in her life — the minister’s wife who wants to correct her behavior or dress; her husband’s insistence on wifely submission; her lack of other things that might fill the gap left by God and give her life meaning; the emptiness of her community’s anodyne promises of glory in exchange for obedience. At last: a film about Christianity that can be feminist, too.
Honorable mentions: of course David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, despite some misgivings about teensy plot points (see here for my extended conversation about the film with blogger JustMeMike) and Maryam Kashavarz’s Circumstance.
Best Female-Directed Film: A tie!
Our winners are Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Claire Denis’ White Material, two films that have haunted my dreams ever since seeing them.
The Arbor by Clio Barnard, is the extraordinary story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar grew up in a miserable housing estate/project in West Yorkshire, and somehow developed an uncanny gift for taking her family’s and neighbors’ conversations and transforming them into a comment on family dysfunction, racism, and poverty. At the age of 15 she won a playwriting contest for her play The Arbor (written by hand, in green ink, as the director remembers), a play so impressive it was performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre and later in New York. After writing two more plays and producing a film, and bearing three children by three different men, she died at age 29 after a young adulthood she dedicated to alcohol in the same way her father had before her.
This film uses Dunbar’s own method: Barnard has actors re-enact parts of The Arbor and, even more effectively and intimately, lip-sync recorded interviews with Dunbar’s family, especially her damaged, mixed-race daughter Lorraine. In the end The Arbor is exactly the right film about Dunbar’s life, using her gifts and her legacy, both the good and the very, very bad. No manual on mothering, this; it’s grim but clear-eyed in its portraits of the long shadow of addiction and bad choices to the poor. It’s remarkable — no matter how little you feel like watching a grueling tale like I’ve described, you’ll be amazed and impressed with Barnard’s terrific film. It’s not often you see theater transferred to film so gorgeously.
I wasn’t sure at first what to make of Claire Denis’ White Material (another film JustMeMike and I discussed at length) but after that long conversation and in the intervening months the memory of it has gotten into my central nervous system in the same way The Arbor did — to the point that I put all the rest of Denis’ films on my to-see list. I won’t go into detail again about the film, since you can read our two-part analysis; but just keep in mind how much it grows on you over time.
Honorable Mention: In a Better World by Suzanne Bier. I also want to give a shout-out to two first-time directors, by Dee Rees (for Pariah) and Maryam Keshavarz (for Circumstance), both of whom we’ll be seeing more from — I hope — in the years to come.
Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep: A tie!
Catherine Deneuve in Potiche and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.
Potiche means “trophy wife” and that’s what Deneuve is in this campy comedy set in a provincial factory town during the 1970s. Her husband is a boor of a factory owner whose philandering and health problems combine to get him into the hospital for a stretch, at which point Deneuve takes over the umbrella factory, charms an old one-night stand (Gérard Depardieu), and fixes everything. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but Deneuve is a delight.
It’s harder to watch Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs, a cross-dressing woman in the late 19th century who has risen to the position of head butler in an Irish hotel. Nobbs’ prevailing motivation is to be emotionally closed off enough to keep his secret and amass enough money to establish a little shop of his own. But when he meets another trans man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, whom I’d marry this minute), Nobbs begins to imagine that he needn’t be so lonely.
Albert Nobbs received mixed reviews — unfairly, I think, for I found this film moving and believable and quite radical, despite Nobbs’ limited emotional range. Close is terrific and McTeer should win oodles of prizes for her portrayal of Page. (Tell you what, Janet: you win a La Jefita! Just get in touch, come join me in western Massachusetts, and I’ll present your statuette in person — and in the meantime I’ll figure out what category it is!)
Let me repeat that after reading about Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus (thanks again, Tam) I’m quite certain that this particular prize was Redgrave’s to lose. Too bad the film never made it within 120 miles of me. Vanessa, you’ll have to wait till next year.
Honorable mentions: Isabelle Huppert in White Material and Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry. (Let’s also pause to remember last year’s winner: Another Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja from the amazing film Mother [Madeo]. What a terrific acting job that was.)
Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:
If you’re looking for the sheer gorgeousness of male ass-kicking, go for Gina Carano in Haywire. It was a tricky choice. But the scene I remember as being so memorable was in Hanna, when our weirdly angelic fairy tale princess (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself on a date with a boy, thanks to her new teenage friend Sophie (Jessica Barden, who’s fantastic). Listening to some flamenco guitar music and sitting in front of a flickering fire, Hanna sits next to this boy while Sophie makes out with one of her own until eventually the boy decides the time is right to make a move. We’ve seen this a million times in film — and considering that Hanna has enjoyed all manner of other awakenings with Sophie, we fully expect some kind of never-been-kissed magical scenario here.
Except Hanna has no never-been-kissed set of tropes to work from, like the rest of us did in that situation. So she takes him down. It was one of those movie moments when I was completely surprised and totally delighted by the unexpected shift in a story — thus, even though Hanna was far more impressive in other fights during the film, and even though Gina Carano is an MME goddess, this scene won my heart. Congratulations, Ronan!
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Unknown Actress:
Adepero Oduye in Pariah. You’d never guess that Oduye is actually 33 years old, because in every way she inhabits the awkward, embarrassed, itchy skin of a 17-year-old in this beautiful film. My only complaint about this film was its title, as it’s a weirdly hysterical and misleading concept for this subtle film. Alike, or Lee as she prefers (Oduye) isn’t a pariah at all — she actually has a surprising degree of interior strength as well as outside support. She’s an A student with an unholy gift for poetry and has a growing group of gay friends who, like she, identify as masculine. So even though she has to hide her butch clothes from her mother (Kim Wayans), she has already gone far toward exploring and appearing as mannish and openly lesbian.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Her mother is quietly furious about it (and about other stuff, too), and still insists on buying Lee those awful pink/purple sweaters that mothers buy even when they should know better. (Ah, flashbacks to my teenage years, when my mom bought my tomboy sister shirts with Peter Pan collars to the point that it became a family joke.) But by the time Lee knows she needs to leave this world — and that she needs to choose, not run — we just feel overwhelmed by the self-possession, the determination, of this new human. I can hardly wait to see more of Oduye.
Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Other Stuff:
Kim Wayans in Pariah. I watched every single episode of In Living Color (1990-94) back in the days when the Wayans family ruled comedy, but I had no idea Kim could push herself to such an explosive, angry performance. In Pariah she’s Audrey, the mother of a 17-year-old struggling to come out (and to be herself); but Audrey is also a miserable wife, made even more unhappy by her class pretensions and a scary penchant for isolating herself from others. She’s almost as upset by the class status of her daughter’s “undesirable,” dish-washing friend Laura as she worries that Laura’s obvious dyke identity is leading Alike (Adepero Oduye) to a lesbian life. But there’s a scene at the hospital, where Audrey works, during which her fellow nurses give her dirty looks and avoid speaking to her — and we know that she has dug herself a very deep well of unhappiness she’ll never get out of.
Wayans is more impressive than both Jessica Chastain in The Help and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, and should have received a Supporting Actress nomination. Oh, I forgot: The Help was Hollywood’s token Black movie this year; how presumptuous of me to think they might have a second! Much less a black and gay film!
Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say and Which Passes the Bechdel Test:
Martha Marcy May Marlene. I feel a teensy bit wicked in pronouncing this my winner, because the film insists on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, left below) being a cypher, especially to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, right). Martha has escaped from a cult in upstate New York, and her experience there was so life-altering, so all-encompassing, that she cannot say very much at all that doesn’t sound as if it comes straight from the charismatic mouth of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Lucy is mystified by her strange behavior and her strange utterances. “I wish you’d feel more comfortable talking to me,” Lucy says. “I do!” Martha responds. Except, when you get down to it, for Lucy “there’s nothing to talk about.” Their exchanges are almost as creepy as those with Patrick.
I have a lot of complaints about this year’s Oscar ballot (who doesn’t?) but I truly think it’s a crime that Martha was overlooked for two major categories — film editing and original screenplay — that highlight how tightly the dialogue strings together Martha’s past and present. When she angrily tells Lucy “I am a teacher, and a leader!” and the film cuts back to a past day when Patrick pronounced that very identity for her, and we see how much she absorbed into her soul every word from his mouth, just as she accepted being renamed Marcy May. It’s an amazing piece of writing and editing.
Most Surprisingly Radical Trend in Independent Filmmaking: Trans/Queer Cinema featuring female stars.
This has been an amazing year for films featuring female-oriented stories about trans or queer individuals. There was a point about 30 minutes into Albert Nobbs when I realized the director had created possibly the queerest movie I’d ever seen. It’s not just that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were women disguised as men; every single relationship appeared queer in some way, from the feminine beauty of Joe (Aaron Johnson) to the 60-something hotel owner’s lascivious flirtations with men to the perverse Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a feminine man if I ever saw one) and his queer troupe of hangers-on. Given that culture, McTeer’s portrayal of Hubert Page (below) seems pretty straightforwardly masculine. (Oh, also: Janet gives us a gander at her magnificent 50-yr-old breasts with the same straightforwardness. I’m prepared to become a stalker now.)
The best thing about the film is its relative subtlety. When Albert fantasizes about finding a love of his own, he doesn’t want to cease dressing as a man or take a man as a lover. He identifies so absolutely as a man that he indulges in dreams of the little hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) sitting by his fire and darning his socks — oddly retrograde fantasies, considering that Helen’s not going to be anyone’s little wifey, but queer ones nevertheless. But the film takes its audience so seriously that it doesn’t feel the need to explain. Neither does Pariah need to explain why Lee is both gay and masculine-appearing, or why she wants to wear a strap-on dildo to the lesbian bar. These films let us do that work on our own.
And then there’s Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s film about a girl passing as a boy during her summer vacation in a place far from home, where she can claim to be Mikael, not Laure. What all these films amount to is a sneaking new attention to — and filmic acceptance of — the experiences of queer and trans individuals, which feels especially radical to me because otherwise our culture is willing to acknowledge the LG but not the BTQ.
So there you have it, friends — my La Jefitas for 2011! Be sure to send along thoughts, criticisms, and of course your ideas about where the La Jefitas should go for 2012. I don’t know about you, but I’m watching the theaters carefully.
8 February 2012
Perhaps you’re thinking, “where the hell is Part II of the La Jefita awards? What kind of an anonymous blogger gets me all excited about seeing a list of top films by and about women, then doesn’t tell me which one wins for Most Feminist Film?” Well, you’re not the only one who wants to rant.
I wanted to consider several 2011 films for these awards, most notably Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (Tilda Swinton, I love you) and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (so I can see Vanessa Redgrave kick the shit out of the mother stereotype), but the fact is, I can’t see them. I waited and waited, and checked showtimes everywhere within approximately 120 miles. Even if I drove all the way to Boston I couldn’t see them, because they’re not playing there, either. I don’t know what kind of moron is running those distribution companies, but if you can’t get your award-worthy film into a major American city like Boston by mid-February, you’re fucking useless.
Ahh, that feels better.
Now that I’ve ranted, and now that I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ll have to put these films into my 2012 category (argh!), I’m prepared to re-jigger my finalists and finish this post — once I get the chance to see whether Gina Carano’s ass-kicking in Haywire is superior to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s or Hanna‘s. So, friends, you can be sure to catch this post by the weekend.