I can’t begin to talk about the last horrible week, with the bombings, loss of life, manhunt, and all the bad behavior along the way. The fact that this took place during a hard week of the semester — and that I teach young 19-yr-olds like Dzhokhar all the time — makes it harder.
Instead, I turn to fable and film magic. I need escape; perhaps you do, too.
Everyone is going to compare this enchanting film to The Artist (2011) — because it, too, is a neo-silent that gets part of its magic by borrowing from films of the 1920s and shot in the same 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio as films of yesteryear. Fair enough. Our heroine even has a plucky pet — not a dog but an intrepid rooster named Pepe, who blows Uggie out of the water. (And I loved Uggie.)
Rather, this film should be compared to Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), because both films sought to reinvent the Snow White story as told by Los Hermanos Grimm. Thankfully, this one gets it right.
The director Pablo Berger seems to have been paying attention to the problems posed by current-day updates of fairy tales — and has found a way around them. Blancanieves isn’t the Snow White; rather, she’s a Snow White — she really only gets that moniker after she suffers amnesia (amnesia! I love amnesia stories!) and gets adopted by a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs.
Did you fully absorb all the information in that sentence? Amnesia! Bullfighting dwarfs!
I could tell you more about the story, but there’s no point, is there? We know there are going to be some key plot points: an evil stepmother, an apple, some sleeping. Berger hits those points while also unfolding Carmencita’s story in ways that take a sidelong look at the Sleeping Beauty fable, and which make it surprising and sort of delightful.
This Snow White doesn’t live in a woodsy neverland, but rather in a very particular time and place: Andalusia during the 1910s and ’20s, where bullfighting and flamenco help to define the regional culture. (In fact, you find yourself marveling that the dance and the “sport” have a very lot in common.) Watching the hundreds of spectators gather in an early scene at a stadium to watch the great bullfighter — the as-yet unborn Carmencita’s magnificent father — is to gain access to one of those things you hunger for as a filmgoer: a ghostly shot from up high, showing the spectators as tiny figures moving toward the stadium, a shot that seems both awe-inspiring and historical at once.
When little Carmencita is born to tragedy and her new stepmother, Encarna, installs herself in the household, all seems lost. And Encarna is, indeed, very evil. Played with gusto by Maribel Verdú (well-known in the U.S. for Y tu mamá también ), she narrows her eyes, laughs demonically, and struts before mirrors and cameras like the best of the worst female vamps of old. She’s wonderful to look at: her mouth can twist with just the right kind of cinematic cruelty. She may be the least subtle thing about this film, but she makes a perfect and vivid villainess.
And as Carmencita grows up into a young woman (Macarena García) in a lovely series of shots, we know she won’t last long on Encarna’s estate. How she takes up with the dwarfs — and ultimately becomes the nation’s newest sensation in bullfighting — is a longer and more twisted tale, but continues to vacillate between the classic elements of the Snow White fable and the more specific Andalusian story that Berger has created.
I saw Blancanieves three weeks ago and have been turning it around in my mind like one sucks on an Everlasting Gobstopper. Last night we happened to catch a preview for it at our theater, and I was struck all over again by its visuals, its creativity, its memorable score, and that glowing black and white — so much so, in fact, that I whispered, “Let’s see it again!”
Having just survived a very bad week, friends, let’s do something for our souls. Let’s turn away from the worst parts of the internet, from the bad news and the fearmongering. Let’s watch, instead, a film that feeds our souls. I’m not saying that Blancanieves is a perfect film; in fact, contact me or comment here when you see it and tell me what you think of its ending. But I would watch it again this minute if I didn’t have so much work to do.
On second thought, maybe I will go see it again — just to see Carmencita’s hopeful, upturned face, Pepe running through Encarna’s terrifying estate, and the dwarfs’ caravan lit with fairy lights. I could use some mercy now. Couldn’t we all?
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.
What’s the deal with Scottish accents in American children’s movies? Let’s list them:
- The villagers and lesser characters in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) all have Scottish accents, while the leads have posh British accents (excepting the Huntsman, our working-class hero).
- When they filmed Tintin (2011), voice artist Andy Serkis gave Captain Haddock a Scottish accent, prompting outrage from fans of the books. It should be noted that while some fans protested that Haddock was portrayed as Cornish in the books, others pointed out that actually he was Belgian, as was the books’ author Hergé, and had only been translated as Cornish by the English publisher.
- How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was full of Scottish accents – inexplicably, as one presumes the film was about Vikings (who were Norse).
- Shrek (2001) had a Scottish accent – reportedly because voice artist Mike Myers wanted to use the same accent as his mother, who’d read children’s books to him in that voice.
- The entire cast of Brave (2012) have Scottish accents. Of course, in this case the characters are actually Scots, wearing kilts and all.
Qu’est-ce que c’est? Why so many Scottish accents in American children’s films?
Maybe it’s because Americans find Scottish accents to be funny and/or eccentric? less snooty-sounding than posh English? gruff and good-hearted?
Have we come to associate weird oldey-times with Scottish accents as well as funny clothes?
Or has it just become a weird tic in Hollywood?
It’s hard to figure the genealogy of this trend, as I doubt many children today would make cultural references back to Scotty of Star Trek — or to late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, for that matter, or Trainspotting.
I found an article from the Journal of Sociolinguistics that posits that among English respondents in a large study, Scottish accents ranked almost as high for “social attractiveness” as Received Pronunciation (what I call “posh”), even though these accents didn’t rank nearly as high when it came to “prestige.”* So it’s not just Americans, apparently, who find the accent appealing.
Still, I’m baffled. Ideas? Comments?
And what does it mean that a generation of English-speaking children will grow up associating a Scottish accent with children’s films?
*Nickolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop, “Ideologized Values for British Accents,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 11, 1 (2007): 74-93.
Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:
Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.
Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.
Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.
But let’s not be small.
Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?
The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)
In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.
Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”
Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.
So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.
It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”
Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.
Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.
Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.
I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —
— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.
There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.
In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.
What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.
What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.