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.

Director Ridley Scott with star Noomi Rapace

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:

  1. The film is too short to do justice to the plot
  2. The film becomes an action film too abruptly
  3. 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.


Didion: It’s crazy! it can take the story nowhere if humans and their Engineer creators are at war with one another!

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?

So we have a conception, an abortion, a birth, and a rape all in one film. Scott is one complicated dude, isn’t he?

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?

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The coveted La Jefita statuette, based on genuine Bronze-age Cycladic art!

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.

After yesterday’s post laying out some of the plot and directorial decisions in Claire Denis’ White Material, today critic/blogger JustMeMike and I continue our conversation about the film from a broader perspective: does it work? Is this a good film? (Also, JMM has reminded me to say, in case it’s not obvious to you already, that this film is most decidedly an art-house or indie drama; we’re taking it for granted that it’s too subtle and challenging – not to mention disturbing — for many viewers.) Is this film so open-ended, so ambiguous, as to be a disappointing example of the filmic art?

I mentioned yesterday that I believe I like the film more than JMM did; I say this because early in our emails exchange he wrote: “I am conflicted by the film to say the least. … Is it me — or has Claire Denis botched this film so badly?” He specifically charges that the film is so disorienting that even the basic questions – who died in that fire? Who’s running for his life at the end? – are muddled. As for deciding whether Denis intent was to question post colonial capitalism, JMM said, “For me, living in the USA, this is too much of an abstraction — too much for me to ponder as I am not there,” he writes. “In fact, had I known that such a question was part of the subject of what I would see, likely I would not have wanted to see it.”

I, too, have my questions. As much as I admire Denis’ films more generally – I liked her recent 35 Shots of Rum (2008), among others – and while I think I see what she’s doing as an artist, I’m not convinced White Material takes viewers to a place where they gain greater understanding of the situation she portrays. In the end, I feel split between my intellectual self and the part of myself that opens up all her senses to films; I understand her films but I don’t necessarily love them the way I want to.
To get down to cases, let’s talk about the character of Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Marie’s lazy son. He seems to encompass everything wrong with white dominance over land, resources, and wealth in African countries like this one. JMM agrees: “Manuel must represent all that is bad about the whites in Africa.” He doesn’t work; when he suffers a psychic break of some kind (yet why does this occur? Denis leaves it fuzzy), he shaves off all his hair and goes on a rampage. JMM wonders if he rebels as part of a suicide mission: “so either the rebels will reject him (and kill him) or he will be done in by the government’s soldiers.”
After days of trying to understand what Denis is doing with Manuel, I think it’s this: his madness leads him to seek affiliation with some of the black child marauders. He even seems to want to team up with them. But this doesn’t mean he feels identification with all Black Africans. In fact, as he rampages through his grandfather’s house he attacks the Black housekeeper there and stuffs his hair into her mouth – one of the ugliest and most disturbing scenes in the film. After much reflection, I think he attacks her not because she’s a woman or perceived to be weak, but because she represents Black capitulation to white rule and white control. Even Americans have seen such behavior, perhaps most vividly in white youths’ over-identification with Black hip-hop or reggae stars. Denis pathologizes it in Manuel’s case, and shows how damaging it can be during a civil war.
What’s my complaint? That major plot elements like this are so puzzling, so clouded, that viewers as eager as me won’t be drawn in to know more, but will be held off by the multiple unknowabilities of the film. One might object to that arguing that viewers don’t need to understand all plot elements to respond emotionally and intellectually; yet as an ordinarily sensitive viewer, I think this film requires an exceptionally high willingness to live with confusion and disorientation. So while I appreciate her task in White Material, I think Denis leaves far too much unsaid, and that she has created confusion for viewers due to the confusion created by the flashbacks and the film’s strange characters.
The sole disagreement JMM and I seem to have concerns the question of how Denis wants her audiences to feel about the political changes taking place in nations like this. JMM wonders whether this is a story about loss – “the loss of status of all who are caught up in the revolution,” as he put it:

“Maybe Denis is mourning the country and the what she perceives as the loss of innocence of the natives. Yes they live a meager existence – dependent on the coffee growers for work, and maybe this is what Marie believes her purpose is. Whichever or whoever assumes the political control (she thinks) must also realize that coffee exports are a viable means of participation in the country’s economy – therefore she should be allowed to continue, and allowed to be safe.  But revolutionaries want to tear the country down then build it anew from a starting point of their own choice. They do not see the Vial plantation as essential – they see it as exploitive.”

He could well be right – and since he’s watched the film twice I feel I ought to defer to him. Yet I’m still inclined to believe that Denis is far too subtle a filmmaker to lament these changes. On reflection I’m starting to believe, rather, that this is a story that offers no clear heroes or victims, no answers, no romance about the past and no hope for the future. JMM agreed with that, and added:

“Yes, I think this is a difficult film for all viewers. For us it is even more difficult because we aren’t coming from a place of solid footing. If it is hard to understand the Director’s intent, harder to follow the story because of the film’s flawed time management structure, and we have also been placed in a situation in which we have no current experiences – living in Africa and living in the midst of an internal civil war – then we aren’t likely to see any hope for a better future for any of the surviving characters in the film.”


In some ways it brings us back to that shot of Marie standing on the road, not sure whether to go forward or back – it’s the one moment in the film when she isn’t driven by that blind determination to save the coffee crop. Frozen on the road, we realize she has nothing else, nowhere to go. It doesn’t make us identify with her – she’s far too problematic for viewers’ sympathy. In taking a snapshot from within the horrors of a civil war, White Material offers no recommendations or explanations. It acknowledges whites’ culpability in making an untenable political and economic system, but it also shows that black control won’t resolve those problems.

Whew! as I confessed earlier today to JMM, this film kicked my ass, critically speaking. But we’re talking about doing a repeat: a back-and-forth conversation about Miral (2011), Julian Schnabel’s new film. Stay tuned!

Where are we? It’s an unnamed African country; more than that we don’t know. What’s happening? There are guerrilla rebels, bands of feral children with guns, soldiers, fleeing white settlers; but we don’t know how to feel about any of these groups. Even the character we follow most closely, Marie Vial (Isabelle Huppert), is an unknowable and unsettling figure. Claire Denis’ White Material is a bleak film made for white people (I think) about the disorientations that accompany political upheaval in a country where whites have long behaved as if they deserved the wealth they enjoy.

Critic/blogger JustMeMike and I have been mulling over this film intermittently via email for a week or so and, while neither of us seems to have definitive conclusions (aside from the fact that I like the film more than he does), we have many thoughts about it. Like Marie in the image above, we found ourselves a bit bewildered while standing on the road — and the professor in me says that to find a solution to such confusion over a creative document one must write about it. Better yet, have a conversation on the page, which is what follows: today with thoughts about the film’s structure, tomorrow with thoughts about how well it succeeds. [Spoiler alert: we’re going to reveal certain key plot elements if you haven’t seen the film.]

The best way I can imagine beginning is with a comment of JMM’s: he confesses that he began the film expecting to see a smarter, modern version of Out of Africa (1985). Yet in White Material, “this Africa has no beauty, no nobility, no animals, and the people lack understandable motives,” he says. It’s true: in fact, this Africa seems oddly claustrophobic, confusing. There are no heroes, no love stories. Indeed, the most terrifying figures might be the children, both white and black. Denis thrusts her viewers into the middle of a conflict that seems simultaneously massive and yet intimate, spanning large forces that none of the individuals understand as well as the rifts within families they don’t want to acknowledge.

One of the most obviously disorienting aspects of the film is its confusion of time: we see Marie at two separate points. The film interweaves scenes of a lost, confused Marie (Huppert) – presumably from the present, as she is struggling to come to grips with the chaotic world around her – with flashbacks to a different Marie, a woman more composed and determined to act as if there is nothing wrong in her country. Nothing captures that disjunction better than a scene in which she joyously, ecstatically rides a motorcycle down a lonely road back to her family’s home. She raises her hands up into the air, allows her hair to fly free in the breeze: this is a woman who loves her life and her land. But she stops when she finds a man’s sandal abandoned on the road. As she walks a little further into the brush, she finds a man’s bloody shirt. To whom do they belong? To her own son, perhaps? It seems clear she recognizes them. How will she respond?

Marie, her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and lazy son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) own a coffee plantation that has seen more profitable days, but perhaps not all that much more profitable. Although they live in relative splendor compared to the farm’s wage-earning Blacks, there’s evidence that other individuals in town are doing much better (the mayor, for example). Even if they’re just managing to make it all work, the Vials’ whiteness and privilege cannot be more obvious. The three of them are as blond as can be, and they represent three white responses to the world around them: André wants to sell the farm and leave, Marie ignores the political unrest and throws herself irrationally into the effort of bringing in the coffee crop … and Manuel, well, simply loses his sanity, shaves his head, and attaches himself to a group of marauding children.

The lives of the few Blacks we get to know are far more pinched. When a pair of boys sneak through the Vials’ home, picking up trinkets and clothes, they finger a gold cigarette lighter with a surprising gentleness. “It’s just white material,” one says to the other. Still later, a Black man explains about their situation, “When nothing’s yours, it’s just hot air.” In other words, it appears to be a situation in which Blacks have nothing to lose, but whites are unlikely to gain much by defending it.

One of the first things that confused me was Denis’ unexpected decision to place a white woman to serve at the center of this tale – especially because this is truly not Out of Africa. Why a white woman? I’ve racked my brain on this question. Marie is never a sympathetic character, yet watching her world turn upside down, and watching her flail about trying to hire farmhands to pick the coffee beans says so much about what political change means in such places, and how much people resist change. As JMM puts it, “She is just as ravaged as the country itself.” I think the film wants us to criticize Marie as much as the other characters, even as it has us watch her more closely than the rest.

JMM has another insight on the question of “why Marie?”: he believes “the center of the story is the country itself… not Marie”:

“Ravaged by war, children as soldiers, carnage, destruction… these are the usual results of war, especially internal wars. Haven’t countries themselves always been described in the feminine sense? Marie is — by film’s end — destroyed, if not physically, then certainly emotionally… just as her coffee plantation has been rendered useless, just as her business is destroyed, her family destroyed. She’s left alive but what can be left inside her?”

I’m of two minds on this. I agree that her presence hammers home the costs of war, yet Marie is no typical woman. Aside from her bizarrely girlish appearance (the long hair, the calico dresses), she doesn’t manifest a whole lot of feminine qualities (she’s bullheaded, single-mindedly obsessed with an almost worthless crop). But I still feel uneasy because it is this screenplay choice that makes me believe it’s a film most clearly aimed at whites.I asked JMM whether he thought this was a film designed for whites, and he responded:

“Certainly the target is a French audience, specifically a French audience that has experienced life in French Colonial Africa. History tells us that there can’t be that many people left with that kind of experience. And if they are around they’re still in Africa, or in France. However without knowing her intention – she hasn’t told us – or the audience – we are following Marie – the rebels who extort money for passage on the roads, the fellow bus travelers, the government soldiers, even the French soldiers who are leaving as the film begins, and the rebel troops – are transient visitors who either enter Marie’s space, or she enters theirs. So I believe her target demographic is middle age or older, French speaking, or people who have lived in Africa, or Algeria, or even Vietnam.”

I might even go a step further – the film speaks to whites in many nations that used to be (and sometimes still are) imperial powers, whites who don’t consider the long-term effects of their colonial power over others … or perhaps who want to ignore them. When a helicopter circles overhead, bellowing out her name via loudspeaker and warning her that the French army is pulling out of the country, she still doesn’t change her mind.

So what are we to do with a film so full of unsympathetic characters and unexplained events? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up post!