Electra Woman Wednesday

1 August 2012

I am moving house, and there’s nothing much to say about it except I reckon this is the 6th big interstate household move I’ve made (and probably 6 more temporary/ year-long moves to take fellowships).

Honestly: I feel overwhelmed with gratitude because moving isn’t stressful anymore in the way other life events cause stress. But I do feel the need for distraction. Thus, the opening sequence for the 1976 show, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl!

I don’t remember this series at all; it was a 12-minute part of The Krofft Supershow and featured these Diedre Hall and Judy Strangis as magazine writers by day, caped crusaders in a crisis. And check out those Electra-Coms on their wrists.

I love the low budget costumes, the Wonder Woman ripoff, the way all their gadgets begin with “electra”: the Electra-Change, which allows our heroes to change clothes instantly (handy!); the Electra-Strobe, which speeds up their thoughts to 1000 times normal (handy again!); the Electra-Vibe, which “creates a localized sonic field that can shatter glass or disorient an opponent who is not equipped with earplugs”; and the Electra-Degravitate, which performs the obvious. There are many more.

Which reminds me to dream of the Electra-Transport, which moves your entire house instantly and without the use of boxes, movers, and packing tape. But in the meantime, it’s back to the boxes for me.

If you’ve been paying attention to the critics, they’ve been preoccupied with two things about Brave: whether Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is gay, and whether we ought to complain that Pixar’s first girl-oriented film still makes its heroine be a princess.

And thus they miss the point. The radical thing about this film is that it up-ends the mother-daughter relationship in film.

There is nothing more overdetermined than the mother-daughter relationship in film. So many of them are fraught in predictable ways that assume all manner of things about middle-aged→ older women and their younger counterparts. Take a look at children’s film and it only gets more extreme. All those wicked stepmothers in fairy tales set the stage for the kind of mother trouble we see. (No wonder so many films kill off mothers right away; I’m lookin’ at you, Bambi.) How can the girl/ young woman thrive if her mother is still there being bossy and/or needy?

Which is why Brave is so cool. It starts from a fraught mother-daughter situation and then up-ends the trope entirely. It’s fantastic.

I’m not going to spoil it for you — the film is too delightful for spoilers — but let me say that Brave is also somehow about narratives and tropes in a way that The Neverending Story (1984) was. It’s meta, but only meta in ways that offer 10-yr-old kids a little bit more than their younger siblings will get, and offer parents a kind of delicious message on their own. It’s not ironic, reference-laden meta like my new favorite show Community. It’s refreshing.

The ways that Merida and her mother (Emma Thompson) have to change … well, that narrative ultimately says something about how just as stories can trap us into a hoary set of conventional outcomes, so they can also free us.

I love the way the film shows Merida’s father and his buddies all sitting around drinking, telling stories about great (past) adventures, while Merida and her mother are off having an actual adventure that changes everything. Fantastic.

So:  it’s hot here and I’ve got a minor sinusy condition (for which I am hereby calling out my friends’ 2-year-old as the one who infected me).  As I give myself the day to recouperate, all my windows are open, so the sounds and smells of a lazy Sunday are coming inside — cigarette smoke, teenagers showing off for one another, toddlers crying, people speaking loudly in many languages.  Hence:  I take to the sofa, and to children’s films.  Where best to find a compelling female lead for a leisurely day than the films of Hayao Miyazaki?

But Miyazaki’s films aren’t really for children, are they?  Unless, that is, you want them seriously spooked.  I’m hardly the wilting type when it comes to tough themes (after all, the “Sesame Street” I watched as a child has now been deemed unsuitable for children), yet I find such films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” very dark indeed.  They address such subjects as rage, corruption, helplessness, and the destruction of nature.  Their female heroines might possess extraordinary gifts and personal strengths (and even dweeby science geek inclinations, as in the case of Nausicaä), but they’re not simple beings either.  Chihiro, the 10-year-old heroine of “Spirited Away,” is sullen and fearful, and she whines for a good part of the film; even the powerful wolf-girl Princess Mononoke is willing to tilt the precious balance between nature and human beings — one of Miyazaki’s biggest no-nos — if it means saving her precious animal kingdom. 

When we first see Mononoke, she’s trying to help her wolf-mother heal from a gunshot wound — so she appears with her mouth and hands covered with blood, a serious-looking knife in one hand.  See what I mean?  This is heady stuff.

Miyazaki has rightly been celebrated as a serious environmentalist, but I think his films hold environmental disaster up as only one of the scary things we’re doing to the environment.  The wonderful “Nausicaä” (1984), for example, is indebted to the Reagan-era Cold War for its anxieties; the people in the Valley of the Wind find themselves at the center of a battle not just between humans and a terrifying insect world, but invading armies that feed on fear and false promises that bigger weapons might protect them.  Children in 1984 probably wouldn’t have missed the message that nuclear-style genocide is right around the corner.  In contrast, “Avatar” looks lite.

But for me the scariest subject treated by Miyazaki is all forms of human slavishness — the way leaders prey on human weaknesses and the predilection to become a follower.  He shows many different kinds of adults reduced to slaves.  Who can forget that early scene from “Spirited Away” in which Chihiro’s hungry parents, who wolf down their meals at a mysterious lunch counter, are transformed into pigs?  The former brothel girls transformed into ironworkers in “Mononoke”? 

One might suggest that Miyazaki is like many other creators of children’s literature — he shows children they’re right to have fears of monsters in the closet or under the bed, because the world is truly full of scary things.  With that as a given, he demands that his child heroines overcome their fears gradually throughout the film; yet for me his endings always feel a bit tacked-on in comparison to his fully-realized beginnings and middles.  It might have to do with his pervasive pessimism.  In a rare interview in 2005, he told The Guardian that “I am very pessimistic”:

“When, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can’t help but bless them for a good future.  Because I can’t tell that child, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.’  And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction.  So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.”

To make sure we all get that point, his films are also ponderous; accustomed as many of us are to the super-duper all-action style of American children’s films (“Cars,” “The Incredibles,” “How to Train Your Dragon”), one of the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest back in August said about “Ponyo” something to the effect of, “I loved it — but I was totally bored.”  I laughed at this, because it’s so true that his films simply refuse the gee-whiz speed of modern movies, just as they refuse to abandon the painstaking hand-drawn cells of an earlier century of animation.  (Hand-drawn!  with all the 3-D movies of the current day!)  

So I’d recommend watching his films again — with the expectation that you’ll be brought along at Miyazaki’s own pace, and that along the way you’ll experience everything from an extreme disorientation to feelings of crazy, uncritical love.  I cried with joy at the end of “Nausicaä” (but then, I’m slightly weakened with my runny nose).

“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations.  It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower.  I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level.  If I could do that I would die happy.”

 It’s an apt sentiment given his body of films.  I’m looking forward to more (and if my nose keeps dripping, I might give myself permission tomorrow, too).