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?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

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.

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“The Runaways” leaves no cliché untouched. It’s as if the writers went to TVtropes.org and selected the biggest chestnuts.

  • girls with daddy issues
  • girls turn to music because they don’t fit in
  • success quickly leads to substance abuse problems
  • dreamy drug-fueled sequence in soft light with lesbian sex
  • conflict within the band over big ego of lead singer

Right up to the end:  the band’s big blowout fight takes place — in the recording studio.  The one thing I can say is that at least the film moves as efficiently as possible from one trope to the next, and manages that efficiency by focusing solely on Jett and Currie at the expense of all other band members.  It’s such a disappointment.  So Floria Sigismondi, the film’s director, isn’t going to be the next female winner of a Best Director Oscar; and I’m starting to think that Kristen Stewart has only one trick in her acting bag (avoids eye contact, hunches shoulders, mumbles).

And it’s too bad, because the film could have answered a lot of questions about women in rock.  The film has a lot of obligatory scenes of screaming male and (especially) female fans — but what are they screaming for? 

There’s a great moment in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” in which Christian Bale, as the maybe-gay teenager fan of a David Bowie-type gender-bending rock star, takes his newly-bought record into his bedroom in the crap suburban house where he lives with his family. He gently takes the sleeve out of the cover, letting us see the beautifully erotic nature of fandom. It’s a great moment — evoking the possibility he might experience by listening to it, not just for its music but for the personal liberation and transformation it promises.  “The Runaways” tells us that Bowie was also a huge influence on Cherie Currie (which is so interesting on its own).

The same possibilities were there for “The Runaways” other than to plow through all our received wisdom about how rock bands get together and break up.  The band’s officious manager, who teaches them how to growl and purr for their audiences, sees their appeal solely in sexual terms.  Rock is a man’s world, he insists; they’ve got to meet it on those terms.  “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido,” he says.  But during concert scenes, you start to feel intuitively there’s more to it, before you’re yanked away to another cliché (Cherie is worried about her sick dad!).

Another wasted opportunity to think about women onscreen.  But let’s also pause to remember that Joan Jett, now 51, is still rocking, promoting new talent, and looking hot and mean.

Before there was the Bitch Magazine I know and love for its rants about gender in the media, there was the Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag With Bite, the late 1980s zine that appeared on newsprint every month, clearly produced on its creator’s Apple computer and cut-and-pasted into shape. Lori Twersky denoted the page numbers by hand, and the logo was (what else?) a hand-drawn dog, often portrayed with a bone or scratching its head with a back foot.

Considering that we listened to The Bangles in the 80s, Bitch was kind of a revelation. Whether it was an article about Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth or Lydia Lunch, Bitch was full of snarky interviews, fiesty feminist rants, and a genuine appreciation for the music they made.  These rockers weren’t girlie-girls — they kicked ass (and, as one issue told us, Joan Jett inspired a cult/commune in San Francisco to hold her up as a near-deity).

So as I get ready to see “The Runaways” despite its mixed reviews, I’m thinking about my teenaged relationship to women rockers — the revelatory experience of watching Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love (no one who saw Hole’s “Live Through This” concert could doubt her ability to kick rock’s ass), Blondie, Lydia Lunch, the Breeders, and oh, Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” women who seemed to be making big feminist statements just by being so fierce in their lyrics and onstage.  Is it simply my age that makes the thought of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie a bit distasteful?  Trying to suppress my doubts in an age of Lady Gaga, Twilight, and “post-feminism.”