Archive for autonomy

Swing-and-a-Miss: ‘Feminism’ in Sucker Punch

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by drayfish

sucker punch

IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate.  Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle.  Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, a select few critics sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one had taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work.  No one, they declared, had appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement it was making about the exploitation and debasement of women that informs its narrative.

One film critic in particular, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to declare that the reaction to Sucker Punch was a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed ‘Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…’ (here)*  We, as a mass-market audience, were all too ignorant, and ‘couldn’t see past the surface’ to the genius beneath.  Indeed, in France, Mendelson argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a ‘visionary’ director such as Zack Snyder releases a film in America, it is unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Similarly, /Film’s Adam Quigley made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled ‘You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch’ (here).  Apparently what the audience didn’t understand (Quigley actually uses the slightly hysterical phrasing ‘prestigious journalists … don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about’) was that we were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a ‘real’ world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

…Why this entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film’s heart, why layering another needless ‘twist’ upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film’s puzzle, is never fully explained by Quigley.  (Although perhaps he doesn’t bother because ‘critics’ would no doubt be too stupid to understand anyway.)

However, while it is often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist’s work – as both Mendelson and Quigley do with indignation – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder’s work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it.  Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy).  Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake ‘baby doll’ in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that critics such as Mendelson and Quigley have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister.  Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather, but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy.  Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must ‘dance’ for the entertainment of their clients.  Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll ‘dances’ to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic ‘keys’ that will ‘free’ them from their entrapment.  These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down.  In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman’s legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must ‘dance’ for men’s entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder’s film).  They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message.  It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change.  But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation.  Sadly, Snyder’s film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the ‘power’ afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving ‘freedom’.  It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated).  In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello.  When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes.  So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision.  Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer.  Babydoll ‘dances’ for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze.  Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film’s intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self.  Sure, they can be ‘heroes’ – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions.  In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results.  Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their ‘salvation’ by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the ‘real world’ to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission ‘succeed’.

Babydoll’s ‘reward’ for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised.  (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to ’empower’ herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.)  But apparently all this sacrifice is a ‘win’ because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be ‘freed’.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where it fails is in its suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place.  If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose.  Instead, it chooses to reinforce the merit in embracing this kind of exploitation.  Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare …only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it.  After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy.  And it is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of ‘feminist’ power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as Mendelson declared in his vehement support of the film, Sucker Punch’s aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the ‘nice things’ audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder’s misogynistic snuff film as ‘feminism’, I struggle to feel the loss.  Hopefully, more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the ‘novelty’ of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

 sucker punch institution

 IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

* Mendelson’s celebration of the film gathers pace from the backhanded encouragement of ‘In the end, Sucker Punch is a messy, flawed, and ambitious movie that earns kudos for daring to actually be about something relevant and interesting’ in his original review (, to ‘it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting’ in follow-up commentaries, to finally declaring it a ‘masterpiece’ by any conceivable standard, a symbol of everything that should be defended and celebrated in Art, ‘a big budget studio picture filled with provocative and challenging ideas …. creating at least three all-time classic action set pieces …. It is everything we say we want from our mainstream entertainments’ (

** Consequentially, I have very real concerns about how Lois Lane – a character who, over the span of her existence has managed to finally shuffle off a good portion of the helpless, naive damsel-in-distress cliché that hung over her in some of her earliest incarnations – will be depicted in Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.  I would hate to see a self-possessed, capable, heroic woman like the more contemporary Lois likewise reduced to a vulnerable waif, reliant upon a man to show her kindness.

The Legacy of Bourne: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Forget

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Bourne Legacy (Universal Pictures)

‘We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.’

– Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I recently watched The Bourne Legacy on a lengthy international flight.  Usually I have an aversion to watching something that might require a functioning attention span on an aeroplane.  At any moment one’s concentration might be at war with screaming children, real estate feuds for control of the armrest, the Chaplin-esque slapstick of juggling a tray of food through turbulence, or that gnawing, omnipresent fear of ever having to venture into those poorly ventilated bathrooms after about three hours in the air.  This time, however, there was a nice analogous quality to the experience.  Travelling 500 miles per hour toward another continent, surrounded by friendly strangers whose names you will never know, a bleary fog of jetlag already pressing in; somehow a film about frenetic pursuit and the quest for personal identity seemed oddly resonant…

As those who have already seen it know, this film – the fourth in the series – is not actually a sequel so much as a sidequel (I apologise for the use of this utterly made up word), offering a narrative that runs alongside, and at times intersects with, the details of the original trilogy.  Indeed, even the title indicates as much: this is the Legacy of Bourne; and consequentially, the shadow that this assumed knowledge of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne casts upon the experience of the present film proves stifling.

The principle character in this tale, Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner), is suffering in the wake of Bourne’s actions throughout the preceding films.  Bourne, by uncovering the identity he lost in his plot-convenience bout of amnesia, has kicked over a proverbial ants nest of governmental black ops.  So, while he hunts out the dark truths of his own covert engagements with ‘Treadstone’ and ‘Blackbriar’, Cross, a member of another such operation called ‘Outcome’, gets swept up in a super-assassin housecleaning, and must (like Bourne before him) run for his life from the people he once loyally served.

The film plays as part homage, part pastiche – it is even bookended by the same images as the first film (a silhouette of a suspended figure in water; the heroic couple retiring to a life of anonymity by the ocean), acknowledging the immediate familiarity of its dramatic arc.  But the fact that it runs in continuous parallel with the events of its predecessors means that the audience is being repeatedly compelled to linger on the comparison.  It is a peculiar structural decision that invites the viewer to engage in a persistent critical mediation:

Oh, this is a fantastically visceral vehicle chase through dense traffic – you know, just like the one in The Bourne Supremacy…  And wow, this is a snappy rooftop chase – kind of like the one in The Bourne Ultimatum…  And hey, he’s falling in love with the girl he’s been forced to bring with him on his flight for freedom – just like what happened in The Bourne Identity…  And this brutal, MacGyverish defence of a woodland cabin – that’s pretty much what happened in Identity, isn’t it?  And all this spry, kinetic brawling…

Well, you get the idea.

Even if it’s not fair (or perhaps even accurate) to say it, one is left with the vague sensation that there is a better, less derivative movie going on somewhere else – somewhere off-screen – on a different film reel you saw years ago.

In many ways, in light of this restrictive reliance upon its source material, Legacy operates like an action film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  In Stoppard’s existential play, he subverts the familiar progression of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by exploring what the prince’s two childhood friends,  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were doing when they weren’t part of the original tale’s momentum.  Tasked with spying on Hamlet in Shakespeare’s version of the play, to test whether his feigned madness is real, in Stoppard’s version they sit on the narrative sidelines, where the audience follows them, making a futile attempt to reason out their purpose in a series of unfolding events they look upon with mystification.

The tragic comedy of the play comes from the knowledge (implicit and dawning) both in the audience and the characters themselves, that their fates are already sealed, and that no matter what they do, they cannot shake off the betrayal and slaughter that await them at play’s end.  It is a death sentence that was prescribed by Shakespeare’s text four hundred years previous, and their every action only seems to bring it further to fruition.

In an act of prescient, absurdist self-awareness Guildenstern summarises the nature of their circumstance, surmising that they are trapped within a sequence of inevitabilities that will ultimately lead to their doom.  As he declares, unknowingly also summarising the narrative constraint that robs Aaron Cross of his own agency, being pulled along in Bourne’s slipstream in Legacy:

‘Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…  condemned.  Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order.  If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so.  Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost.’

And so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and seemingly Aaron Cross after them) nonetheless continue on, impossibly trying to reconcile their awareness that they are prey to the whims of larger narrative machinations that, by necessity, strip them of their human agency.

It’s a shame, because at their heart, the Bourne narratives have a fantastic, if somewhat specific thematic drive that raises them above the usual simplified blockbuster action film pyrotechnics.  Indeed, it’s for that very reason that the Bourne films, at the beginning of the last decade, gave the Bond franchise the pants down spanking it needed to sober up and take itself more seriously.  Suddenly, here was a series that – alongside ticking all the applicable boxes as thrilling, adrenaline-spiking romps – also had a cohesion and strong central conceit that could legitimately offer a palate upon which to explore a character.

The problem with that fundamental premise, however, is that each film is therefore defined by a sense of feverish pursuit (which even find its way into the shaky-cam cinematography and the snap edits).  The principle figure, in rediscovering himself, has fled his masters, and they track him mercilessly, desperate to silence or destroy him.  The plots are therefore propelled by a fugitive escapism, a reclamation of ‘selfhood’ that dances on the periphery of an omnipresent ‘authority’ longing to detain, desensitise and destroy the newfound individuality of the protagonist.  The themes that they tap into are powerful, primal fears, and work spectacularly in controlled bursts – but as Legacy shows, it might be too narrow a subject matter to sustain a whole series of films; marvellous lightning in a bottle, but not a self-sustaining power source.

Broadly, these themes concern personal identity.  What defines us: our past, present, or future?  Are we the sum total of our actions, or our potentiality for betterment?  In the original trilogy, Bourne rejects the brutality of his past, refusing to assassinate a man in front of his children despite his mission objective; and the seismic shock of this negation of orders (along with some minor being-shot-twice-in-the-back) dislodges his sense of self so profoundly that he is amnesiatically (I do not apologise for the use of this also-completely-made-up word) remade as a rogue agent of justice – the automaton that grew a heart.

The Bourne films therefore negotiate the place of the individual in the dehumanising conglomerate of the corporate structure.  It’s why they are all so frontloaded with bureaucrats.  Sure, those suits repeatedly act like morons:

‘Hey, I know, guys: since there’s a phone call coming from across town, let’s clear out this whole building and leave no one behind to guard our secret files.  I’m sure Bourne won’t reverse-Goldilocks us…*

‘Oh, yeah, and we should probably just put that safe filled with classified government documents in the office with the largest open windows.  I doubt anyone would think to just look through the glass…’

But the working grind of the civil servant is central to the thematic drive of these films, hence the calibre of actor they plug into these potentially thankless roles.  Sure, there’s the grab-bag of peripherals that appear in all films like these – Dishevelled-Tech-Guy who asks ‘Where is this footage coming from?’ and Highly-Caffeinated-Assistant-with-a-Stack-of-Folders who points at a screen and says ‘Can we zoom in on that?’ – but then there’s Chris Cooper as the CIA Deputy Director; David Strathairn as the Blackbriar executive officer; and even Albert Finney labcoating it up as a company doctor tasked with guiding the program.  In this latest instalment, that’s Ed freaking Norton combing through paperwork with his shirtsleeves rolled, sardonically firing out snappy rejoinders as somewhere, in another office, his half-finished instant coffee goes stale.

Bourne has fled a bureaucracy so entrenched that it completely lacks any oversight, a hive of suits and paperwork and group-think that has walled itself off from all human compassion.  Indeed, it is a system that is so blinded by its directive that it has started literally deprogramming identities and rebuilding them as unquestioning servants – perfect tools for a desensitised intelligence agency that reacts without accountability, self-validated by the vagaries of ‘the greater good’.  Bourne’s primary adversaries are people in conferences and meetings; people who have their calls forwarded to deny accountability; people who wear lanyards that define them through codes of clearance.

It is also for this reason that each of the films is punctuated by some variation of a chase or a fight with a wordless assassin.  These seemingly innumerable figures, Terminator-esque in their predatory focus, near-indestructibility, and dedication to their task, are spectres of the life that Bourne (or Cross’ Bourne 2.0) have shaken off in their quest for individuality.  As the Professor (Clive Owen) – one of the first of these professional killers sent to kill Bourne – says as his life drains out:

‘Look at this.  Look at what they make you give.’

In his dying breath he acknowledges the sacrifice of autonomy that this dedication to the corporate structure has wrought; and it is a sentiment that Bourne himself later repeats moments before he flees one final time into the shadows of anonymity at the end of Ultimatum.  They are ‘assets’, faceless, replaceable cogs in the engine of administration.  And so, Jason Bourne, and Aaron Cross in his wake, fight back against monolithic company intrusions into their personal liberties; bewildering the bureaucrats, bypassing Big Brother…

…b-doing something else that starts with ‘b’.

Bourne instead fights to discover his history, and in doing so rejects this personality sublimation, pursuing another, entirely on his own terms.  Meanwhile, in Legacy’s parallel version of the tale, rather than identity, Renner’s character is seeking autonomy – freedom from the drugs upon which, at the insistency of his superiors, he has become reliant.  Bourne seeks a reclamation of self through the confrontation and acceptance of his actions (who he was, and what he has done); Cross pursues free will by severing the chemical tether that makes him a puppet of his treacherous masters.

For Jason Bourne, this quest for independence offers a striking eruption of rebellion.  He defies convention, and strikes out in his own, new path, remaking himself in the process.  He literally even rejects the label ‘Jason Bourne’ that has been applied to him by his erstwhile creators, and all of its implied ownership.  In The Bourne Legacy, however, while Cross likewise seeks for selfhood, his journey suffers in the form of a different form of entrapment: being mired under the obligation to both weave amongst the narrative logic and recapture the unique tone of the first trilogy.

Consequentially, while the movie is actually a solid, serviceably engaging ride, the problem remains that the audience is reminded that they have seen it all before – left unable to invest in the drama from which they are dislocated.  As Guildenstern says, erupting at Rosencrantz as their tragic fate slowly coalesces before them at the end of the play:

‘Why don’t you say something original!  No wonder the whole thing is so stagnant!  You don’t take me up on anything – you just repeat it in a different order!’

To which Rosencrantz replies that he cannot think of anything original; that he is, after all, ‘only good in support.’  And for film propelled at its core by the conceit that individuality and autonomy are worth cherishing, are worth fighting for above all else, the plot of Legacy collapses in on itself by chasing a phantom it should have known could never be captured.

IMAGE: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Cinecom Pictures)

* This happens, by the way, literally seconds after they realise that Bourne must be within visual range of their building.

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