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The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish

 LOGO_OSCARS_ON-AIR__2014-color

IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

lego movie group

IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.

braveheart

IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.

Selma

IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

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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 (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/review-sucker-punch-2011.html), 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’ (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/why-we-cant-have-nice-things-last-word.html).

** 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.

Burning Down the House: Cabin in the Woods and Genre Immolation

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by drayfish

[Seriously, DO NOT READ IF YOU EVER INTEND TO WATCH CABIN IN THE WOODS ever… and I do encourage you to watch it.  SPOILERS AHOY.]

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror.  Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone.  The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform,  grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them…  The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…

The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…

And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.

Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head.  In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.

For seven years Buffy was a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses.  In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**

Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation.  It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.

We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.

The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end.  Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns…  ergh…  clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them.  This is the first level of narrative.  The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out.  It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.

Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.

However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them.  To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors.  The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us.  We viewers.  Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.

Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down.  Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent?  A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational?  The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all?  And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other?  …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?

Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline…  And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait?  Why go for the dust-speckled diary?  Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy?  Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck?  But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…

On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.

Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them.  Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below.  We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.

And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.

In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation.  As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore.  The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.

Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…)  How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’

And then – Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.

That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership.  Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.

But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.

And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.

So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).

** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, however…

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