The Two Endings of Wonder Woman (2017)

When I was watching Wonder Woman (2017) last Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think about Linda Williams’ essay on melodrama to rationalise what happened at the end. From what I hear it is the ending that tripped up an otherwise well-plotted, well-paced film about a female superhero that “little girls” all around the world have been eagerly anticipating.

Spoilers ahead.

If we examine the ending of the film, Diana (Gal Gadot) actually kills Ares twice. The first time she kills a pseudo-Ares and expects the entire weapons facility to stop loading up Dr. Poison’s (Elena Anaya) deadly mustard-gas-on-steroids bombs into the plane. Except they don’t.

Then the real Ares reveals himself to her and they fight. As she fights him, she suddenly hears Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) last words to her and draws strength from them. She defeats Ares in an amazing light show of flying fists charged with lightning and the German soldiers are freed of Ares’ influence.

The second ending didn’t go over well with critics. The question is why?

Linda Williams, in her essay “Melodrama Revised,” built on arguments made by Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill that melodrama is more than just another genre. Melodrama is a kind of base mode that undergirds all genres. Evidence of the imbrication of melodrama across various genre is seen in the 5 characteristics of melodrama she delineates in her essay. I summarised them in a previous post and if you’re curious, you can go here and here.

With regards to Wonder Woman though, I want to concentrate on how at its core, melodrama is a search for and a desperate attempt to recoup a space of innocence. And in order to achieve this, the film will oftentimes overreach in order to achieve this. In the words of Linda Williams, “One of the key features of melodrama… is its compulsion to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’ – that is, its tendency to find solutions to problems that cannot really be solved” (Williams 37).

At this point, the realism, or the filmic representation of the real that the film tries to pass off as THE REAL, breaks down.

Granted that Wonder Woman, as a superhero, is an element that is already in excess of the Real, within the construction of the film, there is a baseline of realism that the film, its plots, and its characters all come together to simulate. This can be in the form of emotional and psychological realism of the characters. For instance, Charles (Ewen Bremmer), the sniper from their merry band of fighters, is clearly established as someone who has been broken by the war.

Add to this that the film is a fictional revisioning of a key part of history, and Wonder Woman becomes a film with a specific register of realism. And it needs to adhere to this in order to be believable, in order for audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief. Unfortunately, in the second ending, the film overreaches. Quite drastically.

When a film overreaches in pursuit of the reconciliation of irreconcilable elements, it deploys all of its formalistic elements to this end. This includes:

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  1. The sudden powering up of Diana accompanied by the over the top lightning show of CGI capabilities, a formalistic element that calls unnecessary attention to itself
  2. Suddenly hearing Steve Trevor’s voice, which the HISHE reviewer (see below) points out she couldn’t possibly have because she was still suffering the after effects of the bomb blast
  3. The swelling music
  4. The idyllic scenery/pathetic fallacy – the rising sun, the breaking of dawn, the dawning of the new day – these are settings we have been taught to associate with a fresh start, a dispelling of evil
  5. The minor characters’ reactions – the German soldiers are released from Ares’ influence. They take off their gas masks and we see their smiling faces

…in short, whatever it took to save the day. The end result is that the space of innocence is recuperated. Diana’s world view is confirmed and the war ends because Ares has been defeated.

Compare this to the first ending in which she mistakenly thinks she’s vanquished Ares. This is the point where Diana comes to a number of key realisations, all of which ring more true to the viewer that the ending we actually got…

  1. Killing one key figure in a war may do nothing to stop it
  2. The true extent of the mechanisation of war in WWI
    1. a precursor to Nazi compartmentalisation in the concentration camps in WWII that made it possible for ordinary people to do evil things – Excerpt from The Banality of Evil by Edward S. Herman
  3. Mankind is inherently predisposed towards violence

The point at which melodrama overtakes realism in Wonder Woman is also marked by two other aspects in the film.

When she first encounters Ares, she sees him through a glass window. When she rushes inside the guard tower to confront him, he reappears outside. I choose to see this as a nod to the weepies of the 1930s & 40s – like Stella Dallas (1937), Mildred Pierce (1945) – a genre that was said to be a woman’s genre. It was also a genre that was full of women either looking out of windows wishing to be free, or looking into rooms through windows hoping to be part of something.

The other aspect that read as melodrama was the trite suggestion that love conquers all. The recourse to emotion, especially when there wasn’t very much of it in the film other than the romantic love shared by Steve Trevor and Diana, felt a little lightweight. The film didn’t establish any sort of love for all humanity, or pity for one’s enemy in its earlier scenes. Quite the contrary, the Amazonians had a fairly harsh attitude towards humanity, and Diana trashes a bunch of Germans without mercy in no man’s land. So the 180 she does at the end comes across as a little superficial.

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After comparing the two possible endings, it’s time to ask which is the real ending.

I was kinda taken by the observation made in the HISHE review that Diana may not have actually heard Steve Trevor’s voice at all and all she did was believe she did. This would either make her really idealistic, or delusional… If emotional and psychological realism have been established in the film, would this mean that Diana’s experience in WWI has left her with some kind of PTSD? I think I would prefer this darker ending because how can you deal with death and destruction on such a scale and walk away untouched by it?

However, having said all of this, Wonder Woman is a fantastic film. Great cast, great pacing, fantastic music, wonderfully shot action sequences. Go catch it!

And can I just say that Chris Pine is a fine actor. People shouldn’t have been surprised. Anyone who’s seen him in Hell or High Water (2016) would know this.

Works Cited:

Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres, 42-88.

Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

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My most immediate impression of this film is how luscious all the practical effects look. Everything is wet and fleshy and there’s a great sense of tactility that always seems to be missing when one watches a CGIed film.

The film has an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes that’s really left me scratching my head because it’s such a neat little horror film, so much so that I’m not quite sure what else critics could ask for. It’s at times like this when you really question the value in giving everything a rating.

Sure, the second half/third act of the film falls into some pretty tried and tested horror tropes. But not every film needs to be ground-breaking! C’mon!

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Anyway, very briefly, Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is about a small town, family-owned morgue and crematorium outfit that receives a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) one night and has been tasked with identifying Cause of Death. The whole film takes place in the span of one night and over the length of time it takes the father-son team to complete the autopsy.

The workaday treatment of the horror of conducting an autopsy is very much in line with André Øvredal’s other critically acclaimed offering Troll Hunter (2011). Troll Hunter is a mockumentary that follows a troll hunter on his hunt for trolls in the dark woods. The matter-of-fact way in which trolls and the hunt for them by a professional troll hunter are presented in the mock documentary effectively normalises their existence – even their more supernatural attributes like being able to sniff out Christians (as if Christian blood gave off a different scent).

Similarly, Autopsy very quickly normalises the idea of working in a morgue cum crematorium and conducting autopsies. This setting on the outset of the film makes it very easy for Autopsy to turn tensions up to eleven-ty when the supernatural shit really hits the fan.

Autopsy feels to me like it’s part of a tradition of foreign horror films. Very much like the original Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000) there’s a great atmosphere of dread and an attempt to explain what’s going on but at the end of the day there’s no real explanation and the horror or the curse lives on and gets passed on to the next unsuspecting soul.

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What tickled me even more is that the film flirts with the idea of offering an explanation only to undercut this at the end. The police-procedural format and the fact-finding dive into the innards of Jane Doe does everything to ramp up the supernatural tension in the film. Each unusual, logic-defying discovery leads to more confusion and more confirmation that there is something not right with this body. But when it comes to supplying characters and audiences with an explanation, there is none.

This refusal to offer any kind of working explanation for what the curse is or how to undo it is a smart move because all too often, horror films fall flat when they try and tell you why the supernatural happens. Oftentimes it’ll involve calling in an expert academic who will pull out some dusty tome with step-by-step instructions on how to vanquish the evil. In the case of Autopsy, the film sidesteps all of that unbelievable logic.

Instead, the processes that so often bring rationality to a situation, like an autopsy and forensic findings that help to provide evidence to solve a murder, only reveal these quaint, antiquated traditional/ herbal practices meant to subdue evil. They only confirm the body’s supernatural state, but say nothing about the source of its power.

We’re led to believe at first that each new layer that the forensic father-son team peel back and discover is releasing some kind of evil that, till that point, had been bound by the moon flower, and the shroud with the roman numerals, and the tattoos, but then we remember that the blood drenched murder scene that opens the film was also caused by the body with all its ritualistic trappings still intact.

Then we’re led to believe that maybe the piercing analysis offered by forensic science might suggest some kind of solution to this 17th century mystery. Nope. No dice. The body of Jane Doe just continues to fuck with everyone right till the very end.

I read some reviews that tried to rationalise the signs left on the body as marks of misogyny and that the trail of dead bodies is some kind of revenge for this. I suppose the signs of corsetry, Jane Doe’s backstory, and the deaths of the two male protagonists might lend themselves to this theory. But it doesn’t account for the female characters who die, and there’s also nothing to prove that the evidence of violence on the body was inflicted by men only.

The way in which critics and characters try to explain the body of Jane Doe really reflect the etymology of the word “autopsy” – Autos meaning “self”, and optos meaning “seen”. There’s a suggestive layering of self and other in the etymology of the word that is exemplified by Tommy Tilden (Brian Fox), the father, who puts his cat, Stanley, that has been gravely injured, out of its misery and believes he can do the same for Jane Doe. But really, it seems that he is the one who wants to be put out of the lingering misery of surviving his wife.

The open-endedness of this text (and the body as text) really leaves it up to the viewer to conduct their own autopsy to discover the meaning of the film. The lack of an explanation for what caused/created Jane Doe, what she wants or why she does what she does gives the audience a lot to work with. The film also frustrates the traditional horror narrative ending which is a return to the status quo and a reassertion of the norm – of logic and rationality. Instead, just like with what we’ve seen of Asian horror films, the inexplicable horror just gets passed on.

Under the Skin (2013)

Finally watched Under the Skin (2013). It’s not my usual cup of tea I guess… not enough going on to keep me interested and definitely much slower paced than my usual fare. But that being said it was definitely made with a very consistent vision that came across very clearly in the atmosphere of the whole film.

Spoilers ahead.

The Air of Casual Tragedy

I thought a sense of casual tragedy really permeated the whole film. The long shots, wide shots, and long takes all serve to recreate a bustling city with everyone going every which way while Scarlett Johansson’s character makes her way down a busy street. The way she’s often almost lost in a shot populated with other people or made to appear insignificant amidst a sprawling landscape has a two-fold purpose.

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Firstly, it emphasises her invisibility as a bona fide extra-terrestrial walking amongst Man. Secondly, it suggests how infinitesimal the likelihood of her victims ever being found – because they’re just one of the many, many human beings overpopulating the planet.

This air of casual tragedy is really brought across in two sequences in the film:

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Firstly, in the beach sequence where she struggles to drag her victim’s body across the beach with nary an eye-witness safe for an 18-month old child left crying on the beach. From start to finish of this scene, the child is abandoned not once, but twice in two separate sequences by different characters, to suffer the elements unprotected. The family dog, mother, and father drowning in the crashing waves in the ocean is filmed in an impersonal wide shot, that presumably represents Johansson’s character’s point of view. Altogether, one gets a sense of distance and a muted awareness of the subjects of the shot who are slowly drowning and being kidnapped.

The second sequence is Johansson’s character’s death at the end of the film. The death of such a remarkable character on such a gruesome mission (to seduce men and steal their skins), is filmed in a wholly unremarkable manner. Once again, her collapse is filmed in a wide shot – depersonalised and from a distance. The lingering take of the black smoke rising up into the air and dissipating in the breeze to be replaced with falling snow becomes a slow and certain erasure of the character’s existence.

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Mirror-Stage

After establishing a pattern that clearly delineates Johansson’s character’s mission here on earth, the film takes an interesting (?) turn when she comes across a mirror after trapping one of her victims in the black goo that makes it possible to slough off one’s entire skin, whole and unblemished.

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An obvious reference to Lacan’s mirror stage, the female alien is confronted by her reflection and a sudden knowledge of what she has been doing. It leads to a questioning of her identity. Is she alien? Can she be alien if she looks human? Is she human then? What does it mean to be human?

She begins to experiment and discover herself. From looking at her naked body in the mirror to explore her toes, her neck, to falling into a quasi-romantic relationship with a man who shows her a bit of kindness, she begins to discover herself and identify with her gendered body.

And that’s where things go downhill because to be woman is to be victim.

Of Womenhood and Victimhood

In a sharply funny sequence, Johansson’s character discovers the human anatomy of her nether regions. This involves the immediate cessation of an intimate interlude for her to grab a lamp off the table and shine it between her legs.

Her sudden acquaintance with her private parts seems to signal a completion of her journey of self-discovery. However, her identification with the parts between her legs only leads to a role-reversal where she is suddenly and brutally chased down in an attempted rape sequence.

The immediacy with which the attempted rape follows her understanding of her anatomy makes me think that the two are connected. The sudden shift in her role from predator to prey seems predicated upon her discovery and identification with womenhood. If read as such, then the film is saying, in no uncertain terms, that the moment she let her biology define her is the moment she lost all the other-worldliness that gave her strength and power and control over her situation because to identify as woman is to identify as victim.

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