Elle (2016)

My interest in Elle was sparked by a review I read previously by someone else that was written a while ago. It described Elle as a “rape-revenge comedy.” These are genres you just never expect to see together. The fact that the film was nominated for the Oscars and Golden Globes and a variety of other awards, suggests that somehow, Paul Verhoeven has managed to make this weird genre mesh-up work.

In preparation to write a review and some decent commentary on Elle I actually decided to do some prep work by reading up on the Rape-Revenge genre in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Chapter 3: Getting Even). While it was a good read and really enlightening, I was disappointed to find that the critical view she espouses is a little dated. While Clover focused on Rape-Revenge film texts like Last House on the Left (1972), Deliverance (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1977), etc., that made use of a city-country dynamic to underscore the onscreen conflicts, this was never the case in Elle.

Instead I found myself thinking that filmic representations of psychopaths as a way of reading Elle would be more relevant to the narrative Verhoeven was telling.

In a typical rape-revenge narrative, the film starts with the rape that is filmed in disconcerting detail with the camera’s gaze either lingering on the sexual violence or the act being edited into violent choppy cuts and then inserted into the narrative as sudden flashbacks that are as much an assault on the victim as it is on the audience because both are made to flinch and cringe every time they are ambushed with the rapist.

This is followed up by a planning or training period where the female character transforms herself from victim into avenging angel seeking vengeance for herself and/or for other female characters who’ve been similarly assaulted.

The narrative then culminates in a grisly conclusion where the bloodletting onscreen is orchestrated to reach the same bloody intensity as the psychic and physical violence of the rape.

Elle seems to have successfully flipped this narrative. There is no bloody conclusion, and very little preparation for vengeance. This is because there seems to be no victim. Or rather that the victim is so sociopathic that she doesn’t behave like one and doesn’t seem to see herself as a victim. And if she doesn’t think of herself as a victim, what right do we, the audience, have to think of her as one?

Instead, Verhoeven’s film seems to be very emphatically suggesting that despite all the syntactic elements of a rape-revenge narrative (including the rape, the purchase of the hatchet and the pepper spray, and the death-by-blugeoning of the rapist), Elle, semantically, is not about the same concerns. It is not about a woman rising up to avenge herself because she is not the disempowered individual in this narrative.

We see this in her day job where she is both an accomplished former publisher of literary works and current owner of a gaming company. We see this in her personal life where she is financially secure and the sole provider for her dependents (mother and son). And we see this in her deviant sexual preferences (for married men and willingness to enter into an S&M relationship with her rapist).

Furthermore, she doesn’t need to get her hands dirty to exact her revenge, by unmasking her rapist, stripping him of the anonymity that empowers him, naming him, and refusing to be the victim in violent sexual encounters, she unmans him almost literally by depriving him of his turn-on and his erection.

Thus, despite the backlash against this film based on claims that it trivialises or dismisses rape with its comedic undertones, the film can be read as a more progressive rape-revenge narrative instead.

This is based on two reasons firstly rape has been said to be more a crime of power rather than a sexual crime, and secondly, the rape-revenge narrative itself suffers from an undercurrent of victim-blaming that often slides under the radar given all the attention focused on the empowered female character who saves herself.

For revenge fantasies to work, there must be something worth avenging – something egregious enough to justify hideous retaliation. In the case of rape-revenge films, that something has to do not only with the rape, but with the power dynamic between men and women that makes rape happen in the first place, and in the second, that makes it so eminently avengeable.

-Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p144

In other words, the source of pleasure in the genre comes in part from the fact that the victim has been doubly raped. Firstly, by the fact that she is a victim everyday in various small ways as part of a society that privileges the patriarch and secondly, by the rape in the film. However, as Verhoeven so clearly sets up in Elle, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is never in a position of lower power except in the moment of the rape.

The other way in which Elle is a progressive rape-revenge narrative, is that embedded in the genre is an element of victim-blaming:

[It] must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a guy or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it.

Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p143

Thus in the case of Elle, the rape is an assault and an act of violence, yes, but it is an act between individuals of equal standing in society. Furthermore, the rape acts as a moment that pierces the veil that Michele has drawn over herself to mask her sociopathy.

In the narrative following the incident, we see her destroy her ex-husband’s car bumper with her car by backing into it repeatedly; leave a toothpick in her ex-husband’s new squeeze’s appetizer; come on to her neighbour who is a married man; deliberately destroy her best friend’s marriage by telling her that she has been sleeping with her husband just as they look like they’re getting back together; and various other small incidents like that. Thus the rape causes a rupture in the symbolic realm of Michele’s existence, forcing her to confront her past with her father who murdered 27 people, and get to grips with the reality of her character.

(Although… my fiance pointed out that all these little behaviours could be status quo for her and have nothing to do with the rape at all. I maintain that given the medium and where the narrative chose to start and where it ends, the rape is meant to give an additional layer of meaning to all her following behaviours.)

Thus, at the end of the day, despite all the trappings of the rape-revenge genre, this is not a rape revenge film. It’s more about two sociopaths going at one another.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

What is it with sequel titles this year? John Wick: Chapter 2, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2… it’s like there are just too many sequels to name. That being said 2017 seems to be the year of good sequels. Split (2017) which is positioned in the same universe as M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) got great reviews, The Lego Batman Movie which is a follow up to 2014’s surprise success The Lego Movie seems to be getting rave reviews, and of course, there’s John Wick: Chapter 2.

When analysing a film, one of the things I try to look out for is the scene that is included in excess of what is absolutely necessary for narrative development and progress. And the opening shot of the John Wick sequel provided just such a filmic moment. A black and white clip of a scooter stunt projected on the side of a building apropos of nothing preceding a pan downwards to a motorcycle skidding on a road. The two sequences obviously mirrored each other and spelled out the film’s thesis and lineage in one fell swoop.

The black and white clip recalls the era of early films from the 1900s before even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, where vaudeville danger acts were the source of most of the silver screen’s inspiration. What John Wick: Chapter 2 tries to remind the viewer then is that these spectacle-intensive single reel films are the precursor to the modern day action film. The fact that the film opens with a car chase scene further supports this claim because, you know that saying, “cut to the chase”? That came from roughly the same film era. People just wanted to cut to the chase, the meat of the film, the part where all the action was – the most intense scene, and the most exciting one that would keep the audiences hooked and on the edge of their seats.

Thus, the sequel serves to remind us that when watching a John Wick film, one is well and truly a spectator spectating a series of spectacles. The structure of both films are fairly similar and could almost be called episodic with simple motivations moving characters from one action-packed sequence to the next. This is not unlike how George Melies used to make his trick films and early feature length films:

As for the scenario, the ‘fable,’ of the ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ for a nicely arranged tableau.

– George Melies qtd. in Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attraction”

When seen in this light, it would explain a little bit why the momentum of the opening act in the John Wick sequel seemed to stutter a little when they tried to insert a recap of the first film.

That being said, the opening act was surely a homage to the action film genre and the franchise’s first installment that was the sleeper hit of 2014 that has since been hailed as one of the best action films in recent years. This is clearly felt from the range of shots and filming techniques presented in the opening sequence to remind the viewer of how far film has progressed in its strategies and effects used to capture and present spectacle.

In the early days of film, stunts and performers’ skill could only be captured through the use of long shots and long takes. But proceeding from the long shot in the black and white projection, we see that the camera is moved closer and closer to the action where audiences are no longer positioned on the outside as spectators but on the inside as participants.For instance, the placement of the camera alongside John Wick’s Dodge Charger as it races along as part of the car chase sequence allows audiences to participate in the thrill and the exhilaration of moving  alongside a speeding car.

The long shots and long takes are still present, but are reserved for complicated auto stunts and when John Wick (Keanu Reeves) kicks ass. The mobile camera is used to accentuate action sequences and follow along the trajectory of a punch, like when Wick delivers a finishing blow, to capture the impact of the hit. And if I’m not wrong, there was a scene where a bike flips towards the camera that looked like it was a CGI shot.

And just like that, the opening sequence becomes a catalogue of action film camera techniques. But because of the ascension of the narrative film and the banishment of the cinema of attractions that was forced to go to ground and coexist as an embedded component of certain genres of the narrative film (eg. musical, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action), the opening spectacle also had to give way to more narrative impulses. In a neat segue from spectacle to narrative, character psychology is reinjected once again into the film using the car and the contents of its glove compartment.

Thus Wick’s Dodge Charger becomes both the vehicle for action and narrative drive. And by the end of the opening act, you feel like you’ve been issued an invitation to come along for one hell of a ride.

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Gunning, Tom. “Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Eds. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: British Film Institute, 1990. 56-62.

Anime Book Review

I’ve never done a book review before but I thought I’d just pen a few thoughts about these two anime-themed books I’m currently reading.

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I’ve just finished Susan Napier’s Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. The book is published in 2006, so it unfortunately does not contain the most updated view of anime, however, it is a second edition of the book that previously stopped at an analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). The book is published by Palgrave, which I find is a publisher I’m very comfortable going to for academic books with high quality insight, argument, thought and readability.

Napier’s academic writing style is thus highly readable even to non-academics and effortlessly deep. The conclusions she arrives at and her analysis of various animated texts are not only insightful and well-argued, but also very naturalistic. There are no jarring leaps in logic and her argumentation style flows from one logical conclusion to the next. Her writing is well substantiated and often reads like a blockbuster list of who’s who of the academic world. The theorists she chooses to quote and the actual quotations she picks are appropriate and fit seamlessly into the argument she is trying to make. If one were to level one critique at her choice of critical writing and academics to reference it would be that perhaps there are too few Asian critical perspectives being referenced.

She identifies 3 big overarching types in the genre as a whole – the apocalyptic, festival and elegiac modes. However, she is fair enough of a writer to acknowledge that even these 3 trends or themes are not exhaustive. She even throws in the occasional exception to the rule whenever appropriate. The surety of her stance coupled with her self-reflexivity about the limitations of her argumentative framework leads to a very balanced writing style that put me as a reader, at ease. It helped me to take on her conclusions in the comfort of the knowledge that this is a trustworthy writer who is not trying to push for a specific reading or agenda, who is just trying to share her view on the subject.

Her observations about anime were presented in a forceful writing style that was ever conscious of the reader. Mindful of his/her possible doubts, rejections, questions and other reactions that may arise in the reading of the views being presented. Every chapter was poised to address an obvious question about the genre and had a clear claim that was supported with in-depth textual analysis of 3-4 anime series or OVAs to support that claim. Her efforts to make meaning of the genre were also very well seasoned with historical readings and a socio-cultural understanding of the other arts originating from Japan. This caused an unusual pleasure to bloom within me even as I read the very objectively written chapter Napier had on anime porn.

Perhaps one other critique that one could level at the way the book, if at all,  is with regards to its use of examples. Each chapter of Napier’s book is organised such that it can accommodate about 3-4 examples before it starts to feel over-long. Due to this, there is a slight sense of the author cherry-picking examples that best prove the claims made in the chapters.

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Conversely, I am currently trying to struggle my way through Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime. The book is a much more recent work of academic writing about anime published in 2013, but a far less fulfilling read. It is published by Duke University Press and the reason why I picked it up is because it had a 3.7/5 rating on Goodreads.com, the same rating that Susan Napier’s abovementioned academic book got.

Silly me, I should have checked the number of reviewers. Napier’s book was reviewed by 405 readers, while Condry’s was reviewed by only 62. And if that didn’t give it away, I should have looked really hard at the book’s subtitle which reads, “Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story.”

Not to say that that’s not an interesting area of focus or that it’s not a worthwhile area of study or that this comparative book review is even a fair one (because it’s like comparing apples and oranges in terms the books’ foci). I just really wasn’t expecting the writing to be so wishy washy. I’m two and a half chapters in and all I’ve gotten from the book is that the author is trying to make the argument that the soul of anime IS the collaborative framework that surrounds it from source material mangas/mangakas, light novels to producers/studio houses, and fan communities. And that it is these interconnected networks that have led to the success of the genre.

These are not new findings or new arguments, and as a whole, it just seems that every chapter he is repeating this same conclusion. If the books starts out in the intro chapter saying that this is what the book wants to prove and then repeats this claim at the end of every chapter with no nuance to the argument presented in the introduction it just comes off sounding tautological and repetitious.

I’m sorry if I come off sounding too harsh but it’s really, really boring. There are a lot of references to Henry Jenkins and this leads me to think that the big chapters where the book’s premise is supposed to really take off is chapter 6 (Dark Energy: What Overseas Fans Reveal about the Copyright Wars) & 7 (Love Revolution: Otaku Fans in Japan), because they are devoted to fan culture. But other than that, the interviews he cites from his field work and close observations of various recent anime OVA productions, which really should be more interesting, come off sounding a little incoherent and pointless. The incoherence comes in part from the short, stuttering quotations he inserts into his writing which seem to defeat the purpose of using a quotation. You don’t want to quote someone just to prove that they said it. You quote someone because they’ve said something about something in the best possible way that something could have been said.

All I can say is that so far the book presents a very interesting argument that seems to have a lot of potential. And I would like nothing more than to see more depth in the analysis and use of the raw data gathered from such close on-the-ground work with animators and studio houses, but right now it’s just that, a potential argument that hasn’t actually been made. Even after almost 3 chapters. Ergh. So tedious.