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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What have I been up to?

This is more of a personal update than anything else really and a way to put down random stray thoughts about the things I’ve read and watched in the last couple of months.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’ve been watching an embarrassing amount of K-drama but there are comments about one in particular that keep knocking around my noggin and I can’t seem to let go of it.

Joseon Gunman (2014, 22 episodes)

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Immediately, the thing that charmed me about this series is how much it’s like Rurouni Kenshin (1994-1999, manga run; 1996-1998, anime run; & 3 films 2012-2014). Set at the turn of an era, Joseon Gunman is about the influx of foreign influence into olden day Korea. What I liked about the series was the consistency with which this plot point/ thematic thrust about the changing times was infused into various elements of the series.

  1. While it’s a totally common and overused trope in K-drama to have the character undergo a makeover when they become badass, that move in this drama seems totally justified. Forced to flee the country due to trumped up charges against his family, Park Yoon-Kang (Lee Joon-Gi) returns later, after leveling up, as a Japanese man dressed in Western clothes. The image itself of the main character returning and looking so different compresses all the geopolitical tensions of the time into the look of his character – Western colonial powers forcing East Asian countries to open their borders to unfair trade with them; aggression from fellow East Asian countries, etc.
  2. The female lead, Jung Soo-In (Nam Sang-Mi), is a fairly respectable character. Learned for a female character, she often shown running rings around the main character in the first third of the series. She knows science, she knows geography, she deals with gunpowder. And later on in the series she becomes a spy within the palace grounds. I suppose I should’ve said spoilers… oh well.
  3. The villain, Choi Won-Shin (Yu Oh-Seong), is a merchant. But the villain and his daughter, Choi Hye-Won (Jeon Hye-Bin), are fairly sympathetic characters. They struggle with their past as slaves and try and make a future for themselves by becoming astute, entrepreneurial, if a little corrupt, business people. They join the rising merchant class that in the histories of all countries at the time presented a real challenge and threat to the traditional class structures.
  4. I’m not sure if this one was deliberate, but in the first half of the series at least, there was a lot of scenes set at harbours and piers. These settings represented the liminal spaces and the porous borders of countries through which ideologies, cultures, and other foreign elements enter and permeate the body politic.

What else have I watched lately?

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I guess I haven’t had a chance to think about it more deeply but I watched A Boy and His Dog (1975). It’s vision of the post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland is a very effectively rendered one with psychic dogs, roving bands of human cannibals and unseen mutants called screamers that emit a green light. It’s also highly effective in affecting a disconcerting tone with its alternate visions of rape – the normalisation of it, and the industrialisation of it in the name of population control. It’s really a lot of food for thought. Very watchable with a lot to digest.

I also liked how there’s a very clear tonal link/echo in the successful game series Fallout (1997-2015). There’s this jaunty, lively, buddy-comedy type banter in the foreground between the boy and his dog but in the background and punctuating every scene are things like dead bodies (literally everywhere!), and the ruins of human civilisation. So that jarring quality between the dialogue and the setting is very similar to what we see in the Fallout game series. The creators of the series, if I’m not wrong, have actually credited the film as part of the game’s inspiration.

Here are some fun videos from the game to give you a sense of just how disconcerting and discomfiting both the film and game can be:

The last thing I watched and rather liked and just wanted to share with you guys here is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).

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This year has truly been a year of sequels so far… er… with the exception of Alien: Covenant (2017) from what I hear… I haven’t caught it yet. But will soon.

In 2017, we’ve had John Wick 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Split and Logan. Not all of the above are technically sequels but they’ve all sprung from pre-existing franchises and so does this next installment of Guardians.

This film was super fun to watch. A lot of the more serious critics haven’t been really kind to it calling it a CGI-fest, which it is, but this film I felt was really enjoyable because it knew what NOT to dwell on.

Right from the start, the big monster fight was sidelined in in favour of watching baby Groot dance around to the soundtrack. And in the culminating fight at the end, the big fight was again repeatedly pushed to the side in favour of more character-centred moments like Rocket (Bradley Cooper) trying to get baby Groot familiarised with his detonator and people shouting in the background about tape.

Furthermore, while the centrepiece of the film was obviously an address of the question the previous film left us with – Peter Quill’s a.k.a. Starlord’s (Christ Pratt) parentage – the bulk of the narrative actually focused on the side characters and their understanding of parents and family. This narrative direction paralleled the film’s opening that moved away from the big, colourful boss fight to focus on the little guy – the supporting cast.

There was some pretty disturbing revelations about the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Thanos. A huge chunk of the film also went towards developing Yondu (Michael Rooker), a side character in the first film, as a foster father figure to Quill. And there was also the introduction of a new orphan character, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who finds a new family with the Guardian’s crew.

So what I’m trying to point out here is that family was a central theme and the film was able to really keep a focus on that instead of giving the audience yet another retina searing light show at the end in the form of a climactic boss fight.

That being said I can also sort of see where serious critics are coming from when they call the film as a CGI-fest. I thought the Ravagers story line was particularly weak.

Sylvester Stallone joined the cast this time round as Starhawk – some kind of ravager boss? (I’m not familiar with the comic book franchise but I hear from my fiance that he and his friends featured at the end were the Original Guardians of the Galaxy.) So the guy already has poor articulation, yet they gave him some of the most incomprehensible lines filled with a bunch of space mumbo-jumbo… I have to admit I was frowning pretty hard trying to figure out what he was saying, but then I gave up and spaced out. There was also some pretty heavy-handed cinematic manipulation going on in the ravagers funeral scene in an attempt to make the audiences feel something for a ritual that doesn’t actually exist outside of the film. That actually snapped me out of my suspension of disbelief… cuz they were just trying too hard.

But that being said, the best part of the film is the unending series of running jokes. People coming out of the film will repeat lines like, “You’re beautiful. On the inside.” and crack up! Much to the chagrin of an unsuspecting crowd that hasn’t seen the film. It’s really great fun and full of laughs. It’s not high art or anything but I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

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I think that’s it for this post! See you guys soon!

Ghost in the Shell (1995) Vs (2017)

From the 2017 live-action remake trailer itself, I already knew there were two major narrative alterations to the original 1995 Original Video Animation (OVA) that I didn’t like and didn’t agree with. Watching the film only confirmed my suspicions that these were poor changes to make.

For the purposes of this entry, I will refer to the 1995 OVA as Ghost (1995) and the recent remake as Shell (2017) cuz that’s how i feels about them >_<

Existential Crisis in Ghost (1995)

In Ghost (1995), having android parts was more or less status quo. There was no evil corporation out to exploit their human customers. This streamlined the animation’s philosophical enquiry into the nature and value of human existence. It allowed the film to create multiple characters that functioned as clear foils to one another, with each character adding more and more focus to the central question of what is a “ghost.”

There are the side characters with token android enhancements like the super speed typing android fingers, or Batou’s electronic eyes. These characters represented the norm. Then, there were the two extremes – Togusa who was transferred into Section 9 because he is mostly human, and Major Motoko Kusanagi who is all android, except for her human brain. In a poignant exchange between Togusa and Kusanagi, the film weaves in an explanation of how these characters are meant to function as counterpoint to one another (without sounding like heavy-handed exposition):

Togusa: … There’s something I’ve wanted to ask ever since I’ve started. Why did you transfer a guy like me from the Police Force?

Major: Because we need a guy like you… except for a slight brain augmentation, your body is almost completely human. If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable. And there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple. Over-specialise and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.

Togusa, thus, is the human element – random, creative, supposedly not overspecialized the way the other members of Section 9 are. Much like the random mutation in a genetic code, he is generative of new potential, he introduces diversity/diversification. And to be sure, this film is about the evolution of humanity, from man to android. Togusa’s role in the thematic scheme of things is reinforced by how he is the one to spot that Section 6 has been infiltrated by someone wearing thermoptic camouflage. Unfortunately, in the live-action remake, Togusa plays a much reduced role.

So, together, these three categories of characters places the human experience in this fictional world along a spectrum and implicitly asks audiences to consider what constitutes humanness. This line of questioning is mostly carried by the main character, Major Kusanagi who struggles with her identity .

If we have an android limb or android organ like a liver that can help us breakdown alcohol faster, are we still human? Most people would say, yes. But in the case of Kusanagi who only has a human brain, is she still human? If you say, yes, what does that say about the way we value the brain – repository of memory and experience – as the locus of identity? Is humanness found in the brain/mind or the body? If you no longer look like you, are you still the same person? The Ghost in the Shell manga, actually has Batou sourcing for a male android body to store Kusanagi’s mind in; at the end of the OVA, Major’s mind is transferred into a child android body since her original body is completely destroyed.

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The film also asks if having a completely android body, changes the brain/mind and makes a person less human? Consider the end of the film when Kusanagi rips up and destroys her own body trying to disable the spider tank. The lack of self-preservation instinct, the willing and careless destruction of the body, is something most humans cannot fathom, but is something Kusanagi with her android body can do despite her human brain. It’s an act that screams how unlike a human she has become.

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What further complicates the film’s focus on questioning the boundaries of authentic human existence and its value is the introduction of the Puppet Master – a spontaneously occurring Artificial Intelligence. With the appearance of the Puppet Master, the value previously attributed to Togusa gets short-circuited. In the face of a fully sapient, hyper-intelligent being, the value of human identity and human consciousness is undercut. It would seem that all we’re left with is the next step to the evolutionary process, the true hybridization of man and machine. This is represented by Kusanagi’s decision to join the Puppet Master at the end of the OVA.

By joining with the Puppet Master, the text opens up. It becomes generative, it prompts thought experiments, and intelligent guesses about what comes next. What is this larger existence/android consciousness that Kusanagi now gets to experience?

In some sense, I can’t help but feel that Her (2013) is like a spiritual sequel that represents what this other android-consciousness-led world is like. When Samantha (Scarlett Johansson)  tells Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is having 8,316 other conversations while she is talking to him and admits to being in love with 641 others, there is an expansiveness to the cybernetic universe she exists in, and a freedom from human taboo because she’s not just involved in polyamory but polyamory on such a massive and inconceivable scale.

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Instead, we got the 2017 Live-Action remake. Right off the bat, instead of asking audiences questions and giving audiences an opportunity to work things out on their own, we’re given a hefty chunk of exposition explicitly telling us what a “ghost” (Your mind! Your Consciousness!) is and what a “shell” (Your Android Body!) is.

Instead of a spontaneously spawning AI like the Puppet Master, the villain is the company. So while it’s still a film about Man against the Machine, it’s man against the corporate machine. Unfortunately, by celebrating the human individual, the narrative shuts down the exploration of an alternate state of consciousness – one that is larger and beyond our own. Instead we sink back to a human consciousness that occludes all other possibilities. This is selfish and restrictive.

And while Shell (2017) does try valiantly (?) to explore the mind-body split, using race (supposedly) to augment the discussion of identity by suggesting a post-racial future, this narrative thread only fed the flames of the film’s white-washing controversy.

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So, spoiler alert, but the trajectory of Major’s search for her identity, leads her to discover that she’s been Motoko Kusanagi all along! A Japanese woman’s brain trapped in a white woman’s body! And don’t let me get started on the gravestone they gave her……….. ergh. So ugly. Tolong arh, more effort, can or not?!

The thing that struck me the most about this film is how the trajectory of her search takes her into the past instead of the future. This closes off the text, takes away the generative potential of the original narrative, and ultimately makes for some very regressive story-telling.

I understand that the film tried to do with race what the original did with gender, which is to turn it into a lyrical mode of expression, and a means by which to explore the subject matter. However, in order for race to have been used more successfully, it would have to have been seeded much earlier, and with greater frequency throughout the text.

This leads me to the other thing I didn’t like about the remake – the way the took gender out of the equation.

Gender in Ghost (1995)

The female body in Ghost (1995) is more than just the character’s physical form, it is the means by which the subject matter of the OVA is rigorously interrogated:

It is also possible to argue that, rather than making Kusanagi a feminist icon, Oshii is instead using her vulnerable female body and the “feminine” lyrical mode of the film itself to underline the vulnerability of all human beings in a world that is increasingly governed by oppressive and incomprehensible outside forces.

  • Susan J. Napier, “Doll Parts” from Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

This means the female body and elements associated with the feminine lyrical mode like water to represent the fluidity of the female identity and its potential for hybridization  makes Ghost (1995) a film that uses gender as a tool or technique to express ideas about the subject matter.

What’s more impressive is how these ideas are often represented subtly, and non-verbally.

This actually reminds me of my first contact with the film. I was in Secondary 2, and the year was 2000. Back then, Singapore still had Premiere 12 as a channel, and every month there would be Wednesday night movies, all programmed to fit a theme. Ghost in the Shell was one out of 4 animes being shown that month (the others were Spriggan, Wolf’s Rain, and Yu Yu Hakusho).

I remember turning the TV off after the first 5-10min of the OVA after watching Kusanagi disrobe to activate her thermoptic camouflage. I immediately thought it was one of those exploitative OVAs that fit the stigma that anime had that all of it was hentai in some way.

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Looking back now, that reaction wasn’t so far off from the truth. It is uncomfortable watching the nude female form on broadcast TV. It is awkward to get nude-ish to fight. The sense of discomfort and awkwardness comes from the enculturated knowledge that the female form is delicate, vulnerable, kept hidden.  Yet the film really plays up its use of the female form. From Kusanagi’s creation sequence to her thermoptics get-up to the final fight in the film where her body is completely torn up.

The dislocation of gender from denotative meanings is represented most acutely by the Puppet Master. As a non-gendered (over-gendered?) AI, he is a male voice issuing from a nude female body. Kusanagi’s own dislocation between mind and body is seen in her lack of embarrassment from being almost nude a lot of the time. This is seen in not just her thermoptic suit but how she undresses in front of Batou and he is the one who is embarrassed.

So for audiences the cognitive dissonance comes in the form of female bodies not behaving like female bodies – Major who is an accomplished fighter, male voices in female bodies, destroyed female bodies.

This cognitive dissonance helps to imbue Kusanagi with a subtle sense of otherness where even her smaller gestures add up to make audiences doubt her humanity despite her human brain.

Kusanagi’s otherness is also reinforced by how attempts to humanize her continuously comes from external sources – namely Batou. In the OVA, his attraction to her, his awareness of her femaleness and his need to clothe her, help to include her as part of the  human race. Kusanagi even says at one point:

That’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.

But eventually, her Otherness, her femaleness, her predisposition towards hybridization because she is woman, lead her towards union with the Puppet Master.

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All of these subtleties were of course jettisoned in the Live-Action remake because there was no Puppet Master, no AI, just a Japanese boy (Hideo) in a caucasian android body.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The ultimate movie of the year so far is, without a doubt,  The Lego Batman Movie.

In order to appreciate the magic of The Lego Batman Movie, one must first talk about The Lego Movie (2014). When The Lego Movie came out, everyone thought it was just a cash grab and no one expected how enjoyable and how intelligent the film would be.

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(But it’s totally still a cash grab!)

The Lego Movie, took a good long look at user patterns and behaviours and wove that into a compelling narrative about conforming, following instructions versus being a rule-breaker and using the basic Lego piece as a building block for creating entirely new narratives and universes.

The other aspect of the film that gave fans an extra kick was the ease with which the film brought together characters from different narrative universes like characters from the Justice League and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars and many many more. For this to take place in a time when IP rights is a constant source of conflict between studios whether it’s about who owns the rights to the X-Men franchise or the Fantastic Four, or whether we’ll ever see any of these characters interact with other Marvel characters like Spiderman, and the Avengers, is the icing on the cake.

And on top of all this, you have that kickass song – Everything is Awesome! An earworm sure to possess your headspace after you hear it.

So when it came to The Lego Batman Movie, I was so sure they would not be able to top that. Boy, was I sorely mistaken. This movie is ALL the Batman you could ever want. From Adam West onward, the film lovingly pokes fun at all the incarnations of Batman including the 1990s Warner Brothers animated series and the godawful Joel Schumacher Batmans.

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And all the Batman villains you could ever want too >_<

A huge part of the success of the film stems from the long history that Batman as an IP has had. Coming out of the theatre I had a really strong urge to tell people that there is no story. Instead the metanarrative of the Batman franchise has been brought down to the level of narrative.

I’m not sure if I’m overreaching with theory here but it almost feels like the Lego movies have become another layer of the carnivalesque. The Lego movies exist very much in the same strata as fanfiction and other fanworks where the narrative space of the movies (and the toy actually) become this alternate space to experiment with canon narratives very much like how all fictional spaces function as a carnivalesque spaces to experiment with the status quo of reality. The best part is that all of this is only possible with Lego. It’s almost as if the toy is a medium all of its own that’s different from that of CGI or stop-motion because of the business-end of how the IPs are distributed and understood between the toy company and the owners of the original superhero/fantasy IPs like Marvel/Disney/etc.

I love everything about this film. Everything about this film is amazing. From the Batman-Joker reverse love story, to the homoerotic undertones of Robin’s underpants. I couldn’t stop laughing from the moment Batman started talking, all the way to the end. And I very much want to watch this film in theatres again.

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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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Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water. Actually, my appreciation of Elle and Hell or High Water is roughly the same. The reason why I’m looking at Hell or High Water first is simply a matter of personal taste. The Wild West/Western aesthetic of Hell or High Water just appeals to me less compared to the Rape-Revenge generic conventions used in Elle. Both films are Oscar nominated films and both deliciously dense and multi-layered. But in my opinion, they’re also not films you’d watch just for fun, which is why I’m saving The Lego Batman Movie for last 😉

Hell or High Water is a David Mackenzie film about two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who commit a series of bank robberies in order to get back at Texas Midlands Bank which is threatening to foreclose on their family farm.

The lasting impression I had of the film is that it is a cross-generational film about the evolving hierarchy of peoples and characters in a Western. I say this because on one hand it is a heist film, but on the other hand, it also has all the trappings of a Western, all the syntactic elements of the genre, if you will.

For instance, the element of the wild is represented by the bank-robbing outlaw brothers. Civilisation is represented by the law in the form of Jeff Bridges’ lawman, Marcus Hamilton, a racial epithet spouting senior on the cusp of retirement who spends most of his dialogue verbally abusing his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Bermingham), a Catholic of Comanche descent. This cop duo unabashedly represent the old guard of Western films. The way Hamilton continuously harangues Parker despite his respect and camaraderie with him speaks to the complicated relationship between the cowboy and the red indian in old Westerns.

Speaking of cowboys, the film also makes it a point to dot the landscape with real cowboys trying to drive cattle and being chased to the edge of the plain by a brush fire. The hard work and the tough living of the lifestyle is captured in Hamilton’s line about how it’s no wonder being a cowboy is a dying trade amongst the younger generation.

Finally, apart from the sweeping shots of a sprawling landscape that somehow manages to look more barren that rich with opportunity for one to venture further west to reinvent oneself, the film also ends with a gun fight. However, this gunfight is not a one-on-one draw. This gunfight uses high-powered rifles with scopes and semi-automatic weapons.

Watching this film, the line that stood out the most to me was when Tanner Howard gets into a confrontation with a Comanche at a poker table:

Bear: I am a Comanche. Do you know what it means? It means ‘Enemy to everyone’.

Tanner Howard: Do you know what that makes me? A Comanche.

This reminded me of something else I’d read recently about how the “redneck” has been rewritten as the “redskin”:

[It] is not just the demonizing mechanism that the city-revenge films have inherited from the western. It is the redskin himself – now rewritten as the redneck. If “redneck” once denoted a real and particular group, it has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the “someone else” held responsible for all manner of American social ills. The great success of the redneck in that capacity suggests that anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic of racial terms have become projected onto a safe target – safe not only because it is (nominally) white, but because it is infinitely displaceable onto someone from the deeper South or the higher mountains or the further desert (one man’s redneck is another man’s neighbour, and so on).

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

Except that this narrative has changed. In Trump’s American, the blame can no longer be endlessly displaced onto some generic group of people on the fringes of society. The disenfranchised low-income whites in America have been pushed so far out into the margins that they have had nowhere else to go but start an inward trek into the centre of politics by any means necessary, even if it means backing a megalomaniac that’s more likely to dismantle the system than save them because what’s the point of supporting a system that has ousted them to the furthest reaches of society?

And in Hell or High Water, we see how this group of people are humanised and made sympathetic through the Howard brothers. So instead of simply being the wild, and the disruptive element in a civilised landscape, they are the characters you root for. We see this time and time again in how the locals simply can’t be bothered to help the authorities. What more, the law/legal authorities have become ciphers – displaced and men out of time – henchmen of the banks and a corrupt financial system that continues to rob and bankrupt a people.

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Blitz Reviews (& Spoilers): A Cure for Wellness (2017); Split (2017)

I’ve watched a number of films in the last couple of weeks and I’d like to use this blogpost to say a few things about them.

Firstly, these are the films I’ve watched:

  1. A Cure for Wellness (2017)
  2. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
  3. Split (2017)
  4. Elle (2016)
  5. Hell or High Water (2016)

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So in the tradition of keeping the best for last, let’s start with A Cure for Wellness. Till now I have yet to puzzle out what the main message of the film is in part because it was trying to do so many things that I left the theatre with just a series of questions:

What does the secret lake under the sanitorium and the incestuous backstory of the Baron have to do with the first half of the film about the corporate rat race? Why did the film have such a compelling marriage of word and image in the line about humans being the only species capable of self-reflection when the second half of the film is more mystery than self-reflection? How is the Cure for Wellness actually made? Does one have to ingest the 300-year old magical eels? Is this necessary if there is already something small and moving and alive in the water already? How is it converted into the mysterious orangey-brown liquid? Why do the patients at the sanitorium not know that they’re being used as a purification system to create said cure? Why is Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) the only one who realises that there’s something odd with the place if everyone receives the same treatment? Is there hypnosis involved (I’m guessing… there was no mention of hypnosis)? Why did leaving the sanitorium to grab a beer with Lockhart help Hannah (Mia Goth) enter into womanhood? Is the magic locale bound? Is physical innocence also a mental state?

And finally, and most importantly, in a film that showed us  worms, then eels, why did we not graduate to snakes or giant snake monsters by the end of the film? I found this to be the most disappointing thing about the film. No. Giant. Snake. Monsters.

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Next, Split. With Split, it’s not so much that it’s not a good movie, rather it’s more about how the film has been grossly overhyped. Split is a nice, neat little film with a clear premise. The believability about the premise regarding Split Personality Disorder gives the film just the right amount of creep factor that when the film carries this premise to its logical conclusion, the film ends in a satisfactorily manner.

James McAvoy’s performance in this little thriller is impressive too. Although my one gripe is that I wished there was more of an explanation of why Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) failed to see that Kevin Wendall Crumb, who already has 23 personalities, couldn’t have a 24th.

The easter egg at the end that puts Split in the same cinematic universe as Unbreakable (2000) was a nice touch for fans familiar with M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre, but at the end of the day, also a little superfluous.

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OMG. Such fantastic fanart O_O

 

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.