The Film is the Answer

This is going to be a pretty experiential post borne of the felicitous combination of media that I have been exposed to over the last couple of weeks. So if you’re expecting some kind of high-minded analysis of film style and what not… er… you probably won’t find that so much in this post. This one’s gonna be more stream of consciousness as I drift from one title to the next.

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So last week I finished watching Man to Man (Apr-Jun 2017, 16 episodes) starring Park Hae-jin, Park Sung-woong, and Kim Min-jung. The series is written by Kim Won-suk of Descendants of the Sun (Feb-Apr 2016, 16 episodes) fame, and directed by Lee Chang-min. First off, it’s definitely got the same black-ops military guy falling in love with a plain Jane trope going on that we last saw in Descendants. But personally, I felt it was a little more coherent and consistent in the character development.

I never said this out loud but I thought Descendants had some trouble balancing the plot and the romance halves of the series. I enjoyed the two-episode story arcs but I found the romance in Descendants tedious. Conversely, I think Man to Man is more fun because it’s more plot heavy. It has the established TV series plot structure that one is more familiar with in American dramas that typically features the “interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” (Mittell 19). This involves the “interweaving [of] long-term story arcs within the frameworks of clearly defined episodic parameters” (Mittell 20).

To give you a bit of context, Man to Man has a larger story arc that involves the main character, Ghost Agent K (Park Hae-jin), covertly investigating how his predecessor was killed and tracking down the wooden statues which hold the key to his final message. But the episodes themselves are broken up into various “missions” that bring him closer to resolving the main narrative arc. Then peppered throughout these smaller “mission” story arcs, there’s a bit of romance sprinkled in on the side. Conversely, Descendants always struck me more as smaller episodic arcs that are hung on the main narrative which IS the romance plot between the two leads.

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I’m probably going to sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but the next thing I really liked about Man to Man is that it doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s filled with McGuffins that provide just enough forward momentum for the plot from episode to episode but the bulk of the entertainment comes from some very amusing character relationships that thankfully did not all centre on the romance between the male and female lead. I particularly enjoyed the bromance between Ghost K/Kim Sul-woo and Hallyu superstar Park Woon-gwang (Park Sung-woong). And I thought the Undercover Agent-Handler relationship between Ghost K and Lee Dong-hyun (Jeong Man-sik) was portrayed very feelingly.

I think a lot of the enjoyment I got out of this series also stemmed from how Park Hae-jin seemed to be self-reflexively playing against type. Let me explain. If every Hallyu star got reduced down to a specific, signature quality they had, Park Hae-jin’s would be his dead eyes. Those dead staring eyes have landed him a whole slew of psychopathic/sociopathic characters, so much so that he has been typecast.

[Seriously, he was a sympathetic secondary villain in Doctor Stranger (May-Jul 2014, 20 episodes), a very believable “psychopath” in Bad Guys (Oct-Dec 2014, 11 episodes), and a possibly sociopathic male lead in Cheese in the Trap (Jan-Mar 2016, 16 episodes).]

Man, it’s high time that guy caught a break cuz Mmm! He looks good enough to eat! And while the first couple of episodes really foreground him as a lie-detector defeating cool customer who works in the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) Ghost programme (the NIS’ version of Treadstone/Blackbriar), the rest of the series sees him playing a standard Kdrama romantic lead.

Anyway, the thing about this Kdrama that really caught my attention is how for the longest time in the second half of the series, I thought the series was moving towards a Coen Brothers-esque conclusion. By this I mean I thought it was going to conclude with a self-reflexive, genre-breaking twist where the stymied production of a romance flick for Hallyu star, Park Woon-gwang, becomes the answer to the systemic corruption within the NIS.

The kind of generic twist I’m thinking about would put the Kdrama in the company of Hollywood films like The Nice Guys (2016), Argo (2012), Inglourious Basterds (2009) (the irony that none of these films are written or directed by the Coen Brothers does not escape me… -_-“). But in these three films, the films featured within the films are literally the answer to resisting oppression, corruption, and saving the day.

Just a quick run down of what I mean by the film being the answer in the three films I reference above:

  • the porn film in the canister everyone is chasing in The Nice Guys is spliced with  damning footage about the corruption within the car and gas industry
  • in Argo the film production is the pretext used to disguise the extraction of six Americans held hostage in Iran by militants in 1979
  • and in a historical revisionist, wish-fulfilment sequence in Inglourious Basterds, a Jewish woman splices a film with footage of herself mocking Hitler and his high-ranking Nazis into a special screening for said people. She mocks them from the screen, they come to the realisation that they are trapped in a theatre and destined to burned to death.

The level of self-reflexivity, if Man to Man had used the Romance film to dismantle the corruption, would have really hit the sweet spot for me because that level of self-reflexivity would have transformed Man to Man into a non-representational drama capable of abstracting, fragmenting, and foregrounding the materials and processes of the genre (Stam 151). In so doing, it would have carried out the Brechtian function of self-reflexivity of “laying bare society’s causal network” (qtd. in Stam 153), to expose a culturally and historically determinate set of conventions to do with romance. Because, make no mistake, Romance in Kdrama is a key export from S. Korea.

Instead, the series opted for a slight shift in genre by using a live television broadcast to entrap the villains. While it’s a very slight shift in TV genre (because I mean whether it’s a film, a talkshow, a drama, it’s all still media), I felt this made the series somewhat less satisfying because the plot did not quite return full circle to comment on the formalistic elements of the controlling TV genre that the Kdrama itself takes.

To continue with this theme of the film being the answer, it so happened that upon finishing Man to Man, I was looking for something else to watch and I stumbled upon Silenced (2011). This film is also known as Do-ga-ni and The Crucible.

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Now here’s a film in which the film is literally the answer. Dogani is based on a book of the same title published in 2009 about the egregious abuse of students between 2000-2005 that went on in Gwangju Inhwa School, a school set up for the hearing-impaired.

The horror behind this event is two-fold. After the actual physical and sexual abuse nine (but many suspect more) students of the school were repeatedly subjected to over the course of five years, when a human rights group finally managed to bring the case to court, the guilty parties were given sentences so embarrassingly light that it boggles the mind that there was not more of a public outcry when the initial news broke. Even the publication of the whistleblower’s account of ongoings in the school in 2009 barely caused a ripple.

Instead, it was only after the wide release of Dogani in local theaters in 2011, and after it was watched by more than 4 million S. Koreans, that there was any reaction to this horrifying tale. Shortly after the film, a bill dubbed the ‘Dogani bill’ was passed unanimously into law. The bill got rid of the statute of limitations on cases of rape involving minors and the handicapped, and increased the sentences for those convicted of such a crime. More on the Dogani Law.

In the case of Dogani, the film became the answer because it is a socially responsible narrative told well. While not perfect, there are a few sequences in the film that, formalistically, really stand out.

The first time one of the girls gives her account of what happened to her, the film shifts into an internally focalised representation of her experience in a very subtle and effective manner. Initially, as Yeon-Doo (Kim Hyun-soo) gives her account, the main character, Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo) has to translate her sign language and speak on her behalf. This scene is dense with meaning because as she delivers her account, In-ho’s voice fades out and the visual narrative takes over. This is as if her version of events take precedence, and the audience is made privy to her words and her thoughts are made concrete and no longer filtered through a male voice. A male voice that is made additionally problematic because her assailant is male and her close encounter in a  prior scene was only interrupted but not averted by In-ho who almost walks in on them.

In other internally focalised sequences with minors recounting what happened to them, the film very effectively plays with sound. For example, when a hearing-impaired child walks inexorably towards the sickening source of the sound of the wet slap of flesh on flesh – the drawn out use of dramatic irony is enough to make audiences squirm in their seats.

Perhaps the best achievement of the film was the way it foregrounded cultural and social reasons for the lack of initial response to these heinous crimes. The small town mindset, the ways in which bureaucracy effaces the individual and numbs a person, the social pressures faced by some of the characters just trying to survive made everyone into easy prey, and made everyone complicit in letting the rich and powerful have free reign. A lot of these come across most convincingly in Kang In-ho’s struggle to do the right thing. As a recently widowed man, with a sick child, he needed this job at the school. Needed it enough that he wavered on whether he too should turn a blind eye to these crimes.

There is one particular shot of the character being crushed into a small corner of the frame during a memorial service for his late wife. The double framing drastically shrinks the space within the frame of the shot. Then in the foreground, taking up most of the space, is the table laden with offerings for his late wife. In the background is In-ho’s child coughing up a lung while being soothed by her grandmother. And In-ho sits, freshly weighted down with this new knowledge about the school and its odious administrators, spine bent almost double. In a single frame is all his troubles crowded around him.

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Also in this film, I witnessed one of the more effective uses of slow motion in a Korean film or television series. After being berated by his mother for trying to save others when he can’t even save himself, there is a shot of In-ho walking in slow-motion to the corrupt principal’s office carrying an office plant. The door opens and the occupants are physically abusing a young boy in plain view. There was something about the shot where In-ho gets beckoned into the principal’s office in slow motion, himself a good-looking young man, that makes him look like a potential rape victim too. It is the sad story of reality, where no matter how much older or more adult you get, you’re still getting raped by the system and those with more power than you.

The parting shot of the film was also particularly well done, bearing in mind of course that at the time of the making of the film, the Dogani Law had not even been written yet. The film closes on a poignant shot of a travel ad for the city of Mujin with the tagline “a city of fog.”

If you haven’t seen it before, the film is definitely worth a watch. It’s thoughtfully made and doesn’t let its subject matter down. It was also great to read about how it resulted in social change as well.

Works Cited:

Mittell, Jason. “Complexity in Context.” Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: NYU Press, 2015. 17-54.

Stam, Robert. Introduction to Film Theory. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

 

 

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.

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.

HER


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.

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.

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.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

In my previous post I talked about how lovely it feels when the CGI introduced into a film is imbued with a specific narrative value. This is true of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well.

Most reviews online readily point out that this is a film that tries to embody the look and feel of the 1960s by making it not just the film’s subject matter but by infusing the form of the film with recognisable signs of film stock used in the 1960s – i.e. the use of “cigarette burns” in the top right hand corner of the cell that indicate the end of a reel of film; and the use of the old Universal logo.

But what I found most satisfying about the film was that the seemingly run-of-the-mill use of CGI to lengthen the creepy little girl’s jaw and turn her eyes a milky white in the trailer was not run-of-the-mill at all. These specific effects were chosen because of the specific nature of the ghosts in Ouija.

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The other thing that I really liked and appreciated about the film was the use of the ear as the point of entry for evil. It’s a very classical choice of body orifice to use.

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“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment” (Act I Sc V, 59-64)

It is how Claudius poisons Hamlet’s father, the king, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also a very gender neutral body orifice to use, and one that is grossly under utilised in horror films.

Most possession horror films, you will find, feature possessed women, girls or girls on the cusp of womanhood. Regan from The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), and even Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), whose mother believed her telekinesis came from her being possessed by satan.

In more recent films you have Angela Vidal from [REC] (2007), Mia from the Evil Dead (2013), Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body (2009). The filmmakers of the The Exorcist even made a production choice to change the gender of the possessed child which was based on a true story about the possession of a boy, Roland Doe (a pseudonym given to the victim by the Catholic church to protect the boy’s identity).

The reason why females are the preferred possessed is because of the fluid nature of their gender. This is especially so in the case of the classics. Carrie and Regan were both female protagonists on the cusp of womanhood. Their adolescent natures and the fact that they are both menarcheal women makes their identity especially fluid and impossible to think of them and their bodies as closed vessels. In the case of Rosemary, she is in the unique position of being with child and again this is a time of great change in a woman and a state that suggests an openness to her identity because where does mother end and child begin in a pregnant body?

In the case of Ouija, however, even though the three main protagonists are women, the use of the ear as the orifice through which evil is spread seems to raise the stakes as we see male characters falling prey to possession and the insidious forces at work.

In addition to this, the spread of evil is not from some messy exchange of fluid that we’ve come to expect in horror films (no projectile pea soup vomit or gushing fountains of blood). Instead, evil is spread through these sibilant whispers poured into the ears of ambushed victims.

We never hear what these words are, but one would assume that they are some kind of language. And I thought this was so interesting because language exists in the realm of the Symbolic, the most codified and rational of the three phases of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real).

However, the forceful removal of words, language, and a means of communication from the souls of the victims of torture that have been forced to live out all eternity in the walled off cellar of the house, forced the re-emergence of language to perform an inverted role of giving form to the Real. The Real, according to Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, can be thought of as “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.” In other words, that which escapes language.

This violation of the order of the Symbolic through the return of the Real represented through a kind of reverse language that the spirits speak then represents a different kind of abject that comes to the fore in the film.

The words, the whispers, the spirits, the shameful history that America gave asylum to many a war criminal fleeing from Germany after WWII to find safe haven amongst its masses becomes the effluvia, the abjected bits that the characters are forced to confront, and for the audience where the horror resides.

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I suppose it’s customary to end off a film review with a conclusive statement about whether I liked the film or not. So in case that wasn’t clear in how I waxed theoretical about it, YES, I LIKED IT! It’s a good horror film. It manages its share of jump scares pretty well too, but towards the end the film felt like it was trying to overcompensate a little for the lack of jump scares at the start. So consider yourself warned.

The Girl on the Train (2016) *Spoilers*

I watched The Girl on the Train (2016) today and found myself very perturbed by how my personal reaction to the film didn’t square with the reception it’s been receiving so far, so I thought I’d write a few of my thoughts down to see if I can’t clarify things for myself.

I found that despite the central position given to the three main female characters, the film came off sounding ultra-conservative in terms of its treatment of gender. While trying to rationalise this sentiment I, of course, went to look up the Bechdel Test to see how the film stacks up against the 3 main parameters of the test:

  1. Are there at least 2 named female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about anything other than men?

Yes, there are more than 2 named female characters. In fact, there are 3 main female characters  – Rachel (Emily Blunt), Megan (Haley Bennett), and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). And there are also 2 key side characters – Rachel’s friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), and lead female detective on the missing-person-turned-murder case, Detective Riley (Allison Janney).

Yes, some of them do talk to each other. Rachel converses with Cathy, Det. Riley, and Anna.

Yes, they talk about things other than men:

  • Rachel and Cathy discuss her alcoholism
  • Rachel and Det. Riley discuss Megan’s disappearance

By all accounts, it does pass the Bechdel Test. Actually, BechdelTest.Com itself clearly states that Girl on the Train passes the test.

But anyone who uses the Bechdel Test will be quick to tell you that this test first came about as the punchline to a comic strip that came out in 1985, and when used, must be used with a pinch of salt (Garcia et al. 2014; Balasubramanian et al. 2015, 830-831).

So let me suggest how I would modify these parameters to account for my overwhelming sense of how ultra conservative the film is when it comes to its treatment of gender issues. I think whether or not a film such as Girl on the Train fulfills the Bechdel Test needs to be weighted against whether the female characters that fulfill these requirements are main characters or supporting cast. Once you throw that monkey wrench into the works, everything starts to shift.

  1. Yes, all 3 main female characters are named
  2. Actually, only 2 of the 3 female characters talk to each other
  3. And when Rachel and Anna finally have a substantial exchange of words with each other, it is about the cheating man they share between themselves

The second modification I would make to the Bechdel Test is with regards to the content of an exchange. When looking at content, we must bear in mind that the English language is such that you can’t treat it like mathematics and count by pronouns whether or not these female characters are talking about a man. Words exist in a web of semantic context. Thus, to my eyes and ears, it felt as if the bulk of the essential concerns that drive the film, boil down to these central characters’ relationships with men.

Before going further… READER BEWARE, SPOILER ALERT

Ok. Let me explain my abovementioned claim:

  • Rachel’s defining characteristic is her alcoholism. As the narrative progresses, we are made privy to the fact that the main reason for this stemmed from her inability to conceive. Her barrenness fueled her alcoholism which she believed caused her to lose her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux).
  • Anna’s defining characteristic is that she is a mother. And later we learn that she is the third party that came between Rachel and her ex-husband, Tom. The presence of the baby now becomes simultaneously the wedge driving Tom and Anna apart because she is too exhausted being the perfect mother to play the wife, and that which keeps Tom bound to her despite his numerous extramarital affairs.
  • And the main thing about Megan is that she refuses to have a baby with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). Later, we find out this is because she lost her baby in a tragic accident when she was 17 which resulted in her baby’s father, Matt, leaving her.

Thus, the main concern that seems to possess these women is the idea of motherhood, but motherhood as the essential bedrock of a functioning nuclear family, motherhood as a means to hold on to their man. Not motherhood in and of itself. (And personally, even if it was all about motherhood, that’s still a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be woman.)

This notion is further seconded by how Rachel’s primary impression of both Anna and Megan is that they are “whores” and interchangeably whorish given the similarity in their appearance and behaviour. This is seen in how, as mentioned above, the main exchange between Rachel and Anna is about how Tom is cheating on Anna with Megan. And Rachel’s only direct interaction with Megan is when she calls her a whore while in a drunken stupor that causes her to mistake Megan for Anna.

Here ends my take on how the Bechdel Test can be applied to to The Girl on the Train in a more nuanced manner which shows how poorly it stacks up in terms of representing females as strong independent characters.

I do have some follow up points about the narrative too. The word that kept coming to me over and over again as I stepped out of the theatre earlier today is how incredibly convenient everything is.

I think it’s clear from the trailers that one of the main sources of tension in the film is the unreliable first person narrator because of her alcoholism and how that plays into the whodunit murder case.

What I didn’t expect though is the cheap 180 degree about-turn in the narrative that transformed Tom from a beleaguered man stuck in an unhappy marriage to a raging alcoholic wife, into a maniacal, false-memory implanting, abusive douche. I would have much preferred a nuanced characterisation of men and women stuck in bad situations to the simplistic split between the sexes that had all the men playing physically and emotionally abusive@$$hole$, and the women playing pitiful victims.

Yup. That’s it. Thoughts? Comments? Think I’m talking nonsense? Feel free to comment in the comments section below. Thaaaaanks.