Review: Get Out

*minimal spoilers*


 

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Horror is so often in the mundane—the turn, in an instant, from a walk in a pleasant suburban neighborhood to violence that can end a life. Horror movies have been built on this trope since the beginning, but it is also a potential daily reality for black America. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut underlines this point immediately, layering both classic horror cues and a situation that immediately recalls the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Having established this metaphor—which is less a metaphor than a brutal, direct statement—we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who are headed to her parents’ estate for a weekend. “Do your parents know I’m black?” Chris asks, thinking ahead to a potentially uncomfortable first meeting. It’s a question that most interracial couples have encountered, if not always out loud. “They’re not racist,” Rose replies. “I would have told you.” The idea that Rose can see her own privilege through the veil of her place within the family made me scoff, sitting there in the theater. Chris let it go. It laid the perfect groundwork for the questions the movie would raise: about refusing to see what is in front of us, and about blinding ourselves with more comfortable or more convenient truths.

At every turn, the film explores how the sinister can be folded into the seemingly ordinary, through the specific lens of racialized interactions. As the weekend progresses, Chris attends a party thrown by the Armitages for their friends—wealthy older white people who wear Chris down with a barrage of uncomfortable comments that feel all too realistic. From an older woman who goes straight for Chris’ arm muscles, to a comment by Rose’s brother containing the phrase “genetic makeup,” there’s a growing burden on Chris to smile through it all. The premise lends itself brilliantly to horror—after all, aren’t moviegoers already primed to feel a slightly sickening sense of unease and dread when it comes to the sight of a young black man alone in a crowd of older white people? We don’t even need the context of a horror movie to know that historically, and in the present moment as well, there is potential for racialized violence there. Is the awkwardness caused by “benign” racism fueled by mere ignorance? Does it mask, like a KKK hood, the real racist beneath? Like all good horror films, Get Out heightens a particular social anxiety to the point of frenzy. In this case, it’s about accurately judging the depths of a person’s discrimination. Being able to tell the difference between an awkward social encounter and a more sinister racist depth is everything.

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It also delivers a pointed send-up of the microaggressive well-meaning white liberal, since racism is not, in fact, the sole domain of southern evangelicals. The film makes a point of emphasizing Rose’s sympathy for Chris’ situation and her father’s insistent ally-ism (including an absurdist moment where he discusses an ancestor happily losing to Jesse Owens under Hitler’s watchful eyes). Well-intentioned civility can, and does, coexist with the kind of casual cruelty and uncaring evil that will put the good of the tribe first—even among the educated and self-proclaiming liberal.

These are signs that Chris chooses to ignore, or to subsume, time and time again. In his character, we get not only a stand-in for the threatened black male body (among a white cocktail party, or on the side of the highway facing a white cop), but also a figure for the kind of accommodation that white supremacy exacts. We can get along well, the movie says in the beginning, as long as you’re willing to bend a little. Overlook moments of discomfort so that everything will go smoothly. Eventually, this is a road that leads him straight down a nightmare, as the stakes of his attrition rise higher and higher. Chris spends so much of the movie accepting his own discomfort, in situations that seem plausibly microaggressive, that he can no longer see the true nature of the threat in front of him. The other black characters at the Armitages’ house are so accommodating, genial, and blank that the audience is supposed to know something is wrong—but they’re not the only ones bending over backwards just a little too much.

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It’s difficult to discuss the movie further without giving away its biggest plot twists—but rest assured that, though the actual plot isn’t exactly subtle in the end, it is immensely satisfying. There is, as a friend noted when we left the theater, absolutely no redemption for white characters in this movie. And that’s ok. This is one movie, out of hundreds and thousands of movies, where the discussion begins and ends on the side of the black characters. The discomfort is insistent, vivid—a perfect counterbalance to the kind of palliative conversations that revolve around white supremacy and “the alt-right.”



Verdict? Five stars. Watch immediately.

 

 

 

What to Read Next? Victorian Heroines Edition

This post is part of a mini-series by I.C. on female characters, both heroes and villains. Find the rest of the series here and here. 

victorian-2Those Acro Collective readers who incline toward the bookish will agree with me that there’s nothing better than a complex heroine in whose struggles you can become invested.  Victorian novels are particularly rich with such characters, coming as they do from an era in which women were beginning to call their society’s strict gender roles into question.  Below are five heroines of Victorian fiction whom you’ve hopefully already met.  (If not, do!).  Based on which one you prefer, I’ve suggested other novels, either other Victorian novels or contemporary novels set in the Victorian era (or both), with similarly engaging female protagonists.    

If you like Jane Eyre, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) Continue reading “What to Read Next? Victorian Heroines Edition”

Feminists Watch: Documentaries (Great Ones from 2015)

By I.C.

January is always a time for looking backward as well as forward, and as 2016 gets underway I’ve been reflecting back on the cultural events that defined 2015 for me.  One of the things that strikes me is what a great year it was for documentaries.  I am an avid fan of documentaries, and, as 2016 opened with Netflix’s documentary miniseries Making a Murderer as the year’s first pop cultural obsession, I’m clearly not alone. In recent years the genre has become particularly effective at combining entertainment with vital insights and even the capacity for inspiring activism and real social change. (See: The Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three, spanning 1996 to 2011, or 2013’s Blackfish.)  Following this trend, some of 2015’s most acclaimed and compelling filmmaking came from this genre.  So here are four of the best from 2015, in case you missed them, with a synopsis and also a suggestion of what these documentaries offer particularly to a feminist viewer. Whether you’re looking for eye-opening insight or a chance to funnel righteous indignation into action for a cause, these films have something for you. Continue reading “Feminists Watch: Documentaries (Great Ones from 2015)”

The Mindy Project Recap: Season 4 Episode 2 (“C is for Coward”)

In case you missed episode one’s recap: here ya go.

I guess Hulu is staking its claim closer to traditional TV formats than Netflix, because every time I pull up this Hulu Original, I’m surprised that it’s being released one episode at a time. Do you know how hard it is to be denied my episode binge, especially for something light and fluffy like TMP?

Some things to start us off:

  1. Mindy has so many cute pajama sets. Not surprising given her colorful wardrobe. But it is really amazing.
  2. Danny persistently swings between immensely likeable (see: Diamond Dan) and kind of terrible (see: this episode).

Here we go!

Mindy and Danny lie in bed, discussing potential baby names. Mindy muses that they’ll probably need a gender-neutral name, in case the baby’s trans—leading us to her use of the inventive pronoun “herm.” I get the sense that, true to character, Mindy’s interest in the baby’s potential trans identity is more of her trend-mongering than anything else. At least it came up on the show, if not in the most serious way.

Mindy leans over and says she’s horny, leading Danny to protest that he doesn’t want the baby to…feel his dick? I guess? I’m not a doctor and, ostensibly, Danny is an ob-gyn, so I suppose he knows what he’s talking about. But is that possible? Eh.

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When Danny keeps resisting, Mindy huffs that she doesn’t need him and that she’ll just draw her own erotica. In a kind of endearing moment, Danny watches in amusement as she takes out a notebook and starts nodding and making appreciative noises. “You’re just drawing 69 over and over.”

In the office, the show continues a schtick that no one really cares about: unlikeable Dr. Jeremy Reed (I actually had to look up his name for a second). TMP has a kind of uneven time giving its secondary characters (ie. not Mindy or Danny) screentime/personalities/jokes. It often feels a little belabored (har har see what I did there? no? ok.) Anyway, Dr. Reed is dating some woman and wants to take the office to dinner to show her he has friends. Whatever.

Meanwhile, Mindy and Morgan prepare for the Fertility Expo, where they will be trying to convince young women in their 20s to freeze their eggs. When they try their spiel on “young, millenial” Tamra, she pulls up a video by the Deslaurier midwives, who have made a winky political-spot type ad against “big fertility” treatments like in vitro/egg freezing/pills. As they walk through a serene nature spot, the brothers advocate for natural birth, aka “Paleo birth.” It’s very tongue in cheek and pretty well done.

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Mindy, Danny, and Morgan tour the luxe birthing suite that Mindy has booked for a “5 Day Knockout Cesarean.” While there, Mindy and Danny argue about whether or not she should use drugs, or whether she should try for a more natural procedure. Danny seems invested in some kind of “magic of childbirth” idea, which….is kind of not surprising, but very annoying all the same. Mindy is a doctor, of all things. She knows what she’s doing. Also there’s a little thing called bodily autonomy, hello?

After this meeting, Danny goes to see the Deslaurier midwives (betrayal!!) and talks with Brendan about possible ways to induce childbirth naturally (and there are weird power plays embedded in their interaction, of course). When Mindy gets home that night, Danny’s done it up big: tons of candles, a verrrry spicy arrabiatta (mmm), a stimulating massage, and, of course, an attempt at sex that gets derailed when Mindy discovers the copy of Paleo Birth Danny’s stashed under a couch cushion.
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They have a fight as Danny insists that the pain of childbirth can be a beautiful thing (ugh). He seems very convinced that this ability to withstand the pain naturally will be an indicator of the kind of mother Mindy will be. Finally, Mindy reminds him that she, too, is an ob/gyn and she knows that childbirth is basically a nightmare.

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Back in the office, Mindy and Morgan get ready to head down to the expo. Morgan is alternately a good friend and kind of inexplicable, both reminding Mindy that no man should tell her what to do with the baby, and then offering to keep the baby in by yelling at her stomach: “sit, boy! stay!”

Dr. Reed stops by Danny’s office to chat, then catches him admitting that he isn’t going to the Expo…so he’s free to go to dinner with Jeremy and his girlfriend. “Now Whitney will see what great friends I have! Yes!” This is sad, without purpose, untempered by humor. Whatever, Dr. Reed.

On the train to the Expo, Mindy tries in vain to get a seat, but her coworkers refuse to offer theirs up. Morgan spots the Deslauriers down the car and invites them to stand with them, despite Mindy’s hissed protest. “No Morgan, we hate them!” Brendan makes rude comments (“when did you have the baby, Mindy?”), as expected. Aaaand then Mindy starts having contractions. My nightmare.

Morgan tries to tell a joke about a banana and silverware on a date, to cover up the fact that Mindy is having contractions.
Morgan tries to tell a joke about a banana and silverware on a date, to cover up the fact that Mindy is having contractions.

Of course, a man falls onto the tracks while filming a viral video, forcing the train to a stop. Mindy, in a panic, yells, “WELL RUN HIM OVER ALREADY!” Bless you, Mindy. Never change.

Brendan Deslaurier announces that she’s going to have the baby on the subway. Of course, he uses this as an opportunity to make a general announcement to the train that, though his methods are usually for “younger and more athletic women,” Mindy is going to use the Paleo method.

Danny meets Dr. Reed outside a fancy restaurant, where Dr. Reed nervously informs Danny that he’s hired some improv actors to play the part of his friends.  While they talk, Dr. Reed drops some surprising insight: that Mindy is terrified, and when she’s terrified, she tends to pretend that the scary thing isn’t happening. Finally, the show takes a moment to acknowledge that he’s a character who’s been around for four seasons (and even slept with Mindy in season one), not just a one-off sad sack. Danny gets a text from Morgan saying they’re trapped on the train, and rushes off to see Mindy.

Brendan coaches Mindy to recite her "mantra," which is, hilariously, "save my money and spend his."
Brendan coaches Mindy to recite her “mantra,” which will help focus and soothe her.

On the train, Mindy panics as her contractions continue. “I just want my birthing suite and my playlist!” she cries (valid complaint, Mindy.) Duncan offers to play her something, which temporarily gets her hopes up—and in a surreal TV moment, he starts to play “I’ve been working on the railroad” while everyone else joins in and Mindy starts to cry.

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Danny gets an intense running montage as he races from the restaurant, breaks through the police barrier, and finally appears in the subway car alongside Mindy, who screams for drugs and tries to get Tamra to slap her unconscious by insulting Beyonce (after the slap: “That did nothing and I’ve betrayed Beyonce!” Mindy sobs.) Danny finally pulls through and redeems himself for the fuckery of his episode, slightly. He knows Mindy well, I’ll give him that, because his words of comfort are that she’s a “stone cold bitch” and stronger than anyone he knows. You’ve gotta know that to Mindy, being called a cold, strong bitch is a great compliment. He even, after looking around nervously to see if Annette is behind him or something, concedes that she’s even stronger than his ma. Words of love from Danny.

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Finally, Mindy and Danny (and Morgan) share a tender moment at the hospital. Mindy says she’s exhausted and asks Danny to name the baby. After a short pause, he suggests the name Leo. “Like Leonardo DiCaprio,” Mindy says, satisfied. “No, like Leonardo Da Vinci!” Danny protests. Of course. Morgan chimes in that the baby is “too small to be a Tookers baby,” which…lol.

And finally, we end on a nice sweet shot of the hospital window as the rest of the team comes in to offer their congratulations and see the baby.

Straight Outta Sexism

I went to see Straight Outta Compton with my friend who’s a screenwriter; he mentioned beforehand how he had read a few scathing reviews about its sexism. I was excited about the film because it felt significant and timely. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in an unprecedented way and the recent murder of black Cincinnatian Samuel Dubose by a white officer, and the officer’s subsequent indictment, hit close to home. All of this is relevant when N.W.A.’s. “Fuck Tha Police” comes to mind. (N.W.A. stands for ‘Niggaz Wit Attitudes,’ and is the group portrayed in the film, featuring mostly Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube.) While I am aware of the weight of intersectionality in dealing with oppression, I wasn’t even thinking about the obvious misogyny in the group’s lyricism and members’ lives.

Continue reading “Straight Outta Sexism”

Magic Mike XXL: Pleasure in the Crowd [Movie Review]

Two women go to a matinee showing of Magic Mike XXL.

[Spoilers ahead, though it’s hard to spoil a movie that cares so little about its plot. Knowing the narrative trajectory shouldn’t ruin anybody’s experience of this movie.]

What we were expecting:

EL: The first Magic Mike was a movie about capitalism masquerading as a movie about abs, and I was really convinced that the sequel would dump the capitalism and hit heavy on the abs. And, for the most part, it did just that. The burlesque set pieces were spectacular, and the drama over money and entrepreneurial ambition was kept to a minimum. What was unexpected was the amount of time the movie dedicated to sitting with male friendship—just letting us watch while men talked to each other. Not in high intensity, the-bomb’s-about-to-blow situations, but during the conversations that happen when six men go on a nostalgic road trip together. I was also preparing for some great female gaze moments, which did not disappoint, and I was thankful that we weren’t forced to endure much of a romance plot. When you go to see a strip show, you don’t want to think about your stripper’s girlfriend, and the same holds true in a movie about strippers.

KS: I hadn’t seen the first movie so I had no idea what to expect. I think I was hoping for a dance movie/ female gaze romp and on that account I was not disappointed. For me, the movie reflects its knowledge of the assumed audience demographic (straight women, maybe middle-aged), but I was pleasantly surprised in the various ways this was manifested: the way the men talked to and about women, moments of sheer gratuitous fun (bonus points for showing pleasure on everyone’s faces!), and the diversity in the mass of women who made up the audience. Actually, the movie’s efforts to engulf viewers in its fantasy was one of my favorite parts—we could have easily been a part of the audience at the stripper convention which is conveniently held on July 4th weekend…

Things we liked:

EL: It was strange to me how little women signified in this movie. The love plot was pretty understated, and for the most part women only really showed up as audience members in the strip shows. This mostly worked for me. I liked that the way the movie catered to female desire wasn’t through our identification with a single romantic lead but through the anonymous crowds of women at the shows.

Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter
Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter

KS: Yeah, I was not so into the understated love plot, especially at the moment when Mike pulls his romantic interest onto the stage, breaking the fantasy demarcated by the performance space. It’s significant that in all of the other performances, female desire is embodied by a collective of individual, nameless women. Even though individual women and individual narratives of disenchantment with men and sexuality pepper the movie, ultimately women experience pleasure and gratification together. Adding a named, romantic interest spoils that fantasy—the performance becomes about one woman rather than all women.

EL: Right. Or by watching each other being done-to on the stage of the strip show. Like when Mike pulls his love interest on stage, the real pleasure is all of the women in the audience getting to watch and identify with her physical contact with his body. The woman on stage is the proxy body for all of the women’s desires in the room, which is why the romance plot doesn’t work so well. The strip show is not interested in individual pleasure, but in the collective pleasure made possible by the spectacle of simulated sex.

KS: The romantic plot enables the blurring between the real world of Mike Lane and the performance world of Magic Mike which is a line continually transversed throughout the film. One interesting claim Mike made while he was trying to convince the crew to write new dances is that their repertoire did not reflect them as anything other than stereotypical male entertainers (i.e., none of them were actually firefighters in real life). Thus, for Mike, performance should be connected in some way with reality in order to be authentic. While this certainly lays the ground for the romantic subplot and enables some pretty nifty final dances, it seems like a sketchy claim to me. I suppose the insistence on the reality/performance connection could also be read as a way that men’s fulfillment [albeit psychological] works its way back into a film about female pleasure: the men need to be fulfilled by their performance and that it not possible through providing pleasure alone.

EL: Yeah, the way authenticity works in the performance is really weird. Because pleasure is also strangely inauthentic. Like none of the audience women actually get to have sex with the performers, and none of the performers actually desire the women in the audience, and yet that is the only kind of pleasure that seems to be authentic in the movie. The other, more individual and more traditionally authentic pleasures like actual sex are almost always disappointing. One of the strippers bemoans how his sexual encounters are always frustrating because of a problem related to his dick, and a group of middle-aged women confess that their sex lives with their husbands are less than fantastic even as a genuinely erotic encounter for one of them involves getting a lap-dance and simulated oral sex from one of the strippers.

KS: Also, as flamboyantly performative as the dances are, in some ways they purport to affect healing in the real lives of women as individuals (even though the pleasure is experienced via the collective). In the example of the group of middle-aged women, the erotic experience Ken provides is meant to empower the woman to voice her sexual desires to her husband. The performative healing takes effects only in the world outside of the performance space.

EL: Exactly, like supposedly inauthentic collective pleasure can be genuinely healing. There are multiple moments when the male strippers “heal” women by involving them in performances. Each time, the payoff of the performance was that the woman smiles or laughs rather than gets off. (We don’t want to spoil the gas station scene, but it was one of the highlights.)

KS: And another thing, as the men make it to Rome’s club and see Donald Glover’s (Andre) rap/dance combo, they realize that they can offer more of their authentic, non-stage-name selves in their performance. (Andre identifies primarily as a musician who works at Rome’s club preparing for his EP to drop). From this angle, combined with Mike’s ideas about changing the group’s  routines, we can read the men’s insistence on authenticity as a way to insist that they are more than bodies.

EL: Yeah. It’s like the trajectory of the movie for the male performers is to transcend their embodiedness—or to include their “authentic” selves in their performances—while the trajectory of the movie for the women is to become a mass or crowd. This isn’t a bad thing for me. I liked that women become less individuated—and therefore less objectified—while the men have to negotiate how their individuality makes them vulnerable to objectification.

KS: Also, as a sidenote, we have only talked about straight women’s desire because the film almost exclusively portrays heterosexual desire. The closest thing to queerness we get is a scene featuring drag queens, which doesn’t necessarily mean gay.

EL: To finish up, let’s talk about the only thing both of us had a real problem with, which was the way the movie uses race. The men go to a black strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith where, it seems, the black strippers teach them how to dance—you know, the new, black way. At one point, Ken says that Donald Glover’s rap performance has “revolutionized” male burlesque.

KS: This is a really common trope—throwback to D2: The Mighty Ducks (totally dating myself here) where Team USA isn’t playing well enough, so they go down to the hood to play streetball with the black kids in order to learn how to play “real hockey”. Thankfully though, Magic Mike XXL didn’t fall into the trap of locating black authenticity in “the hood”.

EL: Overall, I really liked this movie. The bromance was great, and the beefcake was well done.

KS:  Served with buns and cheese.

Studio Ghibli says goodbye with “When Marnie Was There” [Spoiler-Free Review]

Studio Ghibli’s latest and perhaps last offering, When Marnie Was There, is a strange and compelling turn into the Gothic, signaled to us by its abandoned mansion, haunted grain silo, and little girl maybe-ghost. But the movie also delves deeply into some of the studio’s best storytelling centered on the growing pains of young women, like its slightly lighter and more fantastic peers Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like any good coming of age tale, it makes room for sweetness and allows for bitterness. But unlike its more famous counterparts Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Marnie’s focus is less on a magical world and more on the dark possibilities of self-loathing internalized by young women struggling to find their way and worth.

**no spoilers**

Image @ghibli_intl / Twitter
Image @ghibli_intl / Twitter

Studio Ghibli’s latest and perhaps last offering, When Marnie Was There, is a strange and compelling turn into the Gothic, signaled to us by its abandoned mansion, haunted grain silo, and little girl maybe-ghost. But the movie also delves deeply into some of the studio’s best storytelling centered on the growing pains of young women, like its slightly lighter and more fantastic peers Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like any good coming of age tale, it makes room for sweetness and allows for bitterness. But unlike its more famous counterparts Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Marnie’s focus is less on a magical world and more on the dark possibilities of self-loathing internalized by young women struggling to find their way and worth.

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Image @ghibli_intl / Twitter

Our protagonist, Anna, opens a window onto mixed, found, interracial families and issues with abandonment—themes that many Ghibli movies touch upon without exploring as fully as Marnie does. Primarily, this movie melds a ghostly mystery with the joy of struggling toward a fulfilling girlhood friendship. Is this movie feminist? Not overtly, perhaps not intentionally. But like the rest of Ghibli’s most memorable protagonists (Kiki, Chihiro/Sen, Mononoke, Arrietty, Ponyo—all young women!), Anna reminds us of the intermingled heart-swelling joy and pain of learning to like oneself, to struggle in a new and unfamiliar place, and to succeed. More than other Ghibli films I’ve seen, it is less about external struggle and more about learning to love oneself despite a self-perception of deep unhappiness, of self-dislike, and of failure.

Photo @ghibli_intl / Twitter
Anna and Marnie. Image @ghibli_intl / Twitter

When Marnie Was There is a sentimental movie, one that works to bring emotion to the surface. Its resolution is, without giving too much away, fairly neat and obviously packed with emotional force. I admit, I am very susceptible to this. Ghibli movies, for me, have always toed the line between joyous consumption of the sentimental, and my ingrained, ~*disaffected youth*~ sense that to purely enjoy sentimentality is deeply uncool, deeply “unintellectual.” But the value of allowing oneself to both look at a text—movie, novel, whatever—with both uncritical pleasure and critical understanding cannot be overstated. When Marnie Was There reminds us both of loneliness (that preciously parsed intellectual theme) and its antidote, the love-laden ending. It allows us to live for a moment in that precious Ghibli world of mysterious harbor towns and windswept landscapes (isn’t it always windy in these movies?), where it’s always summer and it’s always possible to slowly, dreamily, be alright.

Good Shots: Discussing Warrior Grannies, Blood Bags, and Furious Feminism in “Mad Max”

This post contains spoilers.

George Miller’s latest chrome-shiny installment of the Mad Max franchise packs a lot of excitement into a movie whose plot is basically just…they drive down a road. They drive back. Somehow, though, this bare-bones plot sequence had me gripping the armrests and gasping in my seat. Below, three Acro Collective movie buffs sit down to discuss their favorite brands of huffable chrome paint, Furiosa’s makeup routine, and what kind of snacks Nux brought along on his first war ride.

Just kidding.


E: Did you guys have high expectations going in to see this movie? I feel like it’s been kind of polarizing, but I don’t know enough about the older Mad Max movies to compare.

B: I did, mostly because of the hype surrounding the film both with its critical acclaim and its overtly feminist notions, which were drawing a lot of attention. I generally have little to no interest in seeing action flicks (the action paradigm bores me), and had admittedly never heard of the Mad Max franchise, but was curious after reading some reviews sans spoilers and hearing people talk about it.

A: While I was excited about hype that I’d seen on Tumblr and various articles making fun of MRAs, I didn’t have very high expectations. I had already been burned by one action movie this month, which shall remain nameless, and I was still pretty wary. However, I figured anything that caused that much talk would probably be worth seeing, but not really having much else to do played a large part in going to see it.  All that aside, I really enjoyed it!

E: What were your guys’ favorite parts? I’m still a little hype from seeing it — I went in with REALLY low expectations, think-piece praise aside.

B: I really liked when the clan, which is a matriarchal society just as badass as Furiosa and her gang, was introduced. I appreciated the elderly women being portrayed as powerful and capable. With ageism being just as bad of a problem as sexism in the film industry, especially for women, it was refreshing and perhaps surprising to see this. Also, Furiosa’s cry to the earth was predictable (and even cheesy) to me, but I really commiserated with her there. Like damnit, really?!

A: I think at that point I was ready to scream with Furiosa too. The Vuvalini (an amazing name if you ask me) were definitely my favourite part. By the time we meet them we’re already pretty far in and have witnessed the capabilities of not only Furiosa but also the wives. Then we get even more awesome women?!? (Yes!) I really loved the kind of generational familial structure they represent post-apocalypse. This is something that we don’t get at the Citadel where Immortan Joe is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning and ending of familial hierarchy. The war boys are an unclaimed mass and his heir, Rictus is (often literally) just an echo of Joe.

The older actresses also brought out one of my other favorite things about the movie which was its aesthetic, especially with regards to texture. As viewers, we are prompted to look, see, and survey not only the landscape but also the pure spectacle of the war party. (I think I could stare at the spikey cars and built-up war tanks forever.) For me, the Vuvalini were especially beautiful because set against the always already deteriorating War Boy, their wrinkles were a beautiful and hard-won testament to their bad-assery.

Photo from thepandorasociety.com
The Vuvalini with The Dag | Photo from thepandorasociety.com

E: Yes! But really the whole world of the movie was pretty captivating and well-built for me. I feel like they were able to pack in a lot of detail without a lot of exposition (although Max’s hallucinations felt like a bit of overkill…) — from the strong religious/cultish overtones of Joe’s Citadel to the impact of the short declarations throughout the movie: “Our children will not be warlords”… “Who killed the world?” etc. This movie clearly blends feminist critique and ecocritique together under the umbrella of patriarchal exploitation, which I was not expecting going in. Another thing it does well is to show how everyone, men included, suffers under a rigid system of exploitation. Like I think we feel for Nux just as much as for some of the brides.

Did anyone else feel like Tom Hardy’s character, Max, took on a traditional sort of…hot-female sidekick role in this movie? Lol. So many close-up shots of his face!

Pretty, gritty Tom Hardy | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Pretty, gritty Tom Hardy | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

And of course, not a lot of dialogue…

B: Yeah, I take it all back, actually… the aesthetics, from the vehicles to the makeup and costuming to the entire universe they created, were actually my favorite part. I even somehow liked the unsettling motif of running fluids – the water being poured out of the Citadel, the women being milked, blood supplying, running gasoline, tears. It was very visceral for me. In addition to the ecocritique, I can see a nod to the hazards of commercial farming, especially with the milking of the women and the breeders, but that could just be my reading.

I totally think Max was akin to a traditionally hot female sidekick character. Funny that you say that! I was cracking up when you were like, “I don’t think he got that. He doesn’t seem smart enough,” when Furiosa explains the rig’s starting kill-switch sequence (while we were watching the movie). He’s eye candy, but more importantly, I think he represents solidarity… an ally for feminists and women in general. He’s a physically strong male who does not in any way subjugate the female-driven dynamic; he enforces it and works alongside the women (almost bowing down to Furiosa… an “aww” moment for me was when he finally revealed his name to her and WILLINGLY supplied his blood to her) to collectively reach their end goal. And when Furiosa and the women are lifted up to power in the end, he steps aside.

A: I agree, Max definitely is riding shotgun on this one. And his position as atypical protagonist permeates everything he does and every position in which he is placed. Here, I’m thinking about his position as a figurehead mounted on the prow of Nux’s car. Which I found really telling given all of the Norse mythology (the War Boys are vikings with cars instead of boats)  floating around. While Max is the eponymous character and we see him first as narrator, he’s an unnamed body (blood bag) for an incredibly long time. He fights with Furiosa as a partner and their chemistry is that of comrades (even though she’s a much better warrior). Like Belinda said, the solidarity, especially in those scenes, was super refreshing.

E: As a blood bag, he’s placed in line with the escaping brides too — as a body who is first and foremost a physical resource.

Directors love putting Tom Hardy in a mask... | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Directors love putting Tom Hardy in a mask… | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

 

B: That, again, speaks to how that particular patriarchal system is oppressive to both men and women of all ages, looking at the War Boys and someone like Max.

A: Max is possibly the most vulnerable in these situations, because while he fights and survives, he is a universal donor and potential blood bag to any and everyone.

Which seems an interesting way of configuring your “hero” especially if there’s another version of the story in which the because we’ve seen the fierceness of Furiosa and the wives (Toast, Splendid, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo) we could easily imagine them overtaking him? He just feels more vulnerable to me because of his “blood status.”

B: He is surprisingly strong for having so much blood drained out of him, though. I think the oppressed are similarly vulnerable, just in different ways. It’s with the fluids again — some like Max are sought after for their blood, some for their milk, some for their fertility/child-bearing. That all seems horribly abusive to me. (I keep feeling like this has a pro-vegan message, but that could just be me.)

E: [Aside: Tom Hardy’s character is just like his character in Lawless…lol. Has most of his blood drained out, still able to walk and fight and stuff. A+]

B: I read an article that claims that Mad Mex isn’t feminist or even good for that matter. One of the reasons stated is the use of the beautiful “Maxim Hotlist” models as breeders. I initially thought the women seemed almost too perfect as well — but then I realized they were purposely selected for their beauty by Immortan Joe, and beautiful women can be marginalized (especially in the sex trade industry) and conversely powerful. How did you two feel about the use of those actresses?

A: There is that for all intents and purposes “wet t-shirt” scene” but its purpose felt more about exposition than exhibition. We need to see Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and her huge baby bump so that we can know what has happened to these women and why Furiosa is helping them escape. Her body a symbol of the broken system and instantaneous backstory insert.

E: It’s so funny that the article you linked would claim Mad Max is “overdone.” It is the B-movie to end all B-movies, lol. Its mode of existence is hamminess.

B: LOL, in some ways, that’s kinda true. But it doesn’t make it bad. B-movies rock.

E: And yeah, I have a problem with constructing beauty and feminism as mutually exclusive. There’s nothing that says we audiences can’t enjoy a good model-like lineup in a movie that’s excessive in almost every other way.

B: You’re so right. If the universe was entirely realistic and mirrored society to a fault, then the women would seem out of place. But c’mon. It’s B-movie status and, in that universe, those women are hardly the most overdone aspect.

A: I think it would have been different if they were just “The Wives” but they have names and distinct personalities. We even know their names before Max’s.

Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

 

E: There is the fact too that the two most obviously/conventionally attractive women get killed in the most gruesome ways… Rosie Huntington Whiteley’s character dies early on, as does Megan Gale’s character, The Valkyrie. It’s hard to argue that RHW was there just for her beauty, too, because her final scene was so gruesome and we didn’t see her face then — just the reactions of those around her. She’s literally treated like a piece of meat on the cutting block, which is the extreme logical end of beauty in the world of the movie. With that kind of ending, it’s hard to see beauty as a particularly desirable trait by the movie’s standards.

B: Ooof, yeah, so brutal. I had to avert my eyes. Beauty and feminism shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, like you said, E. I appreciated that the women do not subscribe to more traditionally masculine forms of strength and power; they instead maintain their femininity. Furiosa kind of reminded me of a grittier Khaleesi from Game of Thrones. She’s just and a liberator, and isn’t afraid to show emotion, but ruthless to those who threaten the safety of the women she is trying to protect.

E: In any case, I feel like there are holes in the logic that argues that beautiful models preclude this film from being “truly feminist,” especially because the movie is pretty brutal and un-naive about the endings available to women so prized for their beauty in the movie’s world. We, as audience members, can appreciate their beauty extra-diegetically, but I think in the world of the film I’d rather not look like RWH…

I’m thinking too about the scene in which RWH puts her beautiful pregnant body as a shield between Joe’s gun and Furiosa driving the truck…

That scene points to some kind of understanding of beauty as not merely ornamental but like… a bargaining chip? Something of value in the economy of the movie? It’s a scene where a woman uses her beauty not in the “traditional” way of attracting, but as a way of strengthening and protecting another woman.

A: Yeah, that’s almost a weaponized beautiful body. A literal shield.

B: It’s a weaponized female body at its most explicitly female, with the pregnancy.

E: The female body reduced to its most biologically “female” moments? Like breastfeeding and giving birth.

A: But these are the places the world building breaks for me. The bodily functions almost have to become allegorical because, while the moments like the milking build atmosphere, I kept wondering how much milk they were producing and why?

B: I think for food, perhaps? Because there wasn’t enough water? For crops or anything else. Could be why they ate bugs and lizards.

A: I guess. It just seems that these are points where bodies as they operate now (where mothers have healthy babies, create milk for those babies milk, or we have voluntary blood donors), and as they are being exploited to operate in the movie (Joe’s inability to produce healthy heirs, breastfeeding for who knows what reason, and a collection of captive blood-bags), actually can’t work well after the apocalypse?

E: Yeah, I’m not sure why the milk. But in any case, those are images that will stick with me for a long time, regardless of how well they mesh with the logic of the world.

B: Yeah, I can see it being allegorical. Because Joe is hoarding the water, so the resources technically exist somewhat (unbeknownst to everyone else), but most others in the society are nonetheless exploited and have no access to the water (aka wealth, maybe?).

Immortan Joe and his
Immortan Joe and his “family” | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

A: I really think that the film could be in quiet moments asking us to consider the way bodies operate or will be able to operate once the world effectively ends. It seems like certain types of production that seem valuable (breast milk) might not be anymore. Just like the way Joe wants to build his empire through traditional childbirth but can’t.

B: What do you mean by the way bodies operate?

A: For me I wonder why the numerous War Boys,who are functional despite their half-life status, as considered less desirable human “products” in this fairly established post-apocalyptic world that renders what viewers might consider “able” bodies “dis-abled”. I guess I just wonder how much the film wants to question this paradigm of ability. It seems especially interesting to think about, when we consider the way that Furioso can kick ass with or without her prosthetic.

B: Ohhhh, that’s a good point about her prosthetic. Really fast diversion: there’s a theory that Furiosa was taken to be a breeder but her mother protected her by severing her arm so she wouldn’t be *perfect* and wouldn’t be a good fit in that role; that is why she has the prosthetic arm. But Joe still cared for her and took her in and she is treated better than the other workers, i.e. she looks cleaner and healthier than the others.

A: That’s really interesting to think about Belinda, especially when we think about the interchange with Furiosa and Splendid (RWH) after she get’s shot or “damaged.” Also, we might think about how bodies operate in a post anthropocentric space? I think that those questions are definitely lingering in the background.

E: I think that’s definitely something the film is asking us to think about — especially because Joe’s War Boys are being born with only a half-life. Everything in Joe’s empire is designed to be in short supply, and therefore more controllable… he and his fellow exploiters use fairly short-sighted modes of production that spoil things long-term, like the Green Place (hence the line “Who killed the world?”) while unnaturally extending bodily production that is meant to be more short-term, like the breast milk.

Production is also a question because it simultaneously moves the movie forward (need for gasoline), yet it’s not really clear how the economy of the world really works — like what do the poor people at the base of the cliff do for a living? Who produces anything — even the vehicles that drive the plot?

Most of the humans in this movie are dependent (or forced to be dependent) on machinery in a very visual, literal way… or treated as machinery themselves… it’s definitely bringing up questions of the posthuman but not in a sexy, sleek cyborg fashion.

B: Yes, treated as machines. That’s a great point, and ties in with Furiosa’s prosthetic arm. But it’s a juxtaposition because she becomes more empowered in being able to drive the rigs and do work that the men in that society would do with her physical beauty being “endangered” (and her thus not being a breeder). The pregnant woman becomes a literal piece of meat that is butchered and portrayed as commodity.

E: I guess that’s where it meshes with ecocriticism, because these dependent humans are grotesque — like the People Eater, or Joe.

A:  And I think that question of production cycles back to the Vuvalini. They are farmers or producers with seeds, but they must sharpshoot because their environment is destroyed.

B: Yeah they are forced to integrate machinery into what is inherently natural and earthly in order to survive.

E: In a way I’m glad that Furiosa’s mission didn’t succeed. I feel like if she were to actually return to the Green Place, some feminist utopia, it would feel very… escapist.

A: You mean you didn’t want them to live with the crow people?

E: 

B: LOL. Yeah, the idea of a feminist utopia would undermine the eventual integration of these women back into society. There is no real utopia. There should just be something close to egalitarianism.

E: But really, it’s interesting to me that this “feminist” movie (or… no scare quotes, lol) doesn’t say the answer is to escape somewhere, even in fantasy, or to totally smash everything and rebuild from scratch.

E: The movie further undercuts the idea of escapist utopia with the failure of Nux’s “Valhalla” dreams, right?

A: Which is why Max’s lines about about “hope” and trying to scrape together some “redemption” (a regurgitation of Furiosa’s earlier comments) seems like such a perfect answer.

B: Like, women’s crisis centers and refuges are important (in our real-life societies), but the key is to always reintegrate them back into society so they can thrive… in reality. And not in some falsely secure, sequestered environment.

E: I think this movie would have been much easier to dismiss if it had gone the escapist route, too. Because where do you go from there, having watched them go to the Green Place? You come back to our world and that line of logic just closes itself off from real life.

B: There’s a need to work toward redemption for everyone and not just the women.

E: Yes.

B: With Furiosa at the helm, she can perhaps fix both the men and women who suffer under the oppressive regime, not just the few women she had with her.

A: Definitely.

B: Hence redemption?

E: Yeah, maybe. Or at least a chance. I guess we won’t ever know.

A: We won’t know, but she seems to have a good shot. Those War Boys were certainly willing.

B: SEQUEL.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a deeply somber modern-day odyssey with a host of heartbreaking episodes, softened by glimpses of droll humor. It is dark tragicomedy at its finest, and is cinematically stunning from beginning to end. The filmmakers reimagine a now-debunked urban myth involving a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi, who was found frozen in a Minnesota field. The news sensationalized her story, claiming that she died from pursuing the treasure she believed to be real in the movie, Fargo.

The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a deeply somber modern-day odyssey with a host of heartbreaking episodes, softened by glimpses of droll humor. It is dark tragicomedy at its finest, and is cinematically stunning from beginning to end. The filmmakers reimagine a now-debunked urban myth involving a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi, who was found frozen in a Minnesota field. The news sensationalized her story, claiming that she died from pursuing the treasure she believed to be real in the movie, Fargo.


**major spoilers ahead**

Our fictional, oddball heroine Kumiko (award-winning Rinko Kikuchi, Babel and Pacific Rim) is an “office lady” who is fed up with her unfulfilling work life. She isolates herself from her co-workers — gossipy and appearance-obsessed young women — and detests her belittling boss. At 29, she rejects other societal expectations of women her age, to her mother’s dismay and boss’s confusion. She doesn’t have a boyfriend and refuses to move back in with her mom; she instead lives in a flat with her pet rabbit Bunzo, her only companion. Kumiko exists in a society that does not understand her differences. Her boss at one point questions her sexual orientation, implying that the only reason a 29-year-old woman can be unmarried is if she is homosexual. She also faces ageism when that boss hires a much younger woman to eventually replace her.

Photo @kumikomovie // Twitter
Photo @kumikomovie // Twitter

In her free time, Kumiko fixates on the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo, in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase full of ransom money in snowy North Dakota. She watches this outdated VHS time and time again, carefully mapping out the location of the suitcase. Kumiko is a conquistador, as she proudly proclaims; it is her destiny and purpose to find this treasure. This could be an allusion to Don Quixote, another tragicomic protagonist who sets out on an unlikely quest to revive chivalry. In this world, the boundaries between the fictional and real start to blur.

In a metaphorical sense, the treasure isn’t the ransom money. It’s whatever lifelong goal, no matter how impossible, Kumiko or anyone else finds worthy of pursuing. Something existentially gratifying. In this sense, Kumiko is in fact a conquistador. The film depicts society as oppressive in such a way that the viewer can identify with the protagonist’s desire to break out. It brings to life a sort of absurd and meaningless world found in existential literature. Kumiko seeks to ascribe her own meaning by seeking to find this treasure. Her source of authenticity in this absurd world is recreating herself as a conquistador.

This makes our heroine almost antithetical to the misguided protagonist of Fargo. That character, Jerry, plans a backward scheme involving the fake kidnapping of his wife. He is driven by a need to fit this societal ideal of masculinity: being “financially independent” (not asking for money from his wife’s rich father but instead conning him) and able to provide for his family. Kumiko frees herself from societal pressures. She abandons any kind of institutionalized femininity depicted in the lives of the other “office ladies” and her friend with the child. In the end, Jerry is arrested and Kumiko succeeds in breaking free. Bunzo’s release from his cage and out into the world — one of the most heart-wrenching and adorable scenes in the film — is representative of Kumiko’s own transformative journey. Like her fluffy pet, Kumiko is afraid and unsure of how to handle her newfound freedom, but forces herself to take that leap to North Dakota.

There, several offbeat characters cross her path. They all are caricatures of uncultured Midwesterners who are unsure of how to deal with Kumiko, a lost Japanese woman who can barely utter a word of English. There is the lonely old lady who offers up anything she knows about Japan in order to identify with Kumiko, but comes across as inadvertently racist. Worse is the kindhearted but clueless police officer (David Zellner) who takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in hopes that the Chinese owner would know a little bit of Japanese, as if the two are interchangeable. Both Kumiko and Fargo play up the pleasantly humdrum vibe of the Midwest while simultaneously portraying it as a cold, bleak and death-laden environment.

Photo @kumikomovie // Twitter
Photo @kumikomovie // Twitter

These characters try their best to guide Kumiko along but are ultimately discouraging. They tell her that what she’s setting out to find doesn’t exist. That her goal is impossible. She is confronted by this when the officer tells her that Fargo is just a “regular” movie, not a documentary, and that there is no treasure. Kumiko doesn’t believe this or let anyone deter her, showing that while she is not all there mentally, she is headstrong and knows what she wants. This leads to both her downfall and ensuing freedom from the absurd world.

When Kumiko starts spiraling into a crazed mania after escaping from a sinister cab driver and running into the woods, the movie adopts a much more surrealist tone. This is when the viewer really slips into Kumiko’s mind, feeling what she’s feeling and seeing what she’s seeing, rather than examining from an outside perspective. Kumiko loses touch with reality and so does the viewer, no longer sure of what’s real and what’s not. The sequences in the woods—when Kumiko is most desperate and unwavering—are some of the most beautifully shot and haunting scenes of the film.

While the ending initially felt like a bit of a cop out, I now realize that it’s empowering even if it results in the death of our peculiar heroine. When she emerges from the snow, in a sea of white, she is reborn. The world, for the first time, is a refreshing and joyous place. It is no longer grim and bleak. Kumiko seems hopeful, and the viewer can sense this newfound hope. She uncovers the treasure right where she expected it to be, and is reunited with Bunzo. This is her goal playing out and she laughs and celebrates. For a character that does not fit into society’s constraints, death may be the ultimate freedom, as bittersweet as that is. While not overtly her goal, this unintentional suicide could be emblematic of a seemingly impossible goal being attained. Again, beautiful but haunting.

Virtual Horror: Social Media, Found Footage, and Unfriended

Last month, The Feminist’s Guide to Horror took you into the world of body horror where films focus on the human form as a bloody, suffering spectacle–this month we’re taking a turn into the realm of Found Footage horror, which is all about the power of suggestion. Found Footage horror is the land of amateur documentarians in pursuit of a supernatural mystery. It privileges local narratives and urban legends told from the first-person perspective of those who are most invested in discovering the truth behind these phenomena.

Last month, The Feminist’s Guide to Horror took you into the world of body horror where films focus on the human form as a bloody, suffering spectacle—this month we’re taking a turn into the realm of Found Footage horror, which is all about the power of suggestion. Found Footage horror is the land of amateur documentarians in pursuit of a supernatural mystery. It privileges local narratives and urban legends told from the first-person perspective of those who are most invested in discovering the truth behind these phenomena.

 

Found footage movies often go something like this: skeptical young people decide to explore some kind of supernatural phenomenon (either an urban legend, or some paranormal activity they themselves are experiencing) and plan to document their efforts through the use of a video camera so that their discoveries can be compiled and shared with the world. Something goes awry, and all we have left to explain what happened to them is found in the reel of footage they leave behind. There are variations on this theme, but typically these films thrive on the conversion–and often possession–of the skeptical characters as their investigative efforts lead down a rabbit hole deeper and darker than they ever imagined.

 

Classic found footage: The Blair Witch Project
Classic found footage: The Blair Witch Project

 

Found Footage Forms

 

Though told from a first person perspective (or perspectives, if more than one character captures footage), our experience of the film is mediated through technology: we are self-consciously watching a film-within-a-film for the duration of the movie. In this way, found footage is unapologetically meta. These films rely on the fact that people are familiar with not only horror tropes, but the various devices used in horror cinematography. For example, as an experienced horror viewer, when I see a close-up shot of someone’s face directly followed by a camera pan to the left or right, I’m expecting there to be some sort of jump scare when the camera pans back to the actor’s face. Just  the expectation of that jump scare—a ghost in the corner moving swiftly towards the screen, a movement in a mirror, a sudden “bang” —is enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. In this way, much of the suspense of found footage films comes from the viewer having certain generic expectations about horror cinematography and then waiting in anticipation of seeing how those expectations play out.

 

So many places for a demon to appear!: Paranormal Activity 2
So many places for a demon to appear!: Paranormal Activity 2

 

In that way, horror aficionados are ideal viewers for films like the Paranormal Activity series because though the writer and  director sets up these kind of jump scares in all the of the ways one can (plenty of mirrors, corners, furniture where people can pop out of, etc.), they deliver that scare such a small percentage of the time that you’re on the edge of your seat the entire movie.

 

Because of this, watching found footage films in the theater with a bunch of other people enhances the experience. I always try to see a new found footage film on opening weekend because I love the camaraderie that builds in the audience as we are collectively “faked-out” and respond to the intensifying suspense with increasing verbality; the premature screams of other viewers can cause me to jump even when the movie does not create that effect. As the small child approaches the closed closet door rattling on its hinges, reaching out his hand to reveal what’s inside, you better believe I’m mumbling “Don’t open the door, don’t open the door” under my breath.

 

Is Found Footage Connected to Other Genres?

Some trace found footage films’ narrative strategies back to the epistolary novel, where the plot is relayed through a series of correspondence or diary entries. Typically, the constraints of the “film-within-a-film” form forces the narrative to unfold chronologically as the camera-operator follows the rest of the group. Flashbacks are all but unavailable unless they occur though a verbal narration of past events by a character on screen. However, as begin to see in films like the Paranormal Activity series or, most recently in Unfriended, the ability for flashback can be recuperated if that flashback is achieved through use of another technological means (i.e., someone taping someone else while they are watching surveillance footage of the ghost’s nightly activities.)

 

 

Found footage horror is also connected to the documentary film form. Often the premise of the film is an investigative enterprise and filmmakers strive for a high degree of verisimilitude. For example, the actors in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity used their real names as their character’s names. Often, the filmmakers will attempt to mimic the amateur filmographer, as is done in the sci-fi found footage thriller Cloverfield (Robert Ebert apparently called this style,  “shaky-cam”— Paranormal Activity mostly gets around this problem by having characters place cameras on tripods).These kind of cinematic choices serve as a kind of Barthesian “reality effect”, letting us know that we should believe the film takes place in the real world. One of the most impressive feats of a found footage movie is when it does not break its frame: every sound and picture is completely organic and can be derived from the scene itself (i.e., there are no shots taken outside of the perspective of the in-film camera operator).

cloverfield-2-1024

 

Almost all of the found footage films that have been widely popularized deal with supernatural subjects, mainly ghosts or demons. Perhaps some of the scary appeal of these films comes from the possibility of seeing unbelievable things in a form that is completely bound to reality: if the ghost shows up, embodied, on camera, it’s harder to dispute. If the filmmakers achieve verisimilitude in their film-making, they build credibility, so that when the audience sees something bizarre on their film, it seems more real.

 

In the most successful movies of this genre, the film patiently allows viewers to be confronted with weird sounds and movements without clue-ing them in on their source. The climax of the movie is usually quite an intense—though often still suggestive—encounter with the entity that may include a few moments of bizzarity or violence, but this is typically not sustained. Fear is primarily created and sustained by the power of suggestion.

 

Because the genre depends more on narrative creativity and convincing special effects than makeup, gore, and post-production effects, these films often cost a fraction of a typical  Hollywood budget to produce, making it an accessible genre for amateur filmmakers. (Notable examples are The Blair Witch Project  which was made for an estimated $60,000 and  Paranormal Activity which was made for about $15,000.)

 

Unfriended as Social Media Horror

 

When I went to see Paranormal Activity 4, I was impressed by how the filmmakers managed to shoot the film through a video chat between a teenager and her boyfriend with occasional help from an Xbox Kinect, and another camera. The people at Paranormal Activity know what’s up: they were able to angle the main character and her laptop in ways that set up scares and their use of the Xbox and Macbooks for surveillance didn’t break the frame for me.

 

 

After that film, I was just itching for someone to push that concept the to the next level, and Unfriended, released widely last weekend,  did not disappoint.

 

The real art of the film is its form (the plot itself can be summarized surprisingly accurately by this Knife Party song). The film focuses on a group of teenagers on the one-year anniversary of the death of their “friend” Laura Barnes, who committed suicide after being horrifically cyberbullied  following the release of a humiliating video of her at a party. The group of teenagers gear up for what seems like a fairly normal group chat on Skype. Their easy camaraderie is interrupted by the presence of an unwanted, unknown interloper in their Skype conversation.

 

This film makes an important contribution to the found footage genre because it represents an attempt to contend with the ways that we are also now, in part, virtual selves. The identities that we cultivate online, our loose personage constructed from our search histories, is the consciousness that this film engages. It is entirely mediated through virtual reality. For the entire film we are bound to the laptop screen of one of the teenagers, Blaire.

unfriended_t103209_png_290x478_upscale_q90

 

Unfriended solved the problem of how to handle flashbacks in the found footage narrative. As the film opens, we see that  Blaire is watching youtube videos (we watch them with her) of Laura’s suicide (apparently taped on a crappy cell phone camera and uploaded), and then begin to watch what we would see later in full: the infamous video that eventually caused Laura’s suicide. By being able to use social media platforms like YouTube, or features like Facebook’s photo-albums, Blaire can show us the past while effortlessly keeping the film firmly rooted in the present.

 

As Blaire’s keystrokes lead us through the landscape of her iOS system we learn about her and as the plot heats up, we see her try to mediate between various entities—herself, her boyfriend, her friends, the ghost in the machine—through technological means. The negotiation between the virtual self and actual self is a key component of the film. As the movie progresses, Blaire and her friends’ physical bodies are punished for the sins of their virtual selves (a fitting reverse: the humiliating state of Laura’s physical body was ephemeral until it became virtualized in the form of the viral video).

 

The filmmakers also smartly make use of the technical foibles of social media platforms to create suspense. Using the annoying noise that Skype makes when it’s trying to recapture a lost call,  we never know when the video screen will flash on and the noise we hear in the background will also yield to a violent, graphic image. That device itself was really effective in creating and maintaining suspense.

 

Impressively, the film almost never breaks its frame.This made it even more disappointing when the frame did break, which happened in two ways a handful of times throughout the film. Occasionally, Blaire would minimize the Skype conversation to look something up and the volume of her friends who were still talking  would fade out without us seeing her adjust the volume on her laptop. This seems like a minor break to me, meant to refocus our attention on reading the important correspondence occurring on screen. The second and more egregious break occurred when a deep bass note began to play under the more suspenseful scenes. This use of bass note is a time-honored technique in horror; however, in a film that is so delightfully well-wrought in every other way, the presence of a sound that is unaccounted for within the iOS system, seems out of place and highly noticeable.

 

 

Throughout the course of film we learn much about the questionable behavior of this group of teenagers including their use of illegal drugs, drinking habits, cavalier sexual encounters, and lies, but those moral infractions (if you can call them that) are not why the teenagers are possessed and then punished in the film: they are punished as revenge for the way that they bullied one of their peers.

 

Other possession narratives often leave the audience feeling immune from the possibility of the events in the film ever happening to them: for example,“Well, this could never happen to me because I don’t play with Ouija boards,” or “If I found a creepy box like that, I wouldn’t make the mistake of opening”. Unfriended does not leave viewers this same kind of escape because so many of us are terrible internet citizens. The kind of mean-spirited trolling that led to Laura Barnes’ fictional death in the movie actually leads to death in real life. Even if the ghost in Unfriended is a fantasy, the premise for the haunting is all too real.

 

I’ve purposely focused this review on the structure of the film because I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who are going to see the movie this weekend. Ultimately, this is one of the first horror movies that tries to engage with the way that we are becoming virtual selves and negotiate the way that our virtual actions have consequences in the actual world. This is an important direction for film, and it’s exciting to see horror filmmakers leading the way.

 

Found Footage Watchlist:

  • Cannibal Holocaust (1980): Often considered the “original” found footage film, a film crew is found dead in the Amazon, and the only evidence of their discoveries are captured on film…
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999): Three student filmmakers disappear after investigating the legend of the Blair Witch…
  • Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple start to hear noises in their house and set up a camera to investigate…(I’d also recommend Paranormal Activity 4, if Social Media horror is of interest to you)
  • V/H/S (2012): A group of guys run into a stash of found footage way creepier than they bargained for…