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 is Gender? A Look at “The Danish Girl” and “Macbeth”

Written by I.C.

Two of this winter’s most absorbing movies emphasize the centrality of gender identity in thought-provoking ways.  The topic is more obviously central to The Danish Girl, the story of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and her wife, Gerda Wegener.  Both were painters in 1920s Copenhagen.  Oscar buzz for Eddie Redmayne as Lili was a given, due to the challenging nature of the role and his Best Actor win last year for another radical physical transformation in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. And he is indeed up for Best Actor for The Danish Girl.  Einar first tries on women’s clothing in order to help Gerda finish a painting when the model is unavailable.  But the act of donning female attire brings to life something latent within him, and Lili is born. Lili navigates the world at first awkwardly, then with increasing grace and confidence.  Even as those who knew Einar remain baffled, and doctors throw out diagnoses ranging from homosexuality to schizophrenia, Lili becomes increasingly certain that she has found her true identity, and is willing to endure anything to have an exterior that matches who she feels she is.

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Image via Twitter @danishgirlmov

As good as Redmayne is in the role, critics have also been at least as impressed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Gerda.  2015 was Vikander’s year.  I loved her performances in the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair and in a small part in that year’s Anna Karenina; in 2015 she gave me chills with her haunting performance as a conscious robot in Ex Machina and broke my heart as WWI-era pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.  In The Danish Girl her radiant performance, for which she has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, turns the movie into not only the story of Lili but the story of an extraordinary marriage.  Gerda begins as a free-thinking, somewhat bohemian painter, married to a fellow painter whose work gets more acclaim.  As Einar becomes Lili, Gerda loses a husband but gains a muse: her paintings of Lili become hits in the art world.  Her simultaneous confusion, frustration, and devotion to the person she loves are beautifully portrayed.  When Einar tells a doctor that he believes he is a woman inside, and Gerda says, “And I believe it too,” it’s a powerful moment of alliance.

The film also subtly suggests that the Wegener’s love was never confined by conventional gender roles in any case: while Einar was sexually attracted to Gerda, Gerda was always the bold one, and when they first met she took the romantic initiative with the shy Einar. In portraying their relationship, the film carefully balances a recognition of sexual fluidity and the constructed or performative nature of gender with an emphasis on the individual right to claim what one feels to be one’s essential gender identity.

***

On the surface, The Danish Girl, a tasteful biopic, would seem to have little in common with a visually arresting and brutal Shakespeare adaptation.  Yet they address similar issues.  In the first scene in which Lady Macbeth appears in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, she is praying to the powers of darkness for exactly the thing that causes Lili so much pain: a disjunction in gender between her body and spirit.  She wishes for a man’s spirit in her woman’s body, as her battle-hardened culture has led her to equate masculinity with the ruthlessness she deems necessary to achieve her ambitions:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse….

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (Act I, scene v).

 

She is soon taunting her husband with lack of manliness for his qualms about murdering King Duncan; at this point, he has a much more morally grounded view of masculinity, saying: “I dare do all that may become a man; /Who dares do more is none” (Act I, scene vii).  In other words, to do something so evil as murdering his king would be “unbecoming” to a man, and in fact make him less of one.  He recognizes a masculine ideal in Banquo, who “hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/ To act in safety” (Act III scene i).

But his wife continues to insist that manliness involves hard-heartedness and violence without remorse; she says:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. …
(Act I, scene vii).

She is unprepared, however, for how fully her husband will ultimately embrace this toxic view of masculinity. As Macbeth’s mind crumbles under the effects of post-traumatic stress, his moral sense also crumbles, and he takes his wife’s idea of the conflation of masculinity with violence further than she ever did.  If before King Duncan’s murder she fears her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Act I, scene v) to perform the deed, in later scenes she is dismayed by his ruthlessness. As Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post points out, this film’s Macbeth is “far madder than his wife… whose descent into derangement is one of the most tired tropes of the theater.”  Michael Fassbender brilliantly portrays Macbeth’s unraveling, as his moral uncertainty gives way to anguish, and then to ferocity.

As for Lady Macbeth’s own mental deterioration, some might argue that it is due to her inability to shed her womanliness as she had hoped to do. With a silent but crucial opening scene, the movie finds a way to reconcile the text’s emphasis on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s childlessness with Lady Macbeth’s statement that “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Act I, scene vii), and in another pivotal scene, she takes the death of another woman’s children very hard.  It seems to me, however, that it is her humanity rather than her womanhood that she’s unable to shed, and that she is increasingly distressed at her husband’s loss of his.

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Image via Twitter @macbeth_movie

The emphasis on Macbeth’s increasing inhumanity also makes this film feel more nuanced in its portrayal of his wife, who in this film is no mere scheming temptress.  Marion Cotillard’s subtle performance also helps; I have yet to see this actress in anything in which she is less than sublime, and her work here is no exception.  Her rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is spellbinding.  There’s no wringing of her hands in that scene—the camera focuses on her face, and she is seated, quite still, with her hands kept deliberately out of the frame.  Her eyes are fixed on something the viewer only sees as she finishes speaking.  This scene erases any doubt that she is as tragic a figure as her husband, and her tragedy is in large part her embrace of traditionally “masculine” values that have ultimately proved dehumanizing.

Both of these films grapple with questions of gender and identity in a way that feels new and significant.  More generally, they deal with what it means to be an authentic, integrated human being, at home in one’s body (as Lili seeks to be) and in one’s mind (as the Macbeths, after their initial crime, can never be again).

At The Movies: Carol (2015)

Some spoilers.

What does falling in love look like? As Todd Haynes’ film Carol reminds us, it often looks quite boring, looking from the outside in. Lives are brought together and broken apart in the most ordinary of settings—a rather depressing department store, a diner where the porcelain is thick and ungainly, a motel with ugly bedding. People with beautiful cheekbones and deep, startling gazes must still remember to pay their coffee bill and deal with traffic.

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Image via Twitter @carolmovie

In some ways, not much happens in the movie. Two women meet in 1950s New York, exchanging glances and a joke or two over a toy counter. They fall in love, suddenly and without warning. One of them is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), the kind of woman who matches her coral lipstick to her nails perfectly, the better to veil her repression. The other is Therese Belivet, an aspiring photographer who shies away from others (Rooney Mara). What ensues? A couple of visits, a road-trip to flee Carol’s estranged and pushy husband Harges (Kyle Chandler), sex, and finally, a confrontation that sends them spinning away from each other and then back again.

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Image via Twitter @carolmovie

In other ways, the stakes of the film are much higher. Vibrating underneath these events is a tension more meaningful than a shared cup of coffee or kisses exchanged on a motel pillow. In an era that could not brook the love between two women, or even call it by its name, Carol’s struggle to fit both her family expectations and her personal needs into a single life is a bitter one. She and Therese strive to fully realize their desires and selves. From the 1950s until now, that struggle for the right to occupy mundane space, even peacefully and beautifully, without intrusion and judgment, can ring true and familiar.

Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the source material for the film, was long considered a literary footnote—after a surge in popularity at the time of its publishing, it fell to the wayside. It was, in fact, daring and important in many ways. Not only did it take lesbian love as its central theme, it broke the convention of “lesbian pulp fiction” to give its lovers a happy ending and a modicum of hope. The Price of Salt also precluded that other famous love story of the 1950s, Lolita, in its use of transgressive sex and the open road to explore the morality of American sentiment and loneliness. Both versions of the story celebrate the seemingly small but in fact monumental choice of self-satisfaction in the face of censure. In Carol, the driving force of a beautiful love story unfurls, whisper-soft but sweet.

Gothic Horror, Female Emotion, and Crimson Peak

The fear that you are going crazy, that you are imagining the things that wound or haunt you, is one our culture is always ready to confirm in women. We have been culturally conditioned to distrust our own minds, our own responses to the world around us. The writers of Gothic narratives have always understood this…In any situation of intense pain or fear, whether medical or domestic, being told repeatedly that you are imagining things or “making them up” creates a hell of Gothic isolation.

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,    

One need not be a house;       

The brain has corridors surpassing   

Material place.

-Emily Dickinson

 

Near the beginning of Guillermo del Toro’s new horror movie, Crimson Peak, a group of Victorian socialites describe the heroine, a young, aspiring American novelist named Edith Cushing, as “our very own Jane Austen,” cattily adding of Austen: “She died a spinster.”  Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley,” adding, after a pause, “She died a widow.”

Beyond this exchange’s underlying dialogue of marriageability, Edith’s preference for Mary Shelley situates Crimson Peak in the genre of Gothic terror which runs from Anne Radcliffe to Shelley herself to Charlotte Brontë to Daphne Du Maurier and beyond.  Edith’s rejection of Austen implies that this movie is not a send-up of the Gothic genre, as Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey is, even when the film self-consciously trots out the most worn conventions of the genre.  More subtly but even more importantly, Edith’s preference signals the film’s distance from the worldview that produced Austen’s satirical novel: there will be no shaming of the female protagonist’s overheated imagination here, as there is via a pedantically mansplaining male figure in Northanger Abbey.  In Crimson Peak, all the heroine’s fears are confirmed—along with some terrors that never occurred to her before they were revealed, though they probably occurred to the viewer with any experience of Gothic tales.

In the Gothic tradition, female feelings and fears are central.  Continue reading “Gothic Horror, Female Emotion, and Crimson Peak”

Alternate Titles for Spectre

You forgot there was a James Bond movie coming out, didn’t you? Me too, until I found myself in theaters watching it. Minor spoilers for tone and the teensiest of spoilers for plot, but…you’re not watching this for the plot anyway, are you? Don’t.

  1. How much abuse can a middle-aged body take?
  2. A good soundtrack makes all the difference
  3. It’s about THE DATA DAMNIT
  4. This is definitely not an obsolete franchise, nope
  5. The world’s cybersecurity problems boil down to a personal grudge, surprise!
  6. Never neglect a German child
  7. This guy again
  8. What do you mean this is an outdated sensibility
  9. Here we are in North Africa living a beautiful khaki imperialist dream

    ABSOLUTELY THRILLING
    ABSOLUTELY THRILLING, OBVIOUSLY. PLEASE TELL US MORE

Inside Out and the Politics of Feeling

As pretty much anyone who’s ever met me can attest to, I have a lot of feelings. About everything. I have a lot of feelings about reproductive rights, education policy, the environment; I cry at the end of happy movies and sad movies and at emotionally charged scenes in the middle of movies; since the birth of my niece I even occasionally cry at commercials featuring babies. I’m not quite at Kristen Bell levels of emotional lability, but I’m pretty close. Traditionally, having an abundance of feelings has been associated with a lack of rational thought. Calling someone “emotional” is a hair’s breadth away from calling them “hysterical”; it signals an inherent “femininity,” an inability to think straight. “You’re being emotional” is used to dismiss women, whether they are calling out sexism or arguing about whose turn it is to clean. There are other variants on this theme: “Calm down,” “you’re just overreacting,” and my personal favorite, “is it that time of the month?”

But Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, makes the best argument I have ever seen in mainstream media for the importance of emotions. The main “characters” of the film are the emotions of a cheerful 11 year-old girl, Riley, as she goes through a difficult transition in her life. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has been at the helm of Riley’s emotional “control center” since birth, but when the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) begins to take over.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet seen Inside Out, go watch it. Bring a pack of tissues. Then come back and keep reading.)

Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter.
Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter. Inside Out is filled with clever visual gags and references to psychology, including a literal “Train of Thought” and “The Room of Abstract Thinking.”

Throughout Riley’s childhood, we see the way Joy, Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), serve their purposes. Joy guides Riley happily through most of her life. Fear keeps her safe, Disgust stops her from being poisoned – physically or socially — and Anger both alerts Riley to what is unfair and gives her hockey game its verve. But over and over, Sadness is relegated to a corner; on the first day at a new school, Joy gives out assignments to the other three emotions, then draws a chalk circle, ordering Sadness not to leave. But in the tumult of the move, Sadness oversteps her bounds and puts her hands on some of Riley’s “core memories,” turning them from a joyful yellow to a melancholy blue. Sadness doesn’t mean to do any harm, she just does.

Joy and Sadness wind up in a tussle over these core memories, and the two of them are sucked up in a memory storage tube – one of Inside Out’s many clever literalizations of the inner workings of the mind — leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm. Without Joy or Sadness, Riley becomes listless, irritable and withdrawn. She cries in class and hates herself for it. She snaps at her parents. In a misguided attempt to help bring Joy back into the fold, the three remaining emotions implant the idea – with a light-bulb, of course – of running away back to Minnesota (well, Anger and Disgust do. Fear wisely protests, but holds no sway over Anger). As Riley goes through with this plan, however, they realize their mistake, and try to get her to turn around. But, in a beautiful metaphor for depression, the controls no longer work. Riley is completely divorced from emotion, and in being so, is also completely divorced from reason.

Inside Out is a thoroughly researched film: director Peter Docter consulted at length with two well-established psychologists, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman. In a New York Times article titled “The Science of Inside Out,” the two UC Berkeley psychologists make a case for the importance of emotion:

“Emotions organize – rather than disrupt – rational thinking…emotions guide our perception of the world… most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Of course, we can get over-emotional, but at their core, emotions alert us to what is happening in the world, and help us navigate our way through. Anger tells us when something is unfair to us, and can drive our sense of justice in the world. Without anger, we are complacent. Fear keeps us from doing things that might get us killed, and without it, we are reckless. Disgust alerts us to foods that might be poisonous, or social behaviors that might isolate us. Joy keeps us going. Of course, there are more than five emotions, but Docter wisely chose to keep the number of central characters low rather than try to achieve full psychological accuracy. The question at the heart of the film is “what does sadness do?”

In their efforts to get back to Riley’s control center, Joy and Sadness fight and separate; Joy falls into the abyss of lost memories. While stuck down there, carefully guarding her bag of core memories, she examines one of her favorites – Riley, buoyed on the shoulders of her hockey teammates, cheering wildly. But when Joy replays the memory (which she does by swiping  – apparently, our memories operate on touchscreens), she sees blue, not yellow. She sees the moments leading up to Riley’s joyful rally with her friends; a forlorn Riley sits on a tree branch, head in her hands. Her team had just lost a big game, and she thinks it’s her fault. First, her sadness draws her parents to her, and then her team.

The people Riley loves and who love her are drawn to her sadness; because of her sadness, they protect her, they lift her up, they bring her joy. This is consistent with what many scientists believe is the evolutionary purpose of sadness and its teary manifestation.

In an earlier moment, Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing Bong is crying candy tears, too overwhelmed with mourning to help Joy and Sadness to the Train of Thought. Joy tries everything she can to cheer him up; she tickles him, she makes funny faces, all without success. Then Sadness sits down next to him. She doesn’t try to cheer him up. She doesn’t tell him not to be sad, or that things will be okay. She just acknowledges how he feels. She acknowledges the very real pain that comes with Bing Bong’s realization that he is no longer part of Riley’s life. She just lets him feel what he needs to feel. Soon, he feels okay again – despite the continuing sad circumstances which lead to his ultimate sacrifice – and is able to help Joy and Sadness on their journey.

“How did you do that?” Joy asks. “He just needed someone to talk to,” Sadness replied, “so I listened.”

As we see in the first part of the film, not all emotions – at least according to common perception – are created equal. Inside Out deals with the way in which Sadness tends to be looked down upon – something also touched upon by Allie Brosh in her chronicle of depression, and our own K.H. in her rocky start to graduate school. Like K.H., I have dealt with my fair share of depression; I have also experienced loss, sometimes of people far too young to die, and its accompanying grief. Often, the most well-intentioned people will say things like “are you feeling better?” or offer a well-meaning “chin up,” “pick yourself back up,” “it’s okay” – anyone who has been sad for a prolonged period of time (or, really, any period of time) has heard these things. Whether they come from a desire to make those around us happy or a deep discomfort with negative emotions, these responses can be damaging.

We would do well to take a cue from Sadness. At times, the best we can do for people struggling with difficult feelings is just sit down next to them and say, “I am sorry this is happening right now. I’m sure it hurts a lot. Take your time. I’m here.” Sometimes we need to know that it’s ­okay to be sad, that sadness is a perfectly logical reaction to some things in life. Sadness often responds best with room to be sad, rather than the frenetic distractions offered by Joy. It is only when Joy herself realizes Sadness’ power that she is able to get back to Riley’s control center, hand the reins to Sadness, and save their girl.

While I applaud Inside Out’s nuanced portrayal of Sadness, the movie did not give Anger the same treatment. And when you are a woman, or a person of color, anger becomes very complex indeed. When you move through a world that sometimes seems to hate you – a world that, at best, can make life very difficult for you – anger is, well, a totally rational response. I get angry when men go out of their way to intimidate me on the street, or go even further and grab at my body; I get angry when politicians who will never have to worry about getting pregnant do their best to strip me of my reproductive rights. How else am I supposed to react?

As E.Y. observed in her piece on #distractinglysexy, the policing of women’s bodies – our clothes, our makeup, the way we walk – is racialized in addition to being gendered. This certainly holds true for emotions, as well. The stereotype of the “angry black woman” forces many black women to be ­extra­-demure, lest they get dismissed – or worse – for expressing even the tiniest hint of anger, no matter how justified. In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, a narrative of forgiveness – a narrative, that is, of not showing anger – dominated the media. Roxane Gay argues that in looking for this narrative,

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present… What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution…I, for one, am done forgiving.

On a day-to-day basis, anger (along with fear and sadness) is policed along lines of both race and gender. If you are a woman, and angry, you are irrational. It’s that time of the month. You’re acting like a man (and not in one of the acceptable ways). If you are a black man, and angry, you are a threat. You’re out of control. If you are a black woman, and angry, you risk falling into either or both of the above categories, and getting pegged as an “angry black woman.” Often, it seems that only certain people are allowed to feel, or at least express anger. Of course, those who are allowed to express anger – white men – are not allowed to express “feminine” emotions like fear and sadness.

Our feelings can make us vulnerable, but that vulnerability can enforce a sense of community. And, perhaps even more importantly, without emotions, we are not highly-evolved, perfectly rational Vulcans. We are complacent, we are reckless, we are compassionless. We’re depressed, empty. We need to move beyond the idea that being emotional is “feminine” (as if that’s a bad thing) and weak, and that cold logic is always better. We also need to move beyond the idea that emotions and logic are at odds; one can be both intensely emotional and highly logical.

When Anger and Disgust (Fear is pretty meek) are at the helm of Riley’s command center, they decide she should go back to Minnesota to be happy again. But soon after implanting this idea in Riley’s mind, they realize it’s a pretty terrible one. However, as Riley’s depression worsens, her emotions are no longer able to influence her at all. Despite their best efforts, her three remaining emotions cannot make her turn around. She ignores her mother’s worried phone calls, and on a bus bound for Minnesota, she stares out the window, her face blank.

But just in the nick of time, Joy and Sadness make it back to the “command center.” Joy, having learned her lesson about Sadness’ power, steps back, pushing Sadness towards the controls. As soon as she is at the helm, Riley sits bolt upright, asks the bus-driver to let her off, and runs home as fast as she can, breaking down into tears as she crosses the threshold. At the end of the movie, Sadness saves the day, allowing Riley and her parents to reach a new level of empathy and understanding. Riley continues to be a happy, if slightly more somber, girl whose control center is shared equally by Joy and Sadness (and Anger when she’s on the ice).

Through Joy, Sadness, and the rest of the team, Inside Out provides its young audience with a crucial vocabulary for articulating emotions both celebrated and often unfairly maligned. The ability to discuss the importance of these emotions should not be underestimated—and these emotions, especially anger and sadness, should be divorced from questions of who is “allowed” to feel them.

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.

marnie2
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.

Summer Reads: Dystopian Dreaming (Mad Max-Inspired)

Some consider the original Mad Max films to be the originators of the current post-apocalyptic aesthetic that’s now a familiar theme in film, literature and video games: the world becomes a dirty, gritty place and the real villains are the humans running amuck in the wake of large scale catastrophe and institutional collapse. If you’re like me, the adrenaline rush of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road left you with the desire for more dystopian action and it’s going to be a long wait for Mad Max: Wasteland. Since you’ve probably already seen Divergent and The Hunger Games, let me humbly suggest another way to get your apocalypse fix: a few great summer reads that share in the Mad Max spirit by being gritty, raw, or beautifully self-conscious of their own genre (and all the campiness, hokeyness and playfulness that comes with along with it). What a lovely day!

Some consider the original Mad Max films to be the originators of the current post-apocalyptic aesthetic that’s now a familiar theme in film, literature and video games: the world becomes a dirty, gritty place and the real villains are the humans running amuck in the wake of large scale catastrophe and institutional collapse. If you’re like me, the adrenaline rush of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road left you with the desire for more dystopian action and it’s going to be a long wait for Mad Max: Wasteland. Since you’ve probably already seen Divergent and The Hunger Games, let me humbly suggest another way to get your apocalypse fix: a few great summer reads that share in the Mad Max spirit by being gritty, raw, or beautifully self-conscious of their own genre (and all the campiness, hokeyness and playfulness that comes with along with it). What a lovely day!

 

1. If you loved the gritty, violent world of Mad Max: Fury Road:

City of Bohane

by Kevin Barry (Graywolf)

Post-apocalyptic wasteland fraught with feuding factions of dandies? A technologically retrogressive world full of violence, intrigue, and romance? A shit-ton of awesome futuristic sartorial choices? Check, check, and check. City of Bohane takes us through the lives of people in 2053 Ireland as they contend with their pasts while trying to carve out a future for themselves in the the barren city none of them can seem to escape.

Like Mad Max, the environment of this novel is bleak. Characters consistently refer to the Bohane river and the way it “taints” the city, suggesting that the book has major eco-critical potential. The novel is set in the fictional Irish town Bohane and follows the feud between the Hartnett Fancy and their rivals as they try to maintain control of the city. Logan Hartnett, leader of the Fancy, relies (at least superficially) on  his mother Girly to authorize the Fancy’s wargames, while actually relying on the murderous talents of three young possible successors, the galoot Fucker Burke, a lovestruck Wolfie Stanners and the fierce Jenni Ching. If you are into gritty, highly stylized, dystopian novels with a unique, rich, storyworld, then this is your new read.

Though he deftly uses description, the real meat of this novel is its unique dialogue, which Barry  has said he based on “working class speech in the cities I grew up in, Limerick and Cork”, noting that “Those kinds of voices have never really shown up before in Irish literature.” By combining Irish slang, new insults, slurs, and curses with the rhythm of the contemporary Irish accent, Barry has invented a new dialect that is at once completely understandable but also believably alien. Playing with the structures and functions of language seems to be one of Barry’s goals and he has commented that  “[The novel is] written in Technicolor…It’s intended to be a big, visceral entertainment as well as a serious language experiment.”

This is the debut novel by author Kevin Barry, who has also published two volumes of short stories and has been featured in the New Yorker and won various awards for his short fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for City of Bohane.

 

2. If you were interested in the way that the “half-life war boys” were used as disposable bodies to serve the greater will of “society,” (read: Immortan Joe)

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf)

Time Magazine called this 2005 novel by Ishiguro (who already has a Booker Prize under his belt for The Remains of the Day (1989)) “the best novel of the decade” and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize,  Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award (among just receiving general praise!).

*This section includes spoilers.

The novel tells the story of three friends growing up in a near-future dystopian England where humans are cloned so that these clones–who are not regarded as fully human–can donate their organs to increase the healthy life of the “real” humans. The novel explores the experiences of Kathy (our narrator and protagonist), Ruth, and Tommy as they pass from boarding school, to young adulthood, to “completion”. The novel transports us to their early days as they attend a boarding school that focuses on keeping them healthy and teaches them to produce art–which in this society can be used to denote the presence of a soul. Art, especially when created by those clones who will donate their organs until “completion”, perhaps not only indicates humanity, but also can represent a piece of the clone that lives on after they have “completed” (much like how George Miller has explained that “the “half-life war boys” who are doomed to die young, and they worship cars because “the machines endure when they know they themselves will not.”)

Critics have apparently debated what genre to put this book in, but I’m willing to side with horror writer Ramsey Campbell who said in an interview that this books is horrific precisely because the characters don’t see the horror of their situation. I think this sentiment also applies to Fury Road—part of the reason that Immortan Joe is so terrifying is because the half-lives don’t see their situation as negative, even though they, like the clones in Never Let Me Go, have no real agency over their futures. As the clones are told, “Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.”

3. If you were fascinated by the disgusting, yet powerful system of authority set up by Immortan Joe

Zone One

Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books)

There’s no way I could make a dystopian book list and not include a novel about zombies, since the undead often operate as a catalyst of the apocalypse. This setting asks us to observe the way that authority reasserts itself in times of disorder, be it through webs of interpersonal microaggressions and community organization or authoritarian or military-style takeovers. Therefore in a book list that is Mad Max-inspired, I would recommend Zone One, where the desolate wasteland is not a parched, stormy desert, but the empty and barren shell of New York City.

Zone One imagines the emergence of a post-apocalyptic dystopia in the portrayal of the American Phoenix government (located in Buffalo) which tries to use the symbolic capital of New York City to promote its own authoritarian ends. The novels gives us a personal account of trauma, narrated by a black man who remembers his life pre-apocalypse and continues to make cognitive adjustments to the new world as he realizes that his mediocrity in the old world makes him the hero of the new.

The tie-in to Mad Max is in the way that the powers-that-be hoard resources and modify/sacrifice bodies as a way to further their own authority. In order to earn their keep, survivors like our protagonist (Mark) are required to do some sort of work—for example, Mark volunteers to be on a sweeper unit to clear NYC of its last remaining zombies. “We make tomorrow,” says the American Phoenix  in a call back to the puritanical work “ethic” that is responsible for humans being seen only through the lens of their labor efforts. The authorities in Buffalo are always sending along new rules and regulations to the sweeper teams: looting for example, is prohibited.  Buffalo even tries to regulate the responses that humans have to the trauma of apocalypse, categorizing all of their sensible psychological reactions to trauma as part of the “Post-Apocalyptic-Stress-Disorder,” a disease that can and should be fought. Suicide is a forbidden thought—new empires need to find some backs to build upon.

The narrative oscillates between Mark’s past and present, spiraling around his telling, eventually giving us a full picture of him: his narrative constructs his being. While there’s a good deal of recounted action and moments of high drama that will pull on your heartstrings, what’s really significant about Zone One is the sophistication with which it handles its subject matter. Ultimately, its about the way that bodies (living and dead), institutions and the city interact as separate sites of power during the post-apocalyptic reconstruction, with a particular sympathy for the individual experience. Furthermore, the language is just gorgeous. Whitehead chooses to have Mark narrate in 3rd person–a jarring experience at first–but one you quickly get accustomed to since Mark is an entertaining, thoughtful, and powerful narrator.

4. If you were really into the way that Mad Max: Fury Road gleefully embraced the action genre while simultaneously doing critical work

Watchmen

Alan Moore and David Gibbons (DC Comics)

Watchmen is Alan Moore’s imagining of an alternative history where masked vigilantes work for the government. At once a powerful meditation on justice and power and a biting critique of the superhero, Watchmen is both action-packed and philosophically rich as it forces readers to confront questions about the duty of the citizen, the workings of power, and the value of human life. The narrative is told in a kind of zig zag, traversing both time and space as the now aging superheroes confront the actions of their younger selves.

This passage encapsulates the spirit of the novel–really the spirit of the aesthetic that this book list is built upon: “Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.”

The character that utters these words, Rorshach, is complicated. In some ways we could argue he is the protagonist (if we can agree that Watchmen has a singular protagonist) because we have unfettered access to his mind through his detailed journal; however, this journal reveals the severity of his bigotry, but also his hopeless resignation in a world made dark by the threat of war. Rorshach’s staunch, legalistic moral stance seems to have been conditioned by his exposure to violence, violence that was then replicated in his behavior, making him too a victim of his dark world.

Admittedly, Watchmen is not without its problems. The novels shows us scantily clad female superheroines and uses sexual violence and abuses as a trope meant to signify that the world is corrupt; but both of these elements could be explained by the work’s inherent parody of the superhero genre. However, the fact that the female characters are not actualized outside of their relationships with men is less easy to write off. Despite these issues, Watchmen is still worth the read, mostly because of the grand scope of its critique. It explicitly asks us to consider whether the ends of peace justify even the most horrific means–a question that I still believe is relevant, nigh essential, for us to fully consider as we rise against institutions that disenfranchise its citizens.

Alan Moore has also written V for Vendetta (another great read if you’re into graphic novels),  From Hell (Jack the Ripper in Victorian London) and The Killing Joke (which apparently Heath Ledger used as source material for his widely acclaimed portrayal of the Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight).

5. If you were really into the feminist readings of Mad Max or the society of the Many Mothers

Egalia’s Daughters

Gerd Brantenberg (Seal Press)

I first read this dystopian critique/novel in a women and gender studies class I took while in college. If I am to be honest, I find it comically heavy-handed in its satire:  The world is populated by wim and menwim, the latter of whom are relegated mostly to the domestic sphere while the former tend to the affairs of state. A masculinist party forms and threatens the extant power structures of Egalia—but this is all a backdrop for the coming of age story of young Petronius, the son of one of the powerful wim, Director Bram. The book hits you over the head with its critique, and it’s more than a little silly, but as one reviewer put it, “If it takes this reversal of roles for men to finally understand how women feel, to walk a mile in our bruising, too-tight, ill-fitting, high-heeled stilletto [sic] shoes, then I implore every man to read Egalia’s Daughters twice. It’s a real eye-opener, and maybe then the sexes can finally reach an understanding and possibly even reach equality.” Though I agree that the novel certainly highlights inequities in society, its real work is in showing that the real problem isn’t gender: it’s the way the power uses gender to establish hierarchies.

When Mad Max returns to Furiosa and her badass companions as they begin their trek across the desert, he comes with a plan: escaping isn’t the best way towards lasting satisfaction, peace, or redemption. Those purposes are best achieved through elimination of institutionalized inequity, ie. taking down the Citadel. The catch of course becomes—aren’t all forms of power in some way abusive? For now, until a sequel tells us differently, we can live in the vague hope that the populist impulses Max and Furiosa bring back to Immortan Joe’s people will last. But I suspect we’ll get to see more intricate workings of power in the post-apocalyptic landscape in future Mad Max films.

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.