Divergent (US, 2014)

Women as action heroes

Women as action heroes

As Hollywood thrashes around for the next ‘young adult’ franchise, it looks as though Maze Runner‘s worked for 20th Century Fox, you might be forgiven for ignoring the films if you’re several decades beyond the core audience. It was out of duty I watched Divergent and was delighted to find a narrative that wasn’t compromising over its representation of women. Like The Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence constantly looks uncomfortable when she’s wearing the fancy clothes of the Capitol, Divergent looks beyond the looks of its lead women. We are at a moment where women are becoming more visible (I note that the President of the PGA has just been sacked for misogynist remarks) but are having to withstand a Neanderthal male backlash: see #gamergate for example.

The DVD cover is not exactly encouraging as it repeats the trope that attractive women must twist their bodies so their bum and breasts are visible, but Theo James’ ‘helper’ is definitely in his place.

"Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body..."

“Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body…”

What matters is the film and Shailene Woodley’s Tris is a well drawn character who excels both in mind and body. Unlike The Hunger Games (so far in the films at least) she is also a sexual being and the growing attraction between her and James’ Four is well played and directed. And I particularly liked the scene where she teams up with her mother (Ashley Judd – see pic above) to shoot their way out of  trouble.

Whilst Hollywood apparently prevaricates over whether to actually produce a woman superhero film, audiences are voting with their tickets and the sequel to Divergent follows next year. Hopefully the brave women who are the focus of men’s bile, particularly online where anonymity makes the attacks more frequent, can withstand the pressure and the mass media can start representing women as more than pretty adjuncts to men. Men, of course, have their role in this as well by challenging the everyday sexism that pervades many work environments and not giving any consideration to the Daily Mail who delight in having misogynist female columnists.

Samaritan Girl, (Samaria, S.Korea, 2004)

Growing up too quickly

Growing up too quickly

The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang  Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-du, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.

In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.

Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a policeman who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car. 

The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable  thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; so as not Asia extreme.

Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.

Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.

Drive (US, 2011)

Car man

Maybe I shouldn’t’ve watched this film; I don’t understand cars. I can drive a car but the cyborg-like interface of feet-pedals and hands-steering/gears doesn’t thrill me. I watch boys – young men – rev their engines and pretend they’re Jeremy Clarkson weaving through the Bradford rush hour with incomprehension; undertaking becomes the norm. So I shouldn’t have watched this film as it’s inducing fogeyism. But I did…

…and was faced by another inarticulate male who can’t look the girl he fancies (a wasted Carey Mulligan) in the eye because real men only need women to have sex; the rest is propaganda. But, despite being a stuntman, Ryan Gosling’s Driver (that’s his name – must be an existential movie like Walter Hill’s The Driver, 1978; didn’t like that either) is sensitive but only feels at home behind the wheel. He doubles not only stunts, but as a getaway driver who will only wait five minutes; he weighs up the risks.

Maybe we weren’t supposed to admire him, after all this is an indie film but I just felt an overwhelming disappointment that I’d wasted my existence on the thing.

Winter’s Bone (US, 2010)

It don't get much worse

I’ve seen this film described as ‘hillbilly noir’ and while that doesn’t give us much of a clue to the drained-out colour of winter in the Ozark mountains, or the handheld visual style, it does indicate the nightmarish milieux portrayed. The world is one of patriarchy unfettered by any state, or feminine, discourse. Jennifer Lawrence’s lauded performance as Ree, who’s desperately trying to keep a roof over her younger siblings – and ailing mother’s – head, is the heart of this bleak film where decency is thin on the ground. This isn’t to say it’s a portrayal of ‘bad’ people, there are acts of human kindness throughout, but the world is dysfunctional because unrestrained, and miserable, male power holds sway.

A mention, also, for the brilliant John Hawkes – Ree’s dissolute but good uncle – who I suspect is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation. He combines a downtrodden mien with a charisimatic presence; no mean feat. Winter’s Bone is what the best of cinema is about as it takes us to places that exist but where we don’t want to go.

Watchmen (US, 2009)

Objectification with a difference?

Objectification with a difference?

I’ll ignore the question as to whether the film’s as good as the graphic novel and deal with it in isolation. It’s not a typical Hollywood action movie, though the shadow of The Matrix (1999) is still looming for the fight sequences, as it is infused with melancholy and the emotional punch is garnered through a woman coming to terms with her mother against the usual Oedpal narrative. While Malin Akerman is an unfeasibly scrawny action hero, whose dress is about revealing her body shape, Watchmen is unusual in showing the male protagonist’s cock. And it’s not just Hollywood that averts its gaze from the male member. True Dr Manhattan isn’t human but he does sport a six-pack and, I guess, an attractive arse so men are objectified too.

Dr Manhattan is also the locus of the melancholy, though the noir atmosphere that infuses the film (again The Matrix sprang to mind) is also grim. It’s unusual to have such a bunch of dysfunctional heroes. Night Owl’s sexual potency is questioned; Rorsach is borderline psychopath; Comedian a rapist; Ozymandias a megalomaniac. Silk Spectre is only ‘normal’ one. Of course all this difference is a result of the source material, Moore and Gibbons’ anti- super hero comic book.

Director Zack Snyder has does a good job in visualising Moore-Gibbons alternative world where the US won the Vietnam war and Tricky Dicky is elected for a third term. I don’t what audiences unfamiliar with the source material made of the film but, for the record, I enjoyed it more than the novel (which is not to say it’s better).

Beowulf (US, 2007)

Hypermasculinity?

Hyperfeminity?

It takes time to get used to the plasticky CGI, but after a while it seems right for the other-worldliness of the time. The latest incarnation of Beowulf turns out to be a fascinating discourse on the representation of gender. If the original poem is about what happens when a society fails to support its leader, then this is about the inevitable failure of phallic masculinity.

In Beowulf’s battle with Grendel he is naked. However, his cock and balls are always strategically hidden behind something; was this to avoid on R/15 certificate or to prevent ‘manhood’ appearing ridiculous? That is, when I man is flying around gymnastically there’s bound to be some undignified flapping going on. Also, as Richard Dyer suggested, men can never really live up to the idea of the phallus as it is forever hard. Of course, Beowulf’s sword stands in for the phallus but one touch from the voluptuous Grendel’s mum (can a mother have ever been represented so sexily) – Jolie – and it dissolves. Contrary to the original, Beowulf lies when he says he dispatched this particular monster; he is unmanned by her femininity (yes, defined in the fashion of patriarchy, by her curves and breasts).

Beowulf’s lack of masculinity is also underlined by his lack of heir when he dies; sacrificing himself for his wife and young lover. As befits a 21st century text, women have a higher profile in this version; in the 1100ADish one they are pretty much reduced to serving alcohol and being regal. However, the male carousing here is shown to be an empty experience. Beowulf, despite his breast-beating, or because of, is a melancholy character finding all the heroism an, essentially, empty experience but apparently unable to consummate his love/lust for his queen. This dark heart of masculinity is also evident in Hrothgar’s suicide (not in the original).

The trend to using CGI in a non-realist fashion seems to be continuing; Sin City, 300… In drawing attention to itself maybe it is trying to regain the ‘wow’ factor it had in its early days as audiences have become blase about the ‘miracles’ it performs. Whilst not as visually impressive as 300, Beowulf is far more interesting a film than the eariler film’s hysterical performance of manliness.

Sin City (US, 2005)

Visually stunning rendition of Miller’s graphic novel. As sexist as the source material, true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It depends how your read it; and the blokes are not exactly paragons of masculinity. (DVD, 2) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401792/