Jerry Lewis

I really like Jerry Lewis movies. My friend Thomas always made fun of me for it. He’d say I was the “only American who loved those films”. The first Jerry Lewis film I ever saw was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), one of Lewis’ films that Frank Tashlin directed, on Turner Classic Movies when I was in sixth grade. Not long after that my friend Dan and I saw Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982). From there we began digging up radio and commercial outtakes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the internet and nurturing a slightly unhealthy fixation on Jerry Lewis’ unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried (1972). So my exposure to Jerry Lewis was both sudden and immersive. It wasn’t hard to find Jerry Lewis’ influence on films that I already liked. Paul Flaherty’s underrated Clifford (1994) is unimaginable without Jerry Lewis having come first.

Cinderfella

For me Jerry Lewis’ genius comes from his understanding of genre aesthetics and his ability to manipulate and subvert those aesthetics as well as from his many character iterations in his films which pinpoint the neuroses of masculine patriarchal culture (his persona always seemed born out of opposition to that of Dean Martin, a fact made even more clear in The Nutty Professor). Lewis’ criticism of our society is precisely what endeared him to filmmakers as renowned as Jean-Luc Godard (who would pay homage to Lewis in Tout va Bien and Keep Your Right Up). Lewis’ ability to satirize while always remaining silly, fun, childlike and escapist has never been equaled in this country since his heyday in the early sixties.

My two personal favorite Jerry Lewis films are Cinderfella and The Bellboy, both released in 1960. Tashlin and Lewis’ Cinderfella is as much a pastiche of MGM musicals of the fifties as it is an examination of male adolescence gone wildly out of control. The sense of design and of color in the film is breathtaking. Neither Tashlin nor Lewis ever made a film that looked more like a cartoon. In addition to being in black and white The Bellboy is far more minimal in its overall visual structure and framing than Cinderfella. Unlike Cinderfella, The Bellboy’s primary aesthetic interest is in silent film clowning. For a first time director such as Lewis The Bellboy is remarkably mature in how it handles the balance between “silent” and “sound” comedy.

It is more likely, however, that people my age know Jerry Lewis better for his Telethons or through some other form of media. I know the first time I was exposed to Jerry Lewis I didn’t even know it. It was on a John Lennon bootleg I had. There are a few tracks from Lennon’s appearance on a Jerry Lewis Telethon with Yoko Ono in 1972. Jerry Lewis was one of those truly versatile performers, he may even have been the very last of his kind. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that different generations of audiences know him for different works in different mediums.

The King Of Comedy

Ninety-one is not young, and it is safe to say that Jerry Lewis accomplished much more than most people ever do in their lives. Still, it is saddening to know he is gone. There is no one I can think of working in the cinema today that could be considered a continuance of Lewis’ work.

-Robert Curry

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Runnin’ Wild: A Book Review

Roughly a month ago it was my good fortune to inherit a collection of about 120 books on the subject of Hollywood during its heyday between 1915 and 1960. Many of these books were from the seventies and have long been out of print, so the information and details which they contain have brought me no end of delight (Brendan Gill’s Tallulah is particularly enjoyable). Though, I must admit, I have been rather slow in digesting them all I have already found one biography which I would like to single out.

Clara Bow publicity photograph

There is no doubt David Stenn is a name well-known to enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films. His financing for restorations of the films of Clara Bow, including Mantrap (dir. Victor Fleming, 1926), coupled with his own project/film Girl 27 (2007) has made him indispensable. But Stenn remains best known for his meticulously researched and definitive biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (first published in 1988) is one of those rare biographies that is overwhelming with information but whose literary style gives it a sense of urgency and modernity. Stenn’s meticulous research gives the reader a tremendous insight into the business affairs of B.P. Schulberg and Paramount, reprinting numerous cables, memos and letters between studio executives, personnel, artists, and Clara Bow herself. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, like the best Hollywood biographies, succeeds in presenting a star in such detail and with such life that it invariably enhances one’s viewing experience of their films. It is also of note that Clara Bow’s acting style (discussed at great critical length by Stenn), like that of Louise Brooks’, was considerably modern for its period. However, Stenn’s real achievement with this book, and my primary reason for recommending it, is how it rewrites Hollywood history; dispelling long accepted rumors and assumptions.

Stenn goes to great lengths defending Clara Bow from the gossip that arose after 1932; mainly in the form of Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon (1965) which alleges Clara Bow’s multiple “gang-bangs” with different sports teams. The widely held assumption that Clara Bow was, as a woman waiting for the trolley with me one day put it, a floozy is investigated at length and countered with evidence that paints a portrait of Clara Bow as something more akin to Protofeminist. Sources ranging from telegrams to eye-witness accounts verify that Clara Bow was not a dim-witted nymphomaniac but rather a slightly naive, generous, openly sexual person who always spoke her mind come hell or high water. This also helps illustrate the degree to which Hollywood sought to control their star and also how American culture in the twenties vilified promiscuity, female strength, and sexuality. Stenn’s biography concludes that Clara Bow, given all of the well researched evidence, is a woman who would not change herself to conform to society’s idea of who she should be.

There is also plenty of material in Stenn’s book that undermines the romanticized concept of the flapper of the roaring twenties. Stenn takes his time showing his reader that Elinor Glyn manufactured this romantic notion of the flapper or “It” girl (as Clara Bow was to become known) for the sake of her own financial gain. Stenn makes the case quite effectively that Glyn’s interest in female sexual liberation was self-serving, and Clara Bow’s association with Glyn only helped to typecast and stigmatize her. In this respect Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild serves many of the same motives as Louise Brooks’ remarkable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1982). Both Stenn and Brooks are fascinated with the hypocrisy of the major studios whose pictures promote the flapper but whose policies and press attack those same ideologies when exhibited by their stars. This more inquisitive line of investigation plants figures such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow squarely within the camp of early feminists (a trend in biographies of actresses which seems to have begun in the late 1960s).

Call Her Savage (1932)

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild is also a terrific amount of fun. This fun comes from Stenn’s ability to not only endear Clara Bow to his reader, but also in inviting the reader into Clara’s personal life. Often Clara Bow’s life is tragic or harrowing, but it can also be a bit silly. Two of my favorite moments are when Clara Bow out hula dances an intoxicated John Wayne and the fact that one of Clara Bow’s favorite past-times in Hollywood was to roller skate up and down her driveway. After all, it is in the little details that one truly comes to know a person and Stenn keeps them in abundance.

Robert Curry

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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns

Crowd the calendar of freedom

When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan

Criticizers

From the hanging cliffs of plenty

Laugh to see the fall of those

Who would remain in honest lands

Clairvoyants strive to see

The plans of those who need to know

What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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The Beguiled

The Beguiled

When I saw Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled (2017) at the County Theater in Doylestown I was actually really surprised by it. I know it really wasn’t very much akin to its source material, A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, and it certainly stood in sociological opposition to the Don Siegel adaptation of 1971. And yet, I found the film to be boring.

Coppola’s style appears to have opened up to prioritize geographical location and setting at a higher value since The Bling Ring (2013), often times reminding me of David Gordon Green’s more recent independent film dramas. But this sudden value she appears to have found in locale is overwhelmed by how cloistered the narrative scope is (a sharp contrast to her 2003 feature Lost In Translation). It is almost as if by adapting Cullinan’s novel into a film and reconstructing it as a feminist work that Coppola has repressed all of the other links to the political, sociological, and historical contexts that should have shaped the narrative and given it greater value.

The Beguiled, very early on, severs all of its ties with the American institution of slavery. If memory serves it is Nicole Kidman, as Miss Farnsworth, who observes that “about a year ago all of our slaves left”. Then later, Colin Farrell, as Corporal McBurney, relates to his hosts that he is a “mercenary”, and that he does not believe in either the Union nor the Confederate causes in one of the most blatant pieces of expositional dialogue I have heard in awhile. Both of these moments “whitewash” the narrative. Coppola denies her audience the context of these characters’ very existence in order to keep the viewer’s focus solely on the sexual politics of The Beguiled. In so doing, I hardly see the purpose of even keeping the narrative of The Beguiled situated during the American Civil War. These events could just as easily have happened if they were set in Bosnia, Iran, Chile, or Vietnam.

The Beguiled’s most glaring narrative omission is its inability to articulate the generational divide between the seminary’s instructors and their charges. That Sofia Coppola has proven quite adept at depicting the nuances of such conflicts in her debut feature The Virgin Suicides (1999) and yet would rather not address these issues in The Beguiled is disappointing. A good deal about all of the leads could have been shown/learned by allowing the film the time to expand upon these interrelationships.

The sexual politics of The Beguiled (an eye for an eye so to speak) themselves, though superficially interesting, aren’t anything new. When walking out of the theater I thought about how much the narrative structure of The Beguiled reminded me of Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank (2009). Both films’ narrative structure begins and hinges upon the introduction of a male into a unit of women (a single mother and her two daughters in Fish Tank). In as much as for control as for a bid for power, these male characters (Farrell and Michael Fassbender) attach themselves openly to the older female characters while intending to sexually exploit the younger. But where in The Beguiled the unit of women combines to seek retribution for the male’s offenses, in Fish Tank, it is only the eldest daughter Mia (Katie Jarvis) who takes up the task (her mother and little sister prefer denial). By focusing only on Mia’s journey through the narrative Arnold gives her audience a strong portrait of womanhood in the early 21st century while also bypassing a broad allegorical form that the seminary represents in The Beguiled.

Andrea Arnold’s specificity of character, time and place as well as her employment of minor details in character and setting ground her realist narrative in a very contemporary setting, relying on the emotional vitality of the performers (Fassbender and Jarvis) to give the film enough “truth”, as Cassavetes would call it, to be transcendent. Sofia Coppola, on the other hand, appears to have designed her film to be “timeless” in terms dictated by its omissions as much as its inclusions. For me this makes Fish Tank a far more relevant and engaging piece of cinematic art than The Beguiled.

Fish Tank
Sofia Coppola’s brand of cinematic feminism is then only existent in conditions similar to a vacuum. The trappings of moment and setting must be made superfluous to propagate any meaningful dialogue exchange with an audience regarding feminist discourse. This doesn’t mean that The Beguiled is a bad film. In many respects I believe there is something of value in what Coppola gives audiences with her film by simply sustaining such a discourse at all. The issue for me is that the film doesn’t live up to its own potential as a means for both strengthening and widening the discourse that concerns Sofia Coppola so much.

-Robert Curry

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Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

Even in 2017 there still remains a relative void of criticism surrounding latter day Soviet Cinema available in English. For the most part critical discussions of Russian cinema during the late Soviet period tend to center upon the Gosinko’s repressive policies or the election of Elem Klimov to the position of First Secretary of the Filmmaker’s Union in May 1986 (roughly corresponding with the Glasnost). In auteurist terms, the discourse surrounding Soviet cinema during this period is predominantly concerned with two filmmakers; Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. This limited view of Soviet cinema hampers the discourse of either subject since a concise and detailed context remains elusive.

Rada

It is these conditions that prevent me from going in depth with tracing the production history of Emil Loteanu’s lyrical 1975 film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. I can however provide a minimum of context by simplifying some aesthetic trends in the Soviet Cinema. Auteurist discourse and the capitalist machine that has come to be an intrinsic part of it would stipulate that Soviet cinema could be divided into three separate schools (by “schools” I mean spheres and/or origins of influence). There is the Dziga Vertov school, the Alexander Dovzhenko school, and of course the Sergei Eisenstein school of filmmaking. By looking at the heritage of Soviet cinema in such broad strokes, categorization of a film becomes relatively simple. If Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven has any relation at all to these three “schools” then it is surely to that of Dovzhenko. Like Dovzhenko, and later Parajanov, Loteanu’s cinema is preoccupied with insular cultures trapped within the USSR. All three filmmakers employ expressionistic camera angles and moves to convey a mysticism that while always remaining ambiguous never loses its inherent familiarity, like reiterations of motifs from almost forgotten fairytales. Loteanu is not as gifted an image maker as Dovzhenko though, nor is he an avant gardist innovator like Parajanov. Emil Loteanu opts to negate controversy and to derive much of the power of his films from his long collaboration with the composer Eugen Doga.

Those familiar with Loteanu’s much more popular international co-production Anna Pavlova (1983) may be surprised that most of the filmmaker’s career was as defined by his literary adaptations as by their music. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is a musical; produced during the height of Loteanu’s collaboration with Eugen Doga. In adapting Maxim Gorky’s short stories Makar Chudra and Old Izergil for the screen, Loteanu conjures images of gypsies that look shockingly like those images we have come to associate with European Westerns. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the social and political parallels between outlaws, bandits and gypsies within the two seemingly disparate cultures. Gypsies serve many of the same functions in Russian folklore as Westerns do in American and Western European traditions in terms of providing a romantic depiction of a societal “outsider” and the moral code that both isolates the “outsider” while also drawing the “outsider” into the fabric of our shared moral understandings which, at times, differ from the laws of our society.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

The romantic depictions of gypsy outlaws and their Robin Hood existence are all designed so that within a sequence a musical climax is reached, erupting from fable to musical ecstasy and flamboyance. The economy of images in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven privileges wide shots that ground characters either within the context of a mass (the gypsy communities) or of a location (urban versus pastoral). Balancing this aesthetic program is Loteanu’s use of POV close-ups. The close-ups in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven are sensual and emotional, using a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the center of frame, confrontationally communicating emotion in a manner that is almost direct address. The spatial discrepancies between wide shots and POV close ups make up a rhythm that coincides with the rising and falling of Doga’s music in the soundtrack. Often the film will, as a scene progresses, speed up the rate of cutting in anticipation of the music and then, once the song has begun, cut to the beat of the music. This dialogue between the auditory and the visual in the film, its ebb and flow, is well suited to the gypsy folk style of music, imbuing the film with an overall sense of folkloric fantasy and the sort of revelry one associates with such spectacles.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven finds its most entrancing and memorable images in the scenes between the ill fated lovers Rada (Svetlana Toma) and Zobar (Grigore Grigoriu). The scene where Rada appears almost like a phantom out of a thicket to tend Zobar’s wounds contains the most expressionistic of shots in the film. As Rada approaches Zobar with her hand out, the camera takes a position twenty degrees to her right, with a shallow focus that is sharp only on her hand. This eerie emergence gives way to their sensual exchange as Rada tends Zobar’s wounds, conveying to us, in visual terms, that it is Rada who is seducing Zobar (an interesting role reversal).

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

One of the reasons that Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is not better known in the West today may in fact be due largely to its relative “low-brow” stature and wide commercial appeal. The year Loteanu made Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven also saw the release of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Though Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven may hold the record for the widest release of a Russian film in all of time (and made an international star out of Svetlana Toma), it doesn’t have the intellectual merits of a film by Tarkovsky, which is to say that it can never find its stride with a contemporary Western audience whose motive in seeing most foreign films is predicated by the notion that a foreign film should affirm one’s intelligence and cultural literacy.

-Robert Curry

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Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter

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In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.

When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?

Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?

Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance)  while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.

The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.

The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.

Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.

This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.

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By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).

Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.

-Robert Curry

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