Day: April 12, 2013

The Curious Case of the Criterion Newsweek Article

Posted on Updated on

In December of 2009, Newsweek published an article called “The Curious Case of the Instant Classic”, which detailed a brief history of the Criterion Collection, but went on to question its choice of films, specifically David Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of the Benjamin Button. The article revealed that the induction of the film, which is probably one of the “most controversial” of their collection and often their least expensive, was kind of a deal between Fincher and Criterion honcho Pete Becker. Fincher’s film The Game had originally been part of their collection when they released LaserDiscs, but the article seemed to accuse the company that if they kept releasing films like Benjamin Button and other films they could pick and choose from their IFC deal, they’d “get younger and younger until they just fade away”.

The article recognizes the importance and cultural stature of the film publishing company, which, in its enormous 660+ collection, has released such classics by Kurosawa, Renoir, De Sica, Chaplin, Bergman, etc., and that the company has done a great deal in aiding to the preservation and restoration of important films. But, positing that the company’s IFC deal would make the company’s reputation would shake and then lose its credibility? Looking back on it four years later, despite one or two questionable choices that shook up the blogosphere, the article seems silly and very dated. Fade away? Nonsense. Criterion is stronger than it has ever been in its company history.

Dozens, even hundreds of websites devote themselves to Criterion all by itself, my personal favorite being CriterionCast (as well as other art films), even more sites have Criterion based columns (my favorite being Criterion Corner), and there are also dozens of podcasts on iTunes (and beyond). Their future release slates, which they announce three months in advance, are debated over, predicted, and I imagine there are some bookies making money on them as well. Their Facebook page has more than 129,000 likes. They have more than 100,000 followers on their verified Twitter account. So, yeah, it doesn’t exactly look like Criterion has faded away at all.

The “controversy” of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture was eloquently discussed in David Ehrlich’s article on the film, and a point Mr. Ehrlich makes is that our perceptions of how prestigious Criterion is as a company should not change. That, as opposed to being those stiff and stuffy intellectuals who balk at something unfamiliar and “questionable”, it should be accepted as something entirely possible, new, and exciting. So, why did Newsweek not do that? How could they be so wrong?

At the time that the Newsweek piece was written, Criterion was already fairly respectable. They’d made their Blu-ray debut that year with films like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. They had introduced their vamped up website for the first time. They sent email newsletters which teased at future releases. Criterion was hardly a small company and, at the time, if you went to the library looking for something like High and Low or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, chances were (and still are) that they would have the Criterion edition. Because, they are the platinum standard. While having extra features isn’t exclusive to Criterion anymore, how enlightening those features are still might be. So, why acknowledge the company’s importance and then posit that, just because of one film, or one deal, they’ll disappear?

It’s known that the IFC deal was made, primarily, so that the money they earn with the IFC releases is used to restore and preserve the sets and editions that they hold dear to their heart. But saying that the IFC deal was a bad choice is kind of silly. Sure, the films might fluctuate in how “important” they are, but it’s really all semantics when it comes to dissecting Criterion’s credo, which is on the back of each set. Criterion’s IFC releases might, contrary to the article, save films from obscurity: because it has that label. And, again, how deserving a film is totally subjective.

But, at times, IFC’s choices have been incredibly successful. Take a look at Lars von Trier’s psychological nightmare Antichrist. Although, in my opinion, they probably would have picked the film up anyways (they already had The Element of Crime and Europa in their collection prior to the IFC deal), it’s one of the best films they’ve picked up from IFC. There’s Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following. Although the film isn’t as satisfying as Nolan’s sophomore effort, Memento, but seeing his first unlocks some of the ideas and techniques that would make him one of the most profitable Hollywood auteurs in the business. Mind games, non-linearity, etc. IFC’s investment into the film also gave Nolan the chance to go back to his film and clean up the print from the original 16mm negatives. Other notable inclusions that were good consequences of the deal include Wim Wenders’ 3D eulogy Pina and the Dardennes Brothers realist fairy tale The Kid with a Bike. The former film marked the very first 3D release and combo pack for the company (an element I wish the company would embrace fully), and the latter film’s release, though it was lauded at its release, allowed Criterion to snap up the Dardennes’ films Rosetta and  La Promesse. Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s film, is a wonderful romantic drama that doesn’t ghettoize its subject; it just portrays it as it is.

So, sure, you have your Benjamin Buttons, your Tiny Furnitures, your Life During Wartimes, and your endless Wes Anderson films (who I like, actually, and who Criterion just loves; he’s not part of the IFC deal, they just love him), but Criterion’s ability to either predict the longevity or solidify the legacy of certain films is, to me, what loving film is all about: loving it all and championing stuff that you think should be recognized.

So, even realizing how wrong Newsweek’s article was, it’s important, I think, to realize how condescending, disingenuous, and wrong that piece is. Criterion isn’t snobbish about film; it seems more to be a residual effect on its fans or something. So, even if Criterion includes a couple of Michael Bay flicks, Criterion does what the best cinephiles do and what all of the rest should aspire to: love cinema, all of its facets, and power as an art form.

Special thanks to the wonderful Josh Brunsting for being a helpful film encyclopedia!

Girls, Interrupting: The Guns, Girls, and Gender Dynamics of Spring Breakers

Posted on Updated on

There may be guns, girls, and pink balaclavas, but beneath the veneer of the naughtiness of spring break in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an interesting look at women who are able to be empowered despite the oppressive patriarchal environment around them. Spring Break itself cultivates this oppression. This sense of feminism is so strong that the lead girls, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, are able to subvert the very notion of the patriarchal environment and take a hold of it with a bang. And by bang, I mean with guns.

From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild?

So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.

However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film.

One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson  fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.

Many examples follow later, at least in terms of the girls interacting with guns, but they all seem to suggest the same thing: the girls finding empowerment where men usually would. Guns in and of themselves represent a very masculine ideal. They’re created to kill, which is, culturally, a very masculine thing. But the Freudian motivations behind this are shown in the phallic nature of the weapons. Weaponry in general takes on very male-centric images, resembling phalluses and testes, but when women hold guns, there’s generally a sexualiation of it. The women are made to be sexy, as opposed to embracing their own agency and power. This seems most indicative of the scene with Hudgens and the gun.

Their rampage begins, however, with the simple robbery of a chicken joint. These scary monsters who parade as nice sprites unleash a very masculine rage inside the chicken joint, using weapons, and even using sexist terms like “bitch.” Even something as seemingly tame as that term presents the characters as transcending their nubile façade, taking charge of the location. But they laugh at their rage, brush it off, and willingly admit that they used squirt guns. They basically got away with impersonating the “typical male,” one that exudes violence, power, and a strong sexual drive to dominate. This impersonation, however, becomes much more real later.

There are more guns down in Florida when the girls meet the human manifestation of their original alienation from society: James Franco’s Alien. His masculinity also showcases in how much power he has in the Spring Break habitat. Although he embodies the “get rich or die tryin’” archetype of rappers, his masculinity is embodied in the gun show that exhibited in his bedroom. Walls upon walls of firearms! Guns, guns, guns! And, as Franco says, his teeth gilded, “Look at all my shit!” This is further epitomized by Alien’s obsession with Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. He’s got the film “on  re-peat”, as he says several times. This idolatry of one of the most villainous anti-heroes of film is telling; what’s the most memorable moment of that film? When Al Pacino shouts “Say ‘Hello’ to my little frien’!” of course. He bursts through with an M-16 with a grenade launcher, which explodes, again representing the phallic nature of the gun. Burst, load, the barrel. All of these terms aresexualized, and all of them are staples of power, dominance, and masculinity.

This scene is the most disturbing of all. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up  a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this scene. It is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.

What’s frightening about this sequence is that after Franco gets over his fear, he buys into this shift. This subversion of expectation is surprising, but the fact that Fraco accepts this also is. I suppose that it is a reflection of myself as a viewer that I was surprised by the power, or frightened rather, that these girls exerted over Franco. He has become the submissive archetype, and he becomes “turned on” by this shift. He seems to willingly accept this, and begins fellating the silencers. Together, almost unified, they’ve come to a silent agreement: Franco may still be the front for this gang, but now it’s all about the girls.

I was struck by this scene in particular and its resemblance to a scene in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which is based on the play by Tracey Letts. In the film, there is a similarly disturbing scene, and one that garnered the film an NC-17. The amoral cop-slash-hit man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) carries out his retribution by having the wife of his client (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken wing from KFC. It’s a violent scene, that is also rather gross, but entirely commonplace in terms of BDSM dynamics. You have an archetypal dominant character who is male and you have an archetypal submissive person who is female. Spring Breakers turns this on its head and switches those roles, basically to subvert the expectations of audiences who think they’re familiar with BDSM scenarios. But even when the roles are switched in terms of male/female dominant/submissive scenarios, in mainstream media, this switch is often used to sexualize the dominant archetype. So, in most cases, the female, regardless of role, is sexualized and objectified. If my recollection serves me correctly, the scene in Spring Breakers is not sexy.  Its eroticism may lie in how dangerous it all feels (which is part of the appeal to Alien and the audience), but the Male Gaze is fearful, as is the audience, and looks at these girls with awe and wonder. (Also, I think there’s a lot of time that the camera spends on Franco with his mouth full.)

Is there a double standard here, in terms of the NC-17 rating versus the R rating? I don’t know. You would expect (or I would) that the sexualisation of the woman in Killer Joe, regardless of how violent it is, would garner the R, as the MPAA has a tendency to let more conventional and archetypal “male-as-dominant” scenarios get away with things, and not subversive or transgressive scenarios. So, I don’t know.

This transition of power is also evident in the balletic sequence featuring the timeless track “Everytime” by Britney Spears. Undoubtedly the most elegant and show-stopping scene in the film, the women exert as much power as any man in the situation, toting their guns and pink balaclavas with fervor. Though, as they stand by the piano, they circle around with their guns, acting like typical young girls listening to their favorite song. This transition and change in personality only proves that the women truly embrace their power and agency in their ability to oscillate between the masculine and the feminine.

Their feminism and embracing of power comes to a climax with the raid of Gucci Mane’s mansion. Gucci Mane, too, represents a certain male archetype, just as invested in hedonism as Franco. But his dynasty of masculinity (with more sex and drugs than even Franco) comes crumbling down. Franco “leads” the remaining girls, Hudgens and Benson, to the assault, and only moments after they take a step on the neon lit dock, their dominant position in the gangsta hierarchy is solidified with Franco’s death. Still dressed in only a bikini, the somewhat cartoonish and unbelievable battle is in the girls’ favors. This weird, inconceivable battle depicts the girls being totally invincible. This invincibility may be a metaphor for their true empowerment, their true upheaval of the patriarchal standard in that society. It may be them finding “their true selves”.

As the girls drive away back home, on their journey to forget what’s happened, they still have that slick car to remind them that they’ve found power like no one else: by inhabiting a male persona and subverting that persona to its very core.

Korine’s film might have similar origins to Zack Snyder’s detestable pseudo-feminist videogame Sucker Punch, but where Korine succeeds is granting his characters legitimate power without being preachy, subverting the very Male Gaze that drives the society and culture it deconstructs, and creating characters that are nuanced and can oscillate between masculine and feminine personas. As I said, the girls get away with it all, and with a bang.