Maybe forty minutes into Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the fingersmith turned personal maid to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), is forced to cup the groin of Sound Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), with whom she is plotting to con the Japanese/Korean aristocrat out of her money. But Fujiwara, like Sook-hee, is little more than a thief, and, in all honesty, a lousy one. Sook-hee’s dexterity, both literally and figuratively, knows this, and when the two argue about the trajectory of their con, she hurls back, “Stop shoving something so small of yours into my hand.” Read the rest of this entry »
A haze of smoke uncoils and dances in the air, slinking out from of the mouth of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), part-time private investigator and, ostensibly, full-time pothead. So light and loony this character (and film) is, Inherent Vice almost comes as a surprise to those following the career of Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last few films have fit, for the most part, comfortably within a mode of seriousness. Vice, while hard to describe as frivolous, is not as married to that tone, instead taking on something goofier, funnier, and consistent with Anderson’s work; something enjoyably off-kilter.
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The scope of Frances Ford Coppola’s gangster opus The Godfather is large, not only in its fairly cyclical nature and trilogy format, but also for the way it views the United States of America. In the first entry of the trilogy, Coppola draws a detailed map of the United States as a capitalist enterprise, where nearly every action any character takes is under the guise of one thing (family loyalty, masculine coda, etc.) but is merely another action taken by the business. Its enormous scope notwithstanding, Coppola paints an intimate portrait of a family business, keying in on the specific nuances of the family business. Business is booming.
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.
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Even though they may seem to be of the same species, the same kind, even the same ingredients, there is a world of difference between bright, almost jovial look of an M&M and the dark, distinctly grittier and bolder taste of a square of chocolate with the flecks and dustings of cocoa throughout its center. They both taste good, and even though they are essentially the same thing, they are so fundamentally different that they serve different purposes. M&Ms are for fun. They’re pretty looking, not very serious, and appreciation is rooted in fun and good humor. That square of cocoa, however, is bolder, leaving a certain tingle on your tongue, the cocoa dust either causing you to run for a glass of water or making you salivate even more. It is, honestly and blatantly, more serious in nature. Is it possible to enjoy both? Certainly. But they are different nonetheless.
The same can be said of Tim Burton’s approach to bring Batman to the screen and Christopher Nolan’s vision. Burton’s candy coated, expressionistic techniques are fun and closer to the older comics. Nolan’s gritty psychoanalytic revisionist take is bolder and more real. They both have their merits, however. Burton’s two films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, were major successes, as were Nolan’s two films BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. Their content, thematic approaches and style, however, differ in dramatic ways, each one suiting a particular mindset.
Tim Burton is well known for his distinct visual style, one that is very reminiscent of expressionism. His sets, props, even characters rarely resemble what they are modeled after and instead are heightened to a point of disbelief. It works for his Gothicism that has been imbued in his work from the beginning, even with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. With his first Batman film, BATMAN, filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, and his Gothic/Expressionist style would once again take the center stage. His Gotham City resembles less the metropolis of New York or Chicago, but the Metropolis found in Fritz Lang’s titular silent sci-fi masterpiece. His buildings and his architecture are dark, tilted, almost seedy and crooked in nature. The sets that inhabit the Gotham City in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS almost seem to be the manifestation of the crooked villainy within Gotham. Even Burton’s cinematography, which occasionally takes on the tilted and jarring angles of Carol Reed’s iconic noir THE THIRD MAN, oozes an expressionistic style, in a way that realism is pushed onto the back burner in favor of something more exciting and fun. Burton’s color scheme, however, remains as dark as Batman’s cowl. Greys and blacks permeate the entire film, again recalling that of film noir.
Despite its noir-ish stylings, the tone of the film is light hearted, clashing against the dark expressionism that Burton utilizes. It’s cartoonish. Both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS present a tone and style that is deliberately a juxtaposition of the dark villainy and the cartoonish fun that was a part of the Batman comic in the 1960s. It almost seems like a contradiction on Burton’s part to have something as dark, even sadomasochistic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slink into frame in a very dominatrix-esque suit and then hiss comically at Batman. But that contradiction and clash of tone and style is exactly what Burton seems to be going for. His two films seem to be more of an accurate representation of the comics, thus recalling flair for snappy dialogue and action sequences that seem like they were paneled from cut to cut.
Burton’s presentation of the characters is just as cartoonish as the tone of his films. Less Gothic in nature than SWEENEY TODD, but less comical in style than BEETLEJUICE, Burton balances both, tight wire walking between silliness/action of the comics and the drama/darkness of Burton’s traditional style. The two manage to compensate for one another, neither element outweighing the other for too long. Between Batman and his rogues, though, they maintain the same unbelievable twistedness of some of the early incarnations. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is campy, and it seems that the Joker is definitely aware of how campy he is. Perhaps his self-awareness (the only character in both films that seems to be that self-aware) is another part that makes Nicholson’s Joker so insane. Nicholson’s Joker emblemizes the campiness of Burton’s films, as well as the dark expressionistic tones. He’s campy like Cesar Romero, but he’s dark and insane like Dr. Caligari. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the epitome of the weirdness that seems to have always been a part of Batman’s rogue gallery. He seems to be a fairly traditional villain with a fairly traditional motive. What he does have that the others do not is his look. You would never expect a penguin to be so nasty and conniving. And Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, is the archetypal femme fatale that brings the series’ film noir connections full circle. She is at once profoundly irresistible and utterly repellent. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in polyester.
Batman himself, and the playboy Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, seem like late era Sean Connery as James Bond, but with more sensitivity. He is handsome, wisecracking, and Kim Basinger can’t resist him. What Burton does not do, however, is make his Batman hefty or over emotional. Rather than make the audience strain, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a relatively simple guy. There’s less of an internal conflict regarding the secret identity in Burton’s Batman, with more concentration on Batman defeating the bad guys. And fun is exactly what the audience has.
What Burton’s films do is tap into the character, not bothering to establish an origin story, or even giving the character much weight, in a very lighthearted way. Burton is able to manifest the darkness of the series without it being overbearing. His films are theatrical representation of the comics.
But, as most heroes do, Batman evolved in order to best reflect the social anxieties. James Bond did it. Iron Man did it. Every hero does. And yes, Joel Schumacher’s films were arguably campier than the 1960’s TV series, but jump to 2005 and you get an entirely new breed of Batman. In a post-9/11 world, a campy and light approach to the character won’t cut it. Not only does the tone of the series change, not only do the motivations change, and not only does the entire presentation of the universe and the people that inhabit it change, but Bruce Wayne himself gets a revisionist makeover, seemingly starting from scratch in BATMAN BEGINS and continuing in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Christopher Nolan is a man who likes his protagonists enough to give them a reason to live. In FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, and INSOMNIA, his leads all deal with heady internal conflicts that make his films darker and enrapture the audience even further. For Batman and Bruce Wayne, he and David S. Goyer, established an origin story that is stronger than most origin stories that have appeared on the screen. Concise though it is not, it is a morbid, psychoanalytic approach to the character. This is an approach that gives the hero palpable, realistic fears and motivations for Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight of Gotham City. More than before, the dialogue carries the same punch that the action has, and the action has the same emotional weight as the dialogue. The characters matter as much as the tone. Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne and Batman with grit and vulnerability. He’s still pithy, but not clownish. He’s sexy and eligible, and he’s also a badass. And he is able to perfectly convey the layers within the character, all in one scene, all in one moment.
Nolan’s Batman Trilogy may take place in Gotham City, but this Gotham is the real world where danger is very real and possible. The mobsters that live in the seedy underbelly are kind of like the guys in GOODFELLAS, as opposed to the romanticism of the other mobsters in the Batman universe, which might be more comparable to THE GODFATHER. Its Chicago/New York look, again, presents a new kind of realism. This kind of realism is even applicable to the police station and the way that the government is set up in this universe. Before long, you forget that you’re in Gotham City.
The realism that Nolan gives the series is best represented by the villains that exist in it. The mobsters are ready to embezzle and whack people off, of course. But, first up, you have the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Crane, played by Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The former is a psychotic doctor who employs various drugs to kick his victim’s phobias in to a point where it incapacitates them; the latter was at one point Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentor. Both villains represent something that Wayne/Batman must overcome. The Scarecrow is the manifestation of all of Wayne’s fears (including bats, in this revisionist history) and Ghul, the overcoming of the past. Nolan manages to apply the microscope to nearly every facet of his films, and whatever character or piece of the universe is analyzes, it all relates back to Batman himself. The way that both the Scarecrow and Ghul are able to exploit Batman and make them extremely vulnerable make both villains unique to the film franchise. In THE DARK KNIGHT, a fallen political hero takes the form of Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face. He plays loss and revenge with a coin, by chance. This symbolic answer to the public’s perception of vigilantism is striking.
Let us not forget the biggest bad guy of them all: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal brings a sense of insanity, fear and socio-political awareness that accentuates the realism in the series. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker, who has no reason to create chaos other than for chaos’ sake, is the answer to domestic terrorism in the United States. Yes, villains, including the Joker in Burton’s films, have threatened the people of Gotham City, and the various pieces of architecture, but in Nolan’s Batman, these attacks feel more personal and more frightening. The Joker’s obsessive need to constantly counterpose everything that Batman stands for, even in a way where he shakes Batman’s footing and confidence as a hero, makes the portrayal one of the best in cinematic history. Ledger’s Joker is like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE plus Charles Manson multiplied by Nicholson’s self-awareness. What the Joker offers, besides a very yin and yang symbiotic relationship between him and Batman, is a veridical threat. Their relevance to contemporary, post-9/11 society is all the more obvious with the inclusion of the Joker. He is the perfect nightmare.
What I often find surprising about Nolan’s Batman films is that Nolan is able to handle an enormous scale incredibly well. More used to his calculated, character driven small films like MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE, he is able to handle large set pieces, explosions, and the like in the Batman films like a pro. He is able to convey the adrenaline rush of any big budget director, but with a coherency and style that is often lost in the process of other blockbusters (ahem, Mr. Bay). It’s a spectacle, both visually and emotionally.
Christopher Nolan appropriates Batman’s timelessness in a very specific frame of thought, making the impending and inevitable violence and fear more real. He gives the characters depth; he gives his protagonist fears and desires. Taking inspiration from many a different comic, including ones by Frank Miller, Nolan’s revisionist take on Batman is new and powerful. Nolan makes Batman less a character from comics and more a human being.
Burton’s films have just as much merit, with their fun visual style and general lighter tone. Their exploration of a Gothic and expressionist visual style counterpose with that lighter tone. Most representative of the comics that existed prior to darker graphic novels, both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS have their place in the franchise as a nostalgia filled, retro joyride. Nolan’s films will remain just as memorable for their unique approach for character drama. The films are dark because the atmosphere that they were created in is dark. BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT and, soon, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, will become indelible in both Batman and cinematic history, just as Burton’s before them. Though the two auteur’s approaches are fundamentally different in tone, style, setting, and presentation, you have to admit: it’s just two dances with the same devil in the pale moonlight.