13 June 2011

Now... Fight.

This entry disappeared, then suddenly reappeared as a draft. I will be doing a rewrite/edit of it eventually.

So this entry has been a long time coming. I have been meaning to write it and I have started writing it and not finished and now it is going to be written. I'm writing it. I am.

I saw Sucker Punch a while ago. And I had read a lot about it, I had seen the adverts, and I was aware, marginally, of the 'controversy' surrounding the film. Now I am weighing in with my own opinion.

Sucker Punch is far from a perfect film. Perfect films are so rare that I sometimes forget they exist. Near perfect is a wonderful place to be; Sucker Punch isn't that either.

It is, however, a film that made me think; one that lingered, long after I had walked out of the theatre. It affected me in a profound way, and I am still thinking about it, more than a month later.

One of the notable things about Sucker Punch is that it is a layered film. To use a term popularized by Douglas Hofstadter (and made trendy by hipster pseudo-intellectuals), it is a very meta film: the experience of the storyline in the film is an abstraction of itself. It is a story within a story within a story (at times) and the viewer is drawn down into these layers and then pulled back up again to the surface; everything that happens in each story happens in all of them, but in different manifestations and with different immediate consequences. This does not, however, dilute the plot (which seems, on the surface, to be a bit thin, but is mostly designed as a vehicle for making a statement). The plot is merely a device the writer uses to make a commentary on the condition of the human experience - it gives enough conflict for his main character to do something while she struggles through her own internal trials. Each of the layers offers a different way for her mind to address the very real struggle in which she finds herself, to learn her own strengths and weaknesses, and to decide how she is going to live: is she going to fight or is she going to die?

This film is yet another in a long line of female-led action films, and yet it does not feel the same as many of its predecessors in the genre. The goal of this film is not simply to glorify femininity and to make strong women appear sexy (though it does both of these things to a greater or lesser extent). The goal of this film is to create an awareness of self, using the self-discovery and self-awareness of the characters to illustrate that point. The main character, Baby Doll, starts out as a weak, abused, helpless figure. She is abused by her stepfather; she fails to protect her sister; she is placed in a situation where she has no power and no control over her life. And so she must escape, within her own head. And yet, in the place to where she has escaped, her mind turns against her there as well, creating a mirror of her real world. So she must escape again, going deeper into her mind; each escape gives her more control, more clarity, a more definitive picture of the struggle she is facing. As she goes deeper into her mind, she gains more control over her surroundings: as a patient in the institution, she is almost completely helpless, but as a dancer in a bordello, she has power over men; however, as a dancer, she is still subject to the club owner and her own madame, so she escapes while she dances, to a steampunk/fantasy WWII battle scenario, complete with zombies and dragons.

The third layer is the most obvious of the three with regard to Baby Doll's power - her weapons are tangible and concrete. Her enemy is clear, her mission is spelled out for her in no uncertain terms: she and her team are fighting a war and the enemy is known. Baby Doll's power lies not only in her own ability to use her weapons, but in the loyalty of her team--they all stand up with her and fight beside her. With all of them working together, they are able to fight against the very obvious enemy: Steampunk Zombie Nazis (because what film doesn't benefit from killing Nazis?). While being the most fantastic, this is also the most straightforward of the three layers of Baby Doll's internal struggle.

The second layer, in the bordello, is (slightly) more subtle. Baby Doll must rely more on her wits and her relationships, arming herself figuratively rather than literally. The evil which she is fighting is also more subtle, because she is in a situation where, although the evil is clear to the audience, within the world of the narrative, it is accepted and supported by the social structures surrounding it. So rather than fighting a clear battle where the enemy is marked as ENEMY, Baby Doll must fight against a system using less obvious means. It is cunning, not force, that must be wielded against the nefarious system to free the girls from their captivity. The thing that has been noted frequently as problematic is the number of attempted rapes in this particular layer. Some have argued that Zach Snyder must have a rape fantasy to have incorporated this motif so strongly in his film. I would argue, though, that it is exactly the opposite. At no time during this film did I feel that the filmmaker's goal was to condone the objectification of women. In fact, every time that any of the antagonists do objectify any of the female characters, the response the scenes are intended to evoke is disgust and horror. All of the men who force themselves on the women in this film are portrayed as disgusting, brutal, and evil. In a genre that is known for objectifying women, the deliberate objectification of the characters is made to be wholly disgusting and unacceptable. That is not to say that this film does not objectify its female characters. It does, to a certain extent. Anything that presents female sexuality to gain attention objectifies women; but in the case of how the women are portrayed in this film there is a distinction made between complicit objectification (women knowing that their sexuality can get them what they want) and involuntary objectification (men treating them as if they are merely chattel). The former is more acceptable because it involves the choice of the woman to be objectified--she is choosing to use her body or her sexuality to her advantage. The latter is completely unacceptable because it is a scenario in which she has no control, and something is being taken from her by force.

Overall, the ending of the film was both predictable and unexpected. From the very beginning, when Baby Doll makes her first escape (while sitting in the chair with the doctor poised over her with the spike), the audience knows how this is going to end. There is no doubt that she is in a situation from which she cannot escape. However, her escape would be superfluous - she has proved she already knows how to escape; indeed she already has. The world inside her head is what has allowed her to continue on in the face of the horrors to which she is subjected. But the twist comes when the audience realizes that the focus has shifted seamlessly; Baby Doll is suddenly the supporting character, and Sweet Pea is the actual protagonist. Baby Doll makes her escape metaphorically, but it is through her strength and through her tenacity that she has opened the world for another to make her escape literally. Baby Doll fights in her mind; Sweet Pea must fight in the real world. And it is through Sweet Pea that Baby Doll's legacy will continue - she has given Sweet Pea all the weapons she needs. Now all Sweet Pea has to do is Fight.

The final message of the film is simple and clear, and it is neither meta nor esoteric. It is universal, and it is important. This world is filled with monsters and evil--sometimes the monsters are clear, sometimes they're insidious; sometimes the evil is the system itself. It does not do to lie down and give in; it does not do to claim weakness and become complicit. Becoming self-aware is the first step in this struggle; within are the weapons needed to aid in the struggle. Self-awareness equips the mind and the soul. As Sweet Pea said: You have all the weapons you need. Now, FIGHT.

11 June 2011

A Demon and Mutants and Russians, oh my

Just one thing first: I love Beast when he turns blue.

Having seen the new X-Men film recently, I found it both wonderful and problematic. It suffers from the same problem all X-Men films prior to this have (too many characters, not enough screen time), but the problems I saw with this film went beyond that.

The basis for this story is the friendship and then the distance between Professor X and Magneto. The necessary development of this friendship is sparked by the common enemy faced in Sebastian Shaw (and the clever explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis). However, for being the entire point (or nearly the entire point) of the film, it is very thin and not well written. I cannot fault either Michael Fassbender or James McAvoy for their performances. Both men are wonderful actors, but even the best actors can do only so much with a bad script. I find Magneto's characterization to be the less problematic of the two. He is given a very clear history, a reason for his rage and hatred. He is almost fully 3-dimensional. He is a character with a clear origin, his conflict is very explicit and easy to understand (and with which to sympathize), and what drives him is simple and unambiguous. His is a story about revenge. Fassbender plays the character with subtlety and nuance. He has a very clear motivation, but he does not let the character he is playing become a caricature. The rage that drives him gives his character focus and clarity. He is single-minded but not innately cruel. He saves his savage cruelty for those he feels have wronged him: the man who killed his mother; the banks that facilitated the Nazi theft of Jewish gold, livelihoods, names; the men who fled justice for the atrocities they committed. But when it comes to others like him (other mutants), Magneto does not take out his irrepressible rage and his hatred for humanity on them. He controls himself; what drives him does not dehumanize him. Fassbender's portrayal of Magneto is often wide-ranging and yet he is not over the top or campy in how he plays the character. He feels real, genuine and sympathetic. Charles Xavier, however, is a pale and paltry character in comparison.

Xavier's introduction is so narrow and brief compared to that of Magneto. The scene feels to be simply a placeholder--a brief catalytic blurb to explain the presence of Raven (Mystique) later in his life as a friend/companion. He seems to be a sweet little boy, but there is no substance to the introduction, no explanation as to his nature, or how he copes with what he knows to be is his difference. As a young man, he is little better. His mutation lends itself to a very superficial explanation as to why he researches the nature of human mutation, but he feels to be a caricature rather than a fully fleshed person. His motivations are never explained, nor is what drives him. He turns into this big cuddly feel-good character who appears to have empathy with everyone, but he lacks subtlety and depth. He bonds with Magneto, but there is never any evidence that he gets anything out of the relationship. Repeatedly through the film he refers to Magneto as 'my friend,' but there is never any true development of that friendship. He fishes Magneto out of the water and all of a sudden they're best buds. There is no explanation as to what binds them to one another; Xavier does not have clear motivations or goals, nor does he have any real reason for being there other than he is. McAvoy plays the character as well as he is able, and he does drag up what is inherently a badly written character, but there is a point where not even a virtuoso performance would give the character any more than is written on the page.

There were other, peripheral aspects of the film that were admirable. Especially the gathering of mutated young people, which lent itself well to discussion of their mutation as a parallel to the natural awkwardness and feelings of Otherness that everyone experiences while going though the painful experience of adolescence. Each of the young mutants feels alone and isolated because of how different they are. Each is trying to hide or to fit in, and they struggle with the dichotomy of being fascinated by one another's differences and wanting nothing more than to be normal. For the first time in their lives they're among people like them (or as unlike them) and they can truly be themselves. The scene in the lounge where they show off each of their powers is beautiful because they're kids being kids, but they're so different from 'real' people that it makes the feelings of being different that they're experiencing more universal.

One of the most moving and intriguing parts in the scene is when Angel Salvadore says that she would rather have men look at her without her clothes on than to look at her the way the government agents did when they were teasing the 'freaks.' This is an interesting commentary on the nature of self-objectification and ostracism. When Angel voluntarily objectifies herself (dancing), she is in control of the situation. As much as she may hate some of her customers, she is in a position where it is (at least apparently) her choice. However, when she is ridiculed by the men at the compound, it is a kind of attention over which she has no control, and that is deliberately malicious. Angel exemplifies the need to be in control, and how not being in control is what makes one a victim. She was not victimized in her previous line of work, but to be made helpless to stop the ridicule and the reality of the social rejection is unbearable.

Mystique later has a similar series of moments with Hank McCoy and Magneto. Her relationship with Hank starts out promising--he is fascinated by her mutation, and having a physical deformity of his own, they relate well to one another in their desire to look 'normal.' However, it is Magneto's stance on the opposite side of the argument that is wonderful and truly beautiful. When he calls Mystique out on dividing her focus between her appearance and any other task at hand, forcing her to revert to her natural blue form, she is puzzled and conflicted. Hank's rejection of her natural blue form reinforces what Magneto is trying to show her--she is torn between the idea that she is beautiful and unique, that she shouldn't have to hide or be ashamed, and the fact that the one person whom she thought would understand and accept her exactly as she is tells her that her natural form will never be beautiful. The culmination of these moments in the bedroom scene with Magneto is breathtaking. When he looks at her and demands to see the real her and not some facsimile she thinks he will find appealing, and when he looks at her in her true form and deems her 'perfection,' is one of the most moving moments in the film.

That is the most important message I think these films are trying to convey: self-acceptance. Yes, these are a franchise that are built on comic books and made to please the fans, but the writers sometimes are getting things right. They're allowing (some of) the characters to explore what it really means to be human. That is the whole point of the genre of science fiction. It gives us an Other to show how we're united in our humanity. This particular franchise is about how we're all connected, we're all important, and we're all unique. And accepting that about ourselves is the first step toward understanding and tapping our full potential.

On another, lighter critical note: I really wish that Riptide and Azazel had actual speaking parts (I'm not sure that fewer than 10 words counts as a true 'role'), and I disliked how Azazel's name was pronounced (as a variation on an Hebraic name, the emphasis would be on the first syllable, not the middle one).