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.

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