Who’s Afraid of the Female Gaze? Part Un

“Bright Star” director Jane Campion

As a chick myself, women, perhaps naturally, interest me, particularly women who’ve managed to achieve some level of success in those male-dominated industries such as fashion (if you think women run the show, you are woefully mistaken) and film,where it’s still largely acceptable to perpetrate misogyny. The fashion industry has probably never been worse, while film (though television, more so) has taken great leaps in the past decade, not only making room for strong female protagonists but even allowing for a few vulnerable, realistic ones. And yet, not one of the 22 films in the running for the 2012 Palm D’Or–the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival–was directed by a woman. Then, there’s the fact that the ladies only directed 5 percent of 2011’s movies. Not to mention, less than 14 percent of working Hollywood screenwriters are women.

So what does that say about the female characters we see on the big screen, more likely than not to be filtered through the lens of a man? Then again, perhaps the more relevant question is what does this say about the women who have somehow breached the glass ceiling? Do they really have  that extra special something or have they sufficiently internalized the male gaze so that their films no longer distinguish them from the “norm?”

We’re only able to have this conversation thanks to Laura Mulvey, who first defined the “male gaze” as a concept in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Hélène Cixous, that very same year, issued something of the literary equivalent, encouraging women to break free from language that was not designed for them and to use their bodies to express themselves on their own terms. Both women reject the idea of a male-centered perspective that incapacitates the woman. Mulvey refers specifically to film, describing the “male gaze” as the technique of putting the audience into the view of a heterosexual man,  resulting in a passive, powerless and objectified female subject.  

For the more wary readers out there, you can rest easy; this will not be a man-bashing fest. Obviously men are more than capable of creating intriguing, well-developed female characters. Look no further than this year’s awards’ darlings: Quvenzhane Wallis, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, all garnering deserved acclaim for beautifully inhabiting characters either written, co-written or directed by men. The capacity of men is not necessarily the question, and the male gaze has never been a critique of straight men personally, because more than anything else it’s a patriarchal device freely and equally used by men and women alike. The problem is its pervasiveness, leaving little room for other perspectives and often if not always restrictive in its view of women.

 

Danish director Susanne Bier, who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film "In A Better World"

Danish director Susanne Bier, who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film “In A Better World”

But what of its opposite, the female gaze? Is it any better when it only replaces the normally objectified female subject with a male one? Obviously no. My point is, what is it about the female narrative that distinguishes it as female? Should there even be something that differentiates men and women storytellers? Should gender be disregarded completely? If all these questions are annoying, then you know how I feel. I go back and forth all the time, especially when considering various directors who, at the end of the day, simply tell good stories, gender notwithstanding.

But if gender really doesn’t mean anything, if it bears no weight on one’s ability–and this is what always brings me back to certain feminist arguments–why aren’t there more female directors and screenwriters out there? Why, in the Academy Awards‘ 85 years, have only four women been nominated for Best Director; why has only one won and why, after that win, have things not only not improved for women behind the scenes, but in some cases, regressed?

According to Bret Easton Ellis, of American Psycho fame, it’s because women lack a male gaze and are too emotional (read: stop directing on your period!) to make successful films, let alone be successful filmmakers in general. Of course, emotional to him apparently means something distinctly feminine, and therefore undesirable. Men don’t have emotions, and if they do, they know to keep that shit under wraps. I guess as a woman, I just don’t get it. Because without emotional resonance what exactly is the point of film or stories at all? Notice most of his exceptions are those few women who have been “approved” by the Academy, like Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Andrea Arnold (who actually is pretty awesome). He only grudgingly mentions Mary Harron, who directed the film adaptation of his American PsychoBut if you know anything about Ellis, you know this guy is essentially the John Mayer of the literary world: an admittedly talented douche not worthy to be taken seriously outside his novels. He also said the only reason Bigelow won the Oscar was because she was “hot.” Okay then, sir.

Luckily, not everybody thinks as narrowly as Ellis. It did not escape most critics of Kathryn Bigelow’s win at the 2010 Academy Awards that The Hurt Locker, the film forever earning her the glory of first woman to win an Oscar for directing, was male-oriented and featured a predominantly male cast. Almost three years later, Bigelow has covered all her bases with her latest effort Zero Dark Thirty, placing a woman at the forefront and imbuing the film with a more feminist-friendly touch. Like its predecessor, Thirty has been showered with glowing reviews and countless accolades. But despite picking up several critics groups’ awards for her direction, Bigelow is not nominated for an Oscar this time around. 

Jessica Chastain & the phenomenal Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain & the phenomenal Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty

Admittedly, my own dissent with her win stems from bitterness. That same year Jane Campion released Bright Star–a film that met all the standards of perfection in my opinion–for which neither she nor Abbie Cornish, nor Ben Whishaw, nor Paul Schneider were nominated.

Sixteen years before, Campion became the second woman ever nominated for an Oscar for directing The Piano. She lost that prize, but she did thankfully get to take home a little naked golden man (AMPAS is at least female friendly in one way) for screenwriting. And she certainly deserved another one of those little guys for her elegiac chronicle of John Keats’s greatest romance, responsible for one of his most beloved poems.  

Bright Star boasts several moments of stillness and quiet, both physically and dramatically. It’s not packed with tension or suspense, and it’s here Greg Fraser’s stunning cinematography is at its most advantageous. But Campion never rests on beauty alone. These scenes are always layered with symbolism or allusions to Keats’s work. Often, the film feels more like a product of Keats than a homage to him. For example, after Fanny and Keats have had their first kiss, Keats climbs into a tree and rests on top of the brush, the sun lighting his face, while Fanny lies in bed, billowing white curtains sweeping over her motionless body: both shots are evocative of Keats’s work and personality, laden with his love of nature. 

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star

But the real beauty here is that Campion takes the road less traveled in her choice to tell it not from Keats’s point of view, but Fanny’s. She becomes our window into their story, and there are many shots of her, and therefore us, looking at Keats without suffocating him in that gaze. He’s allowed to be himself in her eyes, which may be partly due to the fact that Keats is the one most people come to the film already knowing; but it’s also possible because Fanny finds him, as a man and as a poet, intriguing. Their first meeting comes after a character tells Fanny to go look in on Mr. Keats and report back with her opinion. We never hear a summation from Fanny. Instead, Keats’s is allowed to reveal himself as a character.

I think it’s also interesting that here, Fanny is positioned as a creative force in her own right. Her meticulous attention to the creation of her clothes mirrors Keats’s own in the creation of his poems. In this way Bright Star, not to be mistaken for a biopic, becomes a meeting of minds and souls, an unapologetic love story, with no reason to be ashamed in any case. I’m no Bret Easton Ellis. Emotions do not repulse me.

Actually, what saves the film from the standard cheesiness most romantic flicks fall into is its marked divergence from mass entertainment, indicative of, not that a woman is at the helm of the story, but a director with an eye separate from an audience trained in the male gaze. This kind of audience expects a certain reward for having to sit through such a “feminine” film, and a period piece to boot, practically brimming over with that gooey stuff wrapped estrogen: emotions. So there comes a time in most said films where the lovers fall passionately into each other’s arms and make love. Even if the film doesn’t show the deed, there’s sure to be lots of tongue-kissing and declarations of lust disguised as epic love. And this, folks, is the male gaze at work. Without the act of sex, how else do you communicate love or desire? More importantly–for most directors in Campion’s position–why pass up the opportunity to show a naked or even semi-naked Abbie Cornish? Poor Ben Whishaw, for all his adorable-ness, doesn’t have a body most girls typically ooh and ahh over (that’s why I’m one of a kind), so there’d be a lot less in this for anyone who is not a heterosexual man.

In Bright Star Campion sides with her characters over these kind of spectators. Her choice is not so much “feminine” as it is simply radical. Sex is cinematic, and the absence of it in a film (romance or otherwise) is practically unheard of. But John and Fanny’s relationship is grounded in something not entirely corporeal. We don’t need to see them going at it to get that. Instead, we’re able to experience it, not in the absence of passion or desire (because it’s certainly there) but through solid performances and effective writing–their reactions to each other, Keats’s letters, Fanny’s letters–in a way that leaves them  both free to love without objectifying the other.

Angela Bassett in “Strange Days”

Now, back to Bigelow. I have to be honest: I couldn’t get into The Hurt Locker. I only enjoyed the cameos showcasing two of my favorite actors, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, at their finest. My first introduction to Bigelow was Strange Days, which I liked, but didn’t love despite solid performances by the aforementioned Fiennes and Angela Bassett. Somehow, Bigelow has always been credited for creating strong, empowered women, but in this particular film her adoption of a gaze that objectifies the same women it claims to empower is at its most noticeable.  Bassett’s Mace is a resilient, single-mother who, when she needs to, impressively wields literal and figurative guns that would put Michelle Obama to shame, all while tightly and scantily clad, revealing just enough of Ms. Bassett’s legs and chest to fall short of softcore porn. Although, having already earned an R rating, they probably could’ve gotten away with it. So why is Mace uncomfortably and inconveniently clothed throughout the height of the film’s action? I suppose, technically, she’s going to a New Years Eve party. But story-wise? Beats me. All I know is Mace’s heroism kind of diminishes when you consider she must almost always be half-naked while being “fierce” and “courageous.” This, quite clearly, was not a choice made with her female audience in mind.

By Zero Dark Thirty, this gaze is refreshingly absent and replaced with a far less intrusive one. Maybe because so many other films and television shows (insert unnecessary Homeland reference) have set the standard, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal didn’t think they could believably have a CIA operative running around looking for Bin Laden in a tank top and cut-off shorts. Hey, it’s hot in the Middle East. Whatever the case, “Maya”  is based on a real character and commendably, Chastain does a lot with what is essentially a placeholder. For security purposes, we can’t know a lot about Maya, who is still in the field. So the character is really a kind of silhouette, an emotion, defined almost completely by her obsession and single-minded devotion to capturing, and ideally, killing Osama Bin Laden. Chastain turns in a subtle performance that’s more praiseworthy than it is powerful. The one scene of true command happens at the film’s end. After–spoiler alert–Bin Laden is killed, Maya boards a plane alone and the pilot asks where she wants to go. She can go anywhere. But Maya doesn’t answer, either because she doesn’t know or doesn’t really care anymore. The camera closes in on Chastain’s blank, emotionally exhausted face as her eyes well up and the tears stream down her cheeks, Alexandre Desplat’s subtle but striking score playing in the background.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It is in Zero Dark Thirty that Bigelow makes up to most of her feminist critics, presenting Maya as a kind of lone ranger, the renegade woman up against a male-dominated, good ol’ boy organization that requires her to prove herself constantly and only grudgingly takes her advice after most options have been exhausted. She makes a lot of enemies, much to her indifference, and after her one friend dies she responds in the less traditional way, throwing herself into the search for Bin Laden with complete abandon. And yet, in spite of all the praise, Zero Dark Thirty has not been nearly as successful awards and even reception-wise as The Hurt Locker. Jessica Chastain has been the film’s one and only lock, but now it seems Jennifer Lawrence might be surpassing her, having picked up the SAG on Sunday night for Best Actress. And the SAGs usually are a predictor for the Oscars.

Of course, this whole discussion hinges on the assumption that the AMPAS are actually a credible judging body, and considering this is the same organization that awarded Gwyneth Paltrow over Cate Blanchett, Crash over Good Night and Good Luck and countless other injustices including Octavia Spencer’s win for playing a one-dimensional stereotype, I wouldn’t put too much stock in them to begin with.

To be continued…

Cloud Atlas: Future Cult Classic?

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I had no idea going into Cloud Atlas that it would become my favorite movie of the year. It caught me entirely by surprise, as the best things do. Initially, I was hesitant about seeing the movie, through no fault of its own. No, in this case the blame belongs to me because I broke my cardinal rule (and I’ve done it again recently with Zero Dark Thirty–we’ll see how that turns out): Never EVER read reviews before seeing the movie. As with almost anything that’s worth closer examination, opinions were divided. Most everyone agreed Cloud Atlas was thrilling, engaging, thoroughly cinematic, but perhaps a little too grandiose, perhaps a little too intricate. Would the everyday moviegoer be able to keep up with all its twists and subplots and characters? In my experience, yes, yes, and yep. I had the advantage as a movie buff, able to recognize most of the actors, including relative unknowns (compared to the likes of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, that is) like Ben Whishaw and Jim Sturgess in each of their roles, but the friend I went with to the movie has what people call “a life” so it took her some time to discern certain characters. After the first half hour of what-the-heck-is-going-on, she admitted everything began to come together nicely.  And that’s the beauty of the movie, folks. At its core–and this will sound cliche, but so what, it’s true–Cloud Atlas is a journey. You simply can’t start out knowing the way. For it to be truly enjoyable, you have to let go and just experience. Clarity and understanding will come soon, but later.

Awe, fortunately, is immediate. John Toll (of Braveheart and Legends of the Fall fame) and Frank Griebe (director Tom Tykwer‘s go-to cinematographer) beautifully achieved what must’ve been a difficult feat, but seems rather effortless: guiding us through colonized Chatham Islands, futuristic Seoul (here called Neo Seoul), and lush rain forests somewhere in dystopian America. Commendably, even with two cinematographers and three directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tykwer), the film is amazingly uniform on the whole, never once feeling messy or scatterbrained. Layered, yes. Broad and wide-ranging, definitely. But you won’t ever feel as though you’re watching six films.

James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw in my favorite scene from “Cloud Atlas”

The movie opens with an elderly, one-eyed Tom Hanks, whose narrative frames the story (and I think it’s safe to say it is one STORY). He’s going to tell us about the time he met the devil, and with that, we’re spiraled into a sequence that lands us smack dab in the middle or rather at the climax of each of the six storylines. And I’ll give you a key so as to aid your first viewing. Essentially, Cloud Atlas spins the tale of one soul recycled over the centuries into the bodies of Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Halle BerryJim BroadbentDoona Bae and finally Tom Hanks. To tell you anything else would not be confusing so much as it would do a great disservice to the film. It’s better to discover than to be told. I will say that this one soul, reincarnated into various different characters, distinguished not by race or gender but a comet-shaped birthmark, encounters good and evil in every life (duh), but seriously, this I think, the filmmakers owe a great deal of their success. These stories aren’t just held together by the soul, but by the soul’s eternal struggle against that more acceptable form of evil, that which seeks to prey upon the defenseless in the name of natural selection.  Repeated throughout the film is the mantra of the wicked: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”

In that sense, the story is rather simple. It’s a fight against the powers that be; but the characters are rather more complicated. The soul itself is never evil, opportunistic, yes–at least twice–cowardly, too–at least three times–though never for long. Ultimately, we see each soul reconcile with a cruel reality and stand up in the face of almost certain failure. Some triumph, others do not.

Ben Whishaw in “Cloud Atlas”

Now whether you agree with the philosophy behind all this up to you, though it’s not at all necessary to. Personally, I’m not as sure about reincarnation as I am about the overlapping threads of the human experience. While courage and overcoming “the system” may be the overarching theme, on a much smaller scale the film runs the gambit of human emotion: love, friendship, loss, freedom, hope. Each of the actors bring  life to their respective characters, some with more nuance than others. Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw are undoubtedly standouts. Sturgess shines twice, first as Adam Ewing, the young lawyer traveling to the Chatham Islands and later as Chang from the Neo Seoul storyline; while Whishaw claims the film’s most heartbreaking character and most beautiful performance as Robert Frobisher, the bisexual amanuensis to a famous British composer. It’s Whishaw who gets some of the film’s best lines. “After all, a half-read book is a half-finished love affair,” he says while I squeal in the background. And my personal favorite, “I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.” Speaking of dear old Sixsmith, the award for most effortless difficult performance goes to James D’Arcy, as Frobisher’s lover and Archivist (also from the Neo Seoul storyline). Overall, he has few lines throughout the film, but both performances, while subtle and measured, rank among the film’s most memorable. Hugh Grant  and Hugo Weaving do nicely as different manifestations of evil incarnate, and David Gyasi is immensely watchable–commanding the screen–as the slave who becomes friends with Adam Ewing’s character.

Jim Sturgess in “Cloud Atlas”

Story or substance-wise, the film might have polarized critics, but the general consensus is that Cloud Atlas is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography, as I said, is colorful and vivid, every other frame striking, from the most common, though admittedly poignant occurrence–like the sun setting over a gorgeous blue ocean–to an exquisitely shot dream sequence where Whishaw and D’Arcy lean back, arms wide open as a cascade of porcelain crashes around them.  The score, composed by Tom Tykwer and his usual musical team Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, is distilled perfection, epic, encapsulating all the stories into one ambitious, soaring ode to hope and love and all those indescribable things that make life worth living. The fact that neither it nor the score for Beasts of the Southern Wild were nominated for an Oscar this year, is amazing. In a bad way.  Decide for yourself.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

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