Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Feminist Fangirl Reviews V for Vendetta

I, The Feminist Fangirl have been waiting for a very long time for this film to come out, so that I could review it. To be more specific, I have been waiting impatiently since November the 5th of 2005 (the original intended release date.)

I suppose that V could have gone terribly wrong, had a less capable cast and crew undertaken the project. I mean, did anyone see “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?” Right. Me neither.

So I was pleasantly surprised to be totally enthralled by this movie. Clearly the argument that it forwards, regarding the role of government, the nature of the totalitarian state, and the importance of civil liberties in society is a vitally important one for our time. The parable that Alan Moore concocted during the height of Thatcherism, and which the Watchowskis have adapted in order to reflect the current political situation in the United States, is the central narrative of the film and must be addressed as such. However, I’m not sure how much room for debate and discussion is built into the film’s political plot. Just as Deitrich’s wartime slapstick routine is only comedy in the broadest sense, so too does this film point its finger at the administration with the heaviest of hands. Now is not the time for subtlety, and this is not a subtle film.

So, I propose a discussion of the perhaps more nuanced relationships between the film’s characters. Some will say that this film is difficult because it hypothesizes that terrorism is a justifiable reaction to governmental oppression. They are right to a certain extent, except that V’s revolution is a bloodless one, or rather; it is a revolution without collateral damage. The acts of terrorism that occur in the public sphere (i.e. V’s demolition of the Old Bailey and of the houses of parliament) are safe, done with artistic panache and under cover of night.

Perhaps what is most unstable and unsafe about this film is V’s act of personal terrorism against Evey. The torture and annihilation of self which she experiences at his hands in the second act is disturbing, but our reaction to it depends on how we choose to interpret it. Is this annihilation, or catharsis? Consider this paradigm: what seems to be a misogynistic act of aggression when perpetrated by one’s enemy becomes an act of love when it is committed by a ‘friend’. This is a dangerous justification of abuse. Somehow though, at the close of the film, I felt satisfied with the ending in spite of this difficult plot point…but why?

I think that the answer lies in my reaction to Natalie Portman, the actress. In her most memorable films, Portman (who is, after all, a heartbreakingly beautiful skinny little white girl) always represents that which is fragile and ‘at stake’. In Closer and the recent Star Wars films, Portman’s destruction is either cynical and nihilistic (Closer), or unexplained and devoid of meaning (“for reasons we do not understand…we are losing her,”…barf.) So perhaps it is ultimately cathartic for Portman’s audience to see her destroyed and reborn in a way which is resoundingly meaningful.

In the first act of V, Evey is vulnerable, and uselessly feminine. Her character is contantly either evading the threat of penetration, or being rescued and waking up in soft beds. It would seem then, that V empowers her, by liberating her from her hair, and with it her kittenlike sexuality, and replacing it with Zenlike androgyny. This is a bit of a “Matrix” moment, and it also represents V’s remaking of Evey in his own image (remember that he too is hermaphroditic, as he contains within himself the personage of that glamorous lesbian, Valerie).

I see fairy tales everywhere, and I think that the symbolism in V (The language of roses, and mirrors, for example, as well as the dance of separation and return between Evey and V) conjures strong images of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of the fairy tale, Beauty kisses the Beast, and thereby restores him to princely form. Here too, we see a cinematic kiss in the third act, but it is a kiss of another kind. With that kiss, Evey awakens something, not in V, but in herself. Has she awakened the Beast, or the prince and heir to a new kingdom? What I like most about this film is that it leaves its audience liberated and free to imagine the consequences. Certainly Evey lives up to her namesake, as the “first woman,” and beside her, is a stoic Stephen Rhea, whom, (thanks to much collaboration with Neil Jordan) we are already primed to accept as an appropriate counterpart for the lovely androgyne.

Impoverished Middle Class “Companion” Seeks Ailing Benefactress

Do you detest the crass informality of senior centers and group homes? Do you dread the institutionalized indignity of a “senior care facility?” Do you long for the bygone days when educated middle class existed only to serve the whims of the aristocracy? Why then, dear lady, I have a modest proposal for you:

You: Independently wealthy, elderly lady between the ages of 75 and 95, preferably residing in an elegantly decaying mansion, furnished with a Victorian hodge-podge of priceless artifacts, (many of which will be entailed to me in you last will and testament.) In order to expedite my inheritance, you will be wasting away due to some quaint, yet ultimately terminal disease, such as consumption. You are of good old Anglo-Saxon stock, are extremely well educated and have had a lifelong love affair with the printed word, but, alas! Because of your cataracts you are no longer able to read you beloved collection of antique tomes without assistance.

Me: Likewise highly educated, bright, well behaved and well spoken young lady, with excellent diction and a lovely speaking voice, twenty three yeas of age, who is, in spite of my many attractive attributes, underemployed, saddled with debt and, for all practical purposes, starving to death.

Let’s get together for long afternoons spent in your parlor (me on the settee, you in your priceless antique wheelchair), sipping the finest English teas, and devouring watercress sandwiches as I read aloud the great classics of Chaucer, Milton, John Donne, Bunyan, and Spenser. If I’m feeling saucy, I may sneak in some more radical works, by the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, Austen or Keats, which you will tolerate, although they may offend your strict sense of class and propriety. In return I will be provided with a modest stipend, and (of course) ample provision in your afore mentioned last will and testament.

I look forward to a response from you, my dear lady. Please send your reply to this advertisement through the post with haste, for I am but a poor girl without friends or connections in a great and cruel city. Please do not force me to resort to less genteel forms of solicitation for my survival. Thank you.

Sometimes a banana is just a banana…an enormous black banana…

Okay. I’ve written my manifesto, and now it’s time to tackle the gorilla. Like everyone else, I had very high hopes for this film, all of which had been dashed by time I escaped the theatre. I am, of course, a huge LOTR geek, and I still fervently believe in Peter Jackson’s genius. However, after seeing this cinematic clusterfuck, I can’t help but wistfully recall the days of Heavenly Creatures. To loosely paraphrase Rick James; they shoulda’ never gave that Kiwi money.

In spite of the indignant claims to the contrary appearing on multiple idiotboy message boards, it is pretty well accepted in the world of film theory that the premise of the original 1930’s Kong was largely influenced by the racial and sexual paranoia that was lurking just below the surface of American society. I don’t need to explain that do I? Good.

The problem with Jackson’s Kong, is that it simply doesn’t do enough to forward the discussion about race, colonial oppression, and spectatorship that first film initiated. Sure, it pays lip service to the problems of the day, (Jackson’s camera pans quickly past scenes of New York’s depression era destitution, minstrel shows, and burlesques), and there is plenty of attention given to the Hollywood Lens, (a la Jack Black) and its need to appropriate and, in doing so, destroy everything in sight, but overall the film is culturally illiterate to a startling degree.

Some will argue that the film attempts to reconcile the racist constructions of its predecessor by making Kong a highly sympathetic character. Okay, let’s assume that I buy that. It still doesn’t assuage my discomfort in watching the skull island “natives” jiggle and shriek their way into the annals of political incorrectness. Despite one clever moment in which Black’s character attempts to placate an island child with a candy bar, the “natives” constitute little more than an inarticulate black background against which the drama of the mostly white crew of the Venture (the more colorful crew members are killed off fairly quickly) can play out. The asinine analysis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that Jackson works into the script, only serves to reinforce the shallowness of the films critique of colonialism.

Much has been made about Naomi Watt’s performance as Anne Darrow, and the extent to which she has added depth to the character of Kong’s love interest. I don’t get it. Watt’s waif is an emotional cripple, a developmentally arrested simpleton whose scant back-story alludes to childhood trauma, but doesn’t provide any real reason why we should care. Everyone in the film (including Kong) loves Anne because she bats her eyelashes, sings, dances and pratfalls like a precious marionette and fawns slavishly over Adrien Brody’s broody “writer.” Is this a version of womanhood worth rescuing? The film seems to think so. Personally, I would have liked to see the Darrow character recast, with Anne Coulter in the role. But that’s just my little sadistic fantasy…

Oh yeah, and the special effects looked like garbage. Okay, King Kong himself looked very impressive, as did the 1930’s era cityscape. Kudos to everyone involved. But the whole “there are brontosaurus legs, and I’m running and (look back, look ahead), and I’m running (look back at the green screen),” thing was just a little too “Land of the Lost” for my taste. Besides, I really didn’t need to see all of those giant bugs ingesting and dismembering people. Okay Pete, “The Horror! The Horror!” We get it. I don’t need a flesh toned Urethra Dentata to drive the point home, as it were.

My advice: Skip King Kong. Instead, snuggle up with a copy of Chinua Achebe’s landmark essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness”…and maybe a tasty, genetically enhanced banana.

The Feminist Fangirl Manifesto

So, I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing a few movie reviews, under the dubious nom-de-plume of “The Feminist Fangirl.” Of course, if I was to take on such an alias, I would first need to make the disclaimer that, as such, I am neither a feminist, nor a fangirl…(with Linda Richman inflection)…discus.

Let me explain. First, being an alumnus of a particular liberal women’s college, which one conservative publication dubbed “Radical Feminist U,” I do have many of the accoutrements of feminism at my disposal. However, I feel that I lack the kind of intellectual vigor and intensity needed to really push the envelope of feminism. Also, the label “feminism” is in itself misleading, since I hope to use these reviews to examine films through a much broader range of theoretical lenses. I do adore literary and film theory, and putting these into application is an indulgence that, post-college, I am starting to miss.

Okay, now on to the “fangirl” part. Technically, there is really no such thing as a “fangirl,” because Fanboy culture is a construction specifically designed to exclude women, or more appropriately, to lend validity and cache to the absence of women from the life of a certain kind of boy, through connoisseurship. (Connoisseurship being, of course, something that women or any marginalized group, have only limited access too because of their more limited resources). For this reason, if we define “fangirl” simply as the female counterpart of “fanboy” then I surely (and inevitably) fall shy of the mark.

So what am I? For starters, I hate video games and lack the needed “hand-eye” coordination skills to play them. This is largely attributable to the fact that (even though I desperately wanted a Nintendo as a child) my parents did not feel that it was important to buy expensive video games for their daughter…or maybe I never spoke up and asked for one. I’ll thank them for that someday. This is a serious handicap to my Fangirlism, I realize. On the other hand, I adore cartoons, (though I give no special preference to the Japanese ones) and I am fascinated by the medium of “sequential art.” While, being a literary snob, I tend to prefer graphic novels; I have a deep appreciation for comics as a more socialized, egalitarian medium.

Also, I love the spectacle of big budget movies, and I always find myself, when I see that a new blockbuster is coming out, having intense feelings of desire that it will be a success, and in doing so, meet my own high standards and expectations for literacy of script, emotional immediacy of performance, and artistic and political integrity of form.

Finally, I get freaking’ furious when I read dumb-ass message board posts on sites like “imdb.com” or “Ain’t It Cool News,” That make obtuse blanket statements like “Dude, King Kong is totally a metaphor for black guys wanting to have sex with white chicks,” or else quibble endlessly about the wind velocity atop the empire state building, without addressing any of MY concerns.

The question now becomes, why should you read my reviews? The answer is that you probably shouldn’t, unless you want to listen to a little voice from the margins taking aim at the very center.