Monthly Archives: March 2010

Mississippi Hetero-Prom Bullshit

So, I’ve been stranded up here in suburbia lately, with my only Internet access coming in bite-size chunks at the public library. That said, I’m going to take the scant time I have to write a little. Ashley’s been working on a post about the history of Disney princesses in relation to feminism, and I would like to eventually comment on similar topics, as prompted by The Princess and the Frog. In the meantime, however, I want to address an ongoing controversy involving institutionalized homophobia. It’s the Fulton, MS Prom Discrimination.

The situation, which can be understood from glancing over a few news sources, is relatively straightforward. Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old student at Itawamba Agricultural High School, asked if she could attend the prom with her girlfriend, and wear a tuxedo. School officials told her no. Then they cancelled the prom itself, claiming that they were “taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of [their] students.” Students become upset with McMillen, although supposedly she wasn’t the reason for the cancellation, controversy flared nationally, and the ACLU sued the school district.

The results? The judge found the school district wrong, but felt it would also be wrong to forcibly reinstate the prom on April 2, because apparently it would “only confuse and confound the community on the issue.” Fulton sounds like a community that’s pretty easy to confuse and confound. Since the news broke of the school district’s bullshit decision, however, McMillen has become a rallying point for the rights of LGBT teens. A Facebook page called “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” has hundreds of thousands of fans, and Dan Savage recently advocated donating to her cause. So, awesome! A lot of cool people are very much behind this brave young woman.

I think the above paragraphs should give you pretty much the objective background necessary to form an opinion and, if desired, show your support. And now I must subjectively say: Fulton, Mississippi, what the hell? Both my father and girlfriend went to school dances with same-sex dates, just because they wanted to, and neither was held to some nonsensical, arbitrary school policy. I don’t want to invoke my Yankee bias against the intolerance of the Deep South, but I see few other answers here.

The ACLU has also helpfully turned up a flyer handed out to Itawamba High students, informing them that their “guests… must be of the opposite sex.” You may notice that these aren’t “dates,” but “guests,” and it looks like as long as the two of you make a nice hetero couple, your “guest” can be just about anyone of any age. Why, exactly, was this rule in place? According to McMillen, the principal’s excuse involved same-sex students not in relationships trying to buy the cheaper tickets for couples instead of two more expensive individual tickets. Uh-huh.

So basically, in their effort to force students to pay through the nose for prom tickets, the school was willing to dismiss the existence of homosexuality. Ahh, what a pastoral dream world those Mississippian school administrators must be living in. Where women wear dresses, men wear tuxedos, and the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. (And you’re also forbidden from mixing peanut butter with peanut butter?) Here’s a little video where you can hear from Constance herself on the matter.

The matter of the tuxedo is similarly baffling. It reminds me of a story from last October where Ceara Sturgis, a 17-year-old lesbian student in Jackson, MS, was banned from wearing a tuxedo in her yearbook photo. As in McMillen’s case, it was chalked up to the ominous but inevitable “school policy.” I.e., it’s always been this way and that’s how we likes it. Granted, I don’t know why these girls want to wear tuxedos; in my thankfully limited experience, they’re uncomfortable as hell, and I’d rather wear a dress in an instant.

But then again, that’s why I’m me and they’re them, isn’t it? Because I’d prefer a dress and they’d prefer those stiff, black-and-white iron maidens we call tuxedos. And I’d also guess that just because they’re in Mississippi and surrounded by heterosexuals (and bigots), that doesn’t mean said identity rubs off on them. So thankfully the tide is turning and such outdated school policies are starting to change. As the Facebook page I linked to above mentions, a recent attempt by a Georgia high schooler to take his boyfriend to prom was successful, and McMillen’s trials may well have been a factor.

This piece of Internet access is rapidly coming to an end what with the library closing, so I’ll conclude hastily. The school district’s actions in this case is just self-evidently ridiculous. It reminds me of last Christmas, when Ashley’s hometown of Chambersburg made national news for its decisions about the displays in the town square: If the atheist veterans are going to get one, then no displays for anyone! Apparently the school administrators of Fulton have a similarly childish approach, and it’s kind of blown up in their face. I say good luck to Constance McMillen and the ACLU with their struggle to get this all sorted out in the name of equal rights, and fuck you to oppressive, illogical school policies everywhere. Now, take everything I said and apply it to gay marriage, too.

(PS: regarding the tuxedos, it’s not like they were planning to go naked or topless or wear bikinis or anything. They were going to be very heavily clothed, just in clothes that weren’t strictly gender normative! Any school that has a problem with that deserves to have its idiotic intolerance plastered all over the national media.)

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Porn for Women: because women don’t like sex

This morning – by which I mean this evening, because a night of paper-writing has confused my sleep schedule – I read the new XKCD, as I do every Monday, and found myself confused. This was, of course, because I’d mercifully never been exposed to the horrors of Porn for Women. Ashley directed me to this recent Happy Bodies post, and I was on my way. So: what is Porn for Women? The easiest answer is, It’s really, really stupid. It’s a website that assumes that the biggest turn-on for women is, to quote Randall Munroe, “hot, clothed guys cooking, doing laundry, and vacuuming.” And has lots and lots of pictures and captions about exactly that.

Where to start talking about what’s wrong with this picture? Usually, it wouldn’t be worth wasting time over, except that it’s a nice little object lesson in the stranglehold of absolutist gender roles. Ostensibly “reclaim[ing pornography] for the rest of us,” it’s 1) not actual pornography, unless you have some extremely specific fetishes and 2) full of generalization, after generalization, after generalization. Also, can you say condescending? God, it’s like one giant jewelry commercial! The smug, obnoxious expressions on these men’s faces practically scream, “You’re a woman, so you’re really easy to please and flatter!” Christ, it’s called “Porn for Women,” not “Porn for Lobotomy Patients”!

Let’s take a quick look at some of the nausea-inspiring imagery this site provides.

God, fighting preordained gender roles is such an uphill battle. This website is ostensibly showing how men should act toward women, but their suggested course of action is to treat all women like perpetually pregnant, dainty, retarded flowers, all the time. Also, from the way he’s looking up from his coffee, it looks like the woman in question has just stumbled out of bed. Maybe there’s some sort of Stepford Wives ruse going on here? Or maybe this is Coraline 2, and he’s the Other Husband? Did I already say, “Can you say condescending?” Because… condescending!

The way this is written and designed, it feels like the creators of this website didn’t think women wanted men to treat them well so much as behave like they’re totally emasculated. This isn’t porn for women. It looks more like a mid-’70s Mad Magazine cartoon about the effects of Women’s Lib. Something else that angers me about this website: it assumes a proper course of action for men in relationships with women, based on yet more assumptions about what women like. It also treats men who follow these guidelines like they’re doing something heroic. “Wow, listening to your significant other’s desires or interests? You deserve a gold star!”

Hell, I wouldn’t want to go “NFL playoffs” in the first place, but I wouldn’t particularly want to go to a crafts fair either. And what if the woman who this “porn” is being directed at doesn’t like crafts fairs? Too bad, because she’s a woman? And what about the postcard where the shirtless man says, “As soon as I finish the laundry, I’ll do the grocery shopping. And I’ll take the kids with me so you can relax”? Wouldn’t it be a little more pornographic if the shirtless man said he’d drop the children off somewhere so they can “relax” together? But far be it from me to question Porn for Women’s universal applicability to all women.

If you see fit to visit the website, don’t miss their quiz. Each question has three totally transparent options, which amount to 1) he’s a housework-doing, gift-buying demigod, 2) he’s flawed, and 3) he’s a narcissistic, puerile troglodyte. Because it’s not like men behave different ways at different times. As if they’re, oh, people. Yet despite how little actual humanity this website tolerates in men, it’s funny how man-centric is. The emphasis is entirely on the man (’cause God knows lesbians don’t exist!) performing all these selfless acts, with the assumption that the passive female watching him will experience pleasure. These “pornographic” men are so insistently thoughtful and generous that it’s oppressive. Because isn’t that what women want? A grinning, chore-loving family man who’s dead inside?

Normally a website like this wouldn’t be worth as much attention as I’m giving it, but I think it’s a great example of how obnoxiously restrictive so many conventional views of gender are. Either he’s a normal man, or he’s this nonexistent “porn star” dream man who wants to do housework and cook! Though he still doesn’t care what you think. Oh, God, no. Could you imagine that? Like a man and woman, talking to each other about their own thoughts and feelings, communicating what they want through language? That’d be too much. Instead, men wishing to please their women should toss on an apron, light a scented candle, and throw that woman in the bath while you fix something with an Italian name. Also, tell her how much you care about her. Forced kindness is the key to every woman’s heart. (Because their locks are all exactly the same. And unlocking them means they have sex with you.)

Note: for actual porn for women (and men and queers and whomever) please feel free to click any of the options in the Alt Smut section of the blogroll. —>

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Who Shot Mr. Burns?

As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, The Simpsons is a crowning achievement in the histories of both animation and television, whose cultural influence has seeped into all areas of life and touched a whole generation. It’s a brilliant, important series that has transcended any notion of what an “animated sitcom” should be, instead becoming a defining piece of satire for the late 20th century and early 21st. Grounded in the lives of a single middle-class American family, the show has turned its piercing gaze on all forms of authority – social, religious, political, corporate, and more. It has regularly skewered incompetent educators and inane celebrities, all while remaining rooted in the emotional ties that keep the five Simpsons together. The point of this paragraph is that it’s a great show.

(A little caveat: my use of the present tense may be a little deceptive, since as I’m sure you know, the show has experienced a steep decline over the past decade. It’s heavily debated when this began and how rapidly it proceeded, but suffice it to say that episodes from season 20 feel like a totally different show when compared to season 8. I don’t necessarily blame the people who produce the show, since it’s amazing that they were able to yield such genius in the first place, but when I talk about all of The Simpsons‘ accomplishments, I’m referring pretty much to its first decade or so of its existence.)

So, all that said, I think it’d be very worthwhile to analyze certain episodes of The Simpsons in depth. To look at the acerbic jokes and storytelling techniques the writers and animators used to satirize American society and create a sprawling, well-realized fictional universe. With every old episode I watch, I marvel at how well the show balances mockery with sympathy, and how well it blends the sitcom format with numerous other genres. It’s just startling to see a TV show getting so much done in so little time (i.e., little more 20 minutes per episode). The show had so much going on, on so many levels, and I think that’s very much worth exploring. And that’s what “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis,” which I hope to make a weekly series of posts, is all about.

For the first installment, I’ve chosen one of the show’s most memorable, identifiable moments, if only because it was a dead-on parody of similar stunts in TV’s past: the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” diptych, which bridged the gap between seasons 6 and 7. This was a period where The Simpsons was pretty much in its prime, though many more near-perfect episodes were yet to come; “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” came along at exactly the right moment, in terms of the show’s quality and popularity, and was as much a phenomenon as a story arc. It possessed not only the show’s usual humor and pathos, but was a self-aware television event and a link to the real world.

Watching them today, both episodes feel as fresh and intelligent as they ever have, and neither one misses a beat. They simultaneously imitate and deride soap operas and murder mysteries like Dallas and Twin Peaks (most obviously), in keeping with The Simpsons‘ tendency to be a TV show about TV shows, but beyond this is lies deeper current of satire that takes into account the various socioeconomic strata of Springfield and how they interact. This is a pair of episodes that takes full advantage of the large supporting cast the show had built up over the seasons, parlaying it into layered social commentary.

The premise of the episodes is extremely simple and carefully built up: Mr. Burns, Springfield’s tyrannical billionaire and Homer’s boss, crosses the line “between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy,” as his assistant Smithers later puts it. He plunders Springfield Elementary’s new-found oil, ruining countless lives in the process, and proceeds to erect a “sun-blocker,” forcing the whole town to rely on his streetlamps 24/7. The first half ends with Burns mysteriously shot and rendered comatose. The second half follows Chief Wiggum as he, with help from Lisa, seeks out the attempted murderer from among the many disgruntled citizens. Although Smithers, and later Homer, are suspected, the episode ends with the Simpson baby, Maggie, fingered as the perpetrator and promptly exonerated by Wiggum.

So why do I consider “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” a work of art? Most obvious is, I suppose, its craftsmanship; how it turns its small-town setting into a giant jigsaw puzzle full of distinct, idiosyncratic characters, each with a personal reason for being angry at Mr. Burns. Writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein (who went on to create Mission Hill together) use the show’s family sitcom framework as a  springboard for some epic storytelling about greed, power, and retribution. I think it’s fascinating how The Simpsons is able to bounce between small household stories like season 6’s “Homer vs. Patty and Selma” and enormous canvases like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” It’s a testament to the durability of the show’s well-developed characters and writing style.

The Simpsons also effectively balanced stories based on subtle issues of interpersonal intimacy or misunderstandings with those triggered by direct antagonists like Mr. Burns. Charles Montgomery Burns is one of the show’s greatest creations, a man whose many faces represent the different sides of corporate America. He is at once financially powerful and physically vulnerable; he can bribe his way out of any legal troubles (“Marge vs. the Monorail”), but can’t bribe the hearts and minds of his workers (“Last Exit to Springfield”). For Mr. Burns, success and happiness lie in everything that money can buy, though he’s stymied by anything without a dollar value. He’s further complicated by his relationship to the somewhat closeted Mr. Smithers, a model of devotion troubled by his own soul. It’s this dynamic, that of the hateful megalomaniac and his loving but conflicted lackey, that drives much of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”

But the Burns/Smithers interactions reside only in the background, cleverly illustrated by having them stand on Burns’ balcony overlooking much of Springfield. This shows Burns as the demented, godlike figure he is, with Smithers (or “Smingers,” as Abe Simpson calls him) both powerless and yet closer to Burns’ power than anyone else. He tries and fails to restrain his boss’s very self-aware madness, and as a result finds himself deprived of his sole raison d’etre. Speaking of Burns’ self-awareness, check out this awesome line from their confrontation:

Smithers: No… no, Monty, I won’t.  Not until you step back from the brink of insanity.

Burns: I’ll do no such thing.  You’re fired!

The “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episodes really do use everything their advantage, from the large cast of Springfieldians who produce bountiful character-based humor, to the nature of animation itself (allowing them to show the town in such broad scope and tiny detail), to their existences as crucial parts of a prime time television show. Regarding that first point, think of the number of characters who are the subject of attention or have a scene about them across the 44 minutes: Principal Skinner and Groundskeeper Willie, obviously Burns & Smithers, Moe and Barney, Santa’s Little Helper, Abe Simpson, Mayor Quimby, Kent Brockman, Chief Wiggum, Krusty and Sideshow Mel, Jasper, and Tito Puente. (The rest of the Simpsons clan go without saying.) Each of them gets a hilarious one-liner or two, as well. Talk about egalitarian television.

This same egalitarianism is also a major point thematically of the episodes, and I love how heavily they explore it. The whole premise, after all, revolves around one man controlling the fate of thousands only by virtue of his wealth; the goal – at least of the first half – is to stop him. The inhabitants of Moe’s Tavern, Springfield Elementary, and the Simpsons household are transformed into a growing band of vigilantes as each one plots their own revenge, an attempt to take back their lives from Mr. Burns – “el diablo con dinero,” as Tito calls him. Conveniently, the one who actually does it can’t be held accountable, basically absolving the townsfolk of their murderous urges. As with many episodes, it’s a morally strange ending that forces a return to the status quo.

This conflict, of the common folk vs. the power-mad plutocrat, is a recurring one throughout the series, and it provokes an image that’s even more prevalent: the formation of a spontaneous mob. Mobs are everywhere in The Simpsons, to the point that you stop noticing when the torches are being handed out. Any episode that concerns all of Springfield will probably involve a mob somehow; pitchforks are likely as well. The first half of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” sees an assembly of gun-stroking proletarians in town hall; the second half sees just as many citizens joining together to hunt down Homer after Smithers offers a cash reward. This is double-edged criticism: the Springfieldians are perfectly willing to join with Homer when Burns renders them all impotent, but once money is up for grabs, they’ll turn on him like sharks smelling blood. While The Simpsons is clearly opposed to Burns’ oligarchy, by no means does it consider rule by the masses a source of unqualified salvation.

So these are some more of the reasons I love these episodes: how lucidly they illustrate some of the show’s central theses, laying out the argument as methodically as any academic paper for a poli sci course. We see an ineffectual government in “Diamond” Joe Quimby, who plans to send Burns a “polite but firm letter” before he’s told about the number of guns in the audience; later, Wiggum represents a thoroughly lazy, self-interested police department. We get brief jabs at the medical profession (“[Burns] was then transferred to a better hospital where doctors upgraded his condition to “alive”) and the corruption of school administrations, as Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers laugh riotously over the idea of giving every student a full college scholarship. This is satire and its best and most all-inclusive.

And how could I leave out the most-targeted figure of all, the American working man? Even within this vast storyline, the episodes find time to chronicle Homer’s transition from a minor employee peeved at his boss’s indifference to his existence, to a delusional attacker making death threats as security hauls him away. Despite his persistent stupidity, Homer is our protagonist, and his anger at Burns for forgetting his name is symbolic of Burns’ distaste for the entire town. We then follow Homer as he becomes a prime suspect and runs from the police – and to think, this is just one subplot tucked away among many! It feels like it should be impossible for two short episodes to have this much sprawling narrative without feeling rushed, and this much emotional range without feeling inconsistent.

But they do, and they fulfill all their functions – sitcom, police procedural, allegory of the working class vs. big business, social satire – with aplomb, even fitting in time for a vengeful mambo and dozens of sly cultural allusions. Cramming this much in about 45 minutes? I call that art. And it’s infinitely rewatchable, endlessly enjoyable art, too; the kind I’m glad to have grown up watching. So that’s my take on “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”, and hopefully I’ll find time in the near future to similarly address other episodes.

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Oscar Grouching #5: the aftermath

I’m going to keep this short, since I feel like if I hear or say the word “Oscars” again, I’m going to lose it. It’s fun while it lasts, but if you keep it in mind too long, it’s like having Christmas lights up in March. (Which, yes, plenty of silly Minnesotans are doing.) Or like being angry about Avatar months after its release. I streamed them online, with Ashley and I exchanging snarky comments, especially when Kristen Stewart came onstage. I also kept tabs on the AV Club’s live blog, which was very entertaining.

I haven’t watched the Oscars since like, oh, when Jon Stewart hosted in 2006, and I found this one an overall pleasant experience. Of course, it was poorly paced, often perplexing, and usually unfunny, but that’s the whole point of the ceremony, right? Thus enabling us to make our snarky comments? I laughed during the weird interpretive dance segment that interpreted Up as having a robot in it. I also laughed during Sean Penn’s incoherent mumbles as he approached the stage. These are the kind of absurd moments that make it worthwhile to watch 4+ hours of Hollywood patting itself on the back.

These Oscars also came with the interesting implication that John Hughes is apparently far, far more worth remembering than everyone else who died last year, especially great character actors like Ricardo Montalbán and Henry Gibson, who didn’t get any kind of recognition. Well, whatever. This is what low expectations are for. Besides that, I’ll go on remembering Gibson’s contributions to cinema far more than I will with Hughes, so that’s what counts. Which would I rather watch again: Pretty in Pink, or the Haven Hamilton scenes in Nashville? Listening to him sing “200 Years” during the film’s opening will win out every time. (Even if Pretty in Pink does make Harry Dean Stanton seem paternal.)

Aside from those details, the ceremonies were pretty much entirely without note. As for the awards themselves… well, no real surprises there either. The acting quartet of Waltz, Mo’Nique, Bridges, and Bullock won, just as everyone thought. (And I reassert that Sidibe or Mulligan were infinitely more deserving than Sandra Bollocks.) Mercifully for our collective sanity, Avatar didn’t exactly blaze a path of victory, gathering only a few obligatory technical Oscars, while the big ones (Original Screenplay, Director, Picture) went straight to The Hurt Locker.

Quick disclaimer: The Hurt Locker was not the best movie of the year. I still have to catch up with a lot of real contenders (A Single Man, Moon, Un Prophete), but I’m pretty confident that Up, A Serious Man, and The White Ribbon at least were superior. That said, The Hurt Locker‘s victory sends some nice messages about the failure of shininess alone to secure awards, as well as the viability of female directors – and in making war movies, no less! Ultimately, I suspect that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar is as much a symbolic blow for equality and progress as it is representative of her true talent, formidable though it is.

But still, good for Bigelow; she made a damn good movie, and she had her naked gold man coming. If last night had a story of its own, I think, Bigelow could’ve been the action heroine, taking a stand against the megalithic corporation, run by the silent-but-omnipresent James Cameron. For that matter, wasn’t it satisfying when Best Foreign Language Film winner Juan José Campanella took a little jab at Avatar in his acceptance speech? It’s always fun when the Goliath seems so likely to win, even though it sucks, and then gets taken down a notch. Who’s king of the world now, motherfucker?

So that’s my pretty superficial post-Oscars analysis. For the record, I think Up in the Air‘s screenplay was better than that of Precious, and ditto for A Serious Man (or even Basterds) against The Hurt Locker. But, well, that’s how the night had to turn, wasn’t it? At least we were able to see a historic first black screenwriter win. And then Tom Hanks climbed onto the stage, quickly announced that The Hurt Locker had won before any suspense was able to build, and the night was over.

For more Oscar-related reading, you should check out this hilariously moronic misinterpretation of The Hurt Locker by Tom Shillue; this snappy breakdown by the AV Club; and the assuredly ongoing discussion over at The Film Experience, led by the entertaining and Julianne Moore-obsessed Nathaniel Rogers. With that said, we now return to your regularly scheduled blog. Hopefully film and Simpsons analysis will be forthcoming from me, as well as some special new posts by Ashley. If we ever get around to writing them. Hooray for Hollywood!

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Oscar Grouching #4: Precious & The Blind Side

Time is rapidly running out. The Oscars are tomorrow night. So I’ve decided to condense my discussions of the nominated films somewhat. And since race is apparently a favorite topic this year – so far as I can tell, only Up and Up in the Air are all about white goys – I opted to go for two radically different films, both of which put issues of race and racism on the forefront. These are Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. Here’s what I wrote about the two of them in the Carl:

“Another cheap, dirty film to be nominated this year, buoyed mostly a slew of fiery performances, is Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. (And if you don’t add the subtitle, you’re not doing it right.) It’s a blistering tale of poverty and abuse, anchored by Gabourey Sidibe’s performance as the spat-upon title character. I could run down her laundry list of suffering, but that would give a false impression of the film, which is more about Precious coping with, and eventually escaping from, an environment where illiteracy and negligence are the norm. Daniels’ storytelling is hypermelodramatic and sometimes nauseating, as the stench of pigs feet permeates the screen. But it’s necessary to handle the story’s excesses, and is only appropriate for filming likely Oscar-winner Mo’Nique playing Precious’s violent, self-obsessed, and manipulative mother. Precious is hard to stomach, but far more satisfying than the sugary pap served up by another Oscar nominee…

That film, naturally, is the barely watchable The Blind Side. Granted, I’m not the audience for this film: I’m bored by football, can’t stand hyperactive little children, and don’t believe the South should rise again. This makes me a poor match for a movie that glorifies – nay, Jesusifies – the Tuohy family, led by brassy matriarch Sandra Bullock. Based on (a highly fictionalized version of) a true story, it follows the Tuohys’ valiant sacrifices as they take in and nurture a homeless 17-year-old black boy named Michael whose previously unexploited athletic prowess eventually makes him a sought-after property amongst college football teams. The Blind Side shamelessly incorporates every cliché from the feel-good sports movie playbook, right down to the giddy preadolescent mascot “S.J.,” whose every high-pitched word cut through my skull like a power drill. So bland and condescending to its protagonist that not even the underused Kathy Bates could save it, The Blind Side is just the kind of treacly, mediocre shite that the Academy loves to vote for, just to show that they’re ordinary folks, too. However, it’s not a good movie.”

On first glance, the movies seem strangely similar: both involve black teenagers (Precious is 16; The Blind Side‘s Michael “Big Mike” Oher is 17) who start out in the midst of poverty, abuse, and illiteracy. Then well-educated non-black folk take interest in their futures, and the receive educations that enable them to pursue their dreams. Yet despite this shared general storyline, the two could hardly be more different, both in how they’re told and what they communicate to the viewer.

Precious, frankly, is hard to talk about. It’s loaded, it’s controversial, and I go back and forth in deciding how to look at it. Is it sleazy ghetto porn, sensationalistic and exploitative, creating a picture of life in Harlem as a violent, disgusting freak show? (See Armond White’s review.) Or is it an original approach to a very real type of tragedy that leads to a satisfactory conclusion without denying its brutal truths? I tend toward the latter. Admittedly, I was at first pretty skeptical about Precious; ads kept mentioning the names Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, neither of whom are really known for putting out quality products. (OK, maybe Oprah can endorse Faulkner and Middlesex after the fact, but she also unleashed Dr. Phil on the world…)

I was also dubious because inner-city dramas like Precious are frequently formulaic and obvious. If its creators had been less talented, I can easily imagine Precious becoming routine and gratuitous. Instead, through the combined expertise of Lee Daniels and his ensemble, including newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and the fiery Mo’Nique, Precious is a firecracker of a movie, mixing volatile music video aesthetics with the gaudy extremes of Douglas Sirk. It’s this coupling of directorial style and volcanic acting that makes the movie so effective, right up to the open-ended catharsis of its final moments. Racial politics aside (although fully setting them aside is impossible), it’s loud and hyperbolic, yet at the same time sincerely emotional. It’s a rare balance of spectacle and personality.

Precious‘s racial politics are tricky to fully figure out. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t use as many clever dodges and fake resolutions to questions of racial identity as Tarantino or Cameron do; they tell their story and stick to it. But there’s still a lot going on this movie, some of it subtly manipulative. Precious envisions herself in her fantasies as thin and light-skinned and has to be taught to love her appearance, while the only people who support her are thin and light-skinned. Sidibe as Precious is described by Armond White as an “animal-like stereotype,” while Sam Wasson at Forced Perspective says that “[h]er size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that.”

These criticisms may have some credence to them, but I disagree with their overall judgments of Precious. This is decidedly larger-than-life filmmaking, with Sidibe and Mo’Nique giving performances to match. I read a fascinating article by Jim Emerson about how Daniels takes cues from the drag queens and camp cinema of John Waters (also Robert Aldrich, Pasolini, and a little Gus Van Sant), and I think that taking queer sensibilities into account is important when evaluating Precious. You can’t possibly accuse Daniels of stark realism; his film, his style, and his leading ladies are all enormous, yet open to moments of frightening intimacy.

On paper, Precious looks like a catalog of Dickensian traumas made flesh. On screen, however, you see just Sidibe’s numbed, swollen visage, surviving through indifference, her head full of competing memories and daydreams. And it’s the voiceover that, for me, confirms Precious not as the Other, but as an objectified victim fighting for her own self-determined identity. This is the war she has to win, on her own, and the ending makes it unclear whether she has, but hopes that she will. Being HIV-positive is only another lost battle. Compare this to the incredibly superficial level on which every conflict in The Blind Side functions. Precious, however gross it becomes (in every sense of the word), however questionable its little details may be, is at least the story of an marginalized, animalized human being pushing for her own subjectivity.

In The Blind Side, there is only one point of view, and that belongs to miracle-working do-gooder Leigh Anne Tuohy, played effervescently by Sandra Bullock. As opposed to Precious, there’s not a whole lot to talk about with The Blind Side. It’s an oppressively boring movie. It starts out with Michael, lost and homeless, being enrolled in school; before long, he’s noticed by the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne sharply insists that he stay with them.

The Tuohy clan, as the film sees them, are one big, self-sufficient, endlessly generous family unit. The father, played by good-ol’-boy country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t do much other than own the Taco Bells that provide his family with a stream of income, watch football, and agree with his wife. Their children are Collins, a dead-eyed cheerleader, and S.J., the beloved child who never shuts up. Together, they can do no wrong, and if you don’t totally agree, this movie wants nothing to do with you.

What follows is a series of predictable training montages and “tough” personal decisions, as Leigh Anne stands up for Michael against his football coach, against her own bourgeois friends, and against the gang members in his old neighborhood. Because what else is she going to do? Have a single shade of nuance to her behavior? If Bullock wins that Oscar in a couple hours, I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed; her emotional range goes from high-strung enthusiasm to high-strung indignance. Either she’s yelling at someone for mistreating Michael, or she’s congratulating herself for protecting Michael. This is a 2+-hour-long celebration of the kindness of rednecks, a mundanely shot exercise in self-approval.

I’ll be shortly off for work, and then off to watch the Oscars. It’s been fun to blog about, even if as Armond White points out, the red carpet drama often supersedes any appreciation of actual art. (Granted, that article also praises ET and This Is It, but it’s Armond White, what do you expect?) The Academy Awards are an institution shallow and pandering enough to give The Blind Side two nominations, yet one which sometimes recognizes and encourages greatness. (As when they gave the Coen Bros. enough raw Oscar power back in 2007 that they could go on to make the sublime A Serious Man.) They’re not quite meaningless, but not all that meaningful. They’re also something we as film lovers and writers have to deal with.

So let’s go watch the Oscars tonight, and see what happens. Roger Ebert, who’s awards-obsessed, tweets that “something about the Oscars this year gives me the eerie feeling there will be big surprises.” Hey, what can you do? Awards ceremonies are an obligatory part of having show business in the first place. And maybe The White Ribbon will get Best Foreign Language Film, and we’ll get to see Michael Haneke disapprovingly stare down the entire crowd.

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Oscar Grouching #3: Inglourious Basterds

Continuing my discussions of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I move on to an especially fun and interesting entry, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Shortly after I saw it on opening night back in August ’09, I wrote a short and rather bitchy post about Basterds and Tarantino in general. While I don’t exactly take back everything I said, I would like to rephrase and reconsider a lot of it; I think I gave short shrift to the undeniable mastery that underlies a lot of Basterds and deserves to be appreciated. There are some very good reasons it’s received 8 nominations, the third-most of any film this year, and I think it’s more artistically and aesthetically stimulating than much of the competition (like Avatar). But before I launch into all of that, here’s the snippet I wrote about it in my Oscars article for the Carl:

“But Cameron and Bigelow… don’t have a monopoly on war; everyone’s favorite 46-year-old enfant terrible also had plenty to say about it in 2009. Adverts for Inglourious Basterds claimed that ‘you haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,’ and that tagline reveals more than I think it’d care to admit. Basterds isn’t really about war, but about how Tarantino sees it, and his vision of World War II is a hodgepodge of The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Italian war movies of the ’60s. But Tarantino’s cinephilic, perpetually adolescent interpretation of history is still far more ambitious and, ultimately, interesting than Cameron’s anti-imperialist tract. His dazzlingly amoral revisionism probably won’t get Best Picture, but at least we’ll get to Christoph Waltz receive his bingo as Best Supporting Actor.”

This is a movie that ends with the words “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s not the kind of staid, artful film that usually wins lots of Oscars; it’s irreverent, sometimes sadistic, and often inflammatory, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Yet it epitomizes Tarantino’s crafty way of concealing an art film like a Jewish refugee in the basement of an action-packed blockbuster. The ads, typically inane and dishonest, made it out to be two straight hours of Eli Roth clubbing Nazzies to death, and this certainly accounts for a large part of what Tarantino’s up to. However, the meat of the film is the ongoing conflict between Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in Paris, and Hans Landa (Waltz), the diabolically eloquent “Jew Hunter.”

It’s these confrontations with Landa that make the film what it is. Tarantino could’ve made one big, perfectly acceptable war movie homage, and we’d all have forgotten it by now. Instead he went for a series of magnificent set-pieces where words (in English, French, German, and even Italian) are hurled like daggers. The first of these is the best, a carefully composed tribute to Sergio Leone that sees Landa visiting the owner of a dairy farm in rural France. Waltz smiles as he asks for a glass of milk, smiles as he plays the innocent bureaucrat, and smiles as he forces the farmer to tell him where he’s hiding the Dreyfus family.

Waltz, as Landa, is always fascinating. He’s merciless, but polite. Brutal and willing to kill, but about the most cultured villain to [probably] garner an Academy Award since Hannibal Lecter. He’s an efficient Nazi officer, but he’s also cowardly and more interested in self-preservation than in the longevity of the Reich. And Waltz’s English has a perfectly accented lilt to it, so that he can put his enemies off their guard with a silly malapropism one second, then land the death blow with a few well-selected words the next. We always see him from someone else’s POV, and we never quite identify with him, but he’s a compelling and fully realized nemesis – certainly not one of the caricatured “Nazzies” the Basterds are after.

This is one area where the film deploys its many ethical tricks. Landa is worldly, self-aware, full of contradictions; the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (a play on the name of actor Aldo Ray), are the film’s sideshow, occasionally popping up to brutalize and scalp some more terrified Nazzies. Raine himself is a one-note joke which Pitt does wonders with, a jingoistic, torture-happy southerner charged with leading his all-Jewish troops in a mission of revenge.

In the Basterds’ portion of the movie, Tarantino gleefully employs (and exaggerates) every formula he’s culled from the likes of 1960s-’70s American and Italian WWII movies, and it’s fun – especially for him – but it gets old fast. By the time he’s thrown together techniques cribbed from his beloved blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti western genres in order to tell the back story of Nazi prisoner Hugo Stiglitz, the ultra-referential aspect of his style has almost grown wearisome, and the viewer is thankfully treated to a storyline that’s no less violent, but far more substantive: Shosanna’s systematic, single-handed, Kill Bill-style vengeance against the entire Nazi elite.

It’s here where Tarantino’s genius with suspense becomes more pronounced, as do his moral difficulties. All his parlor talk about comparing the treatment of African-Americans to King Kong might as well be about whether foot massages count as sex, since outside of these glib, well-written passages of dialogue, he’s totally unwilling to take on hard questions of race and genocide. Despite the film’s premise, the Holocaust turns out to be a non-factor in the characters’ actions, since for example, Landa’s by-the-book elimination of Shosanna’s family motivates her in much the same fashion as Bill’s coma-inducing attack does for the bride. Shosanna has a vendetta against one man, generalized to the Nazi ruling establishment.

And as for the Basterds, well, they’re killing the Nazzies because they’re Nazzies. The film’s overarching thesis is that this is Tarantino’s war, as he perceives it filtered through decades of Robert Aldrich and Riefenstahl and Samuel Fuller, and the Basterds’ attitudes reflect this. They blissfully criss-cross Europe scalping Nazzies due more to the propagandistic cultural significance of their targets than because of any actual wrongs perpetrated by the government of Nazi Germany. Tarantino sets up his elaborate racial revenge fantasy, but elides the instigating event, and this produces the film’s great strength and weakness, its utter amorality.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you read Basterds as a thoughtful self-critique or not in its tendency to unhinge all its actions from their historical and ethical contexts, until each scalping or machine-gunning becomes just the act of an individual tagged as a “Jew” against one who’s a “Nazi,” labels with as much significance as the Union and Confederate soldiers in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Tarantino’s favorite film, and another which strips events of their historical meanings – like the existence of slavery – for the sake of the story.)

Is it a sly commentary on the nature of cinema to desensitize us both to violence and to the complex origins of wars? Or is Tarantino doing just that as a matter of layered pastiche, with no commentary intended? I think the answer – which would take closer viewing than I’m able to perform now – would reveal a lot about Basterds‘ level of profundity, though I remain skeptical. However, I think its merits as an example of high-intensity postmodern filmmaking are as great as any of Tarantino’s other work, up to and including Pulp Fiction; here, the battles are won and lost not by Raine’s clownish marauders, but over strudel on the café tables of Paris.

As for Basterds‘ Oscar chances, I’m fairly optimistic. I think Best Picture is extremely unlikely, but Tarantino’s bravura directing and endlessly quotable screenplay – his specialties, as opposed to political or emotional depth – are certainly laudable, and at the very least remain in the running, even if The Hurt Locker could sweep those categories. Luckily for Christoph Waltz, though, he has no real competition: his first publicly visible screen outing will indeed turned to Oscar gold, thanks to his mesmerizing screen presence – and to Tarantino’s sharp dialogue. While Inglourious Basterds may not authentically engage race or history, its cinephilic reveries are nonetheless a welcome sight at this year’s Oscars, and its engagement of film history is as daring as anything in recent memory.

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Uzumaki: Spirals and Sanity

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like spiral patterns in an otherwise normal room.]

Ashley:

I first saw Uzumaki several years ago when I was deep in my anime/Japanese culture phase; I watched any Japanese film I happened upon and this was one of them. My best friend and I had no clue what the movie was trying to say or do but it freaked us out and we liked that. I saw it a few more times after that, enough times for it to be nestled warmly in the back of my brain as one of my favorite strange films. Watching it again as an older, much more intelligent person than my12-year-old self I am, delightfully and frustratingly enough, left with the same questions I had then.

Uzumaki tells the tale of the small town Kurouzu, its inhabitants, and the dark infestation slowly plaguing them. The town seems off from the start; green filters give the town and its denizens an eerie, sickly look and no one really acts natural or at ease. The film sets up an odd kind of wackiness, bordering  on dark comedy.

SURPRISE! Silly, creepy stalker! Odd, weirdly funny moments like this create an unsettled atmosphere, setting the stage for the weirdness to come. And come it does. We first see signs of (more extreme) weirdness in the form of Shuichi’s, one of our main characters, father filming snails, or more specifically the spiral shapes of their shells. Shuichi confides in Kirie, our final girl, that his father has been exhibiting this kind of odd behavior for awhile and has acquired a disturbingly large collection of spiral-shaped items. After his father’s (very spirally) suicide, this vortex-sickness seeps into the rest of the town.

Something that I found myself continually struck with was the obliviousness and nonchalance exhibited by some of the characters: as the crematorium’s smoke creates an ominous black spiral in the sky that curls down into the depths of Dragonfly Pond, one girl looks on impassively, stating, “It spirals like that when they cremate someone…” During a news report on the bizarre happenings of the town, a reporter matter-of-factly comments on the suicides, deaths, and people-transforming-into-snail phenomena. Kirie herself is infuriatingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation despite the fact that she’s witnessed horror after horror. The only sane man it seems is Shuichi, who from the very start, even before the terror starts really manifesting itself, tells Kirie that he wants them to leave. But as the unease and terror mounts, as the bodies start to pile (and twist) up, no one makes the move to get the hell out until it’s way too late.

Along this same vein, the few people who do try to figure out what is going on either end up caught by the spiral and dead or their information goes nowhere. There is an awesome research-montage that gives us literally not one answer. It implies some things but leaves us no closer to any answer about what the origin of the spiral obsession is. Is it the town itself? Is it one person (perhaps Shuichi’s father?) who has contaminated the rest? How are these people turning into huge snails? What the fuck is going on? And the ending leaves us completely unsatisfied. What happened to Kirie? She has to be alive in some way; she’s telling the story, as evidenced by the opening and closing shots:

Uzumaki is a strange creature in both concept and execution. The idea of a town under some sinister influence is not new, but it’s very rare for the villain to be so abstract and have no discernible origin. In the film, there is no master spiral, no madman run amok. Just a very strange town with a very strange disease.

Andreas:

I’d only ever heard little tidbits about this film (aside from the fact that the title meant “spiral”) so I was mostly blind going in. My first impression was one of overwhelming weirdness: the opening scenes of this film take for granted that the audience will expect a Japanese horror movie to be weird. As Ashley discussed, we’re placed into a very grotesque, absurd world even before the blatant “horror” aspect of the film comes into play.

Kirie’s state of constant disorientation, Yamaguchi’s obnoxious behavior (and the confusing angles from which it’s photographed), and then the obsession consuming Shuchi’s father from the first second we see him onscreen – it all works to establish a baseline tolerance for weirdness in this movie, which makes it that much easier to make the leap over when things get really weird. In retrospect, it makes you feel like maybe something was wrong with the townspeople all along, and maybe it was only a matter of time before their little quirks spiraled into the abyss of psychosis.

Why spirals, anyway? While talking about this movie, Ashley and I mulled over comparisons from the movie The Birds to the graphic novel Black Hole. But Uzumaki (even if it doesn’t quite match those works’ terrifying heights) brings something new to the table: its “enemy,” if you can call it that, is so intangible, so omnipresent, and so inexplicable. I’ll even go out on a limb and compare it to a movie Ashley and I recently saw, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon, which is a world away from J-horror.

Yet they do have similarities: in both films, you can’t definitively trace the source of the violence. In Uzumaki, it’s never resolved what sparked the outbreak, the curious quasi-disease that afflicts the town, person by person. And in both films, the contagion is rife with potential purposes, meanings, and outcomes, all of which remain tantalizingly undetermined. In The White Ribbon, this leads to question after question. Did the same evil that affected the children lead to Nazism? Did it come from their puritanical upbringings, from the brutal authority of their fathers, or were they intrinsically cruel?

In Uzumaki, we can similarly wonder why and how this had to happen. Apparently, Junji Ito’s original manga spells out that it’s caused by a spiral shrine buried underground, but even this doesn’t really clear up what end is served by the bizarre symptoms and self-destructive actions exhibited by the townsfolk. Who does it benefit? What consciousness would have willed this plague into existence? The answers are just out of reach, and the only person who might find them dies in a car crash toward the end of the movie without tying up any of the mysteries.

But after all, it’s much more fun to observe everyone’s responses to the unthinkable catastrophe engulfing them. The film’s attitude toward its characters is well-balanced, alternating between initial sympathy for the horrors they’re experiencing, and then a more detached, humorous view as they fail to keep up with the accelerating disasters. This even devolves into open mockery as Kirie’s reactions – like clinging to Shuichi and restating her undying love – show that she’s in the wrong kind of movie. She fancies herself a romantic heroine, but in the increasingly distorted universe of body horror that is Uzumaki, there’s no place for sentiment. Only insanity, or else an absurd acceptance that death (or far worse) is right around the corner.

Another little point of comparison for Uzumaki: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. I have yet to see Prince of Darkness, but I noticed a lot of parallels with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. The books of Sutter Cane and the madness/mutations they cause are much more literal, straightforward, and less interesting than the spirals of Uzumaki, but all these films share the common theme of characters encountering virulent forces which will probably destroy mankind.

The grim ending – where the maddening power of the spirals appears to be spreading and spreading – is especially interesting when you look at the middle portion of Uzumaki. Before the parade of grisly suicides, accidents, and dismemberments that precede Shuichi’s demise, the townsfolk try to cope with the onslaught as best they can. Shuichi’s spirophobic mother is hospitalized; they get over his father’s death and the ensuing spiral of ashes; and kids keep going to school despite the occasional snail-like deformity or out-of-control spiral hair.

One moral to take away from the film (other than “We’ll all turn into spirals and die someday”) is how easy it is for people to accept very sick situations if they’re imposed very gradually, just like the story of the boiling frog. Sure, they’ll note the incredibly fucked-up events surrounding them, but then they’ll go on with their lives. Shuichi twice says that he wants to leave town, but each time he and Kirie find some excuse for staying. On this level, I think, Uzumaki is not just perversely WTF, but also at times wickedly funny.

It takes the subgenre of horror movies wherein small towns are infested with some form of evil, then twists it out to the furthest possible extreme, until it has shades of cunning self-parody. For the most part, it’s a pretty flawed movie that sometimes feels like it’s only grasping for shock value, but at these moments it contains visible horror genius.

So all in all I feel like Uzumaki is a mixed bag. It’s certainly frightening – the words “washing machine” and “corpse” should be enough to confirm that – and this works effectively with its own sick brand of Japanese humor. It doesn’t hand out any satisfying answers, but still keeps you from wondering, Then what was the point? It’s a very queer bird of a movie, and more or less defines the phrase “not for all tastes,” but to the horror fan it offers a very dark vision of spirally chaos encroaching on an already weird world. And snail-people. More than enough snail-people.

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