Monthly Archives: January 2012

Race and Power in Madonnna’s “Human Nature”

This is a cross-post from mah Tumblr (which you should be following if you want to get bite-size feminsty, social justicey goodness from me on the regular).

Andreas and I watched Madonna’s “Human Nature” video together last night because we wanted to listen to the song. I’ve seen this video a bunch of times, but this time around I noticed some interesting stuff going on with race.

Background: Human Nature is a song all about how sex, sexual urges, fantasies, etc. all that sexy stuff is natural and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, yada yada. The video has lots of leather and BDSM imagery. On to the analysis:

First of all, Madge has dark cornrows, a traditionally African hairstyle, throughout the video:

Rockin the white-girl braids

The intent is obviously to make her look more severe and aggressive (because POC are totally aggressive, amirite?). Another thing going on in this video is the “artistic choice” to have her extremely pale skin and the white background contrast with both the black leather and the skin tones of the people around her (be they POC or just tanner-than-her white people; everyone in this video is a shade or two darker than Madonna):

Madonna as the blazing white center of everything

But then things get even more weirdly, racially suggestive. At one point, Madonna is tied to a chair, being ravished by two men. Their physical placement is below her, but she still isn’t a place of sexual aggression or power, which is made especially obvious when one of the men pushes the shit out of her head and she looks pretty pissed about it.

Aggressive women get their shit tied up and dominated

The issue here isn’t about how consensual the act is. Everything in this video is implied to be consensual because the song is about fantasies and sexual kinks. But here’s where it gets… fishy. In the very next scene Madonna is the sexual aggressor. Her cornrows are now less “aggressive”-looking and poof out in the back in sort of a faux-Fro, still a less “ethnic” looking hairstyle than the previous one. She’s dominating the one clearly Black woman in the video. There are two women in the video other than Madonna, and both are darker than her, but with the one who gets tied up and dominated by Madonna, it’s immediately obvious that she’s a Black woman.

Not to mention the way that the WOC is tied up is much more uncomfortable and exposed

WOC as furniture for Madonna to lean on

This part really does seem to go on and on

LOL, I love representing white superiority! Having a black sex servant is AWESOME and HILARIOUS

So now I’m sitting here thinking about the implications of these “artistic” choices. It’s hard to believe that they chose the Black woman to be tied up and dominated by the lily-white Madonna by accident or coincidence. Even if the thought process was “it goes along with the choice to contrast skin tones and scenery,” that’s still problematic. And the more I think about it, the weirder and ickier it seems: when Madonna is ethnic and aggressive with her white-girl cornrows, she’s dominated by men. But when she looks less aggressive and threatening, when she’s smiling and laughing, she gets to dominate another woman, a WOC.

There’s fucked-up power shit going on here: men who are darker than Madonna, but not Black or extremely dark men, dominate women—even aggressive women. And white women—even non-aggressive, cutesy women who carry little dogs with their whips—dominate Black women.

Also, it’s fundamentally problematic to have a room full of darker-skinned people and have the center of all of their sexual desire be a blindingly pale white woman.

Bish needs some vitamin D, in a motherfucking hurry.

WTF, Madonna. You got some weird racial shit going on in this video.

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Link Dump: #57

This kitty participates in a classic cat scare, midway through Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. Jumping around, knocking down pans in a small diner, distracting us before the real danger arrives. Thanks for that, kitty. This week, we’ve got a treasure trove of links, every one of them a goodie. Enjoy!

Finally, we have a pair of baffling search terms: “film eurotic la madre con la sou fill,” which seems like a jumble of 2-3 languages with the word “erotic” misspelled, and “brazil pussy sex with animels,” which I assume was written by someone with minimal knowledge of Brazil. With by own minimal knowledge, I will point out that Brazil is not known for its pussy sex with animels. Harmful stereotypes, people.

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12 Blind Spots for 2012

A couple months ago, Ryan at The Matinee announced his “2012 Blind Spot Series,” a communal attempt to fill in some viewing gaps. I only recently found out about it, but I’m totally on board; any excuse to broaden your horizons, right? So I generated a list of 12 movies I’ve been meaning to see “forever,” but haven’t quite gotten around to watching. They are:

  • Les Vampires (1915-16). I’ve seen the first couple chapters of Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking 6 1/2 hour serial, but this time I’m going the whole way. If I can watch all of Sátántangó, then I can make it through this.
  • Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Again, the reason I haven’t seen this yet is simply “it’s really goddamn long.” But this is early Fritz Lang, so I’ll make the time commitment. (And like Les Vampires, this sounds like a really epic crime thriller. Should be fun.)
  • Jezebel (1938). Bette Davis Henry Fonda William Wyler??! Why haven’t I seen this yet?
  • Black Narcissus (1947). I haven’t seen this yet only because I really want to watch it on a big screen. With any luck, I’ll commandeer a theater and finally get my hysterical nun fix.
  • Viaggio in Italia (1954). As with Jezebel, the answer here is extremely straightforward: Bergman Sanders Rossellini, let’s do this thing.
  • Rocco and His Brothers (1960). I’ve slowly been getting into Visconti, so why not make this my next stop? Besides, Alain Delon is one of the most attractive men who has ever lived, and that’s enough of a draw for me.
  • Dr. Zhivago (1965). To be honest, I’m a little nervous about this one. I’m a fan of Lawrence of Arabia and the cast looks excitingly eclectic, but plot-heavy literary adaptations were a dime a dozen in the ’60s (and often very bad). But who knows. I’ll give it a go.
  • The Tin Drum (1979). I’ve been informed that I actually have seen this controversial movie… when I was 3-4 years old. However, I’d like to see it as a mature adult, specifically one who loves the New German Cinema.
  • The Thin Blue Line (1988). I’ve heard praises like “best documentary ever” tossed at this before, so I’m game. I loved The Fog of War and Tabloid, so my expectations are pretty high.
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989). OK, this isn’t really my kind of movie, but who knows? I might like it. I like a lot of stuff.
  • Twelve Monkeys (1995). Terry Gilliam remade La Jetée as feature-length? Try and stop me.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). I saw the latter two, and I’m a completist when it comes to trilogies. (Which reminds me, The World of Apu and The Idiots should really be on this list, too.) I guess it can prepare me for the upcoming Hobbit fever, too.

Any recommendations about where to start?

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Oscar Contenders Round-up

Oscar nominations drop in less than a week. Yes, awards season is heavy upon us, with all its implicit fun and horror! I’ve already reviewed three big Oscar players—The Tree of Life (love), The Help (hate), and Midnight in Paris (eh)—but have yet to touch on the season’s other talked-about titles. The following is my attempt to rectify that:

The Artist. I was delighted by the cuteness and chemistry of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who give a spry pair of performances attuned to the film’s silence. And writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has an eye for visual gags, which dot the film: the dancing legs, the take-after-take courtship, the ascension of Peppy’s name, etc., etc. But The Artist never really coheres, coming across more as a set-piece variety hour than a fleshed-out feature film. Its tragedies, when they arrive, don’t stick—Dujardin’s alcoholism and depression always seem to have a wry smile lurking beneath them, and a climactic suicide attempt is punctuated by a joke. The film’s story is all but an afterthought, schematically stitching Singin’ in the Rain onto A Star Is Born.

Guillaume Schiffman’s gleaming photography gorgeously invokes the memory of “classical Hollywood,” but to what end? The film never really gets beyond the shock of its own retro-novelty, preferring to be vaguely about the idea of “silent movies” rather than any historically real silent cinema.* (This meta-silence explains its “Dream Factory” Hollywood setting, which could’ve been constructed from issues of Photoplay.) When it does make concrete allusions (to Citizen Kane and, infamously, Vertigo), they’re hollow and don’t fit their contexts. The Artist suggests the gist of silent movies (i.e., “they didn’t talk”) but doesn’t follow through; it’s very limited in outlook and execution. Kudos, certainly, to Hazanavicius and company for merely making a functional latter-day silent movie. I just wish they’d made more than a broad pastiche that teeters toward “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” pandering. Well, at least the dog’s cute.

*Hazanavicius himself seems strangely misinformed about 1920s filmmaking. In one interview, he claimed that under the Hays Code, “People don’t kiss, there isn’t any kissing in my movie, the dancing scenes are the love scenes.” I’m really curious where he got the impression that no kissing signifies “an American way to tell a story.”

Next: Hugo, The Descendants, War Horse, and Moneyball.

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Link Dump: #56

This week’s kitty is from Cindy Sherman’s first (and only) feature film, Office Killer. The film itself was pretty disappointing—a half-baked story that wasted a bunch of great actresses—but hey, at least it had a cute kitty! And now, a smattering of links:

As for search terms: we had the rejected Jules Verne title “journey in the pussy,” the question-without-an-answer “what disney movie did they say vagina?”, and the excellent statement “writing things make me angry.” Writing things make me angry, too.

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After Midnight

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as one of my “Most Disappointing Movies of 2011.” Then, as the year came to an end, I kept seeing it pop up on best-of-the-year lists, always praised as “witty” and “magical.” And now it’s right on course to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, with good odds of winning the latter. So, from the depths of my confusion and curiosity, I have to ask again: what is so great (or even good) about this movie?

Hell, I’ve been so earnestly curious that I rewatched it. Maybe I’d somehow missed the magic that first time around! But no, it actually got worse. I still love the wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack and the amber-tinted Parisian scenery; it’s certainly a pleasant movie to look at. (Although a tourist brochure does not a great movie make.) And it has a handful of supporting performances that make me smile: Marion Cotillard as “art groupie” Adriana, Adrien Brody’s rhinoceros-obsessed Dalí, and Corey Stoll as a hilarious, swaggering Hemingway.

But the whole movie’s premised on one long joke. It’s just Owen Wilson’s Gil being introduced to one Lost Generation luminary after another, then stammering in disbelief, “Hemingway? The Ernest Hemingway? Tom Eliot? You mean T.S. Eliot? Picasso? As in Pablo Picasso?” At first, it’s endearing; an hour later, it’s tiresome. The 1920s scenes are affable and sometimes funny, but they never go beyond facile wish fulfillment. They lie somewhere between a costume party and a wax museum, depicting their era as a time when everyone was a genius, went to parties, and fell in love with strangers from the future.

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How Wude

Sometimes perverse curiosity gets the better of me. Sometimes I revisit movies like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), it was the most-anticipated movie of 1999. But the intervening decade has turned it into a feature-length joke, a dartboard for cracks about podracing and midi-chlorians. So I was curious if it lived up to its negative reputation. Short answer? Yeah, pretty much. Long answer?

Let’s start with the writing. Episode I’s most fundamental flaw is tangled up with its role in the Star Wars franchise: whereas the original trilogy was all about telling an old-fashioned adventure story, the prequels are all about expanding the series. In Episode I, any detail added to the Star Wars universe is treated as inherently good, even if it impedes the storytelling. Thus, the film’s opening crawl begins with these words, ushering us into a bold new era:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

(Oh, no! Not the taxation of trade routes! But how will the economically marginalized denizens of Outer Rim planets transport their goods now?)

Yes, gone is the original trilogy’s quotable pulp poetry. Instead, we have reams of clunky exposition. Even top-drawer actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are hobbled by the jargon-strewn dialogue—not to mention their own distracting Jedi hairdos. Supporting characters are reduced to mere mouthpieces, onscreen only to deepen the franchise’s convoluted politics and mythology. While the original trilogy was streamlined and instantly iconic, Episode I putters about in a morass of details and misplaced priorities. Its establishing shots—all those crisp CGI vistas—stirred up pings of recognition in me. (“Ah, the old Star Wars magic…”) But then it’d cut away to actors muttering gravely, and the tedium would set in.

Granted, when Episode I focuses solely on exotic landscapes, it can be kind of engrossing: “Ooh, an underwater abyss. Ooh, a giant coliseum. Ooh, a planet-sized city.” And the film does contain a pair of solid performances: Ian McDiarmid as the Machiavellian Senator Palpatine, and Ray Park as his taciturn protégé Darth Maul. But when it’s bad, it’s very bad indeed. The score sounds like a parody of John Williams bombast, accentuating pretty much everything; the film is infamous for its racial caricatures (e.g., the Neimoidians and their “Me rikey!” accents, or Watto’s obvious Fagin/Shylock lineage); and it’s just littered with botched attempts at humor. Slapstick droids! NASCAR-style color commentary for the podracing! Even a pack animal fart joke.

Of course, I’ve saved the worst for last. Because it’s impossible to overstate how violently Jar Jar Binks derails this movie. If, as a perverse exercise, you tried to create a mood-killing, unlikeable character, you could never improve on Jar Jar. No matter what’s happening in a given scene, he becomes its focal point; everyone else is suddenly the Bud Abbott to his Lou Costello. Somehow, George Lucas must’ve thought he could leaven the film’s solemnity with Jar Jar’s manic bumbling. But wow was he wrong. Jar Jar even gets a failed catchphrase (“How wude!”) that he trots out again and again, as if it’ll become funnier with repetition. (Spoiler: it doesn’t!)

The end result is a tone-deaf movie that, scene after scene, smacks you with its awfulness. Early on, for example, we get a tête-à-tête between Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin’s mother, played by Swedish actress Pernilla August. As they discuss her son’s destiny, you can sense real performances, even real emotion, broiling right beneath the surface. But then all the tragic potential of this mother/son relationship gets squashed beneath the tacky costuming, artless writing, and hydra-headed subplots. Hell, Episode I isn’t just bad. It’s insistently anti-good.

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