27 June 2011

Kerry Washington Lovely in Lift (2001)

Comment in response to Elvis Mitchell's review of this wonderful little film:

Lift (2001) is a sharp, witty cinematic effort, giving us well drawn characters whose lives we care about. Its also a stunning turn by Kerry Washington in a heavy indictment of consumer culture. It is filled with complex and generous portrayals of these characters. And even if the reasons underpinning their desire for the designer goods is something which the audience is expected to know already - which, depending on the viewing audience could determine whether these characters end up stereotyped or understood - the actors still give them such depth one should feel for them.

Elvis Mitchell calls these young Black characters small-minded and short-sighted, but this is an ungenerous read at best and at worst its a rough essentializing. Especially because, at its most poignant, this film proves that ironically, the accusations of otherness slopped onto Black people in the U.S. can easily be disproved when one considers the fact that the All American Love of bigger, better, more, now is shared by White and Black Americans! If nothing else we know that the oppressed, or formerly oppressed, follow the suit of their oppressors, so if we are to nag these young people for their behavior, we must condemn all American culture for making it seem there is nothing in life but to own and have more stuff...

21 June 2011

Jennifer's Body (2009): Misunderstood Brilliance

Jennifer's Body suffers from a few major afflictions: reviews that want it to be something gorier or more evil than it is, reviews that attack it for an assumption of cheap opportunism, and some reviewers that plain just don't understand at all what's going on.

I felt compelled to write this review not because Diablo Cody has created the perfect horror movie, or even one it seems most (male?) horror fans will enjoy. The film does suffer a few moments of seemingly forced dialogue which only works because Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried produce such wonderful performances. The reason why this film is amazing has to do with its being the logical conclusion to or heir apparent to Mean Girls and Chumscrubber: The Perfect White Suburban Female Horror flick. Playing on the suburban malaise and disconnections which sometimes structure empty lives, this film ensures we feel fear at the thought of the dark underbelly of small town American teens! Rather than a rehash, it takes Mean Girls to another level, one where female friendships and rapidly proliferating youthful apathy are revealed to be the true terror and not some indestructible man in a mask.

In dreadcentral.com's review - which at times implies that that the author does not understand even the basics of narrative structure - they accuse the film of being too concerned with seeming important and using a whirlpool as a useless plot device at the film's climax. I argue here that part of what they've missed is that Cody and Kusama are all too aware of both the levity and weight of the film, and have used each element purposefully.

It may not be a strictly feminist horror film - Needy escapes, but after all they do kill Jennifer in the end, bad form! But the film does a great job at revealing the true horror, fear, resentments, distrust, and oppression at the center of so many female friendships!! All women at sometime have thought a friend to be a demon: evil, ruthless, heartless, cruel, and capable of infinite evil. This film is what would happen if one could prove it. Therefore the whirlpool is far from a useless plot point, and is instead a potent visual metaphor for a number of things:

1) The terrible fear most civilizations have of female sexuality as that swirling thing that may have no depths, operates beyond man's comprehension, and can consume infinitely. It is no mistake that one of the film's early scenes is of two men dumping boxes of balls into the whirlpool which are consumed and never seen again. This fear may be represented, to me at least, in somewhat heavy-handed fashion, but I have yet to read a review that points this out, which means folks are missing the significance and it is a cool thing to note!!

2) The vortex that bad female friendships can become, sucking energy, joy, even life out of you even as you find them impossible to escape. See the previous comments about female friendships.

3) Finally, the terrifying depths of female abjection and violation in the face of stronger men. It is no mistake that it is near that infinite whirlpool that the band decides to sacrifice Jennifer. Ostensibly she has to be sacrificed in the name of the band's financial success, but the placement near the whirlpool reminds one of the vast numbers of women who go missing, are raped, assaulted, and abused worldwide and whose cries are either laughed at or go unheard altogether.

Reviewers complaining about the improbability of Cody's language have spent little time around groups of girls age 13 to 19, because the made up slang, the viciousness, and constant pushing and testing is a hallmark of current female interaction - the latter to a disturbing degree I believe. And scenes in the classroom of Jennifer's demon possessed form laughing about death and sadness is not so far fetched in our mass media, rapidly evolving, 24 hour news cycle lives. A reviewer in Australia complained that the movie fails to create anything a viewer could identify with as scary, well he clearly has never been in a female friendship.

If there's anything to truly complain about in this film it is the narratively necessary and therefore inevitable, but ultimately uninspiring demise of Jennifer. In a womanist read of the film, Jennifer lives as most men dream of living: taking on "lovers" when she wants, disposing of them at will, and using their adoration and fear of losing out on the opportunity she offers to suck them dry of energy and leave them empty in her wake. How many films celebrate just this sort of male behavior wherein women occupy cardboard placement in service to men's sexual whims or maternal needs? I adore The Hangover and Swingers, but these films are no friends to women.

Here, unlike in Weird Science (1985), Jennifer as whirlpool does the supernatural selecting and discarding. Her death therefore somehow feels an appeasement of scared male egos - the film's scientists - who really just want that whirlpool to be clarified, contained, and understood. Beyond the usual requirement that horror films punish the bad (often) and save our heroine (sometimes), it seems that Jennifer has to die for her bad friendship, her ruthless high school demeanor, but most importantly for her murder of young men whose only crime was to fall for her beauty imagining it covered a nice person too. Hence the film requires Needy's discovery of the end of the whirlpool, the end of Jennifer's sexually charged rampage through male flesh, the end of male fear of the unpredictable or dangerous in dreamily imagined encounters with strange, hot women. After all, men need to believe there are hot women out there who will sleep with and satisfy them without then eating them afterwards.

What does the whirlpool mean for Needy? In one read, we could say that Needy has discovered her own empowered connection to the whirlpool's violent, powerful possibility - she has become part demon after all, and can truly enjoy her sexuality, refusal to be a victim, and no-nonsense attitude. Now Needy may become the perfect melding of Jennifer's power, sensuousness and self-containment, and her own composed, logical self. Thus, in truly amazing and womanist inspired writing, Jennifer and Needy are two halves of a whole, and the perfect woman is and can be (if she wants) a mix of the sassy and sweet, brutal and tender, powerful and empowering!

However, in a more likely read, the discovery of the end of the whirlpool still harkens back to scary female sexuality since the end of the whirlpool equals the earlier deposited, disembodied balls and an obscenely large hunting knife - castration anxiety anyone? And why does the whirlpool seemingly dump out on the side of an empty stretch of road? A lonely no-man's land, where the next person Needy encounters is a motorist played by actor Lance Henriksen. Yes, Henriksen who has been forever immortalized on celluloid as being the male representation of how terrifying and destructive a force reproduction is - pregnancy is death! BUT this does not spell the complete death knell of womanist/feminist readings, and I would have to really stretch to believe Cody and Kusama did not want a less sad reading of this 'you go girl' flick!

All in all, I found this film full of the necessary frights - that evil friend just might kill me or destroy my life or steal my man!! - really scary moments - groups and solitary men do in fact kidnap and torture women all the time - and legit representations of youthful behavior - I have actually heard dialogue from high schoolers and middle schoolers that eerily resembles this film's dialogue... The film Kick's Ass!!

So reviewers out there, give the film a shot and stop hating just because its "cool" to hate it! The creative minds behind Girl Fight (2000) and Juno (2007) deserve more consideration than you've given them!!