Far From Heaven (2002) – Melodrama, Irony, and What Lies Beneath

By the end of the 1950s, British cultural production had fallen out of step with the realities of British life. Still in thrall to the drawing room comedies of Noel Coward and the well-made plays of Terrence Rattigan, British theatre was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would banish romanticism and replace it with a commitment to unflinching social realism. Though usually associated with the establishment of the National Theatre, the rise of Kenneth Tynan, and the emergence of the so-called Angry Young Men, Britain’s realist turn was also evident in cinemas as producers fell over themselves to turn realist plays and novels into films that held a mirror up to the realities of life in modern Britain.

Films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey took inspiration from Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays and focused their attentions on the hardships and tragedies of working class life. Confrontational and unapologetically left-wing, they critiqued a society in which the poor were left to rot while the rich enjoyed all the benefits of economic renewal. While this vogue for social realism manifestly did very little to slow the rising tide of social inequality, the belief that drama should project us into the world rather than help us escape it endured for generations. Even once the revolutionary energy began to drain from the British film industry, a commitment to ‘kitchen sink’ realism survived in TV strands such as Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Play and Play for Today. Traces of it can even be detected in that very British tendency to produce dramas and soap operas about the lives of the working class rather than the upper-middle class families favoured by American TV dramas.

Hollywood has never shared Britain’s interest in chronicling the lives of the poor and desperate. Up until the Second World War, the studios made it their business to provide audiences with glimpses of lives more glamorous than their own. In fact, the 1930s actress Kay Francis was explicitly marketed as the best-dressed woman in the world and many of her films feel like little more than excuses for her to change into a series of expensive-looking outfits. However, while the studios may have been reluctant to shine a light on the lives of America’s dispossessed, they did regularly produce films that were critical of the status quo… you just needed to look beyond the big houses and glamorous wardrobes.

From the silent era all the way till the 1960s, Hollywood produced films with female audiences in mind. Usually built around a bankable female star, these so-called women’s films focused on the emotional realities of women’s lives including love-triangles, affairs, spousal estrangement, parenting problems and mental illness. For example films like Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool feature women who are driven insane by uncaring husbands and manipulative lovers. Many of these films are now quite difficult to find as the term ‘women’s film’ is itself somewhat problematic. Though still in use until the 1960s, many critics consider the genre to be little more than an expression of institutionalised sexism as saying that certain films are ‘for women’ seems to imply that men are the cinema’s natural audience. As a result of these problems, many women’s films are today referred to as melodramas.

Melodramas are often criticised for their political conservatism in that they introduce us to people whose lives are literally torn apart by the injustices of American society only for said people to either die or return to the roles allotted to them by virtue of their gender and social class. For example, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun features a working class Montgomery Clift who falls in love with wealthy society girl Elizabeth Taylor only to have his shot at social mobility destroyed by a combination of jealousy and unwanted pregnancy. Viewed in a certain light, the film is all about a man being brought down by his own hubris but, seen in a different light, it is also about social class and the difficulty of finding happiness in a capitalist society. Though ostensibly conservative, many melodramas and women’s films can be read as subtle critiques of an American society that would rather kill, immiserate and drive people insane than allow them to find happiness on their own terms.

While many great directors made films in the melodramatic style, the idea of the melodrama as subtle social criticism is most closely associated with the films of Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany in the late 19th Century, Sirk abandoned a successful theatrical and cinematic career in 1937 when his political convictions and Jewish wife forced him to leave Germany. Initially dismissed as a purveyor of commercially successful fluff who made films that were unimportant, dull and ludicrously over-stylised, Sirk is now understood to have been a fiercely principled intellectual who moved to America with a plan to make films that hid their social criticism beneath a veil of irony. The re-discovery of Sirk is said to have begun in the late 1950s when the fiercely leftist Cahiers du Cinema began defending his work but the use of irony in films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life continue to pose something of a critical challenge. As the late Roger Ebert once put it:

To appreciate a film likeWritten on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.

Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is a loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk. Shot in a style similar to Sirk’s using similar colour schemes, similar camera angles, similar compositions and similar sound-recording techniques that litter the soundtrack with echoing footsteps and rustling crinoline, Far from Heaven is a traditional Hollywood melodrama, right down to its brutal critique of American culture.

 

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REVIEW – Wish You Were Here (2012)

wishyouwerehereFilmJuice has my review of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, an Australian mystery/drama that is not to be confused with David Leland’s oddball British tragedy of the same name.

Set between Australia and Cambodia, Wish You Were Here is a great-looking film that is hamstrung by its director’s self-indulgence and borderline racism. The plot revolves around a pair of Australian couples who visit Cambodia and have a great old time until one of the group disappears. Understandably distraught, the remaining holiday makers limp back home and begin worrying about the disappearance of their friend and the fact that reporting his disappearance to the authorities might shine a light not only on their illegal activities but also their dysfunctional relationships. I say that the film is borderline racist as it falls into the familiar trap of using a non-white culture as backdrop for the breakdown of white middle-class lives. Colourful marketplaces, yay! Maimed beggars and brown dudes with machine guns, boo!

However, more interesting than Darcy-Smith’s use of lazy racist stereotypes is his failure to fuse the mystery and kitchen sink drama genres:

Darcy-Smith’s mistake lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between mysteries and dramas: The focus of a mystery is on leading the audience through a particular narrative while the focus of a drama is on unravelling the complexities of character. While psychological mysteries can sustain a hybridisation of the two genres, Wish You Were Here is ultimately a story about a missing tourist and not an exploration of why the characters are the way that they are. As you would expect from a plot structured around a missing person narrative, the characters only have as much depth as that central mystery requires meaning that while Darcy-Smith gives his actors vast amounts of time in which to explore their characters, the characters they are exploring are neither particularly deep nor particularly interesting. If Darcy-Smith wanted to direct a character-based drama then he should have written a script about character and not about an extraneous mystery. In a way, it’s a bit like turning up at the cinema to watch Avengers 2 only to discover that the director has decided to focus on the inner life of the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier. There’s nothing wrong with making a film about the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier but if you do then at least go to the trouble of working from a script that explores the character’s background and how they got recruited into SHIELD. Don’t just turn on the camera, leave them emote and expect the audience to be as fascinated by the results as the people doing the acting! That would make for a dull Avengers 2 and it certainly makes for a dull Wish You Were Here.

It is interesting that positive reviews of this film tend to point to the central performances of Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price as while both do well and are accorded a good deal of time and space, neither character is particularly complex or engaging. They’re just vaguely unhappy middle-class people who can’t talk about their problems. In truth, I’m not convinced that either performance was really all that worthy of commentary, though I do think that Darcy-Smith made their performances the focus of the film.

REVIEW – White Dog (1982)

WhiteDogFilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Samuel Fuller’s racially-themed horror film White Dog.

Cutting to the chase, I really enjoyed this film. Set on the margins of Hollywood, the film tells of an actress who happens to run over a beautiful white Alsatian dog. Forced to take responsibility to the animal after taking it to the vet, the actress nurses it back to health and has all of her care and attention redeemed when the animal protects her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller shoots the dog at night using spotlights that reflect against the whiteness of the fur but not the background meaning that the dog appears to glow in an almost spectral fashion. The otherwordliness of the dog is put to brilliant use when it escapes the actress’s yard and begins attacking black people: The pure white dog devouring black people and covering itself in blood is as striking and troubling an image of racism as you could possibly imagine. Part of what makes these images so troubling is the fact that they could just as easily have been inserted into a film about a heroic white dog that eats evil black people. However, to look upon these scenes as racist or problematic is to ignore the wider context of the film and how the film is really about trying to cure racism:

Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.

While I think that Fuller’s position is somewhat outdated (one of the first things you learn about social justice is that it’s a white person’s duty to educate themselves and not to be ‘saved’ by black and minority ethnic people) I don’t think it’s racist. In fact, I think that White Dog is a thoughtful and intellectually intense film that tries to grapple with a huge and incredibly different problem. What I don’t understand is the logic of using an intensely problematic piece of fiction as a springboard for that engagement.

White Dog is based on a book by the French novelist Romain Gary which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a dog who has been trained to attack black people on sight. As in the film, a black animal trainer steps in and tries to cure the animal but rather than getting rid of the animal’s murderous urges entirely, the trainer simply reprograms the animal to attack white people instead. As I explain in the review, Gary intended this as a critique of civil rights activists who, in his opinion, were training people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’. From J. Hoberman’s interesting piece about the film:

Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)

This attempt to set up an equivalence between systemic white racism and angry reaction to that racist system will be familiar to anyone who remembers the much-lamented Derailing For Dummies site as the ‘You’re As Bad as They Are!’ defence:

Because they’re angry about the treatment they undergo and because they are aggressive and persistent in wanting to see change happen, you can target this behaviour (remembering that it is unseemly for Marginalised People™ – they’re supposed to set an example at all times by being humble and long suffering) by suggesting it puts them on a par with the people and system that stigmatise, ostracise and target them every second of every day of their lives. This also suggests that reacting to such discrimination is totally unreasonable and out of proportion (they should just take their knocks!) and that has the benefit of indicating your ignorance to just how pervasive and constant this discrimination truly is.

Thankfully, Fuller does not follow Gary down that particular political rabbit hole but it I can’t imagine anyone wanting to base a contemporary critique of racism on a book that suggests black civil rights activists are morally equivalent to people who train their animals to attack black people on sight.

 

 

XCOM is NOT a Boss Fight

XCOMIt’s been a while since I’ve written anything about video games but the awesome group blog Arcadian Rhythms were kind enough to host a little something I wrote about the stylistic differences between the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and its recent re-make XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

The main thrust of my argument is that while the original UFO was an emotionally muted and ambiguous affair that conveyed its themes of cataclysmic social change and philosophical crisis using subtle shifts in tone and design, the new XCOMexplores this same set of themes using a stylistic palate that is not so much muted as it is hysterical:

XCOM resembles the Metal Gear Solid series in so far as its approach to narrative is as totalitarian as it is melodramatic. Rather than trusting their material and their audience to find one another in an organic fashion, the writers of XCOM drive home every beat and every emotion as hard as they possibly can. Where the original UFO allowed players to uncover the disconnect between terrifying world and bland corporate office on their own terms, XCOM displays humanity’s precarious position in every colour scheme, every piece of text and every poorly performed and written cut-scene.

Games like XCOM are the product of a creative environment in which there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Like advertisers and political demagogues, AAA game designers are convinced that the only way of making the audience care is by reaching into their heads and forcing them to do so. Once upon a time, game designers used certain top-down narrative techniques to break up the monotony of fighting the same three enemies over and over again. Now, game designers use variations on these same manipulative techniques to wring emotional responses from the same old poorly written stories.

The most worrying thing about this growing tendency towards melodramatic storytelling is that it is a trend that is playing out across pretty much all the major gaming platforms. A fantastic example of this emotional bloat is the difference between the beautifully low-key nihilism of Far Cry 2 and the racist power fantasies of the recently released Far Cry 3. Indeed, while Far Cry 2 had you wandering around killing people and getting progressively closer (both spiritually and geographically) to the nihilistic figure of The Jackal, Far Cry 3 presents this same journey as a sort of spiritual quest in which you become a sort of white Christ figure for a group of noble savages. As with UFO and XCOM, the two Far Cry games demonstrate a growing discomfort around nuance, subtlety and ambiguity. For the modern AAA game designer, a game does not have a message unless the message is spelled out in a reductive and simple-minded fashion.  This unease around ambiguity is beautifully apparent in what must be one of the most extraordinary interviews ever conducted.

John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun interviews Far Cry 3‘s Jeffrey Yohalem and pretty much accuses him of making a game that is a white power fantasy aimed at 20-something White Americans. Yohalem denies this and bizarrely supports his denial by pointing to all of the story beats and tropes that would lead you to think that the game is a power fantasy:

The sex scene [at the midpoint] – first Jason is shooting at that gigantic monster. He kills the monster, and it jump-cuts to him orgasming with Citra! He’s firing sperm at this gigantic monster, and then suddenly he’s on this alter with Citra, having sex with her, and then he thinks he’s the leader of the tribe and makes the big speech, and it’s his power fantasy! That’s the other thing – it’s all from first-person, so it’s completely unreliable. There’s a reason why Jason is a 25 year old white guy from Hollywood – these are all ideas that are in his head. You’re seeing things through his eyes.

Clearly, Yohalem believes that he is being satirical and yet the game he has helped produce is absolutely indistinguishable from a non-satirical white power fantasy. In other words, while Yohalem may have intended to express ambivalence towards traditional video game narratives, the ambivalence simply did not carry across into the final game. The game is so busy trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions that it simply does not allow for the fact that the game might intend you to call these emotions into question. Yohalem points to a number of clues supporting his ironic interpretation of the game but all of these techniques are drowned out by the game’s desperation to make the player feel like a gosh-darned hero.

Melodrama is an entirely acceptable emotional register when the aim of the game is to engender an authentic emotional response to a particular text. Consider, for example, Luca Guadagnino’s majestic I Am Love (2009) starring Tilda Swinton:

The film tells the story of a woman who marries into a large Italian family. While this family provide the woman with a luxurious lifestyle, it also forces her to exist in a repressed emotional universe that requires her to be be the perfect wife at all times. However, this universe is shattered when the women meets a local chef who unlocks her emotional core and drags her into a whole new world. Let me be clear on this: I Am Love is one of my absolute favourite films; I think Guadagnino’s ability to use music, lighting, architecture and colour to create different emotional worlds is absolutely astonishing and when the woman finally breaks free from her old life, I wept openly in the cinema. I did this because Guadagnino is an absolute master at emotional manipulation.

The difference between I Am Love and Far Cry 3 is that while I Am Love is all about the authentic emotional experience of love, transformation and happiness, Far Cry 3 is supposedly about questioning the very emotions that the game evokes. Far Cry 3‘s problem is that while the aim of the game might have been to question white racial privilege, the style of the game celebrates white power fantasies in much the same way as I Am Love celebrates the transformative power of love. Melodrama is a tradition that allows the audience to experience what the characters are experiencing, it is not a tradition that encourages us to deconstruct our own emotional responses. On one level, it is tempting to simply dismiss Yohalem as a simpleton who doesn’t understand the concept of style but games like Far Cry 3 point to a far deeper problem, namely that AAA game designers are now so used to melodrama that they simply do not realise that there are other emotional registers that might better suit the stories they are attempting to tell.

REVIEW – The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

FilmJuice have my review of Erle C. Kenton’s much under-loved The Island of Lost Souls starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.

The film is a product of the 1930s Golden Age in American horror that produced many of the great American movie monsters. Based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Island of Lost Souls was banned in the UK because of its tendency to deny God and play with the idea of inter-racial and inter-species sex. Indeed, to say that this film is racist would be something of an understatement as it represents an almost flawless articulation of White America’s fear that non-whites will someday rise-up and, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, savagely penetrate every orifice in their bodies with their throbbing, uncircumcised members:

The film’s use of the word ‘native’ to denote the man-beasts is hardly accidental as it panders to double-edged racist fantasies about non-white people being more animalistic than American Christians. I use the word ‘fantasies’ advisedly as this belief in the passionate nature of non-white people extends not just to their perceived capacity for violence but also to their atavistic sexualities. Thus, when Parker kisses Lota and recoils in disgust, his disgust is born not only of inter-racial and inter-species revulsion but also from the realisation that he enjoyed kissing the savage far more than he did his immaculate groomed white fiancée.

Interestingly, the film is currently considered to be out of copyright meaning that you can watch it for free on Youtube. However, the good folks at Eureka have done a fantastic job of packaging the film up with a series of interviews and essays and the print used for their release is fantastically clear so I definitely recommend picking up their edition rather than watching it for free on the internet.

BG 25 – Mass Effect 2 and Racial Essentialism

Futurismic have my twenty fifth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled “Mass Effect 2 and Racial Essentialism”.

It’s quite a long piece as it is looking at, in my opinion, quite a broad problem with the way that works of genre engage with race and racism.  Namely that by using relationships between different species to represent relationships between different races, religions, cultures and nationalities, works of genre are legitimising not only the idea that there are real differences between these social groups, but also the idea that it makes sense to infer something about someone based upon the colour of their skin or the kind of religious service they choose to attend.

My Big Gay Heart of Darkness – Irreversible (2002) and Cruising (1980)

In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community.  In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist.  While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done.  Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work.  In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.

However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration.  Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story.  By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story.  It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler.  However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people.  In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population.  This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).

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