Film critic A.O. Scott wrote an article in the New York Times shortly after the latest Pirates of the Caribbean extravaganza was released in July (“Critics Notebook: Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun,” July 18, 2006, B1, 7), addressing the perennial accusation that critics are out of touch with popular taste. They look for art where “regular” people look for fun, he says, and bring expertise and intellect to bear where the movie-going public is eager to suspend its disbelief and give itself over to pure entertainment.
Often the victim of what he calls “populist anger” about bad reviews of popular films, he says, “[T]he discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.”
Scott goes on to suggest that studios market their films hoping to influence the zeitgeist, whetting the public’s appetite for months or sometimes years in advance for their next big release. The public, in Scott’s scenario, become cultural dupes of studio marketing, acquiescing to the establishment of taste set out for them in advance, which critics then have difficulty counteracting.
“So why review [films]?” Scott asks. “Why not let the market do its work, and let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcane—the art—we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t.”
Although I don’t believe my role as a feminist critic is to disparage public taste, I share Scott’s associations with art—pleasure, wonder, and surprise—and look for it wherever I can find it. I read other critics—on films, I read Scott, Stephen Holden, and other Times reviewers, Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly, J. Hoberman and other Village Voice critics, and even Leah Rozen in People—for a sense of collective critical response and some guidance to my own spectating choices. Part of the pleasure of seeing films is lining up my feminist perspective against these critics’ views, since they sometimes see gender, politics, or ideology as factors in a film and sometimes don’t.
My feminist critical perspective sometimes sees through the ploys of marketing. But I can’t say that I, too, am not lured to see films by ads that tell me I should. And I can’t say that I don’t often suspend my politics and critical voice in favor of my guilty pleasures as a spectator, letting a film’s narrative or images temporarily overrule my feminism (at least until the lights come up).
Some would suggest that even more than mainstream criticism, feminist commentary takes the fun out of popular entertainment. I’d argue to the contrary, suggesting that although looking at films or performances or television shows with an eye to how they represent gender and other identity relations is a necessary act of civic engagement, feminist criticism can add to viewing pleasure by opening other avenues of consideration. Perhaps that’s an idealistic suggestion, but isn’t there something fun about turning the cultural lens and seeing what others seem to have missed?
Risking, then, the disapprobation of criticism in general compounded by the dread perspective “feminist,” here are my thoughts on three end-of-summer films.
I went to see this summer’s horror film The Descent because enough reviewers I trust told me it broke genre conventions and represented its women spelunkers with unusual grit and determination. Schwarzbaum noted the pleasure of seeing buff women’s bodies getting a workout, squeezing through tunnels and finding footholds on impossibly steep cave walls. Well, I might not know enough about the horror genre to see how this film breaks the mold, but I found its plot an overworked women-fighting-over-a-man story that failed to amuse or entertain.
The story takes a group of women on a cave-diving trip, propelled by the tentative return to psychic health of their friend Sarah, who lost her husband and daughter in a freak car accident directly after she and two of the friends triumphed on a challenging white water rafting trip.
The rafting scene, the first in the film, clarifies that one of those friends (naturally, the dark, raven-haired, ethnic-looking one, played by Natalie Mendoza), Juno, was having an affair with Sarah’s husband, which indirectly causes the crash in which he and the daughter die (he’s distracted and clearly unhappy, and doesn’t watch the road as closely as he should).
Juno wants to make it up to the fair-haired heroine Sarah, by taking her and a group of their 20-something friends into a cave that no one’s ever explored before, so that they’ll have the opportunity to name it and somehow immortalize themselves. But because Juno at first keeps her motives for misleading her friends secret, her decision seems nefarious. Told they’re descending into a cave that’s already been explored, the women are soon furious when they learn they’re traveling uncharted territory, and Juno’s noble purpose seems flimsy and ridiculous.
The women all promptly get lost in the claustrophobically small tunnels between caverns, and begin glimpsing signs of malevolent life. One by one, each meets a bad end, some from the folly of wandering off alone, some because Juno’s obvious immorality lets her leave the wounded alone to die, eaten by the flesh-eating monsters who appear in ever-more frequent waves of terror.
Despite wading through pools of muck and one encounter too many with creatures of the dark (who look like a cross between Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and actors from the chorus line in Cats), Sarah, the blond-haired heroine, prevails, watching the creatures kill off her human nemesis and finding her way out of hell. But reaching her car and speeding out of the Appalachian woods, she realizes she’s still in purgatory when she’s haunted by Juno’s ghost, just as she was haunted earlier by the voice and image of her child.
Finally, The Descent is just another movie in which family doesn’t work. The struggle to avenge its inevitable disintegration propels women into betrayals, the consequences of which ripple across the landscape of female friendship. Although the film quickly dispenses with the husband, its one male character, and although the women try to defeat the cave’s decidedly masculine creatures, they can’t bond together as women to escape from their physical (or, metaphorically, political) confinement.
No irony propels this film—it holds hostage any potential critique of the family dynamics that indirectly prompt the women’s descent. They’re haunted by a patriarchy whose tunnels are as deep and confusing as the cave’s, and although Sarah returns to the surface alive, she remains emotionally and ideologically trapped, still seeing ghosts.
And honestly, the actors aren’t even that buff.
Little Miss Sunshine
Lisa Schwarzbaum was one of the few critics who didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine, which I found a smart, warm, funny film. Its plot is usually described by character and situation: This is a dysfunctional family “road trip” movie, in which the youngest child, a pudgy, bright, emotionally open daughter named Olive, is somehow invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in LA. The family piles into their broken-down VW bus to make the trip from New Mexico and encounter obstacles typical of road trip comedies along the way.
Schwarzbaum sees the characters as stock, ripped from the indie film casting book. The father (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker/author who can’t close a book deal, a wanna-be winner who’s actually an ordinary loser. The mother (Toni Collette) repeats platitudes about family while hers disintegrates. Her brother (Steve Carell) is a gay Proust scholar who’s just tried to commit suicide because a competitor was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. The son Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, which doesn’t prohibit him from scrawling communications on a notepad he carries along. And the grandfather (Alan Arkin) is a crusty porn connoisseur whose bad habits get him kicked out of an extended care home. Put together in the close quarters of a rickety vehicle, their idiosyncrasies begin to collide.
But although the characters and the situation provide the basic ingredients, considering Little Miss Sunshine only through the lens of family dysfunction short-changes the critical work the film conducts on a deeper, more satisfying level. The film is really about how people navigate their lives, especially when their lot is thrown in with people they didn’t choose to be with, even though they’re related to them. When the mother keeps pulling everyone together to insist that no matter what, they’re a family, her words sound pathetic, rote, and hollow. To the contrary, “family,” in Little Miss Sunshine, is a vow everyone takes not by fiat but because they choose to affiliate instead of walking away.
For example, when Dwayne inadvertently finds his hopes of being a pilot dashed when Olive diagnoses him with color-blindness during the long trip, he bursts from the van and runs down a hill beside the road to end his vow of silence with heart-breaking sobs. His mother can’t persuade him back into the fold; Dwayne shouts that his parents and uncle are losers, pathetic failures with nothing to offer. They listen stoically. Everyone knows he’s telling the truth, but they also know that they’ll soldier on anyway, as they always do. They don’t judge Dwayne for judging them; they aren’t angry with him. The moment is poignant and somehow sweet.
Although his mother can’t rouse him, when Olive comes down the hill to put her head on Dwayne’s shoulder, he recovers quickly. This moving show of empathy doesn’t have (or need) dialogue; Olive might be younger, but she intuitively feels her own confusion and incipient despair at the choices that land in our laps, whether or not we want them there, at the vagaries of a life over which we have so little control, biologically or politically. Dwayne helps Olive back up the hill, where he apologizes to his father, mother, and uncle, and proceeds to get on with his life in the midst of people whom he’s been consigned to love by an accident of birth, but whom he loves nonetheless.
This isn’t a conventional dysfunctional family, but a family of rule-breakers who find their confidence through their collective refusal to conform. When the grandfather drops dead in his hotel room in the middle of nowhere one night, an officious hospital administrator insists they interrupt their trip to the pageant to attend to paperwork and burial arrangements. Instead, the family steals his body, storing it in the Volkswagen’s trunk to take to a funeral home when they arrive in LA. They happily if rather haplessly flout the authority of one of many pompous gatekeepers who would try to enforce social norms against their desires.
Along the way, they even get a pass from a state trooper who stops them when he hears their horn beeping erratically (hysterically, mournfully calling attention to their progress). The trooper doesn’t notice the grandfather’s body in the trunk, because he finds instead the pornography the grandfather left behind, and forms a fellowship with the father over what he assumes is his similar taste in women. What officials of the state like the trooper and the hospital administrator perform as “morality” proves bankrupt.
By contrast, the family’s idiosyncratic, goofy ethics of caring proves effective. When they finally arrive at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, all the work (physically and ideologically) they did to get there has prepared them to see through the event’s smarmy self-importance to its inherent pedophilia. Watching each member of the family begin to “get it” is one of the real pleasures of the film; to a person, they look around them, look at the performances before Olive’s, look at the other parents and spectators, and understand that the event is corrupt.
The other kids all look and act like Jon Bonet Ramsey. Their mothers primp them and preen themselves and sit in the audience mouthing the words to their silly, amazingly sexual routines. Olive’s competitors are little girls with come-hither poses, their tiny bodies dressed and painted to look sexy. But when Olive performs a routine choreographed by her grandfather that–without the rest of the family’s knowledge–turns out to be a striptease, the audience is horrified.
Olive, though, dances with joy and gusto and a surprising athleticism, proud of her moves and happily unaware of the vocabulary of sexuality from which they’re borrowed. Overcoming their own surprise and confusion, Olive’s family understands that they can turn the tables on the event. They join Olive onstage hooting and hollering and clapping, taunting the mortified audience by revising Olive’s routine into a pointed pep rally and implicitly critiquing the other girls’ performances as kiddie porn. With her father, mother, brother, and uncle onstage with her, Olive is a happy kid dancing with the people who love her. By comparison, the other little girls look like miniature Hustler models, luring leering spectators (including a probable pedophile who sits beside Olive’s father in the audience). The pageant’s hypocrisy couldn’t be clearer.
Little Miss Sunshine deftly critiques how inconsistently the U.S. treats child sexuality. The scene is a hysterical send-up of the pornography of baby beauty pageants, but it’s also the moment when this family finds its agency. Olive’s bravery in going on with her number, even though she senses her difference from the other girls (and her touching dedication of the act to her dead grandfather, who “taught me all these moves”), inspires the family to support her, and in the process, to find their own strength, their own rebellion from a superficial, hypocritical, restricted set of social conventions.
The characters seem to have “nothing,” limping down the highway in their broken down Volkswagen bus. Watching them roll the car to get it in gear, then jump one by one into the open back door as it picks up speed, is at once the film’s recurrent sight gag and its central metaphor. Despite their differences from each other, despite how little they have in common, they all need each other. They can’t make their lives move alone, but if they help each other jump on, they can all get where they’re going.
The family’s quiet victories—over the hospital administrator, the pageant official, the state trooper—mark their humanity and their humility. Their simple hope and faith win out, and although they might be bankrupt financially and professionally, they are rich in their relations with each other and in their ironic but generous and finally hopeful understanding of the limitations of their lives.
V for Vendetta
Although it’s set in Great Britain in the future, and full of references to British historical figures like Guy Fawkes, V works well as an allegory about the nefarious machinations of the current Bush administration. V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked, black-caped crusader, whose vengeance is apparently ignited because he was burned in a fire at Larkhill, a secret government facility set up to conduct tests in preparation for biological warfare (or defense, I’m not sure, as the plot is complicated). We never see his face; flashbacks show the outline of his body roaring out of the flames, intact and furious, animal-like with what could be superhuman strength wrought from experiments gone wrong.
Through a quirk of fate, V meets Evey, played by the smart, always watchable Natalie Portman. Evey’s parents, it turns out, were also unwilling subjects in the Larkhill experiments, captured and imprisoned there because of their radical activism against the fascist regime. Scenes peeking at the collective cultural memory of Larkhill show sullen, acquiescent lines of victims, heads shorn and clothing drab, walking like Holocaust or HIV/AIDS victims to their doom.
These scenes are intercut with shots of bodies dumped in mass graves then covered with lime and dirt, unmistakable references to Nazi concentration camp atrocities. These pointed allusions to fascism underscore the narrative, as the film sets out to unmask the government as self-serving power-mongers who manipulate the citizenry for their own gain.
Those in power have hidden their connections to the Larkhill experiments, in which they all took part. When you control the means of production and the dissemination of information, the film suggests, it’s easy to write and enforce your own version of history. The film is chilling as a parable about what happens when leaders exploit terror as a way to govern.
The prime minister of this fascist state (played by John Hurt with all his wrinkled dignity in tyrannical overdrive) is seen only by screen, his twisted face looming large over his cabinet, a cluster of self-important white men who watch him warily, as he treats them nearly as badly as his other subjects. As V begins to wreak havoc on the city, the cabinet carefully covers over his actions with lies spread to the public via the televisions they watch obsessively.
Many of the short scenes between the main action show a revolving handful of families sitting together in front of the tube, commenting with frustration and resignation on the lies they’re being fed. The “telly” is clearly indicted as a delivery system for ideology, but in one of the film’s more hopeful moves, V easily commandeers the national television station and broadcasts his own message of rebellion and redemption.
One by one, V sets out to track down and kill the Larkhill villains to avenge their malevolence. In his bootlegged television address, he inspires the citizenry to revolt with him, inviting them to the Parliament on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, where he will stage his resistance to state power by blowing up the building. Hearing his entreaty, people we’ve only seen watching television in their homes or in pubs feel their complacency and complicity lifted and march off to the battle lines, all dressed in V’s costume, with its black cloak, long-haired wig, and the bleak, frozen smile of his mask.
While the army guards the Parliament, these would-be activists descend on the building en masse, marching together down long avenues. As they approach, the military leaders try to raise high-level officials for operating instructions, but no one responds. This moment of disorganized confusion resonates with the image of Bush sitting in that classroom in Florida while planes hit the World Trade Centers (shown in Farenheit 9/11), as well as the unbearable mystification of the FAA officers represented in United 93, floundering in utter disbelief that the government could be asleep at the wheel, nowhere in evidence while the world as we know it implodes.
Although the crowd of people dressed in the same rather outré outfit could resemble something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, as the Parliament begins to explode they all lift their masks, revealing their individual humanity to distinguish them from the potential fascism of the uniform crowd. They’re revealed as the anonymous, ordinary people we’ve seen before in front of their televisions, people moved to join the cause and free themselves from the ravages of power.
Parliament finally explodes in a fiery montage of light and sound. The demonstrators gaze with wonder, as though they’re looking at art. The explosives go off like fireworks, breaking into the night sky in beautiful aesthetic arcs of sparkling color and light that makes the scene look very much like the 4th of July, and is in fact a kind of Independence Day. Rather than the false promise of agency and awe that the American holiday has come to represent, this performance of citizenship is filled with hope and possibility for a different kind of future.
This final moment of unmasking and empowering the citizens also reminds me of one of the very first films about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Longtime Companion, when in the end, all the people who’d died earlier in the film are resurrected for a utopian moment of partying together on the beach in Provincetown. In V, the resurrected are people who have been killed at Larkhill, notably a lesbian couple imprisoned and executed for their sexuality, whose story Evey reads when she too (supposedly) is incarcerated in the facility and tortured for information about V. That sexuality is under heightened scrutiny, and that those in power inveigh against “homosexuals” as depraved, makes this Britain of the future seem even more like today’s United States.
Portman’s Evey character offers an interesting representation of someone both participating in history (because of her parents’ activism and their disappearance) and an ordinary person quite oblivious to the real situation of her life. When first seen, Evey works for the national television station as a functionary without power, watching news come in but not registering how it might affect her life or her own complicity in the events of the day. As such, she becomes a neat conduit for viewers, as we learn along with Evey about who V is and the violence he means to avenge.
That they fall in love is rather silly; he’s an effete costumed vigilante who speaks with 19th century cadences of Classical and Renaissance topics, quoting Shakespeare and speaking in couplets. When she finally kisses him, it’s his mask her lips meet. All this is cold comfort, but at the same time, the moment is old-fashioned, chivalrous, and chaste. When V confesses his love for Evey (on his deathbed, of course), he seems more like Camille than an action hero, leaving Evey to play the surviving lover and pull the lever that sends the explosives–with V’s body packed alongside them–to the Parliament.
The love story seems a cheesy ploy, one that reduces Evey’s power to a rather stereotypically female set of emotions. On the other hand, it’s her love for V that persuades Evey to the justice of his political perspective, that brings her to avenge the personal tragedies of her own life and to see them as widely political rather than simply individual events. The romance at once consigns its female lead to being enlightened and motivated by a very strange man and on the other hand, suggests that political radicalism might be achieved through love.
Happily, an action-hero who quotes Shakespeare, is clearly intellectual, and wears a mask that he never takes off breaks the generic mold. We never learn who V was (his name stands only and literally for “vendetta”), which doesn’t really matter because as Evey says in an elegiac moment at the film’s end, he was all of us. He wasn’t an individual, but an archetype, an idea to whom to attach hope and faith and belief.
In fact, V for Vendetta is one of the most politically acute and hopeful narrative films I’ve seen in a long time. Watching people throw off the yoke of illusion, hearing them curse the screen that feeds them lies and don the uniform of revolt, made me hopeful that we, too, could be inspired to protest, and achieve our own independence from unlawful, corrupt power.
V for Vendetta is also wonderfully stylish, allusive, and witty, visually and textually. Critics mostly liked it, even though it didn’t do exceptionally well at the box office (despite its filmic pedigree, adapted from a graphic novel, and produced and written by the Wachowski brothers of the Matrix fame). The critics found art in this film, with all its pleasure, wonder, and surprise. I also found a rather feminist critique of a fascist future, in which finally, Evey, along with V, is something of a hero. And I was quite entertained along the way.
The Feminist Spectator