Tag: feminism

Not Ready For Player One

It can be difficult trying to decide what swords are worth falling on, what one’s ethics require of them in regards to the small things. Deciding one small thing might mean more than it seems, or that the small things add up.

I’ve been thinking about the film “Ready Player One” for a few weeks now, trying to decide if I’m going to see it or not. There’s an interesting article, “The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists,” where the author discusses how and if we can, personally, support the work and art of people who have been uncovered to be terrible people. (Quick side note, my problems with Ready Player One are entirely with the writing and the content, and absolutely nothing to do with the author, Earnest Cline. I have met him, and have a couple degrees of separation from him by friends, and I’ve found him to be a spectacularly friendly and gregarious fellow, with no hint or allegation of himself being “a problem.” The above article, however, is a good essay on dealing with accepting problem-connected art.)

The author of the essay, in light of all the allegations coming out about terrible men in Hollywood, says:

Does this mean you should boycott all music created by these artists because you don’t agree with their personal lives?

I can’t answer that because that’s for you to decide.

Personally, I know I won’t be able to veto everything that’s problematic or created by problematic individuals… nor can I as a woman of colour. If I did, there would literally be a handful of music, shows, and movies I could consume without getting upset… which is both disappointing but true.

It’s true that many terrible people have been involved in some of the greatest or most popular works of art we know. We have to decide whether the work itself can stand alone from the creator. To this, she continues:

You have a bigger voice in society than you think and it’s your duty to be a vigilant consumer. Are you contributing to a society that values the output of art over moral integrity? Does this even matter to you?

Personally, I don’t believe art can be completely isolated and removed from the artist. Art embodies cultural footprints and implicit connotations that can either enrich or diminish its value. What might just be art to one person is a can of worms to another. Just because you can separate a piece of art from the artist doesn’t mean everybody else can.

And it’s with this in mind I’m having to make decisions about “Ready Player One.”

But why this film, this book? Why is this a problem, and I’ve not angst and blogged about anything else, like, maybe the latest Harry Potter-verse film with Johnny Depp?

This is problematic for me, and I feel my actions say something more significant in regards to what I do about this film, specifically because I am precisely its target audience. The film, well, most certainly the book, was written by and for white, middle-class, “x-gen” males. Almost to the exclusion of anyone else. The book was written for me, the film made for me. If I patronize it or not, I’m saying something about whether or not I accept and validate the problems inherent, or I refuse them.

What are the problems, precisely?

Well, let’s get the easiest one to deal with out of the way right off — it’s a poorly written novel. It’s a Mary Sue wish-fulfillment tale with no real peril or depth, no character arc of development, and as this article, puts it: “Ready Player One Is an Orgy of Nostalgia in All the Wrong Ways.” Or as one commentor online, who I can’t find to give credit to the quote, said: “*Ready Player One* is *Shrek* for nerds – a simple-ass story built out of soulless references to other pop cultural artifacts, constructed entirely to stimulate the pleasure of recognition.” At no point in the novel did I feel the hero was in any danger. In fact, pretty much a quarter of the way in I pretty much knew exactly how it was going to end, with, spoiler, him getting everything he wants, including the trophy girl. (More on the real problem of that in a second.)

Earnest Cline also wrote the 2009 film “Fanboys,” which has many of the same problems. Primarily, for me, was the climax of the film (as well as a demi-climax halfway through), was entirely a trivia contest. The protagonists had to prove they’re worthy by answering trivia questions, see how much esoterica they knew about Star Wars. That’s the “final battle” of the film. And Ready Player One is essentially that “soulless stimulation of pleasure of recognition” for an entire novel.

The problems I found with the writing are well-stated in the critique, “Why So Much Backlash? Ready Player One is Basically Twilight for Nerds” which I found myself nodding the entire way through:

The relentless references soon started wearing thin, and Wade’s ability to effortlessly conquer his challenges—like playing a perfect game of Pac-Man—started feeling empty and undeserved. By the time one of Wade’s obstacles for saving the world entails him and his friends reciting dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a feat they accomplish with glee), I felt like a kid who thinks eating an entire cake by himself sounded fun—I was sick of it, and craving something of real substance. But the thing is, Cline really loves the ‘80s and expects the reader to feel the same. If he’s right to think that this affection is enough to carry the reader along on its own, then his deluge of pop culture references makes sense. If he’s wrong, the reader is left with references they either don’t know or don’t care about, an onslaught of nerdy nostalgia that often doesn’t advance the plot, and very simplistic writing. As in, even more basic than Twilight’s writing. In fact, film analyst Lindsay Ellis recently released a video apologizing to Meyer for getting caught up in the frenzy of bashing Twilight years ago, and acknowledging now that Meyer’s writing is really not as atrocious as everyone makes it out to be. A book Ellis mentions as having legitimately terrible writing, on the other hand? Ready Player One.

That said, I won’t not see a film because of that! One bit. I have a very low bar for quality when it comes to movies, so long as it’s audio-visually appealing. And, “Ready Player One” does promise to be that!

No, the real problems with the novel (and most likely the film), come from the toxic masculinity, the tokenism, casual racism, and misogynistic sexism deeply embedded in it.

Remember that trophy girlfriend mentioned? That’s essentially the only purpose the female character serves in the novel is to be something to be won by the hero. And to push the hero to winning his destined reward, herself getting nothing except, presumably, the pleasure of being his to own as well. On top of that, the novel falls deeply into the now-toxic trope considered a standard of so many “rom-coms,” of the guy not taking “no” for an answer. He continues to barrage and harangue her, stalking and badgering her, until she’s finally worn down and gives in — and this is considered “romantic”! Huge problem with that.

The article “The Trophy Woman of Ready Player One” does a good job focusing on that problem of the novel/film.

Then we have the tokenism and racism, addressed in this article, “We Need to Talk About Representation in ‘Ready Player One’.” This article does a far better job than I can at addressing the racism, and abelism, I felt reading it. More than implying that is you’re black, gay, disabled, disfigured, female, you better hide it… the crass patronizing only we privileged can commit by, “looking past those flaws, anyway.”

But finally, here is where it comes down to for me, where my patronage, my support or rejection, speaks directly to my experience: Ready Player One reinforces the misogynistic penis-measuring gatekeeping found rife throughout nerd culture.

I’m a nerd, been one all my life. Playing D&D since I was 10, read The Silmarillion at 12, spent every lunchtime in the school library writing programs in Apple Basic at 14, etc etc and all the stereotypes of being a geek and nerd since. And one thing nerds of all stripes do, is challenge each other to prove out worth in how much we know about something. Usually, among what has traditionally been a male-dominated culture, a newcomer says “I’m into X too!” and we fellow nerds might ask, “What’s your favorite Y from it?” and with even a vaguely acceptable answer, they’re in the club.

But to mansplain to people who are not female-identified for a second, this is not what happens to girls and women in nerd culture. If you’re female, and you dare to try to intrude into the community and say, “I like X, too,” you will be barraged with an endless challenge of questions going deeper and more minute than anything a guy would have to deal with, to prove yourself. And often times, the goalposts are moved to much and so often, there’s simply no winning, no acceptance. This kind of gatekeeping is used in such a vitriolic and cruel manner to “keep girls out!” I’ve seen it done, any woman vaguely interested in anything nerdy will likely tell you stories of it being done to her, and I thank my effing stars I never participated in it myself before I became aware of it.

Ready Player One is this gatekeeping, which the entire climax of “Fanboys” consists of, is a celebration of this, at best, pissing contest, at worst, weapon against interloping women upon the guy’s domain, purified and concentrated into the very core of what the story is.

Ultimately, I really can’t support this film, even if it improves upon the novel (which I seriously doubt it can), because of the very problems inherent in the story itself. As well as supporting the film is support of the source novel that spawned it. This is a film that if it came out some years ago, I would have raced to see, and probably see over and again as my dopamine receptors flooded with “the pleasure of (self-congratulatory) recognition” with each re-watch revealing new things I could elbow my friends with, “Didjya catch that?? Did you know what that was? Are you as knowledgeable as me??” But we don’t live in a world where we, and I’m no longer a guy who, can accept such thoughtlessly insensitive and even outright offensive representation simply for entertainment value.

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“Sleeping Beauty” really needs a wake-up call!

I caught the Julia Leigh film “Sleepy Beauty” on Netflix the other night, and, if it weren’t for the final scene, I would have forgotten it as a sexually exploitative mediocre-at-best art-house film. Unfortunately, thanks to the penultimate scene in the film, what “Sleeping Beauty” is, is in fact, a near-miss at a truly excellent feminist psycho-drama. Sadly, no matter how affective one good apple of a scene can be, it’s not enough to save the rotten barrel. And because of that, instead of simply sighing and mumbling, “Well, that was a wasted two hours,” I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what this film could have been.

Needless to say, this critique/review is going to contain spoilers. If you’ve not seen this film. . . well, actually, I’m not sure I can suggest doing so. As I’ve indicated, and I’m going to go into, it’s not a good film. It’s certainly not something you want to watch for the entertainment value–it’s not entertaining. Well, unless you’re someone who watches, say, Lars von Trier films for entertainment. *scowl* Poorly made Lars von Trier films as that. So, if you’ve not seen it, and would still like to read this article, I won’t stop you.

That said, I really don’t feel like summarizing the film any any great detail for people who’ve not seen it. In fact, I would suggest reading the Wikipedia summary of the film before continuing. But, for clarity’s sake, here’s the broad brush: A college student played by Emily Browning appears to go to class, work two normal jobs, prostitute at night as a free agent, and subject herself to medical/scientific testing for extra cash. How she finds time to do all this, well, let’s just say time management isn’t the only fanciful aspect of this film. In the process, she gets hired on to be a half-naked “silver service” server and objet d’art a la Story of O for a private dinner party club. Evidently, because of her unique beauty (and, I assume, preternatural lack of emotion or flappability) she’s contracted to be put to sleep (literally, not figuratively) naked in bed so that high-paying men can do. . . whatever, to her while she remains comatose.

Yeah, sounds just lovely, huh. The film could have, and I think, though I’ve not read any articles about the writer/director, sincerely tried to use this rather unusual, twisted adult fairy tale of a plot, to make a feminist indictment of the way in which women are exploited and used by the patriarchal society. And, it comes close. At least, the elements are there, ready to be activated into a stunning and unforgettable critique of society. But the production fails to activate the materials. The catalyst was never set off thanks to a script that, at its best, rises to the level of tedious, directing that aspires to be as good as tedious, and acting that tries really, really hard but is hamstrung by the script and directing.

Before I get back to why the feminist structure was there, I want to touch on the acting. Emily Browning does an admirable job portraying a young women who, on the surface, is easily dismissed as “self-destructive.” Certainly anyone who lives the life her character does can’t be anything else but, can she? But no, it’s deeper than that, and Browning shows it. Her character actually doesn’t appear to care enough about her own being to be something as active as self-destructive. Nihilistic is perhaps the best description.

Actually, not long ago I discovered a mental-behavior disorder known as depersonalization disorder. Essentially, someone with this condition generally feels disconnected, literally and figuratively, from their body. They tend to go through life not as a participant in their own actions but rather as an observer–a detached viewer of a person they don’t identify as themselves. Browning’s character is never described in the film as having any kind of mental or behavioral disorder, and the somewhat surreal atmosphere and circumstances of the film tend to preclude being able to diagnose any of its characters with any real-world DSM-IV conditions. They simply are what they are without the benefit of medical classification. But, if I had to label her, I would say she depicts someone with depersonalization disorder to a tee. This analysis becomes very important in discussing why the ending of the film is as powerful as it is and nearly redeems this movie.

Browning’s character goes from job to class to job to drug to sexual exploit entirely unaffected. When a clinical scientist is running a tube down her throat for a test, when she’s making endless copies at an office job, when she’s lying to her alcoholic mother and gives her her fake(?) credit card number, when she’s negotiating for sex with a client, when she’s being examined for marks before joining the dinner party service team, nothing breaks through her detachment. She performs every task and duty equally submissive, equally detached. Until the end, there are only four times in the film she shows any emotion. One is, unbelievably, some semblance of happiness in the company of what the viewer can only assume (as no direct explanation is ever given) a long-time friend who appears to be a shut-in and either a recovering alcoholic or is chronically ill. Another is when said friend informs her that he can’t go on any longer and implies he’s either “letting go” or will commit suicide, she shows weakness, sadness, and even a bit of fear. Then, when she discovers him near-death from what appears to be drug-induced suicide, she crumbles and cries, allowing herself to be cuddled by him as he dies in bed. And finally, at the funeral when she demands of a new character and evidently long-ago friend of the both of them, to marry her (jokingly? sincerely? both?) and he angrily rejects her, she herself displays barely-repressed anger.

It’s these four, only four, instances of sincere humanity that peak (yes, “peak”) out from an otherwise Kansas-flat vista of stoicism, that allows the viewer, just barely, to feel some amount of empathy, or at least sympathy, for her character. Just enough to let us keep going along this weird and twisted journey she’s on, to see where it ends. The 95-percent unaffected behavior from her is necessary for the socio-political purpose of the film, and to make the ending as effective as it is, while the four-instance emotional cracks allow us to believe the ending is possible while, also, not getting so disgusted by her alien behavior that we have to give up on her before journey’s end.

No, all blame for the failures of this film rests at the feet of the director. For example, just what style was she going for? Kubrickian? David Lynchian? Catherine Breillat-ian? von Trierian? It certainly doesn’t establish a style of its own, despite the pastiche, as the styles of the afore-mentioned auteur directors are employed with heavy-handed obviousness and no cohesiveness. Which is made worse by the fact that the viewer can’t tell what directorial choices are in fact choices or mistakes or carelessness.

For example, in one particular scene, Browning’s character, Lucy, steps out from a car having arrived at where she would be sleeping, and stops in the driveway to stare at something. The camera slowly pans (Lynchian-style) across the building to where there’s another car that two men help a drugged young woman into. The camera slowly pans back to show Lucy vaguely curious. The problem here is that once the camera reveals the men, woman, and car, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t have been visible to Lucy at the point we see her stare before the camera makes its languorous trip. So, is this intentional? Is this just lazy direction?

In another scene, Lucy is in an electronics store to buy a concealable camera. Her image is displayed on various televisions from what should be a camera on display. However, it’s obvious here that her televised image was pre-recorded and Browning is having to act to match the dialog and movements of herself in the screens. This is terribly perplexing; there’s no logical, practical reason why the production couldn’t have used a real-time digital camera patched into televisions the same way thousands of department stores do daily. Just replace whatever they had feeding the screens with her pre-recorded action with a live camera. The fact they used a recording had to have been a conscious and intentional decision, but why? For all the oddness of the film, it’s not so odd that this display of a fracture in reality, I can only assume, is justified and appropriate.

And, not to mention, the scene that was surely the worst directed scene I have ever seen since an Ed Wood movie. The scene in which Lucy has her interview with the hostess/madam, Clara, and her assistant(?). The entire, single-cut scene, felt like the director said, “Action!”

And the actors replied, “Uhm, you never gave us lines or blocking for this scene.”

“Well. . . oh! We’ll do this scene. . . minimalist natural realism! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now. . . action!”

“Er, we still don’t really know what to do here.”

“Action!”

It was awkward and uncomfortable watching it, and I sat through “Jurassic Park 2.” I almost gave up. I thought to myself, “I don’t care how artsy and film-festivally this is, this is terrible.” But, I try never to stop watching a film so that, if nothing else, I can say, “Yeah, actually, I saw that. Let me tell you how bad it was!” (And yet, I still refuse to see “Twilight.”)

This brings us, finally, to the saving grace that made me throw up my hands in cry, “This! Why couldn’t the previous 97 minutes have lived up to this?!” Here’s what happens:

So, she rises to the position of being a beautiful rag doll in a lavish bed. We see her on three different occasions get molested in her drugged state by three wealthy men she never meets. The first one is, in a manner of speaking, the more gentle one who seems to want to do no more than appreciate her appearance. (Still misogynistic, and I’ll go into that later.) But he’s a sad, broken rich man. He comes back at the end of the film to allow himself to be drugged to death by the madam/hostess and die in bed next to the naked and sleeping Lucy.

Cut to later when Clara returns and checks to make sure he is indeed dead. Clara sits on the bed, perhaps sad. She attempts to waken Lucy and discovers that (thanks to her still having last night’s recreational drugs in her system) Lucy won’t awaken. She’s forced to give her near-panicking mouth-to-mouth. Lucy wakes with a shock and a start. She looks around, seemingly for the first time, sees the man dead next to her, and screams. And screams. Not the scream of panic, nor of shock, nor anger, but of pure, brutal existential crisis. She screams in spiritual terror like a newborn pulled violently into a new world, but also with all the awareness of the terror of what life holds.

Every ounce of emotion that Lucy should have felt throughout the film, throughout her whole life perhaps, comes out in this instantaneous realization of who she is, what she is, what she’s done. The dam has burst, the walls have collapse, the ground has given way, every masonic artifice that is used to hold in the unbridled force of being, is gone. All is left is pure pathos. And Emily Browning performs this painful and terrible moment with complete and utter sincerity. We, the voyeur who has watched her emotionless debasement for an hour and a half is given a view of the cost and are then swept away, never to know if this re-birth leads to her new life, or ultimate destruction where what was before an existence not-lived or examined, becomes active self-destruction as she realizes she can’t live with her new awareness. The scene cuts to video of what Lucy had secretly recorded of that night using her covertly placed camera–her asleep, and him presumably dead, in the same position he was found in. Then, credits.

That catharsis gives meaning and purpose to the previous hour and a half of detached ennui. And the previous small cracks give the catharsis sincerity. Sadly, however, the scene can’t be seen entirely as Lucy’s horror and catharsis and one can’t help but see, perhaps, some of Browning herself in the emotional release, due to the fact that the awkward and amateurish direction throughout the film gives the impression that the actress is being exploited and abused nearly as much as the character. While the presumed intent of the film was to critique misogyny, the failure of the message makes the actress as much a victim as the character. Perhaps not as intentionally as von Trier and his sadistic debasement and abuse of women (the actresses themselves in what seems like the director’s hate for women) in what is truly misogynistic film-making, but the end result is the same.

So, because of the embarrassingly awful and never-quite-sure-what’s-intentional directing, the potentially powerful message gets turned into exactly what the film was trying to subvert–a misogynistic sexual exploitation piece. Lucy is supposed to represent the female, made to be submissive and without voice in the patriarchy. She’s expected to be all things: the good daughter, the student, the hard worker, the sex slave, the piece of art on a pedestal, the caretaker of the weak and sick . . . . And she’s expected to do it without complaint. Without even her active participation in those roles. She’s simply . . . expected.

Clara, the hostess/madam, should have been an interesting character. She is what Lucy would have become in fifteen or twenty years. Clara appears in the film nearly as unaffected, as detached as Lucy. She is, in fact, representative of the self-victimization of the woman. She facilitates her own subjugation and the subjugation of women because that is, again, what is expected. It’s what she knows. It’s auto-pilot. Throughout the history of the fight for gender equality, some of the fiercest opponents have been other women who resent the idea that they should question the world, the role, they know and have been convinced is the right and proper “place” for a woman in this “man’s world.” Without question, without a raised eyebrow, Clara perpetuates the abuse to the next generation. Lucy has woken up, and has avoided that fate–though we don’t know if for good or ill.

The three men who visit the comatose Lucy represent three different ways in which society sets men up to subjugate women. The second man to use her is overtly abusive, raining verbal abuse upon her and even burning her with a cigarette. There is no subtlety with him, he is hate. Interestingly, before his visit, Clara had but one rule for the men: no penetration. She had even told Lucy, in these words, that her vagina is a temple (which Lucy dismissed). This points out the patriarchy’s obsession with “purity,” or virginity, despite the complete disdain it has for all other aspects of the female. “Virginity” is code for “property.” Only the man who owns the girl can despoil her in such a way, while society has historically had no similar attachment of “purity” toward men. (At least, not until the rise of equal rights when, faced with the hypocrisy, instead of giving up on the obsession with female virginity, Judeo-Christian culture started giving lip service toward the value of male virginity. Though, in cultural practice, this is empty sentiment.) This is evident in the rise of the rather creepy “purity balls” which have no male version.

In any case, Clara’s one rule was to maintain the patriarchal obsession with purity in hypocritical counterpoint to the range of abuse otherwise allowed, until the second man’s visit. Clara then adds a second rule: no marks. After all, we are still talking about property.

The third man is a large, bull of a man who is surreal David Lynch style, performs a scene of trying to pick up the limp, naked Lucy, carry her around and replace her on the bed, only to have her continue to slide off the edge despite his efforts. It really is almost as absurd as it sounds. This man is the hypocrisy of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it today, not its medieval origin) is a false theatrical replacement for actual respect. If you want to open a door for someone, protect someone’s honor, treat someone with deference, you do it out of respect for that person as a human. While the patriarchy exploits and abuses the female, it hides behind this play-act of being a protector and guardian of virtue of “the weaker sex.” It’s patronizing and demeaning and borne, once again, out of protection of property, as opposed to out of human respect as equals. The third man tries to be the strong, dominant hero, and because he sees her as the other men do, an object, property, he ultimately fails.

Back to the first (and final) man, he is the subtle symbol of patriarchal exploitation. His first visit, all he does is look, admire, touch, with what appears to be both longing and adoration. On the surface, this seems harmless enough. But remember, he’s looking and touching and admiring a woman who has been made to order to be unresponsive, unaware, without voice–still, just an object. His tender touch is no different and has no more care than a stroke of a statue or a vase. In the western patriarchy, women are objectified and presented on magazines, TV, billboards, as commodity. To be consumed. The image of the woman is sexualized, made glamorous and seemingly untouchable, but consumed all the same. This seemingly kindly, older man, is not being kind to Lucy, he doesn’t even know or even see a “Lucy.” He sees an object, something he’s paid to consume.

And in the end, with his second visit, he uses her in a most obscene way, by making her without her consent, see him off into death. We may feel sympathy for him because he’s alone and broken and desires to leave the world next to something beautiful, but this does not absolve him of the exploitation he commits, of the person to which he is incapable of apologizing to. And it perverts the earlier scene where she voluntarily gives comfort to her friend as he, in counterpoint, also leaves this world, broken. That scene (though directed awkwardly), is heartbreaking; the scene with the rich old man, is perverse. This realization is certainly part of what instigates Lucy’s ultimate breakdown.

The indictment is there, the statements are there, the critique is there–but what ultimately comes out of this film is clumsy and . . . whatever German word means: ironically sexual without any actual sexuality.

Oh, and a final word on the marketing of this film. From what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as an erotic drama, even romantic is some strange way. For the DVD release, the studio even did a promotion where you could win a chance at a prize for sleeping in public in their display bed. Seriously. Think about what this movie is about, and then consider this “you too could be Sleeping Beauty for money!” promotion. Reminds me of how “Hunger Games” was promoted. “You too can participate in the Hunger Games!” kind of hoopla to the books and fast food tie-ins and stuff. Think about that. “You too can participate in a horrific and evil competition where you kill other children in grisly ways and try to survive! Buy our stuff.”

I hate marketers.

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“Sucker Punch”; the perfect postmodern flick

sucker punch posterNow, don’t get me wrong: when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean Sucker Punch is a perfect film in general. On the contrary. It’s a bad film! The script is spare, uninspired, and tedious, and the acting (with the slight exception of supporting actors Oscar Isaac as “Blue” and Carla Gugino as “Dr. Vera,” and the pathos-saturated sad face from lead Emily Browning as “Baby Doll”) is equally tedious and as thin as tissue. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly a review of the film but a critique.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . again. While I declare the film as bad, I also loved it. I had fun time watching it and would willingly see it again in the theater a couple more times. The action sequences are as amazing audio-visually as they are the epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. And pardon me if I prevaricate about the shrubbery and mention the 800-pound gorilla only so much as to say I can’t really discuss the 800-pound gorilla. (By which I mean the 800-pound gorilla that’s the object of 15-year-old boys’ dreams dressed up in fetish costumes not lacking in stockings and garters. How’s that for a disturbing image).

I don’t want to discuss the over-saturation of objectified female sexuality in the film (which is difficult as that’s basically what a solid half of this film consists of), because while I count myself as a feminist and constantly aware of the use and effect of themale gaze, I do happen to be a privileged male and the owner of a male gaze. On top of that, while I don’t accept all (or most) of what evolutionary psychology claims, I also don’t dismiss the concept and some of its hypotheses out of hand. So, if I try critiquing the blitzkrieg use of sexuality in the film, I’ll likely get accused of being too sympathetic to its use or unqualified to critique (even to criticize) it since I am a target consumer of the cinematic male gaze. (A criticism I often hear about many subjects and ideologies. Which I, obviously, don’t believe. I think it is indeed possible to critique a thing even while existing within its sphere of effect. If that were true that it weren’t possible, then, for example, since all of western culture operates within the contradictions of postmodern capitalism, any kind of Marxist criticism would have to be impossible. Sorry, Fredric Jameson — you need to find a new career!) So, end of topic right there. (Except to mention this amusing and sadly accurate comic I read just today, by feminist blogger Jen McCreight.)

What I do want to discuss is how Sucker Punch exists as the distilled and purified essence of postmodern production. And to do so, I’m afraid I’m going to need to be spoilery. So, if you’ve not seen the film and want to remain surprised (it would be much too easy to insert a joke there), read this after viewing.

The film exists in three realms or reality: layer one is the “real world” which lands somewhere in the 1950s, best I can tell from the brief view of automobiles, layer two is the fantasy-world brothel inside Baby Doll’s head as she tries to cope with being institutionalized by her abusive stepfather and an impending lobotomy back in the real world, and layer three is the action vignettes that represent the fantasy world of fantasy world’s Baby Doll. Now, I have to give writer/director Zack Snyder a bit of credit here for not trying to trick the audience into thinking layer two or three is the Real World or that layer one is actually layer two and there’s a unrevealed layer one to be pulled out as a shock ending. However, this doesn’t get him off the hook for making layer one just as fantastically impossible as the other layers — and that complete disregard for any semblance of reality within the real is one of the primary reasons for the film being perfect postmodernism.

The movie opens with a slow-motion montage of scenes showing Baby Doll’s mother’s death, funeral, establishing threat of violence from stepfather, accidental death of Baby Doll’s younger sister as she tries to protect the younger sibling from their evil stepfather, and then her being institutionalized. The only sound on top of this establishing background setup, is a cover of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” with the lyrics “Some of them want to abuse you” placed like a delicate sledgehammer on top of the scene of stepfather entering the bedroom, like an auditory Lord Privy Seal. And it’s from this opening segment that the dislocation, the crisis of historicity and sincere schizoidness, that mark late postmodern artistic production is established. We, the viewer, are given clues to the setting being some olden day of curvy cars and men wearing hats, but the sound places us in modernity. (Not to mention the fact that the song is a remake which adds yet another layer of separation from any idea of the original, or the authentic.) The film situates us in a simulacrum of an historical moment with no interest in actually representing authentic history. The quasi-1950s setting of the movie essentially becomes nothing more than style — not setting, not placement.

The dizzying, disorienting confusion of time and place only increases from there. In the layer two world, in which we spend most of our time (actually, that may be debatable; the wall-to-wall action scenes of world layer three seem like interruptions, but actually may account for half the film or more), Baby Doll, as the “new girl” trapped in the brothel, is compelled to dance as part of her job to entertain the sleaze the establishment caters to. We never see layer two Baby Doll dance, as that is when she enters her head and we’re transported to various war/fantasy/sci-fi battle sequences, but we do get to hear the music that gets played on the 50-year-old reel-to-real or radio. And that music includes such classics as a souped-up remix of Björk’s “Army of Me,” a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a hip-hopped mashup-remix of Queen’s “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You,” and a cover of the Beatle’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, ironically, sounds in its original 1960s form like a 2000s Chemical Brothers’ techo-rave track. Weird, that).

Now, as I admitted already, I’m a wall-of-sound mindless-action-flick fan (to an extent; Jurassic Park 2 was the worst film I’ve ever seen and I have no interest in the current Transformers CGI porn), so a significant part of me really loved the music, it’s grab-your-eardrums-and-feed-them-to-you-with-gunpowder sonic brutality. But the cognitive dissonance of hearing the thumping indie-industrial music of “Army of Me” played by a Slavic-ish choreographer on a reel-to-reel in a mid-20th century dance studio in a brothel-prison, was enough to actually short-circuit my thinking for a moment and leave me literally disoriented. That kind of guerrilla attack on the senses, leaving one’s thinking disconnected and susceptible to better apprehending Lacan’s Real, was an intentional tool of “theatre of cruelty.” (The 60s attempt to use the technique of Artaud and surrealism ended up being just a late modernism parody of surrealism, by the way.) Sucker Punch’s use of sensual-shock-treatment is, I believe, entirely unintentional and without any greater purpose than an exercise in style. Thus, exhibiting, no, embodying, one of the arch-typical qualities of postmodern art — that of pastiche.

What Zack Snyder intended by the title, Sucker Punch, can only be guessed at. The film implies that Baby Doll’s dancing, unseen by the film’s audience, leaves all who view it stunned and bewildered — sucker punched by a performance only they are exposed to. Though, that might be too subtle for Snyder. Maybe he’s referring to the beatdown the various baddies in the layer three fantasy worlds get (giant samurai, steampunk Nazis, orcs ripped right from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, terrorist robots…). Perhaps he’s being meta-aware enough to be commenting, tongue in cheek, on what the movie delivers to the audience: The mismatched and cobbled elements that make this Frankenstein’s monster of a film hits the viewer from beginning to end with a relentless barrage of simulacrum, washing over the viewer and pulling them into a riptide of hyperreality. At best, maybe he is self-aware enough to consider that he’s hitting the audience with an audio-visual shock to the senses — after all, the poster tagline is “You will be unprepared.” But this only supports the contention that Snyder’s only goal with this film is to have no goal, only to affect. Only to create sensation disconnected from anything concrete, anything with a veneer of tangibility. Snyder wants to blind-side pummel the audience and then disappear without a trace before the viewer knows what hit them. When your only interest is in stylized effect, there’s no reason not to use re-makes of music without connection to the setting, which is itself a carnival mirror reflection of an attempted setting, punctuated by completely unreal collages of literally pointless action (albeit exciting and expertly crafted) appropriating and blending elements from across multiple genre.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat for the ending credits, how much of any of this analysis could apply or appeal to the younger members of the audience. I wonder if filmgoers who don’t know what a reel-to-reel is, couldn’t tell a 1950s car from a 1920s from a 1980s, feel an iota of the disorientation I felt watching it. Do younger viewers, who have entirely grown up in a culture inherently of pastiche and ahistoricity, feel the least bit of anxiety when exposed to cultural production which seeks to simulate, blithely unironically, a reality that doesn’t exist? Does the obvious fantastical elements counteract the fact that the movie, apart from the fantasy, exists in crisis? Or does all of it exist to the viewer on the same plane of blatant unreality? I compare this film to last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie was skillful on many levels and entirely fun while managing to have a solid storyline and characters one can feel something for. But from the beginning of that film, which is solidly set in contemporary Toronto-area, the viewer is asked to accept that the world of the film exists in a different reality from our own as videogame elements co-exist with the presumed real. What makes Scott Pilgrim simply a postmodern production while Sucker Punch is postmodernism itself? I think it comes down to how while both films attempt to anchor time and place to our own reality, we can recognize reality in Scott Pilgrim even though it’s superseded by the impossible. Sucker Punch presents us, from the opening seconds, with a lie. It promises to be rooted, at least on one layer, in reality, and it (the gestalt of the filmakers) may even believe it’s sincere in doing so — but the fact that the reality it believes it’s anchored to is as fantastical as the 40-foot, machine gun-totin’ samurai it presents, we’re fed the very antithesis of what science fiction provides: discognitive estrangement. And this mirrors the very condition we live in, in late postmodern cultural logic.

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Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears; redux.

I read Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling) when it first came out in 1995. I bought and read… no, devoured all of the collections of “modern fairy tales” when I was an undergrad those early 90s — Snow White, Blood Red, Black Thorn, White Rose, etc. Now, the series is being re-released for a new audience and I’d like to take the opportunity to review the third book in the series… in what I’m afraid is a rather mixed review.

The edition I’m reviewing is a reprint — and when I say “reprint,” that’s exactly what it is. The version of the book I received, as the new reprint, has the cover seen here and a publishing date of 1996 under Prime Books. The original mass market paperback I have was from Avon Books and released 1995 (although Barnes and Noble is showing it published in a different year and publisher than I’m looking at right now in the book itself). Amazon shows another cover for Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears also published by Prime, but listed as 2008. There are a couple more covers and ISBNs available through Amazon and B&N. Regardless of this very confusing collection of Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears iterations, one thing I can deduce from my looking and primarily from comparing the two editions in my hands, is that while there may be a multitude of covers the insides are exactly the same. Exactly! From the table of contents and the introduction straight through to the intros for each story and the very page numbering, the contents of the books are identical.

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