From reviews

a handpicked selection of the 2019 Academy Award nominees

 

Roma (2018) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

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Yalitza Aparacio in Roma

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira)

Best Original Screenplay (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Mexico)

Best Sound Mixing (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia)

Best Sound Editing (Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay)

Best Production Design (Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez)

 

Cuarón’s vision of 1970s Mexico speaks to moments of the human condition with such devastation and simplicity that one is left rendered speechless by the time the credits roll. In the Roma district of Mexico, we watch Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her occupation as a maid to a middle-class family (Marina de Tavira as matriarch) gradually and forcefully evolve into an endoscopic narrative of human interaction, loss, and displacement.

Historicized within the Corpus Christi Massacre (El Halconazo) of 1971, Roma expands an existing cultural image of a historical moment that, in turn, grants focus to the individual, placing identity and isolated moments of experience to the forefront of trauma and devastation: a perspective that rings with vitality in the faceless presentations of mass trauma serialised in the media. Its spaces are flooded with white heat and nostalgia for Mexican summer and unmediated expression, synchronising to voice Cleo’s experience and her personal orientation of trauma and devastation before we as audience become conscious of it ourselves.

Cuarón writes “When setting up Roma, I wasn’t concerned about narrative, I was concerned about memory…I was concerned about spaces, textures, and trusting that all of that together would interweave a narrative by itself…a cinematic narrative.” Collective, historical memory is redefined. Cleo becomes the vehicle by which Cuarón unravels ideas of the human condition, and we feel so deeply every second we are beside him.

metacritic score: 96

wasteland rating: 5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Picture

  • winner of Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

  • winner of Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

  • winner of Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico)

  • winner of Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

 

 

 

BlackKklansman (2018) dir. Spike Lee

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Laura Harrier and John David Washington in BlackKklansman
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(left) Adam Driver, (right) John David Washington in BlackKklansman

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Spike Lee)

Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee)

Best Original Score (Terence Blanchard)

Best Film Editing (Barry Alexander Brown)

 

The entertaining, partially biographical universe of BlackKklansman is formulaically comparable to the tale of a superhero. John David Washington plays protagonist/cop Ron Stallworth and the narrative revolves around his performative white identity and infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, in which he imitates a white national socialist with the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

A lot of the BlackKklansman’s cultural gravitas does not rely on the violent crime-comedy aesthetic, of which the film presents in excess, but on the withstanding radicalism of being a black police officer in a time of police brutality. Watching in the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, BlackKklansman expands the parameters of what we understand as the ‘historical film’, for its thematisation of race self-consciously and deliberately addresses the present with more vivacity than a comparison between two different epochs. We don’t draw a line between the history of then and now, we see moments as continued, repeated, speaking the same cultural language.

Spike Lee succeeds in transforming what feels like a graphic novel to the screen, and we are thoroughly entertained as we begin to unpack what is often presented to us as distant history in its memorialised representations, of the civil rights movement, the KKK, police brutality and systemic racism, reconsidered as contemporary realism.

metacritic score: 83

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Adapted Screenplay

 

 

 

Cold War (2018) dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War
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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War

nominated for:

Best Director (Pawel Pawlikowski )

Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Poland)

 

Pawel Pawlikowski fits a surplus of entertainment in the timeline of Cold War. Its rapidity is so sophisticated and endearing that we only notice how nuanced each frame is when it’s too late and we’re already absorbed in the next faultless moment.

There is a simultaneous amount of intensity and softness within its mastery, and this spreads into the romance narrative and its comedy. The dialogue feels stripped back, with every word bound exclusively to absolute truth and expression. We skip the trivialities with a wariness that we are missing them. Each moment feels meticulously planned yet also spontaneously, wildly authentic in equal measure.

metacritic rating: 90

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

 

 

 

The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

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Rachel Weisz (left) and Olivia Colman (right) in The Favourite
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Emma Stone in The Favourite

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Best Actress (Olivia Colman)

Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz)

Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

 

Guided by his (potentially too literal) playfulness with camera work, we view Yorgos Lanthimos’ construction of The Favourite, and everything it contains, with a clinical distance. Sobered of conventional character-audience empathy and intimacy, we find ourselves equipped to embrace the surrealism and demanded to reconfigure our relation as spectator with character and content. What is otherwise a narrative of sexual and power competitiveness between Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, winning the affections of the superb Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, becomes exponentially chaotic and disorderly at a pace that is both acclaimed and expected from Lanthimos’ films.

Lanthimos boasts his obscured, theatrical universe, our vision distorted by a fish-eye lens and very stylised mise en scène, and construes how we expect aristocracy and monarchy to be captured. We experience a disconnect between our expectations of a period film and Lanthimos’ reality, between convention and action and between camera and audience. We are, in watching, given the role of observer, to a comic exhibition of the eccentricity of people, or at least how Lanthimos imagines them.

metacritic score: 90

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Screenplay

  • winner of Best Costume Design

 

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) dir. Barry Jenkins

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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk
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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)

nominated for:

Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins)

Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)

 

The fiction of essayist and novelist James Baldwin translated into cinema would never be anything short of exceptional. Whilst so much of If Beale Street Could Talk’s excellence is indebted to its actors (Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King as one notable exemplar), what succeeds in the novel-turned-film is its inexorable power in amplification. Barry Jenkins holds a camera and a microphone to one of the loudest voices of twentieth-century literature, and Baldwin’s vision is only strengthened as it harmonises with Jenkins’ ingenuity.

metacritic score: 87

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

 

 

 

A Star is Born (2018) dir. Bradley Cooper

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Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Actress (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)

Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Will Fetters & Bradley Cooper)

Best Cinematography (Matty Libatique)

Best Original Song (“Shallow” Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)

 

Bradley Cooper’s modern addition to the remake-trilogy of A Star Is Born attempts to reimagine the same pop-culture, Hollywood infected version of what is essentially a rags-to-riches narrative, and a love story between artists Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). Although its aesthetic is often glorious with its de-chained exploration of nightlife in early scenes and of the expansive Arizona desert, A Star Is Born does somehow fall short.

It has been criticised for its undeniable tone of music elitism, a tone so all-consuming that we are supposed to identify career differences as a major cause of the issues between country rocker Jackson Maine and popstar-in-the-making Ally. It seems that popstar Ally cannot succeed without her personal life falling into disarray, and that she can only spiritually connect with her more alternative partner Jackson once her career comes to a halt. It’s unclear whether or not we are supposed to believe that Ally is fated to a downward spiral the more she conquers the mainstream music industry, but it seems implied.

Maybe there are some problematic ideas of gendered success to unpack here, directorial perspectives as well as protagonistic. But because A Star Is Born is ultimately devoted to showcasing the powerhouse of talent that is Lady Gaga, it can be pardoned, and if not pardoned then overlooked, even if only to allow more time spent celebrating the unrelenting musical and acting talent of Gaga. This film should be viewed as a celebration of Gaga, her extremely successful film debut through which she effectively manoeuvres a rather uninspired plot and carries much, if not all, the excellence of the film.

metacritic rating: 88

wasteland rating: 4/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Song for “Shallow”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

girls in uniform (1931) in review: connecting sexuality to anti-authoritarianism

After its initial ban, in the 1970s Weimar film Mädchen In Uniform (1931) (dir: Leontine Sagan) was rediscovered by feminist critics who categorised it as an early ‘coming out film’. The narrative follows: a Prussian, authoritarian regime in an all-girls school for families with aristocratic or military backgrounds becomes inhabited by Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the ‘new girl’, who becomes, much like her female peers, besotted with their governess, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Although it is comic, exciting and entirely female in its cast, some critics condemned its reliance on tropes such as experimental sexuality, unserious homosexuality, demonstrating little more than sororal affection and silliness. The queer romance of the film is most clearly identified in the unique relationship Fräulein von Bernberg begins with Manuela, as they exchange kisses and Manuela is gifted a petticoat, much to the jealousy of the other girls. Though much of the film is stylised with great affection for their relationship, their romance is obscured by their dynamic: teacher and student, a relation that is (rightfully) no longer romanticised by critics but criticised as an imbalance of power and of exploitation. Furthermore, their romance isn’t always clear, as it is often interpreted as maternal affection. There is much to be said regarding how their relationship is framed within such an ambiguous dynamic, and how a similar ambiguity is manufactured in the context of the film at large: as a commentary on anti-authoritarianism.

Using an entirely female cast of teachers and students, Mädchen unusually offers a multifaceted spectrum of femininity, showing women as varied in behaviour, attitude, age and position in relation to each other. We can compare the physical affections between girls compared to the boundaries of teachers who act coldly and militantly in their severity. The young girls celebrate rising body culture: they laugh and enjoy the sex appeal of American film stars and romantic novels, popular culture and jazz. They stand for a pro-Western attitude, representing the young Weimar generation in progressive ideas. They unite to form an embodied celebration of affection and sexual openness, contrasting the context of the strict regime of their environment, and of course, critiquing the growing national socialism outside the film.

It’s important to note that romance between women became accepted in film before it became acceptable between men. However, this is not a feminist marvel. Unlike men’s homosexuality, women’s homosexuality was (and often still is) softened, or pardoned, for being sweet, sororal and unthreatening to anything serious. This clear homophobia and erasure of women’s homosexuality is also closely connected to the eroticised image of homosexual intimacy between women, seen in centuries of art and literature, even by the supposedly most prudish epochs (see Victorian writer Christina Rossetti’s suggestively lesbian poem Goblin Market).  It seems, culturally, that deconstructing the monument of heteronormativity is less imposing, less damaging when it concerns women. This lends itself to such deeply rooted misogyny in how queer relationships between women are viewed, as erased of their validity under the guise of playful experimentation, or women viewed as sexed, affectionate creatures by nature. It seems it is men who are most instrumental to the ideas and preservations of sexuality and heteronormativity. In this forgotten place, in their liminal position, women’s sexuality is minor and discounted. Mädchen in Uniform attempts to expand this liminal space using the tool of ambiguity and complex power dynamics. It complicates female homosexuality even further than it already is using various hierarchical structures: woman and girl, teacher and student. Thus, it is often unclear how celebratory of queerness and homosexuality this film actually is, and if it isn’t, what does it celebrate instead?

Mädchen thematises and emphasises the role of affection and solidarity in the face of an authoritarian institute. Above its romantic narrative, there is a very real tension between regime and action, how the girls behave to combat their environment and how they behave in order to cope with it, as these behaviours are often one and the same. Perhaps their affection and queer behaviour are portrayed as merely reactive to, or at least highlighted by, the oppressive authoritarian ideas that govern their school, as homophobia is usually rife in authoritarian states. 

Mädchen is anti-authoritarian, but perhaps it can be better defined as a critique of authoritarian practices. It articulates a very specific political tension between the right and left poles of thinking and action. The girls, as the title states, are in uniform, sharing a unanimous, unexpressive identity. This anti-progressive image contributes to other militant images that frequent the film. The school’s headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), is figured as representative of the older generation, and thereby held in tension with progressivism. Cast as the villain for her caricaturesque portrayal of Prussian, traditional values, Nidden is shot with expressionist shadows cast across her face, contrasting the lightness and clarity in which Manuela and the girls are filmed. This deliberate light vs dark imagery represents the new cinematic movement of New Objectivity, bidding farewell to expressionism as a mode of the past and for Mädchen, a symbol of anti-progressive values.

Some critics have disagreed that Mädchen is anti-authoritarian; it’s important to note that Mädchen’s producer Carl Froelich went on to produce Nazi propaganda films. Aside from this clearly problematic association, the film itself, irrespective of its crew, does create scepticism surrounding its presentation of anti-authoritarian ideas firsthand. By the end of the film, after some plot filler including a metatheatrical performance of romance Don Carlos and an attempted suicide, little has changed by the time we arrive at the credits. The school’s regime is still in practice even after Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down a stairwell, symbolic of hierarchy and mobility in itself. Equally, throughout the film, we are given a humanisation of Bernberg, a romanticised teacher complicit in an institute of authoritarianism.

If one is to take anything away from Mädchen, other than its comedy and its basic celebration of sexually liberated women in all their variety and queerness, it is to note that homophobia is a crucial aspect of fascism. Mädchen closely predates the epoch in which male homosexuality entered the rhetoric of national socialism’s ideas of ‘man’ and masculinity, and homophobia remains one of the most weaponised aspects of patriarchal, oppressive states today. But perhaps, As Richard W. McCormick has said, these anti-democratic forces’ “defeat in this film, however momentary, is one that should cheer us all”.

thelma & louise (1991): redemptive violence, femininity and queering masculine space

[contains spoilers, content warning: rape, sexual violence]

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This essay weaves together some of the cinematic elements that animate romance, dark comedy, redemptive violence, absurdity, feminism and queer space – tethering them to the centre of the compelling cinematic universe of Thelma & Louise (1991).

Callie Khouri’s screenplay

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

In writing Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri composed a 131-minute long love song for the screen, an ode to women and freedom, and in doing so earned herself the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has one of the most beautiful, quick-witted scripts to emerge from this genre, a genre that can only be seen to fit a loose definition of comedy, action, mystery, romance, in one marvellous, amorphous conflation. Below are some of the iconic quotes that evidence Khouri’s mastery at writing the female voice as an agent of the reworked crime/romance/comedy genre.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: [with her gun to the state trooper’s head] I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve EVER pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why.

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: Guess you could call it that, my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too. I feel awake!

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that, too, like you got something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking margaritas by the sea, mamacita.

Thelma: Hey, we could change our names.

Louise: We could live in a hacienda.

Thelma: I gonna get a job. I’m gonna work at Club Med.

Louise: Yeah. Now what kind of deal is that cop gonna have to come up with to beat that?

Thelma: Have to be pretty good.

Louise: Have to be pretty damn good.

fluorescent light motifs

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Borrowing from a Lynchian aesthetic, the fluorescent lights are emblematic of Edward Hopper paintings, of the illuminating metropolises of America at the height of mid-twentieth-century modernity. If Thelma & Louise is to writer Callie Khouri a love-song to women, to director Ridley Scott it is a romantic novel translated onto film, to simulate rain-speckled gas station signs and advertisements that glow neon from the highway.

feminising the road-trip

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Perhaps the reason Khouri writes such a vibrantly comic and erotic road-trip tale is that it is her reimagining of what is otherwise a historically masculine genre. To avoid any comparison to its masculine contemporaries and predecessors, Khouri reinvents the road trip film as an active site of femininity and romance mitigated with a plot of criminality. Even the initial crime itself is feminised, as an act of sexual violence against women, male-on-female. Thus the violent action throughout the film, all of which comes as a result of the male-on-female violence at the start, is the only remaining satellite that orbits the masculine genre at its core, and is feminised. Therein lies a kind of liberation in the betrayal of masculine convention. We don’t witness Thelma and Louise meet a historical expectation of weak feminine subaltern characters wrapped up in action, instead, there is inversion. Their friendship is eroticised, the men they meet are enemies for their abuse of power or their enforcement of the law, their violence is reactionary at first and evolves into comedy, influenced by that of which they’ve seen on TV. In all aspects, there is an inversion of the female role and of the action genre, and together, in the absence of men in a man’s universe, they find a space where femininity and action coexist in harmony.

“nobody’d believe us”

Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. Damn, I don’t know why I just didn’t go to the police right away.

Thelma: You know why. You already said.

Louise: What’d I say again?

Thelma: Nobody’d believe us. We’d still get in trouble, we’d still have our lives ruined. You know what else?

Louise: What?

Thelma: That guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would’ve hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would’ve happened to him ’cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would’ve made out like I’d asked for it. My life would’ve been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m havin’ some fun. And I’m not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I’m just sorry it was you that did it and not me.

Rooted in the film’s feminism is a harrowing consciousness of rape culture and the judicial system’s treatment of rape victims. One of the first incidences we witness a self-awareness of Thelma’s otherwise naive characterisation is her acknowledgement of the reaction to those who claim to have been raped, upon reflecting her own close encounter with assault. The act of self-defence, Louise shooting the attacker, represents a process that is altogether contentious and perplexing according to judicial law: the grey areas of innocence, guilt, attack and defence. Thelma & Louise takes a social and feminist issue and turns it into something we as audience are subjected to stomach: the same consciousness of our own culture’s attitude to rape and sexual violence. Even after 27 years, little in attitude has changed. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the bar and the drinking and the comedy, there is a known reality. We don’t take Louise’s violence as we take a typical action film’s violence, as superficial entertainment, hypermasculinised, emphatic power assertions. We don’t view the violent act of shooting the attacker, preventing Thelma’s rape, as escapist mythology, but as a mode of survival. Thelma and Louise don’t experience the cinematic luxury of slinging a gun and outrunning the bad guys. They commit violence as a mere reaction to the violence inflicted upon them, ‘them’ as a symbol of women.

Louise: In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.

violence as a vehicle of control, more pertinently, taking back control

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Thelma & Louise has been criticised by some for its abundant violence. Some have even stretched far enough to claim misandry. Troublingly so, these inconclusive critiques raise the question: is cinematic violence only ever permissible when it’s male-on-male, female-on-female, or worse, male-on-female? If so, does female-on-male violence have to be so outrageously untethered to a known reality in order to be permitted? If so, only the blood-spattered Uma Thurman armed with a Samurai sword in exoticised rural Japan is allowed. Apparently, female-on-male violence for cinematic and aesthetic entertainment can only exist if it promises to leave the U.S. and travel into the realm of the unbelievable in order to be unthreatening, in order to uphold the monuments of violence that are ‘normal’, or at least the ones we are used to seeing. It is probably worth remembering that the only man who is actually killed in Thelma & Louise is the sexual predator, in an act of self-defence, right at the beginning. God forbid there were actual spontaneous female-on-male killings, or perhaps our newly found sensitivity to violence would render us uncomfortable and upset. Any other kind of violence though? Sure. Grab a gun. Go crazy. When we enter the realm of the fictitious, of the cinematic, we should maybe debunk this sensitivity to violence that seems to only exist for female-on-male exclusively. Especially, in this case, when the violence is an act of self-defence. If even reactionary violence can be seen as ‘too violent’ or misandrous, then we are at a crossroads in which we must actually decipher what cinematic violence means regarding gender relations entirely.

Incidentally, not only is the violence compelling (here, I refer to the killing of the sexual predator thus it is definitely not misandrous but deserved), it is necessary. Our position as audience depends on it. It circumvents the structure of the story, it emancipates Thelma out of her subordinated life and it draws the women closer together. Without the crime spree, catalysed from the killing at the start, we would spend our viewing expecting the weekend to come to an end, as the credits roll and a far more bleak finale presented to Thelma and Louise: returning back home to their suffering, their normal.

In fact, in its necessity, violence becomes a vehicle of control. In a hyperbolic and feminised fashion, embellished with one-liners, the violence throughout keeps the plot in motion whilst garnering control for the women. In stark contrast to their occupations back home, a housewife and waitress respectively, once they unwittingly begin this spree of criminality and outrunning the law, they find an obscured sense of control within their own lives, a kind of redemption for the violence they have both endured as women.

it passes the Bechdel test

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I wouldn’t usually examine a film according to its Bechdel assessment. Bechdel tests can be rather unfortunately sobering and feel somewhat futile to discuss for their indication of cinema’s stagnant lack of gender representation, but here it seemed significant to mention. For a film that orients femininity through a narrative of criminality, we see the feminine space operate to cinematically and symbolically omit men: Thelma and Louise running away from male partners for the weekend, the killing of a sexual predator and the preoccupation of skirting the notably all-male law enforcement in their constituents. In constant motion, following Thelma and Louise on the run, we spectate their dialogues and their omission of men as subject (passing Bechdel) and we witness this omission in practice. Throughout the narrative formation itself, men are not subject, but object. Nearly always in the distance (excluding Brad Pitt’s thieving cowboy subplot), men are at a remove spatially and temporally; across another state, back home, in a helicopter or police station, in memory. From the lens of Thelma and Louise, whose perspective from which we are exclusively confined, we are given access to a meta-cinematic visualisation of passing and somewhat reframing the Bechdel test altogether. Our heroines certainly do have at least one conversation about something other than men, and they have at least one of these conversations in the 1966 Ford convertible as they drive on into the desert, far from the men who subjugate them.

the punctuative and concluding kiss

Arriving at the end of the film, where Thelma and Louise have been surrounded and the anticipated confrontation with the law is at our feet, we stand over the grand canyon. We are given more dialogue of how much both Thelma and Louise feel they have changed, their reluctance to go back home and their exchange of silent compassion. They implicitly agree to “drive on”, over the edge of the canyon, and in doing so, punctuate the film’s absolutely beautiful, necessary absence of men. Thelma and Louise’s tireless effort to escape the men who dominate their lives (domestically or even societally, ie, the law) inevitably draws them into each other. What is seen by many as the final piece of evidence for the film’s queer undertones, is concluded with a kiss before they drive off into the canyon, “to keep on going”. This ending has left its mark on cinema and routinely and referentially lives on in modern culture. I don’t think (mainly female or queer) audiences have ever been so thrilled and heartbroken and emotionally invested in a car flying into a ravine. Perhaps because of the love story framed with criminal excitement we experience this unusual sense of beauty in this mania and euphoria. It isn’t Tom Cruise jumping out of a helicopter, it’s our heroines turning their backs on mistreatment, injustice and unfulfillment. It is, in all its absurdity, the happiest, most beautiful resolution for Thelma and Louise, and for us their audience, as their faithful companions.

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rosemary’s baby (1968): a nightmare of the body

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[spoilers and content warning: rape, themes of complications in pregnancy]

 

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) fools us into believing that we are now, fifty years after its production, at a safe distance from its terror. We see a typical young, married couple move into a New York apartment building, into an apartment met with rumours of disturbed previous tenants, and the precedent is set that the couple, and audience, should be wary. However, as soon as we are situated within the initial viewing of the apartment, as soon as we see the chest of drawers and the mysterious closet it unnaturally blocks, and the moment we witness what becomes an increasingly abusive marriage, we realise that there is no safe space for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). Instead of the pleasant, character developing realism that usually premeditates climactic horror, we see Rosemary, whose perspective we are significantly and exclusively bound to, slowly subjected to episodes of abuse that precede scenes of the supernatural, and in effect, lays the groundwork for the trauma that materialises.

 

the sexed body

Rosemary’s Baby evokes a kind of terror that moves inward and deeper into the mind of the audience than conventional tropes of horror. Rendering us bizarrely entranced by its surrealism, this terror is tracked against Rosemary’s body in its deterioration. Rosemary’s body is, quite literally, the skeleton of all trauma. Rosemary’s husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), whom she initially believes to have raped her and in doing so impregnating her, the ‘wire’ that she feels twisting inside her as her unborn child torments her, and the doctors who cooperate with the cult to subsist Rosemary’s isolation and medicate her with ‘tannis root’, are traumas inflicted upon the female body as a reproductive, commodified host.

Through the body, we see its relational status. We relate Rosemary’s body to her mind, how it paradoxically spirals into madness from an outward perspective the closer she gets to the truth of her pregnancy, Guy’s relationship to her body, and her body’s relation to her use of language: how she communicates or fails to communicate the messages her body is telling her: in pain, there is something wrong. It is far more distressing to watch Rosemary’s abdominal cramps and the paranoia that her unborn child could be stillborn when we remember that her doctor advises against reading about or speaking of pregnancy with her friends (“no two pregnancies are the same“, he tells her). This contrived web of isolation knits Rosemary further and further into herself, turning to her body as the only tangible material that can evidence her descent. In the vulnerability and exploitation of the female body, we step outside of surrealism and psychological horror and into the more terrifying realm of what is conceivable and real. Our discomfort isn’t merely reactive to the (albeit disturbing) imagistic sequence of the Satanic cult at work, it is the shocking and violent impregnantion and the pregnancy that follows: Rosemary’s physical trauma and her decline parallel to her isolation.

 

consumption

Food plays an important motif throughout the course of the film. It motivates the plot: Rosemary is delivered a dessert by Minnie in an (unsuccessful) ploy to poison her into a comatose state in which she can later be molested, as well as the ‘natural’ remedies for pregnancy such as the cakes and herb concoctions. Food, in its absence, also maps Rosemary’s deterioration. Polanski points us dialogically towards Rosemary’s physical transgression as she is described as thin and unwell by those around her, quite literally embodying her internal and psychological disturbance. As food becomes malignant, nourishment does too. In the aftermath of her molestation, Rosemary weakens physically as she carries her child, and her consumption of the medicinal drinks become a pattern for her lack of control: her body as possessed by other forces at work.

 

 

a nightmare of the body

It all boils down to a lack of agency. In its constituent parts, Rosemary’s Baby is a nightmare of the body in a hyperbolic translation to perfectly befit the horror genre, and even with its neat containment, it speaks emphatically to ideas of autonomy regarding gender and sexual violence. In its criticism, the justifiably controversial director Roman Polanski seems to operate through a lens frequent in mid-twentieth century film: the male gaze of a vulnerable woman under the guise and exemption of intimacy and high aestheticism. Thankfully, this doesn’t render Mia Farrow’s performance as a prop by which to experiment with aesthetics and thrills, instead, she becomes our heroine. Throughout her performance, Farrow quietly escapes the threshold of her character by deconstructing it. We are left mesmerised, by what could be, and often is, misunderstood as a vacancy and naivety in Rosemary’s character, with what is actually a powerful force in the face of extreme, physical adversity. When Rosemary is finally ensnared by the dreaded birthing scene, the scene we have long anticipated throughout the film, we reach the body’s second most violent act (following the impregnation). Upon regaining consciousness after the trauma and sedation, Rosemary enters the closet that we saw at the beginning of the film and steps into the lair of the cult, the Castevets’ apartment through the connecting architecture of the apartment block. By this physical act of infiltrating the cult’s congregation, sneaking through the connecting door into the next apartment, we see Rosemary’s emancipation, out of an apartment that we now allegorise with her pregnancy: in both, she was imprisoned.

Rosemary Woodhouse is exemplary for dictating the film’s atmosphere and subject. With her body as its fabric, she is the terror. What is terrifying isn’t the mythic nightmare of being targeted by a cult, it is the exploitation of the body and its deep, unnerving manifestations on the mind and reality. In this conspired exploitation, the body homes a distrust in everyone, and more pertinently, a fear of what exists within.

 

notes on maniac (2018)

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[spoilers]

retrofuturism and mental illness

Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac (2018) is a visual journey that takes us along multiple planes of expedition. Leading separate lives in the same retro-futuristic universe, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) are involved in the latter stages of a pharmaceutical trial for a drug that strives to rid the mind of trauma and disorder, yet Annie and Owen continually find themselves connected as the trial removes them further and further from their known realities. Each episode takes its audience through allegorical storylines that in their isolation begin to unify midway through the series, as they begin to coexist as a side effect of the trial and of a deeper bond between the two protagonists. The episodes, Annie and Owen and the characters they conceptualise represent some of the ways we see and try to understand mental illness and human connection.

As the series progresses, the pharmaceutical trial becomes limited as the setting to which all characters are tethered, an important backdrop but a backdrop all the same. The more realised setting and the more striking sites of exploration are the fragmented stories that are manifest during the drug experiences, the ones that somehow connect Annie and Owen on their respective ‘reflections’ and evidence the system’s refusal to keep the characters separate.

The series as a whole is (deliberately or not) an attempt at a visual display of how mental illness is complex, to say the least. Even in this futuristic universe, Maniac seems to suggest that pharmacy and psychotherapy are far from successful at navigating the intricacies of the mind. Within its sci-fi realm, including the retrofuturism in the early episodes such as the AdBuddys, Maniac moves beyond sci-fi as sci-fi for its own sake. We instead begin to simultaneously orient sci-fi alongside its exploration of mental illness, almost as if the technology within this retrofuturistic world permits and gives structure to a creative vision of mental illness, one that without this alternative universe would be rendered invisible, untracked. Maniac is just that, a vision, a vision through technology and augmented realities and versions of realities that allow characters to navigate, or at least witness, their own psyches within the regimented pharmaceutical trial as a facilitator.

What could be seen as arbitrarily futuristic, or ill-expressed when dealing with issues such as mental illness is up for speculation. Maniac is merited for its unusual and therefore alternative way of presenting mental illnesses. In this overtly fictional universe, can Maniac’s vision be held responsible for its portrayals and potential inaccuracies of mental illness if the vision itself is retro-futuristic? If, despite its warmth and familiarity, the entire universe of Maniac, outside the trial, is somewhat removed from our known reality in which these discussions are held?

The series’ potential flaw is its bundling of many ideas and philosophical takes on the mind. Maniac seems to say a lot about mental illness, encouraging important conversation from its audience. But because of the retrofuturistic setting, it is hard to dichotomise the series’ take on mental illness as nonsensical at best or offensive at worst. Regarding the universe in which it is set, it is unsurprising that Maniac was once a comic. The characters feel caricatured and therefore don’t promote much realism to the audience; nothing feels that ‘realistic’ compared to other series that try to explore mental illness. But perhaps the cartoonishness, the glorified visuals and futuristic technologies that humour the series and what we are given as reality, can actually help us to understand our own. Perhaps the retrofuturistic setting is just an alternative way to stomach these big, impenetrably difficult ideas surrounding mental illness and human connection. The series doesn’t try to compartmentalise the mind into easy, definitive disorders, in fact, it presents us with equally as complicated and abstract technology (Greta the conscious, empathetic computer) as a means to understand the minds of the subjects. In its absurdity there is some reason, Maniac is not condemning current treatments and remedies of mental illness familiar to its audience today, it is showcasing an invented, fictional system (that notably fails) as a cure.

Before the credits roll during the final episode we are given adventurous sentimentality, Annie and Owen chased out of the psychiatric ward car park by security and wardens, driving away in Annie’s father’s (Hank Azaria) truck. With their future unknown, the end rounds off the series with a sense of incompleteness which is endearing and fitting for the show’s overall messages: the trial did not work and no one is ‘fixed’, but people are (either in reality or in their own understanding of it) at least in the process. The trial, then, did achieve something. In its malfunction, creating a duality between Annie and Owen’s reflections, Annie and Owen found each other and thereby ways of coping with the real world, respectively.

A lot is contained in these ten episodes, and perhaps the ideas it explores should have been more fleshed out across longer episodes. But there is a kind of resolution, a cyclical satisfaction when the tenth episode ends. We do not witness an obnoxiously successful riddance of mental illness like the series initially seemed to preclude to, we are instead given a story of connected strangers in a time and place which is distant yet close in subject matter to our own environment, and in that simplification, it is triumphant.

 

 

saved! (2004): satirising 00s fashion

Saved! (2004) is a criminally underrated translation of high school experience, friendship and faith and the fabric that weaves them all together. Although it is surprisingly unknown, at least in relation to the fame and popularity of some of its lead actors (Jena Malone, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit), it withholds its status as a cult classic fourteen years on for its wit and absurdity in navigating classically adolescent themes in a universe of hyperbolic Christian stereotypes.

In a similar thread to Donnie Darko (2001), Malone’s more famous role, the high school setting is in itself a site of satire and humour beyond bestowing structural integrity for the plot. In Saved!, the teachers are eccentric, the sex education classes are conservative (‘good Christians don’t get jiggy with it until they’re married’), and the assemblies are demonstratively ‘hyper-Christian’ in every caricature imaginable.

In exploring topics such as teen pregnancy, virginity, abortion, faith and homosexuality, Saved! attempts to navigate and unearth the connections between these topics, namely, through a stereotypically-radical-Christian lens rather than in their own right. And this navigation can be mapped against the fashion as worn by characters. Other than being entirely and incredibly 00s (all the way down to velour two-piece tracksuits and low rise jeans), the style reinforces its time and setting of exploration: teenagehood, specifically, through satire and an attempt to decipher what it means to stay true to one’s own faith for teenager Mary (Jena Malone).

Angel wings are paired with velour tracksuits, worn by the supposedly ‘most pious’ characters (ie, the ones who don’t fall pregnant). An Emmanuel ‘eye for an eye’ t-shirt is worn by Mary as she practices at a shooting range. An oversized Christmas jumper hides Mary’s baby bump at the mall. And what is most quintessentially 00s, the gold Christian Jewel pin that a select few girls wear to school. Not only does the pin highlight the satirical idea of exclusivity in faith, a sense of hierarchy, but it is also something you’d probably see repurposed in 2018, reading instead: Baby or Angel or Leave Me Alone.

Saved!’s satirisation of 00s fashion becomes comparable to films such as Clueless (1995) which seem to summatively embody 90s culture for middle-class teenage girls. In Saved! we see fashion captured at the moment it was taken (2004), but with a visual display of the perspective, and position of commentary, of the film itself. We are given another script, another dialogue altogether in the clothes we watch. When Mandy Moore’s character Hilary Faye shouts ‘I am filled with Christ’s love’, it is more impactful that she wears angel wings and throws a bible at Mary’s head. The fashion and visual, sartorial language relocates the film’s religious criticism to a place of humour, rendering it less offensive with its stereotypes and more witty, contemporary and fashionably genius.

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hereditary (2018) and its deleted scenes: notes on grief

Some of Hereditary’s deleted scenes have recently been circulated and can be seen here.

[spoilers]

For a film that deals with as much spiritual and visual horror as it does, Hereditary’s dissection of grief isn’t overshadowed but enforced.

Horror seldom realistically presents grief. Considering how dominantly and graphically it portrays death, it’s surprising that something that naturally succeeds death is often totally unaccounted for within the horror universe. Maybe the absence of grief in horror is what separates it from tragedy. But even within its own genre, the absence of grief renders horror films unrealistic at best and ridiculous at worst. Sometimes this absence is structural, for example, perhaps a slasher movie doesn’t have time to pause its killing spree if the spree is to continue or the plot is to ever be resolved. Equally, a pause, or a moment of grief, would deconstruct its pace, and pace is necessary for a subgenre that so heavily relies upon visuals and sensorial terror to frighten its audiences.

Conventionally, horror films offer moments of relief in their construction in order to emphasise the horror when it happens and to prevent desensitising its audience from unrelenting scares. These moments, breaks, are necessary. Hereditary’s construction, however, is different. Important (and expected) moments of relief are replaced with insight into grief and guilt. Quiet spaces are inhabited by trauma, and we are routinely excused from visual horror only to witness grief and guilt manifest. And we are not left desensitised and unimpacted because the relief is not replaced with more visual horror, but instead with a psychological parallel that renders us traumatised within the first thirty minutes.

Hereditary’s exploration of grief, in the deleted scenes and throughout the film, is inextricably tied to the pace and the construction of the film as a whole. The narrative of grief and its refusal to offer any moments of relief for the audience demonstrates the idea that pace doesn’t have to manically keep up alongside visual horror in order for a film to be frightening. For Hereditary, its terror lies in the uncomfortably realistic depictions of mourning and loss as our only respite from the brutality of its visual horror: a ritualistic cult, decapitations and possession.

The portraits of grief and guilt as a structural replacement for moments of relief are what terrifies us because it creates a framework that leaves no room for any catharsis. It denies us any moment to purge our pity and fear in order to prepare for more discomfort. We remain in a permanent state of either being terrified or disturbed in a quiet alternation. What succeeds in Hereditary is its episodes of grief and guilt as our only antithesis to visual tragedy, both of which are unnervingly difficult to forget.