Quick Edit: What is There to Learn From A Price Above Rubies?

Viewed September 8, 2012

I love movies about women who defy societal expectations, who refuse to conform to the gender role they’re supposed to play without question, and who fight for their own political and financial autonomy. I’ve noticed that an inordinate number of my personal favorites in this subgenre is set in the past and therefore retroactively feminist, including Dangerous Beauty (Marshall Herskovitz, 1998) and Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998). And so I went into Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies, also from 1998, with pretty high hopes that it would emotionally and intellectually satisfy me just as well. I had wanted to see this film for years, long believing it wasn’t available on DVD (until I recently discovered this isn’t the case), and when I randomly caught on cable a pivotal scene in which the heroine pushes back against her devout husband and a religious leader, I knew two things: first, I must DVR this picture when it airs again, and that if this scene is anything to go by, the rest of A Price Above Rubies has got to be awesome.

The truth is, I wish this were actually the case. The sophomore effort from Yakin, who made a critical splash with his ghetto-based crime debut, Fresh (1994), and has since moved on to write and/or direct action movies such as this year’s Safe (yes, really), A Price Above Rubies is rough around the edges, strange and slightly confusing. More crucially, however, though Renée Zellweger as Sonia is easy to root for, it’s her situation that is poorly developed. Spoilers to follow.

Sonia Horowitz, the daughter of a prominent ultra-Orthodox Jewish jeweler does her parents proud, having married a rising scholar at the Yeshiva named Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald). When we meet her as an adult, she gives birth to a son, whom Mendel insists they name after the rebbe (the leader of their Hasidic community) rather than her deceased brother Yossi. Following the infant’s emotionally traumatic bris (for Sonia, that is), the young family moves into a Hasidic community in Brooklyn to be nearer Mendel’s extended family and the Yeshiva. Stifled by postpartum depression, Mendel’s obsessive study and inattention to her needs, and a crisis of faith that makes her blood boil, Sonia struggles in her role as stay-at-home mom. Then, one day, Mendel’s sinful older brother, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), invites her to run his jewelry shop nearby. The promise of being able to travel, to buy pieces from jewelers all over Manhattan while exercising her exacting eye for evaluating gemstones, is just the kind of liberation she desires. As such, her business dealings bring her into contact with people outside the incredibly insular community, and one liaison in particular wreaks havoc upon her marriage and familial relationships.

From the get-go, the film comes across as amateurish, like a made-for-TV movie, complete with a hokey, melodramatic score. Alarmingly, the first ten minutes or so also traffic in many Jewish stereotypes, which thankfully recede as the narrative marches on. In the prologue scene set when Sonia is a little girl, she listens to her beloved Yossi (Shelton Dane) tell a bedtime story that takes place in—you guessed it—the shtetl. In another early scene, which incidentally introduces the Hasidic community and establishes Sonia’s uneasiness with her religion and culture, she resents having to stand by and watch her son’s ceremonial circumcision from afar. Furthermore, the characters’ identities are laid on thick through their unambiguous and broad New York Jewish accents. We can’t fault the filmmakers for shooting in English, for it is more accessible and infinitely more commercial than Yiddish (which is the language most ultra-Orthodox Jews speak), but the actors do sound ridiculous.

But why is A Price Above Rubies so strange? It’s sexually confused, for one thing, leading me to believe that Yakin can’t empathize with Sonia’s sexual frustration. Sex with Mendel is passionless because he doesn’t want to offend god with any impure thoughts or actions. Then, a little later on, as Sonia suffers from a particularly severe panic attack, she kisses Mendel’s pushy sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies) as she tries to soothe her. In this moment, you might think Sonia is unfulfilled because she is a lesbian. Not so, and it remains a mystery as to why she hit on her sister-in-law.

Moreover, there are elements of magical realism that don’t quite fit. Following their uncomfortable and perplexing sexual encounter, Rachel takes Sonia to meet with Rebbe Moshe (John Randolph), to whom she relates that she’s convinced the intense burning sensations she’s felt all her life indicate her body contains no soul. Later, it’s revealed that her passionate confession caused the rebbe not only to amorously seek out his long-suffering wife but to also die in the midst of their love-making. For igniting this fire in her husband, the rebbe’s widow (Kim Hunter) is eternally grateful to Sonia. I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not all! Sonia hallucinates throughout the film, imagining Yossi is at her side while she eats a non-kosher lunch in a Chinatown park and when Mendel eventually kicks her out of the house for her supposed indiscretion (more on that in a moment). She converses with Yossi as well as with a beggar woman (Kathleen Chalfant) who impossibly follows her all around the city. It’s unclear if she only appears to Sonia, but notwithstanding one interaction with another woman, I believe the beggar lady is supposed to be a figment of Sonia’s imagination. But this isn’t the only instance of narrative confusion. In fact, there’s a lot more.

For instance, Sonia’s motivations are sometimes unclear. She doesn’t so much as embark on a love affair with her brother-in-law/employer, Sender, as she allows him to take advantage of her sexually. It’s clear in their early scene at the family seder that they have a powerful connection (his touch sends her into a tizzy) because they’re both more cynical than their devout family members. And so it’s awesome that Sender rescues her from the doldrums of her everyday existence with a business proposition. But it’s genuinely disturbing that Sender essentially rapes her before he leaves and she allows this behavior to continue long after the fact. At first, I hesitated to call it rape, but as we should all know by now, “rape is rape.” It may appear as if she consents to his sexual aggression willingly (and maybe she does because she wants to feel something that her husband doesn’t provide), but I think it’s more an expression of her subservient position which has been culturally ingrained in her and other ultra-Orthodox women she knows. Anyway, I kept wondering why Sonia, who we’re supposed to believe is strong-willed and desirous, would consent to such an arrangement. Does she honestly believe that it—their affair and the sex itself—will get better? When she finally comes to her senses and realizes, after she’s been ostracized, that she will never be free so long as he demands favors from her for protection, I couldn’t help thinking, This is all too little too late.

But just why is she ostracized, you ask? Well, already alienated by Sonia’s lack of faith in their religious leaders (she says at marriage counseling officiated by a rabbi that he has no right to tell her what she should think or do), Mendel asks Sender to trail her, and so he vindictively spreads the rumor throughout the Hasidic community that Sonia is having an affair with a Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Obviously, this is not the case. Ramon (Allen Payne) is merely a sculptor and jewelry designer whose pieces are among the most beautiful she’s ever seen, especially an intricately carved 22-karat gold band with an open setting for a gemstone. She spends a lot of time in his basement workshop after she commissions and sells his work (which he labels a mere “hobby”). To make a long story short, everyone—starting with her husband—excommunicates Sonia overnight: Mendel changes the locks on the door, and Rachel refuses to hand over her son and warns Sonia that her own mother has disowned her. Sender welcomes her to a Lower East Side apartment where he can keep tabs on her (this is when she finally refuses his form of “freedom”), so she winds up squatting for a few hours with the beggar woman before the vision of Yossi leads her to Ramon’s, where she falls into his arms and into his bed. But even this illicit tryst produces few fireworks. In fact, when Ramon, who was skeptical of Sonia just the other day, confesses that she is his elusive muse and leans in to kiss her, I couldn’t believe it. (I thought Ramon was gay, anyway!)

More problematic, however, is Yakin’s rushing this conclusion. Why is he so hellbent on establishing Sonia’s abject position literally overnight—only for Mendel to undo it the next morning? A Price Above Rubies ends on a more optimistic note because he invites her to visit their son often, even as she figures out her next steps (she’s not staying with Ramon, that much is clearly stated and in its utterance, supposedly breaks Ramon’s heart). This softened resolution leaves the wrong impression: it says that the shunning was only painful for one night and gives false hope that the community will be more accommodating than we’ve been previously led to believe.

The title refers to a biblical quote that Sender recites atop Sonia, post-coitus. The gist is that women of fortitude, who, of course, obey their husbands, are worth more than precious jewels. Through her rebellion, to achieve a sort of personal virtue and integrity that is at odds with ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Sonia pays “a price above rubies” for her freedom, which indexes not only humiliation and excommunication but also the forced abandonment of her child (she never cries over this, mind you). During their reconciliation, Mendel gifts her a ruby, her birthstone, which during the end credits fits neatly into Ramon’s band in extreme closeup. Neat, right?

Although A Price Above Rubies boasts some strong performances, particularly from Renée Zellweger, I had a difficult time understanding just what I am meant to get out of the film. As I stated before, Sonia is a very sympathetic character, but her journey is poorly conceived and realized. I wish she had been led on another path, because it’s too convenient for her to find a fledgling romance with Ramon—and wholly unnecessary. While the script delves into ultra-Orthodox Jewish life, the magical realist element keeps it at a distance, and Sonia’s childhood trauma (the loss of her brother) should have been explored more, for after all it precipitates her crisis of faith and identity. Too bad the feminist struggle I was looking for was just so damn fleeting.

Advertisements

News Clip: What Possessed People to See The Possession?

It’s true, I haven’t been to the movies in over three weeks, since my birthday on August 11th. And even then, just choosing something to see was difficult to do. It’s been a really crappy summer for movies (I don’t care what you say; superhero/comic book movies are boring), so let’s hope the year improves as studios start rolling out their prestige pictures, their awards bait. But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I would like to comment on the overnight success of The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012), which is all set to win the Labor Day weekend box office—with an unimaginative title and poster to boot. According to Pamela McClintock of The Hollywood Reporter, Lionsgate estimates that the exorcism film-story will bring in $21.3 million for the mini major, making the movie the second highest grossing Labor Day weekend box office winner ever recorded on the books (in inflated dollars, of course).

That a horror film, even during summer (or the last days of it), can scrounge up so much money isn’t surprising (McClintock reminds us that 2007’s Halloween, directed by Rob Zombie, currently holds the record for the biggest box office overhaul for any Labor Day weekend with $30.6 million in tickets sold). I’m just wondering why audiences have, for lack of a better word, “flocked” to see this film. Admittedly, I am biased against pictures that revolve around exorcisms (and, while we’re at it, horror films in general) and would never in a million years pay to see this in the theater, but I read Bilge Ebiri’s review of The Possession, anyway. You can click to read it yourself; he doesn’t spoil anything. And that’s exactly the point: you can’t spoil what happens in any of these formulaic movies. As Ebiri notes, “Demon-possession movies are now so ubiquitous that we don’t really expect any dramatically new shocks from them.” Granted, he seems to have liked this one more than he was expecting to, for dramatic reasons that have little to with the scary, climatic scenes.

This being a think piece that aims to ask questions about genre and audience appeal, I still want to know why The Possession is on track to actually exceed studios’ expectations. Is it because there’s really nothing else out there worth seeing? That can’t be, for Mike Birbiglia won’t stop tweeting about all the dozens of Q&As he’s hosting around the country for his directorial debut Sleepwalk with Me (2012). Is it because, for a change, The Possession centers not on a Catholic-tinged Satan overtaking a family’s young daughter but on an ancient Jewish demon entering the same kind of girl? A premise, it should be noted, that isn’t alienating Hispanic viewers as Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo predicted it would. (McClintock reports, “The film also is over-indexing in Hispanic Catholic markets.”) Is it because Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae musician, plays the exorcist? (I know that alone would draw my brother in.) If it’s not quite clear, I am being facetious. I know why horror movies, no matter how generic they are, are so “ubiquitous” (to borrow Ebiri’s term) and wildly popular. In short: they’re cheap to produce (not too many stars demanding hefty paychecks), and they reliably offer the spectator a sort of interactive thrill ride, complete with jumps in seats, shouts at the screen, and peeks at the screen through fingers laced across faces. In fact, it’s these kinds of conventions that ensure the genre’s popularity, and word-of-mouth has a lot to do with it (this is undoubtedly the case for The Possession, too).

Besides, Sam Raimi produced it. For the horror fan, that might lend it some credibility. More pertinently, however, I wonder what the appeal of this particular film is for the young women who went to see it. McClintock writes that the audience this weekend is mostly female: “[Women] made up 59 percent of the audience, while 54 percent of those buying tickets were younger than 25.” Which means the production company’s marketing strategy that McClintock alludes to (ie. targeting girls and young women) has paid off handsomely. Is it typical for exorcism movies to be marketed toward this demographic? I really have no idea what the advertising campaign consists of, and McClintock doesn’t clue me in, but I am curious about this. For horror films have, historically speaking, been either geared toward young men or toward neither sex in particular (once studios realized women like these kinds of scares, too!). Though I haven’t seen it, I understand that Jennifer’s Body (2009), as devised by screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, was supposed to be a feminist-inflicted mash-up between demon possession movies and slasher flicks. I guess I should see it to find out why this film tried to reach a diverse audience—but especially women, I would think—and failed. Wait, don’t tell me. It probably has to do with Megan Fox, right?

Movie Travel Diary: Los Angeles

Is this what you see when you think of LA? A view of the ocean from Santa Monica, without submerging your feet in the sand. Photo by the author.

In Jim Jarmusch’s omnibus film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Steve Coogan, playing a version of himself (as he is wont to do), says that “Los Angeles is a nice place to visit; it’s an even nicer place to leave.” This sentiment pretty much sums up how I always imagined the city to be, too. Before my sister moved out there in 2005 to begin a PhD in urban history and planning at the University of Southern California, I never wanted to go there. The collage of images plastered in my mind featured stereotypical scenes I couldn’t see myself playing out: hard-bodies sunning themselves on the beach a la Baywatch, snobby Beverly Hills salesgirls turning away Hollywood Boulevard prostitutes from their designer fashion boutiques, and members of warring gangs killing each other and innocent bystanders in drive-by shootings—in John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), Edward James Olmos’s American Me (1992), and more crucially, on TV news broadcasts. But overall, I thought Los Angeles was teeming with vapid and superficial people; they don’t call it La La Land for nothing. It’s where every aspiring film actor goes to realize his or her dream of becoming famous, and they still won’t admit it’s nowhere near coming true even as they’ve slung espresso drinks at Starbucks or waited tables for years.

Now my idea of the metropolis is (almost) completely changed. Believe it or not, not everyone in Los Angeles works in the film industry or even wants to. And people actually are born and raised in the city; they don’t just disembark from buses that originated in far-flung places. Aside from the year I lived in LA with my sister, I have been to LA on several occasions. The most recent was in May of this year. I have come to know the city as more than just a tourist would, even if I still can’t get my head around the linkages between freeways. You take the 101 to the 405 to the what? Oh, forget it. I leave all of that for my sister to parse, as she knows the freeways and “surface streets” like the back of her hand.

When I first came to LA in June 2005 with my dad and sister to help her find a place to live, we stayed in a budget hotel not far from MacArthur Park so that we could be near the USC campus and within striking distance of the other parts of the city we wanted to see. The area surrounding the park caters mostly to Spanish-speaking residents originally from Mexico and Central America, a reality you know is there but is hardly ever represented in the media. In fact, the movies present a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly white, and growing up I relied on such pictures as  Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), and The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996) as well as prime-time TV soap operas like Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and Melrose Place (1992-1999) to understand citylife in LA. I’m happy to tell you there’s far more to it than this limited purview would have you witness. That being said, my family could think of nowhere else to go on our first day other than the ocean (pictured above). So we went to Santa Monica, even though none of us likes the beach.

My sister eventually settled at Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards converge in Silver Lake, a one-time street-car suburb (if you can believe it!) and now a happening neighborhood lined with cafes, shops, and gay nightclubs. It’s situated between Hollywood and downtown (if that means anything to you). Yes, hipsters are here, but most of them don’t live here. When she moved in, one of the ways she described her apartment’s location was by saying that the laundromat where Claire Danes meets Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005) was just across the street on Sunset. That’s all well and good, but I’d never been to that part of the city before. In December of 2005, I visited Silver Lake for the first time, recognizing landmarks such as the laundromat (it’s no longer in business) and marveling at just how real the city became as a result of my sister and best friend now living here. I got rather acquainted with Silver Lake over the course of a few trips west, and suddenly, “my Los Angeles” popped up in movies everywhere. If you look closely, you will also see regular neighborhood businesses featured in The Last Word (Geoffrey Haley, 2008), though the eatery Town and Country is now the eatery Forage; I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009), wherein Paul Rudd drives by a bio-diesel fueling station at Sunset Junction on his way to work (it’s moved since then); and Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010), when the newly out-of-the-closet Christopher Plummer cruises Akbar and hears house music for the first time. Cute.

The LaunderLand where Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman meet-cute in Shopgirl. It no longer exists, so you can’t expect to find them there anymore. Photo by the author or her sister—I can’t recall exactly who.

Although Silver Lake is someplace very different from Laurel Canyon, I came to associate the bohemian atmosphere on display throughout Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) with the laid-back attitude of Silver Lake. While living in England, I repeatedly watched the loose rock ‘n’ roll meets uptight intellectualism culture clash drama because at the time it reminded me of home (wherever my sister is). I savored the opening credits sequence set to Mercury Rev’s symphonic song “On a Summer Day” and featuring stunning aerial cinematography of the LA freeways (clearly their entanglements come to symbolize the painful and dysfunctional relationships between and among the film’s characters). Furthermore, whenever I apply a certain daily moisturizing body lotion with a very distinctive scent, I immediately think of the LA I remember from my late 2005 trip because that’s where I first required it. The vision I have, no matter how incongruous it is to my lived experience? Laurel Canyon‘s opening montage.

A few months after this trip, my sister moved to another Silver Lake apartment, one where you can see the Hollywood sign from the window. After graduating from college in May 2008 and with a dour outlook on job prospects, I joined my sister there and didn’t leave until July 2009. So far, it’s probably been one of the best years of my life. When we weren’t at work or school, we spent practically every waking moment together. We walked around the neighborhood as often as we could to gain exercise, and we started the tradition of waving and shouting, “Hi, Steve!” whenever we passed by the 4101 Bar on Santa Monica at Sunset Junction—whether on foot or by car—because that’s exactly where Steve Coogan gets knocked out in the little-seen comedy Lies & Alibis (Matt Checkowski & Kurt Mattila, 2006). We went to the movies religiously, alternating among a national multiplex’s outpost in Burbank, a regional chain’s art-house location in Pasadena, and even ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. We dined out at our favorite restaurants: Mako in Los Feliz (RIP), California Chicken Cafe in Hollywood, Spitz in Little Tokyo, and The Oinkster in Eagle Rock, to name but a few. What can I say? We got around!

We ventured to the west side less often, mainly just keeping to Century City’s shopping mall or the Hammer Museum in Westwood (near UCLA). You don’t typically see these places on-screen, but Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012) caught my attention earlier this summer when I saw that Paul Dano’s reclusive author participates in a Q&A at the Hammer that’s hosted by his mentor, who’s played by none other than Steve Coogan. For someone who apparently doesn’t like LA, he sure can’t get enough of it, eh? Anyway, I also recognized Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz as the bookstore where Dano gives a reading from his new book, which is all about his experience with a made-up girlfriend (and that incidentally forms the basis of the film, too). Additionally, Dano meets Alia Shawkat for a meal at Figaro Cafe on the same street. For some strange reason, this section of Vermont is perceived as so indistinctly LA that it doubles for New York in Made of Honor (Paul Weiland, 2008) and Seattle in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present). I’ll never forget Sandra Oh either giving or receiving directions while standing across the street from the Figaro and the orientation being completely inaccurate. (It may supposed to be Seattle, but couldn’t they at least maintain Vermont’s north-south directional axis?)

No matter how long I lived in LA or how often I’ve visited, before the family’s May 2012 trip out there (to attend my sister’s graduation), I never managed to see the historic Bradbury Building located downtown. On our very last day in the city, I made sure that we made pilgrimage there and paid homage to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which you may recall is one of my favorite movies. The Bradbury, one of the oldest, continuously occupied buildings in downtown LA is where J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) squats in the movie’s future dystopic LA. From the photo below, you can easily see that it is far from being the squalid skyscraper on display in Blade Runner. More recently, it has appeared in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), both of which lend it a more romantic varnish. Hey, that’s how I’m going to remember it, too.

Although I have lived here, I have only begun scraping the surface. As my sister would be quick to point out, LA is so goddamn expansive and diverse, it’s impossible to know it inside and out, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Unlike with Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and Paris (to an extent), there isn’t even just one or two “LA movies” that best frame my LA experience. They’re all over the place. Speaking of which, I would really like to view Thom Andersen’s approximately three-hour-long documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) some time, preferably in the city. Wouldn’t that make the montage of movie scenes set in LA all the more hyper-real?

The majestic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. This is where Rick Deckard never saw natural light, only floating jumbotron screens. Photo by the author.

In roughly 24 hours (hopefully): another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But let’s discuss this city some more; tell me about your movie-related experiences in Los Angeles. Which film(s) shows off the LA that you know from your own wanderings around the metropolis?

News Clip: A Welcome Kind of Family

Wow. According to Sandra Gonzalez over at Entertainment Weekly, the ABC Family cable network has ordered a drama series about a “multi-ethnic family made up of both foster and biological kids, all of whom are being raised by two moms.” Well, color me impressed. Apparently, Jennifer Lopez has signed on to executive produce The Fosters (as it is currently known), whose creators are Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige (the latter of whom wrote and directed 2006’s Say Uncle, which explores why a busybody mom cries “pedophile!” when a middle-aged man regularly visits the neighborhood playground because he misses hanging out with his godson). No word yet on when the heavy-lifting pilot will premiere on ABC Family. (Seriously? Gay moms, biological and foster kids, and ethnic diversity? Better not be hammy!)

Anyway, this news couldn’t come at a more coincidental time. Just the other day, I lamented to my sister over the phone that, despite the critical and commercial success of The Kids Are Alright (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), we still don’t have any TV shows about gay women running a household together, raising kids. “And that’s gotta change,” I told her. Sure, we have Cameron and Mitchell on ABC’s comedy phenomenon Modern Family (2009-present), and in just a few weeks we’ll be able to watch the premiere of The New Normal on NBC, in which two gay men invite their baby’s surrogate mother into their lives during her pregnancy (and presumably, beyond). I’m genuinely intrigued by that one, too. As a general rule, anything that challenges the traditional definition of family piques my interest.

Long Take: Winchester ’73 Shows How the West Was Won Still Fascinates Us

Viewed August 9 & 16, 2012

Like some—maybe even many—people of my generation, I didn’t grow up with a fondness for the western. This kind of picture wasn’t widely produced when I was a youngster. Since genres go through cyclical periods of (often frenzied) popularity and then disuse, to put it simply, timing is important, but not everything. Although my father is a fan of the classic westerns of the 1940s and 50s, he never instilled in us kids an enthusiasm for movies set in the Old West, centered on macho disputes over land, women, and personal freedom that are couched as epic battles between good and evil. It’s only been in recent years, after being forced (yes, forced) to watch them and analyze their deeper meanings, that I have come to appreciate the western. And in an effort to clean out my nearly full DVR this summer, I submitted to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) and found a mythologizing film-story set in 1876 about how the titular gun “won the west” and conquered the popular imagination (thus, the film is also a study in American material culture). You’re about to enter Spoiler Territory ahead. Consider this your first and final warning. Then again, the movie’s sixty-two years old. The statute of limitations has been lifted for quite some time now.

Jimmy—sorry, James—Stewart stars as Lin McAdam, a highly skilled rifleman who rolls into Dodge City, Kansas, with best friend and sidekick Frankie “High Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell) on the centennial Fourth of July, a day that the town celebrates by hosting a shooting competition. The prize is one of one thousand priceless, perfectly manufactured Winchester repeating rifles, Model 1873. Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) confiscates McAdam’s and High Spade’s guns as soon as they enter town, since Dodge City is a no-gun zone. This means the only way McAdam can best his arch-nemesis Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who is also in town, is to beat him at this game, which he does with a lot of panache. In one of those now recognizably racist representations of American Indians, McAdam pays little money for a Indian spectator’s tribal necklace so that he may break off one of its medallions and blow a hole through it after Sheriff Earp throws it up in the air. Covetous of McAdam’s (fully operational) trophy, which McAdam declines to have engraved with his name for lack of time (a maneuver that makes for convenient story plotting), Dutch and his men ambush the winner, steal it from him, and ride out of town without collecting their own guns from the sheriff’s brother, Virgil. McAdam and High Spade are hot in pursuit.

Dodge City Sheriff Wyatt Earp, center, presides over a shooting competition between the just Lin McAdam, left, and the outlaw Dutch Henry Brown, right. Earp has no idea what his contest has set off. Image courtesy of http://www.listal.com.

Synopses of Winchester ’73 typically relate that the film tracks the journey of the rifle, as it is passed from one person to the next. Dutch loses it in a card game to the Indian trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) while seeking to refuel and arm his men at a saloon on the border with the Indian territory. Later, Lamont refuses to offer Young Bull (Rock Hudson in one of his earliest screen credits) the Winchester ’73, a rifle like the ones that Lakota Chief Crazy Horse (alongside Sitting Bull) and his men used to defeat Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn just months ago. In a deal gone wrong, Young Bull strips Lamont of the gun and then kills and scalps him off-screen. In this way, both sides want the rifle for protection and conquest, but it’s impossible to read their awed faces when in its presence without acknowledging that they have all bought into the myth that the gun, at least in retrospect, is “The Gun that Won the West.” In each man’s eyes, it’s his own ticket to greatness, infamy, legend. Not only will the Winchester ’73 help him reach all of his goals, it will bestow special god-like powers. (Yes, having a murderous streak running through you will make you believe you’re a god when you have the power to kill people from far away, without having to continually reload your weapon.)

For some of the men, like Steve Miller (Charles Drake), who gets it in the aftermath of an impromptu battle against Young Bull, the gun could potentially transform him from coward to brave hero. Except, it doesn’t. He doesn’t have it for more than a day. A supposed friend, the psychopathic Waco Johnny Dean (a charismatic Dan Duryea) shoots Steve dead in front of his fiancee, the former Dodge City saloon girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), whom Steve previously and temporarily abandoned when Young Bull chased their wagon the day prior, leading them to seek refuge at the camp of inexperienced U.S. cavalrymen led by Sergeant Wilkes (a funny Jay C. Flippen). It should be noted that during this hideout, McAdam and High Spade also happen upon the army’s makeshift outpost and, thankfully, successfully guide everyone in battle. McAdam rides away before Sgt. Wilkes discovers Young Bull’s rifle, and so he gives it to Steve, a golden opportunity for him to later, fatally, prove his manhood. Very fetishistic, indeed. (It’s worth noting, too, that Wilkes couldn’t have known that it’s McAdam’s rifle; he just wanted to thank him for his superb reinforcements. The historical paper trail on the gun’s provenance runs cold when one looks for the owner’s name on the engraving, which therefore suggests that the mythic Winchester ’73 belongs to everyone and no one at the same time. But, of course, as film-viewers, we know it belongs to one man specifically.)

The eponymous repeating rifle that belongs to McAdam, but from the look of it to everyone and no one in particular. Image courtesy of http://www.derekhill.wordpress.com

And that’s just it. Winchester ’73 is about men and their toys. Or so it would seem. From the beginning, we understand that McAdam and High Spade have been hot on Dutch Henry Brown’s trail for a long time for a specific crime he once committed, though we don’t know what it is. That he took off with the priceless rifle McAdam deservedly won is just an excuse to keep pursuing him. So, while I like to think of Winchester ’73 as a film that examines how a single material object shaped the lives of all those who came in contact with it, in the process both deconstructing and perpetuating the legend that the gun played a vital role in settlers’ so-called “civilized” domestication of the Wild West, I can’t help but notice that the gun itself is a MacGuffin. Sure, it’s not an empty plot device a la the eponymous Maltese Falcon in John Huston’s film noir from 1941; the Winchester is loaded with symbolism in cultural, historical, and political terms. However, McAdam doesn’t seem to want or need the gun to feel complete. He just really wants Dutch dead.

Things heat up once all parties reach Tascosa, Texas, where Dutch and his men botch a bank robbery. Waco Johnny Dean, a would-be co-conspirator, has brought with him Lola Manners. For when you take away a man’s life in outlaw country, you take with you his gun and his bride. Anyway, seeking information about Dutch’s whereabouts from Waco Johnny, McAdam has no choice but to kill his uncooperative informant, thereby releasing Lola from her prison of implied sexual slavery in one fell swoop. She’s grazed by a bullet from the gunfire in the street (following Dutch’s ill attempt at robbing), a hooker with a heart of gold because she tried to get a child to safety. McAdam chases after Dutch to the hills outside of town. Director Anthony Mann uses parallel editing to cut between the action in town and on the rocks. In this climatic scene, High Spade illuminates for Lola—and by extension, the audience—the reason for McAdam’s lust for Dutch’s blood: turns out they’re brothers, and Dutch (né Matthew) killed their upstanding father when he refused to offer shelter to his thieving son. For added pathetic emphasis, High Spade says Dutch shot his dad in the back. OK. We get it, he’s one spineless, evil dude, contractually bound to get his narrative comeuppance.

Honestly, the revelation that McAdam and Dutch are brothers is so contrived, a crucial piece of the story’s puzzle lazily tacked on before the super-imposed title card flashes “The End.” Definitely, if we knew of their familial connection early on in the film, which my father is convinced is the case (I swear to you, it’s not), the narrative would lose some of its suspense. But not much of it. In fact, if their backstory were more fleshed out throughout the picture, then the stakes would have been upped exponentially, kind of like how the paternal melodrama of Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) plays out between cattle rancher John Wayne and his adopted, rebellious son Montgomery Clift: will Wayne really make good on his promise to kill Clift in the end for his mutinous betrayal? In the very least, with an improved development of the brothers’ individual motivations in Winchester ’73, we wouldn’t have to rely on first impressions alone to size up Dutch’s character before he even makes a break for McAdam’s prize. Come to think of it, how did they manage, in that hotel room scuffle, not to hint at their relation? No warring brothers could plausibly accomplish that. Then again, if Mann and screenwriters Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase had taken the route I’m retroactively proposing, McAdam’s quest for the rifle would be even more transparently about beating his brother at a childish game of war and less about how “The Gun Won the West.”

In this promotional still for the movie, the self-aggrandizing sexual power that the Winchester ’73 gives off is completely unambiguous. That’s Lola in McAdam’s crotch, nursing a war wound. Image courtesy of http://www.hollywoodsgoldenage.com.

But the filmmakers themselves can’t make up their minds about what to do with the gun. (Or maybe I’m just projecting my own intellectual frustrations. That seems more likely.) Because in the end, after inevitably killing his brother, McAdam wins the war and takes back the spoils that are rightfully his. With the ruckus caused by the snatching of his toy now settled, he is also rewarded the love of a woman (who has proven herself good). Sure, she’s a flirt, but she’s also a defiant survivor clearly bedazzled by McAdam’s shooting skills and respectful interaction. He treats her like a lady, not a tramp. (In an earlier scene, before Young Bull’s not-so-surprise ambush, McAdam gifted Lola his six-shooter, and his gentlemanly gesture wasn’t lost on her: she was to shoot herself before letting any Indian take her captive.) So it appears as if there has been some underlying anxiety over McAdam’s masculinity, after all. In other words, regaining the Winchester ’73 does complete his own transformation. Implicitly, but not-so-subtly, he couldn’t settle down with a woman (preferring High Spade’s company to anyone else’s, it has to be said) before he successfully vanquished his brother. And now that he has his rifle prize back, his righteous, unambiguously heterosexual manhood is restored and he can aggressively pursue romance with Lola. That’s just about what you would expect from any and all westerns, but Winchester ’73 more explicitly weds generic trademarks (such as the domestication of redemptive rogue souls) to the complex processes of mythologizing the Wild West in popular American culture. It does this, my friends, by harnessing the emotive and symbolic power of the titular gun.

Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?

For the past week or so, one image has stuck with me. It’s of a woman riding alone in a tiny space capsule, hurtling ever closer to the outer reaches of the earth’s orbit. It’s unclear where she’s going and what she will do there upon arrival. I imagine she has a purpose; I just don’t know what it is. No matter how many times she returns to me as a vision, during the day and at night, I can’t see what’s ahead of her or what she’s left behind. I want to know her story. I think it might be potentially interesting.

Despite being unable to develop the lone astronaut’s narrative, I can easily trace the different threads of information that likely led to her appearance in my mind’s eye. First and foremost, the first American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, died on July 23 at the age of 61, after quietly suffering from pancreatic cancer for more than a year. After her groundbreaking trips on the shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and their attendant media circuses, she lived out of the limelight, retiring from NASA in 1987 and then pouring all her energy into teaching and running the company she founded in 2001, Sally Ride Science. Ride’s high school classmate and sometime book collaborator Dr. Susan Okie recounts in The Washington Post her driven friend’s company mission to promote science and technology as “cool” for middle school students and their teachers, to inspire young girls especially to pursue careers in these fields. I don’t have a scientific or mathematical mind (I really wish I did!), but I so deeply respect Sally Ride and all of her accomplishments.

The pioneering American astronaut Sally Ride. Photo courtesy of NASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Accessed at The New York Times.

Then I read, before the August 1 premiere at Georgetown University, about a show titled History Matters/Back to the Future, Scenes by Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage. I’m no authority on the theater, but I know enough to understand where the event’s organizers are coming from: there is an alarming disparity between the number of produced plays written by men and those by women. Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown opens her account of the theatrical production, which coincides with the university’s Women and Theatre Program’s yearly conference, stating the cold, hard truth:

It is a peculiar distinction in the world of playwrights: Works written by men are often called plays. But works written by women are often categorized as “women’s plays.”

“There is a notion in the canon, when men write plays, they speak to the entire human condition, and plays written by women speak to women,” said actress Kathleen Chalfant, a 1993 Tony Award nominee for best actress in a play for her role in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.

Even plays written by men that are “particularly masculine and talk about issues particular to men, are never called ‘men’s plays,’ ” she added.

Now, I don’t envision the lone astronaut’s narrative trajectory taking place on the stage (I don’t think in terms of the theater). But Brown’s and Chalfant’s observations made an impression on my psyche. Specifically, Chalfant’s choice of words really struck a chord with me, when she argues that there is a perception that plays written by men “speak to the entire human condition” whereas ones by and/or about women can only hope to speak to women, as if the woman’s experience is less than or at least incapable of elucidating the human experience for everyone. Certainly, this isn’t a new controversy or even one confined to the theater. There is a persistent gender bias across all art forms, manifest in libraries and bookstores, museums and galleries, and—most precious to me—cinemas. I think the image of the female space cruiser appeared to me unconsciously as a direct response to the bone-headed notion that women playwrights can’t, in Chalfant’s words, “speak to the entire human condition.” The drive to explore the worlds beyond our own and the desire to comprehend our purpose and beginnings are characteristically human. I know the lone astronaut’s journey of self-discovery is something of a hyperbole, but what if her story could capture for men and women alike a uniquely feminine take on the human experience?

Admittedly, I can’t wave any sci-fi geek flag, having never read Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, or even Ray Bradbury. (But tell me, does Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World grant me at least a few colors? ‘cuz I loved that as a teen.) I’ve only ever seen two episodes of Star Trek, and that number indexes all iterations of the series. I’ve never cracked open a comic book, let alone picked one up. However, I can and do appreciate smart, sophisticated, hard-core sci-fi movies, particularly the kinds that tackle what it means to be human. This is why I love Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and will never tire of it. I also like Duncan Jones’s directorial debut Moon (2009), starring the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell as the lone astronaut on a three-year-mission stationed on the massive titular rock. While I don’t suspect the female space explorer of my imagination is ultimately on a quest to discover her true identity in the same way that Rockwell’s Sam Bell does (see, I’m trying not to spoiling anything!), I see her journey as equally alienating, mundane, but also extraordinary.

Most importantly, I envision her story as one that doesn’t hinge on her relationships with men or children. She isn’t escaping a tumultuous love affair, or searching for her true love on another planet, for that matter. She isn’t trying to put her life back together because she lost a child or because she can’t have one. Don’t get me wrong: she’s not without her problems, but her problems don’t define her. And I’ll be damned if I ever base her entire identity on whether or not she has a significant other and/or whether or not she is a mother. After all, wife and mother are historically the only culturally acceptable roles prescribed to women. And in the cyclical culture wars about women’s place in society, debates about the constitutionality of accessible birth control measures and the (im)possibility of a woman “having it all” (meaning: balancing a rewarding career with a family) abound today. Just look at the uproar new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer caused when she announced that she plans to return to work soon after the birth of her first child. The first hot-button issue affects me directly, whereas the conversation about rich white women’s struggles to negotiate their seemingly opposed desires for a career and family addresses me in no way at all. I have no career to speak of and, as of right now, I would be happy never to have children.

——————————

The roles afforded women in movies are no better. We’ve heard this a million times before. Writing an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of the Indiewire blog Women and Hollywood and the co-founder and artistic director of the woman-centric Athena Film Festival, argues that the upper echelons of the American film industrial complex, aka “Hollywood,” should be more accommodating to stories about women because they represent half the ticket-buying public in the U.S. (she cites data from the Motion Picture Association of America). Silverstein writes,

Imagine the successes if there were more female characters onscreen than the 33 percent that appeared in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011. And imagine if more than 11 percent of those movies had female protagonists.

I find it alarming that the films she uses as evidence that female-driven movies can be resounding box-office successes include Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008), Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008), and Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) as well as its first sequel. Especially since this is coming a little more than two months after she published a short editorial about how purging “chick flicks” from our culture is absolutely necessary. I know, I know, she’s merely pointing out that there is a “hungry, underserved female audience” for movies about women, but all of these examples represent just what she wants to see banished:

You know the kind of movies I mean. They inevitably star Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl. Most involve a wedding, a boyfriend or, usually, both. And they’re often just bad movies.

Arguing that even Oscar-winning films like Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983) and Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) are tainted with the label “chick flick,” Silverstein opines, “I want Hollywood to stop making these formulaic films and branding all movies starring women, good and bad, as chick flicks.” I definitely agree with this sentiment, and if we return to Silverstein’s first op-ed piece I mentioned, I also concur that having more women directing, producing, writing, photographing, and editing films would help alleviate the problem. Though, when you look at her three examples for women-focused blockbusters, Mamma Mia! and Twilight are both written and directed by women. Yikes.

I will say this: Silverstein sure does like to invoke Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) and its approximately $170 million domestic overhaul. But she fails to draw attention to the fact that its star, Kristen Wiig, wrote the screenplay with her old friend from their days with the improv group The Groundlings, Annie Mumolo. You’ve read me attest to Bridesmaids‘s assets before, so I won’t indulge in too much praise here now. Suffice it to say that, despite a subplot involving Wiig’s romantic dalliances with two diametrically opposed males, the film is actually about female friendship, as Wiig the maid of honor and Maya Rudolph the bride must adjust their long-term intimacy in expectation of the latter’s nuptials. Moreover, I think remembering that Wiig, the darling of Saturday Night Live from 2005 to 2012 and the scene-stealer from the likes of Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) and Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009), co-wrote her own breakout role isn’t just necessary, it is also a starting point when examining the trend making the rounds this year in film and on television.

——————————

Of course, I’m talking about actresses making their debuts as produced screenwriters in order to address the dearth of quality film roles for women. Within the last two weeks alone, indie starlet Zoe Kazan has released Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012), her critical dissection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that men often write for their male protagonists, and just two days ago Rashida Jones went against type in Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). A regular from my favorite TV comedy, Parks and Recreation (2009-present), Jones acknowledges in an interview with Melena Ryzik of The New York Times that she usually plays “the dependable, affable, loving, friend-wife-girlfriend,” and that as co-scribe with former boyfriend-turned-best-friend Will McCormack, she was finally able to star as “a character that’s maybe less than likable.”

French-American actress Julie Delpy’s fourth feature, the sequel to 2 Days in Paris (2007), hits theaters next Friday. 2 Days in New York (2012) may not be her first film as writer-director-star, but like Kazan and Jones, she aims to write a “real” woman, not a fantasy that men have of (French) women, she tells Karina Longworth of LA Weekly. In the new film, she co-stars with Chris Rock as a successful, artistic/intellectual couple forging a blended family, and the arrival of her father, sister, and former lover from France threatens to upturn what they’ve built, albeit comically so. Casting Chris Rock as her romantic lead may provide a pointed commentary on race in contemporary America, especially since neither Marion nor Mingus make a big deal of their interracial coupling (it’s presented matter-of-fact, according to Longworth), but you might even say that as much as the role is a welcome leap for Rock, it may also bring fans of his raunchy stand-up into the art-house.

Mingus and Marion in bed, trying to overcome the vagaries of adult life in 2 Days in New York. Image courtesy of http://www.girls-can-play.blogspot.com.

I wish to avoid analyzing a film I have yet to see (for the record, though, I really like 2 Days in Paris), and I want to acknowledge Delpy’s frustration with being categorized as a woman filmmaker: “By making it obvious that it’s rare, you also minimize my work.” In this way, she echoes Nora Ephron, who, of When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) fame, died June 26 of pneumonia at age 71 (she had suffered from acute myeloid leukemia). As recounted in Charles McGrath’s obituary in The New York Times, Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing, one of her book of essays, that she won’t miss panels on Women in Film when she dies (sorry, Melissa Silverstein). Although Ephron’s films are dominated by female protagonists and might even have been branded “chick flicks,” her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally… is such a cultural touchstone that men and women often agree that the film is, in the words of Vulture’s editors, “arguably the greatest rom-com of all time.” In conversation with All Things Considered‘s Audie Cornish on NPR, Rashida Jones interpreted the interviewer’s observation that Celeste and Jesse Forever resembles Ephron’s beloved story about friends turning into lovers, although in reverse, as “the biggest compliment.” I haven’t seen Jones’s film yet, so I cannot weigh in on that score.

Upon their arrival in New York, Sally and Harry enjoy a bite at Katz’s—much to Sally’s memorable delight. Image courtesy of http://www.impassionedcinema.com.

But are these women of summer, written and actualized in each case by the same woman, really a step in the right direction? According to The Washington Post‘s chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, that answer is “no.” She recently published a critical inventory of the season’s female characters, girls and women alike. While she finds much to celebrate when it comes to young women defying stereotypical roles, she finds the women leave much to be desired. And I quote:

At the box office, the summer of 2012 may be about breaking records with movies about boys and their toys (“Hulk smash,” indeed). But culturally, the season’s been all about the girls. Beginning with Snow White and the Huntsman, continuing through Brave and with a dash of talk-worthy premium cable thrown in, girls seem to have taken over screens both large and small, their inner struggles magnified into mythic battles, their most mundane problems examined with probing, disarmingly frank intimacy.

Hornaday also reminds us that Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) and this spring’s mega-hit The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) also feature strong-willed female teens who don’t need a Prince Charming to rescue them, as they fight epic duels on their respective quests to right evil social injustices. By comparison, the female leads of Ruby Sparks and Celeste and Jesse Forever, for example, are pathetic. In particular, Hornaday writes,

But as clever as Ruby Sparks is in puncturing the male wish-fulfillment fantasy of unconditional acceptance and worship, Kazan’s Ruby never gets to be her own fully realized character, instead playing a role similar to that of the Magical Negro, who exists chiefly in order to help the white male hero find transcendence, meaning and the happy ending that was somehow never in doubt.

As you might recall, I had similar misgivings about the conclusion of Ruby Sparks; it upholds the convention of other love stories featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls when the narcissistic novelist finally releases his titular creation from his magical spell and later goes on to meet the girl of his dreams who resembles his ideal far too much. When it comes to Celeste and Jesse Forever, Hornaday laments that Jones’s eponymous character, a

put-together and on-track young woman who, as she navigates a complicated relationship with the far less directed man in her life (played by Andy Samberg), is made to look either uptight, witchily judgmental or miserably alone — before she sees the light and realizes that she’s the problem, what with her intelligence and high expectations and all [emphasis in original].

Celeste and Jesse Forever: a couple tries to stay best friends through a painful divorce. Image courtesy of http://www.cnn.com.

Certainly, I cannot just take this one critic’s word as the gospel truth. I will see these movies, eventually, to make up my own mind, but I can understand what Hornaday is saying. After all, both Ruby and Celeste are characters defined by the relationships that they have with the men in their lives. Marion of 2 Days in New York, which Hornaday doesn’t discuss, also fits the bill, and she’s also a mom.

But there’s one last facet to this trend of actresses writing their own parts: overwhelmingly, their chosen genre is the romantic comedy, which is historically perceived as a woman’s form (even though, of course, it has more male writers than it does female ones). As if men don’t enjoy movies about the pursuit of love and that very special happy ending! (There are enough movies focalized through the heterosexual male point-of-view, such as Annie Hall [Woody Allen, 1977] and Knocked Up, which are both written by men, to warrant a future article about the so-called masculinization of the romantic comedy.) To cut a long story short, I would like to see more female filmmakers work in other idioms and elevate female film characters to be more than just the wife and mother, the Madonna or the Whore. How about a chilling thriller or detective story? or a smart and sophisticated actioner? I would love a provocative sci-fi movie, too. I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011) qualify? Well, star Brit Marling may have co-written the script about the possibility of finding redemption as if in a parallel universe, but—spoiler alert!—her character winds up having a sexual affair with the man whose family she killed in the car accident, an irreparable act for which she seeks forgiveness as a means of escape. This plot point is hardly original, as it falls into that same class of tropes I can’t stand.

There is some hope, though, that more complex female characters will continue to spring up. I would venture that at the moment only Girls, the controversial HBO comedy-drama series created by its star Lena Dunham (who also writes and/or directs some episodes), presents a convincing and nuanced vision of (young) women’s relationships—to men, parents, work, culture, and friends. The program follows the runaway success of Dunham’s first full-length motion picture, Tiny Furniture (2010), which she also wrote, directed, and starred in; it’s an acerbic and poignant study of the post-college malaise and the attendant struggles to understand the world and be understood within it. Girls may ostensibly be an urban exploration of recent college grads’ experiences with love and sex, tracking their conflicting desires for independence and dependable partnership, but in actuality it is a brilliant love story about two best friends, Hannah (Dunham) and Marnie (Allison Williams), who live together and grow apart while trying to make it big in the city.

Hannah and Marnie are Girls and best friends who try hard not to let their dealings with men dictate who they are as individuals. Image courtesy of http://www.trippedmedia.com.

In the fall, Mindy Kaling, a staff writer, producer, and regular cast member of The Office (2005-present), will premiere her own show, entitled The Mindy Project (check out the trailer here). Yeah, I sincerely hope that as the program’s creator, producer, and writer, she changes the name before it first airs; as it stands, the title makes it sound like the comedy series, in which she plays a gynecologist, is a celebrity-hosted reality show or stand-up special. The trailer demonstrates that the self-professed lover of romantic comedies has deployed many generic conventions in creating this universe of characters and situations, including, but not limited to a drunken toast at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, women’s anxiety over aging, and a female sidekick who tells her, “Your life is not a romantic comedy!” I know, I probably shouldn’t be looking forward to this, but I like Mindy Kaling, and I hope that her show—in the very least—offers an interesting critique of socially acceptable behavior for women. If not that, then maybe I’ll watch it just to dissect it.

——————————

Let’s return once more to the image I have of a woman astronaut gliding through space alone. I’m still nowhere closer to developing her back-story or devising her narrative purpose. Right now, she just represents the potential of female characters in fiction, but films in particular, who have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women. She’s out there, doing it her own way, and if she comes back, maybe then I can make sense of her. Perhaps she will fulfill my fantasy and teach us something about what it means to be human—and not just a woman.

Long Take: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Comes Up With an Easy Catch

Viewed July 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)

Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.

The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.

But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.

But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.

Sheikh Muhammad, Fred, and Harriet go over their plans—for salmon fishing in the desert and, implicitly, for romance. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com

More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)

Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.

Sheikh Muhammad and Harriet supervise the construction of a Yemeni river for salmon fishing. He comes prepared with a sheathed dagger at his waist. Image courtesy of http://www.pinkjulepabroad.com

In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?

This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!

Patricia, Malcolm, and Sheikh Muhammad pass a line of Yemeni guards in kilts. Image courtesy of http://www.allmoviephoto.com

My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?

I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.

As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.

Long Take: John Carter, Stuck on Mars & in the Past

Viewed June 15 & 16, 2012

Unless you live on Jupiter, you already know that Walt Disney Studios’s $200+ million gamble on animator Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, John Carter (2012), proved disastrous. That’s putting it mildly. The filmmakers infamously bet that an aging “built-in” fan-base for author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s rollicking sci-fi adventures set on the Red Planet, having first been published approximately one hundred years ago, would flock to the theater, bring their children and in some cases their grandchildren, and opt for tickets to see the picture in 3D. Since Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner has already done all the research and spoken to the right folks, I’m not going to recount how the studio’s marketing decisions “doomed” the film right out of the gate. John Carter may be destined to be remembered for costing studio chairman Rich Ross his job, but I like to think of it as an ultra-expensive exercise in needless film-making. In other words, Disney will probably think twice before handing its keys over, again, to a fanboy director who’s adapting an obscure source. Here’s another friendly warning: even if you have never seen the film, I am going to spoil it down below.

Based on the initial novel in the series, A Princess of Mars, the heavily CGI’d spectacle chronicles the Martian adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate cavalryman-turned-aspiring treasure hunter. Through a chance encounter with a “thern,” he comes into the possession of a medallion that accidentally transports him to Mars, which the natives refer to as “Barsoom.” He’s arrived at the worst possible time (or is it the best?) because the warrior class of Barsoomians from Zodanga (headed by Dominic West as Sab Than) mean to rage war against all others on the planet, especially the peaceful science-enthused city of Helium. It’s obvious that the disaffected Civil War veteran has embarked on a journey that will make it impossible for him to stay neutral. In the end, he manages to unite the Helium kingdom with the green, giant, and clan-like Tharks (who had initially imprisoned him) against Sab Than. Oh, and he marries the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), too.

Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton mentions on the behind-the-scenes documentary included on the DVD that the hardest part about adapting the story was condensing into a two-hour-long film a narrative that had previously unspoiled over the course of several novels. This is a fundamental mistake, because the greatest challenge is presenting John Carter of Mars, as it was initially known, as fresh, original. That same documentary captures the observations of writers, scientists, and other filmmakers, as they talk about how Burroughs’s novels are foundational texts within the sci-fi fantasy genre, having influenced the likes of Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and perhaps most noticeably George Lucas. I am no Star Wars fan (I was as a kid), and I have never read a Superman comic or seen any of the property’s cinematic iterations, but I have consumed enough popular American culture to know that John Carter the film is wholly unoriginal. It has really shitty visual effects, too.

From the outset, it hit me that John Carter is a blend of multiple genres, the sci-fi fantasy and the western being the most prominent. Aside from the scrummages across the desert-like surface of Barsoom, John also faces dust-ups with Apaches and the Union Army before his defection to the fourth planet from the sun; the latter had unsuccessfully attempted to enlist him, given his excellent skills as a cavalryman. There is also a fair amount of romance, what with his partnership with the runaway Dejah Thoris, a sword-wielding scientist. It was most striking to see the costumes of the Red People of Barsoom (those of Zodanga and Helium alike), because the actors look as if they just walked off a sword-and-sandal picture, or in the very least Starz’s Spartacus sex and death series. Finally, John Carter morphs into a war movie for the last act, when John convinces the Tharks to join him on his counterattack mission to Helium, which is about to be invaded Trojan-style. What’s worse is that John gives a rousing speech to potential Thark recruits covered in blue goo, the innards of a beast he had just slaughtered, thereby intentionally resembling Mel Gibson’s anachronistic William Wallace from Braveheart (Gibson, 1995). Talk about a beast that just won’t die.

Despite these stylistic references, John Carter definitely reminded me more of other recent live-action Disney adventure movies, such as the National Treasure films (Jon Turteltaub, 2004 & 2007), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Turteltaub again, 2010), and especially the box-office dud Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, 2010). Like National Treasure and its more ridiculous sequel, there is a treasure-hunting element to John Carter, which is framed by a subplot involving John’s nephew, conveniently named Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading about his uncle’s secret Barsoomian adventures in his diary. Compared to Prince of Persia, John Carter also emphasizes fate/destiny in the story and is set in a similar landscape. It’s another planet, sure, but there’s a lot of sand.

More compelling, however, is the observation that the film is another example of contemporary pop culture’s fascination with romanticizing the Confederacy, which isn’t just a dangerous practice but possibly also a morally reprehensible one. In this way, John Carter joins the ranks of the runaway successes True Blood (2008-present) on HBO, the History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys (Kevin Reynolds, 2012), AMC’s Hell on Wheels (2012-present), and even Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003) Oscar bait, among others. Maybe I am being too hard on these products since the Civil War ended 147 years ago, but anything that sugar-coats this horrific period of American history, especially when it comes to slavery, necessitates a wider perspective. In John Carter, we get the sense that he is a reluctant war hero, a rebel within an organized rebellion, who stands for nothing but having the freedom to do whatever he wants. That just happens to be gold-digging, of the literal kind. The Union Army, while doubtless infallible, is presented as a band of coercers and torturers (they killed his wife and daughter during the war). In this sense, his rugged individualism is portrayed as expressions of political revolution, grief, and capitalism, thereby romanticizing his character as fundamentally American. Even in this day and age, I recognize no part of myself in John Carter.

Like Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), John Carter leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to story, and there are many plot holes, such as how the earthling can breathe on the planet. Another element that is never explained is John’s ability to bound along the surface of Barsoom, eventually scaling impossibly tall heights, from the ground to floating warships and back again. This skill, if you will, though it is more an innate ability, certainly saves his life a number of times and ultimately empowers him to save all of Barsoom. It is what convinces the Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) to spare his life, even after having taken him prisoner. But on a more basic level, it’s clear that this “gift” likens him to Superman, and therefore in 2012, his prowess seems unimaginative to the common spectator.

How is it that there are two kinds of Martians Barsoomians, the human-like personages from Zodanga and Helium as well as the fifteen-foot-tall Tharks, who each sport four arms (and are thus computer-generated)? How did these different beings evolve? Although the Tharks more closely resemble the American Indians of the southwest, given the foreign language they speak, identification with living off the land, domestication of horse-like creatures, and complex cosmology, those from Zodanga and Helium are called “the red people.” It is a descriptive term, since their skin is incredibly tan and covered in tribal tattoos scribbled in red paint. In this way, the filmmakers have divorced the derogatory connotation from the history books on relations between colonists and Native Americans, which is disrespectful in its revisionism. I can’t recall whether or not Tharks ever have epithets wielded at them.

Burroughs probably wrote the story so that the peoples of Helium and Zodanga anatomically resemble humans on Earth, but I couldn’t help thinking how different watching the film would be if John had fallen in love with a princess of a demonstratively different race. In this post-Avatar age, it is easier than it has ever been for audiences to accept a romance between an earthling and a more exotic-looking being. Then again, my more progressive ideas on love and relationships are too out-there. After all, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) chooses to inhabit his avatar forever so that he may live as a Na’vi and continue to romance Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), thereby adopting the host culture completely.

Returning to mapping the major plot holes of John Carter, it is important to point out how the mystical energy source that Matai Shang (Mark Strong) bestows upon Sab Than presents its own set of unanswered questions. As a thern, or an angel-like being in the service of the Goddess Issus, Matai Shang ensures that everything in space and time goes according to plan. He’s a lot like John Slattery or Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011), only he is one bad dude. I wonder, then, is Matai Shang’s gift to Sab Than all part of Issus’s plan for Barsoom? If that is the case, then that makes the Goddess malevolent, especially toward the devout Tharks.

It’s also worth mentioning that Dejah Thoris, the princess from Helium, was on the verge of presenting to the science academy a device she had developed that created a synthetic form of the same energy source Sab Than abuses. (The filmmakers give the energy source a name, but I don’t remember it, and it’s not in my notes.) Her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), reluctantly arranges the marriage between Dejah and Sab Than in order to protect his kingdom. Dejah secretly runs away, looking for help, and happens upon John when he is in mid-air. Dejah reveals herself to be not just beautiful, smart, and disobedient; she is also skilled in the art of battle, kind of like Princess Leia. Sound familiar?

Anyway, part of Dejah’s narrative arc involves an existential crisis. As a scientist, she is skeptical of Issus’s existence, but when she accompanies John into a temple that harnesses the mystical energy source located on a sacred a river (a setting that recalls ancient Egyptian mythology as well as ancient Anatolian geography), she recognizes Issus exists. She also acknowledges that therns, of which she originally thought John was one, are real and use Issus’s power. Unfortunately, like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s in Prometheus, Dejah’s crisis of faith isn’t resolved; while she no longer denies Issus’s existence or writes off Tharks’ religious beliefs as legend, she does not convert. But this may be the case because she mostly throws her weight behind John, the embodiment of free will, who trumps the fate or destiny that Matai Shang seeks to carry out. This begs another question: is Issus, then, a benevolent goddess after all, if she foresaw that John would be the key to foiling Matai Shang’s destructive plot?

John Carter is overlong and rather boring. Despite its fantastical and mysterious aspects, it has no sense of levity and is completely humorless. As I previously mentioned, the expensive special effects are the opposite of spectacular, blending poorly with the live-action elements. The wooden acting from leads Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins only exacerbates this problem.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to discuss two more issues: the floating cities and the banths. In a nutshell, they represent what’s alternately intriguing and irrelevant about Burroughs’s vision today. First, John Carter’s opening looked promising, introducing the notion of floating cities on Mars so as to portray the planet’s cultures as diametrically opposed to those on Earth. Owing to my older sister’s professional interest in the history of the built environment, I am something of an amateur enthusiast when it comes to the design of cities. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t explore the implications of a floating city, particularly in terms of identity, industry, and war. I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars films in well over a decade, but I believe the metaphor that a spaceship is representative of a whole society is embedded in the story of the dueling Death Star and the Millennium Falcon.

Second, sometimes the banths, which are giant creatures that resemble the abominable snowman from Monsters, Inc. (Peter Docter, 2001) with a very bad case of the rabies, are unimaginatively called “white apes.” When you finally see an example, you understand that not only is everyone from Tars Tarkas to Dejah Thoris dead wrong when they call John a “white ape” (for they can’t possibly know that humans are descended from apes), you also realize that Burroughs, in his finite creativity, couldn’t come up with a better linguistic alternative, relying too heavily on what we know from the human, earthbound experience of the animal kingdom. Taken together, the floating cities and the banths demonstrate the limits of John Carter as a film, unable to recognize the opportunity to say something interesting about what it means to be human.