Monday, March 28, 2011

Mike and Tracy Review Sucker Punch: Part One

We saw Sucker Punch this weekend, and though we had a good time and left with some positive feelings about it, we couldn't stop talking about what we took issue with and--the eternal problem when two writers see a film that has huge promise but fails to deliver--what we would have done differently. What you see here is Part One of our follow-up conversation about the film. Ultimately we focus on the influence of anime on action movies, the golden rules of characterization, and exploitation as a feature of the superhero genre. Click to read Part Two.

T: So when we talked about the movie yesterday, we were talking about how it seemed at once to try to cast off exploitation--you know, it's dealing with all these female heroes who are clearly in a situation where other people are objectifying them, and where they're going to be objectified--but that the movie tried to simultaneously take us out of that world. It seems to say, "Look how ass-kicking they are, you can't pigeonhole them and say they're just objects," and that that seemed like a plausible way of making female heroes, but that it ultimately didn't work in the film.

M: Yeah, what I was saying was I didn't think there was really much of a vocabulary for talking about, or rather for showing that idea. Really it's visual, because I think you could write it more convincingly--I feel like I've read it more convincingly--but it's difficult to show in film, especially in film that, for good reason, wants to be exciting and pleasurable in the same way that action movies featuring men are. And it begins with the fact that it's difficult to show a woman's body in a way that lets them participate in the genre, and all the pleasures thereof, without it being purely exploitative--I mean, you don't shy away from showing a man's body.

T: Especially not in a superhero context.

M: Exactly. There you flaunt it--you give Iron Man armor that still looks like a naked guy. Your options for women are sort of a lithe sexy lady, or maybe there's a small girlish lady, or you go the superhero route and she's really curvaceous. Those are sort of your options for characters who look like they could maybe punch stuff. And then you could also have a big beefy lady. Some people think that's the best option, but to me, that's just exploitative in a new way. And then if you try and hide her completely, it's kind of the same problem, it's a reaction against exploitation where, if nothing else, there's shame about the body because it has to be hidden. So I feel like just giving a woman a body and dressing her for an action movie is almost impossible and it requires incredible deliberation.

T: Yeah. You know, and there's separation too, when they try to say she's a hero despite her body, totally separate from her body, then you have this weird divvying up of what makes a heroic woman. She can only be a hero entirely separate from that body even though she's clearly going to need that body to kick ass. So, yeah, I agree with you, and I think there needs to be a good way to do that, and that the movie did try to pointedly make us recognize that we're objectifying these girls, by putting them in an objectifying environment where they're exotic dancers or courtesans or whatever. But then they undermine that by furthermore trying to call our attention to how they break out of that, how they don't fit, how they overcome it. So again, they're just separating the body from hero-ness.

And then again, they realize they can't reject the objectification of the body completely, right, because this is the director of 300, so he's got to show you every movement of the body, he's got to show you exactly how gorgeous and slick and shiny this body is, he can't help it.

M: And, you know, they don't get on camera if they aren't sexy in that way. There's no way into the movie if you're not hot. Because if you think about it, given that we don't see most of the girls in what's apparently the real world of the story: It's either they are not that sexy--and I do think I saw a glint of thigh, in the one scene where we saw the girls fighting in the first real sanatorium scene--but she's imagining them that way, or they were all sexy to begin with. Certainly she's choosing to imagine them as very sexualized in her nested fantasy worlds, in that direction, and it's weird. Why is she imagining everybody so freaking hot? And I think they sort of addressed that with the fact that, A) her dancing is just this gratuitously sexual--

T: "Raw."

M: (laugh) And B) her dancing doesn't completely work, I mean she doesn't get out, so apparently her method was not perfect and there might have been a better way. She made a choice that might not be the only choice. But still, it's the vocabulary of the film; certainly it's all that the movie has to work with.

T: And they try to break that by pointedly recognizing it. Of course they're sexy because this is a movie, because this is fiction. Of course they're sexy, of course they're in these vulnerable situations that are designed to titillate. I mean, they have the scene where the line breaks between the reality of it and the fantasy of it, and here comes Sweet Pea, saying, "I get the schoolgirl thing, I get the helpless mental patient. I don't get being  lobotomized--what's sexy about that?" They're pretty clearly trying to get us to recognize everything as this kind of fabrication, and asking how we're going to get away from people in movies being sexy, from superheroes being sexy. The idea seems to be that maybe we can just break our minds away from feeling like this is all really sexy even if what we're seeing isn't free from sex. 

But I don't feel like I can separate my mental state from the kind of exploitation they're showing me--not when their main hero spends most of the movie just staring at the audience, and being that sort of empty receptacle for the viewer's desires. She spends so much of it looking straight at you. And even when she's looking in a mirror, she's looking at you; the mirror disappears in all those shots. So she's never really looking at anything other than us. And at first I thought maybe that was the problem--that the problem is that we can't identify with her because she's identifying herself as ours to look at. I thought that movie's problem was that it didn't give us anything substantial to identify with, because there's no way to get around the empty vessel effect when you're accentuating the hotness of the sexy female superhero. 

But I wonder--I thought about how much this movie relies on our familiarity with Japanese entertainment, tapping into anime types and characters and situations. This girl is spending so much of the movie fighting giant robots and dragons and destroying futuristic cities. And it seems like maybe they're trying to use Japanese filmmaking and storytelling as a touchstone to help make this sexy female superhero work (though there's really not much of an attempt to co-opt anything other than the basic tropes of it). Maybe this is what they're hoping will make the movie work; clearly Japan has tons of entertainment based on ass-kicking females, and it does seem to avoid the problems of objectification a little better. In Japanese animation the hero is often someone down to earth that you can often identify with, but just as often the hero is someone you can't really compare yourself to, and you have to learn to relate to them as a separate human being and not as a reflection of you or your desires.

Recently I've been watching some Sailor Moon for the first time in Japanese, and--you can't really easily identify with her. She's clumsy, she's ditzy, she's a little dull. And I don't think that show intends for you to identify with her--at least not to identify yourself with her, to identify your desires with hers. So I wondered then if that's the thing. If the problem with the movie was the way they never let the female superhero look away. Maybe the key is to teach the viewer to see the superhero as separate from them, rather than responsive to them. Sailor Moon almost never looks directly at the camera; the way she's drawn never comes close to acknowledging you're watching. I wonder if it's just totally a matter of eye contact, if the fact that Sailor Moon can look somewhere else, she can look past you and beyond you and in the opposite direction of you, if that's what makes her seem human, and if that's what gives her some dignity and selfhood, as opposed to the girl in Sucker Punch.

M: You seem to be saying maybe it isn't a matter of identification so much as a  matter of feeling like the character is a human in their own right, and I was thinking how, actually, in anime there's an aesthetic of really pointed alienation. Sometimes that can end up in a really gross place--there's a lot of uses of different components of the female body in anime to make you afraid, and sometimes that's interesting because they're dealing with the anxiety of sexual difference and how it makes us aware of our own embodiment, which is a real anxiety for people, for our culture especially, and sometimes it's just sort of exploitative and weird. But the most successful ass-kicking female I can think of in anime is Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, who is pointedly aliennated from you, who is completely her own person. And I remember reading a pretty interesting paper about that, actually, when I was writing about Porco Rosso, about how Miyazaki is interested in dealing with the sort of aliennation, the otherness, of women and nature, which is normally a pretty sexist combination--the difference being, I guess, that he actually really likes both of them. He likes women, and he likes nature, and so the fact that they can't necessarily be identified with in his movies doesn't feel exploitative, it feels like he's just sort of impressed by both figures. And so I end up pretty impressed too.

And of course Porco Rosso is interesting--my argument there was about how many economies were changed by World War I and World War II in ways that increased the participation of women, and so there was this really uncomfortable connection between war and this sort of economic liberation. In that film, you have a girl that you can identify with pretty clearly. She's the plane engineer, and in some ways she's more sympathetic than the main character. So in that case you're not alienated from her. But again, she's got her own objective--she wants to be an engineer for planes, and she likes that a lot, and ultimately she ends up very explicitly taking control of her life in a number of ways. And so, Miyazaki seems like a good model, and he seems to bear the point out that it actually can be identification--but it's not that identification is a prerequisite, it's just an issue of respecting the character as her own person who has desires that might frustrate those of the audience. I mean, certainly Princess Mononoke is attractive. And she's wearing a pretty skimpy outfit if I recall--I think most of her legs are showing. But she doesn't ever position herself in a way that's meant to show those things off to you. I mean, I barely even remember what she's wearing. And there's a similar thing with the girl in Porco Rosso--there's a focus on her clothing, because sometimes she dresses a lot like a man, as a sort of incomplete passing, and there's one scene where she ends up in her underwear. But it's not really for us as viewers to be titillated, it's not sexy. It's more about her as a person--she's embarrassed in that scene, and she sort of has to acknowledge that she's a girl, she's a woman. And it's sort of about her coming of age. It doesn't really feel titillating at all.

T: It's more her trying to figure out how to be a woman within the new framework.

M: Right, exactly. And the other characters are constantly commenting on how attractive she is. But you almost don't believe them. She's certainly not doing anything to encourage it.

T: Well, Miyazaki's characters are interesting for that reason because they don't seem to--yeah, often they are commented on as attractive or you know that somebody in the film finds them attractive. But it's rare that I think the audience would find them attractive, or that you'd feel forced to acknowledge it's an attractive body that you're looking at. I think that's unusual, because his style is so modest and sort of plain and natural; many of his characters share a pretty similar, simple face.

M: Even if you look at the dimensions of, say, Nausicaa--she's stacked, I mean she has just tremendous breasts that should really be getting in the way. But I never thought about that, because most of the time I'm looking at her face, and I'm thinking about her expressions and stuff, and it's a pretty basic cartoon face. I don't feel encouraged to think of her that way.

T: Yeah. And I think, like you're saying, that it is sometimes still identification that makes this genre work. I was thinking as you were talking about how it does seem to be a separating mechanism that lets these female characters be important, and humans in their own right, but sometimes that separating mechanism is still identification--it's just that that character's desires might frustrate either the main character's or yours. In Porco Rosso, her desires help Porco do what he wants to do, but that's not really what Porco wants her to do. I mean, he's the main character, so I think what he wants really has prerogative in deciding what has to happen in the story. By the end, something he wants to happen needs to be furthered or he stops being the main character. So there, I think it's more that her desires further his ends, but that's not the way he wants them to be furthered. She's going to help him fix the plane, but that's not the way he wants it done.

M: No. He didn't want her doing it, he didn't want to spend as much money as she spent on it, and he certainly didn't want the resolution--the way that it ends is not the way he wants it to end. But yeah, it all goes more or less towards his goals.

T: Which has to happen for a story to happen. So that part has to stay. But maybe it's a point of her somehow thwarting the way he wants things done rather than the thing he wants done.

Whereas in Sucker Punch, I think what was partly uncomfortable about everybody sort of joining--(laugh)I guess Baby, Baby Doll is the best name for her?

M: (laugh)See, stuff like that, you don't need to do that.

T: Yeah! My favorite part about that is, if you look at the rest of the list--there's several people whose names we know. We know Amber, we know Sweet Pea, we know Rocket. We know Baby Doll.

M: And Blondie.

T: We know Blondie. We know them. Everyone else on the list, if you look at the list, like 6-10 on the list of girls scheduled to dance, it's like "Sara," "Emily," "Kayla." They don't have those kinds of names, and you've got to wonder if that's the primary perk of crawling into the upper ranks of this world.

But yeah, when she pitches her plan to them, it not only feels unrealistic that they go with her plan as fast as they do, it feels uncharacteristic. I mean, we're immediately made to understand this characteristic of Sweet Pea that is then quickly broken, because Sweet Pea is very clear that she doesn't understand why they should do this. She's practical, rational, she's much more knowledgeable about the people here and how to keep safe around them--better safe than sorry. That's going to be her outlook. So the fact that she comes to accept that plan seems to put her at the mercy of that protagonist. And even the filmmakers' desires: "What can we do to make her let us get to the cool parts with the fighting girls?" Whereas I feel like if she was much more of a thorn in the side, if she even wanted to go through with Baby's plan but in a different way, I think that would become the movie very nicely. The fact that she does tend to keep safe and be practical seems to show that there's merit to her point of view as it contrasts with Baby Doll's. But their points of view aren't actually different enough to cast them as separate beings. Ultimately they all exist to serve this plot of watching them punch things in awesome hot ways, and I think that's ultimately what the movie comes down on as the point.

M: Yeah. I mean, I certainly didn't enjoy it much when that wasn't happening.

T: Although I was also confused when it was happening because it was so separated from any of the other realities.

M: Right. Which I think was sort of the point, but--ehh. A lot of it gets explained by saying, "Well, he was making a shitty movie to make a point about shitty movies," but at some point maybe just make a good movie.

T: Do you have any thoughts about how the voiceover assisted in that? Because I thought at some points that maybe that's the way they meant to save it. Maybe that's the way they meant to show that this woman has internal monologue, she has thoughts of her own, she has her own take on this story, she has her own story to tell.

M: Yeah, maybe. I was confused by that. I felt like the ending just told me to go home and fix the movie for myself. Like that's what it meant. "You have the tools. Go reinvent this film so it works."

T: (laugh)

To be continued

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