Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Elizabeth Olsen gives an amazing lead performance in the suspenseful 
and well-crafted Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I have been hearing about Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin) for some time, and now that I've seen it, I am happy to report that in most ways it lives up to its positive hype. It is a dramatic thriller about a young woman (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a cult to live with her sister and husband at their vacation home in Connecticut. The film cuts back and forth between Martha's interactions with her family in the present and her experiences being indoctrinated into a patriarchal, hippie-esque cult two years earlier.

As an exploration of the mindset of cult members and of the insidious techniques used by cult leaders to ensure new members' loyalty, this is a creepily fascinating and insightful film. The back-and-forth structure, cutting between Martha's present and past, is extremely effective, revealing narrative information to the viewer piecemeal and conveying Martha's fractured, subjective, disoriented state with chilling force.

Martha converses with Patrick (John Hawkes). 

Where I feel the film stumbles a little -- and now I must warn you of both upcoming SPOILERS and the possibility of an intrusive personal bias -- is when it starts following the real-life Manson Family "playbook" too closely. I am quite familiar with Vincent Bugliosi's book Helter Skelter (Norton, 1974) and the 1976 made-for-TV movie adaptation of the same name, so once Patrick and his followers start creeping rich peoples' houses, Martha Marcy May Marlene loses much of its spontaneity (and hence its dramatic edge) for me because I know all too well where it's heading. Any viewer even passingly familiar with the activities of the Manson family, particularly the Tate and LaBianca crimes, will have no difficulty seeing exactly where this film is going after a certain point.

Thus, after a couple key scenes alerted be to this intertextual "borrow," instead of remaining firmly on the edge of my seat, I started wondering: Is this Patrick guy just a Charles Manson copycat? Is that really all he is?

Sadly, the film's answer seems to be "yes." And in my view, this film doesn't need to raid Manson territory to be chilling. The early indoctrination sequences at the cult's secluded farm are incredibly spooky and disturbing in their own right, and could have maintained the film's unnerving suspense by means of the psychosexual power games already at play, without heading onto full-blown Helter Skelter-land. Alas, the choice to do the latter causes the film to lose some of its grip on the viewer -- or at least me -- because it makes one wonder if Manson-emulation was the Martha cult's whole purpose (and if so, what IS the purpose? WHY does Patrick just want to do the same stuff Manson did back in the sixties?). Or was it that Sean Durkin, the film's writer/director, simply could not think of anything else for Patrick and his followers to be up to?

John Hawkes is terrific as cult leader Patrick . . . 

. . . yet his character becomes a bit too overtly Manson-like and less interesting to me 
around the time of the scene depicted here. 

In any case, that is my main disappointment with this very well-shot, grippingly acted, and expertly crafted thriller. And since that disappointment originates with my extensive knowledge of the real-life Manson case -- I am a true crime fan and have read Helter Skelter at least three times -- it may not affect the experiences of less Manson-savvy viewers.

Otherwise, I have only praise for this tightly wrought and thematically provocative movie. The lighting and cinematography are stellar throughout, and the locations are beautiful and well-chosen. Martha Marcy May Marlene features a large dose of handheld camera work, which tends to be overused these days, yet this is the kind of film -- intimate, subjective, and creepily frightening -- where that style of cinematography really works well.

My only other critique, and it is particular to one scene only, regards the film's soundtrack: while it did not bother me in any other scenes, I found the musical score during Martha's party freakout scene to be distractingly loud and tonally heavy handed. Thumbs down there.

But thumbs up overall. I highly recommend this disturbing psychological thriller to my readers, and I only hope my spoilers will not spoil the impact this well-made movie has upon you.

The chillingly effective final shot (which is also a minute-plus long take) 
of Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I Am A Feminist

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien 3 (1992).

I assume that my feminist (that is, anti-sexist), anti-racist, anti-discrimination views are quite clear by now, but it occurred to me in light of some Facebook responses to my Terminator post that maybe I should provide a bit of back story and explanation for my deep commitment to social equality.

My journey toward feminism began when I was quite young, in the context of my extended family. My parents are originally from central Indiana, though they moved to the West Coast once my dad got his first professional job just after I was born. Growing up, I was always told -- and saw with the evidence of my own eyes -- that my maternal grandmother was an exceptionally intelligent woman, who could have been an excellent lawyer had the gendered assumptions of her time and place been different. She worked as County Clerk of her home county for approximately seven years in the early 1950s, and as Court Reporter for the county judge for four to six years after that. Yet it is my understanding that it would have been somewhat unthinkable for her, a farmer's wife in 1950s Indiana, to seek the bar and work as a full-blown lawyer. This always made me feel sad, baffled, and (ultimately) angry.

Mind you, I do not know how my grandma actually felt about this, and I don't recall ever talking with her about it. But the oft-repeated tale that "your grandma would have made a great lawyer" resonated deeply with me and provided me with my first lesson in the reality of structural sexism.*

Once I got to college in 1989, it wasn't long before I took a women's studies course, "Introduction to Feminist Theory and the Women's and Men's Movements," taught by Gloria Orenstein at USC during Spring Semester 1991. This course, in which we read key works like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and learned about the history of women's liberation, was a key turning point for me. It gave me terms, language, and concepts with which to articulate my deep discomfort and anger toward our patriarchal, sexist society. And it set me further on the path toward becoming an academic feminist.

That path led me, some years later, to graduate school at the University of Oregon, where I became a student of feminist film scholar Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. I highly recommend Karlyn's work to anyone interested in issues relating to women, feminism, and popular film and television. Her early work on female comedians and the romantic comedy genre -- encapsulated in her first book, The Unruly Woman (1995) and her really great article "Comedy, Melodrama, and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter"** -- is absolutely essential stuff. Her latest book, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (2010) is just flat-out superb, and I teach from it all the time. Karlyn is obviously an academic, but her background is in journalism, which lends her jargon-free writing style a clarity and directness not always found in scholarly publications.

Anyway, during my graduate school training under Karlyn, my feminism found its voice and I started writing about issues of gender and sexuality in popular and independent films. I still do, and I also teach courses in feminist approaches to understanding film and popular media.

One thing I teach my students is that sexism isn't ONLY Hollywood's fault, yet the images and ideas circulated by mainstream films certainly perpetuate the bigger societal problem of gender inequality. This is why it's called structural sexism -- it is built into the infrastructure, institutions, and assumptions of our culture.

Want some evidence? Try this:

This chart found on page 11 of this 2012 U.S. Census Report.

That is a sobering chart whose data gives the lie to anyone who thinks women are treated equally to men in our society or that feminism in no longer needed. Even in such a simple matter as equal pay for equal work, we still have a long way to go.

And things may actually be worse in Hollywood than they are in American society writ large. Check out this interesting article about USC media scholars who are working to concretely quantify what feminist analysts and savvy laypeople have known for years about unequal gender representation in film.

The article presents statistical data showing that "in 2013, only 29 percent of characters [in the top 100 grossing Hollywood films] were female, and a mere 28 percent of the films had a female lead or co-lead." Sadly, this comes as no surprise to those of us who study Hollywood for a living. Nor does the even more discouraging data about women working in production jobs in Hollywood: "When it came to the people behind the camera — in the roles of director, writer and producer — only 16 percent were women."

Source: This article by Walt Hickey.

This saddens me greatly because (obviously) I love movies and I do not like that the industry responsible for making some of the best and most influential films on planet Earth is so pervasively and unrepentantly sexist, on both sides of the camera.

Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with this post about the need to reject the horrible, demeaning concept of "strong women" characters -- we need well-rounded female characters, NOT "strong" ones -- and this related post about the Trinity Syndrome, i.e., the tendency for seemingly powerful female characters to be marginalized by male ones in the movies in which they appear. I also urge my readers who are interested in these matters to see Anita Sarkeesian's sharp rundown of the Bechdel Test, which is a quick and handy (if somewhat limited) guide to sexism in the film industry:

So what can I do about these sobering statistics? What can I do about structural sexism in movies?

Well, on the scholarly side, my anti-sexist, anti-racist beliefs have led me to write (or co-write) articles like this one and this one, exposing the implicit sexism and racism of the rise of geek culture. (The short version: popular geekdom is a guise assumed by white masculinity in order to keep itself front and center in American culture, as it always has been. Onscreen geeks think of themselves as more sensitive and progressive than more traditional, manly, jock-ish males, when in fact they are every bit as sexist and male-centered as the jocks they have replaced as the central male figures of our current cultural moment.) I am proud of this work and only hope more folks will read it and understand its frightening implications.

On a personal level, my progressive beliefs have, over time, caused a subtle and gradual shift in my film tastes -- though I think that the change in my movie preferences is also a simple result of my getting older. That is, I think it is developmentally appropriate that, as a man in my mid-forties, I should find most of today's superhero films to be too simple-minded and adolescent in their themes, and that I should instead prefer films whose content is aimed at adults my age. In terms of my feminism, I can still enjoy a fun, mindless blockbuster, but as I have written here before, I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy terrible, two-dimensional, insultingly bad screenwriting, and I really cannot stomach watching many more films that blatantly celebrate how great white men are at the expense of women, people of color, extraordinarily bodied persons, etc.*** I think I have more or less reached my limit on throwing down ticket money for blatantly sexist crap.

As for what ALL of us can do, I think we can be more cautious about which films we spend money to see, and we can at the very least become aware of the sexist (and racist, and other discriminatory and damaging) stereotypes so commonly and unthinkingly circulated by our popular films and media. I am NOT saying we should boycott or avoid all films that star white men, or cast aside films we might enjoy just because they contain damaging stereotypes and messages. We ALL have films we love that are ideologically questionable. Like it or not, we live in a world where Hollywood is globally dominant, and Hollywood is very much invested in maintaining the cultural status quo.† I think the key to resisting this pervasive ideological conditioning is KNOWING that we are seeing racist / sexist / imperialist stereotypes, watching out for them in the media we consume, and not buying into those retrograde messages unthinkingly. To me, awareness is the key, for awareness empowers choice. And we are all still free to make our own choices and, ultimately, to enjoy what we enjoy.

* I emailed my mother to learn some of the finer details about my grandmother's legal career, and even in that email response my mom reiterated the story I grew up hearing: "I believe in another day and age she would have been a lawyer. She was so smart and loved all the things pertaining to law." She also added that "Mom always made comments how she would have liked to go to college but that didn't happen in her time. Only a few were that lucky and her family was not into education nor did they have any money."
** "Theorizing the Genres of Laughter" is anthologized in Classical Hollywood Comedy (1995, ed. Karnick and Jenkins) pp. 39-59.
*** "Extraordinarily bodied persons" is my preferred term for folks commonly referred to as "the disabled" -- I prefer the term "extraordinarily bodied" or "differently abled" and I believe I learned both of these terms from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's terrific book Extraordinary Bodies.
† Hollywood doesn't support the status quo because of some deliberate, evil plot to keep women and other non-white, non-male groups down (though there is a great deal of cultural and historical momentum behind centralizing white men). Hollywood studios do this because they think it is profitable not to rock the boat or upset people too much. Most Hollywood films are in fact rife with internal ideological contradictions -- that is, they contain both liberal/progressive AND conservative/retrograde ideas that coexist side by side. This is so that folks from all over the political and social spectrum can enjoy these mass media products and see what they want to see in them -- and keep paying money for the privilege. Capitalism (heavily influenced by patriarchy) drives Hollywood.