Posts tagged ‘rape’

Volver: for the love of Woman

Agustina, alone

Pedro Almodóvar is best known among international film fans as a director and writer who loves women, making films with prominent roles for mothers, lovers, and prostitutes. I would agree with this, to the degree that he loves looking at women’s bodies, the potential for fucking those bodies, and most importantly the roles they play in building men’s lives and sparking the fantasies of men’s inner worlds.

I’ll be honest: I’ve held a grudge since 2002’s Hable con ella, which first turned out to not be about the fascinating, fierce bullfighter (who is gored and silenced early in the first act), and then literally made two women into the voiceless objects that allow their creepy male paramours to bond with each other. The only woman who can truly listen and be loved is one in a coma, unable to interfere in a man’s fantasy of his relationship. Thanks, Pedro!

I am being unfair to that film’s characters and rich plot – after all, one of these men does save his beloved, by raping her comatose body and impregnating her with the stillborn infant whose birth will “wake her up.” What a hero!

Volver is less infuriating, but also less interesting in general.  Almodóvar wrote and directed a film about close relationships between women and their lives in the oppressive shadow of death-focused superstitions in Almodóvar’s native La Mancha. The men in their lives are almost incidental – almost.

There are many, many female characters – two sisters, their mother and aunt, a teenage daughter, assorted friends (one of whom is, of course, a prostitute) – but not much characterisation spread thinly between them. They have scandalous secrets, and the slow revelation of these secrets is what passes for a plot – when all has been revealed to the audience, the film ends, leaving all other threads still undeveloped. For instance, the daughter demands to know who her biological father is, and her mother promises to tell her, but the film ends without that revelation. The audience has learned the shocking truth – she is the product of incestuous rape, both her mother’s daughter and half-sister – but she does not. Her arc is a flat line that peters out, like those of every other character.

There are a few keenly observed scenes, particularly in the emptiness and omnipresence of female socialising. Women meet, all kiss each other several times, polite words are shared but not engaged with, and they move on to the next visit, all busy-ness without purpose. At a funeral, the women squish together into a small room and the background conversation is like the buzz of a hive, oppressive and breathless. The buzz is silenced while one women tells a dramatic ghost story, and immediately starts up again at the story’s end. Moments of lives tick away in this, as wasted and ritualistic as the intense cleaning of graves that opens the film.

But none of these women are individual people. They are fractions of Woman, coming together seamlessly when needed, much like Voltron. This claustrophobic, demanding scene is their natural environment. When one demands they hand over their groceries, shelter a murderer, or help bury their husband’s body, they do so immediately. Conflicts are brief and aborted, immediately forgiven in the next scene with a hug and sloppy kisses, never to be mentioned again.

Males don’t fare very well in this film, either. Of the two men who have any driving force on the so-called plot, one is entirely off-screen, and both molested their biological or adopted daughters. The mere presence of pubescent pussy, even attached to someone whose diapers they changed, transforms them into heartless monsters of lust who deserve to die in a fire/leap on a kitchen knife.

Agustina, pictured above, is the best representation of the film. She is a woman who is alone, no family, no children, no job, who nonetheless takes care of an elderly neighbor, checking in on her daily and buying her food. She is tormented by the unknown fate of her mother, who disappeared the night her friends’ parents died together in a mysterious fire. Then, she’s diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer, and when her friends refuse to help her discover only whether her mother is dead or alive, goes on a talk show (in return for money that will allow her to seek life-saving medical attention) to air her story. But, she is too noble to air everyone’s dirty linen, and walks off the set. After all, on some level she knows what everyone else already seems to – her mother was having an affair with her friend’s horrible, daughter-raping father, whose wife set the fire that killed them both and allowed everyone to believe it was her who had died.

Her resolution? The cowardly murderer returns as a “ghost” to take care of Agustina as she dies, rather than confessing and giving the gentle and selfless Agustina some peace, or even providing her with money to receive treatment and potentially live. Er, yay?

This film is much like listening to some blowhard dinosaur expounding on the wonders of women and why he loves them so much: “They share my bed, raise my children, feed me and clean my house, support my community, absorb my abuse, philandering and abandonment, and die overworked and exhausted – such a wonderful mystery Woman is; I, as a mere Man, can never be expected to understand!”

The Road: Quest for Sugar Bombs

The world of 2009’s The Road is by definition one without meaning: an unspecified cataclysm has radically altered the earth, leaving is sunless and all but lifeless.  Plants and the lifeforms directly dependent on them are long dead; the more adaptable end of the food chain has dwindled to a few brutal survivors consuming the last scraps of nourishment, (primarily, each other).

Humanity, as individuals and a species, is over.  The father and son that move furtively through this world – hoping for a semblance of normality to be found on the coast – often encounter the bodies of those who, like the boy’s mother, have chosen suicide over a brief existence snuffed out by starvation or roving gangs of cannibal rapists.

And yet this very bleakness creates lives of portentous significance, as if meaning had not been removed but distilled and grown omnipresent.  It’s a world that will leave obsessive players of Fallout 3 with a constant sense of déjà vu and, perhaps, a more profound depression.  By way of a inspiration-source grandfather paradox, the film feels like a serious business version of the game because Fallout 3’s distinctive aesthetic is extensively cribbed from the Cormac McCarthy novel the film is based on.

Many of the father’s choices, particularly when to press on exploring in the face of clear warnings, are agonising after months of leisure time spent in the Capitol Wasteland.  Skulls on poles? Inbred cannibals!  Well preserved antebellum house? Andale cannibals! Ruined church? Giant green mutant cannibals! And put out that fire before the raiders and feral ghouls are fighting to keep your slaughtered corpse as a nutritious trophy!

But – obviously – there’s no handy stashes of ammo and instant Salisbury Steaks, no safe havens, no stimpacks.  The Capitol Wasteland is a veritable land of milk and honey, compared to the road these two are on.  The two settings do, however, seem to have a very similar karma engine, the weight of moral choices composited by an all-seeing, objective force.

Much like the same year’s A Serious Man, the characters – and audience – have two contextualising options.  1) God exists and is testing them to extremes even Job could not imagine, and they will be quickly punished for succumbing to sin or despair.  Or, 2) There is no god, no punishment, and thus no meaning to their suffering, only empty chance – a more terrifying prospect than being subject to a vengeful god.

This continues a theme from another Cormac McCarthy-based film, No Country For Old Men, in which the callousness of fate is embodied in the single-minded contract killer Anton Chigurh.  It’s an identity he consciously embodies, chancing the lives of most he comes in contact with on a coin toss, which his victim must call.  This is an iron-clad principle, to him, that he is less a person than an instrument of morality – after all, the accumulation of many small choices made good or evil actions their habit, and evil (spanning a very broad spectrum of profound and petty impulses) is what brought them into contact with him.  The only explanation he offers is to one victim, a cocky hired gun who fails to carry off a hit on Chigurh: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

The father is a survivalist – one who had stockpiled several years’ worth of non-perishables and whose first impulse, noting a fiery riot in the small hours, was to begin filling every sink and tub with tap water – who follows the rules that will allow him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Keep moving.  Search every cranny for nutrition.  Avoid all other humans.

He does, however, allow a space for a larger meaning, for and because of the son born soon after the cataclysm.  Of the boy, he says, “the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”  He tells the boy stories from the old world of courage and justice, when he isn’t walking his son through the proper way to commit suicide with one of their two remaining bullets, when the time comes.  Later, when the father has hardened past what little morality he once possessed, he calls the boy not the word but his god – a totem rather than person.

Through this fraught childhood, the son begins to grow into something part Messiah, part masthead of the first – and perhaps only – generation of this new world, and just a smidgen of an ordinary pre-adolescent, needing to detach from the suffocating love of his parent in order to become his own person.  Never knowing plenty, his impulse is to share their limited supplies with the few not immediately murderous individuals they meet, potentially turning them to allies and the human company he desperately craves.  He is quickly more in tune with the new order than his father, picking up subtle signals – like the categorised pile of worn clothes in the Andale house of cannibals – that his father misses entirely in his dreaming of the old society.  For instance, in a nearly wordless scene, his father finds possibly the last can of Coca-Cola in existence and tells his son to have it as a treat.  The son tries to hide his revulsion at the strange liquid and insists the father have it.  No, children love soda, drink it and let me enjoy watching you enjoy it, his father’s fragile joy insists back.  It’s uncomfortably obvious they are living in the same world less and less.

The narrative of their course through the new wilderness may be an indictment of human nature and the lawless chaos underlying existence.  Or it may be a world in which its God, with a peculiar deity’s-eye view, has shown the mercy of removing all distractions so that humanity may clearly perceive its will and be judged on their responses.  Efficiently, immoral choices bring sinners into contact with each other (a sort of Anton Chigurh à deux) to mutually enact punishments.  Father and son are twice cornered among cannibals, and twice escape through coincidences bordering on divine intervention.  They nearly die of starvation, but stumble onto a huge cache of food in a hidden fallout shelter.  Suddenly, they are the richest people in the wasteland.

Here is where the father and son’s paths begin to metaphysically diverge.  The son wants to give thanks, to express his gratitude somehow to the people who left the food behind.  He also wants his father to stay out of what little privacy he has, after the father roots through his pockets and lays out his treasures – one of which is an arrowhead, something that catches the father’s attention.  Perhaps he is sadly mulling over happier apocalyptic scenarios he’d prepared for, once in which western humans could have re-learned the old skills.  But there are no more animals to hunt, no more living wood to make into bows…

They hear searching noises above their hideaway, and the boy wants to meet them, to see if they really could have something so mystical as a dog with them.  The father (sensibly) refuses, and decides they need to move in immediately.  Unfortunately, he decides to move on with as much of the supplies inside the shelter as they can stuff onto a cart, making them a slow-moving, indefensible target.  He has been abandoning the markers of good memories – a picture, his wedding ring – and trying to fully move into the new world, but without that old identity he is little better than the cannibals they flee.

The only possible strategy, both logistically and morally, is the eat their fill and leave, taking only what they can carry.  Both of their previous escapes hinged on speed, abandoning baggage of supplies and memories.  It’s like a tougher version of the Israelites’ manna from heaven during their 40 years in another wasteland, raising a generation of fighters untainted by the mental servitude of slavery and unquestioningly following the will of a very involved god.  Instead of maggots infesting their hoarded sustenance, the two are set upon by thieves and killers.  Two dying men are put in their path, offering opportunities to divest themselves of their dangerous hoard while acting in defiance of the immoral bleakness surrounding.  The father refuses, while the son is agonised with a need to do that right thing.

The first, an old man, offers something like a lesson.  When the father speaks of what it would be like to be the last man on earth, the old man responds only, “How would he know?”  A man’s awareness of the world is limited to his own skull at the best of times, and often not even that.  The worst atrocities and tragedies in this film come from characters who feel they have grasped the scope of the universe – everything is dying and no behaviour will be punished or stopped by some authority – and so they commit suicide or cannibalise their neighbours.

This is the only sort of world in which moral decisions truly matter,  one in which a person must continually chose between foolhardy generosity or faith solely for the benefit of a theoretical immortal soul (and seemingly being rewarded for such with a few more days’ existence) and one’s life.  No one will come after them who might offer the shoeless old man a spare pair of boots like the pair hanging off the back of their wagon, for instance.  Unlike the beggar on a busy city street who might inspire a guilty twinge, the father and son are his only chance.  The stakes are unimaginably high, but at least the moral choices are clear.

The father passes his personal moral horizon when he punishes a thief who stripped them of all their worldly goods (making the exact mistake the father did, allowing them to catch up), but left the boy unharmed.  He steals more unneeded wealth, every stitch of clothes, and leaves him to die of exposure.  The son passes this test, eventually convincing his father (too late) to return the clothes, and even leaves some food as well.  Soon after, they find a live beetle – a sign that, as the old man said, they didn’t truly know life would never return to earth – and the father is fatally wounded by an arrow.  Suddenly, the arrowhead his son carried hadn’t been a cruel reminder but a fair warning of the end of the path he’d set foot on.

His murderer is punished as well for taking potshots at those unfortunate enough to pass underneath, killed by a wild flare the father shot into his window.  This narrative’s god is very efficient.  Even the cannibals, for all they are currently well fed, aren’t really so well off.  They will also die horribly, sooner rather than later, either at the hands of their hungry compatriots or of some postapocalyptic Creuzfelt-Jakob disease.

After his father’s slow death, the son encounters an armed veteran on the shore and, following his father’s rules, initially holds him back at gunpoint.  The veteran and his family are both somewhat creepy and too good to be true, but the son chooses to trust that they want him to join their group.  If there is a god, the boy is being rewarded for his faith with temporary safety and the “good people” he and his father came to the coast hoping to find.  If this world is only meaningless chaos, the boy was raped and/or eaten soon after the fade to black.

It all depends on the road you want to follow.

in the blood

Myrin / Jar City

Myrin / Jar City

Mýrin (Jar City)

2006

Unusual for noir, this atmospheric film opens with a good death: comfortably medicated in a hospital bed, surrounded by family to sooth fears, and finally buried with respect. Unfortunately, the deceased is a five-year-old girl, struck down by a rare heredity condition. Her grief-stricken father, Örn, applies on the eve of her death to work in Iceland’s massive genetic research database, but is he driven to fight similar diseases in her memory, or desperate to prove his DNA is not the cause of her suffering?

Elsewhere, an old man named Holsborg dies badly: bludgeoned with an ashtray and left to rot, despised by those who knew him, child pornography still glowing on his monitor. The only possible witness – a pilot, one of his long-suffering neighbors who despised the old man for the stench of his unit that filtered through the entire building – displays no regret that he was too drunk to recall anything about the shady character he saw outside the man’s apartment. Erlendur, the senior detective, finds only one useful clue (and sole hint of the man’s humanity) amid the squalor: a Holga photograph of a child’s gravestone, buried in 1974.

The action takes place in the cruellest last-winter month, a time that can only be endured while the promise of spring’s new life seems ever farther away instead of mere weeks. It’s appropriate for a film that turns around the ambiguity of new life, the pure innocence and potential an infant represents set against both the hypocritical social mores that condemn the female desire that conceives them and the chance the infant’s life could be painful and brief.

The chance inherent to recombinant DNA reproduction becomes a morality play, the sins of the father literally passing on to the son. In a society that cleaves without irony to the virgin/whore complex, arrest and prosecution for rape is very difficult; one flirtatious young woman left badly beaten is treated terribly by a bent cop, who refuses to pursue her case and destroys the only evidence. A mother allows her grown son to believe he is the product of rape instead of adultery, because to admit that she made the wrong decision when isolated, lonely, and teetering into alcoholism would destroy her family. Both encounters produce children who carry a DNA mutation that can cause fatal brain tumors, both leading to the death of beloved young daughters. Sex itself becomes an enemy, as if the children they produced could have been separated from that process somehow, and thus been healthy.

Holsborg is not killed for raping a woman but for passing his self-destructive DNA on to his daughter and granddaughter, both referred to as “angels” – women too young to be caught in the virgin/whore trap. His murderer loathes himself not as the biological child of a rapist but as a carrier of this dead-end genetic material. Where the clear-headed response would be to get a vasectomy, he executes the gene – himself and Holsborg – as punishment for the “murders” of his daughter and half-sister.

With one exception, the mothers here experience only heartbreak. Their children are the result of rape, adultery, or prostitution; they die cruelly young or grow into degenerate criminals. Next to this, the film presents three father figures, easily sorted into good, bad, and ugly.

The bad father is Holsborg, obviously, a feckless criminal who fathers offspring thoughtlessly and sometimes forcibly. The hidden picture of his daughter’s grave hints at a sense of loss, or at least sentimentality, toward the child he knew of, but he certainly provided no support. And while learning of another child when the grown man has broken into your house to threaten your life isn’t likely to provoke a Hallmark moment, he proves to be exactly the monster his son expects, albeit an aged and broken-down grotesque. The son, Örn, is the ugly father figure, who has been twisted by grief and comes to an end his daughter surely would not have wanted.

The good father, however, is the best dad since Atticus Finch (albeit from a very different culture). As the film begins, the detective Erlendur has lost his grown daughter to drug addition and prostitution. The photos he still displays show she was once his angel, young and innocent, but is now just a weapon for criminals to taunt him with. There’s a certain comfortable savagery in his nature, expressed in the way he rips into his dietary staple (boiled sheep heads, an Icelandic delicacy), but little else slips past his impenetrable iciness. He reflects some of nature’s harshness, tearing down his cocky and incompetent young partner, who will either learn and grow into the role or be forced out of police work entirely. The team of police is a microcosm of the nature’s grand experiment: what will thrive and reproduce, and what will die on the vine?

As a father, he manages to provide both tough and unconditional love. He refuses to fund his daughter’s drug habit even when she confesses that she’s pregnant with no idea who the father may be. But once she’s decided to get clean and asked to move back in with him to have and raise the baby, he repeatedly rescues her without judgement. He is the ultimate protector, strong enough to beat any monster – first, the brutal serial killer who insults her, then her own addiction and the young thugs sent to collect her debt, and finally negotiating a payment plan with her dealer. Instead of simply escalating the violence, he ends it – refusing to respond to taunts and give her enemies that power and, after he’s broken one of the thugs’ legs and left him crippled in a stairwell, calling an ambulance and putting a pillow under his shattered knee while they wait together for it to arrive. While the viewer expects her to end as a victim by the third act, he instead creates a truly safe space for her.

When the resolution of the case has finally broken his heart, Erlendur turns to his daughter for comfort and understanding, letting them both be more fully human. He lets her in to his fallible side, to admit to both of them that he is not always strong and not always right, while she steps into the responsible role she’ll need to move from sheltered daughter to adult and parent. Far from Jar City’s raw genetic material, this damaged mother and this damaged child will survive and thrive, by chance and a father’s love.

Erlunder and Eva

Erlunder and Eva