Posts tagged ‘sexual mores’

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

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reasons to be cheerful #1

This song – I defy you to not be humming “inky dinky doo dah morning (inky dinky doo dah! doo dah!)” for the rest of the day your life.

Thank you, Cinema Snob. I kinda love you.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

Lost, Actually: Happily Ever After


symbolic Driveshaft/Dexter Stratton ring

Happily Ever After is another episode that offers possible big-picture answers, but filtered though one character’s heavily biased perspective. Here, they break out Desmond, Lost’s go-to guy for bringing the heart to lacklustre mini-arcs. Introduced in the second season premier, Desmond is a modern-day Odysseus, spending much of his adult life attempting to simultaneously return to his first love while running from himself – first into a monastery, then the military, and finally the seven seas. He was the rare Islander who got exactly his desired happy ending after much travail – helped along by a contemporary Penelope not content to simply wait at home when she can fund a worldwide search – so he deserves a little celebratory hyperbole where love is concerned.

Daniel and Charlie, however, don’t. And unlike Jacob and the Man in Black in Ab Aeterno, they don’t have a real reason to alter their conversation to suit their reluctant disciple’s mindset. They’re speaking from the heart…unfortunately. Bizarro-world Charlie is following the example of noted relationship guru Bella Swan, seeking near-death experiences in order to have visions of a lost love. Fellow musician Daniel is moved not to compose a Michelle for the 00s but spontaneously emit advanced quantum mechanics equations in his sleep (which is actually a adorable nerdlinger reaction to love at first sight) after spotting a pre-blind date Charlotte. Their Harlequin descriptions (“I’ve seen something real. I’ve seen the truth.”) resonate with Desmond when he has his own magnetically-induced visions and ultimately lead him to resume his role as the helpful visionary spanner in the works.

nerd love

nerd love

There was an awful lot of arc-y goodness in this episode, particularly the hint that Eloise and Charles Widmore are the architects or maintainers of the flash-sideways universe and quite possibly at odds in that venture, but the bulk of the character interactions gave lip service to the Power of Love. Only one kind of love, mind you – platonic or parental or any other sort of love has no place saving the world. No, long-term relationships are a person’s sole anchor (or Constant) in a real world, and the only motivation to return. (Sorry, Ji Yeon.)

Desmond, with his decade of love, loss, and reunion can be forgiven a few goggle-eyed flights of near-poetry, but can Daniel or Charlie’s mutual-but-unconsummated crushes with women they’ve known less than three months really be called “spectacular, consciousness-altering love”? It’s unfair to expect and adult audience the show has often forced to educate themselves in classical philosophy and modern quantum physics to roll with that.

After all, that insane giddiness only lasts during a few weeks of infatuation in any ultimately functional relationship. Then, the connection is primarily fantasy, the unreasonable expectation that this time, this person will fulfill every desire, and it naturally doesn’t last beyond actually getting to know each other. Love isn’t something like an eternal first shot of heroin, wiping away all problems and wrapping both in superficial bliss, despite a total lack of specific connection (sorry, 99% of fanfiction.net). Good long-term relationships are better defined as things that make most aspects of your life happier and more interesting, and provides at least a distraction from the rest. And that’s absolutely brilliant.

I think, as a character, Desmond certainly gets that. I hope the writers do as well (although the Jack/Kate/Sawyer romantic plot tumor doesn’t give me a lot of hope).

LA's only tour de stade venue

Silo of traumatic kernels: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

The Nostalgia Critic’s Bum Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sums up this film (and much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre) so well almost no other review is necessary: Seriously, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ looked great, but GOD was it stupid.

The overarching plot is pretty dire and derivative, even among the  ‘adolescent from the real world stumbles into fantasyland where he becomes Messiah-with-a-sword for the land’s darling anthropomorphic inhabitants’ genre. There are, however, a lot of nice touches underneath that made the film intermittently fascinating. For instance, Alice brings the fearsome bandersnatch over to her side by simply returning the eye taken from it in an earlier battle, one in which they’d been on opposite sides and the bandersnatch had given her a bad injury just beginning to fester. There’s no bargaining, no ‘I’ll return this if you let me get at that magic sword you’re guarding,’ only simple decency toward a dangerous enemy. After a night’s contemplation, the beast comes to the decision to disinfect her wound and hand over the key to the swordcase, and later helps her escape and partners up in battle. It wasn’t Hollywood ‘clever’ of Alice to make that gesture rather than using it as leverage, but it was quietly genuine and made for a real connection between the two.

This film also aces the Bechdel test, offering a variety of female characters who usually interact with each other in arguing about the right way to rescue Underland from the sociopathic Red Queen. Many of them are fairly complicated characters, as well, particularly the nominal white hats (some of them literally in white hats). The White Queen, for instance, has taken a mysterious but seemingly regretted vow to never hurt a living thing and swans about in an exaggerated Disney Princess posture – but she takes great glee in mixing up embiggening and ensmallening potions out of noxious or dead ingredients (which Alice, good sheltered daughter that she is, drinks down without hesitation even after seeking how they’re made). There’s a lingering worry that Underland will not fare much better under this differently-insane ruler, beautiful white dress or no.

Speaking of dress, Burton does a wonderful and almost subtle thing with the progression of Alice’s clothing. It is first a mark of her inability to truly fit into heteronormative standards, when her mother remarks in horror that she’s sneakily refused to wear her corset or stockings, items that make running or sweating difficult and uncomfortable.  She must improvise as she shrinks and grows, her pretty dress always an impractical inconvenience, progressing from a child’s pastel frills to a more punk-style red dress, to a tunic and trousers reminiscent of 1970s’ Maude, and finally into a suit of armor, coming to literally wear the pants in a gesture toward her future as a merchant businesswoman.

Still, that particular ending managed to be both anachronistic and out of date. A young woman choosing to guide her own future via a high-flying career hasn’t been cutting-edge feminism in generations, and no 19th-century lord would have taken on a female apprentice, no matter how much guilt he felt for not supporting her recently deceased father. And no person of any time period would choose a business heir immediately after she’d humiliated his son by publicly refusing his marriage proposal, alienated his bitter and domineering wife, and demonstrated a level head by literally running away from a decision, falling down a hole and knocking herself unconscious, and performing a pee-pee dance as dramatic punctuation to several condescending pronouncements to her various elders.

There’s also the awkward and quickly dumped romantic element with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, something that was initially almost sweetly rueful despite its perfunctory arrival: “You’re always either too small or too tall for me” nicely encapsulates the difficult adjustments of a first serious love affair. Once they are the same size, however, I was quickly reminded of Alan Kirby‘s tenants of digimodernist aesthetics in terms of modern ‘epic’ films, the “foregrounding of children’s experiences” and specifically “an elision of the question of reproduction; sexualized love may be permitted, but in sublimated form”. (Digimodernism, 2009, p 127; I’d really hoped to find something more on this in his blog to link to specifically, as I’d love it if he’d expand on this idea more…particularly if he had any ideas where the re-sexualisation of these works in online fandom would fit in to this aesthetic, or as resistance against the aesthetic, or what have you…but there ya go.)

Once Alice and the Hatter are the same size, their connection fizzes into flat lemonade, becoming generic, sexless Wuv. Any remotely realistic complexity is immediately jettisoned, despite it being exactly the messy aspect of adulthood a 19-year-old first defined as a marriage-ready almost-woman should thematically be facing and beginning to control. The somewhat positive adult-becoming of beginning a career instead becomes a retreat from Underland’s potential for adult sexuality (and the mixed blessing of a devoted and creative paramour with the face of Johnny Depp but mercury-warped sanity and gametes) to the safe protection of a substitute father-figure standing between her and the big dangerous world – even after she’s slain a skyscraper-sized monster!

riding in cars with middle-aged conmen: An Education

An Education

An Education is more a self-indulgent character study wrapped in a memoir than a gripping narrative, but its central question is an interesting one: What is an education, and what’s the point of earning one anyway?

Jenny is one of those teens so gifted that her choices and future are entirely in the care of self-appointed responsible adults, and just as preternaturally poised and self-confident as we generally choose to remember our adolescent selves. Her teachers and nervously middle-class parents push her toward Oxford (encouragement many bright girls of the time would likely have envied), but exactly what she or they expect to come of it is a mystery. Worse, her parents’ rigid repression proves to be only a flimsy shield protecting deep insecurity and social isolation – they epitomise the cliché that truly respectable people don’t have to work at it – and they are more susceptible than their young daughter to the charms of an obvious conman who brings a glimmer of novelty and respect to their drab lives. Because she keeps up her grades while melting effortlessly into David’s world of spiv glamour, jazz clubs and auctions and minor larceny, they offer no resistance to unchaperoned weekends across Europe. In fact, they’re pleased when he proposes to their 17-year-old daughter, and advise her to abandon the collegiate plans they’ve spent their lives planning – after all, why bother with Oxford when she’s already found a wealthy husband?

There’s little conflict in the narrative, and it doesn’t even inspire the anticipatory dread a modern audience would be expected to feel at what would now be considered paedophilia. The older man, while a criminal and schoolgirl fetishist, is a bit creepy but clearly not a rapist. Her parents and friends know who she’s with and where and are impressed rather than punitive. The ages when a woman would be “ruined” by a sexual affair are passing, and those few who voice that opinion are patently ridiculous.

Jenny’s brief engagement to her paramour is only a speed bump – she’s able to return to her studies with a newly kindled academic passion and does, in fact, get into Oxford, where she pretends to be naive – because, after all, she’s getting a good education so that she can be whomever she wants, and “prematurely jaded pseudo-sophisticate” is no longer to her taste. Much of her new enthusiasm for had work is inspired by a visit to a former teacher’s quite awesome spinster apartment, a space full of intellectual adventure, funded by the secure paycheck that allows a woman to be and be with whoever she has the guts to pursue. Has Jenny truly found who she wants to be, or is she merely following someone else down another attractive path?

What is an education, and why bother to get one?  Middle-class girls today are expected to have more to their future than “teacher, wife, or civil service,” but it’s still a worthwhile question rarely contemplated before the middle of an expensive course of study.  Why not leap directly from girl to woman, especially when your culture offers no definitive threshold between childhood and adulthood?  And is a degree or two still primarily a bulwark against the fickleness of male partners?

My inadequate answer: if you’ve got the motivation to learn without external prodding (and the patience to suffer through demoralising teachers and fellow students to get to the excellent ones), further education is the opportunity to take on adult responsibilities and pleasures in chunks, and enjoy a much greater variety of both.  And at the end, hopefully, you won’t expect anyone else to give or deny you a weekend in Paris.

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?