October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdinck did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is the one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

January 11, 2019

Lessons learned watching The Neverending Story alone in a bar on a night in October

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 11:06 pm by chavisory

Not long ago, I watched the Neverending Story alone in a bar.

A friend and I had planned to meet up for a drink after we both got out of rehearsal, but she wound up having to attend to a work-related emergency at the last minute, and so I had some time to sit and write over a cocktail until she got back. An amount of time which turned out to be the length of the Neverending Story, which the bartender had turned on the television above the bar.

Though still fairly early in the evening, it was already noisy enough that the closed captions were on.

I had loved the movie as a kid. We had a bootlegged VHS copy a babysitter had left behind, to which a prior owner with a deaf child had somehow added homemade captions using label tape. But I think I hadn’t actually seen it since college, when the Tate Student Center movie theater at UGA had one night held a $2.00 midnight showing.

A couple of friends and I went. I didn’t expect the showing to be sold out—I don’t think I’d ever really known the movie was a cult classic and not just some obscure curiosity due to my only experience of it having been a glitchy secondhand VHS and not having had much in common with the pop culture tastes of kids my age when I was growing up—but there wasn’t an empty seat in the theater.

And then they couldn’t get the projector to work.

An hour went by while they tried.

No one left. No one.

Probably they were hoping that we would eventually give up and go home and they’d get the projector serviced later and reschedule the date. But no one moved. We were there to see the Neverending Story, damn it, and we were going to see it.

Two hours went by. Up on screen, we occasionally saw flashes of hope in the form of the computer desktop, screensavers, and glimpses of the SETI search program that evidently the booth’s computer had running in the background, but no movie. Eventually people started acting out scenes down in front of the screen, Rocky Horror style. This was 2002 or so, so it wasn’t even like people had smart phones to amuse ourselves. Everyone. just. waited. It was probably the most astonishing demonstration of group solidarity I had ever seen at that point in my life.

The projector was finally induced to work. It was around 2:00 in the morning. I actually don’t remember clearly, but I’m sure cheers went up.

What I do remember with almost painful clarity was the dawning realization of how different the movie was from my childhood memory of it. I know I’m by far not the only person who has this experience; I’ve had this conversation with multiple age-peers since then, but it was truly shocking. The writing was awkward and goofy. The low-budget special effects were awful; the story trajectory didn’t really hang together. The whole thing came off as laughably, vaguely amateur. It was jarring.

A younger friend who saw it recently for the first time said “I feel like I hallucinated that whole thing,” and I said that was probably the correct thing to feel.

Fast forward to one night this past October. I’m writing alone, waiting for a friend, having a Jack and Coke by candlelight, when the Neverending Story comes on the bar television. It’s now been a longer time since I last saw it in college than it had been then since I’d seen it as a kid.

And maybe it was that I was very exhausted and a little bit drunk by then. It had been a long couple weeks of rehearsal and maybe I was just hungry for some fluffy escapist fantasy. Maybe this bar is actually slightly imbued with magical qualities, a position I don’t become less convinced of with time.

Maybe it’s that in the intervening years I’ve become much more able to see and hear with an uncritical heart again (and that’s another, longer, story).

But somehow it was every bit the most beautiful movie in the world that I remembered. I kept waiting for its faults to show themselves, and watched with astonishment equal to that I felt sitting in the UGA student center theater 16 years ago as they didn’t. It looked entirely and luminously like the movie it was meant to be.

I also thought I remembered the movie’s thesis. I didn’t. Or at least, I remembered the one that’s made explicit throughout the movie, that children’s imagination and creativity are necessary to the sustenance of the world.

But I realized it had another one, implied but never articulated, like a secret flip-side to that one, undiscoverable without being on the other side of a certain amount of life experience.

On this night, in the week after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an outcome which we’d thought we were powerless to prevent and then for weeks came to believe that maybe we could, that maybe the revelations of one person ultimately could, only to find that they would not. After weeks and weeks and months and months of ongoing horrors emanating from the White House, which in so many ways we hoped we could alter but could not, not because we didn’t care or try but because really, they were out of our hands, I felt for Atreyu like I never had before, who actually looked like the child he was to me for the first time. Who tried so hard and yet did not prevent the collapse of Fantasia under the power of the Nothing. How he blamed himself for failing, when really, he alone could never have defeated it.

The reason why it happened wasn’t because he failed, and it wasn’t his fault for trying and failing.

And that even in failure, his effort and loss weren’t wasted; the fact of his being willing to try wasn’t pointless.

For he actually brought Bastian all the way to the Empress, without even knowing.

We won’t always be able to win everything we imagine. A significant percentage of the time, in fact, we probably won’t.

We still have to be willing to try.

June 9, 2018

Review of HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 pm by chavisory

This post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for book, movie, and play versions of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I reread Fahrenheit 451 last year in the fall, trying in some small way to refresh the sense of courage and urgency of living life in the world that I got from the book when it had first become one of my favorites when I was barely a teenager. It felt important to do as the prospects of very real and not only literary authoritarianism seemed to draw ever closer.

I wondered whether what made it feel so important in my memory held up. It did, and in some surprisingly chilling ways and not only the ones I thought I remembered. So obviously I greeted the announcement earlier this year of HBO’s forthcoming film production of Fahrenheit 451 with a mixture of delight and trepidation.

fahrenheit 451

I wasn’t disappointed by my reread, and I wasn’t disappointed by the newly released movie, though I will say at the outset that the movie departs in some significant ways from the plot of the novel. But on the whole I found it a worthy and important adaptation of the story for our present, and I hazard to say that I think Ray Bradbury would be pleased with it.

Clarisse is the character probably furthest from her characterization in the book, and I enjoyed her adaptation a lot, though it was not what I anticipated at all. She’s both more active in the story and more dangerous than in the book, more morally compromised but better adapted to the world she actually inhabits. She is not the somewhat naïve idealist of the book, but the movie preserves something essentially tender about her and the way that it draws Montag.

It also struck me later that the Clarisse we see in the movie is a character who could plausibly be the future of the Clarisse we know from the novel, after she and her family abruptly disappear from the story. Montag hears a rumor that she may’ve been struck by a car and killed, but we never truly know what happens to her. An earlier stage production has Montag finding her again among the book people, which is also where she winds up, older, in the movie, having long-since lost her parents as a teenager.

The ubiquitous household assistant Yuxie, reminiscent not only of our present-day electronic companions Siri and Alexa but also 2001: A Space Odyssey’s traitorous Hal, serves as an alarmingly timely minor nemesis as I watched the movie during a week in which we first learned of an Echo Dot secretly recording a private conversation without prompting and e-mailing it to a random third party from among its owner’s contacts. It brings to mind the characterizations of Totalitarianism by writers like Hannah Arendt and Timothy Snyder as “not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life.” It isn’t simply that an oppressive government is constantly surveilling all we do or say; it’s that there is no such thing as a private citizen anymore. Everyone is living out their lives on computer screens in full view of all of their neighbors, all the time, driven by the exhortation to “Stay Vivid,” and the offending screens aren’t simply wall to wall installations in every home, but are literally projected across the public square.

“Could he have the Omnis? Stay Vivid to find out,” a disembodied newscaster intones as Montag is pursued by the fire department. All of reality has become a reality show.

I actually laughed out loud at the irony of Beatty’s order “Keep looking for that Omnis!” The Natives are a society utterly reliant on the “Nine,” an amorphous and completely pervasive information stream like a hybrid between our present incarnation of the internet and the Cloud, and yet the authorities don’t conceive that the Omnis may not be a discrete, tangible object.

It’s almost as if the thing they fear the most is the only threat they can imagine. (In the film version of Guy Montag’s world, not only books but virtually all analog media is banned.)

Something the movie does a great deal of that I was glad for is that even where entire characters, tropes, or plot points are omitted or radically altered, a kind of sense memory of the source material is evoked. So while the crime scene horror of the Mechanical Hound is replaced by a device used as summary punishment that obliterates a victim’s fingerprints, Beatty at one point says to Montag, “You’re still the same dog I raised, barking at someone else’s command.” Clifford’s barn of books recalls an image that occurs only in Montag’s own fantasies late in the novel. The book-memorizing collective isn’t a band of railroad-traveling hobos as they are in the novel, but we get a lovely little scene of Clarisse teaching Montag to play the harmonica. The seashell in-ear radios aren’t a thing in the film (the invasive nature of technology in this world having advanced far beyond earbuds), but the climax turns on Montag’s theft of a tiny radio transponder that fulfills the story trajectory in a slightly different manner. It’s a pattern that suffuses the film with a sense of deep respect and affection for Bradbury’s original text, and made me feel like I was seeing an alternate refraction of the story rather than a betrayal of the spirit of the book.

Probably the omission that I regretted the most was that of Faber, although to an extent, the functions of his paranoia and desperate optimism are preserved in Clarisse in this version of the story.

I’m still struggling with how I feel about a scene, not present in the book, in which the book people test Montag’s commitment by demanding he kill a hooded captive who they say is a captured fellow fireman. He’s stopped the instant before he does it in a tableau inescapably resonant of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, but clearly recalls the moment only slightly later when he does actually kill a former colleague, although this time in actual self-preservation. Days later I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m not totally sure we’re supposed to be, rather than asking some difficult questions about how far we would be willing to go in pursuit of what we believe, versus when the lengths to which we’re willing to go become betrayal of that which we claim to defend, and under what circumstances those actions may be justified.

The original book-burners of this story, after all, as Beatty relates, were trying to protect safety and happiness for all. When they determined they had a right to impose their versions of those goals at any and all costs, including the emotional autonomy of fellow citizens, they became the psychic violence they claimed to abhor. The regime of censorship wasn’t ushered in by predictable bad guys, but by people with good intentions, claiming to act on behalf of the vulnerable.

I feel remiss not to delve more deeply into Michael B. Jordan’s acting, but the truth is that he disappears so completely into a relatable, melancholy execution of Guy Montag, who is not the natural-born social media hero he sometimes pretends to be even to himself, but an understated, haunted everyman often making clumsy decisions about whether he can remain complicit with what he’s finding out about the world, that I’m not quite sure what else to say. If you enjoyed him in Black Panther, this role is definitely a demonstration of his emotional versatility. He also served as an executive producer on the film and I’m excited to see what kind of material he might take on next.

March 11, 2018

The Shape of Love: Cupid and Psyche and other considerations of monstrosity in “The Shape of Water”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:35 pm by chavisory

The truth is that I wasn’t going to write about the Shape of Water at all. I wasn’t going to see the Shape of Water at all.

The truth is that I can still sometimes fall prey to the mental trap of feeling compelled to avoid engagement with a work, either out of fear that it cannot possibly live up to an artist’s beloved earlier work (which in terms of Guillermo del Toro’s work is Pan’s Labyrinth for me), to preemptively protect myself from disappointment or out of fear that it will be too good, too fraught, will touch me too closely in ways I don’t know how to handle or will set off a new obsession that I don’t have time for.

Also, frankly, movie tickets are $16.50 here.

But then something happened, which was that, similarly to when it became apparent that I needed to see Mad Max: Fury Road, despite it not really being my genre at all, just because it was making MRA’s so mad that I had to see what it was about, I was starting to see a particularly enraging bit of criticism crop up on social media, even well before the movie’s release:

That it was just awful that the protagonist of the Shape of Water would be a woman who was “literally silent.”

Because it was evidently unimaginable that women with communication disabilities…exist?  Or count as women?  Or should get stories. Let alone be heroines. I saw the movie with a friend from work and we practiced our ASL while we waited through the commercials.

Prepared to defend the film against further charges that portrayal of a non-speaking woman constituted irredeemable misogyny (it’s a topic well beyond the scope of this post, but mainstream feminism has something of a troubled history when it comes to its regard of disabled women), I was honestly unprepared for the heatedness of some of the condemnations that have subsequently emerged from the disability community itself for yet other reasons.

“I found that really unfortunate because it sort of reproduces the stereotype that non-verbal people can’t express themselves in a way that’s actually comfortable or natural for them. And then also it reproduces the stereotype that disability is like a cage,” says Aimee Louw in an article at CBC Radio.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes, “I wanted to feel included in the human world. Instead, the film reinforced the narrative that I belong below the surface, to be put on display when it suits the narrative.”

I just hadn’t felt that way at all.

It’s not common to see a non-speaking woman as a protagonist with control over her own life, with work, with friends, with sexual agency, in a blockbuster movie, or anywhere, really. It was nice. I loved that her power, her worth, her fulfillment as a character, weren’t made to be dependent on her “finding her voice,” as someone for whom speech did not come easily and never will and who has often felt, especially as a child, that people wanted my speech more than they really wanted almost anything else about me. I don’t really look to movies to be “empowering,” but I found it a resonant, meaningful experience, personally, as well as beautifully designed. It’s also one of very few films that very explicitly centers women’s strength and relationships that I didn’t find myself intensely alienated by.

People can, of course, have sincerely different interpretations of a work, but I was curious about the sheer intensity of the disconnect between the way I felt about it and the way that other viewers have.

One of the first things I wondered was whether there was simply a generational difference at play. Guillermo del Toro, after all, is closer to my father’s age than my own or most of my peers who are likely to see the movie. Whether it was possible that disabled and autistic people, or even just those who felt intensely different, who grew up in a different time, who might’ve been far less likely to be diagnosed or identified with a distinct label at all, might be more likely to identify with fairy tales or story book monsters than people who grew up with an available narrative of disability, even if it wasn’t a particularly good one, to work with or push back against.

Whereas many of us who didn’t have those explanations available at all, filled in the blanks in our minds in some interesting ways, including various iterations of not feeling completely human. (I distinctly remember identifying most with the dragon in a beautifully illustrated version of “Saint George and the Dragon” that was read to me as a small child.)

While I don’t ultimately think that age of viewership presents a consistent factor in interpretation or opinion of the film—I didn’t conduct a formal poll, but in asking and looking around a bit, I did encounter people both older and younger than me who loved it, and people with both more readily identifiable disabilities and those that are often called “invisible” who hated it—I did find something curious to me as I started thinking about the Shape of Water in relation to the work of other authors I know and love who write roughly in the genre of adapted fairy tale or who adopt the frameworks of fairy tales or fables.

Guillermo del Toro was born in 1964.

Neil Gaiman (author of so many things, but I think most relevantly for purposes of comparison here, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) was born in 1960.

Keith Donohue (author of The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, The Motion of Puppets) was born in 1959.

Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Mirror Mirror; and After Alice, among others) was born in 1954.

That is, tales like this seem to me to be being told particularly by men of a certain generation, frequently involving girls and women in central roles in somewhat magical circumstances, and including girls and women with disabilities at a non-trivial rate, possibly to navigate experiences involving vulnerability, social marginalization, perhaps issues of gender and sexuality, that could not be openly articulated or acknowledged in a certain time and place. So my first conjecture is that the Shape of Water resides well within a storytelling tradition of using fairy tale and fantasy to navigate experiences of outsider-hood, vulnerability, and difference.

(And yes, I am interested at the absence of women from that author list of mine. I don’t know whether women of that generation weren’t writing nearly as much in that genre, or whether they simply haven’t come to my attention. It certainly isn’t that there’s a general lack of female authors in my reading list in general, so I’m curious.)

And while it is not a mode of narrative that everyone has to, or does, like or identify with, I find myself failing to feel that it is categorically demeaning or objectifying of disabled people, rather than a fairly common expression of emotional experiences of many of what it is to feel oneself othered or devalued by dominant social strictures regarding who is acceptable. Who is fully human. What is normal.

“It was not considered normal,” del Toro has said regarding his childhood pre-occupation with monsters. “At one point I was taken to a psychologist, who gave me a bunch of clay and said make something. I made a skeleton. I don’t think I passed that test.”

Ultimately, these stories can help give us a vocabulary with which to hijack and undermine those strictures.

*

There are ways in which identification with the monstrous can be protective, defiant, or represent a stand for personal integrity. “FINE, then I’ll BE A MONSTER,” if I will always be a monster to you anyway, or a broken, failed attempt at what your conception of human is, it seems to me creators who align their heroes with the monstrous are saying. “Maybe I am what you say I am. And would that actually be so bad?”

As I had this some of this discussion on Twitter, I was also reminded of Huck Finn’s declaration in the musical adaption of his story, Big River. “ALRIGHT, I’ll GO TO HELL,” he screams as he decides to do what is actually the right and redeeming thing, though not in the view of his society. “I’ll take up wickedness again, which is my line, being brought up to it. And for starters, I’ll steal Jim out of slavery again. And if I can think of something worse, I’ll do that, too.”

If what society considers good is to return a man to slavery, and to attempt to forestall that event is wicked, then I will not be good, says Huck.

If it is human to countenance the torture and destruction of a sentient, complex being for human political convenience, then we are called on not to identify with that characterization of what it is to be human, or with what those who uphold those power structures tell us is human.

“If this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right,” these characters declare. If it’s wrong to be embodied differently, to communicate differently, to love differently. If it’s wrong to empathize beyond the bounds of who your society says is a person worthy of it. If it’s wrong to value the freedom and dignity of those unlike yourself.

If the way that characters like Strickland say is the only right way to be human…

Then you can take your “humanity” and shove it.

*

Though much has been said about Elisa’s monologue in ASL to Giles about her conviction that they must rescue the Amphibian Man, just as revealing of the film’s theme, I believe, is a line spoken by Strickland:

“You may think that thing looks human — stands on two legs — but we’re created in the Lord’s image. And you don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”

…which makes explicit the tension between god, monster, and human present in most stories derived from the myth of Cupid and Psyche, of which the Shape of Water is one (as well as “Beauty and the Beast” tales, and, I’d be willing to make a strong argument, Shrek.) That the plot of the Shape of Water is so resonant with the Cupid and Psyche tale is very informative of how both Elisa and the Amphibian Man are positioned in the story.

The Cupid and Psyche story has been important to me since I first read it, and I’m not even sure I could fully articulate why.

(The name of Giles’s ill-fated cat, Pandora, also points us gently in the direction of making associations with Greek mythology.)

In the myth, after the human princess Psyche is called more beautiful than Venus, Venus decrees Psyche be punished for the supposed crime of arrogantly imagining herself above her station by being induced to fall in love with “some low, mean, unworthy being.” (Cupid, of course, takes pity and wounds himself instead of Psyche, causing himself to fall in love with her.) To appease the gods, her parents prepare to sacrifice Psyche on a mountaintop, imagining her fated husband to be “a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

The monster, however, turns out to be a god. Cupid, the god of Love himself.

Jealous, Psyche’s sisters insist that her unseen husband is in fact a terrible monster who intends, eventually, to devour her, and persuade her to betray his trust and view his true form by lamplight. In commanding the heroine’s loyalty to the realm of the “human,” these characters are also attempting to enforce their own value judgments about what constitutes personhood, as Gaston and the townspeople do in the animated version of Beauty and the Beast most of us are probably familiar with, as Beauty’s sisters impel her to do in other incarnations of the tale (while Belle in the Disney version was the only daughter of an eccentric tinkerer, in older versions of the story, she is the third daughter of a prosperous merchant), as Giles briefly does when he tries to discourage Elisa from her determination to save the Amphibian Man, declaring “he’s not even human.”

In resisting or rejecting those commands (which Psyche initially does not, to her own suffering), the heroine rejects the antagonist’s values and those of a repressive, unjust society.

In repeatedly calling her a “princess” in his own retelling, Giles identifies her with Psyche, Beauty, and other women of royalty and status who usually fulfill this role in the Cupid and Psyche tale. Del Toro, too, is making a statement by paralleling a frightful (even if god-like, and in his way, beneficent) amphibian creature with Love, and a scarred, disabled, lowly-regarded and awkward woman with Beauty.

Love is not only for the pretty, typically abled, socially valued, or heterosexual. Beauty is not only what the convention of the majority considers desirable.

As Psyche is given ambrosia to drink and becomes immortal herself at the conclusion of her trials, Elisa is transformed into the same kind of being as the Amphibian Man—a god. Whereas most of society’s preferred disability narrative is that we become more fully human in becoming less disabled (or at least trying to look like it), Elisa doesn’t do that. She becomes more wholly herself in becoming more, not less, of what conventional human society deems broken or undesirable about her.

*

I also didn’t find The Shape of Water particularly off-putting from a disability perspective for other reasons.

Primarily, the problem of the story isn’t Elisa’s disability, or the Amphibian Man’s monstrosity. Just like it isn’t Giles’s gayness or Zelda’s blackness, though we see the cruelty and injustice that both are subjected to for those characteristics. That these two characters are the people most closely allied with the romantic duo is not an accident or coincidence.

The problem is society’s relegation of people like them to less than wholly human status. The problem is the unchallenged ability of elements like Strickland within that society to exercise authoritarian, even deadly, control over the bodies, the freedom, the fates, of those whose being they deem inferior or abominable.

That, the movie says, is wrong. And that is a concept that powerful factions of our society still struggle with or reject entirely.

Another prominent criticism centers on Elisa’s dream sequence in which she sings, imagining herself the star of a movie musical, as unrealistic or portraying disability itself as a cage from which she can only wish to be free. I did cringe during this segment of the movie, not because I felt that way about it, but because I knew that it would elicit a great deal of the kind of condemnation which it did. Though I experienced it not that way at all, but rather as a variety of fantasy very familiar to my own experience, that things would be better if it were easier to say what I wanted. If I were graceful in a way that I’m not. Is it overused? Yes. Is it an experience that I’m remotely interested in making unspeakable? No. We have a right to full range of human emotional experiences, including wishful thinking and politically imperfect personal fantasies. I won’t denigrate the way that anyone else felt about this sequence.  It was difficult to watch.  But we also have a right to ambivalence.

But there’s an argument to be made that when Elisa dreams herself in the movie scene, what she’s really wishing for is not to be speaking, or non-disabled, but to experience herself in the same kinds of romantic situations that fill the movies she herself so loves. And again, the reason she cannot have that in the world she actually lives in is not the fault of her disability, but of the ways in which her society isolates and makes invisible people like her. (Where are other humans of her “own kind” in her world in this time and place? Well, a lot of them are institutionalized.)

“You don’t have to be marginalized in some way to be swept up in its beauty and romance,” Sarah Kurchak writes of the movie in her review. “But if you happen to have had a long-term unrequited relationship with the cinema, there’s a certain joyful rush that comes from having the object of your affections finally turn around and notice that you’ve been there all along.”  And in Elisa herself, that is what del Toro has given to many of us.

Not only in that Elisa Esposito, the character, is disabled. Sally Hawkins is weird-looking. She isn’t conventionally pretty. She isn’t what most people probably expect a leading lady to look like. (For the same reasons, I’ve enjoyed watching Eddie Redmayne’s career ascension to leading man. How often do we see men who look like him portrayed as romantic heroes?  Not that his movies have always been un-problematic, but I do think that’s important.) And as someone who never will meet mainstream expectations of feminine beauty, I appreciated it.

*

While I am by far not the first to observe this, I find myself compelled to agree that any consideration of del Toro’s storytelling is incomplete without attention to his Catholicism.

Del Toro himself says, “Catholicism is a big influence. For me, it cemented virtue and pain in a single emotion — that in order to achieve goodness you have to suffer. Of course, it is also a faith full of ghosts and gore and gargoyles… And the side effect was, I ended up thinking that monsters are sort of the patron saints of imperfection. I try to celebrate imperfection in my movies; the really scary characters are always the ones who insist everything has to be perfect.”

Christianity (at its best) and Christ himself concern themselves with the dignity and value of the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the powerless. Those, fittingly, who are the heroes of this film.

Of course the Church has often, and spectacularly, failed to uphold those very values. Throughout its history it has often been all too ready to protect the privileged and powerful at the expense of its avowed duties to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the weak. The portrayal of Strickland’s superficially picture-perfect family life—nuclear, hetero-normative, male-headed and religiously-sanctioned, yet also harboring deep pathologies and abuses of power—juxtaposed with the more genuine, equal, yet highly stigmatized and legally unprotected intimacies of both sexual love and friendship between the four main protagonists, is intended to draw attention to this very hypocrisy.

The difference between the Church’s promises, and some of its realities, is what’s on display in Strickland’s family unit.

And of course the parallel with Christ in the trope of resurrection of the wounded god is unavoidable; Amphibian Man and Elisa both die for the sins of a less understanding and compassionate world. The sin, that which separates us from divinity (from full humanity, from existing in the image of God), is cruelty towards that which we fear or seek to control. Not embodied difference, not disability, not imperfection. Not wish fulfillment fantasies or loving that which society considers strange or unacceptable.

 

Just another brief note on del Toro’s body of work in general: I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth in a long time, but I did wind up re-watching the trailer this week, and it becomes apparent to me that the theme of “princess reborn from a secret magical land” (underground in Pan’s Labyrinth, underwater in The Shape of Water) occupies a larger place in the world of his filmography than I can probably address solely with regard to the Shape of Water.

I don’t think I know yet what it means in his personal mythology; I don’t know enough to know whether I like it or not. But it definitely is a larger trope in his work in which he has involved both a disabled and a non-disabled female protagonist, so I am very hesitant to try to discern any statement about his views of the proper place of disabled people in society from its occurrence in the Shape of Water.

Likewise, Elisa’s disability is not the problem solved by her death and resurrection. Elisa, like Ofelia, the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, dies in the act of attempting to protect another from authoritarian violence. She dies not because of what she is but because somebody kills her. Somebody who could not tolerate the challenge that her innate strength and her allegiance to her own conscience posed to his power and presumption of righteousness. Not because people like her simply don’t belong in the world. That’s the viewpoint of the film’s unambiguous villain.

*

Far from leading me to feel unwanted in the world, I believe Del Toro has woven together elements from a tradition in fiction of women and girls as capable protagonists in fairy tale settings, myth, and a Christianity populated by the weird and wonderful to tell a story that openly repudiates the values of those who would say that certain kinds of people don’t belong in the world.

Ultimately, however, I do very much want to see a far broader range of types of roles and stories unquestionably open to disabled characters and performers alike. What I do not want to see is for us to renounce traditions of storytelling in which those of us who find ourselves alienated again and again by the stories that society tries to tell us about ourselves, who cannot use that language, have been able to find another one in the realms of the numinous. In which we can find a certain freedom in embracing and finding power in what society says is our brokenness or monstrousness. In saying “Maybe I am.”

“I think what we need,” comments Kit Mead, “is, shockingly enough, a range of disability stories and representation…. like…. ones that show the otherness we feel, and ones that don’t, and ones that are somewhere in between.”

I want us all to expand the repertoire of stories that we know how to tell about disabled and marginalized experience, not constrict our ability to tell ones like this. An emotional and metaphoric landscape with as rich a history and as luminous with possibility as fairy tale is not one I’m willing to give up.

September 16, 2014

The innocence and experience of Empire Records

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:09 pm by chavisory

The past few years have brought a series of movie and TV series anniversaries that…while I still can’t say I feel old, really put the relentlessness of time into perspective. The X-Files turning 21. The Princess Bride turning 25.

Empire Records turns 20 next year, making it older than I was when I first saw it. A generation of kids who weren’t even born when it came out are old enough to see it now.

This article (which is long, but worth reading all the way through) came up in my news feed recently about the story of its making and total commercial flop in 1995.

I first saw Empire Records when I was 15. I was at summer camp, one of the multiple summer academic programs where I spent my summers as a teenager. And literally all of my friends from the previous year had gotten too cool for me and stopped talking to me. It was the final night of camp, and the movie that had been voted on for everyone to stay up late and watch, was Empire Records.

I asked for it for, I think, my Valentine’s Day present the following year, and my mother bought it on VHS for me. I would name it without hesitation as one of my favorite movies for years, without ever being able to articulate why.

The article is an incredible nostalgia trip, and suffice it to say, the story of the making of the movie sounds almost as much fun as the movie. It’s comforting somehow to know that the cast of the movie were all truly friends, who loved making it as much as we’ve all loved it as we’ve grown up. Things surprised me (Coyote Shivers was Liv Tyler’s stepfather?! And A.J.’s checkered shirt was an “old-man” shirt? I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen, though maybe that was just A.J. in it), and things didn’t (mischief and mayhem on the part of Ethan Embry), but a passage that really gave me pause finally gave me the scaffolding to explain how this became such an important movie to me:

Part of the feel of the film was also lost via Regency’s insistence that it remain PG-13, rather than have the R-rating of the original script; that’s why none of the characters could be shown actually smoking cigarettes or marijuana, why they couldn’t swear like actual teenagers, why Eddie couldn’t run his weed operation on the roof—why they couldn’t, in other words, fully behave like the teens they were meant to portray.

See, I actually have to epically disagree with Petersen and the filmmakers about this. I think it’s an immense strength of the movie that those sorts of depictions were dispensed with.

Because much as I love the movie, it’s not actually because I can particularly identify with any one character in it, as opposed to characteristics and combinations of traits and struggles of multiple characters (Corey’s academic prowess, with a hint of Warren’s resentment and insecurity and A.J.’s artistic ambitions)…and that even if I wasn’t there, the world they inhabited was a world I could inhabit.  (In some ways, unlike the world I actually did inhabit.)

And a huge part of that was the lack of completely rampant drug use and callous language. It’s not even that drug use or abuse wasn’t depicted in the world; it was—in Marc’s spending the day stoned on Eddie’s “special” brownies, and Corey’s admission of amphetamine abuse to keep up with schoolwork. It’s not, by a long stretch of the imagination, an anti-drug movie, but the world in which Empire Records exists isn’t one that revolves around getting fucked up. In some kind of wake of cynicism left behind by Generation X, there was this oppressive sense that real kids with real issues were all doing this stuff—and the movie as it turned out, apparently inadvertently, tacitly rejects that premise.

Because believe it or not, kids of my generation not doing drugs or acting out in those ways actually existed. Teenage culture without pervasive drug use actually existed, and the outlook that “oh this is what teenagers really do, though,” was a hugely alienating aspect of other movies about misfit teenagers for me (like Dazed and Confused, of which I remember not one single important thing).

I would hazard a guess that this aspect has actually contributed hugely to the movie’s long-term success, especially among, as the article notes, an audience slightly younger and more sheltered than that originally intended by the producers. The writing of Empire Records treats the problems and internal life of all of its characters with equal sincerity and seriousness, and that’s something that I really felt the lack of in a lot of media aimed more successfully at Generation X (even in things I did like and identify with in some regards, like Daria). It’s an unabashedly sincere and hopeful movie.

A movie like that, with a PG-13 rating, could be shown for movie night at summer camp, where a desperately lonely 15-year-old could fall in love with a story of hope that belonging somewhere exists. An R-rated movie with all the characters drinking/smoking/cursing for two solid hours, couldn’t.

It’s not an everyday occurrence that I aim heartfelt thanks to the MPAA for its contributions to a brilliant narrative decision, but today I do.

Because the themes of love and ambition, and enforced conformity vs. what it means to find a place where you really fit in the world, are pretty universal to teenagers, but contrary to a lot of mythmaking, pervasive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse actually weren’t. That wasn’t what teenagers all just did.

If Empire Records failed to coherently indict “The Man,” it did effectively undermine something snide and dismissive that had arisen in factions of teen culture, that very much conveyed that you had to be edgy or cynical or damaged enough for your problems or issues or dreams to matter.

Empire Records is exactly the movie it should have been.

empire records[Image description:  The characters Warren, Eddie, A.J., Corey, Jane, Joe, Lucas, Gina, Marc, and Deb sit on a building rooftop at night, under a lit neon sign reading “EMPIRE RECORDS, since 1959.”]

January 23, 2013

Danny Zuko, poetry fan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:15 pm by chavisory

Speaking of characters who everyone gets wrong…

It’s always made me a little sad how few people appreciate that Danny Zuko is a great big poetry nerd.  Specifically, that he’s a huge fan of e.e. cummings…but that, for instance (as far as we know), his English teacher never seemed to notice this, or harness it into keeping him more engaged with his academics.

Don’t believe me?

she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having

thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.

K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her

up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and

again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my

lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity

avenue i touched the accelerator and give

her the juice,good

(it

was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on

the
internalexpanding
&
externalcontracting
brakes Bothatonce and

brought allofher tremB
-ling
to a:dead.

stand-
;Still)

–e.e. cummings