Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Masculinity is narrowly depicted in pop culture, with rare exceptions

A CIA agent intensely interrogates a detainee. She stands, pacing as she fires questions at the prisoner seated at the table. Sitting across from the detainee is a burly man with closely cropped hair. The man says nothing as the agent inquires and stays on her feet behind him, almost looming. Periodically, when the detainee attempts to avoid answering or evades the topic, the female agent firmly pats the burly man on the shoulder. This is his signal to lean forward and punch the detainee. The female agent speaks with purpose and authority and has a wealth of knowledge about the operation under way. The burly man says nothing, waiting for his cue to exercise brute force. The only decision-making he exercises is what level of force with which to hit the man across from him. This scene is from Zero Dark Thirty, a fine film, but one that includes this excellent example of how men are oversimplified, reduced and limited to a small range of skills and characteristics in modern film.
To be clear, Zero Dark Thirty is not to blame. Director Katherine Bigelow is under no obligation to fight against unflattering depictions of anything, including waterboarding. Yet it helps to point this out as in introduction to the way society and Hollywood view and portray men.  
One of the most successful franchises of the past two decades is the Fast and Furious series. The men in this series are unpolished gearheads who also happen to be criminals, hijacking trucks for a living when they’re not illegally racing in the streets. In the first entry in the series, Paul Walker is the undercover police officer who infiltrates the group led by Vin Diesel and of course attracts his sister (Jordana Brewster). The theme of criminality and a rugged job as a means of attracting a woman is one that surfaces time and again in film after film. In the 2012 film Contraband, Mark Wahlburg portrays a former smuggler who has gone straight. He now works in security and because he was a criminal, he is rewarded with a life of domestic bliss with Kate Beckinsale (!).
In season 5 of Girls, the character of Charlie is revisited when his ex-girlfriend Marnie runs into him while walking on the sidewalk. Charlie was an overly kind man in the early seasons and Marnie was turned off by his “smothering love.” He now speaks with a street-influenced voice associated with small-time thugs and while he once owned a tech company after developing an app, he now works on a construction crew. By the end of the episode featuring his time spent with Marnie who, apparently attracted to his new street persona has slept with him, it’s clear he now uses heroin. In her comments about this episode, creator Lena Dunham said this character change was inspired by a man she knew in her personal life who put on a harder persona in order to make himself more appealing to women.
The transformation this fictional character went through and the real-life one it was inspired by are indicative of an unfortunate preponderance of this limited view of masculinity. The concept of life imitating art or art imitating life goes back ages. There is an unquestionable prevalence in reality however, of men being limited in how they present themselves and what careers and ambitions they may have while still being attractive to the opposite sex. When it comes to quantifying this, the careers men have and which number are employed here, are available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When it comes to finding a precise number of how many men are in these types of “masculine” fields and are also in relationships with women, this is available through a less scientific method called anecdotal evidence. Considering a vast majority of stories of gender stereotypes is the result of anecdotal evidence, it’s fair to proceed with an examination of male/female careers and male gender expectations with the same.
It is not uncommon at all to see women with men who are in a field that society might consider “below” them in terms of intelligence and education. The halls of couples are filled with duos of women who have intellectually taxing careers requiring extensive education while the men they’re with are in fields requiring them to hold a gun or a tool.
There are a few examples in pop culture of this stereotypical version of masculinity being flipped on its head. In season three of House of Cards Claire Underwood is speaking to an Israeli military official about a policy affecting the Jordan Valley President Frank Underwood is spearheading. The Israeli official criticizes the president’s lack of personal experience regarding the region. She says to Claire, “I served in the Jordan Valley.”
Claire interrupts her before she can continue and says, “You held a gun and stood where someone told you to.” She then explains that the weight of the decisions her husband makes on a daily basis would overwhelm most people.
A Most Violent Year includes a scene in which both the strength of an ambitious style of masculinity and the strength of femininity work together to show how a couple can be stronger when matched well.  Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a man who owns a heating oil business and during the course of the film is attempting to secure a loan in order to purchase a piece of waterfront property that will make his business even more profitable. Jessica Chastain plays his wife and business partner and throughout the film they work together, sometimes harmoniously, and sometimes with great conflict. To see a man and woman work together and feed off each other’s ambition and intelligence is electric, especially when presented by two such gifted actors. In this scene that is a rare display of a multifaceted masculinity, Abel has come from a day of fending off competitors who are literally stealing from him and is under the weight of the deadline by which he must receive the funds, which have fallen through and are not yet materializing. Seeing the stress on her husband, who is in a seated position, Anna (Chastain) kneels in front of him so she can meet his eyes. She firmly grasps him with both hands in a display and gesture of comfort and encouragement and tells him she told their children earlier that their father has been out there today working hard for them.
A Most Violent Year depicts a woman being drawn to a man’s mental strength, as her husband is ambitious and succeeds due to his intelligence and sophistication instead of brute force. This scene is doubly effective because it shows the power of femininity as Chastain’s character knows when and how to provide strength to her man by offering this display of affection and encouragement. There’s another great scene in which Abel is explaining to the bank representatives why it’s important to purchase the property. As he articulately describes what the property will do for his business, Anna smiles with pleasure while she listens to her obviously business-savvy husband.
The show House of Cards, for all its depravity, offers a positive view of masculinity. Claire Underwood is another woman drawn to her husband because of his ambition and intelligence. Frank Underwood is a criminal, but one who doesn’t use physical force as his primary weapon. (He is guilty of two murders, but his wife doesn’t know about these). Frank’s weapon is foresight, calculation and a keen understanding of what drives people. This understanding allows him to use his other skills so well and succeed as a result. There are scenes throughout the series in which an expression of pride washes over Claire’s face as she watches her husband take the upper hand over an opponent though his use of intellect and eloquence. Frank can assert himself over someone and talk circles around them while doing so, leaving them intellectually outmatched and defeated.
There is a single moment in the series in which there is even a flash of a baser attraction in Claire and it occurs when she is at a very low point in her relationship with Frank. On the campaign trail, they are in their hotel room at night and Claire asks that Frank take her in a very forceful sexual fashion. Frank is turned off by this and angrily says to Claire, “If you wanted someone to prove his manhood that way you should have stayed in Texas and married the prom king!”
This is one of the best moments as it shows Frank being both disgusted and offended by the fact that not only is he being asked to present this demeanor, thereby lowering himself, but that he might actually be with a woman who is attracted to it.
Yet these are unfortunately only two of what is an all-too-rare representation of masculinity being represented by intellectual or thoughtful achievement. Pop culture and society as a whole still have a long way to go when it comes to encouraging men to not be afraid to be intelligent and ambitious.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence's new film is an absolute "Joy"

If Jennifer Lawrence weren’t already a movie star, “Joy” is the film that would make her one. Since Lawrence is already one of the most recognizable actresses in the world, has anchored a juggernaut franchise and been nominated for four Academy Awards with one Oscar already on the mantel, “Joy” reminds us she is more than just a movie star and critics’ darling. She is still in the early years of what will undoubtedly be a long career with many great performances along the way. She received her fourth Oscar nomination for this and it is arguably her best performance and most challenging role.
Writer-director David O. Russell takes the story of Joy Mangano’s invention of the Miracle Mop and her battle to successfully market it and tells it with the tension of a suspense film and the corporate ruthlessness and bootstrapping of “There Will be Blood”. From the early scenes, it’s clear Joy has always been an inventor, but hasn’t had the breaks in life to turn her ideas into a career. As she’s heading out to go to her job at the airline desk, she finds a prototype of one of her early inventions and reminds her mom she could have had this patented if her mother had been more helpful.
When Joy gets an idea for a mop which can be wrung out without the user having to touch the cloth, she gets to work on drawing up a design and lobbying for investment capital. The major investor also happens to be her father’s affluent girlfriend Trudy (a steely Isabella Rossellini) and the extent to which family plays a role in Joy’s failures and successes makes for some of the movie’s most effective scenes. The American Dream is a much-romanticized concept, but the realities are often only referenced, if thought of at all. This is true not only in the way society views the concept, but also in many movies’ treatment of it. Russell’s script avoids a cursory look at the development stages of the product and the ensuing struggles that come with building a business and instead brings the audience right to the negotiating table with the characters. When Joy finally gets her investment money, it’s after a series of meetings with Trudy and her family in which she’s has to go to painstaking lengths to convince them of the merit of this idea. The audience also sees the research and development going into the endeavor, including a worldwide patent search to ensure the rights to the product design aren’t already held, the manufacturing of pieces needed to assemble the mop, and the difficulty in finding a retailer or marketer willing to promote and sell the invention. Like few movies before it, “Joy” chronicles a business in a way so precise and detailed, it could be a documentary.
Success is easiest with the right support, yet neither Joy’s financial support nor her emotional support was optimal. Anyone watching who’s ever had a dream could either identify or empathize with Joy based on the scenes with her family in regards to her ambition. Viewers who had supportive family members may be more appreciative of this and anyone whose family was not supportive, or even disparaging, will feel for Joy as she works even harder against this current. Robert De Niro plays her father as someone who loves her, but doesn’t champion her. it takes some time to convince him to approach Trudy with the suggestion she invest and when the deck is stacked against Joy, he’s more likely to tell her to accept her supposed limitations than to persevere.
As the thrills and disappointments of this venture occur, Lawrence portrays Joy’s experience with sincerity and conviction. She’s doing the finest acting of her career and yet she doesn’t appear to be acting.
This is the story of someone from an ordinary background doing something extraordinary. The scenes with her family emphasize this and make it a much more human drama than it might have been. She could be anyone and this makes her immediately relateable. When she hurts, the audience hurts. Yet when she succeeds, the audience feels like they’re right there with her and the rush is exhilarating.
This is a tremendously uplifting and inspirational movie and one so well crafted it is simply a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

In defense of the Star Wars prequels: The critic strikes back

The Force Awakens has finally opened worldwide and has been received with universal acclaim. As a standalone film, it’s a success; it has likeable characters, humor, special effects, creatures, lightsabers and the classic battle between the light and dark sides of the Force. It has everything audiences go to a Star Wars movie for.

Movies should be critiqued on their standalone merits. This website recently published a column dismissing negative reviews of Spectre as the result of viewers comparing it to Skyfall and then, because it is not as good, deciding Spectre isn’t a good movie. What is troubling about reviews of The Force Awakens, is the way this film is gaining praise on the backs of Star Wars Episodes I-III, the much- (unjustly) derided prequel trilogy.

Cristopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, “With The Force Awakens. Abrams has begun one of the most important reclamation projects of our time: the complete erasure from cultural memory of The Phantom Menace and its sequels.”

The “complete erasure from cultural memory” of the prequels would be a very sad cinematic event indeed. At this point in time, it’s difficult to track the origin of the derision and to ascertain how many viewers sincerely dislike the prequels and how many say so because they are trend whores of the California bear T-Shirt, planking and Harlem-shake mentality. The Phantom Menace, released on May 19, 1999, grossed $431,088,295 domestically (a 2012 3D rerelease grossed $43,456,382 domestically) according to Box Office Mojo, an industry tracking site. Yes, box office doesn’t mean a film is good, yet when looking at major reviews of The Phantom Menace, the loathing is even more complexing.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “But stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas's first installment offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors of ''Jurassic Park.'' While the human stars here are reduced to playing action figures, they are upstaged by amazing backdrops and hordes of crazily lifelike space beings as the Lewis Carroll in Mr. Lucas is given free rein. The ''Star Wars'' franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn't capable of this.”

The last sentence above is a crucial one. Maslin expertly recognizes what many viewers didn’t about the prequels, which is they are intended to have a different look than the originals. Lucas spoke many times about how he had intended to do the first three episodes once technology caught up to his vision. Maslin’s mention of “Jurassic Park” is apropos because Lucas stated the success of the CGI in “Jurassic Park” convinced him it was finally time create the Star Wars universe as he wanted it. Fans of the original trilogy complained of Episodes I-III being overwhelmed by CGI and the characters and story fading into the background. It is a fair criticism for someone to say they don’t like a movie with so much CGI, but this is separate from the film being poorly made. However, to criticize the film for lacing character development (which it actually doesn’t) is to ignore what the Star Wars franchise is.

Roger Ebert, who will forever be the most insightful and brilliant voice of film criticism, wrote, “At the risk of offending devotees of the Force, I will say that the stories of the "Star Wars" movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior.”

It’s not as if the original Star Wars films were Tolstoy-esque character studies with the occasional lightsaber battle and creature effects. They were vehicles for fun and imagination and anyone who criticizes the prequels for lack of rich characters either misses the point or is trying to sound highbrow. Incidentally, there is much character development in the later prequels and this will be addressed later.

Ebert enjoyed the movie and said on his TV show, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”

Ebert did say the plot details of the trade dispute brought the Star Wars universe to a more scaled down level. This is a criticism which can be accepted (although the elements of the trade dispute were admittedly

The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, in a review mostly comparing how he felt watching this to how he felt watching the original when he was 22 years younger, wrote, “Part of the reason for this lack of wit is that 'Phantom Menace' is intentionally skewed quite young. One of its key protagonists, as anyone who cares knows by now, is 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, and many of the film's characters and situations are set up to please tender minds. "We're doing it for the wide-eyed 13-year-old," one of the film's key technicians told Premier magazine, not necessarily a pleasant thought for the rest of us.”

Again, it’s a fair criticism for someone to prefer a story about adults to one focused on youth, but this is not something fairly used to demonstrate the film’s supposed lack of quality. This would be like criticizing the quality of Kramer Vs. Kramer because a child is a central figure in the story. The difference is Kramer Vs. Kramer wasn’t part of a franchise which earlier focused only on adults. Strangely, it would only be two years from The Phantom Menace when a cartoon called Shrek would so enthrall supposed adults that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would create a new category specifically to give Shrek an Oscar (and ensuring years of lackluster nominations like “Surf’s Up”).

Episodes I-III were heavily criticized for wooden acting. Natalie Portman, who portrayed Queen Amidala said in an interview she had difficulty getting work following the films because people in the industry assumed she couldn’t act well. It’s true actors that are good in other films (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Hayden Christensen and Christopher Lee) sometimes give poor line readings in the films. However, this like the focus on effects over characters, is something that existed in the original trilogy. The most famous example of this is Luke Skywalker’s exclamation that he was on his way to pick up some power converters when he was asked to do a chore by his uncle Owen in A New Hope. Fans that cite this as a reason for the prequels’ supposed lack of quality are ignoring the fact it existed in the first three movies. 

Episode II was the first to star Christensen and until The Force Awakens, was the weakest entry in the series. Yes, Attack of the Clones is superior to The Force Awakens. If Episode I was the foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall story, Episode II was the segment that first revealed the early stages of a declining republic and a rising empire. In a featurette on the Episode II DVD, Lucas describes Anakin as a “transitional character” in this episode. In the film, Anakin is now a Jedi of 19 and fighting against the work of Darth Sidious, while also showing flashes of anger vengeance and mort than a flash of love, which will lead him to the dark side. When his mother is killed by the sand people, Anakin wrathfully murders every member of their camp including women and children. Anger is also present in Anakin’s resentment of Obi-Wan, who he believes is “overly critical” and responsible for holding him back.

Another strong element of the prequels (and one most fans do recognize as a strength) is John Williams’ transporting scores for each film. While he created “Duel of the Fates” to accompany the climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul in Episode I and “Battle of the Heroes” for the Obi –Wan Vs. Anakin battle in Episode III, it is his stirring love theme entitled “Across the Stars” in Episode II which is arguably his greatest of many great contributions to the prequel trilogy. By definition, the prequels are showing audiences how characters arrived at a destination already known. Episode II tells a romance everyone knows is doomed from the outset. Williams tapped into this by creating a theme in “Across the Stars” which is beautiful, but also touched with notes of melancholy. This piece is woven into the film in several moments, but is perhaps most effective just before the climax. Anakin and Padme have been captured and are about to face an elaborate execution attempt in an arena. Padme, who has always adamantly opposed a romance between the two because of their respective positions, confirms her love for him and the music swells as the two kiss as they are transported by their captors into an arena to face an execution.

Revenge of the Sith, while a casualty of the prequel backlash, is at least regarded as the strongest of the three. This is justly so, as it succeeds at being both an exciting, sci-fi epic and a significant character story. Ten years after its release, the most memorable pull-quote which could be seen on newspaper advertisements for the film was an excerpt from Ty Burr of The Boston Globe who wrote that “Sith was a “terrifically compelling high-stakes human drama.”  Burr also called it “the most emotionally powerful  of all six.”

Revenge of the Sith dives right into the action with the series’ most exciting opening sequence.  In a single, long tracking shot (although aided by CGI) Anakin and Obi-Wan pilot their ships along a massive destroyer in space as a familiar score by Williams plays and builds to a crescendo as the two Jedi take sharp turns in their fighters and the audience’s viewpoint follow them and the full expansiveness of the battle is visible, with explosions going off and enemy spacecraft at every turn. The camera then narrows its focus on the battle, closing in on Anakin in the cockpit of his small starship. Anakin and Obi-Wan land in the hangar aboard General Grievous’ ship in order to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine. It’s a thrilling start and when the heroes are back on the ground, the story continues to build quickly.

Padme is expecting a child with Anakin, although their relationship is still a secret and Anakin finds his allegiance tested when he is asked by Chancellor Palpatine to be his representative on the Jedi Council and in turn is asked by the council to report on the chancellor’s dealings. Anakin once again is driven to act because he fears for the safety of a loved one. He dreams Padme dies in childbirth and Palpatine uses this as an opportunity to bring Anakin to the dark side.  In one of the trilogy’s best dialogue-driven scenes, Palpatine tells Anakin of the tragedy of Darth Plagueis. He says Plagueis had such knowledge of the dark side he could stop the ones he cared about from dying. Anakin listens intently and asks if it’s possible to learn this power and is told, “Not from a Jedi.”

There is treachery everywhere in Revenge of The Sith and it all builds to a rousing and heartbreaking conclusion. This already emotionally powerful and action-heavy adventure is made even more thrilling to watch by the fluidity of its editing and the significance behind some of the scene transitions. The Star Wars saga has always used wipes as an editing technique, which as always adds to the sweeping quality of the viewing experience and Sith has a particularly expert use for added emotional impact. In the film’s final minutes, Lucas shows the procession at Padme’s funeral. Her body is being carried with her hair at her sides and her hands clasped together on her chest. Entwined in her fingers is the pendant Anakin made for her years earlier, which she still wears. The camera focuses on the pendant as a circle forms on the screen, transitioning to show a star destroyer as the scream of two TIE fighters becomes audible and the familiar imperial ships fly through space. It is one of the series’ most powerful moments of visual storytelling.

The hatred for the prequels is extremely misguided and perhaps the result of fans’ inability to recognize and articulate that they don’t feel the same I their present day as they did years earlier about a first-time viewing experience. It’s completely fair to express an opinion that the look of the original trilogy is better than the prequels. Yet the prequels are true to the original trilogy in many ways. Therefore, to regard the prequels as an awful exercise in moviemaking and the destruction of a legacy means there is a great disturbance in the Force.