Tag Archives: gender

Hong Kong #3: Song of the Exile

The advent of the French New Wave directors in the late 1950s marked the beginning of a huge shift in global cinema. They shook the traditions of French cinema to their foundations; either by re-imagining and revising existing genres (the gangster film reborn in Godard’s Breathless, for example) or by ignoring the established rules of editing and composition (again, see the opening of Breathless to see just about every narrative, compositional and editing convention blown to bits.) As filmmakers in other countries saw how film could be as flexible as any other art form, how it could be recreated by and for a new generation, other ‘New Waves’ erupted over the globe; British Naturalism, German New Wave, New Hollywood are among the best known. Asia was affected too; it took longer, but Hong Kong’s new wave kicked off in the late 70s with a determination to change existing genres to address contemporary problems and to use more realist techniques.

One director strongly associated with the New Wave is Ann Hui. Her most famous early film is probably Boat People (1982), a study of the plight of refugees from Vietnam in Hong Kong. More recently she has been making films about poverty and disenfranchisement in the TIn Shui Wai area of Hong Kong(commonly called the ‘City of Sadness.’ Obviously, Hui has a consistent desire to explore Hong Kong’s social issues; in this regard, she has remained true to the political ethos of the New Wave (crudely put, a broadly socialist commitment to social equality.)

There are other elements to New Wave, though. The original crop of French directors, particularly Francois Truffaut, were strongly associated with auteur theory (Truffaut was the first to articulate it, in his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’) and as such they only recognised ‘real’ artists as those who treated film as an opportunity to explore and express individuality. Their films were often very personal and idiosyncratic as they sought to develop a personal style and subject matter.

Hui’s 1990 film, Song of the Exile, certainly manages this in one way since it is, at least in part, autobiographical. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of Hueyin, studying (and having fun) in London when her mother calls her back to Hong Kong for her sister’s wedding.  Arguments ensue as her mother, Aiko,  takes control of her hair and dress and refuses to allow her any independence. The relationship looks irrevocably broken as we see where all this tension came from; Hueyin was raised in Macau, primarily by her grandparents and has always felt resentment towards her apparently distant mother for taking her away from her beloved grandfather to live in Hong Kong. We find out that Aiko is originally Japanese and the relationship between mother and daughter takes on new dimensions when they travel together to Japan and unearth some aspects of Aiko’s past. We come to realise that the ‘exile’ of the title is not primarily Hueyin, but Aiko.

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The primary focus of the film is on the family; it is a very recognisable tale of a younger generation seeking to escape the influence of their parents (a theme which could stand as a metaphor for the entire New Wave.) Most obviously, the familial tensions are between Hueyin and Aiko.  Aiko desperately wants her daughter to be ‘good’; we can see this in the way she dresses her for the wedding as a ‘good’ Hong Kong daughter, in a red dress and a perm, exactly the same as her own. She is trying to fit her daughter into a tradition, perhaps, to allow her a sense of belonging, the opposite of ‘exile’ , which she herself was denied. The wedding itself is shown to be noisy and familial; people are packed into the frame and there is a lot of movement, but Hueyin is pictured alone, off by herself; a product, perhaps, of Western individualism.

Wedding

So, the first part of the film shows Aiko destroying what remains of her relationship with her daughter. However, as we learn Aiko’s story through flashback, we see that she had the same sort of dysfunctional experience. She lived with her husband’s parents, and it becomes clear that they habitually dismissed her authority and demeaned her in front of her daughter. She is shot in chiaroscuro in these sections, semiotically indicating her despair, a despair which she seems destined to had on to her daughter (we see her beating her child.) Even the grandfather mentions that he wanted to study Western medicine but was forced to focus on Chinese medicine by his father. The theme is clear, and depressing; familial dysfunction is hereditary.

Mum chiaroscuro in Macau

There is also a more general theme about the effect of political and historical processes and events on individuals. Hueyin’s grandparents are in Macau because they are fleeing from the Cultural revolution. Aiko is living in Manchukuo when it is reclaimed by China after japan’s fall, and there she meets Hueyin’s father; that is how she ends up an ‘exile’, first in Macau, then in Hong Kong. Even Hueyin is strongly associated with liberal and progressive ideas in the opening section of the film, and she is shown to be as much a product of her environment as any of the other characters. Chinese history is told through the lens of this one family’s story, and thus large social processes are made personal and relatable. Given that the film was made one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, it is hardly surprising that Hui’s attention is on politics, at least in part. The end of the film is more generally optimistic than the audience might expect, but it is typical of realist modes of storytelling in that it is open-ended; we do not know what decisions Hueyin might make as the film ends with her crying in close-up.

Crying at end

The film, typically of Hui, is beautiful; generally quite dark, there are lovely blue and green-tinted scenes throughout. Generally, there is a powerful sense of melancholy and nostalgia which reflects the theme of missed opportunities and broken relationships.

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Teenagers#1: The Breakfast Club

Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.

Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli  points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most  teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno  – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

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Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.

At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.

Judd Nelson as John Bender

The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.

We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.

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And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.

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Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a  desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.

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The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.

Tomb Raider #2: The Reboot

 

In the last gaming post, I wrote about the sexism in the gaming industry; the lack of female protagonists, and the unwillingness to give the same level of promotion to those female-orientated games that do exist. There are exceptions – games like Mirror’s Edge, Bayonetta and Beyond Good and Evil are all games published by major companies (EA, Sega and Ubisoft respectively) which feature strong, independent female protagonists. However, the earliest of those was made in 2003 and I’d struggle to think of many more, so what is clear is that there are precious few of them. Gaming, or console gaming at least, appears to be shaped by an industry with an extremely gendered world view, with Mulvey’s Male Gaze very much in operation; men making games about men for men.

Of those female protagonists, of course , the most famous is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft. 2013 saw the latest release in the franchise, Tomb Raider, published by Square Enix. As that back-to-basics name suggests, this was intended as a complete reboot, a redesign of the whole game and concept for a new generation (it’s almost twenty years since the first game was released.) In narrative terms, it is a prequel to all the other games, showing Lara’s first adventure. Ultimately, the game received much critical praise and sold somewhere around 4,000,000 copies. Despite being the most successful game in the franchise, and one of the year’s biggest selling games, sales did not meet Square Enix’s targets and were regarded as disappointing.

Lara herself was redesigned for the game. She is more life-like and less overtly sexualised. In semiotic terms, indices of femininity – breasts and legs, most obviously, but also lips and eyes – are emphasised less, and the palette associated with her is more muted. It would appear that Square Enix are moving towards a representation which relies less upon dominant, and perhaps outdated, ideologies about female roles in video games. Lara is still very conventionally attractive, but she looks less like a male fantasy and more like a fit and healthy young woman. Given the growing importance of the female gaming audience, this is perhaps an attempt to offer some sense of personal identity to that audience. Lara, it would appear, will be defined less by how she looks and more by what she does.

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The first trailer for the game, called Crossroads, was shown at E3 in 2012. E3 is an industry-only convention (unlike events such as Europe’s Gamescom and Hong Kong’s Asia Game Show, the world’s biggest gaming convention) and thus Square Enix were relying on word-of-mouth, journalists and bloggers to take the news about their new game to the audience.

In general terms, it is clearly a conventional game trailer in terms of structure and narrative; it features particularly exciting parts of the game and gives some sense of the plot and narrative (essentially, Lara learning to protect and defend herself.) It utilises some conventions of ‘realist’ film (‘shakycam’, sunspots and rain on the camera) in order to create a grittier gaming experience. The game is also much more violent than previous instalments, and it also borrows conventions from horror films, especially the slasher movie; the canted angles, fast edits and flashing transitions, for example, ant the dark, underground locations. Generically, this takes the game closer to survival horror than adventure.

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Reactions were mixed, but were soon dominated by discussions about the representational issues in the trailer. There were accusations that it was little more than ‘torture porn’; basically, that it offers pleasures to a male audience who want to watch a young woman being brutalised in a number of ways. (This again makes the diversions offered by the trailer similar to those offered by slasher movies, a genre typically aimed at a male audience.) Lara is battered and attacked for the first part of the trailer and even as she becomes more competent in defending herself, she remains stereotypically feminine and ‘soft’ – for example, she apologises to a deer before killing it. (Try to imagine the male protagonist of any game ever doing that.) Soon, she calls her mentor, a man, to help her defend herself from other men as she tries to rescue her female friend. So, judged by the trailer, we appear to be in a very conventional Proppsian narrative, constructed to appeal to a male gaze; girls are unable to defend themselves from men, so they need other men to help them. Things happen to Lara in this trailer and she appears to be powerless to stop any of it – there is no real sense of her being active and even the last shot is of her falling down a cliff face; she is being represented as a victim, which seems like a huge departure from previous games.

The real controversy, though, was about a scene in the trailer where one of the villains seems about to rape Lara, although she manages to fight him off. The editing in this scene is clearly designed to create excitement – jump cuts, quick cuts from mid-shot to close-up, MTV-style editing. Rape, it seems to suggest, is a fit topic for a game, particularly one aimed at a male audience. This reveals n=much about how audiences are regarded by the industry; Robyn Miller wrote ‘In brief, the marketing strategy assumes that its intended audience will only express interest in a female character if she is systematically victimized and portrayed as inert.’

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Square Enix released a statement which probably did more harm than good, saying that players would want to ‘protect’ Lara – again, we can detect paternalism here and an assumption that the audience is male. The ‘buzz’ was not about the game at this point, but about the trailer and given that the company were relying on positive reports from bloggers and media in general, this first trailer seems to have been a textbook example of bad marketing. In the mainstream, non-gaming, press in particular, the impression was created that the whole game was about rape. (Newspapers with large circulations like the UK’s The Sun and The Guardian are examples of this.) But influential gaming blogs like Kotaku were also bemused by the marketing angle; not at all the response the company wanted.

Closer to  the actual launch of the game, we can see that Square Enix have changed their approach. This trailer, called Reborn, is making a determined effort to appeal across gender and age groups.

Firstly, we actually see the intended audience; both genders, various ages and races.

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Secondly, they are speaking Lara’s words, giving her a voice; in the previous trailer, most of the talking was done by Roth. We still see Lara suffer a lot, but this time the ‘turnaround’, where she takes control of the narrative, comes a lot more quickly and more powerfully. ‘I must fight,’ she says, and then we have a list of adjectives to describe her – ‘fast’, ‘bold’, ‘brutal’ and so on. These are words and ideas which would not conventionally be associated with females. Finally, we hear ‘I am LARA CROFT.’ The focus is now on her as a survivor rather than a victim (the tagline for the game was ‘A survivor is born’) and as the protagonist, the active character in the narrative. This is much more in keeping with the established character of Lara Croft and, indeed, it offer a much more accurate representation of what was generally agreed to be a very good game.

There were other marketing approaches used – free DLC was given away to those who pre-ordered the game for example – but perhaps the damage had been done. Jeff Vogel wrote that the marketing campaign never made clear who the game was actually targeted at – the genre of the game, the mood and tone, the main character had all apparently changed and were represented inconsistently throughout the campaign – and perhaps that was part of the reason for the apparently disappointing sales.

Gender in gaming: Tomb Raider #1

There’s a gender problem in gaming. Although figures about the genders of gamers create a reassuring sense of equality (the actual numbers change a little depending on which articles you read, but this story, saying that 47% of gamers are female, is pretty typical), this does not appear to be supported at an institutional level.

Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them.)

Ben Kuchera has written about this, pointing out that ‘male developers create games with male only heroes for an often overwhelmingly male audience.’ (Attentive students might be reminded of Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory, which suggests exactly this type of structural bias in the film industry.) He goes on to reference Patrick Kolan’s point  that pretty much every protagonist of every game is a white guy with some facial hair. Kolan has a point – after a few games, all these chaps basically become the same person:

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So, we have male-orientated games dominating the market hugely. Why is this? Although gaming as a whole is approaching equal take-up, console gaming is still male-dominated, as Sara Perez points out:

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Michael Pachter goes further, suggsting that the ‘core’ and ‘hardcore’ audiences are much more dominated by males, saying that “Core is probably average age 30 and 60-40 male. Hardcore is average age 25, and 85-15 male.” So, perhaps it’s the case that the console audience is predominantly male and thus male-orientated games get created for them. However, there is also the possibility that this male-dominated marketing is what keeps the audience predominantly male; until female protagonists are as common as male, the theory goes, the audience is always going to be mostly male because there isn’t enough to attract a similarly sized female audience. And it would appear from our parade of identical tough-guy characters up above that the gaming audience is deeply conservative and mainstream; they like more of the same, over and over, and that means more macho male protagonists. So, there is a problem. Kuchera points out that the industry assumes that audiences will be less interested in games about women, and that marketing budgets reflect this: ‘Games with only female heroes are given half the marketing budget as games with male heroes.’

As a result, those few games with female protagonists tend to attract different sorts of attention; they often get analysed as possible turning points in terms of female representation. (Here, for example, is a comparison of the possible feminist readings of Portal and Mirror’s Edge.) Possibly the most discussed series of games ever, largely because of gender issues, is Tomb Raider, now published by Square Enix. The game has been around since 1996, when the first title was released; since then, there have been fourteen games (including spin-offs), two movies (with a third in pre-production) as well as various comic books, animations and so on. Lara Croft, the protagonist of the series, is clearly big business; more than this, she is an absolutely iconic video game and popular culture figure. (She even holds six world records, including ‘Most successful female video game character.’) So, if we’re looking at female protagonists, she’s the obvious candidate.

She’s had a few different iterations, but in most people’s minds, she looks like this:

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The semiotics are a bit tangled here; there are indices of femininity as part of a clear dominant representation of youthful sexuality and ‘beauty’; the long hair, the huge breasts and tiny waist (with hip cocked to emphasise the curves), the short shorts and tight top. At one level, she is being represented as a conventional female gaming protagonist, albeit more realistically than the more fantastical examples – here, for example, from Soul Calibur:

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So to some extent Lara is sexualised, which is very typical in gaming. (Note, for example, how more sexualised Halo’s Cortana became as the series developed, as noted here by Carol Pinchefsky; she writes that Cortana ‘went from a sarcastic artificial intelligence to the ultimate damsel in distress.’) Presumably, this blatant sex appeal is designed to appeal to a male audience. Certainly, the marketing materials have always emphasised Lara’s physicality, although not necessarily in an obviously sexual way:

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However, Lara Croft is also constructed in part from some semiotic markers associated more typically with masculinity, as seen in the first shot of her above; her clothes are basically functional and in dull colours (compare the Soul Calibur palette), she bears pistols and directly addresses the camera in a low-angle mid shot, connoting confidence. Again, if we look at the marketing image above, she is not only conventionally beautiful but active; typically, and in line with Propp’s narrative theories, the women in games are passive ‘damsels in distress’ who need a masculine ‘hero’ to rescue them. This is a long established narrative convention of games, going back at least as far as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong released in 1981; one male seeks to rescue a passive woman who is being held by another male:

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Lara, clearly, is different; she is the protagonist, the centre of the narrative, and the active character, the one who motivates the narrative. She is also completely independent, very cool, adventurous and practical. As such, we can perhaps see her as a feminist figure, but that sexualised representation, obviously appealing in part to the male gaze, is a bit of a problem in this regard. It’s hard, perhaps, to be a feminist icon when you are dressed in a way designed to appeal to men. Postfeminist theory might offer a more accurate theoretical framework. ‘Postfeminism’ is notoriously impossible to define, but for our purposes it is a modern feminist ideology which allows for a combination of (stereotypically feminine) sexuality and (stereotypically masculine) activity and toughness. It says that women can be sexual and independently active. As blogger Fido points out, Lara offers ‘the ‘best of both worlds’: she is warm, charming, good-looking, eloquent, intelligent, nurturing, cool and successful.’ (He disapproves of seeing this as in any way ‘feminist’, though, suggesting that Lara is basically just another male fantasy figure.) Regardless, that seems the best way for us to understand how Lara Croft appears to appeal to both genders; in terms of Uses and Gratifications, she offers personal identity to females and diversion to males.

Generally, with regard to gaming’s gender issues, things might have to change; as we saw above, women are starting to dominate the mobile platforms and, as Sarah Perez points out, the market for mobile gaming is now bigger than that for console gaming (in 2011, when she was writing, it was about 200 million as compared to 180 million. That gap is a lot bigger now.) As such, we can perhaps expect to see more female-friendly games and representations.

Back to Lara Croft – the most recent game in the series, 2013’s Tomb Raider, has been trailed as a reboot of the entire series, and the marketing of that game will be the subject of the next post.

The Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made (it’s certainly a popular choice with fans, making second place in the IMDB all-time-greatest list, although critics are a little harsher, only allowing it number 21 in the Sight and Sound list. The sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part 2, is generally thought of one of the best sequels of all time. It’s certainly one of the most successful, being the only sequel ever to win an Oscar. There is much discussion over which of the two is better. To me, it’s wholly artificial to debate the relative merits of the two films; even compared to most films and their sequels, they feel like two halves of one text and the removal of one part diminishes the power of the other.l

Where does the film’s reputation come from? It’s certainly not originality. The Godfather as a whole is a wholly conventional gangster story. If we look at the earliest crime dramas, we see many of the conventions are still evident decades later in Coppola’s movie. The Public Enemy, for example, made by William Welman in 1931, one of the founding texts of the genre, has several similarities. The focus is on the criminals, not the police (indeed, the forces of law and order are pretty much absent.). The criminal is an anti-hero – somehow sympathetic despite doing generally immoral, and often very terrible, things. The text is very much gendered; it’s a film full of men and it’s about masculinity. It’s also about family – actual families and crime families. Such conventions – and more – are evident in both films, and in other crime movies like Nine Queens or The Town or Rififi. Of course, this isn’t just a crime film, it’s a Mafia movie (or ‘mob film’) and that’s a subtext with a range of conventions all its own. The Mafia, as an Italian organisation which spread to America, gives Coppola the perfect basis for exploration of his themes – old world versus new world, tradition versus modernity, father versus son, past versus present and so on.

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So, is this merely a ‘genre’ film? Is there space to recognise auteurship at work? Certainly; the distinction between genre and auteur theory has always been a dubious one, and if we accept the postmodern view that nothing is particularly original anyway, then auteurship becomes a shaky notion anyway. Coppola’s vision is most definitely recognised in this film, and we can see his favourite themes and motifs appear in many of his other films. We see monomania just like Michael Corleone’s in Apocalypse Now, for example, and paranoia just like Michael’s in The Conversation.  Although the film is not particularly original, it is certainly the most fully realised exploration of many of these common themes and that is how it earned its reputation and what justifies the inclusion of Coppola in any list of great directors. That is, they’re not the first Mafia films, but arguably the best. (Scarface and Goodfellas are in the running, though!)

American (and thus global, pretty much) crime film, of course, is closely intertwined with the noir tradition, and at its heart, The Godfather Part 2 is a noir. Aesthetically, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen – not for nothing is the cinematographer Gordon Willis known as the ‘prince of darkness.’ The darkness of the cinematography (as well as the exceptionally affecting minor-key score by Nino Rota, noted and praised by Roger Ebert, who says ‘it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story’) connotes, as in all noir, the darkness at the heart of the story, at the very heart of the world represented in the film and the people who occupy that world.

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It’s Michael’s story, of course, and the almost Shakespearean wallop that the film packs is a direct result of the focus on his descent from his family’s moral touchstone – the boy his father, Vito, tried to protect from the family business – to what Coppola himself called a ‘monster.’  Pacino turns in a magnificent performance (no small feat in a film which contains just about all of the generation’s greatest American actors) which conveys the deep loneliness and emptiness within Michael; that theme, that we are spiritually dead, is classic noir. Noirs from the classic period, of course, were informed at least in part by spreading secularism and the decline in religious faith caused by World War 2. The resultant crisis of faith and conceptions of the universe as a cold, Godless and chaotic place found expression in the bewildering narratives and moral relativism of films like Kiss Me Deadly. Here, we see it more obviously in the religious iconography and symbolism; Michael marking Fredo for death with a kiss, like Judas with Christ, for example, or the opening Catholic funeral which leads to more violence. These symbols are empty of religious signification and full of violence and deceit, and the implication is clearly that religion has no real part to play in this world, despite the (conventional, of course, of the mob film) many instances of characters praying, blessing themselves or offering thanks to a God they clearly have no time for. This rejection of religion – the rejection of Catolicism, Italy, the Old World –  perhaps reaches its fullest expression in 1990’s (much inferior) The Godfather Part 3 when we see Michael – murderous, treacherous and amoral – receive special commendation from the Pope for his ‘charitable work.’

In terms of context, The Godfather Part 2 is rather difficult to pin down, and that’s a compliment. It is amazingly undated and looks like it could have been made just about any time in the last forty years. Again, this gives it a Shakespearean weight and relevance in that it is not constrained by reference or relevance to one place or time. Bu there are contextual points to be made. It clearly grows out of the New Hollywood movement, most obviously in the way it takes an existing genre and reworks it somewhat (just as, for example, Dennis Hopper would do much more drastically to the Western in Easy Rider.) Likewise, it can be seen to deal (as crime movies often do) with several important contemporary issues – the immigrant experience, for one, or the way women are treated in Italian-American cultures or, indeed, more generally.

Primarily, though, the social importance of the film comes from its examination of the American way of life itself. Michael, like Vito before him, is absolutely in pursuit of the American dream. He wants a better life for his family than he had himself (we are repeatedly reminded of his desire to put the family’s business on a legal footing, even as it becomes clear that this dream of legality and respectability is impossible) and he wants professional success – to be the best at his job, to live up to his father’s memory. He wants financial security and safety; all the things which Americans are told to aspire to. Maryann Johanson writes of the Corleone family that ‘their story is pretty much the story of America in the 20th century.’ The entire Godfather saga is an analysis of what this dream, this ambition, does to Michael, and the obvious answer is that it destroys whatever is good in him. John Hess, writing at the time of the film’s release, casts all this in a Marxist light; he sees the film as detailing the binary opposition between capitalism (The American Dream) and humanity (represented by everything Michael loses.) He sees opposition between Michael’s family and his crime family, his ‘work.’ The two, clearly, are incompatible (Hess writes that ‘the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.’ It’s a fascinating way to look at the film; Michael’s family are taken from him by violence, or they are alienated or, most tellingly of all, he has them killed. Fredo’s death at the end of the film is extremely affecting, marking as it does the final nail in the coffin of Michael’s own humanity. The final shots of Michael show him entirely alone, firstly in flashback at his father’s table, secondly in the present time as an older man.

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Michael has, in some way, always been alone. In the first scene he has just announced his desire to join the army, against his family’s wishes. In the second, he has had Fredo killed, (obviously) against the wishes of what remains of his family. Clearly, he has never understood what family actually is, what it is for; he understands it as something to protect, to make prosperous, but he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand why he is actually doing all this for his family.

In this, he is opposed to his father, Vito. Their stories – Vito’s climb to ascendancy as Godfather in the 19oos and Michael’s descent to monstrousness in the 1950s – are told in parallel, thus creating the binary oppositions – past and present, old world (Europe) and new world (America), father and son – which so profoundly inform the film. Vito is shown to be a man who loves his family – properly, affectionately – and his friends. As he is gathering friends about him, Michael, 50 years later, is alienating them (sometimes, the very people his father befriended all those years before.) At one point, we see Vito with his family, telling his son how much he loves him, being the conventionally happy family man:

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When we cut back to the film’s present day and Michael’s story, he is arriving alone at his home to meet his wife, who has just a had a miscarriage (we later find it was an abortion.) He looks at her, then turns away; he does not have his father’s ability to be open and emotionally natural – to be a good human being – even with people he once loved. It’s not so simple as father/good, son/ bad, of course; immediately before returning to be with his family, Vito had gunned down a local mobster. This is his first killing, and one which does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. Nobody here is a ‘good guy’ (this is noir, at least in spirit, remember) but Michael apparently does not know how to maintain his humanity in the midst of so much evil. In Michael Hess’ terms, already mentioned, he is a business man, not a family man; he can’t be both.

All in all, a truly magnificent movie, one that does what the best narrative art does; shows us real, believable characters being buffeted by life and managing or failing to manage to reain something of themselves. By the end, when Michael is completely without humanity, we still feel for him, because we understand how he came to be like that; the film shows us how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, perhaps, merely constructs, how we are all the product of our environments, how even the best of us- Michael Corleone, the young charmer, the war hero – can be corrupted.

Aliens and auteurs; the rest of Ripley

The Alien series of films is one of the best ever made; it gets weaker as it goes along but the first two are up there with the very best of sci-fi films. In the last post, I wrote about the importance of Alien as an attempt to re-frame the horror and sci-fi genres as less gendered, less exclusively male. As a result, he made one of the most forward-thinking and important sci-fi films ever. And you can’t stop at one, obviously; watch one, watch ’em all.

So, what happened to Ripley in all the follow-ups? The next three films in the series (we’ll deal with the final film, Scott’s own Prometheus, separately, if I get around to it!) were made by James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. That’s quite a line-up, and it opens up some interesting questions about whether these directors (all men, obviously) managed to maintain Scott’s basically feminist ideologies or reverted to genre norms. Equally, it might be possible to interrogate some ideas about auteurship in mainstream American genre cinema; is it actually possible for a director to pursue an individual vision whilst working within such a commercially driven cinema and within such clearly defined genre conventions?

When James Cameron came to make the first follow-up, Aliens, in 1986, he was straight off the back of 1984’s The Terminator. That film bore some resemblance to Scott’s Alien in that it was a relatively low-budget sci-fi film which went on to turn an enormous profit. The similarities end there, though – while Scott’s sci-fi tends towards horror, Cameron’s is most definitely action-based. So, we might expect Aliens to be more of an action adventure than a sci-fi horror, and we wouldn’t be disappointed, because that’s pretty much what it is. (Note how the taglines on the posters change. From ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ to ‘This time it’s war.’ The change from horror to action is pretty clear there.)

aliens poster

The plot continues from the end of Alien. Ripley has been floating, frozen, on the Nostromo for 57 years. She finds herself sent back to LV-426 to investigate the disappearance of the colonists sent there by the company for whom she works, Weyland-Yutani. This time, however, she takes a company of particularly gung-ho marines with her, so we’re quickly into action-adventure mode. The planet is crawling with Xenomorphs and there is only one human survivor left – a young girl nicknamed Newt, who quickly becomes a surrogate daughter to Ripley (her own daughter died while she was in stasis.) The battle against the Xenomorphs culminates in an encounter with their Queen.

So, the plot owes more to action adventure than horror. What of Ripley herself? Has Cameron turned her into an action star? Well, she becomes a lot handier with a gun, and the guns, the primary index of the action film, are a lot bigger.

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But even as she appropriates the gun – the primary (phallic) index of masculinity in this genre – she is once again defined as powerfully anti-masculine; the men show themselves to be variously incompetent, cowardly, deceitful or just plain insufficient. As in the first film, the action really starts once RIpley, exasperated at male indecision, takes charge. There is another female character, Private Vasquez, who is actually the most boorish and macho of the marines. With her short hair, defined muscles and very large gun, she is in effect a woman who is presenting herself as a hyper-masculine man.

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It is telling that, as the film proceeds and male responses to violence are shown to be useless, she becomes a lot quieter, more observant and more effective. In effect, she becomes more like RIpley and less like the other Marines, and that makes her more sympathetic.

So, Ripley does indeed become more like an action hero, but Cameron has most definitely taken on board that she is not simply a female version of a male action hero. One of Ripley’s most obvious traits is compassion – specifically, motherly compassion. We saw her care for Jones, the ship’s cat, in Alien. In Aliens, we see her reaction to the news that she has missed her daughter’s entire life whilst in stasis; then, she quickly steps up to act as Newt’s mother and it is here we see her at perhaps her most iconic and her most free of gender limitations; wielding a hyper-masculine pulse rifle in one hand, protecting a child with the other.

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Indeed, by the end of the film, the men do not matter at all. It’s Ripley against the Queen, fighting for Newt. Two women – two mothers – fighting over a girl. The only man of any importance to the plot by the end is Bishop, the executive officer, and he’s not a man at all, but an android. So, almost unimaginably for an action movie made in the mid-eighties, this is a wholly female-centric plot.

Cameron does an excellent job of taking the franchise further, adapting it according to his own action-based strengths, and understanding the gender representations which make it so important; his film is often regarded as the best of the four, and though I don’t quite agree with that – Scott’s Alien is, for me, by far the best – it maintains the intelligence of the original whilst being one of the most exciting action films ever.

Could it last? David Fincher was up next, in 1992, for Alien3. (One of the taglines this time: ‘The bitch is back.’ Oh dear.) This was Fincher’s debut feature, his previous experience having been with music video. Stories about the making of the film do not exactly inspire confidence; Fincher was brought in at the last minute and had no time for pre-production, the cinematographer had to be replaced, Sigourney Weaver was reluctant to be involved and the studio would not permit Fincher to make the film he wanted to. To this day, Fincher refuses to have anything to do with the film:  in 2009 he said, ‘No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.’

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So all that doesn’t bode well. The film starts like Aliens – RIpley’s in stasis again, returning to Earth after the events of the previous film, and a fire breaks out on the ship. She is ejected in a pod and crashes on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161,a prison planet reserved for ‘YY chromosomes’ – murderers and violent sexual criminals. Unsurprisingly for those of us who’ve been following the series, an alien is on board with her and it proceeds, in best horror film style (because we’re now back to horror again, after Cameron’s action adventure) to start picking off the inmates. Eventually, we find out that Ripley has one of the aliens gestating inside of her, and she ends up contending with both the Alien and the company, Weyland-Yutani, who consider the alien to be of more importance to their research than the health or lives of their human employees.

The film is a shambles in many ways. Ripley immediately starts a sexual relationship with the prison doctor, Clemens, which is entirely unbelievable. The deaths of major characters, supposed to be shocking and unpredictable, simply feel random. The dialogue is cliched and wooden (‘Your ass is already on the line! What are you going to do about it?’) One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the strange religious fervor of the prisoners – their ‘apocalyptic millenarian Christian fundamentalist’ belief system – but it never really goes anywhere.

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Perhaps most disappointing is the way the interesting aspects of Ripley’s character are abandoned. She has her head shaved and becomes yet more masculine; Alien3 was made 13 years after the original film and Sigourney Weaver looks tougher, older, leaner. She’s a lot more gung-ho this time, more ready and able to take on the alien. So, although we’re faced with a diegesis of dark, creepy horror (which FIncher would realise fully in his next film, Seven), Ripley herself has gone into full action-hero mode. There is little vulnerability, little in the way of depth or shade to her character. In a way, this is appropriate since Alien3 forms a natural end to the first trilogy of films and by this time it could be argued that Ripley has had all the vulnerability battered out of her. Still, it makes for a much less interesting film, and the one which is generally regarded as the franchise low-point. It’s still worth watching – you could hardly bring this cast and this director together and not get something at least decent out of it -but it certainly does not compare to the earlier films.

In terms of auteurship, obviously Fincher had little chance to exercise his own creative muscles. The studio, perhaps acting out their own Weyland-Yutani fantasies, interfered at every turn and thus we have what is basically a mess of a film. And yet, we can see his style in there; if Alien was terrifying and Aliens was creepy, then Alien3, more than anything else is creepy and disturbing, exactly like Fincher’s Seven would be a few years later. The autopsy scene, the creepy religious influence, the ever-present threat of sexual violence; all of these things create a diegesis which would become much clearer and more effective once FIncher was given some room to work. His editing style, presumably learned from working on all those music videos, is in place too; lots of fast cuts, so fast it’s hard to tell if we just saw the rather shocking thing we did, lots of cross cutting (notably, between the burial scene at the start and the birth of the alien elsewhere in the ship.) So, perhaps this offers hope for us that even within the most restrictive circumstances imaginable, a director can be an auteur with a recognisable style and tone.

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Finally, then, Alien Resurrection from 1997, directed by France’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He was best known as the director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children and he had a well-established taste for the playfully macabre and grotesque, so we’d probably expect a more darkly humorous tone than Fincher created . We might also expect him to bring some of the French tradition of artistry and auteurship to play here. And we’d get it all, or at least an attempt at it. THe film is generally regarded as being better than Fincher’s but still far below the quality of the first two in the series. Reviews were mixed; many were relatively positive, but Roger Ebert in particular gave it a savaging, concluding that ‘There is not a single shot in the movie to fill one with wonder.’ That’s too harsh – there are many fantastic sequences, particularly the underwater chase – and Jeunet has done a good job of giving the alien a new face and a new character. He shifts our sympathies, in a process that had been ongoing throughout he series; like RIpley, we are torn between sympathy for the alien itself and the humans trapped with it.

The film takes place 200 years after the end of Alien3  and it opens, again, with a cloned Ripley being awoken from sleep (or reanimated.) The alien is still there in her womb from the end of Aliens3 and it is delivered in a pretty gruesome scene at the opening (it would be unlike Jeunet to shy away from disturbing imagery.) So, now we have the narrative complication that Ripley is actually the mother of the alien being chased – and it’s a queen, a breeder, so she quickly becomes grandmother to many more. Again, the struggle is between women, Ripley and the Queen, and the most significant other character is another women, played (without much effect, truth to tell) by Winona Ryder. All the male characters are caricatures – all, to different degrees, motivated by greed or machismo. Only the women really understand, actually and morally, the significance of what is going on.

ripley alien

RIpley herself has become as much alien as human by this point in the series. Carrying the alien has affected her to the extent that she is now stronger and faster (and better at basketball) than the men on the crew; being hit in the face with a metal bar doesn’t phase her. SHe is now, apparently, stripped of the affection which she showed earlier in the series for Jones the cat and Newt. She does show some interest in Call (Ryder’s character) but it actually appears more sexual than maternal. The only affection she shows is towards the alien she bore; it appears she has finally given up on humanity; particularly, the male part of it. Not only has she now transcended gender limitations; having died once and given birth to an alien, she has pretty much transcended all human limitations.

So, Ripley moves from reluctant heroine, to action star, to something which is ultimately not only not particularly feminine but not even entirely human. There is a logical progression here, and remarkably, all four directors managed to maintain this progression whilst also showing off, as far as is possible given the circumstances, their individual styles. Certainly, the first two films are leagues better than the last two, but none of them are bad and watched as a whole, they constitute perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying film franchises ever conceived.

Alien

My most recent posts have been about two sci-fi films, Gravity and Stalker. I tried to frame those films as belonging to a tradition of philosophical sci-fi which also includes such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones’ Moon from 2009. There are, of course, other traditions within sci-fi; a popular one for study, for example, is that branch which reflects audience fears. Most discussed in this vein are those American films from the fifties which reflect the fear of Communist invasion supposedly rife at that time; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) is perhaps the most famous. Alternatively, current films like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) mirror contemporary concerns about environmental damage. These traditions seem to me to be close to the tradition embodied in sci-fi’s alternative name, ‘speculative fiction’; they use the conventions of the genre to explore ideas and speculate about possible futures for humanity.

So, there are a range of traditions or types within sci-fi. Like any genre, it is increasingly being expanded through hybridity – that is, the joining together of genres. So, we get sci-fi action films (John Carter), sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!) sci-fi superhero movies (X Men) and so on. One well-established hybrid is the sci-fi horror, and it was pretty much invented by Ridley Scott in 1979 with Alien. This is the film which established Scott as a major player in Hollywood (making $100 million at the box office on a $10 million budget will do that) and thirty-odd years later it remains absolutely as sharp, contemporary and terrifying as ever; it has not aged even slightly. It finds its real heirs in contemporary sci-fi horror games; if you’ve ever guided Isaac Clarke down a seemingly endless series of corridors in Dead Space, for example, you’ve got Alien to thank for every single narrative and aesthetic convention.

The action takes place for the most part on board the Nostromo, the name (and the film’s plot, pretty much) taken from a Joseph Conrad novel. (The references to Conrad’s work continue throughout the Alien series.) An encounter with an alien nest results in the alien making it on board the ship and terrorising the crew. The heroine is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – one of the great female film protagonists.

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Aesthetically, the film is in the tradition of expressionism and noir which we explored in other posts. We see a lot of the conventions of that particular mode of filmmaking – the chiaroscuro lighting and bars of light, the smoky interiors, the canted angles and extreme low shots and so on.

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Given that the typical noir narrative -a protagonist is caught in a near-incomprehensible web of misfortune and must fight his or (occasionally) her way out – is exactly what happens here, the aesthetic suits the tone and mood of Alien. It was obviously a preferred mode for Scott since his next film, 1982’s Blade Runner used it again, to exceptional effect.

That expressionist style is also the foundation of horror film-making, of course, and Alien is an outstanding horror movie.  (David Thompson points out that is is ‘basically a haunted house film’ but set on a spaceship rather than in a spooky house.) The narrative conventions of horror are there – just as in every teen slasher ever, the beastie starts picking the victims off one by one as they heroically, or stupidly, go off by themselves to thwart it. In many ways, it’s very conventional. But as many theorists have noted, what makes it interesting and important (and it is important – in his excellent essay on the film, Jordan Poast calls it ‘one of the most politically progressive films ever made’) is the way it differs from horror conventions. The most obvious way is in its protagonist, Ripley. Originally, she was a man; Ridley Scott insisted on changing the character to a woman, and this is what makes Alien so special. Firstly, it’s a big deal for the protagonist in such gendered genres (sci-fi and horror are both usually dominated by men) to be a female. Scott makes a habit of ‘regendering’ genres – he would go on to feminize the road movie (very successfully) in Thelma and Louise, and the army film (not so successfully) in G.I . Jane. As Proast writes, ‘the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.’

But that’s not where the film’s real importance lies. It would be noble, but not especially remarkable, if all Scott had done was to switch a female protagonist for a male one. But starting from that switch, the whole film becomes a study of gender roles. We see how the crew treat each other according to gender; Ripley’s orders, for example, are ignored by the other men even though she is at that time the commanding officer on the Nostromo. Quickly, though, the men are shown to be essentially incompetent. The audience is led to believe that the hero of the film will be the ship’s captain, Dallas. But it soon becomes clear that Dallas has no more clue how to deal with the Xenomorph (the alien) on the ship than any of the other men, and Ripley has to take charge. From this point on, she moves into the centre of the action and the frame, increasingly crowding the men out. Importantly, the men are useless exactly because of the characteristics most usually associated with masculinity; they are too impetuous, too given to violent response, too confident in their own competence. Dallas, for example, acts like he’s in an action movie, and he goes to solve the problem alone; but this isn’t an action movie and his male heroics are quickly and bloodily shown to be inadequate.

useless men alien

The man most opposed to Ripley is Ash, the ship’s science officer. Finally, he snaps and attacks her and, in a strange and unsettling scene, attempts to choke her with a rolled-up pornographic magazine. This is a softly intertextual reference to a convention of the slasher; the inevitable scene where the female is stabbed repeatedly by the antagonist. It’s been said many times that the slasher movie is an acting out of violent male sexual desire; all those bad guys aren’t stabbing those girls, they’re symbolically raping them. The same is true here: Ash is trying to put Ripley in her place by violating her orally. Again, though, Ripley is empowered to fight back and triumph; the females are most definitely not the victims in Alien as they would be in a more conventional horror movie.  David McIntee, in his book Beautiful Monsters, writes that ‘Alien is a rape movie with male victims.’ He goes on to point out that gender roles are reversed in more ways than one in the film – in the film’s most famous and shocking scene, it is a man who gives birth to the Xenomorph. If Alien is anything, it is a tribute to female resilience, caution and perseverance and a warning against male aggression and arrogance. That Ridley Scott chose two of the most male-orientated genres to make his points in (revitalising and reinventing those genres in the process) is tribute to his, and the film’s, genius.

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Alien is an amazing, important, terrifying movie. It’s exceptionally well made and extremely effective. But it will be remembered, I suspect, for how it treats gender. It might be appropriate to compare it again to Dead Space, a game which effectively rips off every possible aspect of the film. But the makers of the game obviously thought the female protagonist was a step too far, even 30 years later in a post-Lara Croft world; they’ve changed the iconic Ripley to the faceless Isaac Clarke, and lost the point of the entire narrative in so doing.