Feminist Film

Post-Ripley Feminism in “Getaway”: How An Awful Film Can Matter

Selena-Gomez-The-Getaway

How do you make a terrible film, actress, and director infinitely more interesting?

Is it possible? Is it wise to use a terrible film to highlight discussion of gender politics in Hollywood?

These questions might never find answers, but a good place to start looking is in what we see onscreen and recognize first: The human body; the actress herself.

The majority of her lines amount to nothing more than fearful ejaculations. No doubt, her budding image as a young sex symbol—meant to inspire ejaculations of a different kind—is responsible for her landing the part in the first place. She’s pretty. She’s popular. She’s modestly talented. She epitomizes everything that makes celebrity such a shallow, superficial affair on all fronts. She’s Selena Gomez, and she stars in Getaway, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, due for release this Friday.

It was inevitable that a film helmed by the same man who gave us Dungeons & Dragons would be as terrible as it sounds on paper: a woman is kidnapped and her husband, Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke), is forced to indulge a crafty criminal mastermind (Jon Voight) and his diabolical wishes to retrieve her. “The Voice,” as Voight’s character is billed, outfits a car with cameras and microphones and forces Magna to steal it, coaching his victim through a series of illegal tasks with the goal of wreaking enough havoc on the city of Sofia, Bulgaria to distract police from a bank heist.

Courtney Solomon, the captain of this ill-fated shit-ship, hasn’t directed a film in nearly eight years, and it certainly shows. From the sloppy editing to the pitiful narrative logic, the film borders on incoherence unlike any other film I’ve seen in its final cut phase. It isn’t until Gomez’s character (known only as “The Kid”) enters the picture that the film takes on a slightly more enjoyable tone thanks (in part) to the unintentional hilarity of her casting. During my screening, the audience erupted with laughter as Gomez appears onscreen for the first time—clad in “tough girl” attire including a baseball cap and hood—pointing a gun into the car of Hawke’s character and demanding that he “get the fuck out.” She might as well have been a plush toy, and the gun a lollipop. Note to future filmmakers: babyface and intimidation aren’t synonymous.

GETAWAY

It turns out that the car Magna drives in fact belongs to The Kid. One thing leads to another, and we’re forced to endure 90 minutes of painstakingly pathetic excuses for chase scenes as Selena Gomez frantically screams in the passenger seat.

As annoying as Gomez is as a person, The Kid as a character is a rare highpoint in a murky sea of inadequacy, both in terms of the film and the industry that produced it. For starters:

A)     She’s young, and isn’t a sex object

In fact, as sexual as the real-life image of Selena Gomez is, she’s clothed in a bulky hoodie for the majority of the film. Usually roles like this are reserved for older actresses, ones that Hollywood deems as incapable of sexual appeal once they hit 40. But, the efforts undergone to desexualize The Kid are extensive. Her position in relation to Hawke’s character is merely coincidental and not founded on sexual attraction. They’re two people on an even playing field. He is married, and she’s just along for the ride. There’s never a moment where Magna’s determination to get to his wife is broken. The film doesn’t feel the need to justify her presence in relation to a male’s. After all, she actively pursues a male for reasons other than to capture his penis and use it to fulfill a part of her that’s missing; the girl just wants her car back, and uses a gun to try it. She sees herself on an even playing field, stepping to the much bigger Magna, and doesn’t seem like she’s trying to prove anything. Merely existing.

B)      She’s nobody’s property

Of course, The Kid is her father’s daughter.  But, as most children tend to be, they are their parents’ children. Gender, at least here, is irrelevant. She reveals that her dad owns numerous banks throughout the country, and that the car (a souped-up Mustang) was a gift for her 16th birthday. Here, we could have easily lost The Kid to a different kind of sexual marginalizing. She could have readily fallen into the “Daddy’s girl” category which defines so many teen girls in contemporary films. However, we never even meet her father throughout the film’s run. She mentions it once, and only again when the heist is revealed to be taking place at one of her father’s banks. In fact, she actually uses her knowledge of the intricate inner-workings of the bank system to foil The Voice’s plans. It’s Magna, in this situation, who is at the mercy of another man using a woman to bait him to do his bidding. For once we see a woman in a position of power (The Kid, of course, not the idiot who got herself kidnapped) and the male relegated to a one-note, cold-staring, heart-aching quest to retrieve the vagina he feels is rightfully his. As The Kid’s cunning shines through in key scenes, we also being to realize that:

C)      She’s not stupid

If she isn’t a sex object, isn’t someone’s girlfriend, isn’t at the mercy of her father, and isn’t conventionally “unattractive,” she has to have the intelligence of a paperweight, right? Wrong. We’re given little information about her home life, with the film only giving us enough information to satisfy our curiosity’s as to why she belongs in the film in the first place. She has a powerful father, but he remains unseen for the film’s entirety. He has money, but she doesn’t talk about spending it frivolously. She shows huge interest in computers and technology when confronted with the cameras-in-the-car-so-he’s-watching-us thing, prompting Magna to question her ability to handle things like hacking and rewiring. “Oh, a girl likes cars and computers. How butch. This is the 21st Century, you should try joining it,” she tells him, also speaking directly to the audience as we understand her as a smart, talented woman spitting in the face of so many other characters who would have just sat back and screamed the entire time while forming a sort of Stockholm Syndrome-esque attraction to the man driving the car.

The Kid is absolutely that girl, though, in a select few scenes. There must be pages of the script where The Kid’s only lines are things like “Slow down!” *screams* “Stop!” and “We’re going to die!”, but it’s easy to give her a pass because of what she represents as a character written with what seems to be feminist inspiration. It’s sad that female characters like this exist so rarely in these types of mainstream films that they have to be dissected in such a manner. This case is particularly interesting because The Kid is in a film that, by all means, no one should care about. It’s loud, it’s silly, and it’s stupid, and Solomon has to understand that he’s not taken seriously as a filmmaker given his lousy track record both directing and producing. The fact that The Kid is treated almost as an afterthought—and still exists free of the tropes usually plaguing contemporary female characters—is a true testament to how the filmmakers view women, and how women should be represented in film.

It’s a shame that the film is so terrible, and that the only other female character is such a pathetic excuse for a role, but her victimized status is balanced by a strong female character who ultimately becomes the most interesting, varied, and dynamic person throughout the film.

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" - opens October 4th

Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” – opens October 4th

2013 has proven to be an amazing year for women in Hollywood. Sandra Bullock is earning rave reviews for her film-carrying performance in Gravity, Vera Farmiga similarly escaped sexual objectification and male-dependent status in The Conjuring, and the “Bridesmaids Effect” continues to work its magic as female-driven comedies like Identity Thief, The Heat, and The To-Do List make exponentially more than they cost to produce, while male-driven and targeted films with hefty price tags continue to sink.

The best way to think about Getaway, however terrible it might be, is to focus on these characters that are all interchangeable with the opposite gender. The Kid could have easily been a male with minimal script restructuring. As Brent and his wife could just as easily switched roles. It’s telling because the only other film that automatically pops into my mind when talking about interchangeable parts is Alien, which contains a script that was intentionally written so that each of the characters could be played by a man or a woman. The film doesn’t get any better, but this single element has given me more to talk about in terms of gender politics in Hollywood than Iron Man or The Lone Ranger.

While Getaway is lightyears away from the quality of Alien, at least we can credit Solomon for allowing Ripley to live on in the smallest of ways all these 34 years later.

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The Art/Artifice of Aging: Getting Older in “Bad Teacher” and “Young Adult”


Pain. Loss. Death. Universal fears represent the inherent dynamics of a single emotion. They are things which happen to all of us; terror and comfort, hand in hand, considering we will experience them, but it’s a guarantee we don’t have to go through the painful experience alone.

The process of aging is one thing which, unlike the cold hand of death inching closer and closer to the lifeline hovering somewhere between our heart and head, impacts each of us outwardly as much as the pain of something like death can only alter internally.

There is age the media defines as “graceful” (I assume Meryl Streep fits into this category, whereas Madonna does not), and there is age we tend to associate with wisdom, knowledge, and respect—regardless of one’s external appearance (Jimmy Carter, I’m looking at you).

The movies often act as a therapeutic release for our little human hearts’ existential dilemmas. How we deal with such emotions, fears, and anxieties is a test in itself. We see sadness onscreen, logically recall those things which make us sad, relate them to what’s occurring on the silver screen, and shed a tear alongside our favorite actor and the dozens of other cinephilic souls dotting the theater’s interior.

So then, let us take for example two high-profile films released just last year, both of which “deal” with the art of aging in drastically different ways; Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, and dissect them in terms of their highly gendered approach to just exactly how we grow old–and how some of us choose to deal with it.

Let’s start with Bad Teacher, the inferior of the two, and discuss why it strikes as such a juvenile attempt to glorify spitting in the face of the social responsibility that comes with being an adult. The film follows Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), a teacher at an Illinois middle school whose only qualification for molding the minds of America’s youth seems to be her ability to give excellent blow jobs to whichever male is doing the hiring; that isn’t intended as a sexist joke, but rather something that isn’t explicitly stated in the film but also isn’t entirely too far outside of Bad Teacher’s ideology and comedic reach to assume.

Elizabeth does drugs at school, dresses provocatively, is the sexual fantasy of each of her male students (and one lesbian gym teacher—har har), possesses the sole goal of saving enough money to purchase herself breast implants, and actively welcomes all of the pathetic, sexually-charged attention that is thrown her way. Take, for example, the annual car wash the school holds to raise money for some unknown cause; we are to assume that the school uses the money to better the education of the children, but Elizabeth seeks only to embezzle the money to put towards her new breasts. So, she shows up—Daisy Dukes in tow—to suggestively slide down the hoods of customer’s cars and pocket the money her students actually worked for. In essence, she doesn’t need the breast implants if she’s already commanding this amount of sexual attention. But alas, we need a frame for this wafer-thin plot because Elizabeth is unmotivated (save for her insecurities driving her to have surgery and her undying attempts to bed the hottest member of her school’s faculty, Scott, played by Justin Timberlake), raunchy, uncaring (she tells an overweight child—twice—that he won’t have a girlfriend because of the way he looks), and altogether disgusting as a human being. Her antics ring “teenager,” but the truth remains that Elizabeth is a woman of nearly forty years old.

I guess somewhere between the gross-out gags and shock-value hijinks, we’re supposed to find humor in the fact that Elizabeth is a middle-aged fuck up. I’m not complaining that the film presents us with a character showing blatant disregard for morals and integrity; my problem is that we are presented with a woman who is clearly a victim of the same set of social principles that label the aforementioned Madonna as “too old” to tour, almost forcing Elizabeth in the opposite direction of “change” throughout the course of the film. We are given a stagnant look at a stagnant character growing old as a stick in the mud, wallowing in self-despair stemming from a society that leads her to believe breast implants at forty will mask her insecurities so she can parade around with sexually-charged faux confidence. Elizabeth’s reality, however, is that she’s spending New Years’ Eve alone on the couch eating a corn dog while her overweight, societally “unattractive” roommate leaves the house with a case of beer on the way to a party. We’re supposed to believe that she’s a screwed up woman when in fact she’s just a pathetic person hinging her happiness (and, therefore, the expectations of the audience) on whether or not she “pairs” with one of the men, none of which are endowed with any problems bigger than sexual awkwardness (Scott likes to dry hump and ejaculate into his own pants without getting Elizabeth off, but is wealthy and successful).

The other problem with Bad Teacher is that it provides us with countless outlets for Elizabeth to get better, but instead chooses to cop out. The film gives us an unlikeable protagonist and parallels her with an antagonist who “antagonizes” for the socially “acceptable” reasons (for the most part). Amy (Lucy Punch) is a teacher at Elizabeth’s school who, unlike Elizabeth, works hard to educate her students, maintains a squeaky-clean image, and seeks to purge the school of Elizabeth’s presence—as any sane person would. Amy is, instead, presented as being a conniving “bitch” (again, only stooping down to the film’s level here) who will stop at nothing to take Elizabeth down. Here lies the problem; the film is only “funny” because we laugh at the things Elizabeth does. Drinking alcohol while her students watch movies instead of read, smoking weed in the parking lot, embezzling school funds, and contributing to the detriment of children’s welfare in pursuit of breast implants is despicable; sneaking around said offender’s classroom while she’s absent to find the weed she has hidden in her desk, as Amy does, pales in comparison to Elizabeth’s offenses. Antagonist’s “evil” trumps that of the protagonist’s. Are you confused? Your sense of humor will be, too.

So, then, how does the film complicate matters? It pits Amy and Elizabeth against each other to see who can throw the cattiest low-blow in order to win Scott’s heart (as fate would have it, Amy is crushing on him, too). By film’s end, Elizabeth only manages to outwit Amy and get her arrested for drug possession (drugs that were actually Elizabeth’s) and transferred to another school after Amy exposes Elizabeth’s illegalities. Two women, neither likeable but one possessing redeeming qualities (the one we’re not supposed to side with), who end up no better off than when the film began. Elizabeth is unchanged, only abandoning her pursuit of Scott after she “conquers” him sexually in favor of canoodling with another teacher who exists within the screenplay solely to give Elizabeth an alternate opportunistic sexual exploit at her leisure.

The film essentially subverts expectations while indulging them at the same time; Elizabeth is unlikeable, but we want her to change while also achieving what we are led to believe will make her happy; Either that or a substantial reevaluation of her principals to acknowledge that her previous wrongdoings were, well, “wrong.” Instead the film rewards her ability to “hide.” No one is able to see the lonely person we’re led to believe she is, and by the film’s end she is still that lonely person. She’s not had to work for any sort of change that comes her way, she gains it all through sexual prowess, manipulation, or pure luck, and not because she is enlightened throughout the course of the film. She simply finds someone to fuck who suits her pleasure in the here, in the now. She has accomplished “dick” (literally) by film’s end after getting away with illegalities that she doesn’t care to amend. She succeeds in getting Amy transferred for attempting to expose Elizabeth’s wrongdoings. Is there something inherently wrong with that? Dick does not make the woman, my friends. But in the world of Bad Teacher, if she has it, it’s what we’re to assume makes her a “good,” “attractive,” “happy,” and ultimately “acceptable” person as a direct result, regardless if she is still an awful person or not. She is still a middle-aged woman with issues amplified by her age, none of which the film offers to “fix.”

While Elizabeth’s issues of middle-aged ennui are shoved into a cookie-cutter plot structure that offers no solutions to her unlikable qualities as a character, Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, released only 5 months after Bad Teacher, offers an alternate approach with an aging female character in a screenplay which subverts expectations for greater meaning.

Penned by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, Young Adult plays as a pseudo meditation on aging women in our society who were born on the cusp of the modern era but are still too old to “fit in” with the Kardashian-crazed, superficially contemporary pop culture icons. Mavis (Charlize Theron) is one of those women, only her problem is that she doesn’t “try” to fit in, she’s simply never outgrown the mentality which tells her she already does. She was popular in high school. Blonde hair, cheerleader, hooking up with the hottest guy on the football team—Mavis had the life every teenage girl wanted, and ends up as an alcoholic ghost writer of silly teen fiction novels in her later years. She lacks respect and she lacks a “real” life. She drinks, she smokes, and still wakes up in the wee morning hours in strangers’ beds, slipping out as easily as she did her tight, form-fitting dresses that bait them to her. Mavis is a fuck up like Elizabeth, but where Elizabeth actively recognizes her status as a lazy person (part of which makes her so worthy of our hate) Mavis is completely clueless, clinging to her faux-fame with a face that looks more like it belongs on “The Real Housewives” than on the homecoming court.

Mavis’ writing technique is nothing to be proud of, either. She’s inspired by (other than herself) conversations she hears on the street between girls much younger than her. She regurgitates the lingo she picks up (she hears one girl tell her friend she and her boyfriend have “textual chemistry,” which finds its way into Mavis’ novel) and pats herself on the back for being a creative genius. The process is halted, however, when she receives an email from her ex-boyfriend Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his child. Mavis, thinking she’s the epitome of cosmopolitan success, takes it upon herself to visit him in his Mercury, Minnessotta home and “save” him from a life of small-town sadness.

What ensues is an hour or so of Mavis’ desperate attempts to rip a happy man away from his happy life so she can fill a void she doesn’t quite recognize is self-induced. She grows jealous of the woman Slade marries, treats the people of her hometown like shit, and whilst incessantly vocalizing her displeasure with all the “pathetic” people of Mercury fails to realize it’s she who is unhappy.

Needless to say, Mavis’ attempt to win Slade back are unsuccessful, with the film culminating in a blowout where Mavis projects each of her insecurities unto the people of her hometown at the baby shower for Slade’s wife. She reveals that she and Slade were to have a baby many years ago, but that she lost it, and that the people of Mercury are “crazy” for staying there while she moved to the city to pursue a real career and ultimately a “real” life. The reveal tells us that Mavis thinks regaining the love of Slade will make her happy; the power of the film is, however, that the audience knows this is simply not true. We’re given enough information about Mavis to know that she, like Elizabeth, is a victim of the superficial culture around her, albeit in a different way. Mavis is chasing previously-established happiness she knows made her feel complete; it was not until she lost the capstone of her relationship—the baby—that she began her descent into alcoholism, loneliness, and destruction. Mavis dolls herself up and surrounds herself with the superficial world of trendy beauty, pop culture, and materialism because she cannot escape the days of her juvenile adolescence where those were the only things that mattered; when it was ok for only those things to matter. She simply fails to “mature” while her body aged, leaving a beautiful prom queen trapped in a body that doesn’t know how to process itself as undesirable. Elizabeth, on the other hand, knows she’s desirable; she’s simply selfish. Mavis is selfish with reason. She may still be an inherently “unlikable” person, but at least her lack of change by the end of the film is supported by the revelation that she lost Slade’s baby. We see her as a victim-turned-monster by film’s end, not simply a monster from start to finish.

Our expectations for Mavis to undergo some sort of epiphany are dashed somewhere near the middle of the film when we realize she is both the protagonist and the antagonist. She forces herself into situations we can see are a bad idea the moment she decides to place herself into them. She merely fails to see the error of her ways; it becomes our job as an audience to make meaning of the journey, to piece together the fragments of her life we’re forced to pick up along the way and forge them into some semblance of a portrait of her life and glean from it what we can. By film’s end, she’s altogether unchanged, but our perception of her character has run through a 6K marathon, spun-dry, and recycled itself into something we wouldn’t have been able to see at the film’s beginning. We see a young girl hurt by an oppressive society, pitying her as she still struggles to overcome adolescence well into her late 30s.

Does either film present a “solution” to anxieties that come with aging? I’m not entirely sure. If you go by the logic of Bad Teacher, one can suppress (or altogether ignore) the fact that aging is a reality and simply fuck the shit out of anyone who makes you happy. A “bad” film crafted around that notion simply rewards the protagonist for, well, being “bad” and getting away with it. She is not redeemed morally, only rewarded because she’s been relegated to the role of “protagonist.” The audience doesn’t “win” because we know she’s a corrupt woman. By the logic of Young Adult, happiness is a seed planted early on in life, one which can blossom to make the best of life’s various obstacles, or one that can wither into the later years of life and die long before the body does. The audience “wins” here because we’re able to see the faults and flaws the character can’t. We recognize her issues even though she doesn’t.  Either way, the fact remains that age and our society are two things that have yet to meet eye-to-eye; until then, no matter how bad they are, let us continue striving to make sense of the anxieties revolving around every wrinkle forming around our face until we’re too old to remember how.

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