Film Analysis

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Age of the Great American Flop

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The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.

Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:

1)       The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead

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2)      The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival

There’s nothing  wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.)  to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.

Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.

The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.

Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.

If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.

Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.

So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).

When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.

The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.

There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.

But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.

Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.

It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.

Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.

Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.

Follow the author on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Of Goddesses and Monsters: The Female Body in “Under the Skin”

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Hollywood satiates the hunger for flesh.

For the better part of the past decade, the body of the woman has been both the main course (flesh on full display) and a lukewarm side-dish (the mother, the girlfriend, the “filler”).  Women are so unfairly represented in film that critiquing the system has almost become a stale art.

It takes a committed, visionary filmmaker like Jonathan Glazer—someone who knows how to treat the female body and is conscious of its treatment at the hands of other directors—to craft an entire film around the deconstruction of the sexualized image of the female body.

That’s not to say his brilliant Under the Skin doesn’t involve sex. At its core, the film is about an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johansson) traversing the streets of Scotland, luring men into its den under the pretense of sex, and harvesting their skin for sustenance. It sounds like the workings of an early Russ Meyer film; the alien assimilates into human culture, absorbs its surroundings, and regurgitates them to seduce earthly men, who willingly follow the penis wherever it might lead them. But, there’s an underlying persistence to the whole thing that forces us to confront the whats and the whys of what we’re seeing instead of indulging the side of us that has been conditioned to succumb to titillation at the sight of a disrobed Hollywood actress.

Glazer crafts his alien as if she were a child crawling, walking, and evolving through life. The alien draws upon societal structures to shape her projection of womanhood. She is drawn to expensive, attractive clothing after seeing women shopping at the mall; she splashes makeup over her face after witnessing masses of earthly women constructing a mirage of societally-coded “beauty” on their faces at a makeup counter; she learns that sex is treated like a tool for self-pleasure, self-sustenance, and self-worth, and appropriates it as a means to fit in; she sees that men respond to this image, so she zips up in a soft suit of milky skin and slinks along the streets with sexually-confident swagger.

Glazer structures his film as one of oppositions. From the get-go, we’re immediately introduced to the dichotomy between light and dark. A black screen overwhelms us as a small white dot appears at its center. It grows, evolving into the shape of what appears to be a series of planets aligned during an eclipse, then into a human eye, which eventually gives way to the images of a road, then to a stream, to the body of a dead woman, to Johansson’s alien—fully naked—stripping clothes off the dead body, placing them on her own, and assuming human form. Within minutes, we’re shown that the world is a series of opposites; light vs. dark, naked vs. clothed, earthly vs. alienesque, natural vs. constructed, sex vs. fear. None such a match is as powerful as the split Glazer wedges between the body and the allure of sex. The sight of Johansson’s naked body–that comes quite often throughout the film–recalls the faint glimmer of sexuality we’re so used to associating with the naked female form in contemporary cinema, but we sense that something’s not right. The goal for Johansson’s alien, however, is the body itself as a physical harvest versus a form of pleasure, and in that sense Glazer is able to recontextualize the naked human form.

The bulk of Glazer’s commentary on the female body in society comes from the way the alien digests our culture and the men she seduces, being that its interpretation of “normal” female behavior is to act, dress, and seduce like a sex machine. The scenes of sexuality are sensual on the surface, but we’re forced to see them as something monstrous—not necessarily because death is a certain outcome for the men the alien seduces, but because Glazer forces a disconnect between the naked human form and sex as we know it.

The alien’s body is undoubtedly “used” by the film, but the way the alien treats her body is non-sexual. She’s doing it not for the sex, not for the pleasure, and not for the sake of using sexuality as a weapon–she is not human, and therefore does not understand human sexuality the way that the men she seduces do. She’s not gaming; this is simply how she survives.

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Yes, the alien is sleek, she’s cool, she’s unaffected; her emotions aren’t human, so it’s ludicrous for us to attempt to unearth any sort of logic, reasoning, or motivation other than that it’s necessary for her existence. As a result, we must process the alien (in every sense of the word) procedure from an outsider perspective; we see sex every day and we know how it works, but Glazer instead tickles our curious fancy and probes us to question the limits of physical attraction by demystifying the constructed fantasy of the female body.

Women are generally sexualized in movies, whether they’re the girlfriend or the hot girl in high school; their bodies are conquests and possessions. But, Under the Skin views the body not as the goal, but as the bridge. The alien’s goal is not an emotional or sexual conquest, it’s merely to harvest and sustain, removing any traceable form of human connotations from the act of sex itself. There are no violent scenes in the film. We do not see the alien ripping throats out, drawing blood, or even engaging in any sort of overtly sexual contact with these men at all. Instead, Glazer wisely strips the seduction scenes of any surrounding distraction. They’re surreal, cold, and straightforward; we see two naked bodies against a black background, and the male form simply sinks into the darkness and out of frame. The body is disposable, yet charged with the implications of what we as an audience want to see happen—but are so deliberately denied—at the sight of flesh. We’re denied primal spectacles of violence and sex. The body is the body, and the body is all we get—no strings attached.

There’s a scene in the film where the alien has what can be construed as a change of heart. We see her go through the motions of seduction with a man with neurofibromatosis. He’s unsightly because our culture values a specific form of beauty, one that “deformities” do not fit in with. She speaks with him, asks him about his friends, asks him if he’s lonely, and systematically breaks the barriers a lifetime of being an outcast has built up, so much so that she’s thrown off-course by the pity she feels for him. She lets him go; beginning to understand at least some of the complexities of the human form she has taken. It’s here that she begins to sympathize with humanity. She escapes to the countryside and finds refuge with an older man who offers to help her. He gives her a coat as they walk side by side in the rain to his home. Her makeup wears off with the water, and he gives her his oversized coat, which covers her womanly curves. She attempts to eat human food—a piece of cake, in one of the film’s more obvious metaphors—but spits it out after we see it framed so lusciously next to her lips on the fork. The framing is delicious, but the taste of what we’ve been conditioned to eat (the female body as represented in film) is repulsive.

It’s here that the film’s refusal to objectify the alien’s human body becomes clear. We spend the majority of the film as mere observers. The film is not violent or sexual enough—by conventional standards, mind you—to titillate, and it never aims to be. It shows us a beautiful naked figure but does not indulge the coded desire to see that body used for sex, but for something disturbing and cruel. Glazer challenges the audience, however; does the film industry (and its audience) still view the female body in a film such as this as “sexy,” even though it’s associated—in context—with something monstrous?

A majority of audiences will say yes. They’re used to preying on the female body. They’re used to female actors being reduced to roles where the only things that are celebrated are their flesh or their ability to fill the role of a mother, a girlfriend, a sister, an appendage. Glazer’s alien is not an appendage. She is in control; she takes the form of something familiar, and turns it on its head. She forces us to question our perception of the female body, regard it with fear, confusion, and mystery; anything other than the sexual attraction we’re so used to seeing hawked by Hollywood studios. The film is not so much a triumph as a narrative, but rather as a funneling of the human form into a refreshing mold that challenges the industry around it.

Glazer peppers the film with a few scenes that show the alien looking into a compact mirror. The camera gazes into it from the alien’s perspective. We see her face, her tempting eyes, and her lipstick in its frame; it’s all a succulent dish, but under the surface we know we’re just smacking our lips. We’re not looking at an alien, we’re looking at our own painted reflection, and it’s here we realize that Glazer has created a character with big enough balls to show us the readily-consuming monster staring back from the other side of the glass.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Fishing for Feminism with Sofia Coppola’s “The Little Mermaid”

sofia-coppola-chateau-marmont-roomreporterDeadline Hollywood reported Tuesday that Oscar-winning writer-director Sofia Coppola is in final negotiations to helm a live-action interpretation of The Little Mermaid.

The news comes on the heels of one of the most forward-thinking collective votes the Academy Awards have ever seen. 12 Years a Slave triumphed as the year’s Best Picture, appealing to the white voters’ taste—a taste that had chosen only one female for Best Director, no films about slavery or directed by a black person for Best Picture, and overwhelmingly chose white actors and actresses for top honors in the acting categories since its inception nearly 90 years ago. 

Diversity—and the celebration of it—is not, at least from any discernable pattern, the Academy’s cup of tea.

That doesn’t mean it’s an inherent, natural part of the Academy’s complexion, or that it’s a conscious decision by the Academy’s 6,000 (and growing) membership to shun minorities of gender and race.

One thing is clear, however: the industry is angry.

We’re experiencing a wave of reactionary movement pushing for the greater presence of women and racial minorities in the industry. There’s a hunger that permeates the discussion about women and minorities in film. Trade publications, Oscar bloggers, and women directors themselves are voicing their frustration with the glaring lack of female hands behind the lens and the wafer-thin opportunities and stories built around the ones in front of it.

The reactionary feminism and reactionary support of the New Black Wave trio (Steve McQueen, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler) last year is persistent, ever-present, and urgent. It’s angry, in a sense. Enough is enough and, as 12 Years a Slave’s campaign spelled out for us quite literally near the end of awards season, it’s time for change.

I imagine many of this year’s Oscar voters found themselves at a crossroads between personal preference and moral obligation.

Preference seemed to tip in the favor of Gravity, a film with a narrative that’s driven solely by a female character played by an over-40 actress who consistently proves her might as a box-office draw in the age of the fading bankability of stars in general. Gravity garnered widespread critical acclaim, recognition from top Oscar precursors (including DGA, Golden Globe, and PGA), and titanic worldwide ticket sales totaling over $700 million.

12 Years a Slave emerged early in the race as a game-changer. Touted as the Best Picture winner as far back as Telluride, it’s the first film with a predominantly black cast (directed by a black filmmaker, about the “black” perspective during slavery) to ever win Best Picture, albeit decorated by a predominantly-white voting base.

While either outcome would have been historic in its own right, 12 Years a Slave will ride the next few years as the defining film for black filmmakers at the Oscars. It will be the volleying point for voters in the future who will turn away at the next black film to enter the race because it’ll all be so “been there, done that.”

The one thing 12 Years a Slave did by winning was not only to cement itself as the crowning black achievement in the eyes of a white majority, it also became an endpoint for these films, at least for the immediate future

The Academy listened to industry pressure and defied all statistical precursors that by all means should have put the Best Picture Oscar in Gravity’s court. 12 Years a Slave won by default as the sole objectified race picture of the year (The Butler and Fruitvale Station were nowhere to be found when Oscar nominations rolled around).

It’s “equality” by default, but that’s not enough.

The numbers speak for themselves, and audiences respond to diversity in a way that’s not as overt as the journalistic narrative seems to make it out to be.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at films which opened to over $35 million in weekend sales from last year:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    The Wolverine – $53 million
▪    Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
▪    Monsters University – $82.4 million
▪    Man of Steel – $116.6 million
▪    Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
▪    Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
▪    Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
▪    The Croods – $43.6 million
▪    Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million
▪    World War Z – $66.4 million
▪    The Hangover Part III – $41.7 million
▪    The Great Gatsby – $50.1 million
▪    Thor: The Dark World – $85.7 million
▪    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – $158.1 million
▪    Frozen – $67.4 million
▪    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – $73.6 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with original stories:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

Merely winning an Oscar or driving box-office doesn’t give credence to an underrepresented group. Such films will remain the fluke until internal, structural change occurs. The importance of a stage like the Oscars for films like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave lies in the Oscar’s existence as a stage for visibility.  The award itself is essentially inferior–a golden statue is meaningless in the face of inequality. The award is a golden man, after all.

Reactionary feminism in the industry seems to have brought about a greater consciousness—the narrative is there. It’s in the trade papers, it’s on the Oscar blogs, it’s coming straight from the mouths of female filmmakers and producers themselves in even more easily-accessible mediums (Lena Dunham and Ava DuVernay on Twitter, Shonda Rhimes speaking out about her DGA “Diversity Award”).

So, then, is Universal’s decision to tap Coppola’s talents affirmative of a consciousness of inequality —similar to the Academy’s, which won 12 Years a Slave Best Pictureor merely a studio seeking the most appropriate talent for the job?

Let’s hope for the latter.

Coppola of course won her first Oscar for writing 2003’s brilliant Lost in Translation. She continued as the Oscar successor to her father, Francis Ford Coppola, who’d previously won a slew of Oscars for The Godfather and its first sequel. Not only did Coppola’s win for Best Original Screenplay cement her family as a budding dynasty (her brother is a small-time producer and director, while her niece, Gia, preps to release her first film as director this year), it also placed added another female to the roster of winners in a non-makeup, non-hairstyling, non-costume design craft category that women seem to have a greater chance of winning in.

Lost-In-Translation-scarlett-johansson-23676554-1060-565Since 1940, when the award was first introduced, eight women (including Coppola) have won the award: Muriel Box, Sonya Levien, Nancy Dowd, Pamela Wallace, Callie Khouri, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Diablo Cody. In the Adapted Screenplay category, seven women (Frances Marion, Sarah Y. Mason, Claudine West, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson, Philippa Boyens, and Diana Ossana) have won the award since its inception in 1928. Only one woman (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) has repeated a win here.

The Academy (and the industry in general) seems to throw women away once they’ve fulfilled their duties as object of the industry or Academy’s participation in the overarching social narrative. A black film wins Best Picture, another one won’t win for 20 years (let’s check back in 2024, shall we?). Kathryn Bigelow wins Best Director, and she’s snubbed for her vastly superior Zero Dark Thirty a mere three years later.

Jane Campion, Callie Khouri, Diablo Cody (fellow female winners in the Best Original Screenplay category) have achieved minor successes in their own right, but none has matched the rapidity of release (she averages about one film every three years).

Coppola has taken an alternate route, however, than most men have after they win an Oscar. A win in this category generally either compliments the upward trajectory of men who win it (Joel & Ethan Coen), or turn a budding male career into a powerhouse of future hits (Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen). In short, men who win the award have a much greater chance of actually using the prestige of visibility to bolster longevity in the field.

Unlike other women filmmakers who’ve garnered acclaim from the Academy in this category, Coppola has gone on to have a generally high-profile and sustained career. Though none of her subsequent films have generated as much praise, respect, or box-office as Lost in Translation, her follow-up, 2006’s Marie-Antoinette won an Oscar itself, while 2010’s Somewhere and 2013’s The Bling Ring rode the festival buzz machines and played well—if to less-than overwhelming box-office—with critics and audiences alike. She consistently works with big-name talent, and her reputation and stance in the industry has waned little despite her films’ underperforming ticket sales.

Coppola’s attachment to The Little Mermaid speaks to the faith studios have in the quality of her work, and it shows that they’re paying attention to her work and applying it to suitable material. A woman is not objectified for her gender, whose work takes precedent over her being a woman? Is this the film industry we’re talking about?

Coppola’s films have an innate alienesque quality about them. They radiate with a sort of specific melancholy that mostly arises from her female leads. They’re often at a polar opposite crossroads between relegated stagnance and self-discovery, experienced with the men in their lives to the point of boredom or detachment, and often are stuck between a moral duty to fulfill a societal role or break free to explore and confront their independence and its beckoning for action and engagement; a suitable metaphor for the current state of women in the industry. They’re experienced, revved, and ready to go; they just don’t know (or aren’t provided with equal routes) how to harness full control and take the reins just yet.

How perfectly does Coppola’s style fit the story of The Little Mermaid?  Of course her interpretation will more closely follow the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than Disney’s lighthearted approach, though even this version poses a few potential problems for Coppola:

  • The subject material is inherently anti-feminist, being that it revolves around a female who essentially sacrifices her way of life for the love of a man, which validates her decision
  • It’s  being billed, as of this publishing, as a family film, meaning that she’ll more than likely  have to compromise her aesthetic to make it more accessible, which could divert any sort of free reign she may have had over the material if it were to be approached with an adult perspective

There’s no doubt that her talent, focus, and perspective will see through to a fresh take on the aforementioned issues. Her continued success as a powerful female director ensures that her career cannot be defined by pure gendered status, that her achievements have not been a fluke, nor have they been an object of an of-the-moment reactionary equality movement.

Coppola’s ability to land such a high-profile directing job speaks volumes about the ever so slight shifting of consciousness regarding gender in the industry, and this is the kind of change that needs to occur at the internal level instead of merely throwing Oscars at whatever of-the-moment minority case is deemed worthy enough to gain gold sympathy.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

2 Weeks, ’12 Years,’ and Looking Ahead

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How quickly things die down once prophecy is fulfilled.

For nearly seven months–from the festivals to the guild awards–12 Years a Slave was part of the Best Picture buzz machine. Touted as the definitive winner by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan after its TIFF premiere, 12 Years a Slave faced an uphill battle even though it never seemed to lose its place sitting atop the other contenders.

It was a Best Picture winner with a stigma that followed it all the way through to–and past–the finish line it crossed only two weeks ago. It’s a film made by black artists, starring black actors, about black characters, set during a time of intense racial tensions and that is at times what defined the film’s awards season run.

It’s a film that, by all means, was objectified as a film about race. That essentially made it “divisive” and “too intense” for some Academy members to watch. It was seldom a story of survival, of perseverance, of exemplifying the undying spirit of human will, and a prime showcase of the contingency of freedom which bolsters our nation.

I was guilty of this objectification. We are all guilty of it. The glimmer of hope at the end of a white-washed tunnel of Academy history came in the form of 12 Years a Slave. Atonement for the sins of the Academy’s past (primarily white voters, primarily white winners) seemed like it could all be over in an instant and, for a moment, it was; the black film won. The headlines were made, but at what cost?

Is the 12 Years a Slave win already feeling a bit hollow? Are we burned out on the churning of a self-serving machine that builds up a standard?

Not to say that the film is an undeserving bearer of the Best Picture torch. In many ways, it’s a fantastic film. It’s an important film in itself, and its mere release, box-office success, and popularity are the true triumphs. In the scope of Academy history, however, the film has already served its purpose, and will be defined for future audiences purely by its status as a touted “game-changer,” without changing much about the Oscar game at all.

We had publications projecting next year’s crop of potential nominees before Monday’s coverage of 12 Years a Slave‘s win was finished. Gone GirlUnbrokenInto the Woods, and Foxcatcher became the focus. Have we grown so tired of the constructed narrative of race within awards season that we’re willing to let it go so very quickly after the self-made prophecy was actually fulfilled?

It seems that many Oscar bloggers and industry journalists alike were prepared for a 12 Years a Slave loss to Gravity.   In that scenario, the Academy would again become fodder for backlash, accusations of racism, and its perpetuation of the white heteronormative culture.

12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture merely cemented it as a film which came along at the right time. It was largely objectified for its racial aspects, but it’s a film that succeeded in a still predominantly-white, predominantly-male Academy who voted it into the spotlight on Oscar night. The industry pressure for the Academy to award the film seemed solely based on racial implications.

What people need to be advocating for, then, is a changing of the Academy structure. The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave won the heart of the white voter. 12 Years a Slave was the object of the white voter seeking to atone. We’re not talking about “white guilt” and compensation for slavery, but a more compartmentalized guilt (as a result of pressure from the industry) for a lack of diversity in the Academy.

Yes, a black woman–the first in its 86-year history–is currently the Academy president. Still, the Oscars are:

77% male/23% female
93% white/7% non-white

What a “divisive” movie like 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture does, however, is not to cement the minority status amidst a traditionally “white” institution, it merely makes the crowd-pleasers like Gravity and Argo the underdog for next year’s race, because the old white men are still doing the majority of the talking, the majority of the dictating, and the majority of the voting.

In the same way 12 Years a Slave stood out as an “alternative” in this year’s case–which ended up being a positive–with the same Academy structure, who’s to say that the next black filmmaker who comes along won’t be objectified for the same thing, only with the opposite implications? Will the next film “about” race be given the cold shoulder, as 12 Years a Slave was so highly publicized as the definitive answer to the Academy’s issues with rewarding minority filmmakers?

It’s so easy to envision Academy members thinking that since another “black” film won, it’s unnecessary to vote for a new one. Just look at what happened to Kathryn Bigelow after she won the Oscar for Best Director for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. She was completely shut out of the Oscar race for Zero Dark Thirty, even though she’d made the most culturally-relevant, groundbreaking film of that year. She belonged in the Best Director race–on top of it, actually–but I fear that her being a minority in an industry driven by white men was met with the “been there, done that” voting mentality, and she was ultimately snubbed.

The Academy needs to start:

1) Collecting and releasing statistics on how its members voted including age, race, and gender demographics
2) Releasing a full roster of its members
3) Eliminate the preferential ballot

Each of these things would put pressure on the Academy to change its internal structure far more than it already has attempted to do. It has already made its desire to diversify its ranks very clear, as invitations to high profile non-white, non-male industry members (Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay) were publicized last year, along with the aforementioned election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy President.

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On one hand, 12 Years a Slave as a Best Picture winner does open up many doors to minority visibility in the industry. Still, it is audiences who have a say in the grand scheme of things. The standard of beauty is not created by the suits, its merely analyzed, accepted, and returned by the suits. The fantasy of filmic beauty is decided by those who choose to see and accept it. Pressuring people to vote for a film they might not have considered to be the true “best” of the year simply because it fits an overarching narrative of race in the Academy is unfair. It’s peddling race the same way the Academy has rejected it, though I believe the pushing and prodding of Oscar voters to “do the right thing” because “the time” had come for a “black” film to win is a more deliberate emphasis on race.

In the momentary spitfire of the pre-Oscar hype machine, perhaps 12 Years a Slave is an appropriate Best Picture choice. It represents so much of what the Oscar race is about. It’s more of-the-moment than anyone thinks. While we’re looking to it as a vessel for change, it could very well usher in the exact opposite, and be the default “race” choice for many years to come.

After all, it took 86 years. One film isn’t going to change much.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Predator or Sponge? – The Role of the Camera in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and ‘Gravity’

Blue is the Warmest ColorIt sees for us, though we often–literally and figuratively–see through it.

At the root of it all lies a single tool we all too often take for granted: the camera.

It’s our immediate recognition of the camera’s innate desire to funnel our perspective that unites us all. Film students, critics, and entitled bloggers alike love to throw around terms like “sexual objectification” and “penetrating” when referring to the way the camera sees sexuality. We find it so easy to implicate the presence of bare flesh–a nipple or the genitalia–as a window into the filmmaker’s mind. It’s either “he’s penetrating the character with his gaze,” or “overcome by his own sexuality,” quite possibly “objectifying the female form as a desirable conquest.”

It’s hard to separate the truth from a viewer merely seeing what they want to see or find fault with. With the open forum of the internet affording nearly everyone the opportunity to hold filmmakers to new standards of accountability, it’s extremely difficult for a director to escape such accusations while in any capacity exploring topics of sexuality.

In 2013, decades after sexuality found its way into commercial films post-Production Code, Abdellatif Kechiche gives us Blue is the Warmest Color, his adaptation of a French graphic novel about two young women involved in an intricate, fiery, fiercely-sexual, and powerfully-emotional relationship.

The film is a masterwork on countless fronts, though its explicit depictions of raw sexuality have become synonymous with even its mere mention, allowing an unfair predicate to–in some instances–overshadow the quality of the film itself. Again, thanks to the internet and the public’s fixation with sex, the film has gone from being a work of art to “that lesbian movie with the 20-minute sex scene.”

Kechiche was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, in a rare turn of events, the prize also went to the film’s two stars. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared one of the most renowned recognitions in the industry with a director accused of degrading their bodies, when it was the actress’ openness to lend their physicality to the depiction of a beautiful, pure, and honest depiction of love and sexuality–seeing past the superficiality of sexuality as a mere image–which legitimized the honor.

While Kechiche undeniably incorporates heapings of nudity and graphic sex throughout his film, he does not allow their presence to go unjustified. Removed from context, any sex scene is merely “porn” (that’s not to degrade pornography, but merely to reduce it to its intent: to elicit a sexual response or accompany the experience of your own sexual pleasure). Blue is the Warmest Color pairs the adult qualities of sexuality with the playful innocence of budding maturity in young adulthood.

Its focal character, Adele (Exarchopoulos), is a young woman on the brink of her adult life. She’s still in school, messily chews her dinner with her mouth open, and struggles to find her identity beyond fitting in to what society tells her being a young girl should be. She experiments with boys and girls, but ultimately develops romantic feelings for Emma, an artist well into her twenties.

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As their relationship blossoms, Adele is not confined–in terms of script or the camera–to being an object of sex. Sex becomes a part of her, as she explores herself socially and within the scope of her relationship with Emma. We never get the sense that the immediacy or urgency with which the sex scenes unfold is exploitative, as Kechiche also shows us tender nuances outside such scenes.

For every tongue that meets vagina in the bedroom, there are two sets of lips meeting in front of a sunset, the light cascading from behind to envelop the scene in overwhelming beauty. Scenes of tender beauty and raw sexuality characterize a relationship, not a director’s fixation with sex. Why waste time shooting a film for 5 months to satiate his own desires?

As Adele matures, so does the film and what Kechiche chooses to show us. Messily eating her mother’s homemade spaghetti and her distaste for shellfish are soon trumped by Adele’s newfound ability to singlehandedly cook for an entire party or sling back oysters with Emma’s family.  Adele grows, and sexuality is a natural part of human evolution. We experience all aspects of Adele’s maturation with her, and the blossoming of her body into a sexually aware one (versus sexual experimental, as it was with a boy from her class early in the film) is comfortable, fluid, and beautiful.

Kechiche’s camera is a sponge for atmosphere and his characters’ desires, not a predator seeking to titillate us on a personal level. This is Adele’s story, and we need to see what she sees and how she sees it.

The sight of flesh does not mean we are meant to gaze upon it in blind lust. Real sex is exploitative to an extent, is it not? To satiate our own desires and receive pleasure from another person is, at the core of it, using  them. Observing the act (whether prolonged or explicit) on a cinema screen makes the act a part of something much larger that has little to do with us, and therefore becomes art.

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Kechiche is not one to let us forget that the human body has been sexualized all throughout history. He peppers the film with bountiful discussions about classic literature, shots of early paintings which exaggerated the female form, and pillowy shots of Adele sleeping–fully clothed–in contorted, primal positions.

Art is art with or without implication beyond its means, and he creates a convincing portrait of growth by pooling from the elements which make us all human, not by “othering” his stars’ bodies as sex objects. His camera is aware, and it is lustful when the film’s narrative calls for it. Adele is overwhelmed with sexual desire, and Kechiche makes sure we’re along for the ride, and it’s that mindful presence of it all having purpose that frees the film from any accusations of exploitation.

Gravity, another fantastic film from 2013, proved itself as a rare female-driven formidable force at the box-office. Sandra Bullock carries the film–a one-woman show–as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut cast adrift in space after rogue debris destroys her ship and the rest of her crew. Emotionally scarred by long-ago earthly happenings, Dr. Stone is forced to confront her own mortality alongside budding existential crisis, which forms the basis for the film’s running metaphor for rebirth.

The camera in Gravity initially serves to dominate Dr. Stone, often dwarfing her body against the neverending backdrop of space as if she were a tiny embryo at the beginning stages of life. As the film progresses, the dynamism of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera becomes clear, as we alternate between sweeping shots of the cosmos and intense, personal close-ups of Dr. Stone’s face as she faces her demons alongside her physical predicament.

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While Dr. Stone remains in a bulky space suit for the majority of the film, there are a few key scenes of her boarding a space craft and removing it. She slips the top off, shimmies her way out of the bottoms, and reveals Sandra Bullock’s slender body. While the shedding of space gear rings sexual in a film like Alien, the undressing of Dr. Stone instead functions to humanize her amidst a sea of titanic atmosphere surrounding her.

In one scene, her body glistens against a circular backdrop of the air lock, she brings her feet to her chest, and a few expertly-placed hoses just behind her navel create the image of Dr. Stone as a fetus. She is nearly nude–only small black underwear and a skimpy shirt cover her–though the scene is completely devoid of sexuality, as Dr. Stone isn’t defined as a sex object. She is vulnerable and fresh, ready to begin her emotional and spiritual rebirth as the film progresses. In shedding the suit, we allow her to become pure and reborn in front of us. Whereas Adele’s journey to full-on nudity matures her, Dr. Stone’s revealed flesh takes her back to the infantile form of beginnings.

Kechiche and Cuaron are two filmmakers with a clear vision, with endowing everything within their frame with significant purpose. It is lazy and disrespectful to the craft when placing personal opinions about what justifies sexual objectification next to our analysis of a film. There is so much more to Blue is the Warmest Color than its aspects of sexuality. There is much more to the “male perspective” than sexual desire, and a male behind a camera capturing female flesh does not equate exploitation.

We must learn to have a little more faith in the camera. It guides our vision, though a skeptical eye will see only what it wants to.

Even “Perfect” Has Its Thorn; Cynthia Rose and the Gay Stereotype

Cynthia Rose (right, Ester Dean) humps a fellow group member in “Pitch Perfect”

Brilliant screenwriting is unmistakable. We count on it to carry us through a film’s entirety. Careless writing in an otherwise enjoyable screenplay, however, can mar even the wittiest of writers’ work. A mere moment of sloppiness degrading a film as an unwelcome party guest showing up two courses through dinner.

Such is the messy plate of Pitch Perfect‘s interpretation of a “gay” character, the butch, short hair sportin’, pussy-lovin’, titty-grabbin’, black bulldyke stereotype otherwise known as Cynthia Rose. But, what’s the point of giving her a name? Those offensive descriptors are how the filmmakers want you to see her, anyway. It’s a shame, because Pitch Perfect, otherwise effectively written by Kay Cannon, is an enjoyable film without a malicious bone in its celluloid body, telling the story of an all-female acapella group struggling its way to the to the top of yet another male-dominated field. It’s at once powerful social commentary on the trickling down of patriarchal dominance, but it’s merely the sloppy, outside-the-lines pandering for humor at the expense of a gay character that gives the film a sour aftertaste.

Cynthia Rose is given no purpose in the film other than to generate laughs in one of two ways; A) When any other characters questions her sexuality and B) when she indiscriminately grabs for any body part of the nearest female character. She’s plopped into the screenplay without much motivation; she tries out for an accapella group, makes the cut, and is never given much thought again–until a cheap joke at her expense can be thrown her way. The other girls get a kick out of speculating about her sexuality. A few of them find themselves in various compromising positions whilst in her proximity; Cynthia Rose is there, lust in her eyes and nothing but air in her hands, copping a feel whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Let’s take, for example, a scene which sees Cynthia’s fellow group member, Fat Amy, reeling on the ground after a rival group throws food at her from a moving bus. Amy writhes on the ground, screaming for help as if she’s been shot. Cynthia is first on the scene, beaming at the opportunity to give way-open-mouth CPR to a friend who’s clearly breathing (enough so that her screams alerted Cynthia) on the ground. The joke would be funny if it were, say, someone with a prior sexually-induced trait; we laugh at Quagmire on “Family Guy” because we know he’s a sex addict. A breast, leg, or thigh comically coincidentally finding its way into his line of vision, for example, might inspire an actual sexual response. We expect this because of his addiction to sex, not because of his gender or sexual orientation. Pitch Perfect has you believe Cynthia Rose’s only motivation is that she’s a woman attracted to other women. The straight men in the film, however, keep their hands to themselves. They proposition women, but we’re never given even the slightest inclination that they’re resisting the insatiable urge to to grasp every piece of female flesh which walks before them. Countless other scenes draw on this same “gay is funny” principle; Cynthia makes attempts at grabbing other girls constantly throughout, and each instance comes at a time when far funnier things are going on around her. Say I’m a whiner, but the carelessness in presenting a gay character in such a ridiculously backwards manner is distracting (and detracting) from an otherwise pleasant comedic excursion.

Some might say the film also mocks “fat” people with the inclusion of a character with “fat” in her name. The joke with Fat Amy, however, is not that she’s a “fat” person. “You really call yourself ‘Fat Amy’?” one character asks her. “Yes, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” she responds. The humor lies within Amy’s insistence on taking control of an otherwise oppressive situation. She embraces herself enough to throw the criticism back into the face of someone who might try to do the same to her. She’s a step ahead. Cynthia instead fuels the criticism by mere existence, the laughs coming at the expense of her inherent desire versus her harnessing control away from the social status quo.

I remember watching the documentary “The Celluloid Closet”, listening to Harvey Fierstein discuss the offensive “sissy” characters of early cinema. Forgive me, for exact quotes always elude me, but I believe he said something to the effect of “I’d rather have offensive screen time than no screen time at all.” The phrase struck me as well-intentioned, but misinformed; that response diminishes an entire culture as desperate for attention versus long overdue for equality. Pitch Perfect, a film by all means about a subject completely different, will have you oddly pondering the presence of gay characters in a similarly muddled fashion. Sure, the joke is “funny” at face value and the gay character is “there,” but are audiences laughing such characters back into the closet, mocking inherent attractions characters like Jack Twist and Nic Allgood feel simply because they’re attractions?

Disregard all the “whining,” if you will, but I’ll leave you with this question: Is Pitch Perfect a better film because of the addition of the content I’m talking about? A worse film? If you can answer that, there’s a problem.

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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