The Films I've Watched This Year #10

Film If this list looks short, it's because last weekend was filled with television and ballet (on television). On Saturday night I continued with Orange Is The New Black (which is firmly in the can't watch more than one episode at a time pile) and began with The Vikings (which one episode in feels a bit Game of Thrones lite) (which it would do), season seven of 24 (because I never did get around to it back then) and Luther (which even after two episodes I can see is Neil Cross's homage to the Pertwee era) (no really).

On Sunday night I sat through an ancient (1990) television presentation of the Kirov ballet's Swan Lake in preparation for the first film on the list but which in no way really prepared me for it thanks to the television directors insistence on cutting away to reaction shots in the middle of movements and entirely missing the main thrust of the action.  Oh and it has a happy ending, apparently imposed during the Soviet era which as this useful review from Ballet Magazine notes, "now looks incongruous and silly".

Black Swan
Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Heat

Before I head off into the mainstream of this evening's symposium, I just wanted to note the number of inadvertant connections there are at least between the titles.  On Monday I watched Black Swan, tonight was Blackfish.  On Tuesday I saw Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 in a double bill with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which was separated by a day with The Heat, which has its own connection of sorts with the word Passion, which I saw in a double bill with Safety Not Guaranteed which in that context has a whole other set of resonances.  How odd.

It's also true that all but two of the films have female lead characters which was somewhat on purpose once I'd seen Black Swan and The Hunger Games and knew Lovefilm/Amazon/thingy had already posted The Heat, in contrast to last week when a couple of the films would have really benefited from a female protagonist if only the male creators had even considered it.  Probably worth noting though that none of these films were written or directed by women with Catching Fire's source material a tangential contribution.

When I was at film academia, one of the issues I had to wrestle with in gender studies was the structure of films with female lead characters, the likes of Nikita, Amelie and C├ędric "The Spanish Apartment" Klapisch's When The Cats Away and how across time in story terms they essentially only have two outcomes: to give in to their natural femininity and couple off or retain a latent masculinity, and if they're independently successful, enter the wilderness or die or stay single, or boiled down to what usually ends up being the concluding visual marker, wearing a dress or trousers.

It's more complex and tricky than that with increased messiness when dealing with women in the action genre in particular where they're essentially treated as male characters in story terms but that's the main thrust of it (and I'd recommend Susan Hayward's essay on gender in Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts if you're really interested).  The main problem seems to be that because there hasn't been the same variety of films with female main characters for film theorists to deal with the concepts have inevitably remained relatively simplistic.

Without giving away anything I hope, all of these films conform to the above trajectory, though in a couple of cases you could also take a side glance towards queer theory (see Hayward's chapter on that too) but what's interesting is how in comparison to the films I looked at back then, the women in these films retain their leadership roles and the directors barely resort to such things as the male gaze in order to create points of identification.  Even in something like Black Swan, I can't remember seeing a reverse shot of Vincent Cassel offering the male gaze.

Of course I wasn't analysing these things and perhaps if I was looking out for a reverse shot of Vincent Cassel offering the male gaze, I'd notice one.  But it still seems like we're shifting towards a space in which women are allowed to be beautiful in films without the need to cut away to some man confirming as much in a scene where this supposed main character is suddenly subordinated for the purpose or we cut to some secondary character making googly eyes just because they have a penis and a labido.

Well, there's Passion, but again we're straying into queer theory and making assumptions and can never win, much as the viewer can't with Passion, which is quite frankly a mess because Brian De Palma can't really decide who the audience's sympathy should be with because for all his attempts at being Hitchcock, he isn't Hitchcock and doesn't really understand the subtleties of what Hitchcock was doing in relation to audience sympathy or visual trickery.  Even Mission: Impossible feels like a very, very long time ago at this point.

But that was really the only bum note of the week (so to speak).  Cloudy 2 loses some of the storytelling complexity of the first film, but retains the wacky surrealism and The Heat underscores Sandra Bullock's flexibility as an actress even if the gag reel on the blu-ray is arguably funnier than the main film which is tonally all over the place merging an Apatow sensibility with the cussing and murder of Lethal Weapon.  Part of me wishes it had been a more grounded earthy piece in the manner of Shane Black, but god bless Melissa McCarthy for bringing some of that anyway.

My new fascination with ballet brought me back to Black Swan which has arguably become even more potent now that Mila Kunis has become more of a "name" since its release not that you could really point to, with the exception of Friends with Benefits, a particular film which has made that "name", other than Black Swan itself.  The Radio One incident certainly helped.  But watching again, she seems to have gained a statue, more passive aggression and in a curious twist the following year when she and Natalie Portman appeared in films with roughly the same plots hers was better.

But having seen another version of the story and Tamara Rojo's history of the ballet did deepen the experience and emphasise various elements especially that Darren Aronofsky economically didn't simply attempt to retell that story within the ballet world somehow but wanted to create something visually more interesting and psychologically visceral.  There's also the poignant casting of Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey, both of whom in previous decades would have been the obvious choices to play Portman's White Swan.

I wonder what film theorists are making of The Hunger Games and any film series which are even more closely aligned to television "episodes" or installments and in which it's impossible to say what trajectory a character has.  Much as I enjoyed Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of the cast are so far above the material now that I couldn't help wishing I was seeing them in something else, especially Lawrence and Donald Sutherland as Cordelia and Lear.  Amanda Plummer as Goneril.  Elizabeth Banks as Regan.  Woody Harrelson as the Fool.

Actually that's not quite fair.  As attempts at Orwell for kids go, this is better than most (there is no Macra), and the action sequences are still genuinely exciting and as I suggested much earlier, it is the case that Katniss is the main character and even in scenes like the smoke attack when the tendency might be to cut away from her to cover the other action, it's all about her.  In empowerment terms this is an important choice; there are plenty of examples strewn about of films which are also supposed to be empowering but still end with a bloke saving the day somehow.

The best time I had this week, the moment when I was screaming and cheering was the final few minutes of Safety Not Guaranteed, but to tell you why would be a massive spoiler and unfair so I won't.  It's also the film in the week I knew nothing about beforehand other than that it was a piece of mainstream mumblecore, co-produced by the Duplass brothers and co-starring Duplass Mark and Jake Johnson off of New Girl.  It's a prime example of the kind of film which turns up on Netflix and you ended up watching because the cover is yellow or some such.

Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza plays a magazine intern who's dragged on a "fishing" trip to investigate a wanted ad from a guy who says he's going to time travel and needs a partner.  She becomes his chosen partner.  Meanwhile, Johnson's character looks up an old flame because this also happens to be his home town and before long we're in the usual mumblecore/indie meander though it quickly becomes apparent that writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow are playing some genre games with the injection of thriller elements and romance.

Other than Plaza, who's frankly a mighty presence and is now my reason to get around to watching Parks and Recreation, is how the film consistently undercuts our expectations but not without purpose and on reflection everything thematically falls into place.  About the only dodgy element is another intern played by Karan Soni who is just the kind of stereotypical secondary character the Harold & Kumar films are commenting on.  Other than that, you can see why the writer and director have been handed the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise.  Sort of.

After all of this, my opinion that we needed to see even more films with women characters in lead roles is undiminished.  In an industry which often says its desperate for new ideas, there's a whole untapped, underexplored wealth of potential stories featuring female characters outside of the usual genre expectations.  Why is the attitude that we've already seen a "ballet" film when there are presumably a multiplicity of potential films in that world?  Why is The Heat the only recent buddy film featuring women law enforcement?  Why?  Why?

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