March 30, 2010

"Strong Female Leads"

When I browse the film selection on Netflix, the site offers me the following categories to "mix and match": Comedies, Crime, Dark, Dramas, Emotional, Independent, Romantic, Showbiz, Strong Female Leads, TV Dramas, TV shows. This list is based on the "Taste Preferences" I set for myself. Recently, I've been getting a lot of suggestions from the "Strong Female Leads" category, which got me thinking. The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off. I mean, I
do prefer films with strong female leads. But this category seems problematic to me. It suggests that a film with a strong female lead is distinctive from other films with female leads because of her strength. Strong as opposed to... weak? They don't give you the option to prefer "Weak Female Leads." If the "Strong Female Lead" category is seen as a subset of the "Female Lead" category, the implication is that the majority of cinematic female leads are not strong. Not to mention that since this is a "preference" option, it means that people can decide, No, I don't prefer films with "Strong Female Leads." I prefer all the other films, you know, with the normal, non-strong women in them.

This probably wouldn't bother me if they gave you the option of a "Strong Male Leads" preference. Why isn't there a "Strong Male Leads" category, and what does its absence mean? I see only one option, really: male leads are strong. It's as if to say, "Strong Male Leads!? Isn't that repetitive?" This isn't actually true. I can think of plenty (plenty) of films with weak male leads. Of course, these films tend to be about said male's transformation into a stronger male (sometimes with the help of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and sometimes with the help of sports montages.)

It's also worth mentioning that if you take a look at the "Strong Female Leads" category, there are some films in there that sort of make you go, Huh? Like, Twilight. No. I'm totally serious. Twilight. Films like The Nanny Diaries, My Best Friend's Wedding, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days seem to mock the more appropriate inclusions. These are strong female leads? The inclusion of other films like, Monster, Grey Gardens, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? make me wonder if "Strong Female Lead" = "Insane Female Lead." Which is even more alarming. Sure, Aileen Wuornos was a memorable woman in history, but I wouldn't house her under the same umbrella with, like, Queen Elizabeth. That seems to imply that any woman who doesn't stay in some kind of 1950s conception of the normative female gender role belongs in the same category, whether she was a serial killer or the Queen of England. Bella Swan = Erin Brokovich. I kind of want to meet whoever is in charge of the "Strong Female Leads" category. I am really, really curious at this point. I mean, 27 Dresses is in there with The Silence of the Lambs. It is sacrilegious.

Doesn't it just make you hurt? This whole thing sort of makes me hurt. I think it is positive to support and encourage cinema that depicts women as strong, but I don't think Netflix's "Strong Female Leads" category is helping us out. It's really just symptomatic of the popularity of destructive depictions of women in film (specifically in film marketed to women.) So what combative strategies are there? I think the best thing to do is to celebrate film made by, for, and about strong women, and hope that this industry won't continue to profit by depicting women as weak.

Speaking of depressing, has anyone seen the trailer for ABC Family's made for TV movie starring Hillary Duff, entitled, Beauty and the Briefcase? Fuck you ABC Family. Fuck you very much.

March 23, 2010

Vampires, Werewolves, and Abstinence. Oh my!

I love me some vampires. Buffy? Yes. True Blood? Hell yes. Most anything involving vampires made in the last decade? I've probably at least sampled. I think vampires are just great. They are the fodder of some really dramatic, oft-sexy, intentionally hilarious film and television. And then, there's Twilight. Thankfully, I think vampires are too broad and enduring a cultural fetish to be Donnie-Darkoed into the much-hated land of things that teens obsess over. But God bless Stephanie Meyer, she is trying her darnedest isn't she? Luckily, I think True Blood pretty effectively negated the devastating effect Twilight and its twee, self-hating minions could have wrought on my brain in 2008 (thank you, Alan Ball). The best antidote for Mormon vampire abstinence porn? Southern gothic vampire actual porn. But sadly, Twilight is to everywhere to ignore. According to a lot of people who don't know what they're talking about, Twilight is the twisted, malformed harbinger or some kind of mainstream vampire media Renaissance. And sadly, in the years since Ms. Meyers bestowed her bastardized vampire lore upon a hoard of desperately repressed thirteen year old sadomasochists, vampires have indeed been all up in everyone's business. Vampires who are unaffected by sunshine. Vampires who sparkle like the frickin' Heart of the frickin' Ocean/a disco ball at your skeevy local bowling alley.

But, as I have long discussed with my co-conspirator/life partner, Miss Hannah Gelb, the affront is not so much that Twilight exists, or is popular, or generally sucks. No. The true tragedy of the whole sad enterprise is that Twilight takes a whole bunch of totally promising elements and nearly completely saps them of all appeal, whether that appeal be pulp, ironic, or literal. It's like taking Fromager D'Affinois, kalamata olives, a good ciabatta, and a Grigich Hills Chardonnay and covering it all in Cheez Wiz. It's like sprinkling your shaved truffles with manure.

And, AND, the whole thing could be so easily improved what with a few relatively simple revisions. I am talking about the film adaptations solely, as I have not read the "novels." There comes a point when you are just too old/proud to be seen with a series of young adult vampire books in your possession. Film adaptations, I think, should almost never be totally faithful to their source material. This usually ends badly (see: The Da Vinci Code, or as I like to call it Boring). So, now, revisions. I tried to stay away from major changes to the plot at the heart of the great seething pile of warm goo and angst that is The Twilight Saga.

8 Minor Changes that Could Maybe Make Twilight Not Suck So Hard:

1. Give Bella a basis in reality as a character before surrounding her with fantastical gothic otherworldliness. This is really very important and basic. Almost all classic fairy tales establish a normal world and character that the fantasy world changes, or is a departure from. Until fairies/elves/wicked witches show up, Dorothy is a bored Kansan, Cinderella is a verbally abused housemaid, and Ariel is... well... a teenage mermaid (but really, she's more of a very literal representation of female virginity). Because Twilight barely affords us an opportunity to meet Bella before her whole life is thrown into upheaval (move to Forks, ensuing vampire love story). We have no concept of her or her world before things get all shaken up, and no impression of her as a consistent character, with a recognizable personality or context. She's just a plot device who shit happens to.

2. Introduce a little teensy weensy bit of levity (maybe even some self awareness). No, unfunny Asian dude does not count. I mean, vampires and werewolves and frickin' Kristen Stewart feature prominently in this. It is not King Lear. We are supposed to enjoy these movies, right? No?

3. Eliminate ALL dialogue that does not either further the plot in a detectable way or help to develop characters. The following is an example that does neither or these things, and seems to exist in the movie for no other reason than to get Bella and Eddie on screen together. Do we learn anything about either of them? No. Does it further their relationship? Really, no. Does it move the plot at all? Hell no.

Bella: You were gone.
Ed: Yeah, um, I was out of town for a couple of days, personal reasons.
Bella: [pushes microscope to Ed] Uh, prophase.
Ed: Do you mind it I uh, look?
[Bella morosely shakes her stupid head]
Ed: It's prophase.
Bella: Like I said.
Ed: So you enjoying the rain?
[Bella attempts something like human laughter]
Ed: What?
Bella: You're asking me about the weather?
Ed: Yeah, I-I guess I am.
Bella: Well I don't really like the rain. Any cold wet thing I don't really...
Ed: [makes a sound that is supposed to be laughter but comes out more like a nauseous moan]
Bella: What?
Ed: Nothing, uh. It's uh, anaphase.
Bella: You mind if I check?
Ed: Sure.
Bella: Anaphase.
Ed: Like I said.

4. Introduce villains before third fucking act, and make said villain intimidating enough that we care at all. Actually, it doesn't even matter when he shows. Just make us care at all. This is particularly relevant in the first film (though still a continuing problem in the second), which muddles around for a bajillion hours before we even get a look at the aggressor, and when we do, he looks like he's an extra who wandered off the set of, like, the 1995 "Hercules" mini-series. Oh, and when he does get all "scary" he sort of just half-crouches and holds his hands out in front of him like eight-year-old-me doing my best velociraptor impression. Hiss! Hiss! Rar!

5. Depict the actual passage of time in a way that makes us, as an audience, aware that time is passing rather than relying on ineffective sped-up/slow motions montages. As much as montages are super fun and classy, there are other ways to make the audience understand that time has passed. But I guess that would require some acting or cleverness. For the record, the whole "September... November... [Bella sits on her stupid bed morosely staring out her stupid window at a never-changing landscape that I don't remember being there earlier]" sequence in New Moon did not work, and does not count as either acting or clever. The complete lack of temporal context kills any level of suspense that could have existed in the script. In Twilight Bella run like hell from Forks to the Southwest trying to escape the non-scary villain guy, and this takes about five minutes. In New Moon Bella finds out that Edward's gonna, like, out himself in Italy or whatever and travels from Forks to the scene of said Sparkle Motion in about five minutes. This gives the audience no chance to get anxious whatsoever about Ed or Bella's respective impending dooms.

6. Shot reverse shot, people. It's not rocket science, and these films aren't directed by Ingmar Bergman. Though this improved slightly in the latter of the films, in Twilight the poor cameramen appeared to be constantly running in dizzying, tilting circles around the action (lack of action), the better to look at the back of everyone's heads. Because that's what we want to see, obviously.

7. Remove respective sticks from Kristen Stewart/R-Patzzz's bottoms. At this point, watching them act onscreen together makes me physically uncomfortable, which the tweens may mistake as sexual arousal, but us grown-ups can hopefully identify as nauseous boredom. This isn't just the fault of the script; there is something really weird happening between the leads that makes it totally unpleasant to see them talk to each other at all. The second film was a lot better than the first just for the fact that Edward was barely in it, meaning we didn't have to suffer through their scenes, which inspire the same feelings in my as watching Josie Grossie in Never Been Kissed, or "Everybody Loves Raymond."

8. Resist the urge to subject your actors to the stupidest possible costume/makeup work available. Jean short cut-offs? Really? Awkwardly pristine baseball uniforms with matching caps? Gahh. Maybe practice a little critical restraint and spend money where it could do some good. You're certainly going to be making enough money to pay of the monumental debt sustained while buying some lipstick that doesn't make Edward Cullen's lips look like something out of Cabaret. Spend the money to have wigs made that don't so much resemble wigs from the 1964 television series "The Addams Family."

There you have it. It might be just that easy. Now, it won't make it good. But it can make it not so much suck, maybe. And now, lastly, a change that is not so minor, but simply cannot go unsaid:

Fuckin' just adhere to the generally accepted vampire lore. Please? Vampires do not sparkle. Vampires do not survive in sunlight/lowlight/partially cloudy skies, chance of light showers. Vampires do not appear in photographs or mirrors. Vampires do not get jiggy with crosses or silver or garlic. Vampires would never say anything so stupid as "Think of us as vegetarians. Nom nom nom helpless Bambi." OR, if you must completely ignore the entire fabulous mythology of the paranormal being you've inexplicably chosen to write about, consider just calling them something else. Cold Ones. Whatever. Pacific Northwestern tree moncheechees. Sure. Hella-gay-immortal-manifestations-of-some-perverse-abstinence-myth/rape-fantasy-purported-by-sexually-repressed-middle-aged-people. Be my guest. R-Patzzzies and Jacobsies. Sounds about right.