Monday, 9 December 2013

I am no man

Scattered minor spoilers.

At the end of the summer, I posted a piece arguing how terrible the movie industry was at doing good female characters. I listed all the films I'd seen over the summer which exhibited this terribleness; they were legion.

But summer's end is inevitable, and the movie industry ebbs and flows in the opposite direction to the seasons - after summer comes a rebirth and vitality that renews one's hope for the future. Looking back at the films I've seen recently, I am struck by how awesome they are at female characters. And not just female characters but female-centric story lines, with real women acting as actual people who make choices and stuff! Revolutionary! For me, the story is always paramount, and often the least well dealt with in terms of gender. This autumn has made great headway in reversing that trend.

Just recently we've had two French films about young women exploring who they are via their sexuality: Jeune et Jolie, and Blue is the Warmest Colour. Both of them are slow, boring and pretentious; the first failed to bring it's main character to life at all, and the second, while extremely powerful in parts, ended on a bleak note where the main character failed to resolve any of the issues or problems she was dealing with.

A friend who I saw it with said that he liked this - real life doesn't always resolve nicely and it's more effective to show us the brutal truth than some neatly wrapped-up plot line. Personally, I find this poor story-telling - catharsis is a key element for me, although maybe the director, Kechiche, intended the film more as a parable than a story. Not my cup of tea, at any rate.

Another film noteable for its directorial finesse and masterful techniquery but ultimate ineffectiveness of story was The Counselor. I never really felt I knew who any of the characters were. Just like Prometheus, each scene seemed to be an island of breathtaking self-contained drama, without ever joining up any of the dots. While Cameron Diaz was probably the worst actor of the five, her character was probably the most exciting - a dazzling femme fatale who revelled in her exquisite ability to manipulate and control everything around her. 

Then there were my favourite films of the post-summer season. Short Term 12, a story of young people with issues who care for even younger people with issues, was rightly called a masterpiece: the story is dizzyingly multi-levelled yet achingly simple and direct. I love the way it transcends gender to get right to the core of exactly who each of the characters are as people and why they make the choices they do.

Katniss Everdeen continued her coming of age in part two of the Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Where the story in the first film was predictable and unimaginative, and frankly very slow, the second film was completely engaging. The key lies in making other characters just as interesting as the heroine if not more so: when Peeta has a personality that we care about, it means he can have relationships with Katniss and others that we can also care about. I particularly liked that they took time to develop the character of the strange PR girl who manages the district 12 team. That kind of thing adds a new dimension that really brings the story to life, and allows us to relate to the main issues faced by all the characters a lot more potently.

In a less mainstreamy kind of way, How I Live Now did a similar thing. The protagonist, Daisy, has to deal with the apocalypse and in doing so, face down her own demons - a tried and tested forumla that is just wonderful when done right. By the end of the film, Daisy has survived the apocalypse and has become a well-adjusted and less insecure woman. The film was only let down by a tepid and empty love interest, but this was made up for by the other supporting characters.

I adored Gravity - not because of the epic visuals, but because of how they feed into the epic story. It's hard to tell a story with just one real character for most of the film, but they completely achieved it, simply by going back to basics. It's a very paired-down three-act deal, in which a woman struggles - yes, again - to survive against the odds and in doing so comes to terms with personal issues. The magic of this formula becomes apparent at the key moment at the end of act 2 when she halucinates the guiding hand of George Clooney's character, pep talks herself into turning the oxygen back on, decides to stand and fight for her own life, and blasts off to meet her future, as the music swells. Now THAT was masterful.

But perhaps my favourite story of all could be found in Carrie. Goodness knows why they chose to remake this work of staggering genius, especially as the new film sticks to the original to the extent that almost every scene is identical. The new version did cut some bits, however, in a worthy effort to deal with the slow pacing of the original; while this did lead to a better structured and more streamlined film, it also sacrificed, if only slightly, some of the longer character-building sections in the middle, which is a shame because I felt you didn't get as full a sense of who Carrie is pre-prom. The prom scene itself was, needless to say, nowhere near as masterful as the original, but it's always going to be a great scene however its done.

I have few words to express how much I love the Carrie story. Again, its success completely rests on the supporting characters - the repressive mother, the hateful Chris, the guilt-wracked Sue and the other caring kids and teachers at the school. It is these latter who nurture Carrie along her journey, who take her from the timid and adoreable creature, so full of kindness, and help her make the transistion to womanhood. The mother is the chief obstacle, and in overpowering her, Carrie makes the all-important choice to be a full person with all the agency this entails. Yet it is only really the first step on this journey out of repression, and before she can take another, she has all her worst fears about the world confirmed at her exact moment of triumph. At every stage is the aweful presence of blood - the showers, the cupboard, the prom dress (which the mother calls "red"), the bucket and the cruxifiction. The new film intorduced one more bloody episode right at the beginning: the birth.

What's great about this story is that, despite being really quite a simple coming of age tale, it still reaches staggering highs and lows - Carrie starts completely humiliated and alone, works her way up to the ecstasy of love that is prom queen, and is immediately returned to the humiliated loneliness, the lowest of the low, reducing her from serene joy to abject frenzy. Just as the blood on the mother's nightdress at her death mirrors that at Carrie's birth, so the blood on Carrie's hands at the ball mirrors that in the showers at the start.

But in another sense, Carrie's greatest triumph is still to come - after the conventional coming of age transformation is destroyed by the pig's blood, the true realisation of Carrie's darker self, and mastery of her real powers can take place. After all, when she puts her mother away the first time, she escapes. When she deals with her the second time, it's a finality. Carrie has completed her second journey - the one neither she nor the audience was looking for - at the exact moment when she fails to complete her first. She can now burn happily in hell, her story utterly resolved, her character fulfilled at a more fundamental level than she even knew to look for.

So those were the films I've seen recently with fully-fledged female characters. I've seen some other good films too - Captain Phillips was brilliant despite not featuring a single female face after the first couple of minutes. I also very much enjoyed Thor 2, which did much better with its supporting cast this time around, although it still didn't properly invest any of the female characters with their own stories or agency. Sigh, Marvel.

The point as ever is not that you need strong women to have a good film, but merely that its equally possible to do so. This is something the movie industry is slowly waking up to, if this autumn is any indication. Hurrah!

Update: Just before I published this, I happened to see Disney's Christmas film, Frozen. It is superb, and has a fantastic handling of strong female characters. I feel it should be the subject of its own post, but suffice it to say: see this film!

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