October 31, 2013

Classic Review: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski. Based upon the novel by Ira Levin.
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin, Victoria Vetri

Rosemary's Baby is widely regarded as a classic horror film. It certainly has some clever twists and creepy elements, but it ultimately left me underwhelmed. Furthermore, while Rosemary's Baby can be seen as having pro-feminist leanings, there are elements of the film that are highly problematic when it comes to it's depiction of sexual assault.

Rosemary (Mia Farrrow) and her new husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a new apartment and soon after, start trying to conceive a baby. One night, after they were planning on having sex, Rosemary falls into a deep sleep, in which she has a sequence of disturbing dreams. When she wakes up, she finds scratches along her body, which her husband claims he did to her while he had intercourse with her while she slept. Later, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant and she starts seeing Dr. Dr. Sapirstein when Guy insists, rather than see their old family physician. When Rosemary develops a sharp pain in her abdomen that won't stop, Dr. Sapirstein dismisses her concerns. As time progresses, Rosemary becomes suspicious that she is trapped in a plot involving witchcraft and becomes increasingly desperate to escape, only to find all of her efforts thwarted.

The Queering
As I understand it, Rosemary's Baby has strongly resonated with woman over the decades due to the way it captures the typical fears and anxieties that can emanate from anyone expecting a child. Furthermore, the way Rosemary is carefully controlled by both her husband and those around her certainly mimics the way society both overtly and subtly takes control of women's bodies when they are pregnant. Rosemary finds everything, her appearance, her weight, and her diet, constantly commented on and criticized by others. Meanwhile, her pains and fears are dismissed as both crazy and further reason for her to be placed under increasing systems of control, until finally she is locked up and sedated right before she is to give birth. Therefore, once the final "twist" is revealed, that this was all the work of a group of Satanists (who had recruited her husband early on in the film), can be seen as the film taking the evil that is typically done to women (particularly pregnant woman) and making it literally real.

For a variety of reasons, I do not wish to dismiss this interpretation out of hand. However, while watching Rosemary's Baby I found myself looking at the film from a rather different lens, one that I should point out at the outset involves me having a very biased opinion of Roman Polanski, due to his conviction of sexually assaulting a thirteen year old minor and the subsequent rape apologism that spewed forth from Polanski's supporters.

What I'm getting at, is that there are elements in Rosemary's Baby that can be seen as forms of rape apologism.

I'll start with the night in which Guy drugs Rosemary so that she can be impregnated by Satan. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds scratches on her body, which Guy admits that he did to her while he was having sex with her while she was asleep. In other words, he just admitted that he raped her, which the film never really strongly condemns as being rape, at least for my tastes. Instead, we later find out that Guy drugged her so that she could be instead raped by Satan, but the film doesn't really treat this as shocking until this is revealed. As it stands, it seems almost as if the film is agreeing with the legal standards of the time that a woman cannot be raped by her husband, thanks to the spousal exemption standards that existed.

To put it another way, in either scenario, Rosemary is raped, gets pregnant, and chooses to have the child in spite of having been raped. The only element that really has changed by the end, in terms of what we the audience and the character know, is who the actual rapist was. Guy simply goes from being the sexual assailant to being an accessory to rape. The fact that the crime itself occurred does not change, but the film doesn't treat it as a crime until the end.

Furthermore, another problematic element here, with regards to Rosemary being sexually assaulted, is the "Devil Made Me Do It" element that the final plot twist evokes, which helps soften the culpability for Guy. Rather than "The Devil Made Me Do It", it's "The Devil Actually Did It". Following this line of reasoning to the end, and one must conclude that the film is evoking the idea of "Stranger Danger" by blaming the crime on the devil, while minimizing the danger that frequently comes from more domestic sources.

The other really problematic element comes from the end, where Rosemary runs around, making an increasingly number of irrational mistakes and puts herself in unnecessary danger as a result. It takes her waaaaaaay too long to realize that Dr. Sapirstein may be a part of the conspiracy against her. Given the fact he was the one prescribing the strange drink for her, he should have been suspect number one. Then there is the way she blabs her entire tale to her new doctor, including the fact that she suspects Dr. Sapirstein and others of practicing witchcraft. Honestly, there was no reason to have included that detail, all she should have said in that scene was "help me, my husband is an abusive fuck and my old doctor, Dr. Sapirstein was an enabler. I don't want them to know where I am." In all fairness, this part could be included to comment on how society conditions people to not believe woman when they are claiming to have been abused. But it undermines the point due to the fact that a doctor has every reason to believe that a person may in fact be mentally ill, especially when they claim to be the victim of a conspiracy of actual witches.

Maybe this is the result of having watched too much Buffy: The Vampire Slayer but honestly, watching a female protagonist act this foolishly is difficult and makes me think that it is set up to enable victim blaming. There were points where Rosemary showed signs of autonomy and intelligence, which makes her ultimate inability to escape from the clutches the bad guys appear to be all the more her fault.

In short, while Rosemary's Baby may in fact capture the uncertainty and difficulties of being pregnant, by minimizing the culpability of Guy in the rape of his wife and evoking the idea of victim blaming, I find myself questioning the films message and intentions.

Rosemary's Baby is only for those interested in films solely for their historical value. This is one troubled pregnancy not worth trying to save.

The Rating
** out of ****


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

October 30, 2013

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Very Confusing) Trailer Released

Alright, I've been following the news of this new X-Men movie, and I get that it has something of a more complex plot than the previous movies but... what the bleep is going on here? Am I the only one who was unable to discern the premise of the movie at all? It's kind of like, oh look it's dark! and features characters from both X-Men: First Class and The Original Trilogy! and is... uh... really, really dark!

So from what I read, this involves time travel and alternative timelines, and is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic future, and the one thing I got from the trailer is that it sounds like Wolverine is going to be sent back in time to convince past Professor Xavier of Something Really Important. For a trailer more than 2 minutes long, that's not a lot. Although, given the way movie trailers can sometimes give away every minor plot point, this may be not be a bad thing...

In any case, I'm still looking forward to it. Since this isn't one that will focus exclusively on Wolverine, the political subtext should be front and center. Therefore there should be some nice queer subtexts buried in all the running around.

In other news, I'm planning on writing up two reviews for Halloween, one classic review of Rosemary's Baby and the other on the queer subtexts in Bride of Frankenstein.

October 24, 2013

Queer Issue: Stealing the Sisterhood - The Love Affair Between TERFs and the Hollywood Patriarchy

There is an argument to be made that as a cis-gendered queer man, I am not the best person to discuss the issue that I am about to. But as a person who has watched many a queer movies, there comes a time when certain patterns become so obvious that they bear commenting on. In this particular case, the pattern involves the presentation of trans villains in Hollywood films and how this is reflected in TERF ideology.

Just in case there are people out there who are still unaware of what TERFs are: TERFs stands for Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism and lest the name does not make it entirely clear, they are an extremely transphobic bunch. The main tenants of TERFdom (as far as I can tell) revolve around the idea that trans woman are not "real" woman and are simply pretending to be such in order to obtain the awesome privilege that comes from being a transgender or transsexual individual. Furthermore there is the concept that trans woman are stealing the entire concept of feminity from "woman born woman". In her book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male TERFer Janice Raymond states that "All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves".

In the grand scheme of things, TERFs are not really doing anything radical or all that original by promoting such ideology . Rather, they are simply repeating half baked ideas that the Hollywood patriarchy has been pushing for decades.

In Hollywood stories, trans villains frequently make woman their primary target to victimize, stalk, and/or kill. Furthermore, they also take extra steps to appropriate some form of femininity from other woman, either by stealing their clothing, their identities, and in the most extreme cases, their bodies. Furthermore, the idea that these characters are not "real" woman is usually emphacized in some manor.

The most recent example of this is The Lone Ranger, in which one of the bad guys' evil minions runs around stealing womens' clothing and then runs around in said clothing, right before being written out of the story altogether.

Psycho tries to get around the charge of transphobia by having a psychologist state that the main character is suffering from multiple personality disorder, but that does not change the fact that Norman Bates has stolen his mothers' identity and runs around wearing her clothes.

Silence of the Lambs takes a serial killer sociopath and adds the shockingly mundane twist of having the serial killer sociopath also killing woman for their skins, which the character intends to wear. The character also had their gender identity undermined by Dr. Lector who described the character as not a "true" transsexual, even though the character had sought transitive surgery. This line also made me wonder if Dr. Lector had eaten the film's credibility with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective has the baddie bad guy stealing Snowflake the Dolphin along with the identity of a woman hiker who went missing. It is never actually explained in the plot whether or not the baddie bad guy actually killed the hiker or simply took advantage of the situation when she went missing, but that's not a terribly important detail. Also in this case, the character has their female identity undermined by having them take on the identity simply to commit the crime. Also, Jim Carrey's character goes out of his way to humiliate the villain by pointing out that their breast enhancement surgery could have been done "over the weekend" in addition to the disgust he shows at having "kissed a man".

The truth may have been out there in The X-Files: I want to Believe but so was the transphobia when the filmmakers "borrow" the plot of Silence of the Lambs. They even try and one up the transphobia and dramatic tension by having the evil sociopath kidnap a women so he can transplant his head onto her body. This is disappointing, as The X-Files showed that the plot of The Silence of the Lambs could be ripped off sans transphobia in the sublime first season episode "Beyond the Sea". However, it is worth noting that this is the one instance where the characters gender identity is not undermined in any manor.

I thought Dressed to Kill (starring Michael Caine as the gender transgressive killer) was going to avoid the pattern, but then a scene near the end of the Unrated Cut included a bit where the character attacks a female nurse and steals her outfit. I have no idea if this scene is in the original version or not as I did not watch that version. The character however does have their gender identity undermined by having it explained that, while they were in this case a "true" transsexual, they had a male part that tried to block the transition, which in turn lead them to becoming the killer.

One thing that I did not find as frequently in these films is the TERF idea that "trans woman shouldn't use female restrooms/lockerooms/etc. because NOT REAL WOMEN". It only shows up definitively in Psycho and it's famous shower scene. Even if the reason that Norman Bates can access the bathroom is because he is the owner of the hotel, the shower scene can still be seen as giving life to the idea that trans woman present a threat simply through wishing to use the bathroom. Dressed to Kill also features it's trans killer stalking a woman taking a shower (in a scene that is a direct rip off of homage to Psycho) before creepily seducing her. It is also made clear eventually in The X-Files: I Want to Believe that the bad guy used (or rather had his male minion use) a woman's lockerroom at a public gym to track down potential victims.

But Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and The Lone Ranger do not have the characters using their female identities/appearance to invade bathrooms, locker rooms, or any kind of woman only spaces in order to terrorize woman or for any purpose at all for that matter. Thus, if we are to look at this pattern across movies, it really just is not there, even thought I would argue that Psycho definitely represents the idea itself in it's most concrete form.

For the longest time while watching these films, I had a hard time identifying how exactly these films were transphobic. I mean, in order for a movie to demonstrate transphobia by having a transgender or transsexual killer, doesn't your killer need to actually have a transgender or transsexual individual as the killer? As it was, the characters who always ended up being the killers or baddies in these films, never matched the way I have heard transgender and transsexual people that I know talk about their lives and experiences. And I mean that in ways that have nothing to do with the fact these characters are depraved killers/criminals -- as far as I am aware, none of the transgender or transsexual people that I know have committed homicide or have extensive criminal pasts. What I mean is -- discounting drag queens who deliberately mimic celebrities -- that I do not know any transgender or transsexual people who have multiple personality disorder or stole or attempted to copy other peoples identities.

Eventually though, I started to look at these films through the lens of TERF ideology and that's when I came to realize just how negative these films are. One wonders just how long it will be before Hollywood stops promoting TERF ideology on the silver screen.

October 20, 2013

Queer Review: Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (2000)

Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale
Directors: David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Writers: David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Cast: Tobias Schneebaum

An intellectually stimulating documentary about the controversial Tobias Schneebaum which analyzes the lined between civilization and the wilderness; between the other and the not-other.

Tobias Schneebaum created a brief stir when he emerged from the Amazon wilds with tales of having eaten human flesh and made love with the males of the Arakmbut tribe. The documentary follows the modern day Tobias Schneebaum as he returns to the Amazon to revisit the places that he had once lived.

The Queering
It is difficult to know exactly where to begin in a review of Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. For starters the issue of cannibalism may be the films least interesting element. In many ways it's almost a McGuffin. We never actually see anybody eating anyone else, although the topic is broached at several points, while like any good McGuffin, the film ultimately is not about cannibalism at all, it's simply a device to drive the rest of the plot. What the filmmakers are more interested in exploring is the line that divides the civilized from the uncivilized, or if any such distinction can be made.

Of course, Tobias Schneebaum is an interesting individual in his own right. He comes across as charismatic, yet naive, open minded and without guile, but frequently takes a patronizing attitude towards the individuals and tribe that he once studied. He suggests openly the that the closeness that the Arakmbut live with nature make them superior to Western Civilization.

The thing is, his attitude is not uncommon. Our society has this weird, almost hypocritical dichotomy where the civilized world is set up as superior to the uncivilized, but the natural is thought of a superior to the unnatural. Just think about that for a little bit. But as David Wong once said in this Cracked article, "there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them."

And perhaps this is the downfall of the nature is superior line of thinking for it implies that those who live in harmony with nature live outside the realm of human laws. Yet there are no known societies/group of humans that functions without laws or methods of resolving interpersonal disputes, even non-technologically advanced societies.

For an example of this kind of thinking, watch the following video about an uncontacted (by western civilization at least) tribe in the Amazon, is described as "the last free people on earth", because you know, primitive savages lacking advanced technology are *obviously* too feeble minded to develop rules and systems of laws.

Sorry non-westerners, we Superior Beings can just know this kind of thing simply taking long distance photos of you.

Perhaps the most pertinent statement Keep the River on Your Right is made when one academics points out how weird it is for someone to walk into another persons home and start asking that person questions about their sex lives. In Western Society after all, this would generally be considered stalking and trespassing. Apparently, all rules are bendable, particularly for the rule makers.

Like any good documentarians, David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro make little effort to provide concrete answers to the questions that they are raising. Instead they document as many perspectives as the format allows and then assemble the most relevant of those into a coherent motion picture. The final result is as compelling a tale as could be made from this material.

Worth fording many a river in order to see.

The Rating
*** out of ****

Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

October 13, 2013

Queer Review: Performance (1970)

Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Donald Cammell and Anita Pallenberg
Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton, Ann Sidney, John Bindon, Johnny Shannon, Anthony Morton, Allan Cuthbertson, Stanley Meadows

Inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, this psychedelic gangster tale has a few interesting elements but is ultimately too incoherent and badly paced to be worth a full watch.

Chas (James Fox) is a gangster on the run after he becomes the target of an inexplicable hit gone wrong. He takes refuge in the home of retired musician Turner (Mick Jagger) and the their two opposing personalities cause the two to clash. Eventually though, they begin to take on each others identities. By the end, they are indistinguishable.

The Queering
When I took metaphysics back at SUNY Oneonta, I absolutely despised the material and lines of questioning the lone saving grace of the course was having to Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths. Due to the obtuseness of certain parts of the narratives, it took me a little while to warm up to his work. However, once I did, I found it to be some of the most provocative and intellectually stimulating material I had ever read.

Unfortunately, the only aspect of Borges captured by the filmmakers here is the obtuseness. "Provocative" and "stimulating" are far from the descriptors that could apply. The terms that spring to mind instead are "relatively boring" and "pretentious". There is a lot of stuff that goes on in Performance that is designed to simply not make sense. Randomness and incoherence are perhaps the best keywords to describe the philosophy of the filmmakers.

That is not to say there are not any small pleasures to be had. Mick Jagger performing a psychedelic version of "Memo from Turner" is chief among them and for reasons that have nothing to do with the stripping gangsters the scene features.

I'm including "Memo from Turner" here as it's the only scene from the film worth seeing and imagine that more than a few people out there might want to watch it without watching the whole movie. Although, thanks to the aforementioned stripping gangsters, a NSFW warning is warranted:

Speaking of Mick Jagger's performance in the film, it shows flashes of brilliance, at least outside of the scenes where he isn't too busy looking stoned. James Fox is alright I suppose. And nobody else does anything worth commenting on.

From a technical perspective, the opening scenes are the worst, with editing that jumps from scene to scene without bothering to make sense. Once things settle down after a little bit, the film becomes a little easier to understand, but by that point, the whole thing turns into a turgid mess.

Borges was a brilliant writer and elements of his philosophies and stories can be found scattered throughout. Most notably, "The Theologians", of which the ending of Performance borrows a key plot twist from. Also, the camera frequently focuses on labyrinth-esque imagery as well, which were a common motif in Borges' writings. The idea of our lives being little more than performances for outsiders, which the film relies heavily upon, can also be seen as Borgesian.

There is a certain tendency among certain groups of artists and storytellers, that I have encountered, that holds that randomness and (and thus the resulting incoherence of that randomness) are markers of original storytelling and artistic vision. This attitude can be seen most strongly in not only the filmmakers of Performance but in defenders of films like Mulloholand Drive, among others. However, it was while contemplating some of Borges works, particularly, "The Library of Babel", that a reason why this attitude is problematic occured to me.

In "The Library of Babel" Borges proposes a universe that is simply a library, in which people live, and has books that contain every possible combination of letters of a certain page length. In short, the library of Babel contains not only every possible story and nonsensical combination of letters possible. What is important to note about this, is that in the Library of Babel, that stories that are random and incoherent are going to be most common stories. In short, what I am getting at is that randomness and incoherence are not markers of originality but rather indicates that an artist or storyteller has exhausted their creative energies. Of course, I have issues with the idea that "originality" is something worth striving for to begin with, but that's an issue for another day...

Of course, I would be remiss to note that Performance does have something of a place in cinema history. The "Memo From Turner" scene would inspire the development of music videos in the eighties. Furthermore, the obviously queer gangsters that Chas starts out on the same side of, appear to have been directly inspired by The Kray Brothers organization, The Firm. John Bindon, who plays one of the gangsters, was rumored to have been an associate of The Krays. Furthermore, Performance can be seen as having influenced subsequent British gangster films, most notably those by Guy Ritchie.

Other queer elements worth commenting on include the queer subtext that develops between Chas and Turner, in addition to the instances of cross dressing.

This particular Performance is one best appreciated from a distance, if at all.

The Rating
** out of ****


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.