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Archive for the ‘Moving Pictures’ Category

Before watching Disney’s Moana (part of Disney’s more inclusive trend in animated movies) last weekend I saw a trailer for Sing, which features a variety of animals entering a singing competition. Unlike Zootopia, which used animals to explore race relations, Sing seems to use animals because it gave its relatively stale premise a twist. Even more stale is its use of a familiar racist trope. In the trailer, a family of gorillas are thieves in a gang and pressure their son (who just wants to sing) to participate.

How did nobody, from the writer to the director to the actors themselves, realize that it might be problematic to have the “gang members” who end up in jail represented by animals that have historically been used to disparage African Americans (such as Michelle Obama)? And how is it that almost nobody thinks this may be a problem (a quick Google search brings up only one relevant result)?


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A long time ago in the Milky Way galaxy, Star Wars came out and prominently featured one woman with a lot of lines and… basically no other notable women. In December, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out and prominently featured another woman with a lot of lines and… a few other women. There was a crucial difference between the prominent women in each of these movies, though. While Leia in Star Wars was undoubtedly a main character, the movie was centered on her brother, Luke, to the extent that at one point Leia is rescued by men like another princess would be (repeatedly) starting a few years later. The Force Awakens, however, undoubtedly centers on Rey.

That Rey was a major (if not the major) character was not surprising to anybody who followed the early rumors about the movie, but it might have been surprising to anybody who purchased some of the toys that came out before the movie was released. In response to her absence from a Star Wars Monopoly game, Hasbro claimed that it was intended to “avoid spoilers.” Even J. J. Abrams, the movie’s director, called her absence “preposterous,” noting sarcastically that “It doesn’t quite make sense why she wouldn’t be there. She’s somewhat important in the story.” An updated version of the game will feature Rey, but the situation also prompted some to wonder what toys for other movies would look like with their starring women removed. (Saturday Night Live‘s recent sketch about whites receiving awards in movies about blacks is also reminiscent of this.)

Why is this important? Many have praised Rey for being a feminist hero but not a “female hero,” meaning that she gets to do the same things that a male hero would do. (Not surprisingly, there have also been some complaints.) Rey is obviously important to young girls but I also like Mike Adamick’s argument that Rey is the hero that young boys need. As Adamick states, “She’s a role model for the boys in front of me — and the millions like them — who continue to grow up under a steady drip drip drip of societal sexism that says even fictionalized female heroes are unbelievable, let alone that our real life heroes shouldn’t be paid as much as their male counterparts or be in control of their own bodies.” Rey contradicts these ideas and we need more characters like her.

I should note that although Hasbro doesn’t seem to get this, at least the creators of a few commercials for Disney (the company that now owns the Star Wars franchise) and Toys ‘R Us do:

 

I guess that companies hear us most loudly when we speak up for women’s representation with our wallets.


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Late December is not only the time for grading and holidays, it is also the time to repost things that were written long ago as an alternative to writing something new when busy with grading and holidays. (Alternatively, one might also post old things by others!) In keeping with this tradition and the approach of Christmas, here are some Christmas-themed posts from the past:

2015: Life after murder for Kevin Mcallister

2015: ELF ON THE SHELF!

2015: Preferred pronouns on the shelf

2014: Christmas as social control

2013: Christmas at Fox News

2012: Kevin McCallister, murderer?

2012: Toys for rich and poor

2012: Toys for boys and girls

2012: Thoughts on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

2011: Holiday advertising gone wrong (a.k.a. the Folgers commercial)

2010: The world’s most offensive Christmas song

2009: Christmas spells relief

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook for links to holiday-themed posts a few times a year and non-holiday-themed posts the rest of the year.

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Every year while the Christian world is celebrating Christmas, Kevin McCallister has to relive the night that he murdered two home intruders. Worse than the memories is the fact that the 1990 documentary profiling these events is still aired on TV. Twenty five years later, we have been provided with a glimpse of Kevin’s life as he struggles, however unsuccessfully, to put this trauma behind him:

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links in your news feed. It is basically like Serial if Serial focused on Kevin McCallister but most episodes ignored him completely.

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Much has been written about the feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road, but in light of my recent post noting that we still expect female musical artists to be all things to all people, the importance of seeing women onscreen in a wide variety of roles cannot be overstated. Young women, old women, pregnant women, women without arms, women who kill, women who die. When there is more than one woman with a speaking part in a movie, all of these representations are possible. Unlike movies where women die in order to provide motivation for men to become heroes, in Fury Road, women die because they are fighting for themselves.

As important as the numerous women in the movie is the way that they are framed. I am referring to the literal framing of each scene in the camera. In order to allow audiences to follow the action during fast cuts, director George Miller employed the use of “center framing,” in which the main focal point is in the center of each frame. Equally important was what he perceived the main focal point to be. This post compares the focal points of trailers for Fury Road to those of San Andreas and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The latter focuses on women’s bodies while the others focus on their faces. No amount of women will make a movie “feminist” if they are just there as objects for the male gaze.

To return to the title of this post, I should note that the actual future depicted in Fury Road is terrible, but Fury Road itself shows that an action movie centered on female characters can be successful on both cinematic and financial levels if they are treated as characters rather than objects. It is true that there is more room for racial diversity in Fury Road‘s cast, but on that front at least the “bad guys” are pale white instead of dark-skinned.

Maybe the real lesson of Fury Road is that the best big-budget action directors are those who have been making movies focused on animals for the past fifteen years. (Something about staring at penguins and pigs all day must wash away the need for objectification.) Until this is true, at least we have the miracle that is Mad Max: Fury Road.

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I recently saw the movie While We’re Young, which could accurately be described as “self-absorbed assholes of every age” (nearly the entire movie is summarized in the trailer above). I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the movie but I did like the parts that mentioned sociology – specifically, C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, which is also the name of a documentary that Ben Stiller’s character is slowly working on. His descriptions of his documentary, a sprawling, eight-years-in-the making film in which he attempts to connect nearly everything also reminded me of dissertations in general. Not since Emilie De Ravin told Robert Pattinson that she doesn’t date sociology majors has sociology played such a prominent role in a movie. At least they didn’t describe Mills as a psychologist!

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I recently watched the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO, which has gotten good reviews since its premier (currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). As a child of the ’90s and fan of Nirvana, I was interested in a viewing experience that reviews promised would allow me to feel like I had gained some insight into Cobain’s life and death. Afterward, like trying to understand how people can argue that “Sliver” is a great song, I was confused.

The first thing I thought of when the movie was over was The Passion of the Christ. Like Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus’s last days, I don’t think that Montage of Heck would work for somebody who isn’t already familiar with its main character. Also like viewers of The Passion, I suspect that the positive reactions are due less to the quality of the story than to the ability to see a beloved figure’s private life. The fact that video footage of Kurt Cobain as an innocent little boy exists is amazing, but seeing it doesn’t really inform us about what happened later. As a result, my second thought was of Boyhood, which I doubt would have received as much acclaim if the exact same story were told but the adults were aged with makeup and the kids were played at different ages by different people.

Like Boyhood, Montage of Heck may be getting by on the process of its creation. That director Brett Morgen was provided unfettered access to these private materials, even if they are not flattering for those involved. Still, it would have been nice if he had provided a stronger link between those materials and the interviews in the present. When the fallout from the Vanity Fair article accusing Courtney Love of using heroin while pregnant is discussed, for example, headlines are shown stating that Cobain and Love were being investigated by Child Protective Services and that Cobain’s mother fought for custody of their daughter, Frances. Not a single interview, however, touches on whether any of these headlines were true. If they were, wouldn’t a statement from Cobain’s mother about the decision to fight her own son for the custody of his child be fairly important to the story?

The lack of these connections is problematic, but could be written off as a director not wanting to ask difficult questions of the people who are providing him with access to his most important material. The lack of another connection, though, is inexcusable. Throughout the movie it seems clear that Cobain’s passions were music and heroin, yet Morgen never addresses how one affected the other. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player who is featured heavily in the movie, never talks about whether the band was angry with Cobain about his addiction or whether they confronted him about it. He doesn’t talk about whether his creativity was increased or decreased by his drug use. The movie doesn’t even make a clear connection between Cobain’s drug use and his suicide.

In the end, I was left feeling like I didn’t understand Cobain any better than I had before. Maybe, as a Nirvana fan, I just knew most of these things from reading interviews and news stories. I suspect, though, that despite Frances Cobain’s assertion that she didn’t want the movie to focus on her father’s mythology, those who participated in interviews largely didn’t get the memo. For example, Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s mother, claims that she nearly started crying the first time she heard Nevermind, Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Not from happiness. It was fear” that “this is going to change everything. And I said ‘You’d better buckle up…because you are not ready for this'” seems a bit too convenient. Novoselic’s lack of complaint about the cancelled shows also doesn’t do much to chip away at the myth of Cobain.

We’re left, then, with a look at Cobain’s life from his perspective. (I will say, though, that I really liked the way that Cobain’s journal pages were recreated in layers.) “Read my diary,” he writes to an early girlfriend. “Look through my things and figure me out.” Morgen has looked through his things, but we’re no closer to figuring him out. Maybe the real myth about Cobain, like anybody who has committed suicide, is that we can ever understand the reasons.

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