and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Hours (2013) – a film in which Paul Walker must hand crank a battery recharger every 3 minutes or less for several days in order to keep his prematurely-born daughter alive in a ventilator while Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath rage outside the deserted hospital – is the bit when Vin Diesel, sporting a prosthetic nose that makes him look like Nicole Kidman, rocks up in an old Detroit muscle car fitted out as a hovercraft to drop off James Franco, who races into the hospital to save father and infant by gnawing off his own arm, though I confess my eyelids did get a little heavy about seventy-five minutes into the movie and so I can’t swear this is exactly how it ended…
in which the author finds himself attempting self-reflection, which is not, as you know, his strong suit…
It contains a whole bunch of things I think are problematic.
First, and probably least relevant here, is the great, and mostly American, tradition of demonising Mormons – I have always found Orson Scott Card hateful and tedious, and am familiar with the many criticisms of the Twilight books and movies (without reading or seeing them), but blaming all that is wrong about them on a religion is just lazy thinking. I am no fan of religion, organised or otherwise, but at least I understand that religions are complex shifting phenomena, and that people have complex shifting relationships with their religions.
Second, the equation of negative criticism of the film with sexism and transphobia. I have no doubt that transphobia does play a role in the treatment of Lana Wachowski – bootleggirl seems to have specific examples in mind, my only evidence is that we live in a much-too-often really shitty world full of loudmouths and assholes. And I will return to the question of sexism in a while. But I am not certain that recognising these factors makes the film any more coherent. (And there is the question of what is meant by incoherence. It is not as if the narrative is hard to follow; it is, after all, a pretty linear, one-damn-thing-after-another action-adventure. It is more that the thinness of the characters and the compression of what was presumably a three-hour cut makes motivations unclear/unconvincing and reduces the story-world to a series of flat and largely indistinguishable backdrops. The lack of chemistry between the leads also does not help make any of it seem to make sense.)
Third, the array of assumptions made about Lana Wachowski. Although, on the other hand, I think bootleggirl does a good job of demonstrating how adopting a trans perspective can change our understanding of the film. Suddenly, the sequence in which a camp robot leads Jupiter and Caine through the labyrinthine bureaucracy necessary for Jupiter to be declared queen becomes something else. It is no longer a misjudged and tiresome homage to Terry Gilliam (himself as frequently tiresome as he is misjudged) into a wry representation of the difficulties faced by trans people in gender-binaried and gender-binarising bureaucracies.
But there are a couple of important things in bootleggirl’s piece, both of which brings us to sexism in the response to Jupiter Ascending.
The first is bootleggirl’s attempted regenrification of the movie away from its marketing image. It is not a space opera for boys, like Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn 2014). It is about ‘space angel werewolf boyfriends’ with antigravity rollerskates, and thus obviously
a member of the female-targeted romantic fantasy genre – stuff like City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, and yes, Twilight.
I’ve seen none of the movies bootleggirl gives as examples, and I am way more True Blood than Twilight (at least until the fairies showed up), though admittedly not someone who could ever really understand the appeal of Bill or Alcide, especially not with Eric around.
But this makes me curious about the extent to which the film’s delayed release was also about cutting it, post-Guardians, in an attempt to ‘normalise’ its gender appeal (i.e., make it play more to the boys, albeit not very successfully). The female friend I saw it with, who enjoyed Guardians more than I did, also enjoyed Jupiter Ascending more than I did. But then afterwards was slightly appalled at herself for being swept along by the romance narrative.
Jupiter Ascending reminded me of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) not just in terms of similar story elements, but also in my response to it. It is a novel I liked well enough, but not sufficiently to read the rest of the trilogy or to understand why it got all those award nominations. It was all a bit too bodice-rippery for me. (The same friend read my copy in a single sitting and immediately tracked down the sequels; and looked at me like I was mad when I first made the comparison.)
Bootleggirl is very clear on this point: Jupiter Ascending is ‘a female fantasy. It’s not anti-feminist.’ Again with the problems. Female fantasies are not monolithic. The ones in this film are not shared by all – or even most? – women. Just because it is a female fantasy it does not necessarily follow that it is not also anti-feminist. Not all women are feminists. Feminism is not monolithic. Neither is anti-feminism. Both take many forms.
But I am reminded of a point made by Anne Bilson about the Twilight movies
it seems to me that Twilight attracts a lot more vitriol than any other nonsense aimed at the young male demographic. … reviews of such boy-tosh may be predominantly negative, but the tone is not so much derisive as regretful at opportunities wasted. No matter that movies aimed at boys feature superpowers or super-robots or saving the world with super-ninja skills. Those sorts of fantasies are permissible, almost cool, even when the films peddling them are awful. … But Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I’m not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does – not in a young adult fantasy genre that invariably reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves get on with their questing.
Angie Han makes some similar and related points in her ‘Partial Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey’.
I’m not sure, but these approaches seem to me to be one way to deal with the sexism in such high-profile female-centred, female-created and/or female-targeted movies: try better to understand their appeal to often largely female audiences; try to leverage any analysis, complaints or critiques into the broader problem of the everyday and widely tolerated sexism of most cinema (not just content, but distribution, exhibition, reception). And we need to question and challenge the boy-tosh in similar ways
Which brings us to the second thing in bootleggirl’s post that set me pondering:
do not critique this movie by bringing up whether Jupiter is empowered. I’ve spent substantial time on another forum where largely male folks compared Jupiter unfavorably as a heroine to Princess Leia in Star Wars episodes IV and V. Even leaving out the metal bikini scene, Leia gets upstaged as the “leader of the Rebellion” as soon as Luke shows up, and like Jupiter, her exercise of power is primarily in conventionally feminine ways like giving orders or resisting pressure techniques, rather than shooting guns. Yes, Leia is slightly better at hand to hand combat than Jupiter, who has space werewolf fallen angel boyfriend to protect her. … I find this critique especially galling from people who loved Guardians of the Galaxy, the film that notorious feminist Joss Whedon was involved in producing where the female characters are good at fighting but also completely reduced to sex objects for men.
To be frank, I am always mystified by this widespread reading of Leia, who rapidly goes from feisty to uppity to domesticated over the course of the three movies. Her story arc is one of humiliation, of a woman being put in her place. Regardless of what she does, that is how the films treat her. And let’s not forget, her supposed feminist credentials in the first movie are at least as much about the exercise of class privilege and whiteness. But it does seem de rigueur to genuflect before Leia, or at least before this presumably male fan perception of her. ( In class last autumn, I mentioned Guardians‘ undermining of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) by the way the camera repeatedly leers at her arse. Male students, presumably intentionally catered to by such shots, genuinely seemed not to have even noticed them; but a lone female student did speak up, saying that was the only reason she enjoyed the film. Which made the ensuing discussion a lot livelier than it might otherwise have been.)
Because when male fans are the ones judging the supposedly feminist credentials of female characters we could well be in serious trouble. Especially when the feminism invoked is so one-dimensional and non-specific as ’empowerment’ – a term that always was pretty vague and has become utterly devoid of actual meaning.
It puts feminism(s) in the past, and treats the social realm as an even playing field in which magically empowered individuals swim while others sink and have no one to blame but themselves. Whatever its uses in the past, ’empowerment’ is now mostly a lickspittle, running dog discourse that leaves patriarchy and neoliberalism untroubled, and the action heroine ceases to be a feminist icon (however problematic) and instead become just another masculine fetish item.
Which is not to say that feminists and other women cannot make important use of them. But when they become such toys for boys to fight over, they also become a way of avoiding feminism(s) entirely.
(Trust me: I’m a boy, we pull this kind of shit all the time.)
Admittedly, the gypsies are actually some kind of energy-vampires, who traverse the US in the guise of middle-aged people in RVs. And they don’t merely abduct the infants, but slowly torture them to death to release more of whatever kind of energy it is they chow down on. And one of the infants in their sights is a girl in her teens who can shine way more powerfully than anyone else. And she knows Danny Torrance, who has grown up to become, like his father, an alcoholic, but is in Alcoholics Anonymous and sober for most of the book.
But mainly it is about gypsies abducting children. I shit you not.
Despite being a sequel to The Shining, it mostly isn’t. It shares Danny and one location and some references to Hallorann and Wendy (in whom King still cannot muster any interest) and inserts them into a mildly and differently fantastical version of the contemporary US. It is smoothly competent – the riff on Jerome Bixby’s ‘It’s a Good Life’ (1953) is nicely done, but the allusion to The Silence of the Lambs sits there for no reason like a lump in your pablum – but it is hardly gripping, suspenseful or scary. It is like bathing in a cup of tea the way my mum makes it.
King’s semi-autobiographical account of Danny’s experience of AA, of its practices and processes, suggests a strong resonance with neoliberal culture’s emphasis on getting the individual to surveil and manage him/herself, to hope for little more than surviving daily, to self-scrutinise, to locate responsibility within the self – anything rather than fix the society that produces alcoholism. But this is thin stuff, too.
Not everyone agrees. For example, Margaret Atwood says that ‘by the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves’.
Presumably because gypsies stole the tops of them.
PS My other Shining-related posts can be found here, here, here and here. (And boy am I kicking myself for forgetting when writing about Room 237 that Yanis Varoufakis’ book is called The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy.)
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Made in Dagenham is not the fact that the film repeatedly has to cgi British industry into the background because there is so little of it actually left (and the destruction of working class lives and communities represented by those weightless images is horrifyingly sad, unlike this tale of plucky proletarian feminists bringing Ford to it knees) but the quiet way in which Bob Hoskins, what a lovely chap, sort of invents second-wave liberal feminism when none of the women are looking…
It is difficult to know what to say about The Shining, especially as so much has already been said, some of it of dubious merit.
It is a film I never used to like much, although I always admired its soundtrack and steadicam (Kubrick is so very effective when tracking-in that you can forgive him for his lesser parallel tracking, but, to be fair, Jean-Luc Godard’s not as good at the former as he is at the latter). And I have always been a little taken by the simple tricks Kubrick deploys – an omission here, an ambiguity there, and what Michel Chion describes as his ‘commutative editing’ – to make his films seem enigmatic and profound.
This time round, the film grew on me. I have no idea if this is because I finally watched the 25 minute longer US cut (although some months ago Roger Luckhurst predicted such an outcome, and I learned a long time ago he is usually right about stuff). I was struck very forcefully this time round by the visual and aural resonances with 2001 – and partway through the job interview scene, I stopped hearing the dialogue as being badly-delivered and started hearing it as a development of the earlier film’s depiction of linguistic thinning and debasement. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) channels the performance of sincerity and the platitudinous corporate drone of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and everyone sounds like they are delivering lines because that is what so much of human identity and interaction consists of – performativity.
When I recently read King’s novel, I posted about its proleptic depiction of precarious, disciplined neo-liberal labour. This is developed in Kubrick’s film. The Overlook itself, despite it age, resembles one of the non-places of hypermodernity described by Marc Augé: those spaces that are the opposite of utopia because they exist and do not contain any organic society. For all the historical markers we see on display – from those big cans of kosher dill pickles in a hotel that would once have been restricted, to the Native American designs and images on the walls, to the very 1970s purple penis carpet – it is oddly dehistoricised. It is a space that might even confound Steve Buscemi’s CHET! in its obscure blurring of ‘trans’ and ‘res’. The Torrance family, that signifier of a private realm outside the world of work and exchange, that gesture towards organic society, is destroyed by the relentless demands of the Overlook, which is only concerned with Jack as labour-power.
The Shining shows the coming proletarianisation of the American middle class, or perhaps merely charts the delusion of social mobility at the core of the American Dream. This is Jack – the terrorised and terrorising, self-surveilling, self-disciplining and other-discipling sadomasochistic subject of a monstrous power. Just the way capital likes it.
This is easily the most fun and interesting, and least time-consuming, of the various associated texts I’m working through in preparation for teaching The Shining as a cult movie (King’s novel, the miniseries, and Doctor Sleep, which should be done soon). It is a documentary in which five people explain what they think the film is really about: the Native American genocide; the Holocaust; Kubrick’s faking of the Moon landing film; the legend of the minotaur; and the dark violent sexual nature of human beings. (The latter two are the sketchiest, so it is hard to be certain what their central claims are, or if they actually have central claims – and I am sure I must have missed something about the last one since that’s hardly unusual material for a horror movie.)
Students anxious about analysing films often frame their suggestions with a nervous ‘I’m probably reading too much into it, but…’, while also seeming to assume that the process of analysing a film is to dig down and find a secret hidden meaning. Their development as critics usually involves learning to think differently about the nature of texts and the processes by which meanings are made. Meanings aren’t hidden deep within, like pirate treasure, but are the product of engaging with the details of the film in relation to various contexts. There is no ‘reading into’, there is just ‘reading’, because all the information is there on the surface to see and hear.
However, on listening to the (admittedly fragmented) presentation of Room 237’s five featured exegeses, I began to think that maybe I was wrong – that maybe there is such a thing as ‘reading into’ a text.
But that is a little unfair.
Room 237 gives us a fascinating if largely unwitting exploration of textual heuristics, epistemological limits and the uneven distribution of cultural capital.
Take, for example, Juli Kearns’ claim that the image of a skier on a poster is actually the silhouette of a minotaur. It does not look like one to me, but when she explained what she sees I understood what she meant. It is more convincing than someone else’s claim that the clouds in the opening titles contain an image of Kubrick, but it is still utterly unconvincing. The disproportionate bull-like upper torso is very obviously a hunched figure in a bulky ski jacket.
But perhaps she does not mean it is actually a picture of a minotaur, merely that it was deliberately chosen because it resembled one.
On the opposite side of the doorway, she notes, is a picture of a cowboy on horseback. A centaur, you might think, but no. Her point is that it is a mirror image: a cowboy opposite a bull-man. And it seems that it was only after noticing this ‘picture of a minotaur’ that she began to notice all the labyrinth imagery in the film: the maze, the model of the maze, the corridors and sometimes contradictory layout of the Overlook. What remains not just unclear but downright mystifying is why she needs to build her argument on a questionable interpretation of the skier poster rather than on, say, the film’s obvious and undeniabe labyrinths – and why she never seems to ask why Kubrick organised his version of the story around mazes, corridors and horizontality.
Part of the answer to the constricted nature of these five interpretations lies in the suggestion made by one of the exegetes that Kubrick was a bored genius who he decided to fill The Shining with puzzles and/or clues. A disappearing chair, the disappearing Dopey sticker, a mid-sequence costume change, an apparent reversal of the pattern in the carpet, all of which can be explained as continuity errors, are suddenly transformed into acts of conscious intent. Which enables you to continue believing in Kubrick as a genius who controlled absolutely everything that appears in his films. Which in turn separates from the dull herd those viewers who can pieces together his clues. Which brings the elect into the sacred presence of the author-genius, who slays ambiguity, guarantees meaning and dispenses certainty.
However, the whole proposition that this is what a genius would choose to do suggests a poor understanding of genius, and of creative endeavour. Kubrick ceases to be a person and becomes like that magical autistic guy in Cube (1997), able to do really hard maths without any of the visible effort the female character must put into calculating primes and primes of primes. Kubrick becomes a black box, a monolith, and only some primates get uplifted. Understanding how texts generate meanings is transformed into a paranoid-autistic hermeneutics, like in The Da Vinci Code, with one true meaning to be unearthed. Or, as Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) says to Danny (Danny Lloyd), this is ‘not [about] things that anyone can notice but things that people that can shine can see’.
Like when one of the exegetes argues that the recurrence of the number 42, the fact that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) uses a German-made typewriter and the graphic match evident in the dissolve from a pile of luggage to a group of guests is more than enough to prove the film is about the Holocaust.
The paranoid aspect of this spills out beyond the film when the NASA conspiracy guy claims that he is under state surveillance and that he fully expects an IRS audit next year. (Intriguingly, he insists that the Moon-landing itself was not faked, just the Moon-landing footage, but he never explains why NASA would do this – although he does dismiss someone else’s claim that it was to keep us from seeing the towering alien city in the Sea of Tranquillity.)
While watching Room 237, I could not resist constructing my own version of its real secret meaning which is also clearly bullshit. The exegete who sees the film as being about the genocide of Native Americans makes much of the prominence afforded to cans of Calumet baking powder. However, he completely misses the genuinely prominent placing of packets of Oreos – next to Jack when he wakes up on the sacks of salt, and then on the extreme left of this shot, clearly mis-shelved behind Jack and the baking powder cans (misdirection!). ‘Oreo’ is slang for a middle class African American, who might look black on the outside but is really white on the inside. Such conservative figures, who align themselves with white culture, function to conceal the supposed threat to white hegemony – especially white masculinity – posed by African Americans.
The same exegete notes that the five o’clock shadow of Bill Watson (Barry Dennen) makes him look mixed race, but quite ludicrously suggests that this aligns him with the native American, when clearly his major domo status – which includes walking behind hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), being expected to sit quietly to one side, and being ordered to perform menial tasks – positions him as an African American servant, like the butlers played by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
But the task of looking after Danny, The Shining‘s Shirley Temple equivalent, is displaced on to Hallorann. Significantly, it is only after Danny – who, like Hallorann and Hallorann’s grandmother can, ‘shine’ – states his preference for ‘chocolate’ ice cream that Hallorann calls him ‘son’. No wonder Grady, in the red bathroom, warns Jack about this ‘nigger’ interloper, coming to replace him as Danny’s ‘real’ father. (And since ‘the shining’ seems to skip a generation, Hallorann is simultaneously positioned as Danny’s grandfather – that is, Jack’s father.) No wonder Kubrick replaces Jack’s light-coloured typewriter, a symbol of paternal authority and of entry into the Lacanian symbolic order, with a darker model partway through the film…
This is – of course – not remotely what the film is about. And I really hope no-one takes it seriously, but y’know how the internet is…
and in non-Harvey-Nicholls-related news