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Category: film

Wonder Women and Fearless Girls

It’s turning me into a shrew. All around me there are women going crazy for Wonder Woman and I don’t get it. I’m out of it, again, when I wish I could celebrate too.

wonder woman image
courtesy of

I had my suspicions before I even saw the film on Sunday for Father’s Day. The word of mouth was so excited (“I heard it was so good!”), even though it seemed like just another action flick. And then it started breaking box office records and everyone was over the moon: “see! a woman director and a female superhero can make money too!” When the high-brow reviews were also enthusiastic I started wondering if the film were that rare cultural phenomenon that arrives in a moment when it can’t be touched…. The zeitgeist just gives some things a pass. This must be one of them.

Because it’s not that great. It looks okay. The acting is good, though Chris Pine is a baffling romantic lead. He’s got some comic timing and good looks, but he’s not charismatic. The story and screenplay are downright bad: predictable and heavy-handed, filled with stereotypical bad guys and side kicks. Admittedly, Gal Gadot is as good as she can be. She’s wonderful at fresh, wide-eyed puzzlement. I kept wondering where I’d seen that particular facial expression until I realized it was on Geena Davis’s Thelma. She too sold a certain naivete that was based on inexperience, not stupidity. But a little more worldliness might come in handy in a superhero.

Which is what makes me so cranky. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is strong in battle, fierce in her defense of the helpless, and unyielding in her pursuit of peace even though she’s still burdened with all the traditional expectations of femininity: niceness, beauty, innocence, and a kind of blandness that is incapable of offending anyone. Even her mild forms of disobedience — sneaking off to train before her mother lets her or escaping with Chris Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor to end the war to end all wars — feel like a predetermined part of her “heroine’s journey,” not an assertion of any kind of will of her own. The heroine’s story, however, must include love so even Wonder Woman gets an understated hetero romance, which becomes the frame for her character’s growth.

Two particular scenes demonstrate the film’s ambivalent message about women. In one, we see the status of women in Edwardian England through Diana’s clear eyes as a foreign (almost alien) visitor. It’s not just the corsets that are and are not “armor” but her very presence in a governing chamber that is shown to be absurdly shocking and disruptive. That’s great visual storytelling — as is its opposite scene, when Wonder Woman bolts out of the trenches and crosses the barren No Man’s Land (ha!) to lead the Allies to an unexpected victory. Here again she’s fresh and energizing: where there was a stalemate, a settling into (literal) ruts, she brings change and vigor, swatting away bullets with a flick of her wrists and catapulting into the air.

women on Wall Street
The Fearless Girl on Wall Street

Shouldn’t this be good enough? Maybe. A similarly ambiguous story played out recently on Wall Street in the Fearless Girl statue that now faces down the Charging Bull on lower Broadway. Sculpted in bronze by Kristen Visbal, the statue was installed on International Women’s Day in February by State Street Global Advisors as a publicity campaign to promote women in finance. Since then it has been an enormous success: tourists flock to take selfies with the spunky girl and one article estimated it had generated over $7 million dollars in social media and advertising for the firm. While many viewers read her as a diminutive symbol of female empowerment, others have balked at this young girl as the face of feminism. Yes, she stands her ground against a wild animal but she’s a child. While Charging Bull‘s artist Arturo DiModica protests that his bull was never meant to represent masculinity, a State Street Global representative insists coyly that the Fearless Girl “wasn’t intended to be confrontational.” This is exactly the kind of hedging one’s bets that happens in Wonder Woman too. Apparently we love girls and princesses who assert themselves, as long as they only do so in art. As one Salon writer argued about Fearless Girl, the real problem is “treating girl power as a suitable stand in for actual feminism.”

Why am I surprised? You can’t get more mainstream than Hollywood and Wall Street. But the popular response to both works has been so over the top that it’s an unsettling reminder of how low expectations have fallen. Is it too much to relate this to the crushing disappointment of Hillary Clinton’s loss at the polls? Why wouldn’t we rather celebrate these ambivalent fictional heroines than wrestle with the misogyny that real women face in our real world all the time? Wonder Woman begins and ends with a working woman in her office, but the setting has been idealized: no coworkers, no bosses, no partners to negotiate power with. Last week someone temporarily turned The Fearless Girl statue into a Wonder Woman — and all she needed was a tiara.

Playing the Orchestra

I saw the new Danny Boyle film at a screening this week. I’m not sure which was more impressive — the film or the Q&A afterwards…. Boyle was there with the film’s editor Elliot Graham and the composer Daniel PembertoMV5BMjE0NTA2MTEwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4NzU2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_n and they talked about their collaborative process in interweaving the three parts of the film. What I loved most about the film was its construction. I’ve admired the beauty and intelligence of Boyle’s films in the past– across a range of genres– but this one impressed most with its structure.

Organized in three parts around three product launches, the film has three different aesthetics that Boyle described in the Q&A. The first section takes place in 1984 at the Macintosh launch and it’s filmed in 16mm that gives it a home-video feel. The second takes place in a San Francisco opera theater in 1988 for the product launch of NEXT and it’s shot in 35 mm with a sharp, documentary focus and a roving handheld camera. The last section takes place at the 1998 product launch for the iMac and it’s shot on digital video, which Doyle pointed out later was a sort of gesture toward Jobs’ technological innovations in the Pixar-produced Toy Story in 1995. Boyle explicitly described this three-act composition in the Q&A as a theatrical metaphor and it works very well to focus what could otherwise be a sprawling narrative or a dull chronological biopic. Boyle then knits the pieces together through a small cast of characters with a few ongoing conflicts– like the ones between Jobs and Wozniak or between Steve and his daughter. This structure gives the film both a sort of universal human story as well as a specific reality in one man’s life.

Jobs, of course, was notoriously difficult and Boyle and the actor Michael Fassbender don’t shirk from his negative side, though the film will certainly be critiqued as a romanticized view because of its warm and fuzzy ending. Specifically, the film emphasizes Jobs’ inability to give credit to colleagues, or even to acknowledge other people (including his daughter). This becomes a sort of megalomania: he’s the god-like creator who sits above it all but doesn’t do any of the actual work. In Aaron Sorkin’s script Jobs describes himself as a conductor, who “plays the orchestra” instead of being a virtuoso musician. Yet throughout the film I imagined asking Boyle during the Q&A how he felt about the obvious parallel between directing a film and running a visionary company like Apple, between him and Jobs. I didn’t have to ask, though, because during the conversation he brought it up himself, admitting that he had none of the actual skills of his editors or composers or actors, but only the ability to recognize and synthesize those skills. It was a remarkable acknowledgment, that revealed both how close Boyle was to Jobs and how very far away. Sitting there at his own “product launch” with three colleagues talking about collaboration was yet another ending to a remarkable film.

Hit Me

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) seems seamless. It’s special gift is its amazing wholeness — how performances and writing and directing all work together without any one overshadowing the others.  Seeing it again was to notice slow, small moments tidily encapsulated in a film about rage.  The short moment where Jake La Motta (played by Robert DeNiro) watches Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty) splashing her legs at the public pool.  The long moment when Jake finally approaches the ring for his championship fight and the crowd noise gets louder and louder and louder….

Watch Jake’s brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, in the slow-building scene above: his brow creases and he shifts in his chair as he gives in to Jake’s bullying…. In many ways it’s a quiet scene, with just the two faces and no fancy camera shots, but it is portentous as Jake will continually ask for punishment from those around him and then lash out at them for giving it.  The black and white cinematography helps us focus on the interpersonal here — there is nothing on the wall behind Jake until they stand up, nothing else to look at but these brothers fighting as they have and will. The radio plays on.

“What does it prove?” Joey asks a good question, and we can’t answer it yet at that point in the film. The scene is all suggestion — that fighting begins at home (notice the woman, Jake’s wife, with whom he has already fought, peeking through the door?) and that Jake’s inability to divide public and private, fighting and family will escalate the suffering around him. The film is best known for its operatic violence, its spraying blood and pulpy faces, but these quieter bits are just as impressive.

Truly Free


In the clip above from Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Werner Herzog narrates the lives of Russian trappers in the remote wilderness on the edge of Siberia.  His inimitable grave voice battles the sentimental soundtrack as Herzog tells us that these men, who spend months each year alone with their dogs, are self sufficient and thus “truly free.” The documentary, directed by Herzog with Dmitry Vasyukov, is wonderful — beautifully photographed and obsessed as only Herzog can be with the details of the trappers’ lives: sculpting canoes, hauling gear through treacherous waters, protecting food from bears, making their own skis….  The men are impressive craftsmen, and they can make whatever they need from the materials at hand. Living in a land only accessible by boat or helicopter for a few months a year, they have snowmobiles and television sets, but rely on food they grow or catch.

It’s no surprise that Herzog would romanticize this life as he has always been interested in the relationship of man and nature, especially in extremis. This film has the usual omissions: the men spend more time talking about training their dogs than raising their children, for example. Women are scarcely mentioned, nor are the ethics of the fur trade, tensions with indigenous peoples, or environmental concerns. But Herzog’s narration is more understated than in Grizzly Man, for example, where he makes more claims about Human Nature as well as Nature and Civilization. Here he only once or twice refers to his claim that the trappers are “happy people” because they live simple, self-sufficient lives….To his credit, Herzog doesn’t spend a lot of time defending that position. Instead he dramatizes the daily lives of the trappers across the seasons, showing us their enthusiasm for their work as the best proof possible. One trapper hardly stops smiling, even when a fallen tree caves in the roof of his hut. They may be happy, but these men are always one small step from disaster, it seems — which makes the film much more complicated and rewarding than the title might imply.

Can You See the Real Me?

There was so much to like about American Hustle (2013)!  The performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence were all strong in subtle ways. The story by Eric Singer and David O. Russell–about an improvised sting operation run by a rogue FBI agent with two ex-cons– was terrific. And David O. Russell’s direction was assured and well paced. The clip below shows his mastery of visual storytelling as it gradually reveals the couple’s relationship and the film’s theme of pretending. The screenplay continually questions what or who is “real” and in this strange but moving dress-up scene we paradoxically see this couple as themselves– falling in love in a dry cleaner’s store as the plastic-wrapped clothes encircle them in a world of their own.

Yet as a whole the movie didn’t cohere for me. I wasn’t sure where this messy engaging story was going, which was part of the point of the twists and turns of the plot. But what was the main focus or idea of the film? Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) learning how to be real with themselves and each other? The conflicts that occur when one person’s reality clashes with another’s?  The failures that spring from good intentions? There are lots of ideas played out here, but no clear focus to the whole–which is a shame because the parts are so good.