My Superbowl: The Academy Awards & Me, 2012

I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t see everything this year. I didn’t even come close. In fact, I saw more things that were made in years before this year than in this current one. I went to the Film Noir Festival and the TCM Film Festival (which you can read all about here and here). I did the Reel Grit Six Shooter up at AFI, various stuff at the Cinefamily and a grip of stuff at the New Beverly, not to mention the Egyptian.

IT’S BEEN A GREAT YEAR FOR CINEMA. Just not necessarily new stuff.

Truthfully, if you wanna read that list, hop on over to the illustrious and welcoming Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where he has been gracious enough to provide a space for me to babble on about my favorite films that I watched this year that did not come out this year.

However, since I stayed up WAY TOO LATE last night to be utterly disappointed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their idiotic and exasperatingly schizophrenic choices of what are apparently the “best films made in 2012” and their acting milieu, I think I need to post my list too.

My friend Ricky says that his choices are always right and the best. My friend Ricky is an egotist.

I will only go so far as to say that these are the films, actors and theatrical engineers that I enjoyed full-throttle. The individuals that gave me ear-gasms, eye-gasms and brain-gasms. ME, not anyone else. While I would argue vehemently for the inherent quality of any (and indeed all of these films) I believe quite deeply that everyone is entitled to have a differing opinion when it comes to the cinema. If we did not, damn, life would be boring. While I heavily believe that the Academy made gigantic errors in their picks this year for “bests,” I am always more than happy to have healthy debates and discussions on any films as long as they stay respectful of other people’s opinions.

It may seem hypocritical for me to state that I think that the Academy is just flat-out WRONG in one sentence and then happily move forward to chat about being able to agree to disagree on filmic opinion in another, but I believe them to be different arenas. Being that I am in training to become a film archivist, the Academy bears a certain responsibility and it has dropped the ball in the last few years…big time.  While we sit here, fully aware of the changes taking place in our cinematic landscape (35mm to digital, 3D and VFX technologies, etc) there is a large responsibility to history that the Academy bears and I don’t think that they know quite  how to handle it at this juncture in time.

See, this historic responsibility is bisected, with one arm towards the Industry Professionals and the other towards the outside public. What I see here and now is an inability to balance the two, and it’s difficult for them and for us. It is difficult for them because the Business  is their “meat and potatoes” but the PUBLIC is their “bread and butter.” So how do we set this table properly? Everyone needs to stay pleased, everyone needs their money. So how do we maintain a decent set of nominations? It’s not like there weren’t good movies this year. Lord knows, there were great ones. But I really feel like a good chunk of the things that were stuck up on the screen for the year were there to pacify people, to make people happy, and not for representative means.

The Academy Awards are actually important. No one seems to think so. They laugh them off, get screeners, free films, whatever. Sure. At least they do around here. I know how that is. I live in Hollywood. For heaven’s sake, I spent an entire summer archiving all the screener VHS tapes we had gotten from the Academy as a “summer project.” My mom needed to give me something to do. I ended up watching Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) that way. I might’ve been a bit too young to watch it at that point, but y’know…

In any case, I think it’s odd that people don’t think voting on cultural history is important. Yes, Virginia, that Footloose LP that I got as a kid from the Academy IS cultural history, dammit. So what do we have this year? We have some good stuff and some not so good stuff. Some things that people like and some stuff that I think people think they should like. Some things that I find remarkably offensive and in poor taste and some things that are probably pretty decent but speak to how starved most people are for the kinds of films that used to fulfill people’s entertainment “hole” on a regular basis and make them happy in an unspeakably pure and lovely way.

The Academy was created to house things as the best films of the year. The ultimate examples of filmmaking. Even the nominations should be that way. And these nominations are not that. It is disappointing to say the least. I like my moving image history satisfying. So, on that note, I’m going to give you my favorite films and performances of the year.

Here they are:

Favorite Animation:

OK, so on this one, I totally agree with the Academy’s nomination and I hope this baby wins. I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed this more if I’d tried. Unless I’d gone to see it…5 or 6 more times. I wish I had. I really really loved this movie and I really really want to own it. If you love Sergio Leone and you have even a smidgen of a sense of humor, I believe you will love this. If not, you might have no soul. I would check.

Favorite Supporting Male Performances:

Patton Oswalt in YOUNG ADULT. While the film had a few problems, I liked it over-all, and HIS performance put me over the moon. It's not just because I like him either. He's a DAMN fine actor and this is the BEST he has EVER EVER been and I simply adored BIG FAN (2009)

Since I saw the announcements this morning, a record has been on repeat in my head: ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED.ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED. *This* snub makes me more unhappy than any of the others. His performance here created the term "Oscar-worthy."

"Nick Nolte. Warrior. Um, I love this film to bits If you wanna know how I really feel, check out the piece I wrote all about it, which was right before this. I REALLY loved this film. Even more than that, Nolte's performance was the best he has given in years. Multi-faceted and just gutting, it was an amazing feat of acting. I bawled and would do so again.

Favorite Lead Male Performances:

John Boyega, ATTACK THE BLOCK

Tom Hardy, WARRIOR

Gary Oldman, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Favorite Female Performances:  It’s been a rough year for the ladies. All the female performances I liked were…second fiddle and not there for very long. Not that this is a new trend (it’s not) but where are the juicy roles for women? I know there were films out there that people argued were very good for women, but those same films, while they were “good for women” also set them back quite a bit. My mom said that Meryl Streep was good in The Iron Lady. I didn’t see it. At this point, I’m going to give my favorite performances to one film I have seen (and adored), one film I haven’t seen but love the actress and trust other people’s judgement, and one that I am seeing next week and will probably absolutely LOVE TO BITS. I wouldn’t usually think it was ethical to pre-favorite a film performance, but with the paucity of chunky, decent female performances this year, I’m going to do it anyway.

I loved this film and I loved Ellen Page in it. SUPER was an uncomfortable and realistic film with gritty, gutsy goodness that I just ate up hungrily. She gave a fantastic show and I REALLY loved her.

I love Tilda. I need Tilda. My life would not be the SAME without Tilda. I have not seen this film but somehow I KNOW she was exquisite. I have neverevernever seen her do wrong. I believe in her. We Need to Talk About Kevin is is a film I desperately Need To See.

I finally get to see MARGARET this upcoming weekend. I bite my thumb at the powers that be who refused to let this film be released and sat on it for so long. It totlally looks like my kind of film. And Anna Paquin looks like she gives a hellova performance. If she doesn't, well, I'm wrong. But I've seen the trailer, chatted with people about it, and I know my taste. I think her placement here will be justified.

Favorite Music/Score: 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy— Alberto Iglesias

Attack The Block–Basement Jaxx

Drive–Cliff Martinez

FAVORITE FILMS:

I saw this 5 times theatrically and then more times than I can count via a screener. I also spend most of my time listening to the soundtrack obsessively. This film has most assuredly taken over a good chunk of my existence, as most Winding-Refn films do. No shocker there!

Saw this in the theater 4 times, I think. Would love to have seen it 4 more times. More movies like ATTACK THE BLOCK, I say!

I love you Takashi Miike. This movie blew my brain so far outta my head I had to pick the bits of my skull off of the wall of the theater. I simply love this movie more than words can describe. It is intellectual, visceral, VISUAL. So great! What a cinematic triumph. MORE!!

It seems like I'm really obsessed with this film, but I actually just really liked it. It is one of the better films, but I'm not as obsessed with it as I am, say, with DRIVE or ATTACK THE BLOCK. However, it fascinates me as it delves into intellectual areas that I *am* obsessed with AND it's an incredibly well-shot and well-acted film.

The minute I read the book, I loved it. The instant I heard it was being turned into a film by Scorsese, I went insane because I knew it was going to be FABULOUS and it was. Simply FABULOUS. I cried the ENTIRE way through it because I loved it so very very much and it was such a gift to my eyes

Saw this twice. First time in ages a film has made me excited to read the book it came from because the story was *that* great and I knew that the book would contain just as much depth! Saw it twice in the theater, thought it would lose something the second time but I was desperately mistaken. The sign of a great film is that it retains its greatness as well as gaining more with each separate viewing. This has those qualities.

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Kicking Ass and Taking Names: Violent Females and Comic Book Film Adaptations

Chloe Moretz as superheroine Hit-Girl in the recent Matthew Vaughn film of Mark Millar's comic book, Kick-Ass

For Roger Ebert, there is something deeply disturbing about watching a young girl engage in a violent action film. His review of the film Kick-Ass says so repeatedly. However, it seems that if she were to be engaged in a highly sexualized role, things might change a bit. It might be a different story. To me, there is something bizarre and almost Laura Mulvey-esque about the fact that he seems critically “okay” with seeing young women put in positions of sexual submission and yet bursts out with fire and brimstone tirades upon seeing a female action hero of the same general age.

For a man who has championed such highly controversial films as Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), two films that center at least partially around extremely young women playing roles that are severely inappropriate for their Real Life ages, it seems raucously hypocritical for Ebert to label a film as “morally reprehensible” based primarily upon the fact that a young girl within the film is involved in countless acts of violence, both visited upon her and acted out by her.

Jodie Foster as street-wise hooker Iris in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)

Brooke Shields as prostitute-in-training Violet in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby

I contend that Ebert’s knee-jerk reaction to Kick-Ass comes primarily from a gender-based locale (although I will concede that age is certainly a factor), and that, while he may have taken the heavy violence in the film to task, he might not have had this kind of untamed response had the most charismatic and powerful figure in the film not been an 11-year-old girl.

To be perfectly honest, I take no issue with his enjoyment of the aforementioned films. They are, indeed, good films. However, based upon his Kick-Ass review that seemed more like an eruption than a piece of cinematic criticism, I have to wonder: what is it exactly about the representation of Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl that nearly causes an aneurysm while Jodie Foster’s Iris remains safely within the boundaries of acceptability?

At first, I bought Ebert’s “unholy amounts of violence” argument. Kick-Ass is, indeed, insanely graphic. While the comic is moreso, the film is definitely beyond the pale, even if it is done within a very “comic book-like” manner. But then I realized something: Taxi Driver is an incredibly violent film. And it was especially violent for its time! And in 1976, Ebert called this film a “brilliant nightmare” and “compelling.”[1] So, Rog, what’s the deal, dude? What’s up with the double standard?

Using Laura Mulvey’s seminal text, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and giving a brief study to ideas of scopophilia and feminist film theory’s discussion of the representation of women in film, we can, perhaps, see why the primary figure in Kick-Ass becomes so problematic for Ebert and several other major critics of the film. Regardless of her age or her uncouth tongue, she is not a figure who can be controlled. I believe that raises some issues for people in a way that no female superhero has ever really done before. These individuals chose to circumvent the more pro-active and narratively positive aspects of the Hit-Girl character in favor of pursuing the negatively charged arenas in which she dwelled. I won’t deny that Hit-Girl is a difficult character to come to terms with. She repudiates every single “sugar and spice and everything nice” argument that you could ever make for what little girls are “made of” and interprets femininity as tough-as-nails-independence. This certainly removes her from “object-to-be-looked-at” territory and places her firmly within the realm of “subject-that-acts-out” territory. And what the hell could be scarier than THAT?

Hit-Girl: Fear of a (Female) Pre-Pubescent Planet

Laura Mulvey writes,

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.[2]

Within the world of the superhero film, Mulvey’s discussion is extremely potent. If one were to do a visual archive of all the female figures within all the superhero films, it would be virtually impossible to locate a character who is not working within the spectrum of eroticism, male fantasy and “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

Like Superman can’t hang with the kryptonite and Batman has more psychological issues than a room full of PTSD patients, it is a well-known fact that, within superhero comic book culture, women have been consistently coded for the male gaze. Like the film industry, men have consistently been the main creators of the product so it is not a shocker that they draw and write what they want to see. Who wouldn’t? Additionally, the superhero-comic-reading-population has always been primarily male so the audience simply reflects the creators. We can clearly see the line of logic from production to consumption of women-as-object. While the female characters in these books seemed to be forces to be reckoned with, they were always coded for “erotic impact” first and character integrity second, thus diluting the power and impact of the given character. OK, so the male superheroes and villains are not reasonable representations of the average male either, but they are posited in such a way that they retain all power and are seen as Powerful Figures first and attractive/sexually charged second.

But things change. And sometimes when they change, they change drastically. I believe that in the case of Kick-Ass, this is precisely what happened.

Three covers for the original comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.

Three different poster designs for the Matthew Vaughn-directed film

Kick-Ass, the comic book is an entirely different monster than Kick-Ass, the motion picture. While I am certain that it would make Mr. Ebert and his supporters cringe at the thought, the comic book is actually a great deal more violent and delves even further into the realms of misanthropy than the film ever does. At the same time, the narrative scope of the comic travels squarely within a space that all of the characters share equally. It is a space that, incidentally, is more about adolescence, growing up and questioning ideas of violence and modern media culture than anything else.

The problem is that Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s literary Kick-Ass is not Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Just as in any cinematic adaptation from a literary work, there are changes made.  Pieces are added or detracted, transitional elements reworked and most times there are major conciliations made in regards to the character or thrust of the film’s focus in comparison to the originating text. The filmed version of the comic book, while attempting to bring as much of the written/drawn version to the screen as possible, did not do so because of one simple rule: the comic book was the literary version and belonged to Millar/Romita, Jr, et al; the movie was the filmed version and therefore a product of its authors.

Most of the general public operates under the assumption that “the book is better than the movie.” Primarily, the genesis of this comes from the fact that film has always been seen as literature’s poor and trashy cousin; a media form less worthy of cultural esteem. It has been this way since its birth. Thus, when people argue about the book being better, it generally comes mostly out of sociological training and not necessarily from actual personal experience with the literary text. The problem is, we are not instructed on how to appreciate these media forms on their own merits, thus they must be held up against each other. So, when one is adapted from another’s narrative, it is only natural that the “book is better” argument gets raised. While this aphorism is used often, it is also overused, tired, and extremely lazy. Each media is created and consumed through individual means and while they may share a story and even themes, it is much wiser to appreciate each piece upon its own value and not use the parent text as a jumping off place for criticism.

Millar’s Kick-Ass world will not be the bulk of what is discussed here, due to the fact that the things that he involved were of another ilk. From my perspective, even Vaughn’s Kick-Ass was a little bit hijacked by some of his actors. But I believe that once he saw what was happening, he went with it, and decided to amp it up a little, making it the picture we see today. I also believe that while Millar’s work was a total collaboration between himself, John Romita, Jr (artist), Tom Palmer (inker), and Dean White (colorist), Matthew Vaughn’s film was also communally created by him, co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, and the entirety of the cast but primarily Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass) and Chloe Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl). This “hijacking” as it were became more pronounced when it became clear that not only was the film seized from going the direction in which it was “supposed to go,” but through this accident of fate it essentially laid the focus of the film cleanly between the crosshairs of Chloe Moretz’s 11-year-old superheroine, Hit-Girl.

Millar & Company's Hit-Girl versus the cinematic equivalent. Clearly there were some...alterations.

I say “accidental” due to the fact that the story is, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be equally shared between several characters and the central figure (and voice-over narrator), Kick-Ass aka Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). However, it becomes stridently clear at a certain juncture within the film that this is really Hit Girl’s show and Kick-Ass is simply her foil. That said, having this be her film, it takes this piece to a whole different level and what was a simple film about a high-school loser trying to be a superhero and the trials and tribulations that occur in a somewhat Bizarro World-type set-up has now become one of the first films to feature a strong female superhero going about the business in a particularly hardcore manner, without being displayed with any sense of real eroticism.

Hit-Girl is, in fact, a cinematic disruption. She is, pure and simple, the antidote to the scopophilic gaze which Mulvey discusses in her article. While she may be on display, it is for no other reason than to reconfigure a kind of new type of feminine power structure. This interruption in the traditionally pleasured male-gaze is anarchic and insanely potent, causing the more-than-slight discomfort of Roger Ebert and numerous other critics.

Mulvey writes,

[t]he cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are instances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure at being looked at…the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect. The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form.[3]

If the audience finds pleasure in looking at Hit-Girl, one would hope it is not for her “form.” She is not rendered sexually attractive, she is posited in the manner that one would hope an 11-year-old girl would be: generally child-like. When out of costume, she has pigtails, scrunches her face up at things she dislikes, and talks about being rewarded with bowling and ice-cream sundaes for succeeding in tasks well-done.

Does it matter that those tasks involve wearing bulletproof vests and being shot with high-level guns? Maybe, maybe not. The basic idea is still there: she’s a kid.

Out of uniform, Mindy Macready looks average and amiable. However, the mask goes on and...buh-bye bad guys!

Can we say the same about Iris in Taxi Driver? Not so much. Nor can we dispense with the fact that Violet in Pretty Baby is still in for a life of prostitution, even as we watch her engage in childlike behavior. And as for the countless superheroines in the cinema…well, I believe that the casting of Malin Akerman, an actress in her late 20’s/early 30’s, to play a middle-aged retired superhero in Zack Snyder’s version of Watchmen(2009) tells you all you need to know (if her exceedingly tight and sexy latex outfits didn’t).

Cinematic interpretation of the Silk Spectre. I believe the line on the poster (clearly cashing in on an out-of-context line) says everything about the way that director Snyder translated this female superhero to screen.

This is the Silk Spectre in the Watchmen comic. Still sexily costumed, but the portrayal gives her exceptional depth and her physicality reflects the physicality of a real woman of that age and experience.

This is the Silk Spectre in the Watchmen comic. Still sexily costumed, but the portrayal gives her exceptional depth and her physicality reflects the physicality of a real woman of that age and experience.

These are displayed female figures, there for the looking at, the pleasure of their characters isn’t about their strength as heroes or their integrity or their interactions with the storylines at all but based on the experience of looking at them and, indeed, visually possessing them to a certain degree. This is due to the eroticism they have been endowed with which is innately tied into a “fetishistic scopophilia [which] builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself.”[4]

As a character, Hit-Girl exists almost entirely to frustrate that kind of satisfaction. This character does serve as a source of gratification, but it is in an entirely different manner than your standard young female character or female superhero, primarily because of the removal of the sexual element.

Blogger Kate Harding at Shapely Prose said it best when she was discussing Hit Girl’s presence and the construction of action films. She states that she generally hates action movies where women are the protagonists or “asskickers-in-chief.”

They’ve never appealed to me much, probably because they tend to be sold on the fuckability of the heroine more than the relatability of her; the primary market is still young, straight and male, after all, so a female lead is drawn to evoke fantasies…And because it’s all aimed at the same young, straight, male market, this doesn’t really go both ways. While I certainly don’t mind looking at Matt Damon or Clive Owen or Jason Statham fighting bad guys, I am generally not thinking “God, that was so totally badass, I want to fuck you right now”…If I like the film enough…then I am thinking, much like the young, straight men in the audience, “God, that was so badass, I want to be you right now.”[5]

Harding’s deconstruction of the viewership of the action genre is integral to the manner in which Hit-Girl is satisfying to the audience. She is, like any other superhero or action hero, an audience surrogate. Harding’s discussion in regards to fantasy vs. idolization is of particular value in this instance. Were we treading in Halle Berry/Catwoman waters or even dealing with Anna Paquin/Rogue situations, we would likely be experiencing a large percentage of fanboys/males drooling and female audience members frustrated once again at the over-sexifying of potentially powerful characters. It sounds essentialist, but if you ask most women who like superhero films, you will probably get more positive responses for the male characters than the female, having nothing to do with sexual attraction. I would much prefer to be or hang out with Professor Xavier or Batman than any of the female counterparts. They simply contain more substance. It goes part-and-parcel with Mulvey’s argument and Harding has clearly had her own experiences with the male gaze, as she notes above. Objectification is a nasty bugger. However, this type of reaction is not what occurs with Hit-Girl, with men or with women. And it is due to her lack of erotic exhibition. Because she is not eroticized, she is like a pint-sized icon for all members of the audience to enjoy together (in a somewhat wholesome way, if you disregard the foul language and violence), making this character’s gender-stereotype-destruction fairly radical.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to infer that this film is bringing people together in some hippie-dippie communal-type way. But it is creating a space in which gender is taking a back seat to character, and in many ways this is a big step. Sure, the excessive violence tends to make Hit-Girl much more problematic due to her youthfulness. But it is her gender that drew the ultimate amounts of attention and if the audience were now gender-blind for their female superhero, it’s no small feat that has been accomplished. As Julia Rhodes of the California Literary Review wrote, “Would critics be as upset if Hit-Girl were Hit-Boy? I doubt it…I can appreciate a girl who knows what she wants and gets it. I still spent parts of the movie chuckling uncomfortably with widened eyes, but I have a love for a girl who outperforms the boys.”[6]

A Superhero of One’s Own: Is Hit-Girl a Feminist Figure?

There has been much talk in and around Hit-Girl and whether or not she is a feminist figure. Many writers have found her to be quite troublesome in this arena, and I cannot help but agree with them. It is far easier to say that she is within the spectrum of feminist iconography due to her character’s basic skeleton structure. Hit Girl has numerous qualities (independence, strong survival skills, high intelligence) that female characters in films are generally lacking and she is presented in such a way that is not predicated upon some kind of sexual promise. But the real issue resides in the fact that we must differentiate between a strong female character and a feminist figure. They do not always mean the same thing.

Reading the reviews of this film from online magazines, newspapers and blogs, one can easily decipher the writers who qualify for the fandom category and those who are clearly part of the critical thinker section. While both groups have sincere and wonderful qualities and are valid sources for types of media scholarship, one is clearly a more problematic zone to operate from, due to personal bias. However, it is entirely possible to be a fanboy/girl and be a critical thinker (I consider myself part of this hybrid group), even if it is an extremely difficult location to exist in. It takes a great deal of training, and is one that I still struggle with on a daily basis. When dealing with a film like Kick-Ass, it is of the utmost importance that one attempts to balance these two sides properly and not just gush all over the page. There are too many dilemmas present for it to be treated in such a simplistic fashion.

In an article in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott discuss what they see as the new trend of hyper-violent young women in cinema. Together, they attempt to come to a conclusion in regards to whether or not these images and storylines are in any way, shape, or form forward-thinking. Dargis states, “Part of me thinks the uptick in bloody mama and kinder-killer movies is about as progressive as that old advertising pitch for Virginia Slims cigarettes, meaning not very. You’ve come a long way, baby, only now you’re packing a gun and there’s blood on your hands (or teeth).”[7] And she’s got a solid point. How does putting a weapon in a woman’s hand or placing a young girl in a violent situation transition them into becoming feminist icons? Just because Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill survived every single level of hell and then a few more doesn’t make her a feminist figure. She was still a revenge-driven former assassin who enacted hideous violence upon folks she was involved with. The desire to survive and the competence and know-how do not a feminist figure make. Add hyper-violent behavior into the mix and you’ve got some very big issues to contend with.

In many of the articles that I read, several pro-Kick-Ass writers mentioned the fact that if Hit-Girl had, in fact, been Hit-Boy, there would have been no controversy around the fact that she swore like a sailor and took a physical battering like a UFC champ. In this, I agree 100%. However, I would like to turn the tables in a very similar fashion and think about something. Many of these same reviewers saw Hit-Girl as a feminist figure. This was due to her physical dexterity, tenacity, independence, and uncanny ability to kick the shit out of men ten times her size and at least three times her age. Essentially, they based much of it on her physical performance which is narratively linked with intense acts of violence. They saw her survival instinct and intelligent battle tactics as symbols of Female Warrior-ness and not simply what they were: getting out of there alive and getting a job done. I submit to you, much in the “if Hit-Girl had been Hit-Boy” way, that watching a male figure engage in the very same behaviors does not make us consider, for one moment, that he is a symbol (on a larger scale) of Man At His Best and Someone We Should Look Up To.

Feminism is tricky, see. When I think feminist figures, I’m not sure I think a chick with a gun.

Somehow, I just don't think that this is the kind of riveting Rosie had in mind...

If I did, Ripley from the Alien series would totally be my goddess (even though she’s also tricky as she has feminist thematics running through her character arc, but that’s a whole other discussion!). Realistically, there is no shame in being a strong female character and THEY TOO are direly needed. But it is a huge and largely dangerous step for people to make the jump from kick ass, amazing and strong female character to Feminist Character. The problem these days is that the less boundaries that we have in films, the less of a gauge we seem to have to judge these things. While this sounds like I am advocating censorship or some conservative nonsense, I am not. The less classy our violence and gore gets, the less ability we have to see the difference between…well, anything. If I’m going to sound conservative at all, I’ll say this: in order to renegotiate feminism in the cinema, we are going to have to renegotiate our exploitation films, and Kick-Ass has many attributes that qualify it for exploitation.

In addition to our gauges being screwy due to our films being less classy, we have another major issue that can cause the feminist/strong female mix-up: women get shitty film roles on a regular basis. As Manohla Dargis says, “the American big screen has hasn’t been very interested in women’s stories, violent or not, in recent decades, an occasional Thelma, Louise and Jodie Foster character notwithstanding. There are other exceptions, of course, usually romantic comedies that are so insipid and insulting…”[8] So, essentially, if a woman isn’t being eroticized and sexualized and she’s not in a crappy romantic comedy, then…? Truly, there are precious few roles in any other category. Thus, this new “trend” that Dargis and Scott are discussing is fairly radical in what it is doing for femininity- but not in such a positive way.

Is it the violence? Yeah, partially. I don’t think that there is anything empowering as a woman about the ability to kill, maim or torture another human being. Do I like watching it on-screen? In my films? HELL YES!!! But that’s fantasy. It’s a fictional world. I find that there is a severe delineation between a woman of power who I recognize as a feminist character or simply a really great and strong female character who kicks a whole lotta ass. But I’ll admit: I don’t always want that to be the case. I just know that is the actuality of the situation. My fangirl side wants to claim all sorts of people as feminist figures like Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride from Kill Bill or Hit-Girl from Kick Ass.

The cinephile in me wants to claim The Bride aka Beatrix Kiddo from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill as a feminist figure. The critical theorist in me won't let me. It's a big struggle.

But I look at them again and use my better judgment. While they retain qualities of feminism, and perhaps in a different narrative they are feminist figures (post Kill Bill? What’s life like for Beatrix?), in the diegetic slices of pie we are given, they are simply extremely strong and vital female characters. They are just as worthy of respect and admiration, but they are more problematized due to certain aspects given to their respective characters within the storylines.

It is slightly disturbing to have Hit-Girl claimed by so many as a feminist figure. It seems to me that we must be really troubled and really out there in the desert dying of thirst when we must claim an 11-year-old child who presumably hasn’t even menstruated as a symbol of women’s strength and endurance for All Time. Call me crazy, but when I think feminist, I think Emma Goldman. I think bell hooks. I think Ida Lupino.

Ida Lupino, actress, filmmaker, feminist figure

I think Annie Sprinkle. Unconventional folks, sure, but still…they are all feminist icons in my book. And Hit Girl is exactly that: a girl. Her name says everything. So tell me- why we are claiming her in the name of feminism again?

Hit-Girl is not acting with any socio-political intent within the film and just because she is not sexualized or placed on erotic display like other superheroines does not make her part of the Feminist Club either. You do not become a feminist character simply because of what you are not it is what you are and Hit-Girl is a character that should not be burdened with the strain of Feminist Character. It places too much stress on what she represents and reveals a blatant refusal to look at the violence within the text and the actual narrative and her role within it which is far more important.

However, Hit-Girl’s aggressive presence in the film may simply be a way of garnering commercial success and playing into a new scheme of films and we might have to come to terms with that, making her even less potentially feminist-y than before. Dargis worriedly states,

It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen…I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing the same function for the presumptive male audience: it’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat- no worries, man!

If Dargis is right, and she very well could be, Hit-Girl’s character is actually quite damaging, as it is playing right into Hollywood’s grubby hands. With the recent slew of films that have come out that have featured Hit-Girl-like characters (Hanna, Sucker Punch), this worries me. Especially since people are jumping to the Feminist Character title and not looking at the situation critically.

In conclusion, I think I will have to agree with Carrie Nelson of the blog Gender Across Borders. While I don’t think that Hit-Girl is a feminist character, “the idea of superhero and action movies creating space for girls to play aggressive, powerful characters is innovative and refreshing.”[9] As a film, Kick-Ass is action-based and certainly not as meaning-heavy as the comic, but it contains some features that give it credibility. Hit-Girl exemplifies many qualities that adult women (and men, for that matter) should possess: self-reliance, determination, a certain dedication to improving one’s abilities. For many viewers, this was incredibly important, as I read in the comments section of a great many blogs and reviews. Realistically, there is no reason in the world that she cannot serve as a model in this respect. But to confuse her with feminist iconography would be a falsity and not one that an 11-year-old who drinks hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows would want; no matter how well she can handle that set of knives.


[2] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome: Music and the Cinema

When I was in junior college, I took a class on psychology (specifically, I believe that it might have actually been biopsychology, but I’m not about to dig up those transcripts to find out, no offense!). One of the more interesting things that we learned within that class and the one thing that I have remembered to this day was that of all of your senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling) only smell was directly linked to the memory processing area of your brain. While other senses can trigger memories and have memories attached to them, none travel quite the same direct route and therefore have a very different relationship.

The olfactory (smell) cortex has an uninterrupted neural connection to the hippocampus. Uh, what? Well, basically, the way your sense of smell works? It’s on a beeline path towards your hippocampus (which I always pictured as a mini-Hippopotamus with a cap and gown on, living inside your skull, but that’s because I’m silly like that) which happens to be the very center of transferring information into memory. Oh and where is this party going down? Inside the limbic system, which is totally a part of the emotion center of your brain.

This is your brain...This is your brain with all your senses pointed out...no graduating hippopotamus, sadly.

So here’s the way I’ve generally explained the chain of events and relationship between your senses and memory and why it makes such a huge difference. I use Chocolate Chip Cookies (if you’re vegan or hate chocolate or have other dietary restrictions…well, know what? Mentally substitute your own nostalgic food!). Due to the fact that we start developing our memories as soon as we ourselves begin developing, we are going to imagine that your grandmother was a hellova baker, and baked the hell out of some chocolate chip cookies. Every time you visited. And you visited on a very regular basis because your family was less dysfunctional than everyone else’s, so you have been smelling these morsels of sugary goodness since you were gumming mom’s nipples. You are now a grown person, and Grams has unfortunately left us, as happens with our elders. One day, you are visiting the family of a friend for *insert holiday here* and all of a sudden you are nearly knocked over by the scent of…what else…chocolate chip cookies baking. However, it is not the recognition that makes your knees practically buckle, it is the fact that it is so much like your grandmother’s house and it all rushes back to you in one intake of breath.

It is a mistaken assumption to make that when you breathe something in, you merely recognize it for what the scent is. Smells are complex relationships. And what may be simply some loudmouth douchebag in front of me in line wearing too much cologne may make the woman behind me start to cry due to the fact that this was the very same scent that her former husband wore. Each person has their own set of smell-relationships that has been created due to memory and their life. Fascinating, no? Fascinating YES!

So what does smelling chocolate chip cookies and getting nostalgic for grandma have to do with cinema? Actually, quite a bit. It’s something that I am calling the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. While cinema clearly cannot deal with the intricacies of smell (unless you count things like Smell-O-Vision or John Waters’ version, Odorama, neither of which should be included necessarily in today’s argument), that does not mean that it has not attempted to develop a very intense relationship of its own between memory and another sense aside from that which is visual. What I wish to discuss here is sound and not simply sound but musical sound, specifically of the soundtrack variety. 

As film scholars and fans, we are all aware of the highly associative properties of a piece of music that is used in a film. But has it ever been something that you have given much thought to? Have you ever sat down and traced those associations throughout the world-at-large or, indeed, your own life?

Perhaps you have not. I have realized that I have to leave room for people who do not engage in aural stimuli as much or as passionately as I do or as my friends and associates do. Sometimes I need to step away, pull myself back, and realize that some people are just visual. And you know what? That’s totally fine. I probably will never have the same visual conception of certain things that they have. On the other hand, I will probably always feel that they are missing the film in its totality, the way it was intended. At least a little bit. This is something I will try to work on.

I think that people like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Cameron Crowe have all created films that scream, from the first to the very last reel, Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. Especially the first two directors. The key to Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome (or CCCS for short) within a film is the meticulous ability to texture the film with something, in this case music or certain songs, and make those items so damn iconic that you will forever remember the movie every time you re-experience them.

I will never ever be able to hear “Please, Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes again without thinking of the bar fight scene in Mean Streets (1973). And while that film is arguably one of my favorite films ever made, that song doesn’t give me goosebumps. Does it please me to hear it in a random store while I’m buying detergent? HELL YES. All I can think about is the camerawork and the choreography that goes right along to the song.

Gone to a party or a club recently? OK, well even if you haven’t, there are kids out there who were not even born when Say Anything (1989) was released who are imitating the John-Cusack-with-boombox-posture when Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is played. I’ve even seen it for Halloween costumes, and the kids run around playing the song (as though we were unsure which trenchcoat-wearing, boombox-wielding weirdo they might be dressed up as…there were OH SO MANY you know!).

For my money, however, Crowe will always have me from the opening strains of Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.” In my world it is the film Singles (1992). While the sequence that it is plays during  and the song itself may not be quite as iconic as “In Your Eyes,” they will remain, for me, embossed upon my brain, images that are always there to be sparked every time I happen to hear the song in whatever context that may occur. I hear Mother Love Bone, and I have my Chocolate Chip Cookie moment, and no one knows that my knees are jelly and my heart is all kinds of achy inside my chest.

And…well…need we mention the numerous films and associated songs that Tarantino has blessed our ears with? Really, he is remarkable in that his musical obsession seems to rival his filmic one. I’m not trying to worship the man, but as far as musical accessorizing is concerned, Quentin Tarantino is almost a special case unto himself. Tarantino’s own CCCS is so multi-generational and multilayered that he draws incredibly rare and eccentric songs from the ether and makes them into communal property. He removes them from a place of musical obscurity and re-places them into a realm that no longer simply exists within the confines of his own memorial space. Not only that, but he has given each song a creative context for which it will now forever be associated.

He uses songs like “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack in Jackie Brown (1997), even though that song was the title song of its own film from 1972. OK, OK, so perhaps that song wasn’t as rare as, say, the entire Reservoir Dogs (1992) soundtrack but it did its part to re-member certain aspects of that film genre (blaxploitation) and that era. The song set up the film and within that set-up said to the viewer that there was history here. The casting choice of Pam Grier only reified that statement, as the entire film is about a past/present conflict.

Even more efficiently than Jackie Brown, I highly doubt that there is a single person who can even one song from the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and not associate it with the matching scene in the film (unless of course they have not seen the film, but that’s a no-brainer). Tarantino was, perhaps, one of the more significant people in the last 30 years to utilize this relationship between aural recognition, visual enjoyment and memory to catalyze his own form of synergy (in the media economics definition- this soundtrack has sold insanely well and continues to do so). He did the exact same thing two years later with Pulp Fiction (1994), and made a killing.

Media economics aside, it is the cultural economics that Tarantino has managed to manipulate through the use of aural stimulation and historical association. We all have personal relationships with these films and the music/songs contained and yet, due to the medium of film itself, we have a communal experience as well. The CCCS that we develop from the musics that we hear within a filmic context CAN sometimes be just as complicated as the olfactory relationships that are imprinted upon us throughout our lives, just in a very different way. They are, most certainly, both stemming from the same memory center/hippocampus/limbic system that has been in development since we were children!

One of the best examples that I could possibly give you of the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome would be a working one, therefore I have chosen a personal example and one that I currently experience on a regular basis. The central component of this is the musical figure: Leonard Cohen. If, while reading this, you get the feeling that it maps out quite like a kind of family tree, you would not be wrong. In a sense, I mapped out my relationship to Leonard Cohen by creating a media family tree that involved all the different branches (of which there are quite a few odd-seeming ones) that poked out when I thought of my relationship to the music of “Leonard Cohen.”

It is almost difficult to diagram my Cohen-lution, due to the fact that I knew his work before I knew his work. While that may seem convoluted, I promise, there is a method to my madness (or so the doctors have told me…). Therefore, instead of starting at the very first time I heard a Cohen song, I will start at the place where hearing a Cohen song connected me with my own version of CCCS.

Watching this clip again, even briefly, I am imagining myself back at 19 years old. I think I was probably blown to bits by this film, even though I didn’t know it. Altman seems to me to be that kind of director. When I saw M*A*S*H (1970) for the first time a short time later, I remember being overwhelmed by how great it was. But also having a delayed sense of its brilliance. Most of the truly good stuff didn’t hit me until waaay later! My experience has always been that a good Altman film, like a proper, well-made cocktail, sneaks up on you. You taste it, you know it’s extremely intoxicating, smooth and enjoyable but what you don’t realize is that a short time later, you get an additional kick. And all of a sudden, you’re thinking, “Oooo! My cheeks are warm, the room feels delightful! Goodness, what was IN THAT THING ANYWAYS???”

That is Altman to me. So what did I get out of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)? A deeply obsessive voice that kept saying, “that damn soundtrack! I gotta have that soundtrack! Who is the guy on the soundtrack??” Mind you, I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, and therefore was pretty much in  Hippietown, USA (there was a designated corner called “Hippie Corner” for kids to spare change and busk on). I had been surrounded by hippies for most of my childhood and yet I didn’t know who Cohen was. While I admit that it’s mildly unfair to associate his entire career with the hippie subculture, this particular singer-songwriter album was very much on that track, so my first impression was that was the genre that he was part of.

The album that I searched all of Santa Cruz for and listened to RELIGIOUSLY for....good grief. I have no idea how many weeks/months. I blame Robert Altman.

After rewatching that opening scene that I posted, I have had to reconsider my notion that all I received from McCabe was the soundtrack. I’m going with the Altman-as-killer-martini concept. There is a very distinct possibility that this film truly changed me for the better and used music as the catalytic agent. I’m not necessarily comfortable discussing the film content in any depth here, as the last time I saw it was the first time I saw it, but based upon that fact and revisiting the opening piece using “The Stranger,” I will have to say that this was a piece of cinema that struck me in a way no other movie ever had. When I posted it here on my blog, I heard the guitar, saw the visuals, and literally felt like I was being transported back to when I had first experienced the film. The feeling that washed over me? Indescribable. Needless to say, when I sat down to write this and planned on including that, I NEVER expected that to happen. The irony of this entertains me quite a bit and the experience itself only underscores my own relationship with this song and, thusly, this film. Clearly, it is something that I cannot escape as it is built into me and my memory just as strongly as Gram’s cookie sweetness might be.


As a more educated Leonard Cohen scholar these days, if you asked me where I first heard Leonard Cohen, I would give you an answer that a good chunk of women my age would give you: The film Pump Up the Volume (1990).Within the film narrative, Allan Moyle uses the original version. I remember being quite taken with it, and being pretty weirded out when a chick began to sing the song. So I fast-forwarded through the song at first, and moved on to the rest of the soundtrack.

That damn soundtrack. DEAR LORD, DID I LOVE THAT SOUNDTRACK.

Bad Brains. Peter Murphy. Rollins. Pixies. Sonic Youth. Concrete Blonde. Mutha-effin' Soundgarden. Did you NEED more? If you did, I didn't wanna know you. In fact, I may still hold to that rule...um, same bands too.

First of all, there was The Pixies. THAT was a major discovery in my life. I later learned that there was a different version of The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” but not having any friends at the time who were into that kind of music really (we were all more or less Hollywood metalheads with braces and Catholic school girl uniforms…danger, Will Robinson!), I just listened to the soundtrack repeatedly. Soon after, I met a friend at summer camp who made me a tape that had The Pixies’ Doolittle on one side and Bauhaus’ Burning From the Inside on the other. I may still have that cassette tape somewhere. I hope I do. I don’t think I took it out of my bright yellow Sony Walkman for the rest of the summer…and then some.

After my initial shock and disappointment at not having the actual song from the movie on my tape, I got incredibly attached to Concrete Blonde’s version of “Everybody Knows.” Lord knows this was not the first time someone had “switched it up” on a soundtrack I had bought before (and it wouldn’t be the last) but I was a bit miffed. However, as I listened to it more, the song became more ingrained upon me than the one in the film. So much so, that I barely remembered that Moyle had even used Cohen’s version in the first place!

I believe that this version became the more powerful one to me for three main reasons. First of all, it’s a brilliant song in general, no matter who is singing it. Secondly, its use in the film is critical and striking, and for a girl who was as attached to both the message and the story of that film, I was, literally hanging on EVERY frame, visually and aurally. Thirdly, as far as cover songs go, this is a really decent one. Johnette Napolitano can belt it out but…she can also emote. Within the strains of this song, she sounds exhausted, worn out and bitter as a $2 whore, but that only serves to give the song the depth it needs.

To switch a singer’s gender can be tricky for the outcome of a given song. It changes the meaning and can give it an unreasonable amount of complications. But here, it works perfectly. In fact, it worked so effortlessly and seamlessly that few people knew that this was, indeed, a cover song. I’ve never been ignorant of things, but at that age I wasn’t exactly paying attention. Here is what I did know:

The song was amazing. It rocked me. I was hooked. I couldn’t say for sure if the other girls I knew/hung out with listened to the soundtrack with as much joy and spirited pleasure as I did, but there was something about that song. It had to do with the film, it had to do with the music, it had to do with the filmmaker making the right choice and hooking me in like the little adolescent goldfish that I was. And I remained hooked for life. The first clue came a precious few months after the August, 1990 release of the film and its soundtrack.

January, 1991. I watch the “One Man and a Baby” episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. There it was. There was the VOICE. Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” was on that episode and I nearly had a heart attack. I was thrilled to pieces. I joined one of those CD clubs and bought the album Bloodletting specifically due to these events. Between Allan Boyle’s Pump Up The Volume and Aaron Spelling’s television, um, “piece,” I became a Concrete Blonde fan.

But nothing ever hit home the same way that “Everybody Knows” had. I didn’t find out until years later why: Leonard Cohen. Due to the fact that his version was only on the film and not on the soundtrack (issues of access!), my familiarity was almost entirely with her version. Thus, “Everybody Knows” has always been, more or less, associated with female vocals rather than Cohen’s own.

When I hear “Everybody Knows,” I have a very complicated response. In essence, it is the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome, as it leads me directly back to the film I associate it with, Pump Up The Volume. However, when I hear Leonard Cohen sing it, I become very mixed up in my synthesis. Do I hear Johnette? Leonard? Do I hear a man weaving the tale? A woman? Does it matter? Is the end result the same? How do gender issues enter into a song so very complex and soaked in social politics? And how to translate the cynicism, especially through the person that I am today, versus the person that I was 21 years ago?


I don’t have an answer for those questions. And I’m very happy to tell you that I do not. If I did, then I would no longer be able to think critically about the relationship I have with these very diverse memories that all seem to share the same base camp, even if they do reside in different tents. I enjoy being able to think about this song and what it means for each person to sing it and also what it meant to me then…and now. Playing the compare/contrast game is part and parcel of my appreciation of the music.  Really, this isn’t far from the experience of finding that it wasn’t simply Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger” and other songs in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller that rocked me, but the entire damn film! This is why music in film is important. It inspires memory. Personal and otherwise.

The association of music and film has always been a crucial one for me. From the musicals of yesteryear to the films of today that utilize music in such a way that song could not be torn from image without destroying the whole piece, the match of sound and visual is more powerful than if it were just simply one media or the other.

Film is essentially about transmogrification, anyway. If one leaves a film completely unchanged, even if it is for the worse (I hated Hangover 2, I am sorry that I saw it, but I was still altered in that I will TRY never to see such a terrible movie AGAIN), there is something dearly wrong. One of the most efficient ways in which to permanently conduct change in your audience is to associate certain things with your piece. Music can do that forever. Currently, due to the film Waltzing With Bashir (2008), I am pretty certain that I will never be able to go to any club and hear O.M.D.’s “Enola Gay” without being utterly devastated. That is power. I really loved that song, man. And…I still do. But in an entirely different WAY. If you are able to completely translate someone’s conceptions of a piece of music and forge them around your creative image, I applaud you. And I want to see your film.

It may sound silly but I am proud of having Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. I would be a terrible audience member without it. Right now, I am your ideal audience member, even after far too many classes in film and television theory. I greatly appreciate the filmmakers who work hard to give me those “chips” so that I can TOTALLY GEEK out by myself when I’m out and I hear something like “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan and remember it not from the album Replicas or even Urgh! A Music War! (1982) but from another Allan Moyle movie entitled Times Square (1980).

We all have our own memories. Hell, we all have our own limbic systems! But let’s face it, folks- the fact that you remember that Huey Lewis contributed music to Back to the Future (1985) is no accident and no small feat. Laugh all you want, but it was creatively negotiated to match those tunes up with the film and to make damn sure that this many years later…someone remembers it- and that someone is you. The other memories surrounding Back to the Future? Where you saw it, who you saw it with, what theater or whose house? All of those things are your business, and yours alone, which is a beautiful thing.

And as some great writers once wrote in a great script, that’s the way it crumbles…cookiewise.

Are You Mental?: Marty Goes for the Nutso With Shutter Island

See Shutter Island. No really, see it. Look at it. Physically. And listen. Carefully. To everything that they are saying because as much as this is a fiction film, it kinda isn’t. To all of the folks who called this film Shitter Island? I’m not sure what movie you watched & I’m thinking that maybe you are possibly either a) uneducated about the mental health system’s history in this country (especially on the east coast, especially in the Massachusetts area) or b) are kinda uncomfortable with it or c) both. Now I am willing to admit that the film had many storylines going on at one time, which could seem…jumbled, and mixed some things together a great deal, but I think….that might have been the point. See the film through, and you will know what I mean.

No spoilers here, ladies & gentlemen.

Back to my main point: this is a film in a long line of films about mental illness and institutionalization that serves a purpose- historicizing something that needed it. BADLY. See, Shutter Island, while based upon author Dennis Lehane’s sightings of Long Island (yes, there is one in Boston) as a child, is actually based upon occurrences that took place within the walls of Danvers State Hospital, located in Danvers, MA.

The “real” Shutter Island: Long Island has been a chronic disease hospital, “home for the indigent” and current location of several social service programs since the 1880’s. Up until the 1950’s, when a bridge was built, this island was only accessible by ferry.

 

Rumored to be the birthplace of the lobotomy, that was simply one of the larger hypes surrounding the locale. The lobotomy procedure was researched and developed in wholly other locations. Danvers itself was built in 1878 and considered to be one of the sites of some of the most horrific psychiatric “treatments” in history, regardless of their “no restraints” policy for the patients. While reporting to house about 600 patients at maximum, the hospital ended up housing 2400 (after only building a few extensions). Danvers was closed in 1992, and reopened again as “Avalon Apartments” in 2006. Yes, you too can pay rent to live on the site of horrible torture!! –Photograph of Danvers c/o http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com

See Danvers wasn’t just a mental institution, it was a mental institution that believed it was truly “groundbreaking” both in its philosophies and in its actions. While I can’t argue that the idea of having no restraints on your patients was a pretty big deal for a mental health industry that was incredibly ass-backwards in the first place, I can say, without any compulsion that torture and abuse would probably go on my list of “um, no, not really groundbreaking.” I dunno. Call me crazy.

See, what happened is actually pretty sad. The original superintendent, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, for whom the main initial buildings were named for, really *did* want to change the world of modern psychiatry. Quick sidenote: if you want to see a great site on the Kirkbride Buildings, please check out the site from whence the above photograph of the Danvers Building site came from! Its truly incredible! Very informative and gorgeous photos! So, back to Dr. Thomas.  Serving from 1841-1883, he really believed in providing a beautiful environment where the peaceful setting would pacify the mind, and that the proper care and respect given to patients would help them in their rehabilitation or at least in their everyday survival.

Kirkbride was one of many who were adopting a new system based on ideas of moral treatment, a concept and an approach to the mentally ill that had developed over the years that essentially said: Oh, you know how we used to think that you loony guys were animals and stuff and just lock you up and throw food at ya? Oops! We screwed up…Uh, this lady called Dorothea Dix came and yelled at us last night and we, uh, learned something….

Kirkbride ended up establishing what is known as the Kirkbride Plan, which is a type of architectural plan that has been used in asylums all over the US, and it was created in order to give patients a bit more privacy and a decent amount more dignity as well. This was used in the design of Danvers. However, these nice architecture and moral treatment plans, as wonderful as they were,  did not prevent the  nightmare that was to come.

The sign for the door to the violent wards, at Danvers.

The door to the violent wards, at Danvers.

Due to the changes in not only in the mental health system, but economics, and patient density, Danvers State Hospital, once a proud institution of progressive methodologies and compassionate care became a site of terror and human destruction. Michael Ramseur, an expert on the history of Danvers and its lurid details discusses what he has discovered in terms of what Albert Deutsch,  a journalist who worked for social reform especially in the case of the mentally ill, wrote as part of his book, “Shame of the States.” Ramseur states that some of the photographs that Deutsch published were very close to what he had seen at Danvers. As Ramseur notes, “In these photographs, I saw the same deteriorated spaces as at Danvers…only as opposed to the abandoned spaces I had been drawing at Danvers, these spaces were full of patients, patients who were haggard and ghostly, often peering blankly into space but sometimes staring penetratingly into the camera. Poorly clothed and sometimes naked, these legions of lost souls were shown pacing aimlessly on the wards, lying on the filthy cement floors or sitting head-in-hand against the pock-marked wall.” (www.ramseursdanversstatehospital.com)

As time moved forward, away from the hippie-dippie “let’s take care of people by making everything look pretty” vibe, mental health professionals discovered psychosurgery. And- wait- the party’s just getting started- they discovered fun little neuroleptics like chlorpromazine aka Thorazine, and for a real jazzy start-’em-up good time, they found Electroconvulsive therapy and Insulin shock therapy. Of course, this all coincided with the fact that more folks were being stuffed in asylums all the time because hey- you’re gay? ASYLUM. You’re politically transgressive? ASYLUM. You’ve been a bad wife aka you’re seriously fucking depressed about your life/being in a submissive/nothing role and the feminist movement is about 25 years away? ASYLUM. So…yes, along with Mary Lee who is a paranoid schizophrenic and talks to several voices on an hourly basis, Joe Schmoe gets socked away because mum and dad caught him with another boy. Oh…and then there was a World War and its aftermath, too, wasn’t there?

WOW. Makes me kinda glad to be where I am today, know what I mean, Vern?

Shutter Island‘s biggest problem is its historical accuracy. If that is a film’s problem, then I’ll watch problematic films for the rest of my life. Everything it deals with: trauma, death, destruction, war, in/sanity, women’s issues, alcoholism…all timely issues for 1954. Scorsese’s skilled collection of one man’s journey through Shutter Island in search of a missing woman and then winding up with so-much-more deserves to be looked at in a very particular and special light.

This is no Mean Streets, this isn’t even Cape Fear. I’m sorry if that is what you thought that you were coming to see…but this film, regardless of all the moments that have no subtlety, is an extremely meticulous film, planned and executed in a way that made me…not sure if I *liked* it as much as I appreciated it and wanted to see it again. The problem with writing about this film is that it IS so meticulous and I refuse to give anything away, so I can only say this: I view this film as a tree, with deep roots and a solid body. I think that Scorsese did something very different with this film and I like that. The music was incredible, the acting/performances were SO strong, the production design beautiful, and it led me in places I didn’t know that I was going. If you felt uncomfortable, GOOD. If you felt weird about things, GOOD. And if you didn’t understand it completely? That’s ok, too. I, myself, look forward to a second viewing. I feel like this is going to turn out to be a great deal like Gangs of New York. I knew that I could appreciate it, but I wasn’t 100% on it because it made me feel…uncomfortable, I think. But I rewatched that a few nights ago and loved it…so?

This is also a Dennis Lehane story. The man behind Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone is probably not out to make your day a happy or comfortable one, and I’m really ok with that. Mystic River was probably my favorite movie of 2003 and I still rewatch it (although a laugh-fest it is not!). Lehane’s involvement of his Boston environs with an incredibly dynamic and detail-intensive mystery story is well done, and made me revisit the film throughout the day to see what *I* had missed (although, to be fair, some of that credit should really go to Laeta Kalogridis, the screenwriter, but it was still Lehane’s original piece.

Leo & Marty get “Shuttered” away…

Shutter Island is also a very important piece in Scorsese’s works, as it does bring history to the forefront, and a history that has long been forgotten or, in the case of Danvers, paved over to make room for apartments. Archivist Kirsten Anderberg wrote an interesting piece on her research about the history of American asylums, and I think it’s worth a gander. We have a pretty gnarly history with the mentally ill and mental cruelty.

Filmically, we have shown this before, Shutter Island is not the first go. But it might be important to note that within the films that have been released and/or made, we have also seen it change history as in the case of Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), a documentary made about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, MA. The footage that was shown in this film and the abject cruelty that was put on camera may have effected at least some change, as Bridgewater changed its “force-feeding” and torturing ways…albeit not until 20 years later, after 7 patients died, and several 1st Amendment lawsuits regarding the film.

In conclusion, Shutter Island, while not a “Scorsese” film, is one to be taken seriously on a multitude of levels. It is a serious drama, a serious historical work, and a quite intelligent piece of local reflection, due to the hand (as in all of his works) of Bostonian Dennis Lehane. Scorsese should be allowed to take a day off once in a while, guys, to do a different thing. And this was a very complicated film. It should not be shrugged off or tossed aside.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of not tossing stuff aside, I would advise all of you to check out the pictures that some folks took of the inside of Danvers State Hospital….They’re really amazing….here’s some links:

http://www.abandonedbutnotforgotten.com/more_danvers_pictures.htm

http://www.opacity.us/gallery97_dreary_skies.htm

http://www.opacity.us/gallery37_tiptoe.htm