Sunday, August 14, 2016

Good movies for people who like bad movies

(Sorry this isn't the second Name of the Wind post, but my brain has been frazzled and this post has been waiting in drafts for far too long.  I also suspect it's going to be topical as we continue to dig into Kvothe's adventures in the coming weeks.)

Most people who aren't Ayn Rand are willing to acknowledge a difference between things they like and things that are "good", a distinction that is at once counterintuitive and perfectly natural.  It is with that distinction in mind that I watched two movies recently: Conan the Barbarian (the 1982 original) and Vampire Academy (based on books of the same name).  These movies aren't good, but they are bad in specific ways that call into question what exactly we mean by "good" to begin with.

I'll start with Conan, because I have less to say about it: it's the incredibly straightforward story of a Proud Warrior Tribe kid whose village is destroyed by an evil man, who gets taken as a gladiator slave, runs away to freedom, slays monsters, has gratuitous sex with dubious consent, and finally kills the evil black wizard who slaughtered his people.  He has a love interest and a couple of comic relief sidekicks of indistinct ethnicity and fundamentally racist conventions, he gets some unexpected and inexplicable Christ imagery, and assures us all that a true hero is an independent burly man who single-handedly decapitates bad guys.  Throughout the adventure, he is narrated in epic saga style.

This is a bad movie, let there be no question.  Even the heroic POC tend to be cowardly and animalistic, and for all that James Earl Jones does some spectacular work as the villain, the climax of the movie is a white man setting a bunch of impressionable kids free by murdering a black man.  The love interest dies literally fifteen minutes after our heroes performed a magic ritual to bring Conan back from the dead, and yet no one asks whether maybe they should just do that again.  There's a thoroughly unexpected scene when Conan steals an evil priest's robes by using the man's predatory gay tendencies against him.  All bigoted writing--literally every word of it--is also lazy writing.

But lord how I wish we could have good movies that take their absurd epic fantasy setting this seriously.  It's the problem of the 1950s: love the aesthetic, hate the politics.  Where are my stories about people who aren't cis-white-hetero-men-with-arms-like-bags-of-footballs, adventuring across untamed lands to fight animated statues and free vulnerable people from charismatic dictators while a wizened wizard narrates their quest with the kind of absolute severity that would make Adam West proud?  Where victory isn't always murder, where strength is community and not a weird frappuccino of the philosophy of Nietzsche and incredibly unlikely Genghis Khan attributions?

Conan the Barbarian is not a good movie, but how I wish it were.

With that, we come to Vampire Academy, the bizarre Twilight/Harry Potter hybrid that I didn't know I was waiting for.  This movie is absurd and cliched, with its convenient telepathic bonds and its magic princess on the run and a vampire queen who lives in the school and calls assemblies specifically to chastise her probable successor in public (for no personal benefit).  Few of the actors seem comfortable being filmed, and the mandatory hetero love interests are a blatant discount bin Edward Cullen and some kind of Star-Trek-transporter-accident fusion of Jack Black and David Bowie.

And yet this is a movie that does an astonishing number of things right.  Our heroic bonded duo of vampire princess Lissa and mostly-human bodyguard Rose are complex characters with multiple conflicting motivations and flaws, going overboard in their petty revenge or overprotectiveness and then regretting it, trying to make things right.  The movie starts in medias res to a degree that reminded me of the original Star Wars, with our heroes on the run, immediately provoking questions about how they got there, why they left the eponymous academy, and why they're being dragged back.  (And, if you're me, whether the romantic/sexual subtext between the girls is going to remain subtextual.  It is.  Obvs.  Sigh.)  They remain, throughout the movie, likeable but imperfect, with Rose in particular (as the action hero) getting to maintain a swagger and punchiness that is usually restricted to male roles.  When her platonic bro starts to make some kind of I'm A Nice Guy rant at her, Rose dismisses him instantly to focus on more important issues.  When Discount Edward hangs around Lissa in awkward and potentially creepy ways, Rose bluffs to get rid of him, but later accepts that she doesn't get to pick her friend's friends and apologises for lying--while still making it clear that she thinks his behaviour was creepy.

(In one reversal that the blogqueen particularly liked, Discount Edward spends most of the movie being markedly useless and then gets exactly one dramatic effective moment during the climax, a fate that usually befalls the token female action hero.)

To my utter lack of surprise, internet investigation told me that this movie was a colossal failure commercially, and its Rotten Tomatoes page (aggregate score of 11%) is full of blurbs from grey-haired white men declaiming the film for being impossible to follow and trying to lure in silly teenager girls by mashing up all the modern trends of magic school and hot vampire boys.

We are left with the question: would this movie have done better with male leads?  Rose would certainly have been a more typical male character, though being younger than his hypothetical female love interest would have been a switch.  More likely that Lissa would become the love interest in need of protection (unless she was a dude too, in which case I suspect there would have been way more No Homo being thrown around and all of the leads' emotions would have to be replaced with sex or punching).  This is a movie with a strong focus on social status--characters care about how they're perceived and might prefer a battle to the death over public embarrassment--which is obviously such a girl thing, innit?  And yet my mind drifts back to a little English underdog hero called Eggsy who who just wanted to prove his worth compared to his condescending upper-class peers...

Over on the page for Kingsman (aggregate score of 74% and my unfathomable scorn) a veritable flood of enraptured white men cheer for its "stylish" "subversiveness", wit, charm, and "devil-may-care exuberance".  May I remind you that this is a film in which a lisping media tycoon decides to save the environment by inventing a machine that makes everyone turn into murderous berserkers for only as long as he holds down the button.  But "vampires want to kidnap a princess to use her healing magic for themselves" is too convoluted and weird.

And I mean: I'm not trying to argue that Vampire Academy is a Good Movie, in the sense of technical expertise or top-quality performances (apart from Rose, who was honestly delightful in every moment that she wasn't being forced into a weird romantic subplot).  But I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than plenty of other movies that are supposedly its superior, and so I start to wonder how we're defining Good Movies.  Because when you get into institutions like that--film theory and literary criticism and the like--one of the first things that becomes apparent is that a lot of our metrics and expectations have been designed by aging white dudes who scorn everything that doesn't pander directly to them.    How exactly do we decide which is more important: that a tertiary villain's actress has a natural style of delivery, or that the script acknowledges that women can have more than one personality trait?  How do we weight fluid cinematography against the 'artistic choice' to only give speaking roles to white people?

There's some kind of idea out there, never quite stated (but clearly believed by people who consider themselves 'the default'), that you can tell an apolitical story.  Like if a person just writes, lets the words flow freely without intending to make a statement about the world, they will necessarily not make a statement about the world.  If they just want to tell a story about being a hero, and they coincidentally make the climax of that story a white guy brutally murdering a black guy, there is no way the story might be racist, because they weren't thinking about racism while they wrote it.  It's only once other people come in and start overthinking things that we run into trouble, somehow introducing problems to the story just by observing what's in there.

If this blog had, like, a heraldic motto, it'd probably be something like what I wrote above there: all bigoted writing is lazy writing.  It replaces truth and originality with lies that uphold privilege and comfort oppressors.  I hope that we can, as a civilisation, move away from "X is okay if you don't mind all the bigotry" and towards "X could have been good if not for all the bigotry".  A story that hates Muslims isn't 'controversial' or 'daringly un-PC', it's a bad story pushing a bad agenda.

And if we're going to recognise that bigotry is an artistic flaw, I think it's important to give artistic value to fighting bigotry.  There's a new Ghostbusters out (it was great), and the choice to cast four lead women is considered a gimmick while the original's four leading men are apolitical.  Nah, bruh.  The original Ghostbusters has two significant women (the secretary and the damsel) and everyone else who matters is a man, and it's like that because it was written by men for themselves.*  The new Ghostbusters has a quartet of proven comic ladies because the people involved in making it agreed that it's important that there are stories about women like this.

Which isn't to say that, say, casting women is always politically progressive and creative and meritorious.  Joss "Female Characters Who Are Strong And Vulnerable In Exactly The Ways I Find Sexually Exciting" Whedon has taught us all that lessons several times over.  Heralded for years as the great geek feminist, Whedon once imagined a conversation in which a hypothetical journalist asked him why he wrote so many female characters, setting himself up for the dazzling rejoinder "Because you're still asking that question".  And yet he keeps producing exactly the same kind of character over and over again (all bigoted writing is lazy writing) because the story isn't about the representation of women, it's about that one particular kind of woman that Whedon likes best.  The entire concept that launched Buffy was 'wouldn't it be weird to see a girl do this?'  He was counting on women-as-gimmick to draw attention, but then circled back around to approximately-mainstream acceptance by slathering them in male gaze, and he has never stopped repeating this pattern. (And always tearing them down, showing them broken and abused and in need of saving anyway.)

I tragically can't close this by outlining the true rules for objectively determining what a good movie is.  That is beyond even my power as an amateur blogger.  But I think there's a lot more to be investigated in how we perceive movies aimed at or led by women.  These movies can be flawed (oh, is Vampire Academy flawed) and it's easy to brush off a cheesy movie, but is it actually the cheese and the production values that people hate, or are those just the things we let a person target when they want to destroy something because it's For Girls?


*There will likely be at least one Ghostbusters post coming soon, possibly one about the original and one about the reboot, in case you are hungry for more of the blogqueen's vitriol for Peter Venkman.

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