Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

18 May 2018

The Australian Zombie Horror 'Cargo' Is Burdened By Its Own Gravitas


In Cargo, Martin Freeman plays Andy, a man who has to kill his wife after she turns into a zombie and travels across country with baby daughter Rosie on his back.
In Cargo, Martin Freeman plays Andy, a man who has to kill his wife after she turns into a zombie and travels across country with baby daughter Rosie on his back. (Addictive Pictures, Causeway Films, Head Gear Films)

Since the 1970s, some of the best horror films have been made in Australia. Something about the vastness of the continent, and its geographical remoteness from the northern and western hemispheres, lends itself to the kind of existential explorations of alienation that underpin the best examples of this genre.

Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) remains one of the great horror comedies, viciously lampooning small-town Australian life. Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984) fully embraces the surreal-gothic potential of the Australian landscape, and the intense terror of Wolf Creek (2005) must have caused at least a few backpackers to reconsider their trips here.

But only one zombie film of note springs to mind, the Spierig Brothers’ brilliantly inventive Undead (2003). Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s recent Cargo, released in Australian cinemas and to Netflix today, is another one. Whereas the Spierig Brothers approached the genre with energy and mirth, Cargo is a much more sombre affair, favouring dramatic realism and an understated visual approach over the garishness more typical of the films of the genre.

The result is mixed. The first half hour is brilliant, slowly building up tension and suspense, but once the narrative kicks into full gear, the film becomes far less satisfying. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it is moderately enjoyable, but given the renowned cast – it stars Martin Freeman, Susie Porter (excellent in a limited role) and legend of the Australian screen, David Gulpilil – and the potential of the genre in an Australian context, it could have been a lot better.

The narrative follows Andy (Freeman), a man who has to kill his wife Kay (Porter) after she turns into a zombie in the opening part of the film, as he travels across country with baby daughter Rosie on his back (his “cargo”) and befriends a teenage girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers). His wife bites him before he dies, so he knows he has only 48 hours remaining as a human, after which he will become one of the intestine eaters (there is an appropriately gross amount of blood and guts in this).

His mission, in his remaining time as a human, is to get Rosie to the group of Aboriginal people to whom Thoomi is also returning. This group have returned to a “traditional” way of living off the land, and are best equipped to repel the zombies. They are presided over by cleverman Daku (Gulpilil), who appears from time to time looking ghostly and saying little. There’s a touch of the noble savage myth about this whole subplot, and the images of blackfella magic are frequently accompanied by mystical-sounding music.

The most interesting encounters in the film are between Andy and Toomi and the several brain-eaters that populate the Australia of the future, but, unfortunately, these are few and far between. Instead, the action is driven by their encounters with several stock Australian film characters.

There’s the ethereal-woman in the outback, Lorraine, who seems too delicate to live in such an environment (played by Caren Pistorius in a wooden performance). There’s tough-as-nails Etta (Kris McQuade), an outback school teacher with a heart of gold. And there’s delusional tyrant Vic (played by Anthony Hayes, in a one-note and stilted performance) who is preparing to control Australia’s natural resources once order is restored. He gets his kicks doing really bad things like kidnapping Indigenous people and keeping them locked in cages in order to attract zombies who he then massacres for sport.

Caren Pistorius as the ethereal-woman in the outback, Lorraine.
Caren Pistorius as the ethereal-woman in the outback, Lorraine. (Addictive Pictures, Causeway Films, Head Gear Films)

These are cliches, indeed, but this shouldn’t matter for this kind of genre film. And yet, with Cargo it does. Because it seems to be straining so hard for a sense of gravitas (built through its dramatic verisimilitude and realist style), these cliches become terribly visible and disrupt the viewer’s pleasure. It’s like the filmmakers have deliberately not embraced the ludicrous potential of the subject matter and there is thus an uncomfortable tension between its sombre tone, the absurdity of its premise, and the flatness of its cliched narrative.

The American zombie film, emerging in its contemporary form with the George Romero films beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1968) is generally considered a critique of consumerism in the post-Vietnam era, and the most interesting element of Cargo is its attempt to reimagine the genre in an Australian context that reflects anxieties about the land and its destruction.

The film features scenes, for example, of abandoned fracking sites, and the fact that the whole thing becomes a kind of battle between a power-hungry mining type and Indigenous people could have provided grounds for incisive social and political commentary. But the treatment is unnecessarily sentimental, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any genuine emotional potency by the end. Even the sweeping panoramic shots of the Australian landscape feel contrived and unimpressive, almost like stock drone footage taken from an online tourist commercial.

Alas, Cargo seems like a made-for-Netflix movie – it makes sense, in this context, that it is premiering on Netflix – watchable but also forgettable, after its dazzling opening third. It was developed, furthermore, from a short film that went viral, and like a lot of films made from shorts (or from Saturday Night Live sketches), it feels like it lacks the legs to sustain the length of a feature.

Cargo is worth watching, particularly for fans of horror cinema, but its aesthetic will be best served, I suspect, by the small screen.

About Today's Contributor:
Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation

29 March 2018

Bring On The Zombie Apocalypse: Five Reasons Why Survival Game Fortnite Is A Runaway Success


Epic Games
By Andrew James Reid, Glasgow Caledonian University
Fortnite,” says explainer website Vox, “is kind of like Minecraft meets The Walking Dead – with a bonus Battle Royale attached.” 
Seven years in the making, Epic Games’ 2017 launch – a zombie survival game available across most console and mobile platforms – has captured the imaginations of players worldwide.

Fortnite is divided into two game types: Battle Royale, a free, online arena where 100 players compete to be the last player or team on the battlefield, and Save the World, an offline story-driven campaign that must be purchased. It is the former that has attracted the attention of players and fans, with the number of online communities growing by the day.
A wide range of design decisions could be attributed to Fortnite’s success, but I’d like to focus on understanding the play experiences that entice players to keep on playing. By examining Fortnite through game analysis tool the Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (MDA) Framework – an academically developed means to assess the design of experiences in games – we can identify the experiences on offer to players.

Fortnite offers something different for a whole range of players and the way they like to play games. This is what is known as the “aesthetics” of the game, which explains the emotional responses that players have as a result of play. These principles help to move the conversation from the abstract “games are fun” type of assessment to more concrete judgements about player experiences. In the context of Fortnite, using the MDA Framework, five aesthetics are at play which help to define its success: sensation, narrative, challenge, fellowship and pastime.

High five
Sensation concerns the sense of pleasure derived from an experience that offers something unfamiliar to players. But Fortnite shares its range of “mechanics” – actions available to the player – with many other games. Shooting big guns, for example, is a common point-and-click experience popularised in many games, such as Doom and Quake.
Massive multiplayer online games have been around for decades, with World of Warcraft the best known. Fortnite’s building system, which allows players to construct forts and defensive walls, is not dissimilar to that in Minecraft. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Fortnite’s closest competitor within the Battle Royale genre, has had success in its own right with multiple awards.

So if Fortnite is not the first game to offer these characteristics, how does it stand out as a superlative gaming experience? It can be argued that this comes from the game’s feel: handling the survival hysteria of the game while forgiving players’ lack of precision in shooting; providing security for master-crafters who have taken time to master the art of building; allowing breathing space to form strategies; and creating a cartoon style that reminds players to enjoy the post-apocalyptic environment. This could only be achieved with rigorous testing during development.

Play sessions of Fortnite embody narrative – each game session has its own unique, player-centric story. One player holding down a fort with their teammates using an assorted arsenal of weapons is different to that of the sole wanderer gathering wood to build a sky bridge. Yet both types of players may feel similar levels of enjoyment and satisfaction in their accomplishments. This sense of satisfaction is what encourages players to play again and create new narratives.

The challenge, or set of obstacles to overcome, has little to do with Fortnite’s environment. A threatening atmosphere and difficult-to-master building techniques provide the only difficulties from the game’s perspective. The real challenge is the player’s understanding and use of available space and resources and their level of skill. There is a steady learning curve to each player action – movement, shooting, building, resource management – and their relationship to each other within a tense play session.

Mastery of such a system requires extensive time and effort, but these higher levels of competence are rewarded with social stature within the game, such as costumes and body armour that suggest a certain level of skill and experience.

At the beginning of Fortnite’s Battle Royale game, players must jump off the airborne battle bus to start their adventure
At the beginning of Fortnite’s Battle Royale game, players must jump off the airborne battle bus to start their adventure. Epic Games

There is no denying that Fortnite features some form of fellowship, a community of active participants. Game modes such as “Duo” and “Squad” allow players to team up with their friends or other players online. A hierarchy of skill recognises the “best-of-the-rest” as they rise to the top of the leaderboards. Curated videos and livestreams connect people with a shared interest in the game. This community presence has undoubtedly played a massive role in ensuring Fortnite’s recent success, and will continue to define the game’s meteoric trajectory so long as it is kept hydrated with stimulation.

Finally, Fortnite reinforces the mantra of games as a pastime – people are willing to put time and concentrated effort into playing it. This can also be determined by their consumption of wider networks related to the game itself, such as videos and livestreams, blogs and forums.

Free no-risk fun
We also cannot forget the free-to-play nature of Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode in encouraging players to adopt and stay. Beyond investing their time, there is little commercial risk for players when choosing to play the game. This has worked with other games, too – the limited-time free-to-play approach was instrumental in the success of soccer video game Rocket League.

Like all games, Fortnite will have its life cycle and then eventually retire to the annals of gaming folklore. Players and online personalities will continue to gun down zombies, fight over supply drops and construct pillars of vantage until someone becomes the very last last-player-standing.

The ConversationBut what it will leave behind is a recipe for success by being self-aware about where it stands in its gaming landscape, and how to harness the design of systems and play to foster sustainable player communities that continue to appreciate and enjoy the experience. The zombie battles will be running for a good while yet.

About Today's Contributor:
Andrew James Reid, Research Associate, Glasgow Caledonian University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

25 October 2017

Stranger Things: Inventiveness In The Age Of The Netflix Original

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things - Netflix
Stranger Things. Netflix
By Arin Keeble, Edinburgh Napier University

The Netflix series Stranger Things, which shortly returns for a second season, was the surprise TV hit of summer 2016. Fans and critics revelled in its allusions to Hollywood hits from the American 1980s in which it is set. Every haircut, every rippling synth pattern, BMX chase and adolescent gesture of friendship seemed to come from an 80s movie. Its young protagonists communicated through references to Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons and the first trailer for season 2 shows them trick-or-treating as the Ghostbusters.

So what made Stranger Things feel fresh and new? Was it somehow innovative in its referencing? It certainly wasn’t because of a new kind of aesthetic recycling, as JJ Abrams had already done an 80s Steven Spielberg pastiche with Super 8, and borrowing or referencing has long been prevalent in American cinema. From Film Noir’s adoption of German expressionist techniques in films like The Maltese Falcon or Touch of Evil to the postmodern genre-mashing of Pulp Fiction, Hollywood storytelling has a rich history of pastiche, allusion and homage.

But what happens when serial TV does this? Stranger Things featured eight hour-long episodes developing characters who inevitably cannot exist solely in the stylistic shoes of Spielberg or Stephen King. And though the referencing is there, the immediate pleasures of its clever nods to E.T. or The Goonies evolve into a more sophisticated meditation on the processes of allusion.
Nostalgia and trauma
The achievement of Stranger Things is twofold. It is not just highly referential – it is actually about referencing. The series explores the way people – especially young people – communicate through patterns of reference or allusion. The programme’s retro register is also paired with an ongoing discussion of what we can see as the opposite of nostalgia – traumatic memory.

The casting of Winona Ryder is integral to this convergence of nostalgia and trauma. Ryder’s star power was born in the 1980s, when she was a teenager, through films like Heathers and Beetlejuice. In the 1990s her screen successes were accompanied by extreme tabloid scrutiny of her personal life. This included high-profile coverage of her struggles with drugs and anxiety. Because of this public history, the casting of Ryder was itself referential, as is the casting of any “star”.

As Keith Reader argued in Intertextualty: Theories and Practice: “The concept of the film star is an intertextual one, relying as it does on correspondences of similarity and difference from one film to the next and on supposed resemblances between on and off-screen personae.” So while Stranger Things’ teen drama story, centring on Nancy Wheeler, evokes the high school world of Heathers, Ryder’s performance as Joyce Byers, draws on her real life experiences. Joyce is a loving, thoughtful, single mother and a sufferer of anxiety. This is exacerbated by the disappearance of her youngest son and for much of the first series she is upset and hysterical.

Stranger Things Season 2 -  Netflix
Stranger Things Season 2. Netflix
Ryder’s performance was widely acclaimed – including by Rolling Stone journalist, Noel Murray, who suggested Stranger Things “brought her back”. Murray notes that the performance is powerful because the show takes advantage of what we already know about Ryder: that she is a “likeable celebrity who’s fallen on hard times”. Joyce’s hysteria certainly carries the power and authenticity of experience and it sharply juxtaposes the nostalgic innocence of Eggo waffles and BMX chases.

Joyce’s experiences are also echoed by other strands of the story. We learn that Chief Hopper is still struggling with the traumatic loss of his daughter and it is inferred that mystery child Eleven, who is the subject of sinister experiments, was taken as an infant from her now-institutionalised mother. Ultimately, Stranger Things’ nostalgic frame magnifies the intensity of its traumatic realism and stories of loss and psychosis.

Navigating an ‘upside down’ world
But Stranger Things is also invested in how its characters communicate through allusion. The boys, Dustin Henderson, Mike Wheeler, Lucas Sinclair and the missing Will Byers use these references to map out and understand their world – and that of The Upside Down (a dark alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world). In the first episode we learn that they have renamed the streets of their small Indiana town using references to The Hobbit and in episode three, puzzling over the mysterious Eleven, Dustin asks his friends: “I wonder if she was born with her powers like the X-Men or if she acquired them like Green Lantern?

Eleven - Stranger Things
Eleven by Aelini
Sometimes references serve as a code that adults and other kids won’t know – which is important as the boys are outsiders (geeks before geeks were cool). Sometimes references are charged with imaginative and emotional meaning. For example, Mike cites his missing friend’s boldness and bravery in a Dungeon’s and Dragons “campaign” as a reason for him and his friends to be brave in trying to find him in real life.

The ConversationLiterature academic and blogger Aaron Bady has pointed out that what makes Stranger Things’ allusions unique is that it has no “anxiety” over its gratuitous borrowing. This subverts the need “to play authenticity detective.” This is undoubtedly the case and it is striking in the world of “Netflix originals” where everything seems to be an adaptation or re-imagining, like House of Cards or Daredevil. But I believe what sets the show apart is its clever use of allusion to amplify the impact of its depictions of anxiety, trauma and loss and its exploration of allusion as a mode of communication.

About Today's Contributor:
Arin Keeble, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Culture, Edinburgh Napier University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Bonus Pictures:
Stranger Things - Nancy and Jonathan
Stranger Things - Nancy and Jonathan (via JCLF88)
Upside Down, Downside Up - Stranger Things
Upside Down, Downside Up (via NuclearLoop)

10 October 2017

New Star Wars Trailer Revealed – But Is The Force Still Strong With This One?


Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi - Poster
They’re back! (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures UK)
By Keith M. Johnston, University of East Anglia

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy not that far away, the trailer for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opened with the promise that “every generation has a legend”. Although it was not ultimately the film many fans were looking for, that trailer was very well received and – after Lucasfilm responded to fan demand and made it available online – it inadvertently ushered in a new era of online trailer viewing and audience commentary.

Almost 20 years later, the new Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi trailer faces a different pressure. While the trailer reveals (and obscures) much about the forthcoming feature, it also needs to steady the nerves of fans who are concerned about the health of the long-running Star Wars franchise.

With directors leaving (or being replaced) on the upcoming Han Solo and Episode IX films, and the release date of Episode IX put back to December 2019, The Last Jedi trailer must steady the (space)ship – and set the stage for Disney to make a lot of money.

So, how did it do?
It’s no surprise that this is a slick piece of modern movie marketing. The trailer will have been put together, taken apart, and tested to within an inch of its audio-visual life before its television and internet debut last night.

Notably, the two-and-a-half minute taster is linked by four pieces of significant dialogue – from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), Rey (Daisy Ridley), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – and none of them hint at a happy ending. Visually, we get a fast-paced montage of new (and old) locations, characters, and much-loved Star Wars iconography. This includes glimpses of X-wings, TIE-fighters, AT-ATs, the Millennium Falcon – and a species of birdlike critter that may or may not be the new trilogy’s Ewok. In many ways, it is reminscent of the darker second instalment of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.
Trailer audiences responded positively to familiar iconography when The Force Awakens trailer was released two years ago. At that time, my trailer audience project found that people responded most positively to nostalgic cues from the classic, original trilogy. “You saw the Millennium Falcon” and “Harrison Ford’s appearance” were key positives.
But while The Force Awakens trailer featured the star return of Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon and spin-off Rogue One the looming presence of the Death Star, The Last Jedi arguably features no such whizzbang moment. Instead, the moody monologues of Luke, Rey, and Ren (who may or may not be trying to kill Princess Leia) suggest a gloomier narrative focus for the film. Newer characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), BB-8 and Finn (John Boyega) are only briefly glimpsed, with the latter fighting Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, badly wasted in The Force Awakens) on what appears to be the rumoured casino planet Canto Blight.

The three most suggestive moments, then, are those that push the story in a new direction. First, Luke’s apparent (we can never be sure how much we are being misdirected) worrying about Rey’s power, echoing Ben Solo turning into the darker Ren and Annakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, complicates the expected Luke-Rey training narrative. Then there’s the hint that Ren and Rey could work together, leading to further speculation about Rey’s heritage (as the main new lightsaber-wielder without a clear Skywalker or Kenobi connection).

For me, however, the most intriguing moment is when Ren and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) seem to share a telepathic connection in the midst of a major space battle – a connection which possibly prevents him from firing on her ship. As Leia’s Force sensitivity is rarely discussed in the films, this could be leading somewhere important.

Are we being duped?
Of course, the trailer could be a masterpiece of misdirection, editing together elements that may not be directly related in the finished film. After all, the success of the initial teaser for The Phantom Menace still rankles with some trailer viewers – one noted “I’ve been burnt before (see Phantom Menace)” – while others are wary of trailers more generally.
Indeed, some viewers have adopted Yoda-style exile to try and avoid trailers completely, hoping to create “a fresh cinema experience” so that they won’t “get spoiled by it” – an opinion Last Jedi director Rian Johnson seemed to share. On Twitter, he first advised fans NOT to watch this latest trailer.

But then changed his mind, shouting:

Overall, The Last Jedi trailer strives to achieve the same balance as The Force Awakens – harking back to the past while promising a new future. As one of our survey responses noted, The Force Awakens trailer did “a good job of triggering nostalgia while introducing new concepts and characters”.

While The Last Jedi may lack The Force Awakens’ Han Solo moment, its suggestion of Luke’s expanded role, more detail on Rey’s background, narrative complications, and at least three major battle locations, including one which looks startlingly like the AT-AT assault on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, will calm nerves around the franchise, and ensure a healthy audience come December 15.
The Conversation

Ultimately, it seems the Force remains strong with this one …

About Today's Contributor:
Keith M. Johnston, Reader in Film & Television Studies, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation

18 July 2017

'Chinks In The World-Machine' – On The Casting Of The 13th Doctor Who

File 20170717 6049 m2run3
The Whovian Life via Twitter
By Una McCormack, Anglia Ruskin University

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who dreamed of going into space. She would sit on the floor in the library, cross-legged on the carpet before a big shelf of books and read about a machine that could travel in time and space. She would put on the television, and see the Doctor and the TARDIS, and wish that she could be there too. She wanted to be on the Enterprise, and the Liberator and the Millennium Falcon – and she imagined great adventures, in which she saved the world, the galaxy, and (why not) the universe.

Unfortunately, a Catholic girls’ school in the 1980s was not a great place to harbour such ambitions – and there weren’t many kindred spirits dreaming these particular dreams. They became private stories, told to myself at odd moments, just before falling asleep – but not to be shared. After all, what kind of girl likes Doctor Who? What kind of girl wants to jaunt around time and space?

Doctor Who - The 13th Doctor
At long last! BBC/Colin Hutton

To say that I am delighted at the news that Jodie Whittaker has been chosen to play the 13th Doctor is a huge understatement. I enjoyed the whole media build up immensely. I was greatly entertained watching good friends rapidly bring themselves up to speed on the rules of tennis in order to predict how long a Wimbledon final might be – so that they could make sure they were on hand when the announcement was made. I watched the trailer with refreshed wonder and a whoop of glee at the reveal.

I remembered how happy friends had been when Christopher Eccleston was cast as the ninth Doctor back in 2004, how glad they were that now there was a Doctor who seemed like them. I hoped that they would be glad now that there was a Doctor who was like me.

Remaking the world
For me, science fiction – speculative fiction – is a genre that asks us to think about possibility. All good fiction, of course, asks us to expand our horizons by sympathetically imagining the experience of others. But the apparatus of speculative fiction provides us with particular, useful tools to re-imagine what that “other” might be – and to imagine the kinds of worlds that would be needed in order to make radically different kinds of being possible.

Alien life, yes; but also the kinds of human life and organisation that might be brought about by technological or scientific advance – or the radical re-imagining of how power, authority and resources might be e distributed among us. Its best writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, seem to have the power to remake the world.

Science fiction grows up
Science fiction has not, historically, been generous to women. Mothered by Mary Shelley (in Frankenstein and The Last Man), the genre, throughout the first half of the 20th century, becomes predominantly a form of heroic literature, steeped in fantasies of mastery and conquest.

Women were rarely present in this literature, except as trophies or temptations. We survived, in the arresting phrase coined by the great science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Bradley Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon): “by ones and two, in the chinks of the world-machine”. A surge of feminist Utopian writing in the 1980s marks the beginning of a shake-up of the genre, which can now delight and surprise in many ways.

Casting a woman as the Doctor seems like something that should have happened years ago. Television is expensive, success is not assured, and risks with a flagship property can be difficult to justify. The incoming production team should be commended for this decision, choosing in Whittaker an actor of great talent whose presence will surely revitalise this ever-changing, fascinating, British institution.

Having a woman as the Doctor will not solve the conditions of vast and cruel inequality under which millions of women live today. It will not alter the grotesquery of the most qualified woman in history being passed over for the job of US president in favour of an overgrown child who wanted a toy and now doesn’t know what to do with it.

But representation and visibility do matter. What I have enjoyed most about this casting news is thinking about how this Doctor – a woman Doctor – was going to be the one that my little girl would grow up seeing. She will be her Doctor. The hero, the adventurer, the person to whom the text turns for moral and intellectual authority – that is a woman now.

The ConversationA little more of the glass ceiling has cracked. A spanner has been thrown into the workings of the world machine. We are reminded that something different is possible.

About Today's Contributor:
Una McCormack, Lecturer, Creative Writing Faculty, Department of English and Media, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

19 May 2017

Darkest Taboos: How Fleabag Busted Unrealistic Portrayals Of Women On TV

File 20170519 12266 19zl3rt
Fleabag - BBCCC BY-NC-SA
By Helena Bassil-Mozorow, Glasgow Caledonian University

Cringeworthy moments, eye-watering sex scenes, gleeful swearing, naked vulnerability and vulgarity of every stripe: groundbreaking BBC sitcom Fleabag fully deserved its recent BAFTA award. The Conversation

Fleabag (2016-) is part of an extraordinary new trend in television that kicked off a few years ago with Netflix prison drama Orange is the New Black (2013-). Both are shockingly stark and deliberately vulgar when it comes to exposing the taboo corners of female psychology, biology and anatomy. Both are realistic to the extent of being naturalistic in terms of visuals, dialogue and narrative.

This is writing by women which promises to show female characters as they really are, and not through society’s obligatory filters that exist to pigeonhole women.

Fleabag’s titular protagonist, played by its writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge and adapted for the screen from her one-woman play Touch, is a twenty-something Londoner struggling to find meaning in life. She is a promiscuous, pornography-watching sex-addict juggling a string of grotesque relationships and random encounters with managing a failing caf├ę business.

She is also trying to come to terms with the death of her best friend who committed suicide after her boyfriend cheated on her. Halfway through the first season, we learn he cheated with Fleabag herself.

Defying expectations
Waller-Bridge’s character comes from an upper-middle class family, but defies all expectations that normally come with this kind of background. For example, she is a compulsive liar and a thief. The stealing bit comes from a deep sense of insecurity and the need to attract the attention of her emotionally unavailable father.

Fleabag’s entire life is a series of shameful mishaps, ranging from taking her top off at a bank interview to stealing a statuette of a naked woman, made by her infuriating stepmother (wonderfully played by Broadchurch actress Olivia Colman) who considers herself to be an artist. Fleabag’s unpolished “neglected orphan” image (the opposite of what a young woman is expected to be) is partly the result of her mother’s death from breast cancer.

Traditionally, female protagonists in TV dramas have been “presented” to us rather than speaking for themselves. We can’t hear their real voices as they are obscured by various societal roles and expectations collectively reflected in narratives: passive, objectified sexuality, longing for a partner and a family, looking elegant and groomed, emotional maturity, readiness to provide emotional support, sacrificial motherhood, and so on. They are “clean” characters.

This “cleanliness” is both internal and external – the purity of character and body. A “proper” woman does not steal, or lie to your face, or swear, or talk about inappropriate things at the table. Likewise, she does not sweat or smell, does not have hairy legs, is not seen to have periods, or use the toilet.

Nudity on screen has become so common that it no longer shocks. Yet filmmakers are still reluctant to show a female character who wakes up looking terrible; who has spots or rolls of fat (particularly outside comedic settings). Fleabag offers true naturalism; this is what is truly groundbreaking – not the increasingly dull sex scenes involving toned bodies to which film and TV audiences are treated to every day.

Of course, there were the four heroines of Sex and the City who candidly discussed sex and the perils of modern dating, but they were beautifully made up, successful, and fashionable. None of them evoked associations with a “fleabag”. Waller-Bridge’s creation is much closer to Lena Dunham’s series Girls (2012-1017), but still deliberately avoids HBO’s polish. Everything about Fleabag is rough and raw, from the music and camerawork to the POV (point of view) and monologues.

The Sex and the City girls
The Sex and the City girls: candid but glossy. Shutterstock
In fact, cinema and TV are generally still operating along the lines of these stereotypes for both female protagonists and secondary characters, making any deviation from the norm look refreshingly gritty. A “proper” woman is therefore so sterile she practically smells of chlorine.

Blundering and failing
It is this sense of blank sterility that Waller-Bridge defies with her depiction of a blundering, failing young woman. Her hilarious asides to the camera, often including candid, uncensored remarks on uncomfortable subjects such as anal sex, masturbation and survivor guilt, show that not only she is not ashamed of her behaviour – she is proud of it.

The hyper-naturalism, which is the hallmark of the series, is the result of this pride. After all, male protagonists in TV and film have been allowed to be make mistakes for decades. Men on screen are allowed to be funny, ridiculous, ugly, promiscuous and terrified of settling down. Why can’t women?

When asked what constitutes the “female journey” (that is, the difficulties the female protagonists have to overcome on their path in narratives), the American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell allegedly replied that there was no such thing as a female journey as a woman didn’t have anywhere to go in the first place.

In his books Campbell explored the path of the male hero in world mythology. The path consists of multiple steps, and is full of problems to be dealt with, puzzles to be solved and monsters to be killed. A woman need not bother to activate her agency like a man would: she is already “there”, already perfect. She is born at peace with herself, whereas the man has to endure trials and tribulations to become the true hero of his own story.

Fleabag in a superhero costume
Fleabag is imperfect and unhappy and aching to go on her own journey to fight her demons. Soho Theatre, CC BY

This view implies that a woman does not have to face the journey of finding who she is, blundering and looking for meaning through trial and error, let alone looking stupid in the process. Her chlorine perfection stays unchanged through her life and guarantees happiness – particularly if she finds the right man with whom to start a family.

Fleabag’s rebellious naturalism successfully challenges this vision of the female protagonist (of whom we still have very few, although their number is growing – particularly on TV). Fleabag the woman is imperfect, unhappy, itching to go on her journey and fight all sorts of internal and external monsters: addictions; insecurities; the neglectful father; the dead mother; the chilly sister; the fake pompous stepmother; the weird arsehole guy; the rude bank manager. This is her way of becoming herself, of finding her own voice.

At last there is a trend that frees women from the bland stereotyped portrayals of feminine perfection and the need to conform to good girl expectations. We should be grateful to Fleabag for showing female characters who are not ashamed of being imperfect and real.

About Today's Contributor:
Helena Bassil-Mozorow, Lecturer in Media and Journalism, Glasgow Caledonian University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Bonus Video:

22 March 2017

Get Out: Why Racism Really Is Terrifying


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© Universal Pictures
By Victoria Anderson, Cardiff University

Warning: this article contains spoilers The Conversation
Get Out is a comedy-inflected horror story about what it means to be black in America. It’s Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and until now he has been more widely recognised as one half of comedy duo Key and Peele. But as a director, he makes this movie work – even a little too well. In fact, the only thing more scary than the film are some of the reviews.

To summarise: a talented young black photographer called Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) goes on a trip with Rose, his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to visit her parents. Having already worried that the parents might be racist, Chris is disturbed to find that the seemingly-liberal family has a number of black “servants” who behave like zombies, seemingly controlled and manipulated by an unseen force. He is further unsettled by (mostly white) visitors to the house who make gauche, racially-charged and fetishising comments, crooning over Chris’s “frame and genetic make-up” and announcing “Black is in fashion!

Chris’s fears are realised, and worse. The Armitage family turn out not just to be racist, but to be pathological “negrophiles”. They have developed a horrifying system of abducting, brainwashing and ultimately brain-swapping black people, to use them as pets, sex slaves or repurposed body substitutes.

Rose’s hypnotherapist mother mesmerises Chris to make him believe that he is trapped at the bottom of a deep pit. And while Chris wonders how to escape without appearing rude, Rose’s neurosurgeon father auctions him off – to be stripped of his brain – to a blind art critic who wants nothing less than to “see through [his] eyes”.

Meet the parents. © Universal Pictures

Seasoned horror buffs will know that the standard resolution to a survival-horror film of this type (police turn up at the final hour, villain is dispatched, hero is saved, all’s well that ends well) is not to be anticipated. The “black guy always dies first” has become a self-reflexive horror-movie trope. And if Facebook Live videos have taught us anything, it’s that this uneasily applies to the real world as well.

Then again, we might also recall that other classic horror that happens to feature a black male protagonist. In George Romero’s 1968 film Night of The Living Dead the hero gets all the way to the end of the film, only to be shot dead by the authorities – just in time for the end credits.

The horrors of slavery
Coming in the wake of a slew of slavery-themed dramas such as Roots, Underground and Twelve Years a Slave, Get Out is a transparent nod to the genre. The slavery subtext is hinted at early on when we find that Rose’s liberal, professional mother goes by the name of “Missy”: a common appellation for the Mistress of a slave-holding. Yet the film’s subtle genius lies in its ability to trace almost invisible, yet indelible lines of continuity from the centuries-long slavery period to the present day.

Historically, anti-slavery rhetoric – which traces its own history back to the late 18th century – tended to focus on the inhuman physical conditions of the slave ship, and the moral incongruity of human chattel. There remains a cultural tendency to view the “horrors of slavery” in the same concretely objective terms, but it bears stating that white abolitionists were not necessarily of the opinion that blacks were equal to whites. They saw the practice of slavery as dehumanising and degrading to all those who participated in it. During the 19th century, slavery increasingly became both a liability and an embarrassment to what purported to be civilised societies.

Lobotomised. © Universal Pictures

This residual sense of embarrassment, shame and disavowal arguably persists in Western liberal democracies, where the recollection of slavery and its role in Western history is a source of discomfort. But this easy sense of revulsion doesn’t require one to address slavery’s underlying ideology of racial supremacy, much less the sexual fetishism and sadism that characterised much of its practice, as contemporary accounts will attest. What Peele’s film forces viewers to consider is whether such underlying power relations and warped desires remain wholly intact in our modern society.

What has often been missed in the discourse around slavery, and the persistence of post-slavery power relations, is the strategic and enduring psychology of slavery. It is this elusive quality that Peele’s film manages to capture.

The institution of slavery necessitated not just sailing and ironmongery skills, but a systematic regime – embedded in law, and lasting for centuries – of unrelenting terror, torture and dehumanisation resulting in absolute control over a cowed and docile workforce. Peele’s film parodies this on a micro-level. Rose’s family mentally break their victims using a multi-stage process that begins with hypnosis and ends with lobotomy. It is no accident that both Mr and Mrs Armitage are professional brain specialists.

Check your privilege
But what about those reviews? Variety calls it a “searing political statement” disguised as an “escape-the-crazies survival thriller” – where “the crazies are the liberal white elite, who dangerously overestimate the degree of their own enlightenment”. Since the “crazies” in question are complete psychopaths, I’d argue that they have very little investment in their own “enlightenment” – unless that term was intended as a pun.

Many reviews – this one included – describe Get Out exclusively as a satire on white liberal elitism, one which asks (white) viewers to “check their privilege”. But they are, perhaps, reading it from just such a privileged perspective. In so doing, they unwittingly repeat the dynamics parodied in the film, invalidating the black experience and ignoring the possibility that the film might not be primarily about the experience of whiteness, nor created specifically for the edification of white audiences.
But the Variety review gets worse. Besides a dubious comment about “love [being] color-blind”, the reviewer describes Chris as “a dark-skinned black man” – at which point I started making the same side-eyed facial expression that Chris makes when he first meets the liberally-racist parents. Why the need to doubly-emphasise his “darkness”?

This is a minor point, to be sure – and the comment was no doubt made innocently. But the effectiveness of Peele’s film plays on the very real fear that behind every throwaway racial remark lies something of an entirely more sinister magnitude. This, by the way, is what makes the “n” word so explosive.

That is to say, each of these uncomfortable moments threatens to reveal a deeply-entrenched racial ideology that some would say has both underpinned and facilitated the cultural and economic development of Europe and America during the past 400 years. Success relied not just on forced labour and territorial expansion/exploitation, but on the carefully-wrought ideologies that enabled it: crucially, the ideological conceit and pseudo-science of race and white supremacy. Colonialism, slavery and Nazi Aryanism evolved from the same fundamental set of beliefs.

The terrorism of white supremacy is that it is not only an extremist movement. It is the spectre haunting Get Out, just as it is the spectre that continues to haunt our modern, liberal societies. And in the gaslight of Trump’s America it is, quite literally, terrifying.

About Today's Contributor:
Victoria Anderson, Researcher/Teacher in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 

8 March 2017

The Love Witch: A Film About The Perversities Of Desire That Will Soon Be A Cult Feminist Classic


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The Love Witch
By Marion Gibson, University of Exeter

Elaine is a gorgeous witch who has been abandoned by her husband. She tells us that she is looking for new love: she wants a manly man, someone who will be fascinated by her womanly charms (witchy puns intended) but remain the strong, silent type, pay no attention to her needs, and generally treat her as a trophy. A specific and peculiar desire, perhaps, but attainable. This may not sound like the premise for a thought-provoking film about feminism, but Anna Biller’s latest movie, The Love Witch, is just that: and it’s odd, shocking and beautiful to boot.

The Conversation
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) goes out looking for love: seducing a man she meets in the park, ensnaring her neighbour’s husband. But even when she finds what she wants and is appropriately adored, lusted after, and treated as an object, her love affairs tend to end fatally. It quickly becomes clear that “love” is not what she really wants – she seems more interested in power, or exploitation, or revenge. As we follow her on her quest, things get bloody.

Out for love … or revenge? (Icon)

But of course, Elaine is not a realistic character, and The Love Witch isn’t about real men and women. Instead, it’s about the pursuit of fantasy, especially unreasonable fantasies of the perfect man or woman. And it’s also heavily influenced by its director’s interest in the pleasures afforded by genre films: the Hammer horror, the 50s romantic comedy, the hey-nonny-nonny musical, the film noir.

By slowing down the action, quoting from lots of classic movies, and making her actors ham up their roles, Biller pushes us beyond the simple story of a lovelorn witch. The audience is encouraged to laugh at the plot and its stereotypes. What we end up with is a sophisticated reflection on the way old films offer us gendered pleasures, especially those involving the square-jawed cop and the soft-focus pussycat.

Even the critical vocabulary The Love Witch conjures up (as you can see) reeks of the mid-20th century, when men were men and women were women, or pretended to be. At times, you expect Cary Grant or Grace Kelly to walk into the frame, smoking without guilt or ash, grimly flirtatious, a walking stereotype of the debonair playboy or the femme fatale. Why, viewers might ask themselves, do we still enjoy these films? What do we get out of looking at these actually quite harmfully unreal heroes and heroines?

A dream wedding. (Icon)

This makes The Love Witch sound like a joyless argument for censoring cinema. But in fact it’s the reverse. By all means, it suggests, let’s enjoy the ludicrous gender politics of mid-century Hollywood, so long as we know it’s ludicrous. Let’s play at being Doris Day or Victor Mature or Rock Hudson – after all, they were “playing” themselves in every sense of the word. Let’s pretend we’re fairytale princesses, and knights on white chargers. And, of course, witches.

The film goes all out to help us enjoy playing with these ideas. Its colours and textures are delicious, filled with scarlet lipsticks, creamy cakes, pastel veils and blushing roses. Samantha Robinson, as Elaine, goes from one breath-taking outfit to another, moving between 1955 and 1975 with equally gorgeous results. And the sets that surround her are crammed with design classics: cars, lamps, hats, bags, chairs, rugs that you immediately want to buy on eBay.

Out for tea. (Icon)

But there’s also the odd jam jar of urine, and splash of menstrual blood. Although it is broadly a romp, the film tips delicately from romantic comedy to exploitation horror, quoting every witchcraft film and TV show you could name: The Wicker Man, Charmed, Bewitched, Practical Magic, To the Devil a Daughter, Suspiria, Season of the Witch as well as a host of others.

Interest in witchcraft is at an all-time high in popular culture, with Harry Potter on the one hand and American Horror Story: Coven on the other: one a satisfying empowerment fantasy for children and teenagers, the other an adult festival of sex and violence dramatising female power and the strengths and limitations of sisterhood. The Love Witch is closer to the latter.

But because it’s not tied to a week-by-week suspenseful plot or ratings data, The Love Witch can wander off in absurdist or Brechtian directions whenever Biller wants it to. Bertolt Brecht’s drama aimed to show audiences the political facts behind personal stories, drawing attention to capitalist exploitation by breaking down the audience’s ability to invest in the characters he put in front of them. When characters started singing or directly addressing the audience with political statements, viewers couldn’t hide behind enjoyment of the plot or speculation about their fictional motives, but had to confront bigger economic truths.

The Love Witch works in a similar way at times, although its focus is gender, not economics. The result is that viewers who don’t know what to expect might sometimes be taken aback by sections where the acting is deliberately wooden or the plot is put on hold for a sing-song or a lecture on feminism. But if you know something about mid-20th century theatre, you should be greatly entertained.

There are also reflections on witchcraft as a pagan religion in the film, which will interest contemporary witches, and perhaps enrage some modern pagans. Scenes set in a Wiccan coven suggest that far from liberating women, witchcraft as it was imagined in the 1960s and 1970s simply replicated patriarchal exploitation. Elaine strips and submits to sex with the cult leader in a way that looks more like abuse than empowerment. Her witch friends are creepy pseudo-feminists, and she herself a “bad witch”, trailing madness and death in her wake. This depiction is more about paganism in film than in reality.

Modern witchcraft. (Icon)

The Love Witch is a sophisticated collage of filmic history and as part of that it plays with stereotypes of the witch in popular culture. It’s funny and sad, but above all it is a visual delight and it makes you think. If that sounds like your chalice of hellbroth, then The Love Witch is for you. I enjoyed it, and I suspect before long I’ll be discussing it in the classroom as a cult classic.

About Today's Contributor:
Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 

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