Archive for the Movies Category

Crone Wars: on the mythology of Fury Road

Posted in Culture, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2015 by vprime

vuvalini

Warning: This Post is Full of Spoilers. I Kind of Assume You’ve Seen the Movie Here.

Our first glimpse of Immortan Joe, the Jehovah of Fury Road, is of his elderly, tumor-riddled flesh being encased in the clear armor that gives the illusion of health and strength. Immortan Joe’s cult deals in spectacle, in visual metaphors. It is founded on the male gaze. The masses below jockey to see him in his stone tower. The young, diseased boys that make up his army desire to be seen by Joe; and to be seen going to death in his name by one another. Nux is spurred into a frenzy of action by a glance from Immortan Joe. Similarly, as a War Boy goes to his death, he exhorts his fellows to “witness” the act. The War Boys blacken their eyes; painting a skull over their faces, surrounding the power of the eye with protective darkness. Later, Nux’s fate is sealed when Joe sees him fumble the assassination attempt on Furiosa. As he lies miserably in the back of the War Rig he laments that Joe saw him fail and also saw his own “bloodbag” (Max) driving the rig. Now, he will be denied entrance into Valhalla, an honor only Joe can bestow. It’s the power of the gaze to shape reality, to have effects as demonstrable and yet mysterious as the evil eye that forms a central tenet of the cult Joe builds around himself. After the escape, the vault in which the women are kept is tagged with defiant phrases: “Our babies will not be warlords” and “We are not things.” The words made visible; words that finally enter the eye and cannot be unseen.

Immortan Joe claims people as his property and brands them on the back of the neck with his mark. This is not a placement that reminds the branded as a mark on the hand or face might, it’s a mark to be seen from above, from a remove. A price tag unobtrusively sewn into the back of a garment. Even the “wives” have this mark, underscoring their position as objects not much different from the War Boys. His appearance echoes that of the Sky Gods: long white hair, the eyes piercing and red with wrath, the (plastic, armor) body hard and muscular. (Seriously, when was the last time you saw a skinny Zeus?) His face is obscured by a grinning mask-cum-respirator. He mythologizes himself as the great father. By his hand the people scrabbling in the dust below will be raised up, he preaches. His sons surround him and act out his will. On machines driven by slaves on immense treadmills he is seen to soar into the sky, to the heights of paradise far above the suffering below. He makes water fall from the sky as the Sky Gods do, and withholds it to punish as they also do. He, like the Old Testament patriarchs, keeps multiple “wives” whom he alternately defines as “treasures” and “property.” But Joe is sick and frail. His sons are mutants. His fatherhood creates twisted versions of life. He calls himself immortal when he is clearly doomed by time. His fierce grinning teeth are a facade, and beneath he is an old man, nearly sterile. In the vault where the women were held there is a sterile round pool of water connected to an umbilical stream; the illusion of life with no growth. He sequesters that which he has no right to claim as his: life. The water, the milk that he trades for gas and bullets are taken, hoarded and controlled. He has no power to create, only to take, and then by force.

Furiosa and the women are escaping to a place that has no name, that appears on no maps. It is known only as the Green Place or the Place of the Many Mothers. This place is a shadow place. It exists in Furiosa’s memories as a place of growth, freedom and equality. It is the place she lived in before Immortan Joe claimed her as one of his “things.” Max and Nux, both outcasts from the patriarchal society of the Citadel, find themselves swept along, but it is the women who push forward in search of this feminine space. What they are seeking is an antidote to Immortan Joe, to the warlords and the attitudes that “killed the world.” This place is made of stories and memory and exists in the imaginations of the women. This is the place where they can leave behind the question of who killed the world and find a way to make it live again.
Here an overview of the mythical overtones of the female characters would be helpful. Furiosa’s name contains the Furies within it. The Furies were chthonic deities that enacted vengeance. As chthonic figures, they are associated with the underworld or with residing beneath the earth itself. A theory that resonates with me about chthonic gods claims that these figures descend from a mythology in which the Goddess was the earth itself, and that the immanent, heavy, wet and fertile nature of the earth was a manifestation of the Goddess. The sky, storms, the unseen force of the wind by contrast became the Sky Gods, and eventually, the one and only God. The Goddess absorbed the shadow side of the Sky God. Her ways were not written, not plotted out with clear rules and boundaries. She was murky, formless, unknown, a mystery. She lived in stories and memories that filled in the margins of the Sky God’s mythos. Back to the Furies. Their function is to punish wrongdoers. In the Orestia, the Furies seek vengeance upon Orestes for killing his mother, even though the killing was ordered by Apollo. Initially, I assumed she’d earned her name as one of Joe’s warriors, but later we learn that her name was Furiosa before she was taken. This signals she would always bring a reckoning for Joe’s crimes. The Warlords killed the world. They killed their mother. Vengeance would have to be served.

The unofficial leader of the wives is the heavily pregnant Splendid Angharad. Angharad is a Welsh name that translates as “much loved one,” an ironic reminder that patriarchal values confuse domination with love. She is the mother-goddess, leader and protector of the others. She has convinced the others to go with Furiosa. During one scene, she positions herself so that Joe cannot shoot Furiosa without shooting her. The other women–Toast the Knowing, The Dag, Capable and Cheedo the Fragile–are maiden-figures, though far from naive. They are first shown in filmy garments of virginal white, rinsing themselves in the water from the tanker. The Dag cuts off her chastity belt, spits on it and kicks it with a booted foot. These maidens aren’t interested in playing the helpless innocent virgin. (A reminder that virgin goddesses were not un-sexual, only unattached to a male. Many a virgin goddess has children.) It’s Splendid’s insistence on only killing when utterly necessary that spares Max and Nux. She is the conscience of the group, and her death shakes Cheedo into nearly surrendering herself. It is Splendid who accuses Nux of equal culpability with the Warlords for the state of their world. “We are not things” are Splendid’s words, the women remind each other. Splendid is the one who brings Max water. The mother gives and preserves life. She dies protecting the others. Even the child they remove from her body–the one Immortan Joe falsely claims as his property–is perfect, sheltered from Joe’s corrupting influence as long as it remained part of the mother’s body.

The Vuvalini, Furiosa’s tribe, are the crones in the goddess triad. To reach the Vuvalini, the women have travelled overnight through a barren swamp that supports nothing but crows and inhuman-looking scavengers on stilts. This landscape is the land of the dead. The crows recall the crone’s function as keeper of death. The Celtic crone goddess Morrigan took on the shape of crows. Furiosa’s anguish at learning that the same swamp is what remains of the Green Place is heart-rending. The women have found themselves pushed to the ultimate margin of a dying land. Behind them, a poisoned swamp, before them plains of salt. These are the death-lands they have had to enter to find the crone. The crone goddess holds the keys to death and rebirth. Hecate in the underworld is a crone goddess; a being of dark powers and a forbidding figure of death, a goddess of witches. What she does and rules is hazy. She’s the goddess of the crossroads, where the straight lines of patriarchal society begin to blur. She rules over the spaces between life, death and rebirth. Nux’s incantatory “I live, I die, I live again” is a Sky God’s lie, devised to hide the reality of death. Only the crone knows that rebirth requires annihilation such that “I” is a useless construct. Life goes on, not ego. The Keeper of the Seeds explains to the Dag that she’s killed everyone she met out in the desert. “I thought you girls were above all that,” the Dag replies, searching, perhaps, for an alternative way to the force that gives the Warlords their power. The crone knows that death is a necessity. The Keeper of the Seeds (an epithet that calls to mind other powerful goddesses whose names were not to be invoked: the Kindly Ones or Furies) shows the Dag her bag of seeds, sharing with her the potential for rebirth. When the Dag mentions that she is pregnant, and speculates her child will be another ugly Warlord, it is the Keeper of the Seeds who reminds her that the child could be a girl, offering hope and hinting at the potential for the Vuvalini to persist. The scene in which the two groups of women meet and recognize their common kinship is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. The wonder with which the Vuvalini welcome these new daughters is a moment of unalloyed joy. There’s recognition as they pair off and study one another, each seeing their will to survive reflected in the other, exulting in a much-desired female companionship.

Because what the world of Fury Road ultimately needs is to clear away the Sky Gods to make room for Maiden, Mother and Crone. The Vuvalini have dwindled in number in their exile to the borderlands of the psyche, but they hold the keys to rebirth. Their Green Place was poisoned by the same patriarchal logic that killed the world. The Many Mothers have become a handful of woman warriors, prepared now by the infusion of energy from their younger counterparts to stop hiding and start pushing back. As the women observe, everything they need is in the Citadel, and they intend to take it back. Toast’s aside that the Citadel is a great place to live “as long as you aren’t afraid of heights” is the invitation to reclaim divine feminine power that the crones have been waiting for.

As Furiosa tears off Imortan Joe’s mask, revealing the vulnerable flesh under the machinery, her words “Remember me?” are for the crones and for every other facet of feminine power that has been poisoned, marginalized, co-opted or stamped out. Joe’s illusions can’t change the material nature of his body. Even naming himself an immortal can’t erase the effects of time and illness on the matter, the soft, wet meat of his body. Styling himself a Sky God provides no protection from the crone’s processes of decay, erosion and dissolution. Mother, matter, material; all subject to the Goddess in growth or death.  Even as The Keeper of the Seeds dies, the Dag—the witchiest of the maidens—saves her seeds and gives her the Vuvalini gesture of reverence for the dead. The Dag takes on the role of Keeper of the Seeds, and in the succession of knowledge from one woman to another, something of the original Keeper lives again. Returning to the Citadel, Furiosa is bloodied and weakened but triumphant as she eventually stands without Max’s help. She stands one-eyed and pierced in the side like Odin, returning a lost power to the world, though not claiming that power as her exclusive right. She has lost her mechanical arm and some of her vision, showing that the Sky God’s powers are not the only ways to be strong. The body of the Father Who Must Be Killed is revealed, for it is only through looking that the power structure Immortan Joe created can understand. The crowd sets upon his human remains and tears them to bits like Maenads. The Venus-of-Willendorf women who provide the milk open taps and the water flows. As the people chant “Lift them up” the women help the people onto the platform, opening the hierarchical sacred space of the tower to all. The crones bring more than seeds; they bring knowledge of other ways to live, a different attitude toward power, the possibility for different structures. They’ve killed the god of domination, objectification and slavery. They’ve balanced the scales for those who killed the world.

The “Labyrinth” of Desire

Posted in Culture, Movies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2011 by vprime

Labyrinth is a strange film, combining adolescent fantasy with grotesque puppets; starring one of the only pop stars to attain legendary status in his own lifetime. The plot poses several unanswered questions, like what happened to Sarah’s mother and why goblins would be interested in stealing a baby and turning him into a goblin. I recall being mesmerized by this film as a child, finding the magical world of the labyrinth utterly convincing even down to the moss blooming with human eyeballs. There was something about Bowie as Jareth that was not repellently scary as Gene Wilder was in “Willy Wonka” but certainly wasn’t welcoming and cuddly. Many see this story as one of a child coming to age and learning to put aside the selfishness and fantasies of childhood, but I think that’s not what the film conveys at all. In fact, I think this film is showing us a young woman’s attempts to escape from the stifling constraints of domesticity.

The domestic environment in Labyrinth is every bit as stifling and terrifying as the most forbidding of the goblin landscapes. As in the fairy tales that Sarah consumes, her mother has been replaced by a stepmother. Sarah’s mother is never acknowledged in the film except as images in Sarah’s bedroom. She’s a silent icon, a form without substance. As she exists mainly in photos and newspaper clippings praising her acting roles, she belongs to the glamorous and immortal world of the image—as does David Bowie. The importance of images, appearances and surfaces in this film can’t be emphasized enough. The very word ‘glamour’ originally meant a spell or enchantment, especially one that produced an illusion or transformation in appearance, and was used to denote a specific form of deception practiced by fairies. Michael Jackson was rumored to have been considered for the role of Jareth. Thankfully, this did not come to pass. While Jackson was certainly familiar with illusion and altered appearances, he would not have been able to channel the threatening edge that Bowie displays here. Jackson, for all his performative acumen, was at heart too sentimental and childlike to make a convincing villain.

In Sarah’s initial tale, before the goblins take Toby away, she says that the Goblin King has fallen in love with her. So had he? Why does he come when she summons the goblins to take the baby? I believe that the movie conceals Sarah’s frustration and entrapment. From the opening scenes, we know that Sarah often has to care for her brother. In the absence of a social life, she constructs fantasy worlds in her free time, becoming the sort of heroine she could never be in reality. The reality of her life is a screaming baby, a father who barely has two words for her, a stepmother who subtly undermines her (“A girl should have dates at your age.”). In her fantasies, she’s admired and strong. Jareth, upon initially offering her the crystal ball, says that such an item is not “for a girl who watches a screaming baby.”  This suggests that Jareth find this domestic life to be beneath Sarah. As a reflection of her fantasies, Jareth is affirming Sarah’s belief that domesticity diminishes her.

Bowie’s presence infuses the film with queer desire that makes for an unsettling dynamic between Jareth and the barely teenaged Sarah. Much of this sexual subtext is surely due to Bowie’s own mystique as an androgynous, polysexual pop icon. The film makers must surely have known what they were doing when they costumed Jareth in leggings that left very little to the imagination, a frilly blouse, dominatrix gloves, heeled boots and a crop. Bowie’s Jareth is an alien creature. Even without the Spock eyebrows and Stevie Nicks hair, Jareth has a coldness wedded to seductiveness that conceals his motivations. Does he really want to keep Sarah’s brother, or is this a way to lure her into his world? As a goblin, Jareth is not quite a man. I use the term queer above because, while there is sexual tension in some of the scenes between Jareth and Sarah, it’s unclear whether that desire could be described in the terms of a heterosexual romance. In part, Sarah wants to be Jareth—with his power to bend others to her will. The presence of the baby throws a Freudian wrench into the works, as it clearly represents the potential consequences of Sarah’s sexual desires. Yet Jareth’s interest in the baby also suggests that like many an androgynous male pop icon before him, Jareth is a “safe” recipient for Sarah’s lust. He can’t make a baby of his own, so he won’t impregnate Sarah, giving her access to sexual desire without fear of consequence. Throughout the movie, Sarah has to shake herself from Jareth’s enchantments to recall her mission to save Toby. The masquerade ball scene is my favorite example. In this clip, Sarah is obviously captivated by the opulent world Jareth has created for her. In other reviews I’d read in researching this post, Jareth was painted as a bit of a Humbert Humbert for his interest in Sarah. I think this scene clearly shows that Jareth is exactly the sort of object of desire Sarah would conjure from her imagination.

As Jareth and Sarah reach their final confrontation, their exchanges take on a more overt dimension of desire. The M.C. Escher-influenced scene shows us Sarah lost in a physics-defying world that Jareth navigates with ease. The lyrics to the song here “Your eyes can be so cruel, just as I can be so cruel,” foreshadow the language of domination and submission that comprises Jareth and Sarah’s final exchange. Sarah has had to fight not just the illusion of the labyrinth, but her own urges to surrender to this world of surfaces to get to this point. She’s had to consciously reassert her filial duty to get to this confrontation. As Jareth sings, “I can’t live within you,” we see Sarah’s panic at being confronted by a side of herself that is cruel, sterile, asexual, domineering and looks great in a leather vest. In re-watching this, I was struck by how genuinely despairing Jareth looks at times as Sarah comes closer to her goal.

The final scene banishes the baby to the sidelines yet again. In an oft-repeated line, Jareth tells Sarah “Just fear me, love me, do as Isay, and I will be your slave.” This line, while certainly appealing, makes it unclear just what sort of power exchange Sarah would be consenting to. While it sounds unhealthily obsessive, it does accurately describe the sensation of being in lust.

Sarah completes her repudiation of her fantasy world in the line “you have no power over me.” Note, though, that Jareth does not disappear, he simply transforms and lurks outside Sarah’s window as the film ends. Jareth is still there, and, one can imagine, still the center of Sarah’s psychosexual world. Despite herself, Sarah has allowed herself to be reintegrated into the domestic sphere, however, her fantasy life is still very much present and still asserting itself, as the fantastical creatures of the Labyrinth rejoin her in her bedroom.  So while she will maintain the façade of the “girl who cares for a crying baby,” her inner life is safely concealed. It seems less like Sarah gives up her fantasy life than that she learns the necessity of concealing it.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Posted in Culture, Movies with tags , , , , on October 12, 2011 by vprime

I lost Monday to the flu, that’s why there was no music post this week. Lots of other personal business has kept me busy, including a new cat that I sprung from Death Row over the weekend. The cat is a female, black, and looks, as Mr. Prime says, “like a real witch’s cat.” We still haven’t settled on a new name for her. She doesn’t like to sit still for pictures. I might have to sneak up on her while she’s sleeping.

Over the weekend, Mr. Prime and I took in a performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play that I love for its wit and devotion to serious shallowness. Wilde is a master of the quick, cutting saying. I was reminded often of Morrissey (“Everybody’s clever nowadays.”) and my favorite film, Velvet Goldmine. Wilde makes a brief appearance in this film, but his words come up throughout the movie. In this clip, the line that Ewan McGregor’s character delivers before the kiss is from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

In addition, I’m working on a post about the film Labyrinth, re-editing my fiction manuscript and making absolutely no progress on a sewing project that’s in pieces all over my desk. I’ve made some jewelry that I’m planning on posting pictures of soon. There’s really no action happening on the Etsy store front, so I’ve decided to just focus on making things for myself. I end up keeping half of what I make anyway. My next post should be something more substantive.

Here is another clip from Velvet Goldmine for your viewing pleasure:

“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” -Oscar Wilde

Is “Red Riding Hood” a Feminist Movie?

Posted in Culture, Movies with tags , , , , on March 14, 2011 by vprime

As a longtime fan of Angela Carter, I was excited to hear the terms “feminist” and “werewolf” together in reference to “Red Riding Hood.” What came next was not at all what I expected. I cannot recall the last time I was so eager to see a movie end. What I was left with at the blessed end of the movie was the question “is this a feminist movie?”

Valerie is our titular character. She has grown up in a village that is set somewhere vaguely European. Half the characters have French names, the other half have English names and most of them look like they’re starring in a high school production of Erik the Viking. The forest and village have an unreal Disney look to them, most of the houses quaintly sitting on stilts and the trees bearing huge thorns that look as though made of hollow fiberglass. I half expected Keebler Elves to bounce out of Valerie’s grandmother’s house. In this village, Valerie struggles to reconcile her love for the brooding, darkly handsome woodcutter Peter with her impending marriage to the brooding, darkly handsome blacksmith Henry. The two males have no real characteristics that would make either one appealing. Both are made up of a bag of glares, bedhead and stormings off. I honestly had trouble keeping them straight for the first half of the film. There’s not much in the film that explains why Valerie has feelings for either hunk. They’re cute and nice to her when not in the throes of their own mild angst. I suppose that’s what passes for chemistry.

The action begins when we’re alerted to the existence of Valerie’s beloved sister by the news of her death. The villagers had been feeding a local wolf bits of their livestock to keep it from attacking them, now they find it has developed a taste for humanburger. After a bit of crying and wailing, the menfolk rush off into the mountains to kill the wolf and return with a head on a stake. Then Gary Oldman appears doing his best version of the Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python. He warns the villagers that the true wolf lives among them there within the village. The film could have done much with this moment of paranoia, but instead the villagers have a big peasant party that ends up looking like the high school Fall festival.

Here is where we learn just how ineffectually drunk Valerie’s father is, as she finds him passed out in the snow. The exchange between them here highlighted what was for me a huge problem in the film: it was far too contemporary. Valerie has a casual relationship with her parents. All the dialogue sounds like it came out of a CW teen drama. The biggest bogeyman the film can conjure is Gary Oldman’s holy warrior who commits the grandest modern sin of being intolerant. So Valerie’s father is a drunk who is too bland to even be interesting in his dysfunction. He harmlessly totters off after his daughter kicks him and points out the vomit on his jerkin. Yawn.

Oldman comes off as a nondenominational inquisitor. He’s unpleasant without resorting to any actual religious content. He has a confusingly multi-ethnic group of werewolf hunters with him. To show just how much of a big meanie he is, he roasts a mentally challenged kid in a giant metal elephant. Yeah. I couldn’t help thinking of films like “The Messenger” in which the religious zeal of the characters formed a compelling terror in and of itself. I commented to my moviegoing partner that this movie seemed like it had been written by someone who learned about history entirely by skimming Wikipedia.

Amongst all this, Valerie discovers she can psychically communicate with the wolf, which results in her being branded a witch. Before Oldman can carry out any actual Malleus Maleficarium-style soul-saving on her, Valerie has to sit out in the village square wearing a dog mask. At this point, some girl says mean things to her, which I guess is meant to create tension? The rest of the village doesn’t seem to turn on Valerie, so it does little to show how  a young woman depends upon her reputation for social survival. This moment was another great missed opportunity to show Valerie’s own cleverness, but instead she’s rescued by the two suitors who have put aside their dislike of each other.

By the time the film gets into the identity of the wolf, it doesn’t seem to matter. As a character, Valerie mainly reacts to whatever’s put in front of her. We know she’s supposed to be tough and smart because everyone keeps telling us so, but she displays little of these traits. There’s even a cringe-worthy moment of go-girl fake lesbian sexuality that seems to be modern film’s shorthand for “feminist character.” Valerie exists primarily to be wanted by other characters. Her actions lack real agency. In the way she relates with other women, Valerie continues to serve as a vessel for the desires of others. Valerie’s mother, for example, wants to correct her own mistake in choosing Valerie’s father by ensuring Valerie marries someone stable and relatively wealthy. The film introduces the intriguing character of the grandmother who has the potential to symbolize real destabilizing female power, but tosses her out of the way in the third act.
Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” revisited the Red Riding Hood story as a tale about the dangers of desire. The wolf could represent the predatory male, or the beast of desire within Red herself which threatens the social order should it emerge. In this film the potential for desire to upset this world is curtailed. Valerie is, above all, a good girl. She doesn’t seem to have any desires other than a distant fantasy about leaving the village–a fantasy that ultimately is subjugated to being a good girlfriend. So, Red  Riding Hood is not much of a feminist film. Female desire here is safely contained within the bounds of being adored by cute boys.

Film Review: Dorian Gray (2009)

Posted in Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2011 by vprime

This film departs from Wilde’s narrative in such an astonishing way that I had to grab my copy of the novel and look up the ending while the credits were still rolling. To say it takes some liberties is an understatement. While there are major weaknesses present, there are also moments of fully realized decadence that Wilde would not have committed to paper.

Ben Barnes plays the devastatingly handsome Dorian Gray. Though not the blonde Adonis Wilde writes, Barnes is indisputably magnetic as the aesthetic anti-hero. From the beginning, there are signs that the movie internalizes our modern pop-psychological tropes. For example, Dorian is occasionally haunted by memories of his abusive father. We see Dorian as a child cowering in the attic (where else?) as his father hunts him down with verbal and physical abuse. This is just the first concession to modern sensibilities in which all bad choices are predestined by previous abuse and all villains have a tragic secret. Dorian’s childhood abuse in this case seems to serve to make his a sympathetic figure in the audience’s eyes, whereas Wilde’s Dorian was more perfectly privileged, a boy unmarked by life when Henry Wotton first lays eyes on him. I suppose that for modern audiences to follow Dorian’s descent into wickedness and subsequent redemption, some groundwork must be laid in the language of victimization that we all speak now. Here, also, is one of the greatest flaws in this film: the erasure of the aesthetic as motivation.  Wotton has devoted himself to a life of surfaces. His epigrammatic pronouncements are sharp as needles and with nearly as much substance. It is in imitation of Wotton’s life of aesthetic indulgence that Dorian begins his foray into vice.

The film casts Colin Firth as Henry Wotton and Ben Chaplin as Basil Hallward. Hallward’s painting captures Dorian in perfect youth. When Wotton asks if he would sell his soul to be so eternally perfect as his picture, Dorian swears he would and the film suggests this exchange is made with a few music-video flashes and chiming noises.  Firth delivers his lines in a clipped, aggressive cadence that make his words seem like aural stabs. His Wotton remains grim-faced and serious in pursuit of momentary distraction from ennui. Wotton’s goading begins with pressing a cigarette on Dorian and before long, he is vicariously living through Dorian’s conquests: a memorable one including seducing a high society matron while her teenage daughter–with whom Dorian was occupied moments before–hides under the bed. The film presents lush interiors and the smoke-filled private pleasure clubs of the London upper class as the backdrop to Dorian’s ever more daring indulgences. Wotton begins to exhibit jealousy when Dorian falls for the stage actress Sybil Vane. Couching his opposition in terms of class, Wotton attempts to pull Dorian away from marriage to Sybil. He sows his final seed of discord by provoking an argument between Sybil and Dorian. This, I believe, is only to set the stage for Wotton’s eventual redemption as well. In the book, Dorian breaks his engagement with Sybil because he witnesses her bad performance in a play. Rather than make the point of stress between Dorian and Sybil aesthetic, the film chooses to side once again with modern sensibilities and raise the spectre of social disapproval, which we all know from having read Romeo and Juliet was a thing that messed up a lot of love stories in old-timen days.

Sybil does an Ophelia after Dorian leaves her. Dorian, for his part, continues his life of opium dens and bordellos. His portrait, long hidden in the attic, begins to exhale ragged breaths and drop maggots on the floor. After Hallward’s repeated insistence that Dorian display the painting again, he meets his end as Dorian reveals the portrait in the attic and then stabs Hallward with a shard of mirror. There is one point just before Dorian kills Hallward that does seem to go further than the book dared to: the scene in which Dorian kisses Hallward. This kiss is immediately followed by the fatal thrust of the glass. Here the undercurrent of homosexual desire that Dorian inspires in Hallward is made momentarily explicit. What Wilde could only hint at, this film shows. In a most ungentlemanly move, Dorian disposes of Basil’s body himself. Following his foray into murder, Dorian leaves for an extended jaunt to the continent.

Dorian returns after 20 years to a London of motor coaches and cameras. Here is where the film really loses it way. Dorian falls in love with Wotton’s thoroughly modern daughter. While the film constructs a demonstrably contemporary woman in Gladys–she smokes, she forgoes the complex frills of Edwardian dress, she’s constantly taking photos of Dorian–it necessitates transforming a minor character from the book into Wotton’s daughter. In the book, Dorian is idly involved with a country girl of the lower classes. In this film, Dorian’s affair with Gladys Wotton is detailed through her attempts to defang his arch pronouncements and her full faith in Dorian’s redemption. But this is nothing new. Its is the role of beautiful women in film and fiction to serve as saviors of men through love. Of course Dorian must come to salvation through Wotton’s daughter since his fall was largely due to Henry’s tutelage. Wotton spends the rest of the movie casting suspicious glances at Dorian that lead the viewer to believe that Henry suspects Dorian in Hallward’s death but does not explain why. I suppose it can be read under the old cliche that the father scrutinizes the partner of his daughter on her behalf. This part of the film falls flat for me. It may be that this version of the story takes it for granted that the audience wants to see Wotton atone for his part in Dorian’s corruption.

This question of the love interest as the savior is one that movies lean on heavily. It seems almost as if the film expects that the audience will find the notion that Dorian will decide to destroy the enchanted portrait through his own internal motivation unacceptable. I doubt Wilde would have taken seriously the notion that the romantic love of a woman is what the aesthetic anti-hero needs to return to humanity. This addition is generated by a modern audiences’ expectations. While the figure of Gladys in the film is compelling as she bursts Dorian’s epigrammatic pronouncements, she seems more like an intrusion from another narrative universe. In the end, Wotton takes it upon himself to destroy Dorian’s portrait, and, in the process, Dorian himself, complete with the movie cliche of exploding balls of fire.

Why does this film  choose to let Wotton destroy Dorian rather than allow Dorian to destroy himself? On the one hand, the film posits Dorian as such a perfectly pleasure-seeking subject it may be difficult to believe he retains any concern about the nature of his soul: Dorian as postmodern narcissist. While Gladys attempts to save Dorian from the blaze, he turns away from the possibility of escape. Dorian does eventually stab the portrait as in the book, but only when he has already accepted his impending death by fire in the attic. This strikes me as lesser than Dorian’s choice of death in the novel, since it makes his act in destroying the painting less impactful. After all, the painting is already on fire are sure to be destroyed anyway. It always struck me that what really tormented Dorian was not a lot of internalized moralistic blah blah, but rather the idea that there existed somewhere an accurate image of him. It’s the ugliness of the painting that destroys his illusions of a purely aesthetic life. The idea that available to any witness is an interpretation of himself that he cannot control and manipulate is what I think really spurs Dorian to destroy the painting.

Anyway, watch the movie.