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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.

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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.