Love Note – Marvel Films

Spoilers – please tread carefully!

For many years I shunned the superhero genre. I was, and still am, a huge fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films but, after the astonishing disappointment that was Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013, I ignored the glut of superhero films that followed. I still haven’t really forgiven DC for wasting so appallingly the talent and excellence of Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Dry, vacuous, thin writing. Atrocious. Superhero films subsequently defined blockbuster filmmaking in these early decades of the 21st century, and I wanted nothing to do with them.

Enter: Lockdown 2020.

Amongst the numerous personal epiphanies, rediscoveries, explorations and denunciations that this period elicited, one of the most joyful things we did was watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film in order, from Iron Man to Spiderman: Far From Home (disclaimer: The Hulk films aren’t on Disney Plus; we will watch them at some point but I have a hunch that we haven’t missed anything too drastic).

In many ways, I conflated Marvel’s films with the shoddiness of the DC output, and, pre-emptively diagnosed Marvel’s films alongside Nerdwriter’s analysis of the ‘Epidemic of Passable Movies’. Big-budget films that rely so heavily on tropes and cliché that they are tonally unconvincing and annoyingly poor. This isn’t to say that some of Marvel’s films aren’t ‘passable’: Iron Man 2 is crap, Avengers: Age of Ultron is weak and Dr Strange is bland and famously appropriated Eastern traditions and spiritualities for yet another egotistical white man to ‘find himself’. Marvel is also hugely reliant on mythologies of nationhood and capitalism, which underscore every single film. However, there is much to love in this epic serial of films that provided relief from pandemic anxiety. With a plot template that is consistent and hardly deviates from a standard exposition – conflict – climax – resolution structure, these twenty two films and their stories were comforting, relatively thrilling, slightly mindless, and everything that were needed to survive months of quarantine. Like a 21st century reincarnation of Borachio’s Decameron, which, coincidentally, I attempted in Lockdown. I got to the end of the Second Day then promptly gave up: there was only so much wife-stealing, ambiguity around sexual consent and general frustrating buffoonery I could take for one pandemic. I think I’ll just stick to the Pasolini film.

I digress.

Below are some of my thoughts, opinions, loves and obsessions about the twenty-two films we watched:

  1. My favourite Avenger is Black Panther and I am devastated about the loss of Chadwick Boseman

It goes without saying that the tragedy of Boseman’s untimely death far eclipses the sadness we might feel as fans of Black Panther who will not see him in the role again. However, we can also acknowledge that Boseman’s performance is nigh-on legendary as T’Challa, and is a gift to cinema. As a character, Black Panther is one of the most powerful, endearing and incandescent Avengers to watch. Thanks to his vibranium suit and his ability to metaphysically connect with his ancestors and forebears, he is formidable and riveting, whilst also demonstrating deep dedication to his family, ancestral traditions in his advocacy and loyalty for Wakanda. Of course, as Emma Dabiri argues in Don’t Touch My Hair, the Marvel vision of African affluence and abundance is problematically neoliberal; however, the significance of seeing an African country and its peoples thriving technologically and financially is a rebuttal to white supremacist stereotypes and depictions of that continent. Boseman helped to forge a path in the representation and celebration of black life, the importance of which cannot be downplayed. The huge emotional and spiritual void his death leaves in this franchise undoubtedly echoes as a modicum of the one he has left in the lives of his loved ones.

2. My other favourite Avenger is Captain America

I was once unceremoniously dubbed ‘vanilla’ for holding this opinion. I truly don’t care. Whilst Thor and Tony Stark embarked on their redemption arcs, Steve Rodgers was earnest, honest and dignified from Day One. I love to see this in my lead male protagonists once in a while (see my Love Note on Alyosha Karamazov for more). The scene in the lift in Winter Soldier is dramatically excellent and I don’t think any moment in a film has made me so disproportionately excited than when he was able to pick up Thor’s hammer in Endgame. Be in no doubt that I was shrieking ‘I knew it!’ along with Thor. What I love about Captain America is that he is always the first one into a fight and the last to give up on a fight: standing alone, battered and bruised, in front of Thanos in Endgame as the last line of defence for life itself, unwilling to give up, is the perfect encapsulation of who this man is. He never moves from a place of rage, anger or lack: there is no hubris here. Instead, he’s slightly melancholic all the way through, thanks to the loss of love-of-his-life Peggy and his existence as a living anachronism. As a result, he has Frank Ocean sad boy vibes in bucketloads, which I love. Of course, he is by no means perfect: the character’s relationship with American nationalism and militarism is, at times, nauseating. But he is a character who, in spite of this, is endlessly optimistic, never gives in and always tries to do the right thing for as many people as possible. There’s a lot to like there.  

3. One of my future dogs will be called Groot

My favourite tree-esque character since Treebeard (not a tree of course, but an Ent) Groot is everything. I wept bittersweet tears at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, when he protectively encased his friends in his branches to protect them, whilst suffering fatal damage to himself. Thankfully, his Jesus moment encompasses full resurrection, and we see Groot re-born as a precious and hilarious sapling and an uncannily familiar angsty teen. Always helpful, loving, resolute, and with a particular penchant for aggression when necessary, Groot is a shining star of the supporting cast and I love him, and will name a future puppy dog in his honour. The self-sacrifice ‘We are Groot’ scene at the end of the first Guardians film crystallised for me that this group of characters in this corner of the MCU are in one of my favourite films of the franchise. From the opening strains of Redbone’s ‘Come And Get Your Love’, to when the future Guardians are described as ‘bunch of assholes’, it was obvious that this superhero film was the scrappy, fun, genre-dying franchise sibling that would pave the way for the more experimental likes of Thor: Ragnorok and Tom Holland’s Spiderman.

4. I am conflicted by the up-coming release of Black Widow

It’s taken Marvel far too long to commission films based around the women of the MCU. Captain Marvel is excellent and was a real breath of fresh air after so much machismo and seemingly endless male soul searching throughout these films. There is the indefinitely postponed Black Widow film to watch in some post-pandemic future, but I feel more begrudged by it than completely psyched. Throughout the franchise, Black Widow seems to serve more as a distraction to movie fanboys than to exist as a fully realised character. This isn’t to discredit Black Widow as an idea or Scarlett Johansson’s representation of her: I think she is a poorly written throughout and has not been taken care of properly by the makers of the films. I am frustrated that we will only now get an origins story when we’ve had to witness her endlessly supporting others, her lukewarm love affair with Bruce Banner and the mediocre handling of her death.

5. We need more Nebula and Gamora

Oh, the joy of seeing sisters on screen. These two characters present the highs and lows of sisterhood unlike few I have seen before. Fighting one another to the death when necessary? Relatable. Becoming the ultimate force to be reckoned with when united for the same cause? Absolutely. These two convey the ridiculous, hilarious and fierce love that can exist between sisters, and we need more of it in film. I hope that the producers and financiers at Marvel will give us more of Nebula and Gamora, who are, in my opinion, two of the most important and essential characters of the whole franchise.

    

Paris Hilton and us

My tolerance and, indeed, indulgence of, what I deem to be, divine trash has its roots in the halcyon days of 2009. Drunk on a popular culture concoction of Gossip Girl and Look Magazine, and living with the unshakable desire to replicate Sienna Miller’s boho aesthetic (it never went well), I was taken in by perhaps the worst possible trash television. In January of that year, I promptly started watching and became hooked onto a show called Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.

The premise was simple and utterly laughable: contestants lived in a fancy house and all competed to become socialite and heiress Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend. The show was a hot mess. The contestants all wore necklaces bearing Paris’s name, one contestant’s eligibility came into question because he was too young to get wasted in Las Vegas, and challenges included buying Paris presents, designing her a dress and enduring a twenty four hour clubbing crawl through Chelsea.

Paris Hilton was everywhere at the time. As one of the original reality TV stars, thanks to her show ‘The Simple Life’ which first aired in 2003, she was constantly photographed and gossiped about, and effectively paved the way for a new generation of people who became famous for being famous. I had five channels until about 2008, and so was unable to watch any American shows that were prevalent at the time. I read about all of Paris’s antics in trashy magazines and, even though I didn’t particularly care about her or her life, I felt like for some reason it was imperative that I had an opinion about it. I remember having in-depth knowledge, as did many people at the time, of extraordinarily specific details about her life: from her catchphrases, the names of her dogs and what her house looked like, to how much she weighed. I also remember absorbing hideously toxic stories of her relationships, break-ups, the sex tape her ex-boyfriend released without her consent and her friendship issues. Looking back, it is mad to think how much of her life was served up on a platter for public consumption, partially as part of her own doing, but also because the tabloid press were obsessed with her. Some of the specifics may have been fabricated or completely blown out of proportion; regardless, I had huge opinions about who she was and what she was like, even though I had never seen her in a television show until 2009.

In spite of all the candy-soaked ridiculousness and extravagance of the silly TV show Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, something started to stand out to me about Paris herself. When on her own or with a small number of other people, her voice completely changed. Instead of the high-pitched baby voice for which she was famous, used to deliver her litany of catchphrases and vacant platitudes, her voice would become low, becoming a quintessentially deep Californian drawl. I recognised, even back then when I was still trying to navigate my own personae of public and private selves, that Paris Hilton had created an enormous Barbie façade. She knew the effect she had on people, she knew how to play a character and that underneath it all, possibly, was something else.

Since 2009 until today, I hadn’t given much thought or attention to Paris Hilton. Whilst still working successfully as a businesswoman and building her brand, her light was somewhat dimmed during the ascension of the Kardashians who went on to embrace the reality television medium and almost completely redefined it in their own image. Instagram came into my life in 2013 and, like many others, I began to walk in the footsteps of Paris et al. as I built and shared my own public narrative of my life. With the release of Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring in 2013, I reflected on the role of figures like Paris Hilton, the obsession they inspire and, ultimately, suffer from. The film is such a captivating sojourn through the pitfalls and pandemonium of celebrity culture, at once capturing the perverse sublimity of materialism whilst also observing, with withering distance, the ugliness of ruthless greed. Hilton famously appeared in the film and allowed Coppola to film in her house, which had been burgled by the real ‘Bling Ring’ gang between 2008 and 2009.    

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the YouTube documentary ‘This Is Paris’. Fatigued by my job, by Covid-19, by 2020 in general, I geared myself up to watch some divine trash. It turned out to be anything but. Everything I had recognised about Hilton in 2009 came rushing back: the voice, the façade, the platitudes. What was interesting about the documentary, however, was that it became the means through which Paris reckoned with this construction of herself. She has evidently been aware of this character her entire life, but this seemed to be the first time she was confronting this part, this projection of herself, that we have all become so familiar with.

Significantly, the modulations of her tone of voice became increasingly stark. We see her squealing and cooing her way through the first half an hour of the documentary, posing for cameras, taking selfies and slinking around her house. This changes during a business trip to South Korea, where she divulges her long-term suffering with acute insomnia and nightmares. Immediately, this brings around her deeper, richer vocality that lasts for most of the rest of the film. Her mother, Kathy Hilton, pinpoints the adoption of ‘the voice’ forty five minutes in, as she describes her daughter as a ‘Disney child’, constantly decked out in rhinestones, faux-fur, glitter and pink and adopting a high-pitched voice to match. Kathy’s implication here is that Paris is dawdling through her adult life, very rich and successful of course, but clinging to childish totems and self-presentation whilst nearing forty years old. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but an observable and critical fact.

What unfolds next is a deeply existential and moving piece of self-inquiry. This is a woman who appears to be trapped within a prolonged state of adolescence, who is afraid of taking steps into womanhood. Paris admits herself at around an hour in that ‘when you get married, you have to grow up’, before reflecting on her relationships and how they have never culminated in a marriage or children. Of course, the key to a happy, healthy life is not necessarily getting married or having children: this seems like an antique and regressive expectation for women, and it is perfectly fine if she doesn’t want those things. Indeed, an interesting part of the film comes when she discusses family and relationships with sister Nicky Hilton-Rothschild, who dissects whether or not Paris is living under a societal expectation or under her own volition when she ventures that she would like a family. This had echoes of Tinsley Mortimer, another famous blonde, curiously childish socialite, who had the exact same inner tussle whilst starring in the Real Housewives of New York City. Both Hilton and Mortimer have had their eggs frozen, and both are unsure as to whether their dreams of getting married and having children are ones that they inherently feel or are compulsions of patriarchy. Mortimer summed it up well when she drunkenly quipped, ‘maybe I’m just happy with chihuahuas?’ Confusion abounds for them both, especially as both have built brands and images that revolve around their own archetypal adolescence.

This adolescence is expressed, and in none more clearly than in Paris Hilton, through the voice. Jungian analytic psychologist Marion Woodman writes that the voice is deeply connected to the depths of womanhood, conveying a radical acceptance of the Feminine, the yin, that exists in all humans and not related to societal constructions of gender. The voice of the adolescent is girlish and high-pitched, whereas the woman’s voice is deep, slow and resonant. The voice of archetypal womanhood reflects an earthly connection to the body, that physical bridge between the material and the divine, honouring and loving its rhythms, needs and functions. The voice is the harbinger of someone who is present, receptive, in love with life, who embraces process over product and glories in connection, be it with friends, family, the glory of the dawn, poetry or  just really, really good food. The body, in particular the female body, has been repeatedly controlled, judged, denied and shamed throughout history, and is the main battleground of patriarchy; has been viewed and gazed upon through the eyes of denigration, sin and doom, when it should be hailed and revered in awe.

In the adoption of a high-pitched voice, therefore, Paris shows that she clings to the familiar simplicity and rootlessness of the adolescent. She travels constantly, never allows herself to take a break and longs for the day when she has finally made a billion dollars. And yet, something tells her she cannot go on like this. She is perennially exhausted, cannot sleep and feels increasingly dissociated and detached from her life and her sense of self. She admits that, yes, the high-pitched happy vision of ‘perfection’ is a character, that she knows few people who aren’t disingenuous, has huge trust issues and repeatedly finds herself in relationships were her boyfriends attempt to control her. The adolescent has run its course: it’s clear in this documentary that the part of her that wants to transition into womanhood and an authentic, connected life, leaving behind the dregs and frivolities of the adolescent, is trying to come to life.

However, transformation is rarely free from pain. Crucially, Woodman suggests, the body holds and records trauma, and needs to be consciously met with compassion and healing. We see this unfold in the last part of the documentary, where Paris reveals that as a teenager, she attended Provo Canyon School, a pseudo-correctional facility for wayward children masking as a school in Utah. She was forcibly taken there, mentally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement and repeatedly threatened and shamed. Her insomnia and nightmares are rooted in her experience at the school, and her whole career is built upon her desire to escape from and not process her trauma. As a result, her trauma has lived on in her symptoms which now, through this documentary, have been brought out into the daylight. The teenager who suffered so much erected walls, hid behind a façade, pursued material wealth and notoriety and became the Paris Hilton character that we know today. It’s almost as though the hurt and pained teenager is still trapped in the body, revealing itself through a makeshift high-pitched voice, unable to transition to adulthood. Until, perhaps, now.

After speaking with a group of fellow survivors from the school, Paris is captured in her enormous walk-in wardrobe, surrounded by lines and legions of handbags, shoes and jewellery. She looks uncomfortable and openly questions why she has so much stuff that she never wears and never uses. It is a classic moment of a crystal castle shattering around the heroine, the one she built to protect herself from her pain and her trauma. It is eerie how these markers of success, affluence and perfection almost visibly turn into empty voids around her. It’s a tale as old as time: capitalism sells us a story that accumulating wealth and lots of expensive things is the key to our salvation and the happiness we yearn for in our lives, when in fact our endless ‘stuff’ serves to barricade us within ourselves, preventing us from any semblance of connection.

Paris Hilton was one of a number of architects that used capitalism, materialism and white privilege as a bedrock to elevate themselves financially and socially and literally influence the way in which Western society conceives of itself and presents itself. Even if we don’t care about Paris Hilton, we have to acknowledge that the way in which entertainment and social media work has everything to do with the impact she has had. It’s like when people say they don’t care about fashion and I almost instinctively now rattle off Miranda Priestly’s monologue about the blue belts in The Devil Wears Prada, a scene that remarkably and deftly captures the entwining of capitalism, fashion and supposed ‘free choice’. It is because of this that I think Hilton’s documentary is important: yes, she represents and models a dysfunctional relationship with work, materialism and privacy; however, she is also a blueprint for how as a society we all live with traumas, and that our traumas manifest in how we present ourselves, what we buy and how we live our lives. No one is free from their own personal reckoning, that day where we wake up, or are forced to wake up, and realise that we cannot carry on the way we have been living. Of course, the extent to which Paris Hilton barricaded herself from her own trauma is truly epic, but we all have our symptoms, we all have our addictions that make us crave more and more, preventing us from meeting ourselves exactly where we are meant to be (more often than not with our pain). If a more embodied, grounded and authentic version of Paris Hilton is left in its wake, which I am sure she will be, then this documentary and its subject, are wonderful teachers.

Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

Crudo 2

I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

11365761493_ec95cd78d6_o-1500x755

I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

StellaDonnelly_BewareOfTheDogs

Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

The Politician

As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

Dressed.jpg

Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

DIDs

The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

Joseph Campbell

Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

First Response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 2/2

Part Two: Tarantino’s representation of women

To continue my exploration of expectation in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, (my critique of the ranch scene can be found here) I would like to discuss an aspect of the film that received a lot of traction in the run-up to its release and occupied commentators afterwards.

During the film’s promotional tour at Cannes Film Festival, a clip from Once Upon a Time’s press conference went semi-viral. It featured a journalist asking Quentin Tarantino about Margot Robbie, having been in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya being given few lines as Sharon Tate in this film. The clip can be seen here. Tarantino unequivocally ‘rejects [the] hypothesis’ and Robbie answered that she ‘appreciated the exercise’ of using alone-time on screen to construct a character as opposed to being presented always in relation to or through interaction with others. This did little to convince some commentators upon the film’s release, including Clémence Michallon at the Independent, who concluded that Tarantino’s lack of dialogue for Robbie was indicative of Tarantino’s male gaze subsuming everything, which was both ‘insulting’ and ‘boring’.[1]

This has been a sticky issue in my thinking about the film. I am, as many of you aware, a big advocate for women being given nuanced, interesting characters in film. Having said that, I am not a strict disciple of the Bechdel Test, whilst I appreciate its importance as a basic bar for storytelling and representation on-screen.[2] (For the record: this film does pass the test). I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but it’s true that Robbie does not say much and this is slightly uncomfortable: Sharon Tate does little more than put music on, drive around in a delightful Porsche and dance about. I can absolutely appreciate the criticism; however, I think this is, ultimately, a simplistic argument, given the self-reflection at work in the film and because of the way in which Tarantino uses the film and its setting to play with history and expectation.

Similarly, I think it is important to highlight that having dialogue in a film does not necessarily save women from poor representation (see my footnote on the Bechdel test). The journalist at Cannes suggested The Wolf of Wall Street as a film where Robbie was given plenty of dialogue to work with, and yet Martin Scorsese’s representation of her was sexualised beyond belief. Robbie was front and centre of Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn, and yet here too she was hyper-sexualised and Zac Snyder gave her little to work with beyond that. Michallon at the Independent makes the case that in Once Upon a Time, Tarantino uses Robbie as Sharon Tate to convey a deified form of femininity: ‘a luminous, kind, generous angel of a woman whose heart seems wide open to the world. It’s a flattering depiction, for sure, but it’s also terribly reductive […] a lifeless, perpetually cheerful doll’. I would argue, in the first instance, that the fact that we see these former attributes as reductions is a damning indictment both of the nastiness we tolerate in society and the way in which we accept being open-hearted and kind as completely unrealistic. Sharon Tate was described with reverence by the likes of Mia Farrow and was famed for her generosity and kindness, there is no reason why this should not be significant in Tarantino’s representation of her here. Secondly, I would like to argue that through the film’s use of history as a fluid play-thing, Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate were not reduced within the narrative of the film, and that in more ways than focusing on one female character, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood waves in an empowered cohort of women and womanhood.

One of the most important parts of Michallon’s argument is that Tate does not experience any kind of personal growth and that ‘watching people just live is boring’. Of course, this is an extremely personal assessment: I happen to be an enormous fan of films where not a lot happens and what we are offered is an in-depth character study. What is so ironic about this claim, however, is that in real life, we cannot watch Sharon Tate live and we haven’t been able to since 1969. This is singularly important in the film. We might complain that not a lot happens because she spends a day on her own and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but there is some joy in watching a woman on a solo trip to the cinema (an exercise I would recommend all women indulge in/challenge themselves to at one point or another), enjoying time with her friends, dancing and having fun and preparing for motherhood when we know in real life that Tate was robbed of the chance of being able to do this. Furthermore, we are offered nuance in the dialogue-less-ness: in her interaction with a female hitchhiker, Tate drops off the woman, wishes her all the best on her ‘adventure’, thus suggesting that she spent the majority of the journey listening to someone else’s story; we are offered actual footage of Sharon Tate in the cinema that Robbie’s Tate watches, forming homage, an opportunity for self-reflection and, for us, a melancholy funhouse mirror of reality. It is an echo of the fact that this film plays with history, something that will be completely apparent by the end of the film.  Alternatively, although Tate is depicted as loving and loveable, the interpretation can be made that she displays smugness, vanity and happy-go-lucky privilege in her life as a white, blonde, beautiful woman; a kind of flip-side to the open-heartedness and generosity that some find so problematic. One way in which I think the film could have been improved is if Tate had had some kind of hand in killing the hippies in a badass, heavily pregnant way. And yet, just maybe, the best thing to do for a character who in life was a victim to such appalling violence, was to keep her removed from it.

pregnant

This is where bittersweetness seeps into the film: we know that in real life, she does not survive that night in 1969, and neither do her friends. When she offers Rick Dalton the opportunity to come into her house after the pool party of hippy carnage and the end titles begin to materialise on-screen, we know that we have reached the fairytale territory that only Hollywood can give us.[3] Primarily, it is Tate in the position of power: she is the one who could be a useful contact for Dalton, who spends most of the film choked up and flailing about, and not the other way round. She is the valuable, influential and powerful contact to have in the industry, not the male television star.  Additionally,  and similarly to seminal Tarantino revenge film Inglourious Basterds, which re-writes the history of the Second World War with Hitler and his cronies getting an epically fiery bloody death at the hands of escaped Jew Shosanna, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we are offered an alternative reality where Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty hippies don’t butcher Sharon Tate,  but get their comeuppance at the hands of Brad Pitt and a cute dog, and Sharon Tate herself is in a position to offer help and support to Rick Dalton in the loving and kind way that we have come to expect from her. Tarantino offers us a moment where history was very different: where bad guys are punished, the good survive and everything should have been OK.

And yet, despite the satisfying end that is put to the hippies, the heroics of Cliff Booth and his dog and the hilarity of the flame-thrower in the garden shed, the ending here is poignant and sad, as opposed to the jubilation and bad-assery of Inglourious Basterds . The camera lingers on Tate, Dalton and Tate’s friends from afar, as they introduce themselves and discuss the attack. Their conversation is barely audible, and the camera stays put, almost from a high CCTV angle, as they slowly follow one another into Tate’s house. A lot of space is created between the actors and the camera and, ergo, the audience watching. It enables us to sit within this strange liminal space where we can enjoy and revel in what we have just witnessed; but the distance cultivates a sense of knowing; a knowing that this did not happen. Tarantino wrote that Sharon Tate stayed alive and continued to live her beautiful life, but we know that she didn’t, murdered as she was in the most horrifying and violent way. Pertinently, the camera then stays on Tate’s Porsche and the other cars they have in the driveway, using the visual metaphors to reflect the power of the Hollywood machine to re-write and re-create things as we want them to be. Hollywood is itself a vehicle for change, for creativity and for embracing life over destruction; or, at the very least, offering the façade of that. It has a twofold power to reflect change and to exact change; to re-write history but also to ensure that the future is safeguarded. Ultimately, in this case, Sharon Tate can only stay alive in the movies.

Hollywood’s role in the film is developed and explored in numerous parts of the film, in particular with regard to the representation and role of women. Importantly, and as mentioned in my critique of the ranch scene, Cliff Booth does not have sex with Pussycat, the underage hitchhiking hippy with impressive underarm hair, in his car. This is not what she expects or, perhaps, what the audience may expect, particularly as this is a dynamic that has pervaded the film industry for as long as Hollywood has been functioning. Harvey Weinstein was a producer and collaborator with Tarantino for every single film he has written and directed, so the significance of this scene cannot be overstated.

Trudi

Similarly, one of the shining stars of the film comes in the form of Trudi, played by the delightful Julia Butters. At only 8 years old, Trudi almost steals the film and her character is one of the standouts amongst a cast of standout performances. Her endearing and academic approach to the craft of acting is refreshing, powerful and leaves Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s a gibbering, insecure wreck. Indeed, his entire self-worth on the set of the Western they are shooting together boils down to what Trudi thinks of his performance and his ability to achieve the performance, in particular through knowing his lines. In the scene where he gives himself a rollicking in his trailer, he mentions Trudi, berating himself to not show himself up in front of her. She, because of her commitment to her work, her ability to interpret and understand story, her thorough approach to research and her interest in the wider industry, is made out to be a force to be reckoned with. As with the subversive ranch scene, where Tarantino constructs the difference between psycho-killer hippies and the misunderstood, kooky youth, and thereby critiquing snowflakism, in Trudi we see the highest hope for future generations in film and beyond: doing their research, speaking their minds and not limiting themselves to who they think they should be. At the end of a long scene they shoot together, Trudi, who we know at this point Dalton completely respects and admires, tells him that he just put in the best acting performance she has ever seen, and Dalton immediately chokes up. His belief in himself completely stems from the way in which he is perceived by this precocious, wise and talented young girl and he can barely contain his emotion at having shone in her eyes.

As such, I believe that the argument that women are reduced in this film is not a very convincing one. Sharon Tate does not speak much in the film, it is true; but her role in the film, sensitively portrayed with the respect of Tate’s family in mind as much as for Tate herself, is to celebrate life and the power we have to construct our own narratives. If she had been killed at the end, then she would truly have served as a lifeless doll; but she lives, and she is glorious. She is not part of the overall plot because the plot is about two menopausal men trying to stay relevant. Robbie’s Tate does not have that concern and has ample time to while away the time, with added luxury of being on her own, both during the film and, thanks to the film’s revision of history, we can assume after the credits have rolled. To compound this, we have Trudi, a bright spark for the future who has plenty to teach the struggling Rick Dalton; and a man in Cliff Booth who respects the boundaries of power, age and experience by not taking advantage of a young girl. Tarantino has never shied away from giving audiences strong female characters, but in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood he provides a much more subtle offering, playing with our expectations and using a variety of characters and dynamics to do a great justice to the women of the film and the actors who play them.

 

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino’s male gaze in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ isn’t just insulting – it’s profoundly boring’, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-quentin-tarantino-sharon-tate-margot-robbie-lines-a9061446.html [accessed 12:05, 19th August 2019].

[2] The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, suggests that to pass a basic representational threshold, films must have more than one female character, the female characters must speak to one another and the female characters must speak to each other about something that does not involve a man. Of course, many culturally celebrated films do not pass this test, but then neither do films like Gravity, A Star is Born and Arrival, in spite of the lengthy screen-time afforded to women and where the quality of the female characters is exceptional. Equally, there are many female-centric films where women have plenty of dialogue and on-screen time, but their lives and conversations revolve around men.

[3] I want to add here that the irony of Dalton proclaiming earlier on in the film that he is ‘one pool party’ away from Roman Polanski and then fighting a hippy with a flame thrower in his pool becoming his ticket to friendship with Tate, is just hilarious.

First response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 1/2

Part One: The Spahn Ranch scene

I went to see ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, on the 14th August 2019. As soon as the credits began to roll, opinions began to surface from cinema-goers around us:

‘It wasn’t very ‘Tarantino’ until the end’.

‘I wanted more of Margot and Leo together’.

‘Nothing happened’.

In many ways, this confirmed what I thought the whole film was reaching towards: expectation. Or rather, the dismantling and reflection upon what we want and what baggage we bring with us to a cinematic experience. The film focused on a number of things: the film itself, Tarantino as writer and director and Hollywood as a mechanism for hopes, dreams and ideology. In many ways, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a perfect fit within Tarantino’s oeuvre, offering many moments of self-reflection, humour and a fluid sense of history. In two parts, I would like to discuss some important aspects of the film that stood out upon my first watch of the film: in the first, I offer a close reading of the ranch scene half way through the film and in the second, I challenge some of the commentary regarding the representation of women in the film, in particular Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Primarily, I think it is important to acknowledge what I thought was problematic about the film and made for uncomfortable viewing. I was not a fan of the exchange between Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. I found Pitt having to take his fake hair off before their fight absolutely hilarious, but I did not think the representation of Lee’s karate fighting, including all of his sound effects, were the homage that Tarantino claimed they were.[1] It fell into the realm of mockery, in the same way that Kill Bill Volume Two descends into a kung-fu farce for a while. Any subtlety around these moments in both films is lost, and Lee is reduced to a laughable caricature. Similarly, I found the storyline of Booth killing his wife and getting away with it in slightly poor taste. Arguably, there is almost a Gatsby-esque ambiguity to this story: even with the flashback of Booth and his annoying wife on a boat, it could be argued that this is an event fabricated through rumour and speculation of extras and film crew, neither confirmed nor denied. Yet, with the number of women who are killed every week by a partner or former partner still not being treated as seriously as the social issue that it is, including the fact that funding for domestic abuse charities in the UK comes from the luxury tampon tax that menstruating women are subject to, I am not sure that ambiguity on such a subject should be pissed around with.[2]

There are many aspects of the film where Tarantino is playful with expectation, in a script that is often light-hearted, funny and self-deprecating in a way that we have not seen Tarantino play with before. Primarily, there are the references to feet all over the place: Pussycat’s feet squished against Booth’s windscreen; Sharon Tate’s bare feet in the cinema; Squeakie Froome using her foot to point Booth to George Spahn’s room etc. Tarantino’s foot fetish is something of Hollywood legend and the fact that there were so many shots of feet in this film suggests that he wanted to take the piss out of himself and the rumours for as long as he is able to. Similarly, there was the mention of Spaghetti Westerns not being worth Rick Dalton’s time: Django Unchained is famously an homage to the Spaghetti Western genre also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for an Oscar in that role, who here plays Rick Dalton. Additionally, the long, weighty scenes spent filming Dalton’s Westerns, and Dalton’s typecasting in Westerns in general, perhaps pokes fun at the fact that Tarantino’s last film, and the film that succeeded Django Unchained, was The Hateful Eight, another Western that had a Roadshow running time of over three hours and was described as sluggish, slow and boring by many critics.[3] Tarantino doesn’t let himself off the hook in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the film feels, in many ways, humorous and self-aware as a result. It doesn’t perhaps command the edginess of Pulp Fiction or the epic odyssey-feel of Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained, but the humour is still on-point and the effect is a lightness that has rarely shown up in Tarantino’s films before, where crime and violence is purposefully more prolific and commonplace.

The part of the film that most demonstrates Tarantino’s toying with expectation comes when Cliff Booth is taken to the Spahn hippy ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The scene is already set for expectations and stereotypes being toyed with as Booth rejects the sexual advances of the hitch hiking hippy Pussycat on account of her age. She reveals that she has performed all sorts of sexual favours for men who have picked her up in the past. The couple have chemistry and Booth has signalled his interest in the number of times he spots Pussycat around Hollywood prior to their actual meeting; however, this white middle aged man decides to go no further with her when the sexual opportunity is presented to him on a plate. For a cinematic white alpha male to turn down a spontaneous encounter feels pretty progressive: James Bond certainly wouldn’t have done. It seems here that Tarantino is playing with what we expect from white leading men in Hollywood and, in turn, the representation of women, which I explore more deeply in my next essay. In a film that has ‘Treat Her Right’ by Roy Head and the Traits as its first soundtrack listing (with lyrics like ‘If you want a little lovin’ / You gotta start real slow / She’s gonna love you tonight now / If you just treat her right now’) Tarantino is offering something more progressive in the realm of relationships between men and women. It is appropriate that the stereotype of the older man involved with a younger girl is subverted, especially in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood itself becoming the epicentre of the worldwide #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

margaret-qualley-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-700x321

Once at the ranch, Tarnatino sets a ghoulish and eerie scene, with waifish young women and long-haired men looming about evidently having drunk the Manson Kool-Aid. Tension builds as Booth pushes to see his old colleague George Spahn, whom he suspects has been overruled and overrun by the hippy family. We are told, however, that he is ‘napping’.  A woman called ‘Gypsy’, played by the infamously controversial Lena Dunham, seems to be in charge of the place; George’s house is a dirty hovel; and Dakota Fanning, playing Squeakie Froome, is formidable with her piercing eyes, her commands and her commitment to watching television. Booth doesn’t take no for an answer and enters George’s room where… George is napping. George wakes up, becomes pissed off that he has been woken up, seems to be absolutely fine and wants to go back to sleep so he can watch television later. Tarantino builds up a big expectation that there is something rotten at the ranch, that George is probably out of his mind and that a big bust-up or reckoning is on the cards. However, everything is fine. Weird but fine. Squeakie is freaky, but she’s fine. She doesn’t lie to Booth about George being asleep and she is as ruthless about what she wants as Booth is himself. With Lena Dunham hanging about, in her first major on-screen role after the divisive and complicated Girls, we assume that there must be something questionable going on. Her casting in this part of the film feels almost deliberate precisely because she irks people and makes people uncomfortable. And yet, she is relatively harmless.

Similarly, and moments later, we begin to expect a big bust-up between Booth and Tex, a male hippy on a horse who is summoned back to the ranch after Booth beats up a guy who burst his tyre. Tex epically races back to the ranch, Tarantino giving him lengthy screen time as he rides through the canyon, providing beautiful wide panning shots of him galloping in the sunshine, as per the Westerns parodied at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, he arrives too late because Booth has already driven off, happily listening to the radio. Over the course of his writing career, Tarantino has never shied away from surprising us with violence or building up action to a violent crescendo; yet, in the instance of Tex in particular, the time for violence to erupt is slightly out of joint. This is an opportunity for violence to bubble up into a lengthy fist-fight or shoot-out but he arrives too late. As such, I would argue, the opportunity for violence to be delivered to us on a plate is purposefully missed. Tarantino attempts to frustrate what we come to expect from a Tarantino film by holding our lust for quintessential Tarantino violence at bay. Booth beats up a hippy for puncturing his tyre and he kind of deserves it. Beyond that, there is nothing superfluous.

Furthermore, I would argue that casting the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning to lead an anonymous cast of slightly weird but, in the moment, harmless characters, is a nod to cultural anxiety held around youth. Lena Dunham is interesting casting because she is held simultaneously in high regard and disdain by the viewing public; Fanning, on the other hand, has successfully navigated child stardom, has a brilliant reputation in the industry and has many impressive performances to recommend her.  In a time where Millennials and Gen-Zers are treated with disdain for their focus on the climate crisis, identity politics and everything a conservative older generation decries as snowflakism, Tarantino delivers a bunch of layabout hippies who, in this moment, are weird but ultimately fine. The familiarity and renown of these actors in particular helps to convey and play with this. Of course, there is the spectre of Charles Manson looming over the hippies, but Tarantino makes the point to distinguish between a misunderstood misfit youth and actual psycho killers. To cement this, he uses another surprisingly familiar face: Maya Hawke, daughter of famous Tarantino regular Uma Thurman. [4] Hawke plays Flower Child, a member of the hippy group who abandons the three murderous ‘pig-killing’ hippies (whose exchange reminded me of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction), steals their car and leaves them in the lurch. Using such a recognisable face to play a weirdo but who wants no part in violence and carnage helps Tarantino to establish this spectrum of youth and to play with our assumptions and expectations. There are always going to be weirdos and arseholes, but not all of them are going to go on a killing spree; we may expect certain behaviours and outcomes from a group of people, or violence in a Tarantino film, but that is because we bring our own baggage of what we want and what we think with us wherever we go.

Tarantino is at an interesting point in his career where he can toy with being self-referential and also with the expectation of what we think we are going to get with a Tarantino film. He has a backlog of material with which people are extremely familiar and, as such, he can and does frustrate and toy with what he has constructed for us to want over the thirty years he has been writing. The ranch scene isn’t explosive and I can see how people might interpret that it all falls slightly flat and underwhelming, because nothing actually happens. However, with beautiful irony and in a way that builds up to the later chaos, this scene is rich with posturing, preconceptions and imagery, and I think that is perfect story-telling within the world of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In some ways, this is a sunny, light and hopeful film and Tarantino leaves out violence until it is truly necessary at the end of the film (and he really goes to town with it in the best possible way). But that does not mean that the rest of the film is passive and blank: it seethes with tension, with frustration, weirdness and curiosities. As I will explore in my next essay, it is also tinged with undeniable melancholy and bittersweetness. Whatever expectations we have of a Tarantino film are healthily disrupted by the ranch scene in particular and I think it is a brilliant move on Tarantino’s part.

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino Defends ‘Arrogant’ Portrayal of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’’, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/quentin-tarantino-bruce-lee-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-1203299921/ [accessed 17:07 19th August 2019].

[2] ‘The women killed on one day around the world’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46292919 [accessed 21:24, 20th August 2019].

[3] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hateful_eight/reviews?type=top_critics [accessed 21:22, 20th August 2019].

[4] I want to show an awareness here that Maya Hawke’s presence in the film is an interesting one, considering her mother’s estranged relationship with Tarantino, who forced her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill. Click here for Thurman’s interview with the New York Times detailing the incident as well as the harassment and violence she was subjected to at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s financier and creative partner: ‘This is why Uma Thurman is angry’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html [accessed 21:46, 20th August 2019].    

Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

Mulan with shan yu sword

Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

download

Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

Pocahontas lol

I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

Esmeralda featured image

Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali