February 14, 2011
Whilst the idea behind Valentine’s Day might be to me quite perplexing, the idea behind giving someone a gift loaded with sentiment and love is not. With that in mind, there are few things of such ilk that you can readily fit into a 21.5 by 15.5 by 5 box. Yet, somehow, the good people at Madman have managed it. At a combined 869 minutes of melodramatic bliss, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set is an object of just those dimensions and, whether you’re interested in buying a gift for your Valentine, yourself or anyone with even an ounce of good taste, then might I suggest that you buy this. Aside from making your heart swell and your lips curl themselves into an incredibly frequent wry smile, the only side effect will be your calling everyone “Darling” for a week or two in the interim which, in all honestly, is such a warm and endearing term that it ought only to work in one’s favour.
Of course, as is often the case with a director box set, there are one or two films that seem to be at slight tonal odds with the rest of the collection. However, for anyone who cares to take even a moment to reflect, these anomalies are only really bound by the confines of genre and narrative; their thematics and auteuristic world view more than consistent with their company. To this end, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set offers a gentle critique of American aspirations; all the way from early settlement to the at the time modern-day model of white, heteronormative, familial life. It suggests, rather boldly for its time, that defining one’s own aspirations against and attempting to achieve them within such relational societal constructs is anything but simple, anything but stark, and, never – even when the picture itself might be – black and white.
A classic example of screw-ball comedy, No Room for the Groom sees Alvah Morrell (Tony Curtis) try desperately to consummate his too much trouble marriage to Lee Kingshead (Piper Laurie). A quality comedy that is short and to the point, No Room for the Groom plays with gender stereotypes and the pressures of marrying into a family when all you want is to be in love. Humourously acknowledging and explaining its own causal paradigm, “It’s called cause and effect”, and displaying just enough cynicism to rouse a giggle out of its audience, “marriage is keeping your mouth shut”, Sirk skillfully shows both parties in a marriage to be annoyingly and endearingly constricted by social pressure, “Should a girl have to tell a man when she wants to be kissed?” A fantasticly light-hearted start to an epic journey of melodramatic discovery.
This is as close to perfect as film gets for lovers of romance. Barbara Stanwyck is simply sensational as Naomi Murdock, a woman who has left her family to fruitlessly pursue her personal dreams and to escape the scandal of an affair in a small town. One of many of Sirk’s films to show how deeply an individual can wrestle with their own complex emotions and conflicting desires, All I Desire a beautiful story that allows things to somehow work themselves out. It is also surprisingly progressive for its time, exploring the subjectivity rather than the guilt of a woman whose choices may not have always been entirely moral or selfless.
Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) is model woman, wife, (step)mother, friend and professional. In fact, even when life is cruel to her, she remains poised, gracious and strong. Losing her eyesight she is lured into a love affair that she actively refused when she could see. Her ultimate lesson, and the lesson that her suitor Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) learns too, is that true enlightenment in such a dark world can only come from shutting off your expectations of others. When you are willing, even blindly so, to let others in and to behave towards them truly selflessly, only then will you find in yourself profound peace and happiness. A moving, heartwarming tale.
Although Taza, Son of Cochise is a generic diversion for Sirk (predominantly it is a western), it doesn’t fail to reiterate his concerns for familial obligation and the complexities of love. Taking things a psychoanalytic step further, Sirk explores ideas of totem and taboo within a tribal context as they pertain to the increasingly obtrusive All-American way of life. Stars Rock Hudson as Taza and Barbara Rush as Oona.
Probably Sirk’s most famous melodrama and the primary inspiration for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows is a remarkable film that uses colour and lighting to exemplarily create mood, silhouettes and shadows to express subtle subtext and overt reference to psychoanalysis (namely Freudian) to explain character motivation and action/inaction. Heavily critical of American upper class social decorum and the sort of repression such false exclusivity necessarily harbours, All That Heaven Allows is a stunning, deeply affecting and astute cinematic work.
The mesmerizing Barbara Stanwyck returns in There’s Always Tomorrow as the spirited Norma Miller Vale who has chosen career over family. Still in love with Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) who is under appreciated and somewhat unfulfilled, the two attempt to bring their disparate lives together but soon learn that the confines of morality and the boundaries of their emotions can never allow for such a union. Easily the most heartbreaking film in the box, There’s Always Tomorrow leaves a stunning air of desperation, hope, inevitable resolve and disappointment in its wake: “Darling, if life were always an adventure it’d be exhausting.”
The second generically anomalous work in the set, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is still a melodrama, but is set against the very real backdrop of post World War II Germany. Wistfully explicating how the past absolutely permeates the present, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is as much about ethical behaviour as it is morality; always suggesting that the two are in no way necessarily linked: “Murderers are never murderers twenty-four hours a day.” Ultimately, Sirk seems to posit that love and death – natural drives and inevitable occurrences in human life – present themselves in relation always to anOther.
Exploring both the limits of friendship and the product of loyalty, The Tarnished Angels examines the types of social contracts individuals enter into and what happens to those contracts at the hands of the passage of time. Suggesting love is built upon so much more than just emotion and desire, The Tarnished Angels is another fine example of Sirk’s ability to produce performances of great depth and dimensionality. Stars Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Jack Carson and Dorothy Malone.
Well, if the eight fantastic films that came before it didn’t win you over (who are you and how is your heart colder than mine?) then Imitation of Life most certainly will. A story loaded with issue and inference at every turn, Imitation of Life reveals a plethora of absurdities that constitute “life” through performativity. From the overt (literally acting) to the ideological (gender, family, class, race), Imitation of Life breaks down many of the ways in which life is constructed and the “roles” each individual assumes; sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes born of personal desire. Constructing life through the dot points that are “the great events of life” such as marriage and death, Sirk shows how we “measure” abstract notions such as “achievement”, “happiness”, “fulfillment” and “success”.
Though there is infinitely more to be said about Sirk and each of these films, the very best way to discover such sound, intelligent and genuinely marvelous films is to open up your own very beautiful box set and let the melodramatic bliss wash over you like so many emotions and so much of life itself. Not just a gift for Valentine’s Day, this is an absolute must-have for cinephiles and cine-lovers alike. Darling, do yourself a favour and let Douglas enlighten you.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 13, 2011
Concerned with capturing something rather than commenting too heavily upon the politics and effects of French colonisation in Africa, Claire Denis returns with White Material (2009), another remarkable film that both reveals her exemplary craft and the complexities of psychogeographical conflict. Very much in tune with her previous work (Beau Travail, 1999 and 35 Rhums, 2008 to name but two), White Material is set in an unnamed African country where French occupation is being withdrawn in the face of worsening internal conflict between authorities and rebel soldiers. Taking one white woman’s fight for her plantation as its focal point, White Material shows a multitude of devastation free from accusation and moralising. Far more philosophical in its presentation of colonial consequences, the film presents a series of ethical questions that permeate beyond the confines of the screen world.
As “Survival Guides” are dropped from helicopters with less physical but equal psychological impact upon the people and the landscape, Maria (brilliantly and effortlessly performed by Isabelle Huppert) maintains her resolve and insists that her family stay and fight to harvest their crops. The political situation is beautifully and perfectly mirrored by the volatile landscape, elucidating the idea that the white colonial inhabitants will “grow mediocre coffee that we’d [Indigenous Africans] never drink” and that “It was already too late when you [white French colonialists] built it.”
The titled “white material” is explained twice in the film and, for a land metaphorically castrated the “material” in question, it is understandably displaced (in a distinctly Freudian way) onto an object: a lighter in this instance, described as “just white material”. The second explanation comes via a radio broadcast that re-directs this earlier displacement back onto the people whose culture and objects have impressed, negatively, upon the land, “As for the white material, the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood.” The contrast here between natural elements such as “water and blood” and constructed materials such as the lighter and then the cocktails and shaded verandas successfully communicates the way in which Indigenous culture is at odds with forced occupation and the seizing of natural resources, namely the now irrevocably altered landscape.
Furthermore, the film brilliantly weaves in an incredible exploration of melancholia (again in a Freudian understanding of the term), whereby the response to the loss of something one never really had ownership of and that hasn’t actually died, but has nonetheless been lost, produces psychosis. This psychosis is explored through the character Manuel (Maria’s son), a boy born in Africa but of French identity; his masculinity and his identity symbolically stripped.
The subtle and respectful ways in which Denis explores such explosive and complicated issues is admirable; her stylistic and narrative choices always carefully crafted with aplomb. A tonally masterful film, White Material‘s communicable affect is at once devastating and poignant. Posing a series of ethical questions yet never so arrogant as to answer them, this is an astounding piece of work that deserves both attention and acclaim.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 12, 2011
Whether or not you’re partial to psychoanalysis and its theoretical application to film, there’s no denying the significance of Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (1975). With the musical, cinematic spectacle that is Burlesque (2010) about to hit cinema screens across the country, Mulvey’s article proves not only relevant but still absolutely applicable to gendered spectatorship of contemporary Hollywood narrative cinema.
Taking into consideration Mulvey’s theoretical exploration of how scopophilia (looking as a source of pleasure) and identification (recognition/misrecognition and the viewer’s subjective formation of the “I” predicated upon Lacanian psychoanalysis) are significant in understanding spectatorial positionings, it is curious as to how the female viewer (and here I am specifically concerned with the alignment of the heterosexual female gaze) might access a contemporary film such as Burlesque.
Following the same fame-seeking story you’ve no doubt seen before (most notably Coyote Ugly, 2000), Burlesque follows a young waitress as she escapes the boredom of a small-town and buys a one-way ticket to the magical world of glitz and glamour in L.A. Stumbling upon a struggling, independent burlesque joint she starts waiting tables, watching and learning the routines of the other young women who are already erotic objects, valued for their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Having looked at them long enough to quite literally mimic them, she is finally allowed to audition. From here, our scrawny white girl protagonist, Ali (Christina Aguilera), wins over ice-maiden and burlesque mama, Tess (Cher), first with her watchability, then with her body, then her incredible pipes and lastly, her indomitable spirit.
Whilst the premise is both simple and formulaic it is also a little disturbing, not least because it perpetuates the current myth of celebrity culture suggesting that the female viewer align themselves with Ali because we all want to be “special”, “talented” and to achieve “fortune and fame”. It’s not that I am advocating the crushing of dreams exactly, but it ought to be said that the majority of us, by very definition, are not “special”, many of us are far from “talented”, and we most certainly will not all reach the dizzying heights of “fortune and fame”. With this statement of relatively plain fact and an understanding of how women are rendered passive for an active male gaze it is difficult to see how a female viewer might “identify” with either of the film’s female leads.
Ali, certainly an erotic object in the first instance, undeniably present for her “to-be-looked-at-ness”, described as having “a body that could stop a truck” and dressed, made-up and performing her gender at every visual opportunity, is hardly successful based on her “talent” alone. Furthermore, her “success” progresses at an equal rate to her appeal to the male characters onscreen. For a heterosexual female viewer who cannot align her gaze with that of the onscreen male characters nor identify with a character who harbours vocal and visual talents, and who has little to no interest in themselves becoming a spectacle, access to the images beyond bemusement seems impossible.
Absolutely fitting Mulvey’s critique, Burlesque is not dissimilar to early musicals of the ’40s and ’50s insofar as the role of “woman as spectacle” is concerned; “Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motiff of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” As a decidedly erotic object for screen characters and viewers alike, “the device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis.” And yet there is still nowhere for the female viewer to look during the film’s two-hour run-time.
Resultantly it stands to reason that the film hopes to capture the standard male gaze and likely too the queer gaze. But wait, isn’t this film aimed at women? As I have already alluded to, with the advent of celebrity culture, the female gaze has become displaced and so, a generation of female viewers concerned with body image and a form of success that comes from embodying the spectacle, align themselves with Ali, who looks first at the women performing their gender with envy and admiration, and who then steps into her own gaze. Thus, the intended female gaze for Burlesque is narcissistic in the first instance as the viewer is invited to desire their own gaze. This is essentially what Teresa de Lauretis theorises as a “double-identification” whereby the female viewer identifies simultaneously with the active male gaze (voyeurism, fetishistic scopophilia) and the passive female image (her “to-be-looked-at-ness”), so that they are actually “seduced” by the female image onscreen. Cruel and coercive in its seduction, it seems to me that this is precisely how celebrity culture and fame fascination work which is why Burlesque will face no obstacle in finding and seducing its target audience.
However, being myself a female viewer who is certainly and most happy to accept being average, I have no idea how to access the presentation of a series of images that intend to render me passive. A self-professed cognitivist, and with no personal desire to ever become an erotic object or spectacle for either the male or female gaze, my own viewing experience of Burlesque was one of first bemusement and second curiosity. Simultaneously fascinated and alienated by the experience, the most interesting thing this film throws up is the idea that the contemporary female gaze is narcissistic in the first instance. And whilst I still look most forward to when Hollywood find a way to capture the active female gaze, I suppose I ought to take as my consolation their admittance that it even exists.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 12, 2010
Despite the incessant output of new releases, a film that profoundly pierces is a true rarity. Occasionally something so remarkable comes along and with it, at least for me, comes the gentle reminder as to why I continually choose to study film over other theoretically and philosophically contemplative mediums, in the first instance: because the experience can be utterly sublime. Writer/director Debra Granik’s second feature film Winter’s Bone (2010) is one such film; sublime in the true Kantian sense of the word and as close to contemporary cinematic perfection as I can possibly imagine.
Ree Dolly is only seventeen but with her father officially “missing” and her mother near catatonic, she quickly becomes head of the household and the only hope her younger brother and sister have for survival. Tired, down-trodden and understandably pissed, Ree learns that her father’s disappearance could cost them their family home if he doesn’t show for trial in a mere matter of days. Forced to assume responsibility for her entire family and their situation Ree sets about tracking her father down, or, in his absence, anyone who can help her to prove to the authorities that he can’t show for trial because he’s dead and buried.
Ree’s quest to find her absent father bears both Freudian and religious connotations. With the paternal structure breaking down and without a maternal figure to look to for help the only official avenue available to Ree is the Law – who she outright refuses – and, failing that, her “community”, which itself is run by a iron fist form of paternal Law. Denying all forms of social and political authority, Ree stands up to everyone with a sort of blind faith that propels her in her quest to find her maker. The only way for Ree to save her family is through an act of near martyrdom, proving her faith in her Father’s death and existence is not misguided; that he must have been murdered because he wouldn’t abandon them in their time of need. An incredibly beautiful sentiment that is simultaneously hopeful and despondent, Ree’s fears push her faith to its limits as she exclaims, “He ain’t anywhere.”
In a final act of baptism gone awry Ree must trust in her enemies that they will lead her to her Father, a moment that reveals terrifying truth and beauty in the most visually explicable demonstration of the Kantian sublime I have ever seen onscreen.
Finishing with the song “In The Palm of His Hand” performed by Dirt Road Delight, the film’s final words, “May He lead you to salvation/Whatever he has against you/May He blaze a path to glory/To the promised land” resonate wonderfully with our protagonist’s hardship and suffering on her arduous journey to prove God exists. The whole film reads like a exemplary literary classic, complete with the rich symbolism of fire and ice. The layers are so well established that instead of subtle complication the whole film is propelled by an internal logic that is crisp, cohesive and complete.
A more perfectly paced dramatic thriller I cannot recall; every detail right down to the sound of leaves crushing underfoot is impeccably executed, the tension in absolutely every scene heart-racingly palpable. The performances are amongst the most naturalistic and believable to be found: not so much as a bit-parter failing to sustain the necessary balance of energy and reserve. Each shot is beautifully composed and the environment so well captured that the Ozark woods themselves play a character in the film; dark and foreboding. The combination of these elements create a most incredible and piercing tonal quality which is ultimately the greatest of Granik’s many achievements. And of course the story itself is intense, gripping and so brilliantly layered that one constantly needs to remind oneself to exhale and catch breath.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 2, 2010
After having its release date pushed back several times and subsequently being withdrawn from this year’s AFI Award Screenings, The Loved Ones (2009), which premiered at MIFF in 2009, is finally getting its release in Australian cinemas. Assuredly worth the wait, The Loved Ones is simultaneously a relief and a pleasure as an Australian film that can honestly boast both an original script and a unique directorial vision. Taking my hat off to writer/director Sean Byrne, for whom this is a feature film debut, I’d like to talk a little about the role of performativity within the film and how it is so wonderfully amplified by an inspirational kitsch-horror aesthetic.
The film opens with Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel), a seemingly happy teen, driving along a highway with his father. At this point Brent fits the stereotype of a young, carefree, plaid-shirt wearing, country boy-next-door. But when an ill omen appears in front of them in the form of a blood-drenched young man, causing Brent to swerve suddenly and crash into a nearby tree, killing his father, there is a clear break with this idyllic presentation of reality and Brent undergoes a deeply Freudian experience of trauma. Blaming himself for his father’s death, and becoming increasingly distant from his own “loved ones”; a grief-stricken mother and a concerned girlfriend; some six month later Brent is displaying early signs of “emo” behaviour and from here we are introduced to a group of teenagers who each perform hyper-real stereotypes of misplaced teen angst and overzealous sexual desires.
In addition to “emo” protagonist Brent there is; goth Mia (Jessica McNamee), stoner Jamie (Richard Wilson), pretty, popular girl Holly (Victoria Thaine) and invisible wilting wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy). Each teen carefully performs both their stereotype and their gender in order to establish their individual “role” and “function” in an environment where identification and semiotics are everything: high school. In order to judge, categorise and somewhat misguidedly “understand” one another it is acceptable for teens to almost over-perform these roles in order to establish a clear, unspoken order, and from that order derive a set of acceptable and unacceptable social codes. Once established, we see these codes at play in almost every scene as gender and type conversely allow and forbid the various social and sexual encounters that take place in the narrative film world.
Stoner Jamie is emo Brent’s best mate, acceptable within the established social code because 1) they are both gendered male and 2) they are both in roles that operate as counter to popular or mainstream teen stereotypes. Each of our male protagonists then performs his straight heteronormative sexuality by taking up with a performed female counterpart. Jamie, nervous and introverted (qualities becoming of our typical stoner friend) asks gorgeous goth Mia to the school dance. She accepts with little enthusiasm with confirms her goth stereotype through 1) nonchalance and indifference and 2) by taking up with a stoner who is an acceptable date for a goth as they, again, both occupy positions counter to the popular majority.
Due however to Brent’s transition from a happy-go-lucky boy-next-door type to outsider emo, we see two very different female gendered performances present themselves to him and, in lieu of their rivalry, a truly fascinating break down of these established social codes ensues. Brent already has a girlfriend: an attractive, fun-loving girl-next-door type. She is compassionate and caring and even though Brent’s recent emo behaviour has put a strain on their relationship it still functions because 1) she operates as a nurturer, intent on “saving” her wistful, broken partner and 2) because their relationship presumably pre-dates Brent’s performative change it can supposedly withstand it. But, unbeknownst to Holly, Lola has read Brent’s present emo performance as a coded opportunity to ask him to be her date for the school dance. Of course he declines, in a kind but dismissive way which one would ordinarily assume, from Lola’s performed wallflower exterior, would sadden and probably even humiliate her. But what no one could have predicted is that it would anger and provoke her own change in performativity. And when Lola’s shy violet facade fades, it reveals a terrifyingly promiscuous pink psycho-killer in its wake.
Abducting Brent and inflicting her pent-up psychotic desires upon him, Lola performs the stereotype she would rather embody: a perfectly pink prom queen. Outside of the coded grounds of high school, Lola is a “Princess” who gets whatever she wants; the spoilt, brattish embodiment of “Daddy’s little girl”. Dressing Brent in a tux she tries to force him to perform the available role of prom king to her queen, and failing thus his resistance is met with bloody violence.
The violence that then takes place, though I am sure many will crudely call it torture-porn, actually operates as a manifestation of misplaced and misrepresented teen angst and sexual desire as well as a subtle indicator for the breakdown of cohesive, functional familial structure – Lola’s relationship with her father, known disturbingly only as “Daddy”, being decidedly less than kosher. Not wanting to give too much away, the most interesting violent act Lola exacts is the attempt to home-labotomise her victim using a power drill. The required removal of Brent’s agency is demonstrative of the intense break-down of Lola’s performed fantasies and her failed need for an implicit co-performer.
With the pinkest of pinks you could possibly imagine (and probably pinker), Lola is a vision in satin, glitter and lip-gloss, which, set against the cruel and unforgiving mise-en-scene of rural depravity offers up a kitsch backdrop for the tremendous splashes of blood that homage a plethora of horror films from the ’70s and ’80s. In lieu of this, and as the only central teen character not shown to be sexually active, Lola’s excess in blood-spill make her an exemplary model for Barbara Creed’s “monstrous feminine” or Laura Mulvey’s “bearer of the bleeding wound”. A modern-day Carrie if you will, Lola abjectly performs and embodies the inverted object of the male gaze, she who “can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” (Laura Mulvey)
Intercutting between our stoner and goth couple getting it on whilst Princess tortures her victim, there is also an interesting juxtaposition of Freudian life and death drives whereby alternating actions intended towards creation and calm represent a terrifically twisted view of teen survival. Fantastically shot against devastating and pathetic surroundings of; a tackily decorated school gym, the unromantic, unmemorable car park setting for a sexual encounter and the disturbingly child-like bedroom of our femme fatal, right up to the final moments where the highway plays cyclical host to the horror at its very heart; The Loved Ones offers a fantastically kitsch aesthetic and is nothing but pure unadulterated entertainment from beginning to bloody end.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
August 24, 2010
In a small run-down rural town, man-made objects such as old cars slowly rust and never quite fit in with their backdrop; a vast natural terrain. Not unlike the abandoned cars (popularly and commonly personified as female gendered and/or as “babies”) a young boy and his many, even younger, siblings and cousins, try to get by in a familial landscape structured through the matriarch. Entirely devoid of strong or reliable male figure; fathers, uncles, grandfathers, all absent, even the male teachers within the community remain at a remove from offering guidance or advice (unless inside of paid school hours that is); all positions of morality and authority are held by female characters, offering a view of this small town community as ordered by the maternal insofar as it is motivated by a nurturing, survivalist ethos. Simple, sweet and subtly expressing concern for a lack of strong male role models in an underprivileged community, Boy (2010) is an endearingly comic “coming of age” drama.
The film’s title character, known plainly as ‘Boy’, professes from the outset that in addition to having quite the extended family he is also a huge Michael Jackson fan. His adoption of an androgynous pop icon as ‘male role model’ goes some way to explaining the flawed absent father he so desperately longs for. At an uncertain age where learning about life and girls are equally weighted, Boy is ecstatic when his father turns up unannounced with his so-called “gang”, The Crazy Horses. Learning a variety of all important lessons from his father; how (not) to treat a lady, how to steal and, most importantly, “don’t get into the Nazi stuff”; over his summer holidays, it is clear that his foray into a patriarchal structure is nothing more than a flirtatious summer fling.
Too eager to take on the advice of others, Boy’s impressionability often gets him into trouble. But when the best “advice” he receives is, “It’s better to risk your money on something big, be really poor. It’s better than being a bit poor.”, it isn’t difficult to understand when, why and how things take a turn for the worse. The crux of the film comes when Boy realises (in a wonderfully Freudian moment) that the reality of satiating his desire (for a “father figure” in this instance) was ultimately traumatic and disappointing. In fact, when so-called “memories” of his father turn out to be fabrications of his own imagination, the return of the head of the matriarch (his grandmother) at the very end of the film marks the restoration of order, nurture and survival to the lives of Boy and his extended family.
That the film and its title character are already gendered by their very naming indicates the wider prevalence of gender roles at play in the film. Thematically engaging, and certainly an endearing tale when taken at face value, Boy offers a gentle view from its warm filmic heart.
Boy is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday August 26.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision
June 10, 2010
“In the bush, there are big trees and pissy little bugs”, says Inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce), it is the definitive and apparent “Order” of things.
An abbreviated, overtly Aussie explication, but, no matter the metaphor, the meaning is clear and the “Order” is undoubtedly Lacanian. The Symbolic Order, as it more widely known, is the child’s entrance into language, or “linguistic communication” as it is best understood. Accepting semiotic comprehension between words and objects is the first step to accepting ideology and ultimately, the Law (referred to in Lacanian Psychoanalysis as the Name-of-the-Father.) We know it is The Symbolic Order that Leckie speaks of because he stands in the film for both the Father and the Law: two o’erbearing, ominous and destructive forces in what is easily the best Aussie film release for years, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010).
But our protagonist J (James Frecheville), the youth upon whom Leckie is trying so desperately to impress, is not a typical kid and despite his naiveté, he is suspect of the aforementioned Order and the supposed “big trees” Leckie speaks of. Thrust into a dangerous and dysfunctional family following his mother’s drug overdose and subsequent death, J is as confused about life as he is about the construct of his own “family”. Not knowing how to care for himself or even how to arrange his mother’s funeral, J calls his grandmother who willingly takes him in as one of her own; already J moves from matriarch to matriarch, fatherless and lawless in his formative years as he attempts to bridge the awkward gap between adolescence and adulthood. But Janine Cody (expertly played by Jacki Weaver) is no ordinary Nanna. She likes to be around her boys, so much so that she’ll abide anything and defy anyone to see them safe and at her heel. Unfortunately for Janine – and indeed for J – her beloved “boys” are all in danger in the proverbial Kingdom due to their own behaviours which sit outside the strict ideologies of The Symbolic Order.
Within the matriarch there is a further pecking order whereby her boys are rank age appropriate. Andrew, known as ‘Pope’ (played with subtle expertise by Ben Mendelsohn), is the archetypal eldest son from a fatherless family: stepping up and assuming the familial role of the Law like a lion in order to protect and preserve his cubs. Only the cubs aren’t his, they are unmistakably Janine’s. So consumed by rash fear his fight for survival is repeatedly and blindly self-sabotaged; his own instincts flawed as he tries desperately to fit The Symbolic Order. It is only when two of the four brothers are gunned down that the Law begins to catch up the Cody family, and in this instance it is time for the matriarch to step up and take a stand. Like the lioness in charge of her kingdom, Janine is willing to let the weakest of the litter fall by the wayside to protect the two who are truly her own. But as it happens, J isn’t quite so stupid as he looks.
Suspicious of every male who represents to him some version of patriarchal Law and Order, he rejects them all; uncomfortable and uncertain of their honesty he plays one against the other, using everyone from Inspector Leckie, Uncle Pope and Attorney Ezra right down to girlfriend Nicole’s Father, never truly letting any one of them in. When J deals it is with Janine and a notably female prosecutor. When he is honest and emotive it is with his girlfriend, his trust only in the order of the matriarch. Too much for him to bear his final actions are not carried out so that he might replace Pope as top dog or “big tree”, but so that he can reinstate Janine as the head of the “family” and therefore the Law by which he wishes to live.
Not so much gritty as it is naturalistic in its aesthetic, and broody in tone, Animal Kingdom is a remarkable film about the marginalised role of systems that challenge the dominant ideologies, and the persistent struggle that one comes up against when opting out of The Symbolic Order. J and his family will always have the Name-of-the-Father impressed upon them; their resistence heart wrenching and stoic. A brilliant drama with stellar performances across the board – though Sullivan Stapleton is so convincing that he just about manages to steal the show – and absolutely undeniably a must-see.
January 8, 2010
“Psychoanalysis has taught us that a boy’s earliest choice of objects for his love is incestuous and that those objects are forbidden ones – his mother and his sister.”
Where The Wild Things Are (2009), so much more than just a beautiful and imaginative rendering of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, reveals to its adult audience an acute interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. Protagonist Max is a hypersensitive, hyperactive boy who (we presume), since the absence of the constant paternal figure in his familial clan, suffers, in the place of mourning, great melancholia. Mourning, as Freud explains it, is the reaction to either the loss of a loved one, or, the abstraction taking the place of a loved one. For Max, it could be the loss of his father, or, more simply, the loss of the ideal of the father. Melancholia then, a displacement whereby ties with the lost object are not necessarily severed thus allowing the object to persist in the individual’s psyche, causes Max to act out in petty, selfish ways. After he is repeatedly ignored by both his teenage sister and his mother in favour of other, older, male figures, be it friend or boyfriend, Max inflicts an oral injury upon his mother, by playfully yet aggressively biting her. In Freudian psychoanalysis, incestuous desires are, by the clan or family unit, regarded as an unconscious taboo, and certainly Max’s actions here are testing the bounds of that taboo, his mother repeatedly asking him, “What is wrong with you?” Fleeing his familial home, Max searches for solace with another clan.
Following the trauma of these events, Max experiences a break with the Real and finds himself ensconced in fantasy. It is in the fantasy world that the film really comes into its own. As is often true of cinematic representations of a rupture between the fantasy and reality, Max’s fantasy world often resembles the reality from which he comes. The mirroring of the real world is for the most part subtle and well observed, and certainly Carol and KW’s complex relationship is a gentle and moving treatment of the way in which Max struggles with his own emotions for sister, Claire. Though there are many parallels between the two worlds (too many to list here) what is most interesting is the quintessential difference: here, Max is King. Having ingratiated himself to the Wild Things, becoming one of their clansmen, and most significantly their totem, as Freud would have it, “their guardian spirit and helper”, Max is now safe, for “the clansmen are under a sacred obligation … not to kill or destroy their totem and to avoid eating its flesh”, and more importantly, relieved of his melancholia, for he has assumed the role of the love-object he mourns. In taking up the position of totem Max embodies, and thus reinstates, paternal order.
Finally and inevitably Max must leave the Wild Things to return home, and as he does so he expresses honestly and starkly the greatest of his boyhood desires saying, “I wish you guys had a mum, I’m going to go home.” Preferencing Freudian womb fantasies over his once overwhelming melancholia, Max relinquishes his kingdom, severing his ties with the paternal order, accepting both the Real and his (m)other. Culminating in a quiet, honest exchange of companionship between mother and son, Where The Wild Things Are is perhaps the most thoughtful and provocative exploration of childhood to grace the commercial cinema scene since Labyrinth (1986) (indeed it is no coincidence that the costumes for the Wild Things come from the Jim Henson Creature Shop), and it is most certainly not the flat film the print media critics would have you believe.