He Said/She Said Director Profile: Sofia Coppola

Following our discussion of John Carpenter, Michael Glover Smith (author of www.whitecitycinema.com) and I focus on Sofia Coppola for our second He Said/She Said Director Profile.

sofia

JM: This is being written just a few hours after seeing Sofia Coppola’s movie, The Bling Ring. Thinking back over those few hours and over her entire body of work, I am noticing recurring themes that thread throughout all of her films that draw me to her as a writer and director. These are namely the music, and the humanity and universal appeal of the stories and characters. I’d like to start off by discussing the latter. In all of Sofia’s films (see complete filmography at the end of this piece), she taps into experiences and emotions that are universal to everyone, even if the character may be more grandiose than the typical person. For example, in Marie Antoinette, you can identify with the queen’s feelings of separation, loneliness, and weight of responsibility. In The Bling Ring, she demonstrates how in American culture, there is a lust to be “known” and to do this, it is necessary to shroud yourself in tangible consumerism. Are there any films of hers that you feel any special kinship towards?

MGS: I think I feel more of a kinship to The Bling Ring than any of the others, for reasons I will elaborate on later. But first, I want to point out that I think it’s interesting you say Coppola’s films are “universal” while paradoxically also being about characters who may be “grandiose.” I generally agree with this but the most common complaint that I’ve heard about her work is that she only deals with the problems of people who are privileged. In other words, “Why should we care that a rich movie star staying at a five-star hotel in Tokyo feels ‘alienated’?” My response to this is “Why shouldn’t we be able to relate to characters just because they happen to be rich and famous?” The Virgin Suicides is, I believe, the only film she’s made that isn’t about upper class characters. But, as everyone knows, she grew up the daughter of a famous filmmaker, so I think she is depicting in her movies a world that she knows very well and I think her insider’s P.O.V is both knowing and, more importantly, critical. And you’re right — I think she bends over backwards in Marie Antoinette, for instance, to try and make the heroine seem like a “typical” teenage girl so that young people watching today can relate. That’s the whole point of that particular movie, no? The Bling Ring, on the other hand, is particularly interesting in that it features the least likable characters in any of her films. All of them are frighteningly shallow and vapid and yet I don’t feel as if she’s judging them too harshly: the desire for fame, status, wealth, facebook friends, etc. is everywhere in our society so we all should be able to relate on some level — even if you and I would never do anything as drastic as break into someone’s home. However, I can already hear my students complaining that they couldn’t “care about the characters,” which is my least favorite criticism to hear about any movie.

JM: I’ve never heard that critique, but I understand why people would say that. However, that judgement stems from a lack of understanding of her bigger picture, and only a cursory look at what it aims to express. With her films, you have to look at the entire world that she’s creating, and that world’s relation to our real world. As I previously said, if you look past the characters’ race and class, you see emotions and pressures that extend beyond the superficial and into our reality. In The Bling Ring, it’s easy to judge superficial, privileged white kids living in California, but then again, as you said, we are all living in a world where we can identify with their desire to acquire more privilege, power and material possessions. If we could take advantage of others who possess more than us, would we attempt to appropriate that wealth and power as well? I think a lot of people already do in smaller, more abstract ways that are particular to their own lives.

With concern to Marie Antoinette, I think that saying that the only point of the film is to make Antoinette’s character simply relevant to teenage girls may be oversimplifying a tad bit. I could understand an argument that her character’s experience may be geared towards women, but I could also argue that the character of her husband could be one that men could identify with, such as one about to get married. For both characters, what I take away from their plights is that they are overwhelmed by responsibility, and a desire to skirt that responsibility by essentially being irresponsible, which I think everyone can identify with at one point during their lives. Given that this film is on the surface about a European queen during the 1700s, I think it’s quite a feat to make a contemporary audience identify with her, even if the majority are only teenage girls. And in that same vein, I’d like to talk a little further about the specific conventions and techniques that she uses to do that in that film, and also in Lost in TranslationThe Virgin Suicides, and especially The Bling Ring. Specifically, the way she utilizes music, through the lyrics and instruments, to capture a feeling of a scene. When Marie Antoinette came out, there was some criticism about her use of the song “I Want Candy” by the 1980s band Bow Wow Wow. I thought using that song was ingenious for several reasons. First, it gave the scene a sense of whimsy and fun, almost a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” vibe. Second, it made the 18th century relatable to contemporary audiences. Finally, she also used it as an aid to the set design and costumes. At that point in the film, it was all about excess, fluff, pink and frosting, and she used the bubblegum-ness of the song to mirror that of the film.

marie

MGS: Good point about her use of music. I loved that “I Want Candy” montage. For me, Sofia Coppola’s greatest strength as a director is the way that she combines images and music to convey an incredible sense of energy. I think my favorite scene in The Bling Ring, for instance, was when Rebecca and Mark were driving and singing Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” What really made that sequence for me was the use of jump-cuts, which provided a visual correllary to the fact that the characters were high on cocaine. And you and I both could cite countless examples from her films to illustrate how she conveys a similar energy. How about her use of Heart’s “Barracuda” to accompany a tracking shot of Josh Hartnett’s bad-boy character strolling through a high-school hallway in The Virgin Suicides? Or the twin strippers’ dancing to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in Somewhere?

To address your other point, I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad” thing to make audiences relate to characters in period-piece films. But I do think it might be more courageous to show viewers how different and strange the past was in comparison to the present — to make us understand without necessarily being able to “identify.” There is a very memorable scene in one of my favorite movies, Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, where you see the incredibly elaborate process of how food was prepared and served to the king. The scene goes on forever and the longer it goes on the more it feels like something out of science fiction — and it just becomes mesmerizing. The opposite of this approach is what you see in those Elizabethmovies with Cate Blanchett. In the second one, I remember a scene where the queen smokes tobacco (brought to her from the new world by Sir Walter Raleigh) for the first time, and inhaling it makes her break out into fits of laughter. The idea is that it seems like she’s smoking pot, which makes no literal sense; it’s just a cheap, shorthand way to communicate something to contemporary audiences. It’s like the filmmakers are collaborating with the viewers over the heads of the characters, and that strikes me as dishonest. I don’t think this is what Sofia Coppola does in Marie Antoinette at all. She’s much more honest in that she includes deliberate anachronisms — like 1980s New Wave pop music on the soundtrack — in order to call attention to her modern point-of-view.

I’d like to bring up now what I consider Coppola’s biggest flaw: I think she’s a much better director than writer. While I think she’s good with sound and image, and while I think she’s good at directing actors, I feel like her approach to characterization and plotting has occasionally been a bit trite. I think when she tries her hand at satire, especially, her scenes tend to fall flat. The way the Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris characters are written in Lost in Translation seems too broad to me in comparison to the other characters in the movie. Same thing with Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring: her clueless New Age-mommy character feels one-dimensional and like an attempt to explain why her daughters were seduced by a life of crime. I know you’re a bigger fan of Coppola than I am so I wonder if this criticism makes any sense to you and if you disagree.

JM: I agree that there is value in showing the past as it was, but let’s face it, a movie about the 1700s in Europe may turn a lot of people off, and Coppola makes history more accessible to those who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in that topic otherwise. In my last defense of Marie Antoinette, I once took a class in grad school while pursuing my Masters in Library Science that focused on the history of the printed book. During that course, we focused on a chapter on scribes in the Middle Ages and saw pictures of early tomes with doodles along the spines from 500 A.D. from bored scribes. Even in the Middle Ages, people got bored at work and in class, as we do now. Throughout the entire class, the professor kept repeating that there is no us and them, only us; that people from 1,000 years ago, and two weeks ago, face roughly the same issues. My point here is that by Coppola presenting Marie Antoinette as a normal person with palpable needs and problems, she allows us to make an emotional connection to an unlikely historical figure.

Regarding Coppola’s writing abilities, her stories can be described as simple, and a good vehicle for the “less is more” ideology. In comparison to most films now, which are extremely complicated and where there is more, more, more of everything, she takes a basic story or feeling and illuminates the story around that concept. When I watch Coppola’s films, I know they are her films because of how my gut feels. She doesn’t beat you over the head with what she’s expressing, she lets it wash over you.

To briefly address the role of the mother in The Bling Ring, I don’t necessarily see her character as a complete explanation of why her daughter stole from others, though I agree that we can gather that her lack of parental supervision may have made it easier for her daughter to act up. I think the “why” of why this group of people did what they did goes back to what we’ve been discussing all along, and it’s multifaceted. It’s the parents, it’s Facebook, it’s our collective experience as people living in the 2000s, capitalism, and we could go on and on.

To just change the subject slightly, I’ve been asking myself if Sofia Coppola is a feminist director, or if the question is even important. I ask because so few films are directed by women even in today’s film world, and I wonder what the women who are working are doing and saying. She’s a woman, sure, but that doesn’t make her a feminist. Men can be feminists, and women can be huge proponents of patriarchy (insert Serena Williams here, but that’s for another day). Given my own working knowledge and constant exploration of what feminism is, I’d say yes. She also does pass the Bechdel Test. If I were pressed to give my own ruling on you, I’d say that you would fall into the feminist camp, Mike, so I’d like to know your opinion on this.

blingring

MGS: Great story about the scribes.

I should clarify that I like the simplicity of Coppola’s narratives. The “plot” of The Bling Ring is so lightweight that it’s barely there. But, for me, the film registers primarily as a sensual — and wholly cinematic — experience: it’s all about sound, color, light and movement and how these things register specifically to a group of people who are young, carefree and self-absorbed. In this respect, it’s like a pop song (as is Spring Breakers, with which it shares many similarities — more on that in a second). By contrast, I think the scenes with the parents feel a bit contrived and moralistic: Coppola makes it a point to illustrate that the parents are either absent or ignorant about what their kids are doing and Leslie Mann’s dialogue is pretty cartoonish. I agree that Coppola isn’t saying bad parenting is solely to blame but I think the film would’ve been more complex and troubling if we had seen that at least some of the parents were decent, smart, caring people.

The feminism question is a good one but also a thorny one: Coppola’s films aren’t explicitly about, say, gender inequality but if you can say that it is feminist for an artist to thoroughly explore the experiences and feelings of female characters (and I think you can), then I’d say Coppola’s a feminist by that criteria. I also think you could argue that she brings a female point-of-view to her sense of film aesthetics, and I don’t just mean in a simple “female gaze”-kind of way. The critic Kent Jones said something great about Coppola in his review of The Bling Ring. He wrote: “Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye.” I know exactly what he means and I think this quality that he’s talking about arises from a specifically female touch (as opposed to say, the more masculine approach that Harmony Korine brings to Spring Breakers, which nonetheless also has a druggy/dreamy/poppy feel and similarly uses the exploits of shallow teenagers to critique capitalism).

Having said all that, my favorite aspect of The Bling Ring was the ending. I really admired the courage it took for Coppola to not only make a film about “unlikable” people but to end it with Nicki Moore (Emma Watson’s character) looking directly at the camera and pimping her website. To me, that said that this young woman had learned nothing and was, if anything, a worse person than before she went to prison. She was basically using her criminal activity to try and extend her 15-minutes of Z-list fame. That, to me, was a daringly truthful and unsettling ending and one that more than compensated for the reservations I had earlier about the depiction of the parents. Anything you’d like to add?

JM: Your description of The Bling Ring plot as “lightweight” is a distinct calling card of Coppola, but in her films, this airiness is expressed through the sound, the colors, the music, and so forth. For me, it’s the combination of all of those elements that I was previously describing that “wash over you,” and that includes the writing. What Kent Jones says is spot on with the “fleeting and ephemeral,” which I really get a sense of in The Virgin Suicides. The feeling that she leaves you with is difficult to describe in concrete terms, it’s almost an aura of the film. You make the point that it is an attribute of a female touch, and I would agree, but I would say that it’s a feminine touch, whereas visceral, blunt themes with heavy violence and explicit sex may lean more towards a masculine sensibility.

A quick note on the parents, I looked up the mother’s website, Andrea Arlington, and her online profile seems pretty matched up with how she was portrayed in the film. This seems like one of those cases where you can’t even “make this stuff up,” that reality in this case is sufficient for the film. To play devil’s advocate just a bit more, I think that one could make a slight argument that in The Bling Ring the mother of Nick did seem concerned and was not portrayed as a space cadet. However, I get that we aren’t given a lot of information on the other parents, so a more well-rounded argument is difficult to make.

Looking over her five films, I can’t wait to see Sofia Coppola’s filmography grow into a lengthy, full-bodied collection. When you and I first met, I remember gushing about The Virgin Suicides and singing Coppola’s praises, and you told me that you didn’t like her. Granted, when we first met I believe your film taste to be a little bourgeois and has definitely come down to earth a little more. That being said, how do you feel about her now?

MGS: At the time we met, I had only seen Lost in Translation, which I think is overrated but which seems to be her most beloved film. I do feel, however, that she has gotten better with each subsequent movie. I consider myself a fan and I look forward to her future work.

Jill’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films 
5. Somewhere
4. Lost in Translation
3. The Bling Ring
2. The Virgin Suicides
1. Marie Antoinette

Mike’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. The Virgin Suicides
4. Lost in Translation
3. Marie Antoinette
2. Somewhere
1. The Bling Ring

He Said/She Said Director Profile: John Carpenter

This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City Cinema. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.

MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that HalloweenEscape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?

JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?

MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)

Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?

JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, thenThe Ward.

The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.

Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.

Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.

The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.

Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.

Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.

Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward,HalloweenThe Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?

MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.

I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine inGhosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.

Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films 
10. Christine
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
7. Starman
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
2. Halloween
1. The Thing

MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
3. Halloween
2. Starman
1. The Thing

He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.2
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit!, a new Norwegian teen-sex comedy, is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael Glover Smith’s film studies blog, White City Cinema. Funny and refreshingly honest, Turn Me On, Dammit! centers on Alma, a sex-obsessed teenage girl who becomes a pariah in her town after she claims that Artur, a popular boy at her high school, poked her with his dick at a party. The film opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

JM: This film was written and directed by two separate women. Given that you are a writer and director, what is your take on a female voice/female voices?

MGS: This is a provocative and complex question. I have to say that most of the time I don’t think about such things but when I was watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I certainly did. For instance, I thought it was totally bizarre that a fifteen year old girl would call a phone sex line. My first reaction was “There’s no way a fifteen year old girl would do that!” But then I remembered that the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel by another woman and then thought “Aw, hell, I guess they would know better than me.” I also thought that the scene where we see Alma masturbating was interesting. I’m sure you agree that there was nothing titillating about the scene. It was just there to establish her character and yet . . . if we watched the exact same scene believing it had been directed by a man, it would have been disturbing, no? On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that the reason why Helene Bergsholm gave such a convincing performance as Alma is because she felt more comfortable being directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen than she would’ve had she been directed by a man. Also, it’s possible that only female writers/directors would feel that confident portraying a girl that young as a sexual being. What do you think?

JM: What puts my answer into perspective is that I have no idea what is involved in a young man’s coming-of-age life. The concept of what a guy goes through when he becomes a man eludes me, and I think that only someone who has walked in those shoes knows the answer. Alternately, a man cannot know what a young girl goes through, even if he has daughters or sisters, though that would give him a little more insight than if he hadn’t. A man knows a man’s body, and a woman knows a woman’s body. She can remember her own experiences and tap into that firsthand knowledge.

To answer your question concerning a man’s take on the masturbation scene, I can only imagine it failing miserably. In sex scenes, or even nude scenes, where women are directed by a man, I feel that the vast majority of them are from what a man desires, or what he thinks a woman wants or needs, which pretty much always leaves me shaking my head because they are so opposite of what I find to be even somewhat believable. To illuminate my point further, during the filming of your second movie, At Last, Okemah!, you were filming a fight between the main character and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was supposed to act frustrated because she wasn’t getting the attention that she believed she deserved, and you were having some trouble getting her to react appropriately. One of the male crew members blurted out, “act like you haven’t had sex in months and you really want to get laid.” It took about every fiber of my being to keep from saying, “man, you don’t know anything about women.”

Going back to your station as a male director, do you feel that you have a particularly male perspective when writing and/or directing?

MGS: I’m sure that I do but I don’t think it plays that big of a role. I mean, I’m sure I also bring to my work a white male perspective and an American perspective and a thirty-something perspective and so and and so forth. I try not to think about those things when I’m working because that kind of thinking can be crippling for an artist. I think it’s best to operate more instinctively and not think about how your background might be manifesting itself when writing and directing. Same thing for writing a blog post, actually.

I think that you, Jillian, probably bring a more explicitly gendered perspective to your blog because of your women’s studies background and also because “teasing out feminisms” is the theme of your blog. Or would you disagree?

JM: My background definitely shapes what I think and put out on the page and I write from all those points of view. I agree that we are all a conglomeration of different selves: gay; lesbian; mother; father; high school education; etc., and I do pull from my own given the occasion, just as the writer and director of Turn Me On, Dammit! pulled from different areas of their past lives, such as being a teenage girl, being a girl growing up in a small town, et al. I can also say that I don’t write for a particular audience but for myself, what interests me and is on my mind, as opposed to writing for a particular audience in mind.

Do you think that a mirror of this movie could have been made by a male writer/director about young, coming of age boys?

MGS: Absolutely. I think that kind of movie has been made many times in America (that’s how I’d describe a lot of contemporary teen-sex comedies, of which Superbad is a prominent recent example) but it has rarely, if ever, been done well. What’s great about Turn Me On, Dammit! is its frankness about teenage sexuality, but I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with a male or female perspective. I think Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is the closest good male equivalent that is coming to my mind right now but, on the other hand, that movie does a lot of things aside from explore adolescence. For instance, even though Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are great, the scenes with Jeff Daniels as their novelist/professor father are probably the most interesting in the film. Turn Me On, Dammit!, by contrast, doesn’t show much interest in the adult word, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

JM: When watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I thought back to when I was in high school and I could definitely identify with a lot of what the girls, especially the main character, were going through. Specifically, life during high school and the “mean girls,” awareness of my own developing body, inflated and unrealistic ideas about love and sex, to name a few. Watching this movie as a man, did you feel any sense of alienation or could you identify with what these girls were going through?

MGS: I didn’t feel alienated at all. The film evokes a lot of emotions that I think cross gender lines – adolescent boredom, loneliness, sexual frustration, wanting approval from the cool kids, etc. Having said all that, no one ever poked me with his erect dick at a party! But there were moments where I could relate to Artur as well – like when he pretends not to be interested in Alma and lies to her about having another girlfriend. He was afraid of taking an emotional risk and I could relate to that.

JM: The girls in this film were born and bred in a small Norwegian town. Given that we both grew up in small towns up until after high school (me Villa Park, Illinois and you, Charlotte, North Carolina), do you see any parallels?

MGS: Well, Charlotte had a population of about half a million people when I was growing up there (and it’s gotten considerably larger since) so I think my experience was different than the characters in the film. They live in a truly rural area. However, I could relate to the desires the characters had about wanting to move away. I certainly never had the hostility towards Charlotte that they do towards their town. I wouldn’t flip off signs of my town like they did, but I did feel like I needed to get away and move to a bigger city and expand my horizons a bit. I guess I felt a bit like Saralou wanting to move to Texas. You’ve always stayed close to home though so I’m assuming your experience was different.

JM: It is true that I’ve always wanted to stay close to family, but suburbanites in Illinois are lucky enough to be able to move to Chicago, which is as different in many ways from Villa Park as you can get. It’s amazing how, though it’s so close, how far to the right, politically speaking, towns can be right outside of larger cities. My own experience is almost identical to what Alma experiences as she takes a trip to a bigger city, and seems somewhat of a small town/big city universal.

MGS: I’d like to conclude by saying that even though Turn Me On, Dammit!‘s focus on sex is going to be the main thrust of every review written about it, I think it also does a few other things extremely well. It feels very real and evocative in its portrait of what it’s like to be a kid working a dead end job in a small town grocery store, to ride the same bus to school with the same kids every day, and to escape for a magical weekend to a big city to hang out with college kids who have their own apartment. Finally, in Saralou’s anti-capital punishment crusade, which is arguably the funniest part of the movie, Jacobsen absolutely nails the very specific way in which teenagers can get overzealous about something. I thought Turn Me On, Dammit! was a very pleasant surprise when we caught it last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m glad that its getting a fairly wide release now, even if, absurdly, it was recently banned in Tuscaloosa. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: If you were ever to make a movie that was the male bookend to this, would you have had the same “poking” story as the young man in the movie? Let’s hope not…

MGS: My male bookend to this would involve a nice guy like me receiving the equivalent of a “female poking” from a feisty gal like you.

He Said/She Said Review: The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers
dir: Ti West (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.0
JM rating: 7.5

This “dialogue review” of Ti West’s The Innkeepers, a new haunted hotel horror film, is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Mike’s film blog White City CinemaThe film opens Friday at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.

MGS: The Innkeepers is a new horror film by the talented young writer/director Ti West. You and I were both fans of his previous movie, the retro-Eighties Satanic possession flick The House of the Devil, and so we opted to check out his latest On Demand. Because The Innkeepers is a true independent production, it had the unusual honor of premiering On Demand more than a month before its theatrical release, something that major Hollywood films won’t do . . . yet. In what other ways do you think The Innkeepers reveals its indie credentials and what do you see as being the strengths and weaknesses of this mode of production?

JM: First of all, I actually never thought about what types of movie were On Demand via Comcast because we rarely rent them, but when I think back we also rented The Human Centipede, so I can definitely see a pattern. To address your question, I knew that it was an indie flick because it defied a lot of conventions that you can almost psychically predict while watching a Hollywood film. First, the set and the story were really simple — just a haunted house and a few characters who you really get to know. To narrow in on the characters, namely the main two inn employees (male and female), there is no overt romance, which always seems to happen when you put two heterosexual characters together of the opposite sex. They have a great silly chemistry and I found my mind wandering to past jobs that I’ve had where I have such a great time with a co-worker that the job seems to melt away. Also, the main character, Claire acts like an actual carefree and down to earth girl and I couldn’t imagine her being any other way in “real life” because her acting was so understated. To jump ahead, I would argue that the ending was the epitome of a true indie film. It was simple and scary — no gimmicks, no scenes that were completely predictable, and slightly ambiguous. A strength of this film is that you have no idea what is going to happen, and you connect so quickly with the characters that they are like your friends and you don’t want them hurt. Another strength is, again, it’s difficult to predict what is going to happen and in most horror films especially I can usually predict every next move because they are so formulaic. A weakness would be, and not so much of this being an indie film but rather of the film itself, that I was slightly confused by the end. It was so simple that I didn’t know if I should keep digging for deeper meaning or just let it be. It reminded me of Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate where the movie is really good, but the end baffles and slightly disappoints me because I don’t know what to think. I’ll be the first to admit that I like my endings to be crystal clear (though I do love The Wrestler, as you know).

MGS: You make some good observations about the characters. Not only did I find it refreshing that Luke and Claire weren’t romantically involved, I think West nailed a very specific type of relationship dynamic between co-workers; Luke and Claire are comfortable around each other, they do a lot of joking around to kill time but they’ve also probably never hung out together outside of work and ultimately don’t know each other that well. And the fact that Claire was a little creeped out by Luke gave their interactions an interesting twist. I loved that she decided to go back to the lobby and potentially contend with the ghost rather than go into his bedroom while he was wearing tighty-whiteys! I felt there was something very real and humorous about that decision.

The last movie we jointly reviewed was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a Hollywood horror film I would like to contrast with The InnkeepersDark had a big budget, movie stars and state-of-the-art special effects but I found the script formulaic and the characters one-dimensional. It drove me up the wall that Guy Pearce, one of my favorite actors, was given nothing more to do than cluelessly refute the ever-increasing amount of supernatural evidence piling up around him. I felt the characters in The Inkeepers were much better drawn: the quirky/geeky girl in her early twenties with no real direction in life, the aging hipster/slacker guy looking to make some easy money on the internet, the alcoholic former actress looking to remake her image as a psychic. The actors, of course, deserve a lot of the credit for this. The bond between Luke and Claire suggests to me that there was a lot of rehearsal time between Sara Paxton and Pat Healy. I’d also like to say that I was delighted by Kelly McGillis as the has-been actress. After casting Dee Wallace and Mary Woronov in House of the Devil, I think Ti West is showing an almost Tarantino-like knack for the inspired casting of former stars.

The next aspect of the film I’d like to discuss is the pacing, a unique aspect of West’s style that is controversial – at least judging by internet message boards. Both House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are “slow burn” narratives where nothing explicitly horrific happens until over an hour into each movie. It seems to me that West is taking his cues from early Polanski in this regard; I remember hearing Polanski say that he wanted to lull his audiences into a state of near-boredom for the first 30 minutes of Repulsion so that the shock effects would be more powerful once they finally came. Apparently, this sense of pacing doesn’t work for some modern viewers. What did you think?

JM: I think that the pace of the film is actually what drew me in because I was forced to be ultra-aware of what I was seeing and hearing. I knew that something scary was going to come because after all, it is a horror film and I’ve also seen the previews, but I didn’t know when. During the first half of the movie, I found myself leaning forward and listening as intently as I could because I didn’t want to miss any slight noise or apparition. This technique kept me suspended in a state of trepidation, thus making me hyper aware of what was happening in the film. At certain points, I even held my breath because the sound of my own breathing might cause me to miss out on something important.

With regard to the actors, I was shocked to learn that the actor who played Luke was also in one of my favorite films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as Wilbur, one of the Ford brothers. Talk about a versatile actor. It’s definitely a credit to West that he had the foresight to envision Healy in such a drastically dissimilar role.

We’ve been talking a lot about big budget Hollywood films and indie films, but what about Hollywood horror and indie horror, specifically? To veer slightly off course for a minute, do you think that Hollywood horror films are inherently flawed due to larger budgets and conventional Hollywood formulas and/or influence over creative control? Likewise, what are your thoughts on independent horror? Do you believe that they have any inherent advantages over Hollywood horror?

MGS: I don’t think a horror film, or any genre film for that matter, could be inherently flawed because it happened to be produced in Hollywood. I think you’ll agree with me that a lot of the best horror movies from the late 1960s through the early 1980s were made in Hollywood and boasted big budgets, stars and respectable directors: Rosemary’s BabyThe ExorcistAlienThe Shining, etc. But the cultural climate was very different then. It was an exciting time when filmmakers were still exercising new freedoms for the first time in the wake of the collapse of the old Production Code. It seems to me that most of the Hollywood horror films in recent years either belong to the “torture porn” subgenre or are stale, unnecessary reworkings of movies from that earlier era (with The Exorcist in particular being continually plundered for aspects of its story, themes, visual style and iconography). The only good Hollywood horror films I can even think of from the past decade are Drag Me to Hell and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I think if you’re looking for originality in horror today, you have to look overseas (to Scandinavia and Asia, in particular) or to independent American movies, which brings me back to Ti West.

I think my only problem with West, and this has nothing to do with budgets, is that his work strikes me as perhaps a little too slight in terms of his ideas and his overall ambition. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepersare small, stylish, well-crafted movies about attractive young women wandering alone through locations that are dark and menacing. I happen to like them but now that I know West can do this, I’d like to see him do something else – perhaps tackle a subject that will tap into more universal fears or resonate through the culture in a more uniquely contemporary way. Then and only then will I be able to compare him to Polanski, Friedkin or Kubrick. But West is young and smart and I think he has a bright future ahead of him. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Yes, a short plug for Scandinavian films. I also am beginning to love Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish horror, such as Let the Right One InRare Exports and Troll Hunter, for example, and it makes me a little sad that this sort of creativity is missing in films coming out of America right now. I would sum up by saying that I do agree with you in that I am a little dubious of possibly a third movie involving a young, cute lead actress who gets into trouble. It almost makes me think that he maybe has “a thing” for seeing young girls “get theirs,” so to speak. I’d like to see something different since I know that he is capable in other ways, as previously discussed, of subverting the horror norm right now.

He Said/She Said Review: Another Year

Another Year

dir: Mike Leigh (UK, 2010)
MGS rating: 8.3
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City Cinema. I saw this film a few weeks ago and thought it was a really unique and desirable view of long-term co-habitation/marriage.  Like Mike, for once we completely agree that this flick is one of the best of the year.  It tells the story of a year in the life of a sixty-something married couple and their relationships with their closest friends and family.

JM: In a nutshell, Another Year is the story of a couple in middle-age who are happily married, but are surrounded by friends who are unhappy. What I loved most about this film was the relationship between Tom and Gerri (who I perceive to be the main two characters) . It’s easy to watch it and believe that these two people really have long-term co-habitation figured out. I think it’s rare in film to see a long-term monogamous/married couple in a successful relationship. Your thoughts?

MGS: I think you’ve hit upon one of the most remarkable aspects of the film and one that made a big impression on me when I first saw it in the theater at the beginning of 2011. Tom and Gerri are indeed a happy, well-adjusted couple and it is weird to see that at the center of a movie! But after watching it a second time on blu-ray I think one could also argue that Mary is the “main character” because she appears in all four segments and she serves as the catalyst for almost all of the drama. It seems like Tom and Gerri remain consistent throughout the film but Mary spirals increasingly out of control – to the point where she has become estranged from them by the end. If anyone deserved to win an award for this movie I think it should’ve been Lesley Manville for her performance as Mary.

What I love about this movie and what I love about Mike Leigh’s movies in general is his sense of characterization. The characters are all so well written and acted that it’s very easy to believe that their lives continue on once they leave the frame. It’s also easy to believe in, and fun to speculate about, their pasts. The characters make references to things that happened years earlier and to other characters who we never see and, even if I don’t understand all of those references, I know that Leigh and the actors know these characters’ backstories inside and out. As a viewer that makes me feel like I’m in good hands.

What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Joe, the twenty-something son of Tom and Gerri?

JM: First I’d like to address what you mentioned about the characters referring to the past, and I also completely buy into and go along with their memory recollections. This makes me think of one of my major criticisms of the movie The Last Rites of Joe May. When we are introduced to Dennis Farina’s character, Joe May, we are asked as an audience to accept that Joe was some sort of criminal and tough guy, but when I watched how his character acted in the present, I didn’t buy it at all. You can’t just expect your audience to believe whatever you present to them if it’s not done convincingly, but Leigh does it perfectly. I feel like I am part of the family.

To answer your question about Mary and young Joe’s relationship, I think that it is very sad on Mary’s part. We learn later in the film that Mary is like an aunt to Joe and when Joe was only in grade school, Mary was already an adult. When Joe is an adult, Mary hits on him, making Mary an extremely pathetic character. She is grasping at any chance to have a life with this family and essentially be part of the family, and she’ll do it by any means possible. This awkward attempt at flirtation on Mary’s part also presents Joe, like his parents, as a mature and empathetic character. Instead of being creeped out by Mary or indulging in any sort of sexual escapade with her, he shows her kindness by not making a big thing out of it. I don’t know if I totally agree with you that Mary could be the main character though because I feel that it is more of an ensemble cast. Maybe I just liked Tom and Gerri’s characters and their relationship to each other and their friends so much that I have blinders on only for them when I watch the film.

Besides Mary, what do you think of Tom and Gerri’s other friends and family and their relationships to them?

MGS: Good point of contrast with Joe May.

I think that Ken is also a fascinating character. I get the sense that he and Tom probably started out in a similar place when they were young men but that, over the years, Ken has somehow made bad decisions that have led to him becoming bitter, out of shape, alcoholic and alone. Tom of course tries to help him in the way that old friends do, which leads to some of the film’s most painful moments. I think Leigh suggests that Ken and Mary could hypothetically have a relationship and help each other out; Ken clearly wants it but Mary seems to have unrealistic ideas about what her long-term relationship prospects are.

I also really like the character of Ronnie, Tom’s taciturn brother. I love the way he’s introduced only in the final section; as you know, the film charts a year in the life of its characters and is split up into chapters that correspond to the four seasons, each of which has its own distinct visual style. It seems like introducing the emotionally damaged Ronnie after the death of his wife (unseen by the audience) completely justifies the desaturated color palette of this “Winter chapter.” Obviously, this is a very somber part of the movie but I also think there’s a wonderful, deadpan humor to some of the exchanges between Ronnie and Mary. What did you make of their interactions?

JM: First of all, I completely agree with the winter section corresponding to the death of Ronnie’s wife! I felt like that part was so sad and mournful, and thinking back the lighting and weather mirrored that.

Admittedly, I didn’t really know what to think of the relationship between Mary and Ronnie. I felt that Mary, yet again, was attempting to cling to a member of the Tom/Gerri family and will flirt with whomever will be her key to that world. As for his interest in her, the connection lies in loneliness, companionship and the social act of smoking cigarettes. I tried to read more into it, as if maybe they’d end up together, but overall I think that I was romanticizing it.

MGS: I feel like there’s zero chance that those two could end up together but I have to admire Mary’s manic, indomitable persistence. One of my favorite moments is when she asks him about The Beatles and he replies that he’s an Elvis man. Then she sings a line from “All Shook Up”!

I’d like to conclude my thoughts by saying that I think Another Year is a great title for this film. It reminds us that what we’re watching is a slice of life; I feel like Leigh and his estimable cast show us the high and low points of one year in the life of these characters but that there could have been many similar movies made about the same characters in any of the other years of their lives. This is one of the ways in which it reminds me of the work of one of my favorite directors, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. Also Ozu-like is how Leigh manages to examine family ties in a way that feels simultaneously culturally specific and universal.

It’s well known that Leigh’s screenplays evolve out of improvisational workshops with his actors and I feel like he has perfected that process over the decades. To borrow a phrase from an old beer commercial, I think it allows his movies to reach a place, in terms of character development, that the other movies can’t. So that is why I think Another Year is a very special film. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: I’ve never seen any of the director’s other films, but this one definitely piques my interest to explore further. There is something so intriguing about his characters that when I finished watching the film, I felt like I was closing a really great book. I was sad that it was over, and also that I wouldn’t be a part of their lives anymore.

Another Year is currently available in a splendid blu-ray/dvd combo pack from Sony Pictures.

He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City CinemaHe Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world off-balance. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pearce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.


Me, Guillermo del Toro and my spouse Mike at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival