Reporting back from a movie-filled weekend. Some spoilers for the relentlessly charming La La Land, and a review of Rogue One inspired by Thumper the rabbit
This weekend I saw two movies. One has space battles in a universe that painstakingly recreates the look of 1977’s Star Wars. The other is a love letter to Los Angeles made by a bunch of people born in the 1980s. The fact that I ended up loving the latter one is proof I don’t understand how the world works anymore.
I lovedLa La Land, and I loved it for exactly what it was trying to do. Much like The Force Awakens transported me back to the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time, watching La La Land often took me back to the first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. Obviously it’s not the first attempt to recapture the magic of classic musicals, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen.
The trick, I believe, is that its sense of self-confidence completely obliterates any sense of self-awareness. It feels not like someone wanted to make an homage to classic musicals, but that somebody wanted to make a movie about the magic of Los Angeles and decided that of course a classic musical would be the best format for that. Once that decision was made, everyone went all in and made a musical with all the earnest enthusiasm that seems to have skipped my generation. Any hint of a wink at the audience would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal.
Or, I guess, its success could just be on account of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s preternaturally appealing chemistry. I will say that Gosling’s always seemed fine but unremarkable to me, but his performance here is outstanding. Partly because his character is really kind of annoying and insufferable, but he manages to make arrogant stubborn passion seem sympathetic if not exactly likable. He plays a guy who loves jazz and evangelizes it, and yet I wasn’t immediately turned off, which is a monumental achievement on its own. (And I’ve got to say if you’re in the portion of the audience that’s into dudes: much like Gene Kelly, Gosling is an actor that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me until I see him dancing in a well-fitted shirt).
Emma Stone can do pretty much whatever she wants and remain effortlessly likable, since that’s her thing.
The movie starts with a bunch of 20-year-olds all dressed in primary-colored T-shirts or sun dresses all dancing and skateboarding (!) on and around cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp. It’s odd to see that not being used to sell me Coca-Cola or a Prius. Even though my cynicism threw up a shield, the enthusiasm of that opening number wore it down. It bugged me initially that the movie seems to favor “naturalistic” vocals, so they seem quiet, breathy, and out of balance against big orchestrated music, but it didn’t take me long for me to stop caring. (Unlike, for example, Les Miserables, which demands over-the-top vocals from almost every character, and which wasn’t as kind to actors-who-also-sing). By the time Stone and Gosling are dancing on a bench in Griffith Park, I’d been completely won over.
One of the only complaints I’ve heard about La La Land is that the pacing drags in the middle. I was on the lookout for that, and while the scenes with John Legend didn’t interest me, I inferred that that was kind of the point. His character represents success without passion. I don’t believe that the story dragged so much as I stopped thinking of the movie as a musical for an act or so. I don’t believe that’s a flaw; I think it’s structurally perfect: when it “turns back into” a musical again during an audition sequence, I was genuinely surprised, and it made that song more powerful.
I’ll try to be deliberately vague and not completely spoil anything, but: the end of La La Land pays homage to the extended ballet sequences at the end of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, in which the movie’s narrative stopped in favor of a bunch of fantastic imagery and dancing. I say it’s here that La La Land shows its intentions and its double identity: it’s more indie film romantic drama/comedy using the structure of classic musicals than just an homage or recreation of those musicals.
It delivers two versions of its finale, which I first thought was an attempt to give everyone what they wanted. But after thinking on it some more, I realize it’s the crucial coda that has to be appended to any story about the magic of Los Angeles and the beauty of following your passion: it reminds us how much of our lives are controlled by fate and timing. You can (and should) follow your dream, but you’re not guaranteed stardom and fame like, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, since it’s often talent and hard work combined with meeting the right person in the right conditions at the right time. And it’s that mentality that lets the movie be earnest and joyful and optimistic without feeling too trite, treacly, and over-simplified.
I don’t think it’s perfect, and I still don’t like jazz, but any flaws that it has don’t just fade away but go into making it a unique and seemingly sincere creation. It’s just delightful.
This weekend I also saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was genuinely surprised by the movie, since when I heard it was about getting the plans for the first Death Star, I never imagined that about half the movie would actually be about getting the actual physical plans for the first Death Star. But its production design was absolutely perfect, from the costumes to hairstyles to spaceships to “incidental” technology. It took everything from 1977’s Star Wars not as a necessary limitation of available technology, but as an assertion of style for a certain time in the Galaxy’s history, and that’s brilliant. I also really liked Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO, and I thought the CG on his character was seamlessly integrated with the live actors.
Shallow takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are a perfect example of faux-progressive pop cultural simplification for the Twitter generation
It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).
Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.
I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.
The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.
What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:
The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.
It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).
Okay, so why make an issue of it?
Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?
Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.
The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.
Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.
Moana is a by-the-numbers Disney princess movie that keeps going off-script to transform into something inspired.
In the Animation pavilion at Disney’s California Adventure, they run a looping show where scenes from Disney movies are projected on screens all around the lobby along with concept art and music. Each movie gets about 30 seconds to a minute, so sitting in the lobby will run you through the entire gamut of Disney Movie Emotions in about 5-10 minutes.
I was reminded of it while I was watching Moana, since within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie I felt like I’d already gone through two Disney movies’ worth of emotions, and that was all before Maui’s entrance started the plot.
It’s kind of like shotgunning a Disney Princess movie, having someone stridently yelling Believe In Your Dreams! Find Your True Calling! You Have Five Seconds To Comply! right into your ear. It’s also just self-aware enough to sidestep the most trite aspects of Disney Princess movies, but not so self-aware as to be insufferable. It explicitly mentions its heritage when Moana denies that she’s a princess, and Maui insists that being the daughter of the chief and having an animal sidekick automatically makes her a princess. I also wonder if it intentionally did a bait-and-switch on the audience by setting up the adorable pig Pua to be her sidekick, but then leaving him behind in favor of Heihei, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.”
But for every element of Moana that sticks close to the template, there’s something else novel, original, or simply inspired. I doubt I’m the only white American who’s getting his first exposure to Polynesian mythology from the movie; up to now, I only knew that Pele was a volcano goddess and that Maui gave his people time.
It’s reassuring that the filmmakers made a concerted effort to get it right, consulting with people knowledgeable about the various cultures in the Pacific Islands and casting people with that heritage for the main roles. (Okay, so they kind of lucked out that The Rock is of Samoan descent since he’s proven he can do just about everything, but they still get a point from me).
After Hercules — another movie largely about a demigod and made by several of the same people at Disney feature animation — took so many liberties with the mythology in order to make an acceptable family movie, I wondered why they’d even bothered in the first place. It’s still charming (albeit inescapably 1990s), but if you’re having to change that much of the source material, why make an adaptation? Moana feels more like a respectful amalgamation of the mythology of several different Polynesian cultures than an attempt to sanitize and whitewash interesting stories into trite reiterations of the same idea.
In fact, that scene with Maui’s introduction with the song “You’re Welcome” is a great example of how Moana gets it right. It’s multimedia and multicultural: a traditional broadway-style song about a Pacific Islander demigod, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Atlantic Islander demigod. (He shares songwriting credit with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, but it certainly seems the most like his work from Hamilton). Maui’s dance is a combination of traditional musical theater and Polynesian dances. The stories he mentions are each from different cultures’ versions of Maui and creation stories. His tattoos aren’t just an example of 2D animation combining with 3D, but of flat and graphic cartooning inspired by Polynesian art.
To me, it never feels like lazy pastiche or opportunistic cultural appropriation, but like an earnest collaboration: this is the kind of moving, often funny, often breathtaking work that we can create when we share what we all have to contribute. Every production has its share of difficulty and 5-year-long animated feature projects most of all, but Moana feels to me like a movie with no compromises. (I think the sequence with Tamatoa is by far the weakest in the movie, but the lighting effects are really cool and Jemaine Clement’s David Bowie impression is always welcome). Disney’s 900,000-lb gorilla status is often criticized and with good reason, but I think that here’s an example of how it pays off brilliantly: something beautiful gets made and stories and values from cultures that aren’t widely known get broadcast to literally of billions of people around the world.
Before the movie was released, there was an insipid and mean-spirited nontroversy around it, an attempt to generate outrage over Maui’s character design. The claim was that people in Polynesian communities were upset that Maui was depicted as “obese,” or according to one particularly nasty complaint: “a hippo.” It was bullshit even before the movie’s release; body shaming passed off as cultural sensitivity. After the movie’s release, it’s even more offensive: not only are the men and women of Moana depicted as being of various body types (most of them buff AF), but an aspect of Maui’s birth and his self-image are ingeniously incorporated into the Disney Princess-threads of the story, to cleverly tie together all the disparate accounts of Maui’s adventures into a single narrative about his relationship with humankind. Which makes the body-shaming even worse.
In Moana, Maui’s big, brash, and self-assured, and there’s little question he can do what he sets out to do. Or at least if there is, it’s not because of his body. The same goes for Moana herself: not only is there no trace of a romantic comedy in the movie, but her gender is never made an issue. In the beginning of the film, it’s established she’s going to be the next chief, and no one questions it or challenges it, and at no point in the movie is there even a hint that her strength is uncharacteristic or unusual for a young woman. (It’s not ignored, either; you could argue that the quality that makes Moana the hero in the climax of the film is not physical strength or stubbornness, but the empathy that’s usually considered a feminine trait).
And in neither case does it feel like anything is missing. Instead, it feels as if we’ve spent years making Important Progressive Issues out of things that aren’t genuine issues at all. In the case of complaining of Maui’s character design (or even more ridiculously, complaining about sexual dimorphism of the volcanoes in Lava), it was dressing up an at-best superficial, at worst genuinely offensive dismissal as if it were a progressive argument. And with all the Strong Female Characters, it was setting a weirdly low and unnecessary “as good as any man” bar for female characters to pass, and then cheering the characters that passed it instead of wondering why we needed such an artificial distinction in the first place.
So sure, Variety, I’ll agree that Moana shows that diversity can be good for business. But I also say it exposes some of the hypocrisies of the faux-Progressives who disguise self-importance as inclusivity, or attempt to use sensitivity as a bludgeon. It shows the kind of breathtaking and beautiful things that can be created when we respect another culture and give it a chance to speak, and then not “appropriate” it, but make it part of the celebration of our shared humanity.
I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.
Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.
I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso Cuarón making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.
Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.
I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.
And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.
After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.
Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane
I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.
Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.
Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:
Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.
Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.
Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.
Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.
So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).
Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.
Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!
Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!
Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.
Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!
Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable
Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.
In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.
But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.
Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!
Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.
It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.
Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.
Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination
I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.
Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.
Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”
When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.
I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.
One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.
The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.
Not All Sloths
Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:
Thanks for your thinkpiece on Zootopia. What a pity it'd be for kids not to hear a middleaged white guy's take on cartoon animal sex & race.
To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.
While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).
In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:
“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.
Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.
And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.
Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:
It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”
While Seitz describes it:
The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.
This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.
The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.
You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.
And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.
If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.
The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.
For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.
It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.
That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.
I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.
A cursory and non-reductive look at Hail, Caesar! by Joel and Ethan Coen
I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.
After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.
It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.
If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.
After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.
It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.
So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.
Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.
I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.
I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.
Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.
I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.
I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.
And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.
So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.
Another note about The Force Awakens, merchandising, and spoiler culture. Contains huge spoilers, obviously.
This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.
While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.
And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.
Why I unabashedly love Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and how much I’ve missed being able to unabashedly love a movie
A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.
Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.
If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.
But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.
A Long Time Ago
Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.
It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).
And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”
The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.
And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.
But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.
I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.
Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.
Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.
Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.
I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.
(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).
What terrible reviews of Trainwreck tell us about the sorry state of pop-progressivism on the Internet
Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.
What Trainwreck isn’t:
I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.
It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.
But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.
Our Miss Schumer
Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.
In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”
It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?
Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.
The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.
Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.
For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.
That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.
I Feel Like I Won
As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.
Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”
But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.
Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:
That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:
The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.
I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”
Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.
The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”
The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.
The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.
Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).
She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.
What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.
I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.
But At What Cost?!
Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.
What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.
The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).
Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”
in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.
Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.
Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:
But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.
Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.
(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).
Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”
To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.
But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.
And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.
In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.
Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”
Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.
It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):
We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.
Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.
And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.
While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!
It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.
What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.
Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.
What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.
In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.
But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”
In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.
Strong Female Character
There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.
Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:
…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.
In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.
We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”
When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.
Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.
In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.
And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.
I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.
Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”
Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.
(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).
Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.
Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You
This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.
Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.
Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.
That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.
And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!
As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:
Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.
At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.
Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.
Can you see what she did there?
I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.
What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.
Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.
And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.
This Is What You Think Is Hot?
I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.
In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.
When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”
Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”
And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.
It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”
But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.
To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.
And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”
Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.
Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”