Monday, November 23, 2009

My Life in Pink, Blue, Frilly Dresses and Fantasy Scenes

Alain Berliner's 1997 film Ma Vie En Rose tells the story of Ludovic Fabre, a little boy who identifies as a girl. Ludo wears his sister's old dresses, uses makeup and jewelry, plays with dolls, and watches Pam and Ben (Barbie and Ken type characters) on television. He is not homosexual per se, because he dreams of growing up to become a girl, and comes up with a word to describe his present state: he is a "boygirl." Michael R. Schiavi, in his article "A Girlboy's Own Story: Non-Masculine Narrativity in Ma Vie En Rose" describes Ludo as "an aggressively narrative resisting protagonist. Effeminate, cross-dressing, boy-loving, girl-identified, pre-pubescent male."

Ludo is supposed to be seven, but actor Georges Du Fresne was 12 when the movie was shot.

With his bobbed hair and frilly dresses, Georges is distinctly Natalie Portman-esque.

Throughout the film, there are subtle hints in the color of the wardrobe and sets as to how the characters in the scene relate to Ludo. Are they accepting or hostile? What is the significance of the color scheme in Ma Vie En Rose?

Ludo's father Pierre wears a blue shirt at the party at the beginning of the film. He is quite flabbergasted and embarrassed by his son/daughter. Ludo's mother Hanna, on the other hand, is more composed and helps Ludo clean up. She wears a pink dress. A bit later in the film, when the children at school are doing show and tell, Ludo produces Pam and Ben dolls. The children all laugh, but the teacher, wearing a pinkish sweatshirt, is more understanding. On the playground, Jerome and Ludo have an encounter that can be best described as a flirtation. Jerome ignores a girl from the class who asks him to play with her. Jerome is wearing a pinkish jacket at the time. At dinner, after Jerome and Ludo are caught performing a mock wedding ceremony, Ludo's father is again embarrassed, and moreover, furious. Again Pierre is wearing blue. As the film progresses and Hanna's patience wears thin, she wears more blue dresses and sweaters. The list goes on.

As an aside, in Ancient Greek mythology, art, and culture, boys who appeared girlish were considered beautiful. Then again, in most city-states of Ancient Greece, pederasty was considered normal...

Later in Michael Schiavi's article, he quotes Judith Butler, the American post-structuralist philosopher who has written on feminism and so-called queer theory. Butler assert that gender identity can be "reconceived as a personal/cultural history of received meanings subject to a set of imitative practices which refer laterally to other imitations and which, jointly, construct the illusion of a primary and interior gendered self." For all her erudite language, Butler is essentially saying that people imitate what their culture tells them is the normal behavior for their gender, to the point that they too consider it normal and identify themselves as society has instructed. Gender identity comes from without, yet is imitated so ardently that it finally appears, even to the imitator, as coming from within. What is the significance of this in the film? In regards to Ludo in Ma Vie En Rose, I think this can cut both ways.

First, it is true that Ludo is pushed to act like a boy by his parents and fellow children. His parents even take him to see a child psychiatrist. Culture has dictated to its members what being a boy means, and Ludo's family tries to conform to that for fear of being ostracized by their neighbors and coworkers. Ludo idolizes Pam, an external source in the local media, who is the ultra-feminine fantasy figure on television, and he internalizes her world.

However, Ludo also watches his father, his brothers (who play with guns and exclaim that they have killed one another) and the other boys at school, yet does not identify with them. He attempts to emulate them with crude gestures and activities but fails. It is not in his nature. He is not pushed into a box by stereotypical gender roles as Butler would claim. Also, if people are simply imitating what society tells them, who started these concepts? Surely not everyone can imitate each other back to the beginning of time. Butler's theory ignores instinct as well. Who was the originator? The logic breaks down at this point.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Far From Heaven is about the most apt title I can imagine

Jackie Stacey's 1988 essay "Desperately Seeking Difference" is in clear contrast to Laura Mulvey's theories in her 1973 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Stacey uses her essay as a critique of Mulvey's theories of psychoanalysis and voyeurism. I believe the different time periods and films of their time explain these differences in view.

Todd Haynes' 2002 film Far From Heaven tells the story of three main characters: Cathy and Frank the white married couple, and Raymond their black gardener. They live in idyllic Hartford, Connecticut town circa 1957. On the surface, Cathy and Frank have the perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect job, perfect house, and perfect community. Instead, Frank (Dennis Quaid) harbors a secret attraction to men, and Cathy (Julianne Moore) is drawn to her new friend Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, better known as the president on 24). As the title implies, the true existence is far from it. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards: for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julianne Moore), Best Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes), Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman), and Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein).

What is the significance of the gaze in Far From Heaven? Frank still possesses the male gaze, although his gaze is now fixated on other men. In fact, the film offers no other content to the male lovers of Frank. They are image only. They have no dialogue or meaningful scenes. They only serve as an device of physical attraction for Frank, which create conflict between characters. During the scenes of Frank's encounters, visually the camera is set at odd angles and the scenes take place in shadows.

Cathy is the protagonist but, in tune with Mulvey's theory, Frank pushes the narrative along. At the same time, the local magazine columnist and photographer snap photos of Cathy at home and abroad, surprising her. This too is a type of gaze, but it is a gaze on the surface image of the person, not the reality. Modern audiences sympathize with Cathy but at first may not relate to her because of her initial robotic, Stepford Wife personality. In other scenes, the white status quo characters gawk at Cathy as she speaks on a coeval basis with Raymond, and black characters stare at Raymond dancing with Cathy. Even in a state without legal segregation, the people do not rub elbows.

Mulvey's essay cites the concept of the buddy movie (p. 384), which dispenses with the problem of erotic contemplation in the characters by having homosexual eroticism of the central male figures carry the story without distraction. In Far From Heaven the "buddies" could be twofold: Cathy and Raymond, or Frank and his lover(s). Either way the homosexual relationships are not under the surface at all. Frank has more than one sexual encounter with men and eventually leaves his wife and children to be with a man and the film does not shy away from showing the encounters. Stacey, writing 15 years later, claims that gender and sexuality should be separated (p. 394). This is a more modern view and is slowly being adapted to the media depictions of people. Notice that Far From Heaven is a mainstream Hollywood film produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, and starring multiple major actors. It was not an underground art film.

The differences between Douglas Sirk in 1955, Mulvey in 1973, Stacey in 1988, and Todd Haynes in 2002, shows a clear progression of social views. Stacey's article references Desperately Seeking Susan, a possible homosexual buddy movie starring two women in which one is asked outright if she is a lesbian. An essay written in 2009 may be different still. On that note, what films about unconventional relationships could Mulvey have considered in 1973? I can cite two off the top of my head, neither of which are particularly controversial today: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967 and Harold and Maude in 1971. The most shocking thing about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner today is not that Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton are an interracial couple, it's that Poitier is 20 years older than his young fiancee. In Harold and Maude the age difference is closer to 60 years.

What is the significance of the role reversals in Far From Heaven? The film seems to be inspired by Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows. That movie starred Jane Wyman as an upper-class widow and Rock Hudson as her gardener, two people from opposite sides of the tracks. Hudson is now known to be a closeted gay star and he died of AIDS related illness in 1985. Todd Haynes is an openly gay director, and you can see why he was interested in "remaking" the 1955 film with race and sexuality as the themes rather than class differences. His sensibilities as a gay white man may present a different style than another director with a different background.

Far From Heaven functions as a parody of the stereotypical depiction of the post-WW2 ideal as seen in Leave it to Beaver and the Donna Reed Show. The most realistic, down to earth, and honest character in the film is Raymond. He graduated from college with a degree in business and is raising a daughter alone. He is the only character who not only knows direct hardship but he has faced it head on and is a better person for it. He is less sheltered and more worldly. The white residents of Hartford all seem to live in a little pampered bubble.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Myopia and Naiveté: Dancer in the Dark

Lars von Trier's 2000 film Dancer in the Dark is the story of Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant who works in a factory in the state of Washington circa 1964. Selma suffers from severe myopia, to the point that she will soon be totally blind. Selma secretly hoards cash from her job in order to pay for an operation for her son Gene who has the same affliction.

Selma is a perpetually innocent person, loyal to her dying breath, despite others not being loyal to her. She doesn't even testify on her own behalf in court during her own murder trial, lest that break her oath to Bill, the murder victim. She works in a dead end job for little pay, occasionally taking on double shifts to earn more money for her son. She doesn't argue or make a fuss and is always polite, to a fault. This is in contrast to Laura Mulvey's assertion that female protagonists always behave like men. In other words, Selma is pretty naive.

The film is structured as a dark homage to Hollywood musicals. Selma's sunny personality could have been lifted right from a 1940s song and dance film like Ziegfeld Follies or a Busby Berkeley movie. Throughout the film, the drama is interrupted with musical numbers that take place in Selma's imagination. However, von Trier turns the old Hollywood optimism on its head with Dancer's realistic depiction of poverty, hardship and injustice.

Karl Marx's theory of alienation fits into certain aspects of the plot of Dancer in the Dark. Marx believed that capitalism deliberately alienated people from one another, particularly laborers, in order to take advantage of them (Reader in Marxist Philosophy p. 297). Human nature is manipulated to turn peers against each other for the sake of profit.

First, what is the significance of this alienation in the film? First, due to her daydreaming, naiveté and near blindness, Selma is already alienated from much of society. Her employer takes advantage of her (and its other employees) by the hard labor and low pay. Bill, the police officer killed by Selma, represents the government or bourgeois class in society (those with the power). Bill is in a bad spot with his wife and house because he is behind on payments to the bank, which serves as another indictment to capitalism and the status quo. Bill takes advantage of his police position by bullying Selma and taking her money to solve his own problems. She "defeats" this power, but reluctantly and at her own peril. The rest of the law establishment responds by arresting, imprisoning, trying, and convicting her. Her friends from the proletariat want to help her but their own ability is limited. Ultimately she is hanged and justice is not served.

Secondly, what is the significance of Selma's blindness? I think this establishes two things: why she is so innocent and why she is so in love with musicals. She cannot clearly see all the problems and dreariness around her, so she retains a friendly, charming demeanor, perhaps even childish. It also explains why she enjoys her daydreams so much. She may not be able to enjoy standard Hollywood movies, but musicals have so much movement and audio stimulation that she can still get some enjoyment from it. With her eyesight more or less cut off, her mind can take over and take her into her own musical numbers.

Lastly, what is the significance of those musical numbers interspersed among the dramatic scenes? These serve a few purposes. They are levity to break up the heavy, sad scenes of oppression in Selma's life. They also provide a window into Selma's imagination. She has a genuine personality to the audience. The scenes show that Selma is the most human of the characters because of her unwillingness to feel sorry for herself or give up. During her tedious, rough job at the factory she can escape temporarily into a dance routine. During the musical sequences, the film (actually digital video tape) is brighter and more colorful, and not so drab as in the "real life" scenes. Therefore the songs are more real to the audience than the main plot. The film seems to be saying that life may be hard, but your attitude matters too. It isn't quite so hard if you're creative and have something fun to keep you company.