Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

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Monster Fest – Raw

Director: Julia Ducournau

(Yes: Go watch this if you enjoy genre films. Especially if you want to see more great movies directed by women)

Summary: A young vegetarian woman attends the same veterinarian school attended by her parents and currently attended by her older sister. During a hazing ritual, she is pressured by her sister to live up to her family’s legacy and partake in the eating of a raw rabbit liver. Things go wrong.

 

Raw is a striking directorial debut that is hard to pin down. It doesn’t want to stick with any one mood or tone for an extended period of time, choosing instead to wade drunkenly in and out of moments of queasy awkwardness, warm affection, dark humour, and surreal body horror. In the broadest of strokes, you can think of it as a coming of age dramady with a heaping mouthful of cannibalism used as a central metaphor.

And with the specter of cannibalism raised, there’s something I should probably address. I saw Raw at the Monster Fest Travelling Film Festival where it was introduced as a film that made its Cannes audience squirm and mutter with discomfort. There were reports of audience members fainting at a TIFF screening. And yes, some of the Monster Fest audience gasped during our screening. But, and this is important, Raw is not a particularly graphic cannibal movie. Gore hounds do know that whatever gore there is on screen is beautifully detailed and lovingly photographed, but do not go in expecting a splatter film. Most of the gasping occurred during particularly emotionally charged sequences rather than from gory money shots.

What is really impressive about Raw is the assured direction of Ducournau. Her film is an emotionally turbulent one with a keen eye for teasing out horror from mundanity, expressing feminine power and desire, and exploring the awkwardness and hilarity to be found in coming into your own. Whether it be the dark humour in a fellow student offering tips on purging after misunderstanding a traumatic event, the nastiness of verbal sparring between sisters, or the awkwardness and hilariousness of a particular scene involving a disembodied finger, Raw is anchored in a sense of emotional authenticity from the point of view of protagonist Justine. When Justine hungers, the camera leers over the topless body of her attractive room mate, dissecting him through strategic close ups of his muscular flesh, before just as strategically pulling back to show him in his totality. It is a sophisticated use of gaze to comment on a character’s inner conflict.

The film is so anchored to Justine’s POV that beyond making us complicit in her gaze, it makes us subject to her temporal and geographical understanding. When she gets more unhinged the more she indulges, the film gets more unhinged and indulgent. The result is a film that threatens to be coherent before slipping into a bizarre nightmare logic. We lose touch of our surroundings as Justine does. We exist in the moment, blacking out and coming to after some time has elapsed, much like Justine. The film keeps us on the back foot and when it does choose to have things in focus, they are either uncomfortable or surreal. The moments of violence are all the more horrific for how vivid they are. As is the shame that Justine feels after.

 

Raw is a juicy movie. It is rich for dissection, allowing viewers to pick at the scraps of its metaphor. A parable about sexual awakening and sibling rivalry in the vein of Ginger Snaps; a cautionary tale about overindulgence leading one to harm those close to them; a story about the difficulties young women face keeping up appearances in a world that watches and judges their every move; a document of aberrant eating practices such as binging and purging. It feels like a little bit of all these things. And it is all the more powerful for trusting the viewer to stumble into these readings after they’re done cringing.

BRO-TASTIC BRO-VERLOAD~!!

I apologise for being away from this place for a while, I’ve been focusing on my game development studies and such. Assignments take away from free time and all.

However, I have come across something that I just felt needed to be discussed.

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual harassment and Violence Against Women will now be discussed.

It’s something that seems endemic to the geek/gamer culture. We have seen it in the Fake Geek Girl scare that has (had?) swept the internet, the Cross Assault Sexual Harassment incident, in which Fighting Game Community (FGC) member Aris Bakhtanians defended harassment of a female colleague because (paraphrasing here) “removing sexual harassment from the FGC is removing the FGC from the FGC”, and we have seen it in the many pieces of evidence posted up for all to ridicule on sites such as Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The culture appears to be exclusionary of women.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series started life with a gigantic hate campaign via youtube, and (I hesitate to say) culminated in the creation of a game in which you punch Anita in the face. I hope people can see that whether or not you agree with her thesis or the strength of her argument, this is not an appropriate thing to do.

It is not being politically correct to call out attacks on a person’s character and their likeness because of the fact they are viewed as an outsider to your culture, especially if what qualifies them for outsider status is their sex or their gender.

The exclusionary stance against women is something that needs to change. Games and Geek culture are things that should be inclusive of everyone. There should be no self appointed Gatekeepers tasked with keeping those deemed of “inferior stock” from our ranks. It is a sad state of affairs when I am more accepted than someone else by virtue of the fact I possess a penis and they do not.

That it is coming from the community itself goes some way toward reinforcing the notion that geeks and gamers are immature men getting lost in “inferior” product of little consequence because it allows them to engage in juvenile power fantasies in which they are “better” than they could ever hope to be in real life.

We are more than that, and our preferred media and products deserve recognition beyond what the mainstream give them. Our attitude towards women or others is not going to help this.

It would be one thing if this were an issue at the community level, where introspection, soul searching and some frank and open discussions about the way we treat outsiders could help us to be more inclusive and nurturing to those who want to enter the fold.

This is why it is with some degree of sadness, though without any real surprise, I stumbled across this site: corp.ign.com.

With all seriousness, a scroll at the top of the page states:

The Greatest Sites Known to Men.
The Greatest Sites Known to Gamers.
The Greatest Sites Known to Influencers.

“So what?” you may think. “I see nothing directly insulting to women, right?” Well, this is where things get ugly. IGN is no small thing. Ziff Davis recently purchased IGN and related sites for an undisclosed amount, though News Corp were asking for USD $100 million for the bundle. IGN is a big thing indeed. After the purchase, sites in the bundle were shut down with Ziff Davis wishing to focus on flagship sites IGN and Askmen.com. IGN has for the past 12 months (February 2012, to February 2013) boasted over 4 million unique visitors per month.

So it is a big site, worth a lot of money that gathers a large amount of unique page views. And?

Going back to the scroll at the top of corp.ign, everything is framed in terms of men. Men are gamers, they are influencers, they are MMORPG players. Never is it suggested that women partake in any of those activities. This language is exclusionary. It implies that women do not matter as it is men who are the gamers, MMORPGers and the influencers. Why would you care about women?

But wait, there’s more: Yes, this is real.

“BRO-VERLOAD!” The page reads:

“With a male composition index pushing one and a half times the online average and heaps of traffic, our original properties together reach 1 in 4 men online in the 18-34 age range. Simply put, we do a better job of applying your media dollar directly to the young male demographic you need to reach. Matched by our breakthrough creative and guy acumen, our pitch adds up to integrated, targeted campaigns with room to scale: it could only be better if our rate cards were printed on crisp bacon.”

Mmm, crisp bacon, the manliest of all meats. All kidding aside, the page goes on like that, talking about how IGN properties bring in the men, men that you, the advertiser have to target because women do not matter to you.

1 in 4 gamers, all men, women don't count.

1 in 4 gamers, all men, women don’t count.

It is a clear institutional and systemic exclusionary approach taken by games media that feeds into gamer culture’s exclusionary approach. It is not fair to blame only the gamer without taking into account the companies and outlets that feed them, and until we do, we will only be having a temporary effect.

The rise of independent game development tools, such that I have mentioned in a previous post, have enabled people of all sorts to share themselves through the medium of video games. Having mass media supposedly for gamers choosing to target the male demographic is setting our chosen medium back. We cannot progress if the audience is kept blinkered as to the possibilities of what can be done and expressed with games, and by whom.

I cannot offer a solution just yet, other than look elsewhere for your games related news. Perhaps Gamasutra and its sister sites will help in that regard. Pixel Prospector is a pretty decent source for independent games, with an abundance of tutorials and links to resources, and the TIGForums provide a community for independent developers.

The next thing you could do is make yourself known and felt within these communities. Make it known that women exist and matter and are part of the face of the gaming and game development communities.

PS:

Need I say this attitude is damaging to men as well? I wonder how many men out there are “bros”, or have a fondness for crisp bacon, or fall for all the pandering sites like IGN employ. How many men out there are the kind of man IGN says men should be?

How many men are better off believing that their culture is for men alone and that anything that deviates from this expectation is dangerous to the foundations of the culture?