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The Woman in the Basement: Metaphor and Misogyny in Fede Álvarez’ Don’t Breathe
By Andrea Helen Woodward | PhD candidate. School of Humanities
I owe the creators of Don’t Breathe an apology.
When initially incorporating the 2016 American twist on the ‘home invasion’ horror film into my thesis, I thought the ‘woman in a dungeon’ ploy to be a bit of a cliché and in truth, I viewed it as a lesser film. However, since analysing it in more detail and in context with the era the film was created in, I have come to realise how rich it is in terms of sub-context and visual metaphor. In this article, I shall discuss how exploring the basement dungeon of the character credited simply as, ‘The Blind Man’ (Stephen Lang), through the lens of visual metaphor, demonstrates a connection between the resurgence of misogyny in the public sphere, the rise of the ‘Angry White Man,’ and the campaign methods utilised in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.
Firstly, it is important to consider the socio-political climate of the era the film was created in. The 2016 election of the Trump administration introduced new and extreme challenges to established socio-political discourses. Trump came to power as an unproven political agent on the back of populist movements, promising to change the American political landscape. He was marketed as being someone outside the so-called Washington elite, and therefore on the side of ordinary working Americans.
For years, even decades, before the election of Trump, America had been in economic decline. Industries once synonymous with America were being ‘outsourced’ to other countries. Factories were moved to more cost-effective locations, such as Mexico, China, and Thailand, where labour and manufacturing costs are typically lower, (Strachan & Shehadi, 2021:1). Detroit, emblematic of the automobile industry, underwent such a transformation. It is estimated that during the main period of decline dated from the mid-1970s to 2020, Detroit suffered the loss of over 100,000 jobs in the car industry alone, contributing significantly to the neglected state of the city and its suburbs. The viewer witnesses the extent of this decline in Don’t Breathe, which was filmed on location in these suburbs.
The culmination of years of economic and social decline in the heartland of traditional American industries has led to the rise of what Michael Kimmel penned as the ‘Angry White Man,’ (Kimmel, 2017: ix). Kimmel describes the angry white man as one who feels marginalised by the Washington insiders, for whom they attribute the decline of those traditional industries and livelihoods, through recently introduced legislative reforms aimed at driving social, racial and gender equality. This noted social antagonism towards those legislators and politicians leads many to back Trump, and his ability to harness this collective social discord and achieve electoral success. But how does this information lend itself to an analysis of the incarceration and coerced impregnation of the protagonist, Cindy, (Franciska Törőcsik), whom, the viewer discovers is imprisoned by The Blind Man, in his basement?
Theorist Dawn Keatley has likened The Blind Man to a typical Trump supporter, (in McCollum, 2019: 115), someone who has become disenfranchised, and who holds resentment not only towards the so-called Washington elite, but also towards those who the perceive as unfairly benefitting from their newly disadvantaged status. In 2016, someone became a representative figurehead for those disenfranchised to direct their discord towards, that person was Hillary Clinton, who in turn represented the image of a modern successful woman far removed from the once idealised American housewife. Trump countered against Clinton’s extensive experience of the American Political system by insinuating she should be ‘locked up,’ for alleged misdeeds, popularising the ‘Lock Her Up,’ slogan of the 2016 campaign. Trump, a figure already widely synonymous with anti-woman rhetoric, gave legitimacy and encouragement to this notional ‘angry white man’ his resentment towards women, and sought to regain lost social and economic status. Additionally, through Trump’s rhetoric, Clinton became synonymous with the rich, independent woman who needed ‘locking up’ and realigning with traditional gender roles; it was into this environment that Don’t Breathe was released.
The basement of The Blind Man is a matrix of elements that reference the once-prescribed 1950s ideal of American life, with women as homemakers and men as breadwinners. Don’t Breathe reworks this imagery presenting what was once the ideal as a dystopic vision using visual metaphors. For example, the secret room in which Cindy is incarcerated is decked out with furnishings and items reminiscent of a cliched 1950’s suburban household, including a small black and white TV and a wooden record player. Using these props and noted setting, the film evokes memories associated with an era before second-wave feminism, when men were considered heads of the household and women were subject to their control. This recall is made all the more powerful by the image of Cindy, gagged and bound by cables which limit her movement and anchor her to the ‘home environment.’ Thus, from this aspect, the character of Cindy can also be viewed as a visual metaphor, not only in regard to the realities of female life in that era, but further communicating the possible consequences faced by those women who aspire to social and economic success and independence, rather than conforming to that 1950s ideal of the homemaker, mother, and wife.
Considering the perspective of the non-verbal but visual metaphor, Don’t Breathe alludes to a valued tradition within horror fiction; demonstrating that social commentary can often lie at the centre of the horror being depicted on-screen, yet acknowledges a greater horror can be experienced off-screen.
Across the Spiderverse Review
By Ada Fawcett | Film Studies BA (Hons)
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (dir. by Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers, 2023) is an excellent example of how the medium of animation can be utilised to tell meaningful stories about the struggles of marginalised communities through the lens of the superhero genre. Across the Spider-Verse begins with a re-cap montage of the first movie through the perspective of Earth 65 Gwen Stacy. With the intent of highlighting the trauma that acts as Gwen’s primary driving force, that being the death of her best friend, Peter Parker (as The Lizard), and the eventual case of mistaken identity as Gwen’s Father, Captain Stacy stumbles upon the scene of Peter’s death and immediately assumes Gwen’s Spider-Woman is to blame. Gwen’s trauma of losing her best friend and the stress of constantly hiding her identity from her father make for a compelling opening that cements the narrative’s personal tone going forward, emphasised by the impactful audio-visual feast of an introduction montage. Gwen’s later revelations revolving around Miles’ true origin and the bureaucracy of Miguel’s ‘Spider Society’ then act as the catalyst for the coming-of-age story of both Gwen and Miles, which is then reflected in the pathetic fallacy of the universe they reside in at the climax and culmination of said revelations as the motions bleed over into the setting just as the colours do in Gwen’s universe.
This pathetic fallacy is one of Across the Spider-Verse’s most significant assets in achieving emotional gravity whilst setting the tone for a socio-political commentary on the comic-book community’s perception towards specific characters (i.e., Miles Morales). The Film’s animation team achieved this by giving each universe its unique and distinctive art style to help audiences differentiate between each spider-people visible on screen and understand their involvement with Miguel’s multiversal crusade. For instance, to connote Gwen’s constant emotional turmoil and self-doubt regarding authority, Earth-65 is displayed through a watercolour pastel lens to connote the fluidity of the emotions of its inhabitants. In contrast, this is contrasted by the harsh and flashy animation of Hobie Brown (aka Spider-Punk) of Earth-138, which connotes his rebellious and anarchic nature and acts as the driving force of the younger generation of Spider-people. Furthermore, his rebellious nature is conveyed through his animation style, and the animators chose to layer his design in different frame rates, to display both his chaotic and unmanageable personality while referring to a typically punk aesthetic. An example of this in action is when Hobie begins to inform Miles about his reasoning for joining the Spider-Society “I don’t believe in consistency”, also getting to witness moments of emotional vulnerability underneath Hobie’s abrasiveness, such as when Peter B. Parker arrives at Miguel’s office with his daughter, to which Hobie displays a distinctive affinity. In addition to this, we are granted insight into Peter’s character growth from the end of Into the Spider-Verse to the present day as a loving parent who is then juxtaposed with Miguel’s brooding presence.
The focus of Across the Spider-Verse is on how the stresses of teenage life have drastically impacted Miles’ outlook on life, to the point that he is obsessed with trying to prove how grown up he is, whether that is him applying to local quantum science programs, in and around the Brooklyn area, so he can cross dimensions to see his friends from the previous film. His attempts to prove himself to Miguel O’Hara and, by extension, the Spider-Society itself occur to varying degrees of success. Miles’ coming-of-age story is heightened by introducing the film’s primary antagonist, The Spot, who has a tense relationship with Miles’ origin story. As a result of this, the audience gains an insight into the type of narrative Dos Santos, K. Thompson, and Powers wanted to craft for Miles. More specifically, Miguel’s grief-filled crusade to preserve the “canon” of the multiverse, the perception of Miles’ existence being a persistent threat to the “canon” has been confirmed – by the directors – to be a metaphor about the popular, reductive notion in the comic book community that Miles Morales can never be seen or recognised as Spider-Man due to his ethnicity and cultural upbringing reflecting possible pressures experienced a teenager. This notion has been scrutinised and criticised by those who detest such a crude notion both online and in academic circles, as seen by Miles’ character growth arc from a teenager who wishes to prove himself to an organisation that does not want him involved.
This is most clearly shown through how Miles relates to father or mentor figures in his life; for instance, he considers his father as an obstacle in the path towards his goals, but as the narrative progresses, he learns the seriousness of his situation. This then helps the other characters (such as Gwen) to accept who they are, both as superheroes and as trusted family members, whilst also acknowledging the pain, trauma and suffering that comes from isolating loved ones through misunderstandings or plain ignorance. Gwen’s trajectory is vital due to the social commentary it heavily focuses on and, by extension, helps to comfort those experiencing the same struggles as Gwen herself, especially the sequence where Gwen confronts her father regarding her vigilante lifestyle, which runs parallel to the coming out stories of trans people around the world. The existence of the frame of Gwen’s world melts around her as she confesses to her dad whilst, shown in the colours of the trans flag, connotes the acceptance of the trans community and with that, people and, as such, acts as a catalyst for global dialogue on the beauty they as people bring to the world overall.
Scrapper and the rise of
By Megan Bannister | Film Studies (BA Hons)
In 2023, the summer blockbuster feels bigger than ever – with ‘Barbenheimer’ dominating screens, social media, and the box office. Besides the largest films of the summer (and potentially the year) there is no shortage of intense, high energy, fast-paced films to immerse yourself in. To name a few, Blue Beetle, Gran Turismo and Mission Impossible. Scrapper is not one of those films and sets itself apart.
An introspective¸ emotional, peaceful film. Scrapper follows Georgie, a 12-year-old girl in East London, whose mum has just died. She is on her own and navigating her way through rent, social services, and chores under the guise of being taken care of by her ‘uncle’ (who she has creatively named Winston Churchill) when her estranged dad, Jason, appears at the door and wants to become part of her life.
Jason is played by the brilliant new star Harris Dickinson, who plays the role of a young father struggling with the responsibilities of a pre-teen with charm and humour – managing the delicate role of still being likeable to the audience despite Georgie’s protestations. Dickinson came onto our screens most prominently last year – with roles in 3 films. His largest role was in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, See How They Run (dir. Tom George) and Where the Crawdads Sing (dir. Olivia Newman). Since watching Triangle of Sadness, Dickinson has been my ‘one to watch’ and Scrapper solidifies him as an exciting young actor to watch out for – he’ll be returning to the big screen later this year with The Iron Claw (dir. Sean Durkin) alongside Jeremy Allen White and Zac Efron to depict the famed wrestling family the Von Erichs.
Scrapper is not original in its story. It can feel reminiscent of many films, with the most recent examples being Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells, 2022) and C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills, 2021), of a struggling parental figure/child relationship that waivers in its nuanced humanity and tugs at the heartstrings. The originality of Regan’s film comes from how we see this story portrayed, from nods to Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie in the directing style to comic book-esque moments with voice-dubbed spiders to The Office-like interviews with Georgie’s teacher, social service workers and general community – there’s something unique that we can see in Regan’s craftmanship here to bring together a multitude of British screen culture.
The comfort, in Scrapper is that in times of heightened emotion and vulnerability, there is a very distinct relief found when the credits roll and a realisation comes that really, nothing bad happened. In other family dramas, there is growth in the relationship before something (usually a very frustrating miscommunication) knocks them back and they have to reconcile with Scrapper seeming to diverge away from such a trope. It takes an intelligent writer to acknowledge that those feelings brought up from the miscommunication can be interspersed and diluted through a film – without the actual miscommunication – and that moment of acceptance from the child can still be just as emotional; to understand that a slice-of-life film such as this can leave some looser threads when the credits roll and that’s okay.
The Full Monty and Identities in Crisis
By Matthew Peyton | MA Film and Screen Studies
British regional identity has often been displayed within many British films that use the backdrop of the North as a setting for their narratives, as seen with films like Billy Elliot (2000), Brassed Off (1996) and Kes (1970). Looking at British films from the 1990s Monk points out that ‘to an almost unprecedented extent, 1990s British cinema seemed preoccupied with men and masculinity in crisis.’ One such example of this can be seen with the film Peter Cattaneo’s 1997 classic The Full Monty. The film depicts and connects both regional and national identity through the conventions of British realist drama.
The Full Monty depicts the experiences of a group of men in Sheffield who find themselves unemployed after the depletion of the steel mills in the mid-1980s under a Thatcherite government. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, they find themselves in a dire situation until Gaz (Robert Carlyle) hatches a plan to form a male striptease troupe in order to make much needed cash. The film’s comedic tone holds within it a bitterness with regards to the betrayal of working-class men and their families, and a reclamation of pride and a sense of community.
The use of location helps to generate a sense of regionality. The setting of the factory is a traditionally masculine space, it is a site where men are made to use their bodies for manual labour. However, when the men return to the factory to rehearse and dance these activities are seen as ‘non-masculine’. An argument can be made that by using the factory as a rehearsal space the men are renegotiating the act of dance into a rearticulated masculine form. Both steelwork and masculine acts the men to use their bodies, therefore both can be considered manual labour.
The location of the factory itself connotes issues of regionality and provincialism, as seen at the start of the film, we are shown a documentary detailing the history of Sheffield’s steel working industry, highlighting the bustling factories, and town centre. The received pronunciation ‘posh’ voiceover mixed with the language used, describing Sheffield as “the beating heart of Britain’s industrial north,” accentuates the North/South divide and the depletion of the heavy industries. This juxtaposition between the Sheffield of the past to now suggests that it has lost its identity and seems to be a shell of what it once was, and also relegates it back to it being a provincial town.
The lack of work also affects their masculinity and how they view themselves. By not being able to perform manual labour the men feel as though their masculinity is threatened. However, when the men become strippers it allows them to finally use their bodies again for manual labour, re-establishing their masculinity. By the end of the film, the men are able to embrace their bodies, using them as a tool to express and reclaim their masculinity, shrugging off the narrow expectations of masculine expression and the associations with dance as a feminised form of expression, not dissimilar to the excellent Billy Elliot that would follow later.
Music plays a large part in The Full Monty, as it helps to ground the film in its regional settings and symbolises the changes the characters must embark on to fit in with this ‘new Britain’ of the 1990s. During the opening scene, we see the factory’s brass band, which helps to generate a sense of regional identity (as explored in depth in Mark Herman’s deeply moving Brassed Off).
The final performance, where the men strip to Tom Jones’ rendition of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ has become something of a cinematic landmark in the same way as the memorable ‘choose life’ monologue from Trainspotting is emblematic of 90s British cinema. This stripping is also symbolic, as it represents the necessary shedding of a bitterly lost, but also the embracement of a new post-industrial masculinity.
The Full Monty has recently been resurrected as a series to be shown on Disney+, and it will be interesting to note how depictions of gender, regional identity and work are handled in what in some sense is a radically different cultural climate, but in others highly reminiscent of a Britain in crisis.
Beautiful Body Horror
By Elizabeth Allis | Film Studies and English Literature (BA Hons)
I think I must have been the only one of my friends who didn’t do any form of dance at first and middle school. One of my friends did jazz tap but the majority did ballet, however, they never stuck with the hobby long enough to experience the potentially ugly, painful side of it. Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky) and Suspiria (2018, dir. Luca Guadagnino) show the brutality of training your mind and body in order to perform for an audience.
Black Swan is a psychological horror following the ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), as she pursues the role of the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina slowly loses touch with reality as the role of the Black Swan consumes her.
Suspiria takes place within a famous dance company, following the intertwining stories of a young dancer, a choreographer, and a psychotherapist; these narratives are combined with murder and the supernatural.
Ballet dancers crave both perfection and nicotine, and you know it’s bad when The Simpsons mock this habit. The process of becoming the Black Swan acts the same way a cigarette does, the relief of consuming an addiction, whether it be consuming smoke or the admiration of others that fuels the dark mass inside.
Both films use body horror in different ways. Black Swan uses the horror of plucking feathers out from underneath the skin as a physical manifestation of the pressure of perfection and how the process of this stress can develop in a toxic way. Suspiria uses body horror, specifically the unnatural then brutal contortion of a human body in order to show the brutal competition between dancers. To begin with, the ‘body horror’ of Suspiria is simply the eerie movements and the unsettlingly thin body types of the ballet dancers, this instils an uneasy feeling in the viewers as they realise that this is the norm within the dance company and possibly within the global ballet dancing culture. This eerie feeling can also be seen in Black Swan as we see that Nina has been scratching her back bloody due to the stress of simply being in the dance company, this is before the announcement that they will be performing Swan Lake. Both films begin relatively ‘tame’ in terms of horror, this allows the audience to view and accept the societal and cultural norms of the ballet industry, something relatively disturbing in its own right.
Horror films with female leads frequently use obscene amounts of sexual assault in order to horrify the audience. Both Suspiria and Black Swan avoid this, Black Swan has a small amount of sexual assault as Thomas (Vincent Casssel) uses his position within the company to manipulate and his overpowering physical strength to ‘inspire’ Nina into dancing with the ferocity of the Black Swan. Personally, I appreciate a horror film with a female lead in which the horror isn’t a man and the plot isn’t a rape-revenge narrative, not to discredit films like this in any way, I really enjoy Revenge (2017, dir. Coralie Fargeat), but exploring the complex relationships between women, dance, body image and mental health through a mesmerisingly eerie lens is something that fascinates me and I hope to seen more films similar to Black Swan and Suspiria.
A Family Fantasy Film or a Glimpse into
By Emily Fairs | Film Studies (BA Hons)
Since the inception of the genre, Science Fiction has represented technological advancements and its effect on society, and this has included our growing awareness and alarm over climate change. A film that captures these two themes exquisitely and displays them in a post-apocalyptic setting is WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008). WALL-E may seem like a light-hearted family film about a robot who discovers emotions and works as a cleaner for the human race, but the world which the film depicts is reconisable as a speculative represetation of our own possible future. Earth is depicted as a deserted wasteland; robots are obliged to clean up the rubbish that swamps the streets while the human race has relocated to a spaceship that has existed in space for 700 years. The humans have desolated their planet and fled from the harsh reality that they have irrevocably damaged it and everything that inhabits it: a narrative that may not be as dystopian as you might think.
WALL-E incorporates a vast range of techniques to emphasise the importance of preserving Earth to avoid living in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. For example, Stanton frequently turns anything the audience might find familiar into something unfamiliar, so they quickly recognise that this film takes place on an Earth based on our own, but it has been destroyed so much it appears unrecognisable. This creates a sense of otherness; the spaceship has become the new norm for the humans, the destroyed Earth becomes the ‘Other’. There is no vibrant colour left on the planet; everything is smothered in greys and browns, signifying a dirty, empty world. WALL-E builds skyscrapers out of the rubbish that has been discarded, in an attempt to build a new world: one that is familiar but not in bright technicolour, as current audiences would recognise it. Stanton aims to spread the message amongst his audience that it is crucial humans take care of the planet, as any damage done can’t be reversed and dystopia may be closer than we realise.
Additionally, WALL-E passes some billboards on his travels. These billboards advertise brands from within this cinematic version of Earth, something that would have been incredibly important to the humans that lived there before abandoning it, but now has no meaning or worth in this dystopian world. This also demonstrates the toxicity of consumer culture we see in the real world and how it has the ability to control what media people consume or what products they buy; people lose part of their free will in order to fit in with the status quo. Stanton criticises consumer culture heavily throughout the film, implying that this over-consumption of branded products is the reason the world has become a dystopian wasteland. He subtly encourages his audience to consider their own consumtion, and in turn, their resposibility for the decline we witness so artfully. This familiarity continues outside of Earth’s atmosphere, as an advert for an upcoming mall is advertised on the moon. This dystopian imagery suggests that people never learn from their mistakes; they have been given the moon just for them to destroy it in the same way they destroyed Earth.
Also, the musical Hello, Dolly! (dir. Gene Kelly, 1969) is heavily referenced throughout the film: WALL-E feels a deep connection to its themes and imagery. For example, he desperately tries to hold EVE’s hand, as he has seen in Hello, Dolly!, contributing to feelings of nostalgia for both the audience and WALL-E, as both long for the world to return to its current state. The clip that WALL-E has on the tape centres on love and relationships; it returns to a simpler time in history when there was virtually less technology, and people socialised with each other in person, rather than communicating through phones and computers. The film explains that real human contact and emotion are necessary to keep the world going, and the over-use of technology is killing our society and creating a dislocated and dystopian planet.
WALL-E also presents an interesting approach to technology. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the humans have become blank slates, unable to think or even move for themselves. They aimlessly ride around on the spaceship on hovering chairs, constantly consuming media on their screens and drinking every meal in a liquidised form. WALL-E shows an immense amount of emotion and empathy, he wants to experience love with another robot and craves holding somebody’s hand. He feels fear when EVE destroys the rubbish piles and is happiest when he is around her; he is often funny and clumsy, making him relatable. WALL-E then can elicit an emotional response from the audience; they want to see him succeed in love and happiness. WALL-E disproves ideas of unemotional robots by swapping this notion to the humans who show no emotion and live in brain-dead bliss. It is thanks to the robots in this film that the humans can return to Earth.
WALL-E is the true hero of the film, with the assistance of the other robots aboard the Axiom. The humans have proven themselves to be untrustworthy; they have destroyed Earth and abandoned it, so it isn’t their problem anymore.
In addition, some of the technology depicted in the film has advanced to a level where human action and engagement has been itself damaged, as can be seen in the ship’s sentient wheel. This mirrors the increasing intelligence of technology within our current society, now seen in Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and more recently, Snapchat’s My AI, and alludes to people’s fears that these devices are listening to us and collecting our data. The wheel’s angry, red eye symbolises its evil nature and plays into people’s anxieties about technology becoming sentient and taking over the world, especially as the wheel is only evil when it is on autopilot. This mines our anciety about our increasing over-reliance on technology and fears that malevolent sources, even in the form of government, may choose to use technology to monitor and control the populace.
Furthermore, Stanton uses colour in an incredibly effective way to demonstrate the scarcity of nature and the fact that the planet is dying. In WALL-E, Earth is covered in greys and browns, signifying how dirty and polluted it has become; there are no bright colours apart from the commercialised billboards, which shows how vibrant Earth used to be when there was an indication of hope for the future. In the 2008 global recession, the stock market crashed, causing an enormous financial crisis. During this time, pollution levels rose in Central America but dropped in other places around the world that grew their own crops, such as many countries in the East. This highlights the importance of sustainable living and proves that manufactured goods pollute the planet. WALL-E reflects this in its use of dull colours around the planet, except the vibrant green colour of the plant he finds. This vivid green insinuates a returning sense of hope for humanity, as it implies that this tiny plant will bring all life forms back to Earth, especially the humans on the spacecraft. At the end of the film, they return to Earth and plant a sea of green trees within the gloomy environment; suggesting to audiences that if they are willing to put the effort in and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, they can save the planet from a serious climate crisis and avoid a dystopian future.
It is clear to see that Stanton finds it important to spread awareness of pollution and climate change across a range of generations in order to encourage effective change. By creating an accessible family film, people of all ages are reminded of the dangers of over-advanced technology and are encouraged to spend time together outside the online world and seek out real human relationships to create a more positive experience across Earth. WALL-E has no choice but to live on an over-polluted uninhabitable planet; Stanton uses this imagery to show the older generations that if they refuse to look after the planet properly, this is the kind of world their children and grandchildren will find themselves in. This inspires young people to clean up their planet for a better, brighter future, and motivates older people to take more action to allow younger generations to enjoy a healthy future.
Independent Cinema’s Crucial Role in Amplifying the Voice of Women
By Emily Fairs | Film Studies (BA Hons)
To put it bluntly: the majority of mainstream cinema is dominated by rich, white men, who can easily gain funding for their films and be loved for whatever they produce. The same typically does not go for marginalised groups; therefore, independent cinema is necessary for spreading a wider range of narratives, experiences, and educational concepts via societal margins. Independent cinema is typically quite low budget, meaning the films usually are more intimate and reflective of real-life circumstances, particularly those that are not often seen in mainstream cinema. It is an opportunity for the ‘Other’ to be recognised, meaning minority groups can see their experiences reflected in films made by people who can relate to this ‘othering’, which is typically quite scarce in mainstream cinema. A key example of this is Waitress (dir. by Adrienne Shelly, 2007). Written and directed by a woman, and demonstrates the struggles women face on a regular basis, such as sexism and abusive relationships, portraying these experiences in an accurate, honest way.
Appallingly, only 4% of mainstream cinema directors are made up of women, and the remaining 96% are men: the ratio of male: female directors is 24:1 and so many sectors are also dominated by men, such as financial distribution and editorial work. A whopping 80% of female directors only make one film and do not make a second within 10 years of their first’s release; most of these female directors were not granted the funds to produce any further films. This is why many women directors turn to independent filmmaking practices, where they have full creative control throughout the filmmaking process, and are granted smaller financial funds to bring their own visons and experiences to the big screen.
Waitress is an intimate, honest film about a woman who is imprisoned in an unhappy marriage, whilst balancing friendships, her job, and an unwanted pregnancy; she really hasn’t been dealt an easy hand in life. In the film, Jenna finds escape in her baking, which is both a hobby and a career for her. Pie baking is a stereotypically matriarchal hobby which pairs well with her wearing a blue pinafore and knitted cardigan, which is also synonymous with traditional, gentile mother roles. Near the beginning of the film, she is on her way to the pie shop but has first stopped at the Doctor’s office, where she gets check-ups on her pregnancy. Stories of unwanted pregnancies and motherhood are less common in mainstream cinema; meaning Shelly could only tell the story of Waitress through independent filmmaking practices with a smaller budget and full creative control. This shows the huge role independent cinema plays in giving women the platform to share their authentic experiences also seen in films like Juno (2008) written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman.
Jenna is also trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband, Earl. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, he slaps her head multiple times, which leads to her admitting to him that she is pregnant. To make things even more distressing, Earl forces Jenna to promise him that she will not love the baby more than she loves him. His physical and emotional abuse is incredibly evident here, and until she saves up enough money in her secret stash, Jenna is trapped with him. In this same conversation, it becomes evident that Jenna got pregnant because Earl got her drunk and then had sex with her. He mentions it in a light-hearted way; however, Shelly’s audience grasps the implications of rape. This is a serious problem that far too many women experience, and Earl’s characterisation demonstrates the way that many men dismiss rape and sexual assault, particularly those who already have wives and don’t believe it is possible to rape their wives. Shelly’s narrative mirrors real-life circumstances of abuse that many women face, specifically in marriage, as 10-14% of married women in America state that they have been raped by their husbands. If Shelly didn’t turn to independent filmmaking practices to present this storyline, it may well have never been told.
Jenna is stuck in a dilemma: she can either stay in her abusive relationship with the man she despises most in the world, or she can leave him but live as a single parent. This reflects a real-life dilemma for women in society, and the production of Waitress allows women who find themselves in similar situations to feel represented and less alienated by finding resonance on screen; Jenna embodies these women whose stories are often not reflected in mainstream cinema.
These uncomfortable relationships with men are also present amongst other characters, such as Dawn. She goes on a five-minute date where she meets Ogie, who becomes unbelievably obsessed with her – and not in a madly-in-love, rom-com sort of way; it’s incredibly disturbing and overwhelming for Dawn. In one scene, Dawn is clearly agitated that Ogie has appeared at the pie shop and he says some alarming things like ‘You can’t make me go away’ and ‘I don’t take no for an answer’. Considering the last time they met it lasted a grand total of five minutes, Ogie’s behaviour seems even more unnerving. Dawn eventually loses her patience and tells him she wishes he would go away and die. The whole diner stops and stares at her in shock, and when Ogie starts crying, Dawn apologises. This interaction mirrors real-life situations that many women find themselves in and generates an emotional response from an audience who can relate to her. Women’s cinema is known as being films by women and made for women, so Shelly includes Jenna and Dawn’s abusive and manipulative relationships because it means her audience can relate to her characters. Interestingly, Dawn was played by Adrienne Shelly herself, so her character was likely written as an embodiment of her past experiences with men, with reference to real emotions and uncomfortable situations which may be universal.
Sadly, on 1st November 2006, Adrienne Shelly was murdered in her office as a result of male violence, which he framed as a suicide. She never saw the release of Waitress, which is ironic because the abuse and assault that killed her is mirrored in the film, and her murder occurred between its production and release. Her killer strangled her to death and then hung her body to stage it as a suicide; he took an innocent human’s life but failed to take responsibility for his actions. This is reflected in Earl’s character, who never admits that he raped Jenna, he only sees it as a joke. Female experiences, such as Shelly’s, are typically not represented in mainstream cinema but are often seen in independent cinema, which further proves the crucial role this form of cinema plays in amplifying women’s voices, stories, and experiences.
Following Shelly’s murder, The Adrienne Shelly Foundation was founded in her name: a non-profit organization with an aim to support female filmmakers. This foundation provides financial grants and scholarships to women who want to start out in the film industry. So far, it has granted funds to a wide range of successful female-directed films, shorts, documentaries, and theatre productions, such as The 40-Year-Old Version (dir. by Radha Blank, 2020) and Roll Red Roll (dir. by Nancy Schwartzman, 2019). Both films have won various awards, which would have never happened without the funds from The Adrienne Shelly Foundation. Through this foundation, women are encouraged to not be outsiders in the film industry. If more women have access to money to create films, the gap can narrow between the number of male and female directors prevalent in the film industry, and women can have more of a chance to make a name for themselves and go on to direct more than just one film. This can allow more women to grow out of small-budget filmmaking practices and venture into the world of mainstream cinema if they wish.
It is clear to see that women are often not given the same opportunities as men in mainstream cinema, regarding finance and the opportunity to show personal, realistic narratives. However, due to The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, women are being granted more opportunities to make films. Waitress successfully portrays the ways women are treated in society, which is also reflected in the film industry, such as the sexism the women face and the limited opportunities they are given.
Due to this gradual increase in female-led filmmaking, more women have a creative outlet to share their stories and allow female audiences to feel seen and heard, whilst shining a light on often-neglected narratives. This also proves the necessity of an independent cinema when aiming to give women creative freedom and a narrative voice and allows for more audiences to find resonance. If this is something you might like to explore further, Waitress is a brilliant place to start.
A married couple fall victim to the sinister side of ‘The American Dream’
By Josef Walker | Film Studies BA (Hons)
American Beauty (Dir. Sam Mendes, 1999) harbours great significance and myriad points of interest in relation to the phenomenon that is ‘The American Dream’, namely in its showcasing of complex themes such as conformity, family, masculinity, voyeurism, sexuality, materialism, infidelity and class hierarchy. This is achieved with numerous characters with different narratives throughout the film. Yet, one similarity they all share is their inability to fit in and maintain happiness, despite the fact that on face value these characters have achieved ‘The American Dream’. Indeed, the film’s leads, a married couple Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) possess luxuries such as big houses, designer clothes, the latest cars and well-paid jobs. But they feel emotionally trapped; lost and angry within this metropolitan suburban lifestyle, which they thought would bring them joy and comfort.
Within the film’s introduction of Lester, it becomes clear that he is the embodiment of ‘The American Dream’ in crisis and because of that he is further the personification of a midlife crisis; this is showcased throughout the narrative as he is trapped in an office job he loathes within a hierarchy of employment. Indeed, his entrapment is highlighted through the use of mise-en-scene, as Lester’s reflection in the computer metaphorically represents prison bars symbolising that entrapment. Notwithstanding, Richard Andrew Voeltz would criticize America’s suburban nation and the impact on individuals like Lester, stating ‘Suburbia was not just a geographic expression but represented a state of mind… this idyllic suburban community and modern consumer lifestyle… was at the same time viewed by some American intellectuals as being a moral and social nightmare…’. Furthermore, Voeltz’s argument is demonstrated as Lester is also trapped in a family that shares no emotion and affection towards one another. Therefore, the ideas convey the despondency and boredom seen in American Beauty; for the central characters, the suburban life is nothing more than a torment.
The narrative of American Beauty juxtaposed with the cinematography equally expresses the turmoil of ‘The American Dream’ in the way in which audiences witness how the Burnham family are framed together. Mendes, and the film’s cinematographer, Conrad Hall, would choose to shoot different family members alone in different frames to showcase their isolation with one another. Notwithstanding, the only times where the family can be seen together is in photographs where they reminisce on the seemingly finer times of the past and when they are forced to be together, either at the dinner table or driving to school and work. This is exhibited by the emotional distance between family indicated when Carolyn and Lester try to force themselves into their daughter Jane’s (Thora Birch) life. Indeed, when they go to watch her dance at a school basketball game, for Lester the evening is nothing more than an inconvenience as he believes Jane hates both her parents.
Carolyn is also the embodiment of the sinister side of ‘The American Dream’. Indeed, from the outset, she would express enthusiasm about the evening at Jane’s school dance, when, in reality, it is nothing more than an effort and awkward for her. David R. Coon agrees that ‘despite her best efforts, Carolyn’s performance as the model wife and mother is not always convincing, and her true feelings often surface through sarcasm and back-handed compliments’. This is highlighted when she rushes off afterwards, before telling Jane “I watched you very carefully and you didn’t screw up once”. This foreshadows Carolyn’s struggles to be a maternal mother and her high standards for perfection, highlighting how she is arguably one of the more tragic characters of the film. As argued The American Dream is a powerful theme that had provided generations with a lens through which to look at the world and make judgments. Similarly, Carolyn is always overly critical towards her family, as they both fail to meet her high standards. Though some might perceive Carolyn as one of the more unlikeable characters, as she is superficial and demanding, proven by her infidelity and unpleasant put-downs of her family, “are you trying to look unattractive… you’ve succeeded admirably”. Yet, it can be argued that she is one of the more sympathetic protagonists. Indeed, her victimhood can be showcased from the emotional meltdown at her work as a real estate agent, when she fails to sell a house. Carolyn would cry and slap herself, screaming, “You’re weak!” “You Baby!” “Stop it!”. This demonstrates how her class and social status is of the upmost importance to her, and the thought of losing that terrifies her.
The narrative of American Beauty undergoes a gradual shift from the scene commencing with the basketball game. Indeed, Lester begins his process of self-liberation after being captivated by Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Hitherto, Lester appears exhausted and disappointed by the way his life has turned out in almost every scene he appears in. Lester expresses this despair by his sarcastic streak, further stating in the opening narration that he is dead, he does not only mean physically, but metaphorically, as prior to meeting Angela, he was merely existing rather than living. This ultimately results in his decision to display rejection, specifically the image of ‘The American Dream’, resulting in extreme behaviour and lifestyle choices, such as quitting his job to work in a fast-food establishment. Though this behaviour may seem anti the ‘American Dream ’ it foreshadows Lester’s hypocrisy, as by quitting his job in an act of apparent bold confrontation, he succeeds in extorting a full year’s pay and benefits from his immediate boss when he threatens him with false charges of sexual harassment. Furthermore, his behaviour would become more problematic as he begins working out, all with the intention of achieving a sexual relationship with high-schooler Angela. Ultimately, this showcases Lester’s frustrated desire to feel masculine and young again, all because he believes this way, he will not feel the failures of a man and an American.
The shift in narrative as Lester decides to liberate himself is evidenced within the film’s mise-en-scene and cinematography. This is showcased as before, when meeting Angela the audience primarily saw Lester in wide shots, as opposed to never being the focus of the frame. Additionally, he is further shot from a high angle to highlight the weakness in the confrontation. Indeed, he is arguably supposed to be presented as weak, while the person he is in conversation with looks strong by comparison. The use of colour in this scene is both symbolic and effective given the colours of the files in Lester’s briefcase and the family home match the colours of the American flag. Furthermore, the scene in question has close-ups of Carolyn’s face, not Lester’s, all expressing his weaker persona within their marriage. Yet, there is one close-up of Lester asleep in the back seat of the car, showcasing his exhaustion from his personal and professional life. Within the scene that immediately follows, Lester’s boss, Brad Dupree (Barry Del Sherman) is framed higher than Lester. Indeed, all expressing Lester’s feelings of inferiority at his workplace being a result of the corruption and inequality of American capitalism, with Dupree being Lester’s younger superior despite only working for the company for a matter of months. This lack of respect reflects American ideologies, as ‘in America today, there is a belief that each individual should have access to the American Dream, Yet, not everyone will reach the same levels of happiness and success and most Americans believe that the results should be based on individual effort and merit rather than preferential treatment ’. Nevertheless, as the film progresses, the framing of Lester begins to change as he is shot in high angles and close-ups as he starts to gain a better perception of himself as a rebel. Consequently, this effective use of cinema spaces and framing epitomises Lester’s feelings and his newfound sense of self-belief beyond the confines of ‘The American Dream’.
To conclude, Gary Johnson states ‘a certain hollowness has taken root and spread like cancer throughout suburbia. People are unsatisfied with their lives but they have trouble articulating that dissatisfaction’. Indeed, when Lester is shot dead at the end, he looks back and reminisces on happier moments in his life, none of which are linked to wealth and success, but “watching falling stars” and “yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined the streets”. This philosophical ending allows American audiences, to question their relationship with their country and how ‘The American Dream’ affects the lifestyle choices they make.
Aftersun: Finding Emotional Resonance Through Tangibility
By George Beswick | Film Studies Graduate
As a film, Aftersun can absolutely be viewed as transcendental, in the ways in which it lingers and thrives within grounded displays whilst portraying profound and life-altering emotional milestones. Director Charlotte Wells is clearly inspired, attesting to such in interviews, by the likes of filmmaking legends such as Yasujirō Ozu (the director of the seminal Japanese film Tokyo Story in 1953) and Chantal Ackerman (who gave us the astonishing News from Home in 1977) in her depiction in Aftersun of a father/daughter dynamic whilst on holiday in Turkey.
Such influence is evident in the mediative narrative rhythm from scene to scene drawing a viewer into what is both a profile of a broken man and a coming-of-age story. Wells interweaves these two narratives between Father Callum (Paul Mescal) and Daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) via the unique nostalgic framing of the film being positioned as an expression of memory which grants Wells the ability to depict how each narrative (one in the present and one in the past) affects the other from a structural distance of an older Sophie reflecting on her childhood.
Opening with handheld camera footage taken by Sophie on holiday, this is the first indicator of Wells’ method of eliciting a deeply personal connection with the characters. The imperfect nature of the footage gives it a tangibility that immediately grounds it in reality and gives the events of the narrative further plausibility. This, paired with the vivid depiction of the setting allows Wells to develop the quietly devastating narrative as the presentation of the Turkish hotel complex evokes the smell of suncream mixing with chlorine so strongly it will take anyone back to an all-inclusive package holiday in an instant. The commitment to diegesis in portraying the setting is what makes it appear so genuine, with music, conversation and even building work not dissimilar to Carry On Abroad (1972) all occurring within the frame, giving it a lived-in, faux documentary sensibility. The week-long friendships, continental breakfast buffets, miniature bowling alleys, and intensely awkward nightly entertainment are all contrastingly a unique experience that to many is also instantly recognisable, and very rarely captured as accurately as it is in Aftersun. The likes of the comedy/drama Benidorm (2007-2018) come close but tend to alter the experience for comedic purposes whereas Wells views it with sincerity as a potentially valuable life experience of youth. Wells certainly makes this the case for Sophie, with her mixing with older kids and gaining an admirer, as she begins to take an interest in romantic relationships and the trappings of burgeoning adulthood. This experienced and accurate depiction of such a unique setting gives texture to the depictions of Sophie’s memories allowing for a substantial believability in her and her father’s interactions within it.
With the entire film framed as an attempted recollection at the tragic loss of her father through what is implied to be suicide given his mental health struggles, it is spurred on by the first viewing of the opening camcorder footage forcing her to delve deeper and dwell on past events with new hindsight. The depiction of memory is what allows the film to not just become an Ozu clone in its slow cinema approach as the framing device gives the film a distinct relatability given how fleeting memory can work in life, and how similarly Wells portrays it while still exhibiting distinctive stylistic flair.
Focused on the obstructive nature and possible influx of memories that can follow an encounter with a prompt, be it physical or emotional, Wells visualises older Sophie’s connection with her lost father in her memory through the environment of a rave. The flashing lights and impeding crowd all evoke a tenuous and vulnerable connection to her father which, try as she might, she seemingly cannot overcome. This increasingly severed connection, which she attempts to maintain by keeping the rug he impulsively bought as an exhibition of his reckless behaviour as a by-product of his growing apathy to life, but she instead must delve deeper into her memories and attempt to fill in the blanks Callum tried to shield her from in order t make sense of his situation.
This is shown as the narrative begins to develop by ingenious use of framing and blocking by Wells to obstruct Callum as much as possible in certain scenes either through reflection or internal framing (frame within a frame) to not only portray his presence as distant but also uncertain, so that Sophie cannot be seen as reliable in her presentation of him. Wells also shoots Callum continuously from behind to portray this and Mescal manages to extend his performance to still be incredibly evocative despite the limited engagement with the camera, particularly in one harrowing scene depicting a breakdown whilst sitting on the edge of a bed which epitomises his vulnerability and the pain of having to hide it. The techniques employed by Wells here are further evidence of her attraction to tangibility as they all occur in camera and with no post-production modifications, again giving the film a grounded and plausible texture.
The importance of such an approach allows the film to gradually build quiet devastation as the tragedy begins to unfold and the reality sets in that this was their last holiday together, signposted via the strikingly effective employment of the song Under Pressure with Bowie declaring it to truly be their last dance. Overlooking warning signs is a major source of human regret and to explore it on screen is deeply personal, especially from the perspective of a child, given how powerful reflections on childhood events can be with hindsight gained from new information previously withheld due to an age barrier. This deeply personal aspect looks to be indicative of Wells’ filmmaking philosophy as her short films also share this tragic intimacy that is small-scale but devastating to those within its minimal radius. Aftersun is a film anomaly, debuts are rarely this mature, complex and deeply involved with longstanding cinematic influences, but Wells accomplishes it astonishingly well. A combination of slow cinema conventions with artistic flair provides a portrait of the psyche that is so vivid and relatable due to its clear understanding of humanity that it is to be expected, or definitely should be, to fit right alongside the great works that influenced it.
Donnie Darko and La Jetée
By Isaac Hewson Betts | Film Studies BA (Hons)
Within science-fiction gothic cinema, there is a prominence of philosophy and how that relates to a fear of the unknown and the technology which accompanies it. This subgenre of horror is most epitomised by films such as Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) and Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931) films that scare and create tension within you but are much more than just that. Donnie Darko (dir. Kelly, 2001) and La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1962) are two films that respond to modernity without using the barriers of genre to define themselves. Donnie Darko plays on the classic high school narrative and completely inverts it whilst using both horror and science fiction elements, whilst La Jetée uses the post-apocalypse, dystopia narrative and again inverts it using philosophy, science-fiction and gothic invocations to create a piece of art that both frightens and creates distinct emotion in the viewer.
Donnie Darko is a film that enjoys teasing its audience and inverting its preconceived notions of genre. Kelly takes influence from many cultural spheres and implements them subtly into his film. They are features of the comic book superhero, in the sense that Donnie has powers, and his name sounds as though it might be the name of a superhero alter ego, alongside the fact that the premise is centred around the fact that Donnie needs to stop the world from ending in 28 days. There are also many aspects of horror which further push the limits of genre, with the role of Frank the rabbit, the role of Jim Cunningham, the death and the inevitability of it. There are also the science-fiction features of the film of time travel, the future dictating the past, sacrifice for the good of humanity and so on. The features discussed are all born from postmodernism and the fact that there is no longer a need to stick to a genre. Utilising this concept in his narrative, Kelly creates a horrifying, tense and strange film that causes an audience to crave answers. This ambiguity and despair allow the film to develop multiple interpretations centred around the experience of the viewer and how they watched the film. For some it might be the romantic sacrifice, for others it could be the superhero narrative, for some a heart-breaking horror film or it could be a frightening look into the future and what the world could become.
Postmodernism is also at the forefront of La Jetée yet uses it in a completely different way. Both Donnie Darko and La Jetée use the concept of time travel as their narrative base and alongside this, share genre-bending narratives that allude to and illustrate post-modern discussion. Chris Marker’s “photo-roman” film similarly utilises love as a building block for the concept of time travel. There is also the use of a dystopia and the fear of what is to come. Donnie Darko only visualises it but the unnamed main character in La Jetée exists within it. In both films, we aren’t told about who or what will destroy the world. The enemy is unspecific and undirected. Donnie Darko uses this to become the hero and do whatever he can to save the woman he loves but in La Jetée , the purpose of the destruction isn’t to save or to learn from warnings of the future. The film ends with our protagonist giving up an opportunity to live in some unfamiliar future to instead see the woman he loves one more time, and maybe see himself as a boy (which is referred to in the first section of the film), to remember how he lived and the beauty of the past which is lost in his war-torn present. This is further exemplified by the role of romance in the narrative and how it is the sole method of inspiration and excitement in a punished life that is endured by our storyteller. This further escalates the postmodern denialism through its setting and how the story concludes. The fact that this narrative takes place in either an underground bunker or a world that can end at the click of an external influence’s fingertips illustrates the fact that our main character is in denial. He knows he cannot live with or love this woman truly, yet he still gives up his life to see her one final time. Donnie Darko does share in this concept and the fact that he resigns his life to save Gretchen shows that there are similarities to these narratives, and they reach a similar conclusion however, they share different ways of getting there whilst both utilising postmodernism as their basis, whether it existed yet or not.
The use of time travel, though used literally in both films, represents something far more metaphorical yet the two films utilise different facets to inform their time travel. Donnie Darko creates a world inspired by cultural moments that have inspired the director, a film like Back to the Future (dir. Zemeckis, 1985) clearly being representative of this, it is referred to in the film and there are also many references to the number 88, a number heavily associated with Zemeckis’ film. A more subtle but also more meaningful cultural inspiration could be discussed through The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988). The character of Donnie is represented to the audience as a saviour and a martyr in the face of stupidity, ignorance and suburban delusion. However, in the film, he is categorised by the other characters as a troubled child and something to keep to the side and try to keep quiet. This is blatantly witnessed in the scene in which Donnie questions Patrick Swayze’s Jim Cunningham and is taken away and silenced even though, the audience eventually learns that Cunningham is the evil force in this scene. Alongside this is the fact that the characters that dare to push the limits of suburban comfort, such as Drew Barrymore’s Mrs. Pomeroy, and Noah Wyle’s Professor Monitoff being similarly silenced. Mrs. Pomeroy gets sacked for encouraging her students to read books that challenge them and go against what is the set curriculum, whilst Professor Wyle is on edge discussing time travel with Donnie as it could lose him his job. Donnie pushes against each small thing as it confuses and disgusts him. This brings the link back to The Last Temptation of Christ. Time travel is given to Donnie by God to show him what will happen to him if He allows him to live. He sets the deadline through Frank as He knows when Gretchen dies, Donnie’s world-ending event. In the scene in which Frank proffers his revelation to Donnie, he states beforehand, “God loves his children… God loves you.” Within this, Frank subtly references God’s intervention in Donnie’s life by saving him and allowing him to see what the world will live out before his eventual sacrifice. This is again a direct reference to TLTOC and the scene in which Jesus absconds the cross with the temptation of the angel, lives his life yet sees the destruction that becomes of it. He then decides to sacrifice himself, thus overcoming the last temptation. Time travel is not the exponent of Jesus’ reversion in time but instead the hand of God. With the other references in the film and the direct comparisons possible, it would be difficult to say that the same wouldn’t be true of Donnie Darko.
Time travel in La Jetée is again metaphorical but God is completely absent from the narrative and concepts. The dystopia that the film belongs in is the hell that Donnie can sacrifice himself to escape from. Though different the concepts remain similar. The role science fiction plays in determining the world our main character lives in but less so plays a role in how time travel shapes the purpose of the film. The purpose of the film is relevant to Chris Marker’s previous films. He dissects capitalism, reactions to war and colonialism in his other films, and all three features in La Jetée. The film is centred on destruction and ownership of a person then comparing that with the context it was created in. Furthermore, what this means in a modern context is the intention of La Jetée itself. What it means is a warning against colonial pasts, against war and to protect life. The use of time travel is again metaphorical and within the film, this is demonstrated by the fact that the man can only travel in time utilising his own images and memories. The only time he is free and happy is when he is in the past and completely invisible. When he is in his present and the future, he is distinctly visible and miserable because he is being tortured and manipulated for his capabilities. The fact that time travel is controlled by external forces is reflected by Donnie Darko, but the means and reasoning are where the differentiation couldn’t be more prominent. The references to torture, colonialism, and consumer contexts all boil down to the fact that the world destroyed itself by creating the most magical and unimaginable thing, time travel, and used it to enslave and destroy a man for his mind. Marker wants the world to see that time travel in his film is television in modern France, it is propaganda in Nazi Germany, it is forcing language onto a native people. The concepts of brainwashing and control are the true reasons behind Marker’s time travel and Donnie Darko reflects this analysis through Frank’s commands of Donnie and how he is so beholden to time constraints and the general rules of life. Our unnamed hero and Donnie Darko may be from opposite sides of the world and 50 years apart and represent entirely separate concepts yet they both seem to agree on one thing. Time travel? It’s a little overrated.
Overall, the two films are born from the same DNA. They have two protagonists who are living in difficult situations, they get selected to take on an important task to save the world. They find love along the way and fight to keep it against the odds. Neither of them gains a happy ending, and their loves go on without them. They both represent and show completely different ends of the spectrum as to what time travel can mean and show about a society. The genre-bending, messianic time travel of Donnie Darko shows that God has the power to construct and show lives to people that they may never have lived without his intervention. That life may include, superhero features, horror aspects, sci-fi facets and maybe a high school drama and yet they are still linked to a 1962 French film based around sci-fi and melodrama. What time travel conceptually means to both directors is a chance to sacrifice for the things that matter. Hopefully, in the future, we might be able to say, “giant, scary rabbits that tell you to commit crimes? Where we’re going, we don’t need giant, scary rabbits that tell you to commit crimes.” Time travel might be alright then.
Disability and exploitation in The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
By Dylan Henty | PhD Candidate, Film and Media
A van full of young men and women drive through the Texas desert, in blistering heat. They casually joke and laugh with each other, all young, healthy, attractive, and fashionably dressed in mid-70s summer style. Bar one.
Inside the van, towering awkwardly above his peers in his wheelchair, we meet Franklin. Wearing a faded blue shirt, dampened by the Texas heat, his haircut is less 70’s hip, and more ragged Victorian. Here is the outsider in this otherwise trendy and heterogeneous group of horror protagonists. Noel Carroll said that the horror film monster is the social outsider, and here we have the outsider within the social ‘normality’ of this young group of protagonists. From the way that the characters already seem fed up with him even as the film begins, he is clearly on the fringe of their group.
Throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974), the youngsters are consistently, casual in their cruelty to the young disabled Franklin. He gives earnest interest in their surroundings, asking questions about the countryside around them, and obviously wants to be part of the group but whenever it comes to making any allowances for him or helping him out in any way, the group fall extremely short. A particularly sad scene develops where, as the group follows the horror protagonist’s apparent compulsion to enter a derelict building, Franklin and Sally’s grandparents’ house, Franklin is left unable to even get into the house, stuck at the stairs to the porch and yelling for help. None of them responds to this, not even his sister Sally, all too involved in their own quests of exploration (i.e., finding a decrepit old mattress to ‘hook up’ on, or accidentally discovering a killer on the loose in the house) to realise their micro-aggressive acts of ableism.
An interesting question arises, who are we supposed to be rooting for? Is Franklin being played for laughs? With his high pitch and whiny demeanour, is the film trying to highlight him as the ‘bumbling’ comic character that the audience finds relief in from the tense horror situation? They all seem sick of him from the very start, and are we meant to be rooting for these people?
Then, following convention, one of the young trendy people does run right into a killer not so much on the loose, but in his own house minding his own business. Making handmade furniture and wall-hangings out of locally sourced man-terials, woman-terials too. Here, with the abrupt slam of a sliding metal door, we are introduced to ‘Leatherface’, a terrifying, gigantic man in a butcher’s apron, wearing another person’s face over his own. He beats the unfortunate Kirk on the head with a hammer, dispatching him like flailing livestock. A truly surprising moment arises later in the film, derailing it from the classic tropes of slasher horror. After the third protagonist to be killed, Jerry, has been savagely (but largely gore-free, interestingly) dispatched by Leatherface, the killer sits in (presumably) the front room of his house, decorated with bone sun-dials and skin lamps, and he starts to panic. Without words, he puts his head in his hands in despair, communicating something like “what the hell are all these people doing running into my house? Where the hell are they all coming from! Oh god this is a nightmare!”. As Mark Gatiss, in his excellent – A History of Horror series (2010) says, this film is the story of “one really bad day”. A really bad day for Leatherface, that is.
So here, suddenly, our towering, inhuman slasher, is sympathetic? Certainly, we haven’t forgiven him for killing people- but he seems to be extremely distressed out by all this. Does he not like killing people? What kind of a slasher is this guy?
We then go onto realise, that Leatherface is coded to be mentally disabled in a non-specified, and wholly stereotypical way, making him a kind of bizarre symbolic double to Franklin in his wheelchair. Especially in the later, hellish ‘family dinner’ scene we see that in fact Leatherface is obviously being abused by said family. Here then we have two characters, implicated as disabled in non-specific and stereotypical ways, but who decidedly, at least in my opinion, stick out in the history of the slasher genre. But, while your Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th, 1980-2009) or your Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978-2022 are represented as two, largely unreachable, invincible ‘hulks’, enjoying or simply compulsively killing, Leatherface is just different somehow. With the other two slashers, their coding as ‘disabled’ contributes exploitatively to their creation as completely out-of-touch, inhuman and monstrous. On the other hand, Leatherface is humanised by his disabled coding. They bring this huge, murderous killer down to earth- create a fallibility in his character, a vulnerability. Hobbies are an intrinsically human trait, whether that’s watching Netflix shows or making little ceramic pots. That is the deeply human moment we see in Leatherface when he’s panicking in his front room. This guy just wants to get back to making his skin ornaments, he doesn’t want any of this to be happening! He already has to deal with his horrible family abusing him, whilst he does his best to fulfil the absent matriarch role for them (even putting in the effort to don a female skin-mask with make-up, a little extra-mile that his family probably don’t even appreciate).
The other protagonists we empathise with, deeply, in their fear and pain, but this is all thrill of the horror. Its heightened- absurd, horrifying accents of the genre. On the other hand, feeling completely overwhelmed by a really bad day, or being ignored by a bunch of people you just want to like you, is not operatic, genre-stuff. Its real life stuff. We can all relate to these two moments from our own human experience, at least somewhat. I’ve never had the horrible misfortune of difficulty with physical accessibility, but I’ve certainly been socially ostracised for being strange, or seeming ‘off’, as so many people have.
Viewing Leatherface this way, the film could almost be read as a kind of revenge film for disabled people, where Sally and her friends are dispatched by a monstrous, symbolic double of Franklin, an exaggerated horror of the very thing they outcast him for. They shun him and treat him cruelly, and then the horror universe gives them an incredibly ironic and incredibly violent anti-ableist lesson.
But are things really so simple? Can this be viewed as an exploitative but ultimately somewhat progressive disabled-revenge slasher film? Certainly, horror has done more bizzare things.
Its important to remember that Leatherface is not wholly sympathetic- he butchers the intruders to his house instead of just, I don’t know, threatening them with his chainsaw. Also, Franklin is the fifth member of the group to be killed by Leatherface, leaving his sister as the ‘final-girl’ taking away any chance at retribution. Surely in a film really centred on the disabled experience, they would have found a way for Franklin to survive, and maybe be the ‘final-guy’?
Personally, I would argue that the two most relatable characters are by far Franklin and Leatherface, minus the murdering tendencies of the latter, of course (*gulp*). This is a bizarre outcome for the film, and utterly interesting, for a film that seems so stuck on representing disability in the incredibly stereotypical, omnipresent view of a homogenous, non-specific ‘disabled person’, relegated to kind of a social waste-bin category of stigma and complete ‘otherness’. An autistic person may have a disability, but it is a hugely different experience to somebody with spinal paralysis. Both have different things to offer from their experiences, and certainly would not want to be reduced only to their disability, or even worse be relegated to a non-specifically ‘disabled’ status that does not even directly describe their needs or experiences. This is a de-humanising, harmfully reductive way of treating other-abled people, which eradicates and minimises not only their lived experience, but also any positives that come along with their disabilities. This is very typical of the attitudes of American society circa time of release, with increasingly high-profile abuses in their psychiatric and disability systems beginning to be highlighted in the late 1960s and 1970s. Titicut Follies (1967) a ‘direct cinema’ documentary film, is perhaps the most famous expose of this time, harshly showing the cruel conditions of a mental hospital in Massachusetts.
But let us not assume that simply because a social issue is being raised, that it is being dealt with as this is merely a reading of Hooper’s text. This stereotype of the unreachable, ‘generally disabled’ person is still greatly present in modern society. So then, are Franklin and Leatherface shown to be ‘just’ disabled, or is there more to them? Are they presented as fleshed out, three-dimensional characters? no. They are compelling, and fascinating examples of a horror-genre with exploitative tendencies accidentally representing a marginalised group, but ultimately, they are simply genre characters with one extra element, made to elicit responses in the audience. We fear for Franklin because he is less able to protect himself. We fear Leatherface as he seems wild, and beyond reason.
So why then are these two so interestingly unusual takes on genre characters written this way? Why choose to even make these characters disabled-coded? To answer this, it is important to point out that there is a pervasive feeling of sickness throughout every aspect of Hooper’s film.
The colour grading is heavy, sickeningly sweet but off, like honey that’s been left out in the sun. It was filmed using 16mm slow-speed film, then blown up (literally zoomed-in on) to 35mm format for distribution, giving the scenes a thick-grainy detail, like hazy desert heatwaves. There is a theme of flies and rotting and decay, in meat, bones, collapsed industries, towns, morals, and people’s minds and bodies.
Ultimately, the films two disabled-coded characters are simply expressions of this theme of malaise, a heavy illness like a fever. Although Leatherface’s actor, Gunnar Hanson, actually researched and spent time with disabled individuals for his role, the final representation is far from helpful or progressive for disabled people. I would go so far as to say that this historic and truly excellent horror film, is, in many ways, extremely reductive in its depictions of the disabled, and a product of its time.
Director Tobe Hooper made this film in an America that he viewed as sick and twisted. In interviews he frequently lists Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the Oil and economic crises of the 1970s as inspirations for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but never references disability. It is obvious then that this film is not about individuals, and it is certainly not about disability, it is about an ideological, societal sickness Hooper perceived in America. The film is simply exploiting disability for effect as part of its larger commentary on the times.
Could, then, Leatherface be said to represent America itself in the symbolic meaning of this film? Something that has been abused by those in charge of it, twisted into a murderous, but completely panicked and desperate dealer of death? The fleshy-visage almost falling off of the killer, a kind of metaphor for the image that America was putting out into the world at this hugely politically tense time, where the wave of the 1960’s counter-culture movement, as Hunter S. Thompson famously said, had broken; leaving only a bitter aftertaste and a country divided into an increasingly extreme right-wing claiming peaceful intent through war, washing over a disenfranchised feeling left?
Or perhaps the people watching America fall apart throughout this violent time, are Leatherface. Instead of a country ‘gone mad’, Leatherface is actually a venting of the sheer frustration of being a citizen of that country. He is meant to be the young men enlisted to fight and kill for a country they were trying to change through peaceful protest only years before. This does seem a familiar sentiment.
In the excellent It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror (2023), Kirsty Logan reflects on the difficulties of enjoying, and in fact loving a genre that frequently represents queer and transgender-coded monsters, being utterly exploitative of the marginalised group she belongs to. She wonders if perhaps the ultimate transgressive ability of horror is that it brings to the surface all the hidden prejudices of society and lets people from these groups experience them in their fully realised, true horror.
Perhaps then, the truly subversive, and fascinating aspect of Leatherface, is that what we see in his- well, leather face- is our true, societal fears of the disabled, in their ugliest, most operatic, truest, and hardest to swallow visage. This is what people feared, at the deepest level, of disability at this time. And what does this film do? It takes that figure of ultimate, de-humanising and disrespectful fear, and humanises it. Even if it’s just a few short moments, in a few scenes. Leatherface’s unexpected vulnerability, and Franklin’s everyday dismissal, highlight that the real monsters here are not the disabled-coded characters, but the people who mistreat them.
Of all the messages we can read into the representational mess of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is perhaps the warmest. We can see our societal fears in their most distasteful, exposed state, and this film gives us the opportunity to change our mind about that fear. That’s the foundational question of all progress, and it can come from the worst, and darkest places if you just look at them in the right way.
But finally, I wish to add, I’ve written this article because, while researching this essay, I found so little written about disability and exploitation in the horror genre. What we would really benefit from is a tome, like It Came from the Closet, addressing horror film and media experiences written by members of the disabled community. My view on this is limited, and my thoughts on this film and its strange attitudes to disability have only stoked my curiosity for greater, more informed discussion on the matter. I know I would find such a book invaluable, and enlightening, giving me even more ways to read the truly exploitative genre of horror that I love, and love to critique.
The Supernatural and Colonised America
An Exploration of the ways in which Supernatural and Horror Westerns Criticise Western Expansion, Manifest
Destiny and Colonised America
By Elizabeth Allis | Film Studies and English Literature BA (Hons)
Contemporary Western horror films twist the preconceived standard of the classical Western genre in ways that critique historical viewpoints. Many Western horror films do not show violence against Native American communities, instead they “Repackage the violence of colonial race war in a form that is ideologically safer” (Canavan, 2010). This in turn allows the audience to have a definitive evil in the story, rather than having to consider the real history of Western expansion and manifest destiny.
Coalitionists were historically presented as a force for good in the world, thus causing the Native American people to be diametrically presented as the antagonist. Miller and Van Riper describe the Western frontier as a place “Where civilization and savagery meet” (2012) and this is how the relationship has consistently been represented. John Gast’s American Progress (1872) is a painting that effectively summarises this, as colonists are presented as being chosen by God and bringing in an age of light, religion and technology to a dark land inhabited by Native Americans. Supernatural Western cinema explores this idea by provoking questions about what being civilised truly means and exploring different types of savagery all through aspects of genre.
In Western horror narratives, the chosen threat is often a subtle critique of historic American ideologies; supernatural creatures such as demons and wendigos acting as “post-colonial avenger(s)” (Saunders, 2012) seeking moral retribution. A range of creatures are used to represent violence, internal conflict, lust for power, the glorification of Western Expansion, the twisting of Christian beliefs and supernatural suspicion. Ravenous (dir. Bird, 1999) uses the Native American myth of the Wendigo to symbolise the cannibalistic and violent nature of Western Expansion. It turns the violence once directed at Native American communities inward, causing those on the frontier to fight among themselves. The film depicts a soldier named John Boyd (Guy Pearce) who is falsely lauded as a hero. Unbeknown to him he has become ‘infected’ by the Wendigo curse, which drives him to hunger for human flesh and cannibalism.
The Wendigo is an insatiable killer, much like the colonists’ attitude when it came to claiming areas of America. This lust is shown through Colonel Ives (Robert Carlyle), the film’s primary antagonist; where he intends to continue eating human flesh far into the future, even going as far as imposing rules on who can and can’t be consumed. Ives states that they will not “kill indiscriminately” and they can’t “break
Out of context, these rules seem to be almost just; families will remain together and random killing will not occur, but these rules were not instilled on the Frontier. Instead, colonists’ mere presence on Native American land caused catastrophic impacts with the population of the Southern Plains with buffalo dramatically decreasing. The U.S. government then went out of its way to slaughter buffalo in order to make Native Americans behave more like the white settlers; this took away a vital part of Native American culture and lifestyle, as well as a key resource, exhibiting the effect of such an air of superiority. Ives fittingly then paints himself as absolute good in a world of chaos, similar to how America painted itself during Western expansion. Colonel Hart (Jeffery Jones), who was turned into a Wendigo by Ives, remarks that he’s never been as strong before. This reflects the colonists’ lust for power, through invading land and killing its people, this power cannot be obtained without humans being killed, and their cultures and society being consumed by the ‘new American way.’
The idea of the Wendigo itself can be seen as a twisting of Christian beliefs; bridging the void between the two cultures, unlike the traditional view of Native American culture being a ‘savage other’. George (Joseph Runningfox), a Native American character, comments “[the] White man eats the body of Jesus Christ every Sunday” when the Wendigo is being discussed.
The idea that the body and blood of Christ are consumed weekly is shocking to anyone outside that culture, proving that perspective matters. This reflects on how history is viewed, the story changes depending on perspective, depending on who is the conqueror and who must recover from being conquered.
The Wind (dir. Tammi, 2018) uses the demon and the ambiguity of its actuality to criticise the country’s pride in its military power and explores the attitudes towards supernatural suspicions and responsibility for actions. Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) is seen as being able to defend herself from physical threats, like the wolves that attack her home while her husband is away. However, she is shown as being susceptible to mental attacks, reading her dead friend’s diary affects her deeply and being left alone seems to leave her vulnerable to the demon’s attacks. This reflects how the American military can be seen to be strong and brave yet underneath there is extreme guilt and cowardice. This is similarly shown through Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) in Ravenous being seen as a war hero yet it’s revealed that he played dead for most of the battle,
Supernatural suspicions are shown throughout the film, with Emma (Julia Telles) and Lizzy having a leaflet about the demons of the prairie, and a priest handing out these leaflets to anyone heading West. It is difficult to discern whether it is actually a demon tormenting Lizzy or if she is suffering Prairie Madness, a phenomenon in which isolated settlers suffer violent behaviour historically triggered by howling winds. The final shots of the film show Lizzy sitting silently on the open plains, the sound of the wind quietly playing underneath the musical score, this asks the question, is she truly alone now having been fully consumed by the madness induced by the wind? Or has she been left with the demon disguised as the wind? The demonic presence is a physical manifestation of prairie madness, physically rejecting new settlers by having them kill one another. The framing of a creature associated with the devil preying on Christian settlers creates the idea that as well as the land rejecting them a force is working to reject and destroy their beliefs.
Like the Wendigo, the demon causes settlers to turn their violence inwards when it takes the form of Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman) and the Reverend (Miles Anderson). It can shapeshift and take the forms of those taking its land, showing their actions have led to their own undoing. The Wind plays with the idea that both interpretations may be true, as multiple versions of evil are shown; the demon torturing Lizzy, Lizzy’s damaged mental state and the act of Lizzy murdering Emma and her child out of jealousy. This shows that evil can come from within for multiple reasons as well as that evil might be unavoidable. Multiple versions of evil reflect the multiple versions of a story that can be told about the same historical event, reflecting the historical revisionism rife in America’s history.
The coven of witches in The Pale Door (dir. Koontz, 2020) also use deception like the demons and the wendigo in an attempt to lure Jake (Devin Druid) out of his church haven by creating an illusion of his brother, a family member who has spent his life trying to protect Jake, his family has become his enemy. This is seen again when Jake learns that his father wasn’t a humble farmer like he was led to believe, but instead, he stole everything he owned, something Jake is strongly against. This creates a feeling of distrust and paranoia in the audience mirroring American’s contemplations of doubt in their patriotic way and making them question how the land they live on was gained. Modern America was not found or made but taken and claimed as the colonists’ own and these films explore how upon realisation of that it can be examined on screen through a typically American genre as the Western.
The idea of patriotism is brought into question when exploring how America is presented on screen. Ravenous opens with a shot of the American Flag, The audience is now very aware of the idea of patriotism within this film, as well as the flag it follows Boyd, a ‘war hero’ who was awarded a medal for his bravery during the recent Mexican Civil War. American soldiers are seen eating steaks together after Boyd is given his medal, the soldiers savagely tear into their steaks in an almost animalistic way. This disturbs Boyd as he begins to have flashbacks of his time during combat and proceeds to vomit just outside the door. The man who is meant to represent the country’s best is sickened by the sight of raw meat, this is a representation of the lies that tend to cloud America’s history, covering up the sickening truth.
The cannibal tribe, Troglodytes, in Bone Tomahawk (dir. Zahler, 2015) are presented as a combination of human and supernatural beings. They are a completely fictional tribe, meaning that writer/director Zahler was able to take these characters to the extreme without misrepresenting any real tribes. Things are taken to the extreme as rape is shown to be a normal part of this tribe, as well as the brutality used when torturing Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and killing Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). The savagery of the Troglodytes allows for a simple good-versus-evil narrative to be created. This reduction in complexity reflects the frequent oversimplification of Western de-capitalise expansion in America’s history, as well as making a comment on the lack of complexity in earlier Westerns in which the white-hat cowboys fight the black-hat cowboys.
Bone Tomahawk very explicitly brings attention to the bloodshed that was caused due to Manifest Destiny. Brooder (Matthew Fox) kills two people armed with only crucifixes and Chicory (Richard Jenkins) explains his actions, “Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny”. Two unarmed men who had not done any harm to the rescue party were slaughtered because they might have been dangerous and might not have supported them in their cause. This reflects the slaughter of Native Americans due to them not being part of the colonising ‘rescue party’ and under the delusion of Manifest Destiny, this slaughter was in God’s name and for his name.
In The Wind, the characters comment that there is not a church built yet as there aren’t enough people living there yet. ‘Yet’ is the key part of their statements, a church being built is presented as purely inevitable due to Manifest Destiny, that the land taken by God’s chosen people should become God’s land.
In The Pale Door, a man is seen to be writing the Magnalia Christi Americana before he stands and accuses Maria (Melora Walters) of being a witch, with her then being burned at the stake. Magnalia Christi Americana is a Puritan text that details the founding of Massachusetts and nearby colonies. Mather often writes settlers of other Christian denominations as their enemies; this shows that religion has been used to persecute since the ‘founding’ of America and is shown in the films to be a key aspect of colonial practice. Horror Westerns use birth and pregnancy to show how people must suffer in order for others to succeed and how easily new life can fail or be corrupted.
There are two instances of birth in The Pale Door, resurrected witches are born into a new corrupt family and a child can live due to another’s death. The witches are burned at the stake and then resurrected into the coven, they have been reborn into a new life in which they must consume pure and good energy to survive. They have been given a chance to start over in a new place but must inflict violence in order to live their new life, this is a reflection on how colonists inflicted violence on and harmed Native Americans in order to keep living their new life. This is echoed when Jake sacrifices himself to save Duncan (Zachary Knighton), his brother, who then goes on to have a child, so Jake has to suffer in death for new life to progress. Similar to the way Native Americans and their culture suffered for colonists’ lives to thrive and develop. The Wind shows the failure to settle through the death of a pregnant woman and her unborn fetus. After discovering Emma’s dead body, it is rushed to Lizzy’s house for her to attempt to save the baby. Emma is then buried with her baby, foreshadowing the death of this outpost, new life has been unable to exist there. This is again shown when Gideon (Dylan McTee) leaves the area after his wife’s death. Emma and Gideon were the newest people there and were unable to inhabit such a place, Emma and their child were quite literally not able to live there. Bone Tomahawk shows the violence and pain that birthing a nation and a new generation can be. The women of the cannibalistic tribe have been reduced to breeding stock, they have been severely mutilated, having been blinded and having the majority of each limb removed. The women are responsible for carrying on the tribe by producing offspring and with that, they have completely lost their bodily autonomy and any form of independence. This offers a critique of the way women were uprooted by their husbands and moved to the Frontier in order to supply this ‘new world’ with a new generation of Americans, they lost the connections to their family and old way of life, their independence, and they are expected to look after the home and raise a family. This shows the fragility of new life that colonists experienced which led them to push further into Native communities which they believed to be out of necessity.
Supernatural creatures are used to explore the many violent sections of the true story of Western expansion, the choice of certain monsters and their decapitalise expansion show the cannibalistic nature of colonisation. Enforcing religion upon those who don’t follow along can lead to the twisting and perversion of beliefs, causing suspicion of oneself and others in the community. The ‘birth’ of America is presented as violent and consuming, it is shown that new life cannot exist and thrive without another person or culture having to suffer, often for what is seen as the ‘greater good’. Supernatural and horror Westerns are effective at presenting the dark and violent truth of Western expansion, Manifest Destiny and life in colonised America.
Barbie: Film Review
By Eden Kenefic | Media and English Literature BA (Hons)
In a society consumed with cancel-culture and controversy, Greta Gerwig’s daring Barbie (2023) blockbuster hit the silver screen in July with a bang, bringing a much-needed burst of cultural zest to a rather drab and dour cinematic summer. The film though, received criticism for being ‘anti-men’, with detractors claiming that Gerwig’s film acts as a mouthpiece for a desired matriarchy and disregard for equality in favour of reverse-sexism. Others see the film as simply identifying the unparallel treatment of Barbie compared to Ken in ‘Barbieland’ as a detractors for how men are treated in the real-world and recognise it as a feminist critique.
The distinction between comparing the treatment towards Barbie and Ken in both Barbieland and in their trip to ‘reality’ subverts normal expectations in which Ken as the male representative is treated as women are.
However, the analogy is given levity by the excellent comedic relief performance of both Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, alongside the rose-tinted, maximalist glass in which the picture is filmed. With a budget of $145 million, the Barbieland set is a hyper-feminised female space brought to life. Costumes also act as a fantastic way to showcase the iconic status of Barbie in a dazzling array of costumes. The inclusion of music by popular female musicians such as Lizzo, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice also add to the pop sensibility of a film which at first glance may appear superficial, but which on further viewing reveals an ideological subtext.
The discovery of patriarchy after Barbie enters ‘reality’ is the main catalyst for the plot after Barbie and other female characters suffers under it (after Ken is inspired to revolutionise the power dynamic of it) on her return. The ensuing ‘battle of the sexes’ in the latter part of the film sees Barbie inspire others to free themselves from subordination and extend the allegory of the ongoing feminist struggle in a complex manner for a film that may seem to some to embrace superficiality.
The overall aim of the film is made clear at the end the Barbie’s are no longer under the grasp of patriarchy. Ken expects Barbie to be in love with him, alongside the CEO character played by Will Ferrel deciding that Barbie’s happy ending should be with her and Ken, even after all that Ken did to undermine her. But instead, Barbie forgives Ken and suggests he finds his own sense of identity and purpose. The fundamental message of the film is that both Ken and Barbie need to find their own independence and Barbie’s eventual decision to enter the real world and all its complexities is ultimately a universal challenge.
I Dont Know How But They Found Me
By Rose Williams | Creative Writing and English Literature BA (Hons)
Energetic and somewhat mysterious, American indie act ‘I DONT KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME’ (abbreviated to IDKHOW) has created a rich and interesting world expanding beyond just their music. Fronted by bassist Dallon Weekes, IDKHOW were formed in 2016, playing a number of secret shows for nearly a year before releasing any music. Their first release – ‘1981 Extended Play’ – came out in 2018, showcasing their catchy and occasionally eerie style, as well as their ability to play with different genres, such as the cabaret-esque single ‘Choke’, which blends an ironically cheerful melody with dark and hostile lyrics.
Initially postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, their debut full-length album ‘RAZZMATAZZ’ was released in October 2020. Taking influence from musical legends such as David Bowie and Talking Heads, the album experiments with a range of genres and themes, from the synthy opening track ‘Leave Me Alone’, to the Ink Spots-inspired jazz ballad ‘From the Gallows’, to the slightly comedic stripped-back piano-focused ‘Nobody Likes the Opening Band’. Each track offers something new and exciting and overall contributes to a sense of 80s-nostalgic glitter and glamour.
The titular track, as with most of the album, centres around a prominent, driving bassline, shrouded in mysterious, almost ethereal synths. The verses are strong and punchy, punctuated by pauses in the music as well as the steady percussion provided by Ryan Seaman. The chorus is far more lyrical, showcasing the extremes of Weekes’ impressive vocal range, with high backing harmonies adding to the sense of sweeping grandeur. The lyrics are illuminating and intelligent; criticising celebrity culture, possibly drawn from Weekes’ own experiences in LA (“you climbed up on your ivory tower / and you paid off all my friends”). The track begins its end with a strong, expressive saxophone solo, keeping with the cabaret and jazz influences demonstrated in previous singles, and closes with a robotic voice (heard in other tracks such as Kiss Goodnight) saying “complete” and the sound of a cassette tape ejecting, further building on the theme of 80s nostalgia.
IDKHOW’s creativity is not limited only to their music. Through their videos, bonus tracks and even website design, Weekes has created an entire narrative and aesthetic surrounding his work. Their music videos span a range of decades – ‘Nobody Likes the Opening Band’ being set in the 1980s, ‘Do It All the Time’ in the 60s, and ‘Leave Me Alone’ set at an unspecified date in the future – as well as featuring messages from the fictionalised organisation ‘Tellexx’. Their physical editions of ‘RAZZMATAZZ’ include bonus tracks, robotic recordings from the corporation, as well as a letter from the company’s ‘director’. Even the band website is designed to mimic an online conspiracy forum where people investigate Tellexx and its motives.
Regardless of whether Weekes intends to continue this narrative into the band’s next album, he’s created an enigmatic and engaging intertextual universe, bringing together both music and storytelling to create a vibrant and eccentric discography blending iconic sounds of the past with his own unique style, creating a fun and addictive sound it’s hard to tire of.