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April 08, 2007

Lilya 4–ever, 2002. Dir. Lucas Moodysson

Lilya 4-ever, 2002, Lucas Moodysson






Lilya 1

A moment of genuine pleasure for Lilya








Introduction

It would be difficult to describe this film as ‘entertaining’ but it is a very powerful film which quickly drags the viewer into the realistic nightmare of post-Soviet Russia.  Along with many of the post-Soviet countries which used to make up the other side of the ‘Iron curtain’ Russia became a place where what most of us consider as normal rights of social citizenship such as housing, health, and jobs became hard to come by. As a result this opened up opportunities for the most unscrupulous and ruthless as morals and morale quickly collapsed into a free for all of 'survival of the fittest'.  The film is equally realistic about the collusion and conivence of Western countries at the level of the individual to exploit the situation for economic and sexual gain. It is also critical of Western countries at the level of government to fail to stop what some have described as a new slave trade. At the most general level Lilya 4-Ever can be understood as a breakdown in trust.




Lilya 4


Being abandoned by her mother &

approaching a moment of total abjection






Relevance to the critical research unit

Lilya 4-Ever is one of several films made by European film makers which came out not long after the turn of the millennium which dealt with the exploitation of the weakest in society who are forced into emigration because conditions have become so bad in their country of origin.

The Last Resort, by Pawlikoski and Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears make up a trio with Lilya 4-Ever. All concern the exploitation of women in some way. Lilya is tricked into the sex trade, in the Last Resort the woman is tricked into arriving in England with her son expecting to be married after a liaison with an English businessman. She ends up in a downmarket seaside resort as an asylum seeker and eventually gets involved in a video pornography to gain some sort of an income. Dirty Pretty Things focuses on how potential immigrants and asylum seekers were tempted into selling some of their body organs in order to gain fake British passports. Of the three films Lilya 4-Ever fits very well with  three categories of research – Women and Film, Crime and the Media and Children and the Media. These films are due to be joined by Ghosts a film about Chinese undocumented labour, which leads up to the terrible tragedy waiting to happen on Blackpool Sands. Ghosts is due out on DVD in April 2007.





Lilya and boyfriend

Lilya with her "saviour"




Social realism

All three films are mainly social realist films and fit in well with the social realist strand of cinema which you will be covering when you look at contemporary British cinema. Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things are both British Films. Lilya 4-Ever is Swedish and uses social realism combined with fantasy sequences which function for the viewer as a representation of Lilya’s unconscious.

Social realism tries to represent aspects of life as they really are. Of course they still use cinematic techniques but they see themselves as grounded in social reality and they usually have a strong preferred reading emanating from the makers of the film. It is interesting that the Lilya 4-Ever DVD has appeals from both UNICEF the United Nations children’s section and Amnesty International as well. As a marketed package it clearly has an even stronger preferred reading for combining with these other texts very clearly positions it. In this sense Moodysson is a man with a mission as he explores the contradictions and  injustices of this world. It is of course possible to discuss this film from the perspective of  whether male directors can create good representations of women.




Lucas Moodysson as 'neo-Bazinian Realist'

In his article New Directions in European Cinema (2004) John Orr argues that moodysson is one of the powerful european necomers along with dirctors like Lynne Ramsey who have taken on the mqantle donned by directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bertrand Tavernier. Bazin Orr notes saw cinema as a form of exploration in both documentary and fiction:

It would reveal to us ... more of the everyday world in which human beings lived at all levels of society, many of them previously excluded by the commercial dictates of cinema as a cultural industry. Many of the practical means he saw as facilitating this new kind of cinema still thrive, more so now than ever. There is still low-to medium-budget cinema, location-based, often using non-professionals, but focusing now on social malaise - exclusion, violence and poverty - in a more consumerist age ... where the excluded still miss out. The neo-Bazinian aesthetic usually stresses ensemble acting (with improvisation and comic diversion) and obviates star quality. (Orr John, 1990 pp 301-302)

Powerfully Orr links in the work of the Neo-Bazinians to that of the theorist Julia Kristeva through the development of the Bazinian aesthetic to what he describes as a "new unbalancing of perspective". Orr describes it as an anti-aesthetic style in which mise en scene becomes a site of prime deformation thus transgressing the classical style of realism. There is also what Orr describes as a traductive realism which through various camera techniques, differently used amongst directors. The net outcome of these techniques amounts to a 'going down.'

It is here that Orr draws upon the work of Kristeva to discuss the meaning of "abjection". He describes abjection as being:

... the suspension of identity in a world devoid of meaning where abjection is a safeguard, a choice for the liminal in the instance of the void. It is the choice to be stranded as protection against the void. The downward flight is a conscious exposure by the abject being to the very dangers from which it seeks to protect itself, and ultimately from death. (Ibid p 306).





Lilya in Sweden



So near and yet so far, Lilya looks

out on a World of apparent freedom

that she can never know. Is the spectator

in the role of the reflection gazing on Lilya

in her Swedish "prison"? 






Crticism of the Western States

Moodysson’s story takes male domination in contemporary Western society onto another political level for he explicitly criticises the role of the state at two crucial points. Firstly when the pimp tells Lilya that the police would only send her back to her own country and secondly this point is visually consolidated when Lilya feels she can’t take the opportunity to go up to the policewoman in the garage after she has escaped because she is so scared. As a result she ends up killing herself. The film provides some respite from this potential ending because we are given a scenario of choice. At the end of the day she is a human agent and can work it out, as the section on neo-Bazinian realism below discusses choosing the route of 'abjection' is sometimes a conscious but perverse one. We never know which choice she or others like her in real life make or made but we clearly see the results of the wrong choice. 

The mise en scene

The mise en scene of Lilya affects me every time I see it. My first visit to a post-Soviet country was in 1997 and the housing blocks that Lilya lives are absolutely typical. What I found interesting about housing in the Soviet Union was that unlike here it wasn’t based upon class and income although that is rapidly changing now. It used to be the case that doctors and other professionals would be living in blocks like these alongside labourers, mechanics etc.

The areas outside these blocks are called yards and they all seem to have a basketball net in them. It really is a big game certainly in Lithuania (one of the world’s best teams) the country with which I’m familiar. The paintwork the gloomy stairs, because electricity is so expensive relative to incomes ,and the extraordinary poverty of those who were most weakly positioned in society are all true. Many older people lost the value of their life savings as the Rouble lost much of its value. There were also many banking scandals with people depositing their savings and directors of banks running off with the money and lodging it in Swiss bank accounts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also saw the rise of many small time criminals as well as the large scale ones. The bigger the criminal the more they can get away with things of course. The way in which the current owner of Chelsea football club made his way up is not paved with petals! The petty criminals and smaller gangs took to ruthlessly exploiting young women and young girls. Many young women are tricked into the sex trade in Western Europe by promises of jobs in modelling or even just – as was the case with Lilya – working picking flowers and vegetables.

When these women arrive on false passports - which are usually issued because they are under 18 – they are relieved of their passports and they are trapped. As in the case with Lilya even if they escape from the flats they are usually kept in the police used to send them back to their country of origin and the perpetrators usually get away with everything or else face only small fines or other minor punishment. When you consider the amounts of money that can be made there is little or no risk for the perpetrators. It is thus a very tempting business to the unscrupulous.

It was important in Lilya that the range of men she was farmed out to cut across class boundaries. She was even farmed out for group sex in men’s sporting clubs. This is a very important point, as this represents just how much a wide range of men collude with this illegal trade. Clearly Moodysson (a male director) is representing men as seeing women as vehicles for their own pleasures rather than as people. By doing this he is criticising the dominant ideology which encourages men to treat women in this way. Moodysson's representation of women is not in any sense idealised. Lilya is let down by mother, aunt and "best friend". 




Lilya Cover





Conclusion

From the perspective of using this film as a text in your research project there are many different avenues which can be explored. Not least there is the issue of whether women directors can represent the position of women better than men. There is the link to social reality about the ideological frameworks which create women as victims of what feminists would describe as a patriarchal system.

There are of course a number of potential extracts that could be used in your focus group work. Whilst the film seems unremittingly grim in terms of its preferred reading there is much in there which desires and demands your attention! There are a range of charities and some MPs who are very concerned to deal with some of these isues. Just as the work of Ken Loach in the sixties managed sometimes parts of the media can help to bring about. Indeed Moodysson is asking for people to choose life and to reject the abject. 

Webliography 

Here is a useful blog address (provided by visitor Colin). It is a useful MySpace blog with a video download and useful interviews with the director Lucas Moodysson and some information about the exploitation and eventual suicide of a young Lithuanian woman which helped inspire the story:

http://www.myspace.com/lilya4ever

Here is a live Amnesty International Campaign operating in Greece (June 2007):

Rights of Trafficked Women in Greece

http://www.iom.int/ .

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trafficking_in_human_beings

There is an excellent list of international organisations and a bibliography at this page.

http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10314

http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10220

Trafficking in Birmingham 2004:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3979725.stm

Its still a problem in 2006: 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5297944.stm

Danish anti trafficking project


April 07, 2007

Stars and Star Theory

Stars & Star Theory





Helen Mirren Oscar


Helen Mirren wins leading actress award @ the Oscars 2007 


See also British Women Actors




Introduction 


As can be seen from the above image and the 'appreciation' web site linked beneath it the role and status of stardom is an essential part of developing and maintaining significant audiences for the film industry. But the creation of stars wasn't always a part of the film industry. In the early years of the industry it was technical feats, stunts etc forming a 'cinema of attractions' which were the successful ingredients of cinema.


Audiences soon began to tire of these though and more complex stories told in more exciting cinematic ways began to develop. At the same time genres and stars were also developed as ways of increasing the industries communications with their audiences, for audiences are fickle things and must be continuously seduced. By the time Hollywood developed a sophisticated studio system it had also developed a 'star system'. There was a hierarchy of stars and frequently they were associated with specific genres. John Wayne was usually associated with Westerns and then later on war films as well for example.  

Much of the writing on stars is hagiographical and sychophantic. This is of course all part of creating an aura of myth around those upon whom 'star' status has been conferred. It is a notion which has spread from primarily Hollywood stars into the whole culture of 'celebrity'. Scandal and gossip is all an essential part of creating the necessary 'spin' around stars and potential stars. In reality the whole business is very tightly managed with agents, promotions and public relations companies playing an important role in star discourse. You will never see an interview with someone of star or celebrity status on TV or hear one on the radio unless there is an upcoming, film, record thatrical production etc. In this sense all interviews with a star are nothing else but indirect advertising. The interviews by chat show hosts are undemanding with prearranged questions which usually border on sychophancy. There very rarely any critical or probing questioning. If there was any danger of that the agents & PR people wouldn't put the stars onto the shows!


A study of the construction of stars inevitably involves issues of audience and reception. With no audiences there are no 'stars' ! The webliography has several links to articles about audience and the relationship to stars.





Star as Capital Value

The French film industry was the first to recognise the method of using stars to generate audience interest. After the radical reduction in power of the French film industry due to World War 1 the star system really developed in Hollywood in 1919.


Mary Pickford became the first star. Charlie Chaplin soon followed. Not only could stars make money for the studios they could make big money as well provided they generated big profits for the studios. 

After the coming of sound there was a shift in the way that Male stars were represented whilst the position of female stars remained largely the same. Vamps / Virgins or Sex Goddesses. In this way they tended to function as objects of beauty and desire. By comparison male characters started to become more complex. They could not only be heroes but rebels or even anti-heroes.


Stars contributed to the successful growth of Hollywood and its increasingly dominant position over other countries. This meant that thet could export their stars into the exhibition system of other countries. It also meant that Hollywood could attract the most popular European stars by outbidding any opposition. Great Garbo is a good example from the silent era.

Garbo as Queen Christina 2


By the end of the 1950s the star system was weakened with the collapse of the Hollywood studio system after anti-monopoly regulation and the growth of TV caused a consolidation and restructuring of the industry. 

Stars were still being manufactured but there were far fewer of them. There was still fierce in country rivalry as Britain and Europe tried to create sex godesses such as Diana Dors, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot to compete with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. 


Sophia Loren at Home        Sophia Loren Front Cover of Life Magazine

Sophia Loren "At Home"                             Sophia Loren front cover of Life 1960


The creation of celebrity through different parts of the media was a crucial part of gaining and maintaining star status. The scandal potential and events coming back to haunt you cross over into star as deviant (see below). This is a recent image from the National Enquirer. Was a certain young woman really the daughter of the famous film star Sophia Loren? (Does anybody really care?)

Sophia Loren Scandal


Stars have far more than a direct capital value. Their ability to attract audiences has the ability to attract money. Getting a popular leading and fashionable star lined up for a script considerably increases the chances of getting financial backing.


Films are both vehicles for stars but also genres become associated with particular stars. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were iconic for the musical which was an American genre.  


Star as Construct


We can understand stars as primarily constructed by the film industry, but stars are also agents in their own right and they play some part in creating the myths which float around them. Stars are also authenticated by other parts of the media but they also use these channels to help construct their chosen myths. If Marlene Dietrich was sexually charged we can see Catherine Denueve as an 'ice-maiden'.

A star is about putting on a face representing something that actually isn't there:

Yet we as spectators accept this construct as real. ( Hayward, S. 1996 p 340) 

Of course this is open to question and research. Exactly how much spectators do accept these constructions is exactly one of the realms of research which can be undertaken through qualitative research from sixth form projects on women and film to far higher academic levels. 


Christine Gledhill argues that stars reach their spectators primarily through their bodies in other words their appearance. Female stars have historically bemoaned the fact that there have been few serious roles for older and more mature women. On the whole the audience dislikes the audience to age:

Curiously, the process of aging matters when it is a woman star - it recalls our own age, ageing is too real - not the 'real' we want to see. (ibid) 


But is that necessarily the case? Certainly the Oscars of 2007 offer a challenge to this perception. Are things changing since Hayward first wrote this? The photograph of Helen Mirren gaining her Oscar for her leading role in Stephen Frears' The Queen, signifies possible change. Below is the list of nominees from the BBC website

Best actress
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Three out of the five are highly regarded as actors and are clearly in the 'mature woman' category. Does this finally mean that there is the recognition of an audience who are also more mature mentally ?


Dame Judy Dench                            Helen Mirren 2

Dame Judi Dench                                               Dame Helen Mirren


Does this begin to break down the traditional delineation of the star as construct with three basic parameters which Gledhill identifies?

  • Star as real person
  • Star as 'reel' person (on-screen character)
  • Star 'persona' (combination of the above two categories) 


For Richard Dyer the star image has four key components:

  • What the industry releases promotionally
  • What the various media critics say
  • What the star says and does
  • What the those who make up the audiences say and do. (Lookalikes etc at one extreme).  different audiences will probably make up different meanings to the point of reading the star 'against the grain'.

Stars can become intertextual as the image gets picked up and used by others in advertising for example.  A star can be seen as a constellation of meanings rather than any one single meaning. 


Star as Deviant


In general the star colludes readily in the construction of themselves as a star led by the studio.  Where there are exceptions, such as with Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro, then this resistance becomes incorporated in the essence of their stardom. 

On the whole stars comply with and wish to be represented as 'normal'. There are 'lavender' weddings for example to cover up homosexuality. Star performance for gays then becomes a double masquerade.

Being a star is about excess. Excess - being larger than life- is what is specifically according to a 'star'. Without an excessive lifestyle how can they be a star? Provided this 'excess' is well managed then it is of positive value to a studio. If it becomes genuinely excessive then the 'norms of excess' are transgressed and a star can start to take on a negative value for a studion. Excess is usually in the realms of consumption (drugs alcohol) and / or sex. This threatens to expose the masquerade of stardom.



Star as Cultural Value: sign & fetish

Stars can function as signs of changing cultural value. In the 1950s American teenagers quickly took on board the look of James Dean or Marlon Brando. in Europe teenage girls mimicked Brigitte Bardot. Stars then act within wider society to precipitate new mores. 


Stars can be mediators within the society as a whole. Hayward traces the changing representations of female sexuality in Hollywood to clarify the point:

  • 1930s / 40s: 2 types of female eroticism - independent as good as the boys Bette Davis & Katherine Hepburn / weak vulnerable type (Vivien Leigh)
  • 1950s: The independent type replaced by dutiful supporting wife as US society needed to absorb excess labour after the war or a self-parodying brunette who 'settles down' (Doris Day & Jane Russell)/ the weak vulnerable type is replaced by the 'dumb blonde' (Marilyn Monroe)
  • 1960s late in the decade the more self assertive radical-liberal feminist eroticism (Jane Fonda)

These change relate to a combination of changes in the social / political / economic conditions in society as a whole.  



Star-Gazing & Performance 


Audiences come with expectations of certain stars. There are basically two differnt modes of acting:

  • Personification
  • Impersonation


Personification

Here a star plays roles inline with his or her perceived personality. They know what to expect of say the taciturn gunman Clint Eastwood, or grinning machismo bravura with Jack Nicholson.


Impersonation

These actors are far fewer in number. Meryl Streep is a good example. For those who come to see stars rather than good acting this can cause a problem. For the person concerned with impersonating a role then a sign of their excellence is the ability to 'disappear' as a star. Hayward remarks that this is the case with Meryl Streep and suggests that this is why she has usually received very mixed reactions to her performances. 










Bibliography 





Stardom and Celebrity

Published February 2007 



Introductory Bibliography 

Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. Routledge 


Key Concepts Cinema Studies



Nelmes, Jill. 2007. Now in 4th Edition (which has just come out). An Introduction to Film Studies. Routledge.

Intro to Film Studies Edition 4

3rd Edition has section Stars and Hollywood Cinema from page 169.


General Bibliography on Audience Studies

Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and female spectatorship (1994)
Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: the practices of film reception (2000)
Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films (1992)
Tania Modleski, Loving with a vengeance: mass-produced fantasies for women ((1982)
Ien Ang, Living Room Wars; Rethinking Media Audiences for a Post Modern World (1996)
Ien Ang, Watching Dallas, (1985)
Ien Ang, Desperately seeking the audience (1991)
Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: from stage to TV (2000)
Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: TV Fans and Participatory Culture (1992)
Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (2000)
Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women movies and culture in Chicago (1998)
Lisa Lewis, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (1992)
Miriam Hanson, Babel and Babylon (1992)
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV (1996)
Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (1984)
Helen Taylor, Scarletts’ Women: GWTW and its female fans (1989)
Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987)
Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship (1993)
M Stokes and R Maltby, American Movie Audiences (1999)
Greg Smith: Film Structure and the Emotion System (2003)
Kathy Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small town audiences and creation of movie fan culture (1997)
Jowett/Jarvie/Fuller, Children and the Movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund (1997)
Hadley Cantril. The Invasion from Mars: A study in the psychology of panic (1940)
Melvin DeFleur and Sharon Lowery, Milestones of Mass Communication research
Denis McQuail, Audience Analysis
Shaun Moores, book on ethnographic studies
Cheryl Harris, Theorizing Fandom (1998)
Sanders, Science Fiction Fandom (1994)
Barbas, Movie Crazy: fans and stars
Harrington, Soap Fans
Tulloch, Watching TV Audiences (2000)
Ellen Seiter, TV and New Media Audiences
Spigel and Mann, Private Screenings: Women and Television
Sut Jhally, Enlightened Racism
Robin Means Coleman, African-American Viewers and Black Situation Comedy
Mumford, Love and Ideology in the Afternoon (computer file)
Joyrich, Lynne, Re-viewing Reception: TV gender and popular culture (computer file)
Shattuc, The Talking Cure: TV Talk shows and women
Bernstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies (1996)
Pinedo, Recreational Terror (1997) computer file


Webliography 

Wikipedia on Richard Dyer the first academic to seriously study stars

Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America: Jessica Freame



Senses of Cinema article on the Development of the Star Image of Dorothy Lamour

Using Early Cinema in Reassessing Feminist Theory 

Link to Matthew Tillman article on Stars

Review author[s]: Constance Balides
Signs, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 248-254.
(This is a JSTOR article and requires subscription access.)

Reviewed Work(s):

  • Cinema and Spectatorship by Judith Mayne
  • Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship by Jackie Stacey
  • Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film by Miriam Hansen


Unpacking clothes: a Senses of Cinema article by Tamar Jeffers who researches Doris Day.


Review of Kuhn, Annette: An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory. London, I. B. Tauris (2002). ISBN 1-86064-791 (pbk), pp. vii + 273

Link to review of Richard Dyer, 2nd Ed 2004. Heavenly Bodies: Films Stars and Society by Rebecca Feasey in The Jounal of Visual Culture

Link to handout from University of Surrey

Link to Culture Cinema and Society bibliography on stardom

A useful example of establishing a relevant research project (clicking will downloadthe proposal):  http://media.utu.fi/emy/JuttaHeikkila.rtf 

A Critical Assessment of Jackie Stacey''s Star Gazing Using the Tool of Feminist Epistemologies

A bibliography and course outline from University of East Anglia on Stars 

Link to an Exeter University MA Unit on Stars 

Link to interesting Fashion Worlds  Cultural Studies Blog page on the cult of celebrity relevant to star theory.

Link to Rebecca Feasey article on Stardom and Sharon Stone: Power as Masquerade. It comes from Taylor and Francis and will cost you a gobsmackingly ridiculous £13 to douwnload! Find it in your library. 

Article by Guy Austen from Scope the online film journal :

"In Fear and Pain": Stardom and the Body in Two French Ghost Films. Guy Austin, University of Sheffield, UK

Link to Framework article by Christine Geraghty

Link to Film Jounal article by Hunter Vaughan which discusses Eyes Wide Shut in relation to Laura Mulvey 

Link to article on American Fan Magazines and the Glamourous Construction of Femininity

Link to  Su Holmes University of Kent Revisiting Star Studies Article


See Also British Women Actors



April 02, 2007

Making a Genre Reading of Thelma & Louise

Making a Genre Reading of Thelma and Louise



Preface  

This posting is a section of my book on genre Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society 2003. Coventry: Kino-eye. This is primarily aimed at year 1 undergraduates and A2 students as well as interested general readers. Other sections will be posted onto the blog in due course. This is all fully copyrighted material please ensure that any references are properly acknowledged.

Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".



Introduction

This section examines how a methodology (in this case a feminist methodology analysing the film from the perspective of feminism) can be applied to make a genre based reading of a film. The case study here is based upon Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott.The article also reviews and compares Thelma & Louise with a range of typical Hollywood genres. The conclusion to the article questions whether even placing Thelma and Louise within a complex of Hollywood films is adequate to the task of explaining why it works so effectively and appeals to a wide range of audiences.

It is argued here that the film is a tragicomedy hybrid genre with the emphasis being ultimately placed upon the tragic. While it can be meaningful to relate the film to other Hollywood output it seems more appropriate to view it in the pantheon of tragedy in a cross media and trans-historical way. 

That the film can be read as a tragicomedy isn’t the only possible reading and in my piece on Thelma & Louise I question whether the film is possibly best understood as a feminist dream or fantasy.

Thelma and Louise

Marita Sturken in a short monograph on Thelma and Louise in the British Film Institute Modern Classics series uses a feminist methodology, applying this through the lens of genre based analysis to provide a reading which differs from the readings which many reviewers, audiences and scholars have made. As the methodology section points out, to use particular methods to inform critical analysis is to examine a cultural object from a particular perspective to enhance our ways of looking at the world and to thus increase our knowledge about social reality.


To talk in terms of providing readings is not to say that something is necessarily “true” or “false”. It functions to open out different perspectives and possibilities concerning the object of our enquiry. The first question to be asked when considering Sturken’s views is to consider whether she has used the combination of genre and feminist methodologies effectively to provide a ‘strong reading’ or a weak reading’ of the film.

Below there is a synopsis of Sturken’s reading of Thelma and Louise concentrating on the points where she has analysed the film through both genre and feminist methods. To gain a thorough understanding of her points it would be helpful to see some of the following films:

  • Thelma & Louise : Used as a core film for analysis this should be seen at least twice.

  • Bonnie and Clyde

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

  • It Happened One Night (1934)

  • Easy Rider

  • Fatal Attraction (1987)

  • Body Heat (1981).


Genre ‘Bending

Sturken (2000) has argued that Thelma and Louise is strongly reliant upon ‘bending’ traditional genres. She argues that the film is established as setting the viewer up for a light-hearted ‘screwball comedy’ of two women away for a weekend free from unsatisfactory lives and relationships.


It is crucial to the film’s relationship to genre that ‘Thelma and Louise’ do not set out to become criminals, they become them unintentionally ...It is this shift from screwball comedy to buddy movie to road movie to outlaw movie, that gives this film its hybrid genre status, but also , importantly makes it a rereading of several classic film genres’. (Sturken , 2000 : 23

Sturken points out that many critics have tried to make a reading of Thelma and Louise using genre based methods. She proceeds to argue that part of the films cleverness is the playing upon these codes.

Thelma and Louise’ has been situated by numerous film scholars in a wide range of genres, from the fairy-tale and the screwball comedy to the rape-revenge film and the buddy movie. In deploying many of the conventions of a variety of genres, the film can be seen as both naively and shrewdly playing off these codes and formulas. Primary among its references is the outlaw film, which has a long tradition in American cinema as both westerns and road movies ( Sturken , 2000 : 23 ).

Sturken notes that the outlaw has been both an icon and a mythology of a person who defied the system and brought vicarious pleasure to the law-abiding citizen. Thelma and Louise plays off outlaw conventions established in the 1960s through the star vehicles of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid These films affirmed a sixties version of the genre reiterating the conventions within a sixties ideology of liberation which can be seen as being aimed at the youth market of the time?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a mixture of crime, screwball humour and a buddy movie. In Thelma and Louise there is a gradual switch in the film between the characters with Thelma becoming the more confident and determined one of the pair. In outlaw films other characters appear but must be relatively peripheral in order to affirm the primary relationship. Another feature of outlaw films is that the characters are understood to be on the way to their fate and get stripped of their possessions along the way. The fact that they are accidental criminals is essential to the reworking of the genre. They are crimes of impulse which become crimes of necessity.

Thelma and Louise lose the accoutrements of traditional femininity and take on several signifiers of masculinity and the road during the film. Their dress code changes with frilly items being replaced by jeans and an engagement ring is exchanged for a hat. Compared with the male characters of the sixties who are on a journey of nostalgia, their journey is ‘inexorably away from the past’ (Sturken, 2000 : 31).

The Use of Space and Place

There is an iconic use of space within the film carefully avoiding ‘the road’ constructed in the image of MacDonald’s for an older style of America. Ridley Scott has commented on his deliberate choice to do this:

I felt it was better to lean to the vanishing face of America, which is Route 66 rather than the new face of America , which is malls and concrete strips(Ridley Scott quoted Sturken , 2000 : 36 ).

The romantic even nostalgic atmosphere is also enhanced by the soundtrack of steel guitar from German composer Hans Zimmer. It is thus worth considering whether this is a European take on America. This is a generic landscape which moves to a culminating romantic icon of the canyon in Moab, Utah and then to the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Moab has been the site of many John Ford westerns, science fiction films and Easy Rider. Here, the emulation of a visual style can be argued as generic. There is also a play on the recuperation of these male spaces by women.

A Shifting Multi-generic Film

There is little doubt that Thelma and Louise is a complex film and reading it through the lens of a genre throws up interesting questions. Whilst Sturken has categorised the film as a genre hybrid, it is worth considering whether it can be considered as more of a multi-generic film. The reason for suggesting this is that the complex shifts which are made throughout the film moving through a range of genres is a little different to being a combination of two or three genres. The film has its comic parts, but it is not considered as a comedy or even a comedy-thriller. Below the generic complexity of the genres the film has been associated with are explained and examined.

Road Movies

The classic road movies are about male privilege, the right to hit the road without worrying about children or destination. Women weren’t the protagonists of road movies, rather women were often what men were running away from. Corrigan (1991) describes the classic road movie as having 4 defining features:

  • Breakdown of the family unit

  • The context in which events are acted upon characters and obstacles being constantly put in the way

  • Protagonist who is readily identified with their means of transportation

  • A focus upon men in the absence of women.

Many critics have credited Thelma and Louise with reviving the road movie genre and opening it up to new identities. Thelma & Louise follows the tradition of road movies where the protagonists are most happy when they are actually on the road. As soon as they stop they get into trouble. The film continually reiterates the duality of space contrasting the open road with a claustrophobic domestic environment. This is a reversal of the traditional theme of men riding through a landscape which is usually coded as woman/ nature.

The men in the film are forced to participate in female codes of behaviour. The men are forced to wait for them whilst previously the women were forced to wait on them. This sense of movement versus stasis is achieved through the technique of crosscutting from the car racing through the landscape making whistle-stops, to the unchanging domestic interior for example. This functions to reinforce the stereotype of domesticity and interiors as female non-progressive space.

The Buddy Movie

The film embraces a basic aspect of the buddy movie which is that men understand each other better than they understand their women. The primary relationship in this film is between the women who understand each other’s ways of being in the world better than their men do.

The Screwball Comedy

Screwball comedy is a genre which was very popular in the 1930s. It is usually based upon the clever sexual banter of a couple who don’t know that they are supposed to be together, but who eventually find their way to each other through a set of foibles, mistaken identities and other plot ploys. Classic example Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.

In Thelma & Louise screwball humour is apparent in the scene when the motorcycle cop pulls them over. There is a panic mode akin to that used in screwball comedy. The film plays with the audience using suspense when the cop is put into the boot Thelma tells him to ‘be sweet to em’ (his wife and kids) in a screwball mode. Thelma’s relentless optimism ‘is central to providing the film’s screwball tone’ ( Sturken, 2000: 60 ).

Female Revenge Film

Thelma & Louise is often interpreted as a “female revenge film”. This is a genre construction which could be seen as misogynistic (misogyny is hatred of women). ‘Female revenge’ films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noirs.

However, this isn’t a revenge movie for past acts committed against them, rather Thelma and Louise are on a search for liberation from oppressive patriarchal structures (patriarchy is where everything is ruled by norms established by men).

Revenge is not the motivating factor in their decisions - escape to better social conditions is. Despite the obvious histories of forms of sexual abuse the attempted rape on Thelma and the unspeakable past of Louise there is no talk of revenge. There were plenty of opportunities for a range of violent acts on men. They could have blown away the lorry driver after all as well as the policeman. The hitchhiking lover who stole their money could have been murdered. Those critics and reviewers following that line of thinking were clearly motivated by something other than clear analysis.

Conclusion

For this writer at least there is something unsatisfactory about trying to slot Thelma and Louise into various complexes of Hollywood genres. My initial view was that the film is based upon classical tragic drama and even after reading Sturken’s analysis my view is unchanged. Fate dealt Thelma and Louise a cruel hand and ethically they had decided that they would take a certain course in which the options continually narrowed until death was the only option.

Where this film differs from the tragic classic genre of theatre is that the heroes of the film are everyday characters who had started out on an everyday weekend outing which was pretty much the highlight of lives which were very narrow. This is very different from the Greek tragedies or those of Shakespeare which were based on powerful people making and taking important decisions.

Thelma and Louise appears more like a popular version of this very old generic form and in that sense it can be a useful description of the film. Whether that would have proved attractive to the potential audiences in terms of marketing is impossible to say.

Sturken’s analysis of genre hybridity seems to relate strongly to the comments Neale has made concerning ‘New Hollywood’ critics who, inspired by ‘post-modern’ thinking, are seeking ‘hybridity’ under every stone. Neale points out that it is important to distinguish between hybridity and allusion to other films often achieved through a sort of pastiche. Arguably Thelma and Louise remains a classic tragedy rich in allusions to well known Hollywood films. Thinking of the film in these terms seems more likely to open up questions among the audience about the nature of the human condition at the time the film was mad

From my own perspective which is keen to engage with concerns of cultural citizenship and the deeper contextual meanings which may be contained within the content it does seem that the critical debates revolving around genre have failed to get to the heart of this film. Indeed, trying to make out that the film is rape-revenge movie is a reading perverse to the point of misogyny.

The genre readings of the film don’t appear to open out any useful insights about the relationship of the film to the film industry of the time in terms of marketing or reasons for the film in the first place.

The film is taken as a classical tragedy transposed from the standard conventions of this wider genre from the character in high society to the background of two ordinary women somewhere in rural America. The plot hinges on an ordinary weekend trip featuring a dramatic turning point where a brutal prior experience combined with the arrest of a brutal act which temporarily prompts an act of transgression born of uncontrollable emotions.

From that point on the tragedy unfolds. The breakthrough of the film that two ordinary women can become the subject of tragedy signifies that Hollywood can play a progressive role in raising deeper questions about social reality. Arguably, it is the fact that the film is very weak in Hollywood genre terms which allowed it to have such an effect on a wide range of audiences.

The film’s form makes it more than just a tragedy however. Starting in a light-hearted vein and having recourse to a range of comic moments which serve to alleviate what would be a dour fatalistic narrative. The blowing up of a petrol tanker, the near slapstick of the incompetent husband stepping in pizza, the turning of the tables upon the traffic-cop, and the insertion of a Rasta cyclist serve as comic high-points, which also function to highlight the underlying implications of the story which is a strong critique of individual violence against omen and a critique of institutionalised sexism which fails to deal with this.

To engage in arcane debates about Hollywood generic affiliations risks either scholasticism or critics who find the implications of the film too challenging trying to close down the deeper questions which the film is trying to raise. This means that the major points the film is raising for discussion can be obscured. Seen as a tragicomedy this film justifiably can be described as a modern classic because it is modern in its content and classic in the way that it is modelled on a traditional literary genre.


January 21, 2007

Mira Nair and Johnny Depp

Just a quick post to alert visitors who may be interested in studying women and film of the latest project of the successful director of the insightful Monsoon Wedding Mira Nair.

The Guardian has a recent story on Mira Nair


December 11, 2006

Film Opinion 1: Pop Culture or Pap Culture?

Opinion

Iin these so-called post-modern times there is almost a collective guilt created in critical discourses about liking or approving of a film that is artistically, socially or culturally challenging in some way or another. There is a real fear amongst the critical community of calling pop culture ‘pap culture’.

The Mr. Busy column in January’s Sight and Sound hit the nail on the head when describing the average film review:

The nearest newspapers come to this kind of privileged opinion forming these days is in their restaurant reviews. (p 12).

Instead of trying any kind of opinion forming evertything defaults into a kind of star rating. I for one am very suspicious about this. I’m sure that whoever puts the Independent reviews of films on TV together for the Saturday edition just whizzes through a Halliwell’s and / or Time Out film guide and averages out the star rating.

Being a bit of an afficionado of the ‘World Cinema’ (i.e. everything that isn’t ‘Hollywood’) it soon becomes noticeable that the film on BBC4 which are TV premieres very rarely seem to make a star rating by getting a mention in the column. Now some films probably don’t deserve it but lots deserve some kind of mention especially when populist pap gets a miserable 2 star or even 1 star rating.

Good for BBC 4 showing Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions I’d read a favourable review ages ago but as my DVD budget goes on European cinema – except for Pirates of the Caribbean – to teach action-adventure cinema and a good romp it was too! – I’d have missed it. the fact is that in these post-humanist times it was an unashamedly humanistic film which dealt with genuine life and death issues which touch on every human in a way that was funny and non-judgemental makes that film a valuable one. It is a film which won’t date in terms of its content or the way it is handled. In short one might call it ‘Art’. If you click here you can access a short trailer. Thankfully I didn’t see the trailer. I’ve just realised they put me off, they’re so… yes “cheesey” is probably a good word. But my benchmark of ‘is it worth 90 odd minutes of my / your valuable time holds. Yes! you probably have to be of a certain age to fully appreciate it – Trainspotting it ain’t but both have heroin and a sharp sense of humour.

Art is a term much avoided in populist film criticism. Lets talk about Terminator 2 in post-Lacanian terms based on Klaus Thewleit’s analysis of male fantasies in the Weimar and Nazi periods. Well that at least squares the contradictory needs of having to discuss populist products a “modern classic” according to the BFI publishing department at least. Its not the product which counts but the academic discourse you gnerate around it. Now don’t get me wrong – I enjoy Terminator & Terminator 2. They can get the adrenalin going on a Friday evening when slumped after a hard week at the whiteboard face or stuffy ozone ridden computer room. But, can one seriously write about a film or other cultural artefact onlt a dozen years old and call it “a classic”. A case of the marketing tail wagging the critical dog as usual.

One nice thing about developing film courses and the paraphernalia around them is re-viewing films which were valued when they came out and are still valued. It also gives the opportunity to re-value something which wasn’t well received at the time. In the last few years I’ve become a real Visconti fan. I love his aesthetics and his political astuteness is often unrecognised.

A teaching colleague thought that The Leopard was rather slow. I told him I was worried he was teaching too much horror and getting into the aesthetics of the restless film endlessly cutting to help create a forceful dynamic pushing the often feeble narratives – I mean why horror for pleasure? – there’s enough out there in the real world isn’t there?

Lilya 4Ever Lilya looks out from her prison

Check BBC4 Review here

I like showing my horror and action adventure fan A level groups films like Lilya 4Ever. It usually hits them hard. Oh that’s horrible… well life isn’t all fantasy that’s what its like for lots of teenagers in countries that are now part of the European Union. What I find odd is why a film like that gets an 18 rating. Its exactly what teenagers need to see. Heavens thay even got shocked when Richard Harris got that smack in the mouth in This Sporting Life. Now that is classic!

Richard Harris in This Sporting life

Another BBC4 hit with me this year was Turtles can fly. As usual people can get get very defensive as this blog shows. Well there seems little point in being in total denial about issues of illiteracy. Blackboards directed by the gifted : Samira Makhmalbaf. Written by: Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf. Well along with other Iranians they are filmmakers who don’t beat about the bush. Uncomfortable truths is what the best artists confront us with. Yes poverty and illiteracy are coexistent and one feeds off the other.

Blackboards Poster

(A level media research students for women & film check the official site here.)

Lets face it, Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, has an extraordinarily high functional illiteracy rate yet people are in full time education from about 4-16. The fact that people in the Middle East are illiterate and are forced into selling mines is a savage indictment of the so called civilised world.

For me Dr Nazhad Khasraw Hawramany is a parochial case of protesting too much. Because if you check out his blog he actually agrees that people, presumably children turn to sellng mines and bits of military equipment:

...the only refugee camps are for Iranian Kurds who fled the despotic Islamic regime in Iran!) and earn living through trading with mines, weapons and military scraps.

Turtles Can Fly Mines

The good Doctor’s nationalistic concerns are getting the better of him (patriotism = patriarchy ?), becuase he entirely dismisses a key factor in the film centered around the rape of a young Muslim girl and the blind baby she has given birth to. The good doctor (presumably not medical) displays his ignorance of biology at this point:

the girl was raped in Halabja in 1988 when she was not younger than 14( otherwise she couldn`t have been pregnant) and now in 2003 , the child is only about 3 years old and she is still 14 years old! What a dumb discrepancy!

Doesn’t he know that girls frequently get periods at 11 and occasionally even younger. Sex education clearly isn’t high on the agenda anyway! As a BBC report on Darfur was highlighting only yeterday rape is a tool of terrorism and the book by Susan Brownmiller from the 1970s showed that this was an historical trait. come on good doctor lets have a bit of contemporary consciousness of sexual politics whilst you reside in aSwitzerland made famous by Orson Welles comment in The Third Man!

Well Dr. Hawramany does rather seem to be missing all of the artistic points in the film and academic discourse it ain’t. Personally I thought it well worth seeing. Was it a Rembrandt among films – probably not – but amongst the piles of pap being continuously pumped out (god was the Blairwitch Project boring or what?), in my opinion it is worth the 90 odd minutes of your time watching it. I like a film that raises a bit of real controversy and makes me a bit uncomfortable in my complacency. Lets face it you don’t get it with ‘reality TV’ :-).

Turtles Can Fly Teenager leader

If like me you value your time budget then knowing what to avoid seems to be a primary task of a reviewer. Happy viewing in 2007 :-).


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