Scary Sad Female: Monster

Monster (2002)

Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster is a crime drama about the “supposed” first female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos played by Charlize Theron. In reading up on the making of this film, I was curious to learn how it all came about. After attending school at AFI’s director’s program Jenkin’s first feature film is Monster and wins a slew of domestic and international awards including the Independent Spirit Award for best feature. And, yes Charlize Theron basically won all the awards for best actress that year too. But, what I love about Jenkins is her belief that film can do things that digital cannot. When commenting about the Kodak’s new Super 8 camera she said, “There are plenty of looks, feelings and qualities that only film can do, and you simply cannot capture digitally.” Amen, sister! AMEN!

And of course, being a Super 8 geek myself, I could not agree more. I mean watching a CGI flooded film such as Avatar or any superhero movie like the Avengers is nice every once in a while, but in the end it just leaves me feeling empty and cold inside. But, watching a classic like Cleopatra, or Wolfman from 1942 gives me an entirely warm and fuzzy feeling inside because it was shot on film. I can’t fully explain this phenomenon. Perhaps, it’s the nostalgia of yester-year and the fact earlier films were made with handmade effects versus a computer enhanced image. It was an art form which I feel and fear is slowly fading away. But, dammit those were the good old days. I mean don’t even get me started on the classic monster movies of the 1930s. I have an entire collection of horror movies from 1920s-1960s and they’re all flawed, works of cinematic art. ANYWAYS, moving right along…

What I absolutely love about the opening of Monster is Jenkins gives us that 8mm projected look of Aileen as a little girl along side some narration hugged by the blackness of the screen. There’s an isolating effect that coincides with Aileen’s present life. And as she continues her narration, the image expands and we see how Aileen’s childhood turns into adulthood until the entire image goes full screen leading us to the present day of Aileen. Fantastic stuff and such a strong resonating opening. It’s clever and I can’t stop talking about it. We see Aileen sitting under an overpass as it’s raining and she’s holding a pistol in one hand with $5 in her pocket contemplating her own suicide. It’s a dark, tormenting hook for the first act of the story. My God have you seen the look in that woman’s eyes. Terrifying and electric.

However, I think the troubling aspect of this film, is Aileen’s character is painted in a downcast sympathetic light. Yes, she is a monster because she kills men who pay her for sex and or beat her to a bloody pulp. Given her history of being abused at a young age and becoming a product of her upbringing is the nucleus of this entire monstrosity of a life. A person’s life is in ruins therefore she must inflict and pay the sentiment forward on who better? Men. They’re the cause of her pain and are the wrongdoing threat in her little delusional world. I’m sure the victim’s families were probably in an uproar given such a film would glorify a serial killer’s pathetic, desperate sense of lifestyle. All around it’s a heinous chain of events, but she does get the death penalty so maybe there’s a sense of justice? I don’t know.

Aileen’s unfortunate past of abuse filters her own delusions which is the catalyst to her on going killing spree and yes maybe she can easily play the victim card here, but it presents this conflict in detesting her character. I feel sorry and bad for her, but it’s hardly a reason to go killing people. At one point Aileen says to Bruce Dern’s character, “You know, I feel like I never had a fucking choice.” In a way it’s as if Jenkins, wants us to feel sorry for this monster and that rattles the cage in terms of morality and my own perception of humanity. I see both sides of this devil of a coin and I am conflicted on what I’m suppose to feel here. Do I feel sorry for Aileen? Do I feel sorry for the victims of the deceased? It’s murky water and not as black and white as it seems.

Despite, lacking a type of cinematic style, I think Jenkins focused primarily on the performances and the piecing strong images together with deeply gratifying soundtrack. Music definitely enhances the moving picture especially in the scene where Aileen is in the car with a John and the music crescendos just as she’s about to put a gun to his head and unleash her angst of pain and fear. It’s terrifyingly heartbreaking. Given that it’s Jenkins first feature, and there probably wasn’t a big budget for phenomenal, expensive, time consuming shots, I feel as if the performances of intense talent and raw energy electrified the silver screen. The extraordinary performances from Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci made this film. Period.

With that said I’m curious to see how Jenkins crosses over from crime drama to the superhero terrain with her upcoming second feature film, Wonder Woman which is due out in 2017. You go girl! I believe in you!

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Decadent and Charming: Marie Antoinette

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is the story of a very young 14-year old girl (Kristen Dunst) brought to France under the arrangement of marriage to Louis the XVI (Jason Schwartzman). They’re basically two young kids running Daddy’s company; the aristocracy of France, however most of the story focuses on Marie Antoinette’s accession to queen and her prominent, grandiose, idiosyncratic lifestyle in Versailles. It’s a fun movie in a teeny bopper kind of way with the hip music intertwined with the story and at times it feels like you’re watching a music video from the 90s. This is one of the things I enjoy about Sofia Coppola’s style. I mean what better song to play than, “I want candy” by Bow Wow Wow especially when it’s during the decadent montage of shoes, colorful macaroons, sparkling champagne, and voguish wigs. Can we talk about the wigs for a second? It’s a freaking work of art and if anyone can wear one of those things without it sliding off their head is a superhero.

At first when watching this film, I was skeptical because I really didn’t know what to expect and thought it was going to be one of those prim and proper period pieces where actors over act in not so great accents. I was wrong, this was a fun fantasy of wearing exquisite costumes with very little dialogue and basically a case of letting the visual speak for itself. AND, in digging deeper into what Coppola’s actually bringing to the screen, I thought this is just a story about a girl living in a strange society and adapting to it but in a very impressionistic way. Take Pretty Woman for example, it’s about a prostitute going about her life, then meets a wealthy man, falls in love, tries to adapt to his world, but ultimately in an unconventional way still remains true to who she is. Maybe it’s a stretch of an example but, I feel like Marie Antoinette is kind of like that. She’s staying true to who she wants to be aside from her posh setup. And of course all of this controversy arises and it paints her in a very negative light but that usually occurs when someone has power and money oh and the keys to the kingdom. So, she spends of all France’s money and she has a gambling problem. People have problems people!

And, everyone knows the fate of Marie Antoinette, and yet Coppola refrains from giving us a beheading scene. Interesting choice. She also refrains from showing the audience any of the violence or act of committing suicide from The Virgin Suicides. But, again I believe that’s her personal choice not to glorify violence. She alludes to it though, especially in the scene where Marie maneuvers her way to the balcony among the pissed off French citizens who’re ready to capture and torture her with their torches and pitchforks. It’s such a great scene as the queen stands among them and does nothing but stare at them because she knows there’s nothing she can really do. She has no real interest in being queen or helping people. The woman bathes in elegance not politics. So she bows out gracefully knowing this is not going to end well for her.

What’s so dreamy about Coppola’s aesthetic is her use of pale colors, and natural lighting that illuminate each scene in a haze like fashion. It’s like getting lost in an extraordinary void or like gazing and being drawn into a soft, glossy watercolor painting. Her very distinguished style is enchanting and fascinating because she often focuses her subject matter on a character’s loneliness and she presents it through numerous shots of the character standing alone in long hallways, or daydreaming in a meadow while gazing at the sky. There’s such a vivid and profound imagination at play circling a fashionable historical figure and Coppola heightens that with such a wonderful finesse.

Oh Yeah! AMERICAN PSYCHO

American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron is part horror, part thriller, and a dark comedy about Patrick Bateman, (played by Christian Bale) a wealthy stock broker who indulges in killing people while prescribing to the lavish 80s materialistic lifestyle in New York City. When I first watched this film several years ago, I didn’t know what to think of it. My first impression was this entire insanity took place as Bateman’s wild inner fantasy, but after assessing it a few more times, I feel like it’s not as it seems. Yes, the entire ending is oddly ambiguous and no I haven’t read the novel yet, but I can’t stop thinking that Bateman did perhaps murder all those people. Beneath his calm demeanor there is a being who is “simply not there” as he states in one of his gnarly monologues. The real kicker is when he confesses, “My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others.” Bingo! Right there! The entire premise. Even after spilling his disturbing remarks about this pain he holds within he turns around and says his confession means nothing. So, there’s a ton of back and forth banter which really makes this character an unreliable narrator but that’s the fun in this crazy, violent-filled film.

It’s confusing, and given the context of this story which is smack dab in the 1980s, you have to think about it historically. What was actually happening in the 80s? In New York, the environment and society were changing rapidly, guzzling capitalistic ventures and competing with your fellow friends about who has the coolest gadget or in this case business card. It’s a shallow, narcissistic, whirlwind of elegant restaurants congregated by slick businessmen who do nothing but talk about who’s better in bed, business, taste and style in suits. It’s a freaking pissing competition.

Now, what if Bateman was simply annoyed by all that frivolous background noise and was fed up of trying to impress and keep up with that kind of shallow lifestyle. It’s a big what if, but maybe he was searching for something real beneath his cluttered soul. Perhaps, in the midst of his search he was lured by the scent of blood one random night walking through a dark alley and murders the homeless man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And in his moment of killing, he has the epiphany that killing is what’s real. Killing is what makes him feel alive aside from all the vanity, power, greed, and arrogance that has become his painful weary existence. Which makes me question how does one become a psychopath? Society? Or are some just inherently evil? But that’s a whole other discussion. The violence thrusts the narrative down a twisted crossroad blurred between reality and fantasy. Even in an interview with Marc Maron, the author, Bret Easton Ellis states, “You don’t know if some of these things happen or not. You don’t even know if the murders happen or not. Which to me is interesting. To me it’s much more interesting not to know than to definitely know.”

This is one of those things that really intrigue me about novels especially when there’s an unreliable narrator involved because it keeps things wildly interesting such as Nabokov’s Lolita. Was Humbert, Humbert really reliable? It’s great dinner conversation but, that’s getting off topic.

There are some very comical parts throughout American Psycho, where Bateman is mouthing off is actual thoughts, and feelings to anyone he engages with such as the drycleaner, lawyer, and his numerous dates. What’s awesome is a big part of Mary Harron’s style is satire based and she does a tremendously brutal job in bringing that to the screen. I enjoy the fact she directed this story where the focus is in depth with a male perspective. She drew out the humor behind Bateman’s obsession of status which is threaded hilariously throughout the film. Harron also directed I Shot Andy Warhol which shares a vein in the theme of erratic egos in male characters. Her perspective into those obsessive character’s behaviors and their stories make her films complex and alluring. One of my favorite scenes in American Psycho is his moonwalk with the axe in hand while ranting a Huey Lewis and the News album. It’s sickly hilarious because he’s dancing and goes ballistic hacking someone to death as music is blasting in the background. The timing and the movement of that scene works well. At which point you don’t know if you should be horrified or be laughing at the absurdity of this scene. Ah I love dark comedy. And can we call agree, the 80s music makes this film simply sublime.

Brave and Messy: Holy Smoke!

Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999) is an indie film about a determined, headstrong, woman named Ruth (Kate Winslet), who’s under the influence of a guru from India. It’s basically about her spiritual awakening and self discovery and not necessarily about “joining a cult”. However, her parents don’t see it as such, and freak out and hire a “cult exiter” named PJ (Harvey Keitel) to extract her mind from the power of Baba (the guru). Ruth tells her mother that something amazing has happened to her in that Baba’s magic has lead her to enlightenment which prompts her mother to take action.

There’s a lovely scene of Ruth just being herself, singing and dancing to an Alanis Morissette song on a walkmen as she’s striding among an emu farm in the middle of the outback. She’s full of life among her weary family members who believe she’s lost her damn mind. But, as this scene progresses and Ruth sees her father playing golf with other friends, the realization hits her that he wasn’t dying of a stroke and that her mother had lied to get her to come back home. Campion does a beautiful job of conveying this idea almost like capturing a wild creature and sending it off to be reevaluated, retrained, rewired for what society wants it to be. She uses this overhead shot, as the men in Ruth’s family trap her in a human made circle linking their arms together, preventing her escape. This shot conveys power the way it’s angled up high and in a way signifies or perhaps jostles the power in this patriarchal world letting the viewer know, who’s really in charge here. The men gathered around her (brothers, and father) tell her that PJ is going to get her, “fixed up” and that he’s going to, “straighten her out!” Of course from a place of love sure it makes sense but in a social context it’s kind of disturbing. From a philosophical standpoint, this reminds me of Michel Foucault theory addressed on the relationship of knowledge and power along with the influence of social control. Eventually, the entire premise of the narrative kind of backfires as PJ is trying to help Ruth, her own influence persuades PJ and reshapes his life. I love that Campion plays with the dynamic relationship between men and women.

There’s a scene in a club, where, “I put a spell on you” is playing and the look in PJ’s eyes as he’s watching Ruth dance and make out with a female friend all in slow motion definitely emphasizes the female gaze and how’s he’s losing his power over her. I believe, this is where the narrative shifts and Campion’s analysis on how women can disempower men. For instance, the scene where Ruth basically tells PJ how she likes to be kissed shaping it for her pleasure and not necessarily his. Or where Ruth dresses PJ in a red dress, with lipstick, and brushing his hair totally undressing him of his masculinity which shifts the power dynamic. Its not necessarily about humiliating him but opens the door about her perception of him. PJ sees women in a certain context and Ruth unleashes that notion by dressing him up in what she believes how PJ sees women. Consequently, PJ bluntly writes “be kind” on Ruth’s forehead because it’s how he sees in her; cruel, desirably mean, and possibly full of angst. This is then followed by a very vulnerable scene where Ruth shares her biggest fear with him when she says, “No one can be close to me.” You know what I’m scared of? I’m heartless.” It’s the big a-ha moment, for both of these characters because their cruel, strong willed exteriors begin to break down. Their breaking each other’s psyche’s down in the most unusual and unconventional way.

Consequently, Ruth turns the tables on PJ because in a way she’s become his guru leaving him wrecked in the desert chasing after her, while he’s still wearing a dress and red lipstick proclaiming his love for her. And, the look on her face is priceless, but also the realization of the power she holds over him is discovered. In the end, she shows him kindness by cradling him in her arms in the back of a pickup track as they return to civilization. Eventually, she returns to India with her mom and writes PJ a postcard about being in love with him and not understanding why. But, the conclusion is both of these characters shared a connection and it’s reshaped their lives which is something kind of beautiful.

The overall idea here is a girl’s belief in something is completely taken out of context from her overprotective, worrisome parents who believe she’s been lured into a cult. But, we don’t fully understand the cult’s purpose except for that it’s “bad”. My biggest concern is what was wrong with Ruth in the first place? She was experiencing a spiritual possibility governed by love and enlightenment. She wasn’t drinking the kool aid or killing people for sport! And, I think it was the fear of it that really set the ball in motion for this conflict to take place. We fear what we don’t understand which happens everyday to somebody or everybody.

Jane Campion’s theme of eroticism is often weaved through an assortment of her films, which is probably why I’m so drawn to her caliber of storytelling. Holy Smoke! is no exception. Its complexity may be uncomfortable for some, but Campion dives right in exploring the complications of sex, confronting spirituality, and embracing faith in extreme ways. It’s a beautiful, unique, explorative little film because in a way you have to either find a way to give in to the experience with an open mind or completely scrutinize for its heavy confusing ideology. There’s really no in between. You’re either going to like or dislike it. But, with extraordinary performances from Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet, it’s kind of a win win.

Jane Campion is a remarkable storyteller and Holy Smoke! is only one of her many films that adhere to her talented exploration on subjects such as empowerment, eroticism, spirituality, and sexual desire. She’s a personal inspiration to me and I look forward to writing on more of her films which will result in my favorite film of all time, The Piano.