Category Archives: film

Girls and Boys

Hard on the heels of the female character tropes flowchart I am so keen on: a recent study on gender imbalance regarding characters in children’s literature, reported by the Guardian. There are all sorts of counter-arguments, of course. Most pertinent would be the degree to which male characters in young children’s fiction act as default, factory-setting for efficiently involving both girls and boys at the same time. Boys seem to care a great deal about directly identifying and appear to require a male lead to ensure involvement. Girls are less fussy in this respect, which is perhaps just as well if they wish to grow up sane. I’m not saying it’s right.

In fact, in film, too, the pattern remains and seems to persist into adulthood. There is, of course, one notable exception to this: the horror genre. Carol J. Clover’s classic research has told us a lot about the way we view horror when it incorporates the final girl. It was once assumed that the final girl trope amounted to an eroticised form of violence against women. But Clover knew there was something wrong with that line. Final girls triumph. They often humiliate the killer in the process, as well as managing to top him by some creative means and often with some sort of phallic symbol. Clover discovered that men seemed not only to identify with the female lead, they actually seemed to identify more strongly than the female viewers did. Although initial identification seems to be with the killer (typically reinforced by camera angles of view), a transition occurs. The male viewer starts to connect with the female in peril (again, typically reinforced by camera angles of view). And he cheers for her.

Of course, in order to achieve this, final girls come with their problems. They are usually christened with a unisex name or even a name more commonly associated with a male. They do not drink, take drugs, party or seem to have any fun at all; meanwhile across town all the bad girls and boys are living it up – before they are brutally felled. They are always virgins, with the strong suggestion that sex terrifies them. They can therefore almost be thought to represent a virtually pre-sexualised male in some respect and perhaps even a distorted, funhouse mirror of self-objectification and gender exploration, rather similar to the questing boys of Medieval romances (it’s no coincidence that Clover is a medievalist). Final girls offer a way for men to own terror, disempowerment and sexual anxiety in a safe place. Action films, by contrast, do not function in this way: they tend to embody, in very explicit ways, wish fulfillment. Horror films exhibit the traits of the nightmare remembered. They end in victory but with a sense that resolution and relief are only temporary (as long-running horror franchises seem to confirm). Even in victory, there is a sense not of optimism – but of loss. A kind of trangression has taken place on film and within the audience, and, for now, all must return to normalcy.

But I digress. Forgive me. Back to the original point. It may well be that in young children’s fiction the gender imbalance is troubling and plain disappointing. But girls get it good eventually. We can claim the heroines of Anne Shirley and Jo March as our own final girls: true survivors and role models both, and not a chainsaw in sight.

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Filed under fiction, film, gender, top girls, women

On Loving The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were is the classic ‘oil and water’ love story. Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) first encounters Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) in the 1930s when they are both at college. Katie is a Jew and a student activist, with a considerable amount of Marxist views. When she isn’t studying or handing out leaflets, she’s working at the local hamburger joint. She’s awkward, all prickles, unfashionable and something of a plain Jane. Hubbell is an affluent WASP. He’s gifted, likeable, athletic, handsome – a blue-eyed boy with blonde hair and an incredible smile. He sets her pulse racing – despite her apparent contempt for the lifestyle and ideology he represents, and the people he surrounds himself with – when he is also revealed to be, during their writing class, a formidable talent.

Despite the fact that he is dating the beautiful Carol Ann, a series of episodes demonstrates that Hubbell also finds himself, on account of her wit, passion and commitment, drawn to Katie. He is mesmerised when she speaks powerfully at a peace rally, only to be first disappointed by, then irritated at her lack of humour when a prank is played. Later, on the night that Edward marries Wallis Simpson, Hubbell is sat outside a bar, drinking a beer on his own. He is celebrating his first publication – he has sold a short story. His friends are nowhere. Hubbell is clearly uneasy with his talent and achievement – he feels he can’t share this serious side with his flippant group. But Katie sees the significance of the occasion. She is both envious and admiring. They share a kindred moment. He criticises her for her lack of humour. She rebuffs the critique. He persuades a reluctant, uptight Katie to take a sip of his beer. He tenderly does up her loose shoelace. She leaves. In the final moments of their time at college, they share a brief dance at Commencement, before he walks off through the crowd: leaving Katie suspended in time and place, idealising him.

Years later, New York, and Katie is working at a radio station. She is still an ardent activist. Hubbell is in the navy, on shore leave. They meet, by coincidence, at a bar – he’s very drunk, so she takes him back to her apartment. He staggers into bed, where she discovers him – naked. She gets into bed and they begin making love. But Katie is aware that he doesn’t know it’s her he’s making love to – she doesn’t care. He has lived in her memory until now. The next morning they share an awkward moment, as Hubbell, hungover and seemingly in denial, is keen to get away. She implores him to contact her if he can’t find accommodation in the city when next on leave. Eventually, he does get in contact. It’s clear to her that the decision to call was purely pragmatic when he makes plans to go out that evening. But she won’t leave it at that – she’s too committed – and faces down all resistance with a promise of good home cooking. They end up talking after dinner about his first novel, which he had recently published to little notice. He is initially touched that the brittle Katie who he knew from college has engaged with his writing, but then he becomes enraptured by her intelligent and penetrating critique of it and his gift – and her insistence on his great potential as a major writer. The two become lovers that night, but Hubbell warns her not to be too serious. It is a remark that not only relates to their relationship at this point, but also to her intensity – which scares as much as it attracts him. He is aware from the outset, as she is not, that the differences that threaten their connection are not merely social or political, but temperamental.

They become a steady couple and Katie is reintroduced to his friends who she met at college and despised. Carol Ann, his college sweetheart, is now married to his best friend, JJ. They are, as Katie supposed they would be, seemingly much unchanged. They make tasteless jokes, are self-satisfied and view much of life in trivial terms. They seem, to her, to be untouchable and – though it is never directly addressed – anti-semitic. But, when Carol Ann comes on the receiving end of Katie’s barbs, she hints that Katie might be projecting her sense of difference onto their feelings about her. As much as she is an outsider, Katie reinforces her marginalisation with her fixed attitudes and, just as she does when talking about her political stance, denies others the possibility of their complexity and voice. Although a wit and strong thinker, Katie’s self-defence mechanisms detract from these natural talents. Po-faced, she is all hectoring and sulks. Hubbell breaks the relationship off after Katie has a tantrum at a party, lecturing the room on Yalta. He loves her, but realises that she cannot change – and he really doesn’t want to change himself. But Katie will not give up: she has invested too much in her dreams. She persuades him to come to her apartment and he is drawn back in. Her ardent belief in who he is, her need to believe in who he might be, one day, and his desire for her belief, amounts to co-dependency.

When JJ gets Hubbell a gig writing scripts in Hollywood, Katie does not want to be part of the machine. Katie wants him to stay with her in New York, be true to his gift and produce substantial novels, writing that will last. But she must not lose Hubbell, and so, when he insists, she goes with him. They live in Malibu and enjoy wealth. Hubbell leads an empty day-to-day on the studio lot. Then McCarthyism hits them and their fragile romance cracks up. Katie is pregnant and protests the blacklist. Hubbell sees that Katie’s beliefs will not be cowed by anything, even the risk to their unborn child – and, even more so, his reputation and place of safety. Nostalgic for his golden days at college, he has an affair with Carol Ann, now the ex-wife of JJ. Katie discovers the affair and the two agree to apart, Hubbell promising to stay with her until the baby – a girl – is born.

When they do eventually meet again, Katie is out on the streets of New York, where the two spent their happiest time together, handing out Ban the Bomb leaflets. Hubbell is in town, making a sitcom for TV. He spots her and the two engage in small talk. They farewell. In a mirror of their on-again, off-again love and attraction, he cannot leave it at that, and comes back to her moments later. They speak of their child, who he has not seen since her birth. Hubbell wants to know whether her new husband is a good father. And he is. She informs Hubbell that she is a ‘very good loser’. To which Hubbell replies: ‘better than I am’. And we believe him.

The film has been criticised for its sense of incompleteness, its lack of integritas. The McCarthy era is reduced in the film to mere minutes (much of this due to the fact that a great deal of footage landed on the cutting-room floor). The film, which was originally conceived with a much more overtly political message by writer Arthur Laurents, became focussed almost completely on romance, one which used politics as a device to highlight difference between two complex, extreme characters. There was tension between Laurents, director Sydney Pollack and lead Robert Redford on set. The end product can sometimes feel as if the audience is intermittently being introduced to another film altogether. And we are. The Way We Were was, and is regarded as such by many involved in the making of it, a failure.

But the story of Katie and Hubbell remains urgent and resonates with its audience, nonetheless. Why? The audience shares something important with its leads, something less common than one might expect from a Hollywood studio. One-time lovers only realise much later how much was illusory and how much narcissism. Although the title song hints differently, and although tragic romance is often depicted differently, this is not a film about consecrated, perfect, lost love (the film might more aptly be titled The Way We Weren’t) – this is a film about two people who come to know that they got it wrong from the very beginning. And, despite their passion, that so much was folly. Beautiful – but folly, nonetheless. In Katie, Hubbell sees someone who recognises his potential – and the difference between himself and his friends who, despite his allegiance to and defence of them, he nonetheless feels, because of his latent talent, superior to. And, then, she offers him the one thing life hasn’t bestowed and which he cannot generate within himself: drive. His life has been pure good fortune; like the character in the story that made Katie fall in love with him, things come too easy to him. Katie offers resistance, difficulty. She challenges. But she also strokes his ego. In Hubbell, Katie sees a way to possibly realise her own dreams by proxy. Insufficiently gifted to be the writer she wanted to be once and to say things which could make a difference to the world, her fixation on his writerly efforts are not without considerable self-interest: it is anticipated gilt by association. And although Katie is strident in her political views and seemingly comfortable in her identity as a Jewish woman, her vitriol towards the WASP lifestyle – with its attendant surface mainstream simplicities – very often comes off as an ego injury, rather than politics. She rejects the world that she has been rejected by already. Her winning of him seems to, provisionally, ease her pain – although it ultimately brings her greater suffering.

Their match is tragic because both parties entirely lack moderation – he has no conviction, she is all passionate intensity. But, on a more straightforward level, their basic story is one which we can all relate to, and this only compounds the sense of tragedy – its inherent ordinariness. They are simply incompatible with one another, despite (and because of) the attraction. While they may feed each other’s egos in direct and indirect ways, neither will ever be able to give way in order to develop a lasting union – and yet they meet and fall, nonetheless. So goes romance – and how many of us know that at personal cost.

In her insistence on the need for an uncompromised life, Katie shuts out others and their voices, too. Her radical tendency to idealise in all matters makes Hubbell a better and more capable man than we – almost immediately – know he is. In Hubbell’s insistence on an easy, comfortable life and narcissistic supply, he fails his own gift, runs away from responsibility and loses his daughter – and the one person who saw in him, however misguided she may have been in so many things, what was, what we do know, real possibility.

Love endures, but all romances end. And this film is, if nothing else, a great romance.

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Filed under film, Laurents, love, Pollack, The Way We Were

On Loving Local Hero (1983)

The story of someone who goes to a place and a people so different from his/her own, usually in self-interest, and, in the process, discovers something surprising: themselves. Serendipity. A very familiar cinematic trope that we’ve seen over and over, from the ridiculous (Pretty Woman) to the sublime (Local Hero). It’s called ‘the fish out of water’ trope.

Local Hero ranks for many – critics, cineastes – as one of the finest films ever made in Britain – or indeed anywhere. Its heart and complexity, its clever crafting of stereotypes and personalities that are so brilliantly subverted, make it a far harder film to pin down than a fish…Well, out of water. Like many of my favourite films (The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, The Graduate and Roman Holiday, to name a few), despite its humour, Local Hero‘s central theme is the serious, dangerous and moral challenge that we all face from our first awareness of socialisation: whether to conform or to embrace non-conformity. And, when we’ve settled, as most of us do, on conformity, will anything come along to condemn our choice and destabilise our place of safety? We spend most of our lives part wishing for it, part dreading it.

Those films above have happy endings and unhappy endings. Some have the halfway house of compromise with some degree of salvation (The Philadelphia Story, The Graduate). But most films of this type have, unsurprisingly, unhappy endings. (For this is not just reel life, you understand, this is also real life.) Perhaps none more so than The Wizard of Oz (and you thought I might say Roman Holiday or The Godfather). Salman Rushdie has written superbly on Wizard for the BFI Film Classics series – it’s a modern mini-classic of a text. He points out that, ultimately, Dorothy not only rejects the life of Oz (understandable, to some extent – we all have to come down eventually), but that she also rejects the zany but, finally, crucial life lessons that Oz had to offer. She settles for the black and white life of Kansas, on the farm, infantilised and condemned to a place where nothing will ever happen to her, declaring that if she ever needs ‘to go looking for my heart’s desire again, I’ll not look further than my own back yard’. The technicolour journey of independence, self-reliance, courage and ingenuity has all been for nought. Just what kind of mentor was Glinda, anyhow?

But I digress.

Without any serious spoilers: Local Hero is the story of Mac, a Houston yuppie, working for Knox Oil and Gas. By night, through the windows of Mac’s fancy apartment, we see the lights of Houston twinkle. He’s work-mad. He has failed relationships with women and colleagues, such that they either never appear on screen or are barely aware of his existence in the flesh. He’s an alienated man in a synthetic landscape. He’s a plastic man, with a contrived Scottish name to disguise his Hungarian roots. It is from his very plasticity that his journey begins. The boss of his corporation, Happer, assigns to him the role of purchasing the picturesque Scottish village of Ferness. The company wants to situate an oil refinery there. Happer is convinced that Mac’s heritage will enable him in the art of friendly persuasion when brokering a deal with the inhabitants. Astronomy-crazed Happer also wants Mac to monitor the night skies above Ferness, telling him that he must pay particular attention to the constellation Virgo (virgin).

Mac doesn’t want to go, of course. But, being a man of work, go he does. He is met at the airport by the local Knox Oil and Gas rep Danny. En route, they run over a rabbit in the fog. Mac takes the injured rabbit into the car (it is our first indication of an authentic humanity) and together the three continue on to Ferness. There they meet Gordon. Gordon is a man of many trades. He runs the pub, the hotel and is the village’s accountant. Unlike Mac, however, his roles do not amount to any masquerade but, rather, pragmatism. And, in his roles, he becomes something of a symbolic character of liberation, non-conformity. He will not be pinned down. And, again unlike Mac, he enjoys a rich emotional and sensual life, enjoying regularly, as he does, the affections of his beautiful and sexy wife Stella – and loudly.

Mac is, by turns, initially appalled, frustrated and confused by those he encounters. Most tellingly, the villagers do not conform to expectations (Bill Forsyth, director, playing with us as much as he is with Mac). These are not the sentimental, one-dimensional characters prejudice and cinema would usually dish up. No. They are resolutely unsentimental. Gordon cooks the rabbit that Mac not only feels pity for, but also a peculiar and yet plausible kinship with, and he serves it to Mac and Danny. The inhabitants of Ferness, far from being reluctant to sell, are only too keen to cook up a scheme, hoodwink Mac and Danny, and get the very best deal that they can for the village. They are aided and abetted by Gordon – and the local priest.

But something shifts in Mac. Against himself, he finds himself becoming infatuated with the people, the place and the pace of life. While looking up into the heavens at Happer’s request, he witnesses the aurora borealis, a stark contrast to the man-made light of Houston. The beautiful beach and sea that surround him amount to the direct other of the arid, urban jungle of Houston. These are not subtle contrasts, granted, but as a lack of subtlety goes, I do wonder whether it has ever been managed to such wonderful effect. Meanwhile, Danny changes, too, from a nerdy ‘yes man’ in a suit to a man who embraces his sensual and sexual side, when he meets a real-life mermaid in the shape of web-footed marine biologist Marina, who is hell-bent on protecting the beach and its ecosystem.

What happens next? Well, you’ll have to watch the film. But one clue: Happer turns out to be a much better mentor than Glinda ever was.

Who, exactly, is the hero of Local Hero? Is it Gordon, who seems to have managed a life of practicality, but also freedom and love (one that Mac, smitten with both Gordon’s lifestyle and his wife, recognises when, drunkenly, he puts it to Gordon that they might trade existences: ‘I’ll make a good Gordon, Gordon’). Or is it Happer? Who has somehow, impossibly, married a life of conformity with the life of a dreamer? Or is it Ben Knox, the old man who lives on the beach in a shack, who, it turns out, holds all the cards and may just save everyone from themselves? All are, in their own way, heroes of life. But none more than Mac, who is, after all, an everyman. Mac is most of us. Dorothy returns to the farm in Kansas and rejects her life lessons. Mac arrives back in his apartment in Houston and is haunted by his. He is proof that people can and do change. But will the world accommodate them? Perhaps, like me, you’re asking yourself the same. Somewhere in Ferness, a phone is ringing, unanswered.


Filed under Bill Forsyth, film, heroes